Saturday, May 26, 2012

A Farm Story for May 26, 2012

We are pretty well through our lambing and kidding season.  There is one more goat who looks like she may be pregnant but for all practical purposes we have finished the baby season.  We currently have two new goat kids and fourteen new lambs.  They all have attentive enough mothers so that we only have to check on them throughout the day and enjoy watching them play.  That is a bit of a change now compared to when we were in the thick of lambing and kidding. 

Breeding takes place in the fall.  Our only intact buck is aging and we are cutting back on goats so we were not disappointed that only three does were pregnant.  The gestation period for a sheep or goat is five months.  It is easier to spot a pregnant goat early on in her pregnancy than it is a pregnant sheep.  They tend to show a swelling udder sooner, there is a special feel to their tail and they take on that pregnant lady waddle.  One gal delivered a stillborn kid but the other two had healthy kids that hopped right up and got busy being goats.  The little buckling and doe were born a week apart and are fast friends who have discovered that there are a few fences they can slip through without being followed by their larger mothers.  They are the ones who have taste tested all the newly planted pastures that are supposed to be off limits.  They zip around much of the day but frequently return to their mothers for a quick snack and a little affection.  I’ve noticed just this week that they plop down and nap wherever it is convenient rather than seeking out their mothers for a nice snuggle.  They do sleep curled up with their mothers each night, though. 

Our lambing has been spread out over two months.  We begin looking for signs of coming babies at the end of February.  We feed a little more grain than usual each night and, as the gals are busy eating, we give everyone a good looking over.  There are many little things that we watch for that indicates birthing is close.  We watch the pastures throughout the day for any animal that separates itself from the flock.  Sometimes ewes that are nearing labor spend a lot of time getting up and down and rubbing against fencing or rolling on the ground.  Others just become very quiet and stoic.

Some of our sheep have much woollier bellies than others so I always ask Al to shear around their udders if I am not certain the lambs will be able to find their teats.  That seems like a silly idea except that I have laid on the ground in the stable and tried desperately to help a lamb find a teat rather than exert all of its energy sucking on a few ringlets of wool.  Lambs can be persistent little things but with no nutrition they quickly stall out and can be in trouble without a good nursing early on. 
We do have a good number of simple births.  Many times we find a newborn lamb with a filled little belly standing happily in the pasture with mother.  We always bring them into a stall so that mother can have lots of fresh water, grain and hay to herself as she quietly bonds with her baby.  We always check her udder to be sure that the wax plugs that protect her teats are out and that milk is flowing well.  And we make sure that mama is taking to her baby.  It is not uncommon for a first time mother to refuse to let her lamb near her.  I imagine it makes sense to be a little nervous after spending a few hours in pain and suddenly find this little alien thing who insists on chasing you around and poking up under your belly.  Fortunately after the lamb has nursed a few times all the mother hormone things usually kick in and even the less maternal sheep get the hang of it.

Our funniest lambs this season belong to the Shetland sheep.  Shetland sheep are small and their lambs can be simply tiny.  We have had rabbits larger than some of the current Shetland lambs.  We’ve separated the Shetland ewes and lambs into their own pasture.  All five of the lambs have discovered that they can slip through the fencing and venture out into the adjoining pasture without the oversight of their mothers.  At first the sight of their lambs popping out of the four inch by six inch holes in the woven wire fencing upset the mothers.  Now that the lambs are a little older the ewes seem fine with the peace and quiet.  The lambs graze a bit and then return to nurse a bit. 

The Shetland lambs often encounter the two goat kids in the pasture.  The teeny tiny ram lambs love to challenge the kids who are easily three times their size.  The bitty rams drop their heads and run up on the kids who stare at them, step aside or even rise up on their hind legs to try to butt them back.  It is so comical to watch as lambs and kids are all just gently playing.  No one really gets rammed hard but they do push each other around in play.  This little game can go on for several minutes until another lamb begins to run and everyone suddenly plays chase.  They run large loops around the pasture with the leader often turning suddenly and running back into the line behind him as everyone scrambles to turn.  After a good play the lambs all shove through the fence again and return to their mothers for a little snack and snuggle. 

One little ram lamb is quite the adventurer.  He is a handsome brown Shetland with a small white patch on the top of his head.  He loves to slip through the fence and spend time in the backyard.  He gets to see the geese, visit the trio of larger sheep that have backyard privileges and also watches the house dogs who pass through the backyard to follow me to the stable every time I go outside.  This little ram grazes happily but seems to keep one eye on all that is going on around him.  If the house dogs start to chase each other he will quickly walk back to the fence as if trying not to draw attention to himself.  He will then graze near the hole he likes to go through just in case the dog wrestling gets too close for comfort.  He will let us walk up on him.  If we pick him up he enjoys a good cuddle and does not struggle to be put down but he will not stand by us to be petted. 

The tiniest ram lamb is spotted brown and white.  He will wander far from everyone, graze contentedly and then suddenly lift his head and look around.  It seems to dawn on him that he is on his own and then he will begin to bawl.  He is Jezebelle’s little man and he has a loud and grating bawl much like his mother’s.  She is one of our oldest Shetlands and has always been the most vocal and demanding.  We can pick out any of her past lambs simply by their persistent bawl when they want something.  And this little man is no exception.  When he starts to holler for mother she begins to bawl back.  She simply answers him to call him home.  Sometimes he talks to him without even lifting her head from her grazing.  After a moment to orient himself he always shoots back though the fence and to her side.  I imagine that, at her age, this will be her last lambing so I hope she is enjoying it.  But I believe I told myself the same thing last year and she surprised us by lambing again this year!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Saturday Market Story for May 19, 2012

There is an expression in goat keeping that says “If a fence won’t hold water, it won’t hold a goat.”  It is one of those truisms that we live by.  We are often amazed at where our goats end up in spite of our best attempts at fencing. 

Vincent Van Goat is one of our worst offenders when it comes to wandering the farm.  Vincent came to us from Split Creek Dairy as the offspring of a Nigerian Dwarf father and a LaMancha mother.  The children worked at the dairy to earn him.  He was still being bottle fed when we brought him home so he spent a lot of time following us around.  One of the most interesting characteristics of the LaMancha is the tiny or almost absent outer ears.  It was that characteristic that made it so easy to name him.  Vincent is a beautiful white fellow with gray markings.  He has white speckles across his gray nose. He is one of our largest goats, weighing nearly a hundred fifteen pounds.  He is a big fellow but inherited his mother’s tiny ears so that is why we named him as we did.  He is also one of our oldest goats at easily over ten years old but you would never know it based on his behavior.

Vincent feels a need to be in the middle of everything going on here.  He was wethered (neutered) as a young kid but still thinks he is quite the buck.  He feels a need to supervise all the other goats here and easily travels from pasture to pasture to do that.  He leaps a fence like a deer, clearing it with ease.  He loves to rub his head all over anyone who will stand still for a moment as a way of marking them as one of his special possessions.  He is a big fellow and loves to rub at the worst of times like when I am bent over trying to trim another goat’s hooves.  More than once Vincent has put me on the ground. 

There is much written about goats and proper diet but Vincent has never read any of it.  His favorite treat is dry dog food.  When we feed the livestock guardian dogs we pull them into smaller paddocks or into stalls in the stable so that they can eat in peace.  We can take their food from them, reach into their dishes or otherwise interfere with their dinner but they do not tolerate that from other animals. Food protectiveness is a good quality in these dogs but we’ve had a few nipped and bloody ears on goats who tried to put their faces in the dog dishes.  The enormous dogs give a gentle snap as a warning.  We don’t want to squelch their instinct but also don’t want injuries to the livestock so we separate the dogs from their flocks or herds at mealtime.   Vincent is the only creature here who can find his way into any of the places that we put the dogs for a peaceful meal.  One of his favorite dogs to share dinner with is Regina, our oldest Anatolian Shepherd.  Vincent will jump the fence around the paddock where we feed her.  He will dance around as she begins to eat until he sees an opportunity to stick his head in and jostle her bowl.  He usually manages to shake a good handful of dog food out onto the ground.  I feed the dogs a combination of dry dog food mixed with scrambled eggs.  We have such an abundance of eggs that I cook a few dozen up for them daily.  I can appreciate that Vincent would enjoy dry dog food as it is made of grain but I am always surprised to see him bolt down the scrambled eggs.  Vincent and all of the dogs seem to have an understanding as he travels around gleaning a mouthful here and there with barely more than a warning growl from the dogs.

Vincent not only jumps fences but is quite the climber.  If we bring home a trailer full of hay he will be the first to make it to the very top.  He often perches on top of a round bale, lazily surveying the pastures and other goats underneath him.  He will nap up on an empty trailer. He also loves to stand on trailers, the tractor or in the bed of the truck to reach the highest tree branches.  He especially loves standing in the bed of the truck when it is parked near the big pear tree at the end of summer when the lowest fruit has already fallen or been eaten off.  Vincent can always stretch up to find just one more juicy pear.  He is also content with the leaves once the fruit is gone. 

There is one time each week when Vincent does get locked up.  When Al unloads feed he has to lock Vincent in a stall.  Vincent seems to know when Al pulls in with a truck load of fifty pound sacks of chicken feed, all stock and dog food.  He will leap all the fences from the barnyard to the front yard and begin sizing up the truck while it is in the driveway.  Unless Vincent is locked up he will jump up on the stack of feed bags and begin to tear them open.  He will grab big mouthfuls between ripping bags in an attempt to sample everything on the truck.  On the rare occasion that Al manages to drive the truck all the way back to the stable to unload, Vincent will trot along next to the truck and leap up as Al slows down next to the end door to the stable.  Al and Vincent will then have a brief wrestling match until Vincent is shoved into a stall so that Al can unload in quiet.

Vincent’s latest interest is to join the donkeys in the front pasture.  They don’t have anything in their pasture that Vincent couldn’t find anywhere else on the farm but he seems to enjoy leaping the split rail fencing, daring the donkeys to chase him and then launching himself out again.  He is a spry old man but more and more I realize that he is an old man.  I catch him napping more often than I used to.  I’ve also started to notice that he likes to spend more of each day sitting and staring off into space.  I took a series of pictures of some of our older animals just the other day.  There is a dignified look that comes with age.  Our very first goat, Jacob, began to spend his days sitting at the very top of the pasture and staring off into space in the final year of his life.  He reminded me of an old man ruminating over his life with barely the energy to do anything but dream.  As of now Vincent has lots of energy.  He looks like an old goat when he rests, though, so I dread the day that he really starts to act like one.  As annoying as he can be, he is a special part of everything we do outside.  And it makes almost no difference what type of fencing we’ve used – nothing seems to get in Vincent’s way.

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Friday, May 11, 2012

Saturday Market Story for May 12, 2012

Although it makes for a fair bit of work, we love raising chickens for their gorgeous eggs.  We often get asked what we mean when we say we have free range eggs and it usually causes us a little bit of a chuckle.  There seem to be many terms and definitions circulating now but we don’t play word games. Our birds are truly free ranging.  We have over three hundred chickens that meander over about fourteen acres here.  I am sure that makes us a fairly inefficient egg producing facility but it is nice to see them busy all around the farm.

When we first moved to the Upstate nearly fourteen years ago we wanted chickens.  They were just a fixture at my childhood home in Ohio and we’d even had a few in the suburbs where we lived in Florida.  We went to a flea market where someone suggested we could find a pair.  I carefully picked out two pretty hens and waited for the fellow to crate them up in an old box from a liquor store.  When we got home and opened the box we realized that he had swapped out one of the chickens so that it was not the gal I had chosen.  We named her Oops and loved her anyways.  From then on we only ordered our chickens from Murray McMurray Hatchery in Iowa.  We always order their day old chicks and raise them up here on the farm.  The children were delighted the first time we handed them the pretty catalog and told them how many chickens they could pick.  I don’t recall how many different breeds the children chose but we started with lots of colors, sized and personalities and have kept it that way since.  Although we’ve always leaned toward ordering chickens classed as heavies who are good layers, we’ve also slipped in everything from a few Phoenix roosters with long flowing tails and a tiny Golden Seabright hen who was barely bigger than a pigeon.  Mrs. Seabright lived to be about nine years old and was a precious gal who, as a little old lady, went to sleep on her roost a good two hours earlier than any of the other birds. 

We currently have about two dozen different breeds of chickens.  They range in age from several months to six or seven years of age.  We do not cull our birds when they stop laying but allow them just to live their lives out here.  Again, not an economically good plan but after all that they have given us it is hard to do otherwise.  We are accommodating a fair number of old ladies who eat, nap, take dust baths and perhaps lay an egg a week.

The hens have four different buildings that have nesting boxes in them.  The two main buildings that they use have fencing around them but the fencing has huge chicken-sized holes in many places at the bottom so that the birds can come and go without the goats and sheep entering the yard to eat the layer feed we always make available or allowing the dogs to raid the nesting boxes.  A good number of the hens come and go throughout the day but there are some that never leave the huge bird yard.  They are content to scratch around the yard, nap under the oak tree or in the doorway of the house where a nice breeze always seems to be blowing and take turns arguing over who gets which nesting box.  The main building has over 50 individual nesting boxes but there seem to be some preferred spots.  The gals who want to set for a while prefer a nest box with a view out the door.  In the cool weather they want to be in the nest boxes against the south wall where the sun warms them and in the heat of summer they prefer the boxes closest to the fans.  There are often two gals pushing at each other for the same box.  Others will sit quietly on the roost waiting for their favorite spot to become available.  There are a few hens who don’t care much one way or the other, even just hesitating long enough to lay their egg on the ground and keep scratching for something interesting. 

Gathering eggs can be interesting as well as slightly treacherous.  If you notice my right hand and arm you may see small bruises and scratches.  Some of the hens peck as I gently reach under them to pull out the still-warm eggs.  Others not only peck but will pinch, twist and hang on for a second or two just to make a point.  I currently have a Buff Brahma hen who marches up and down the perch in front of one set of nesting boxes.  She threatens me as I begin down the row, ruffling out her feathers to look big, squawking and sometimes grabbing at my arm. Most hens simply let me reach under and then readjust themselves in the box after I pull my hand out.  And then I have at least four hens who are my favorites as they will stand up when I begin to reach into the box.  One will even glance down to be sure I am finished before puffing out her feathers and settling back down.
We feed a simple layer feed with no weird additives or antibiotics.  We have found that we just don’t get sick chickens and attribute that to the fact that no one is crowded unless they choose to huddle up with their buddies.  They range around so always have plenty of fresh air, exercise and green grass.  We have a great arrangement with the Hyatt who saves their daily kitchen prep scraps in the cooler for us.  These cans of peelings, stalks, leaves, rinds and other goodies add even more to the daily diet of grasses, bugs and interesting windfall fruits that they glean here.

Jeff and Kim of Iszy’s Heirlooms are precious friends who also contribute lots of goodies for the birds.  We get the bulk of their cull lettuces, tomatoes and anything else from their farm that the birds will eat.  We have laughed about getting our eggs tested for their lycopene levels in the thick of heirloom tomato season when we feed several bushels of tomatoes a week.  Years ago when we first started feeding tomatoes I would find myself checking birds often to try to figure out who was bleeding.  As soon as I picked up a sticky bird I would realize that the funny red on it was simply tomato flung around in the frenzy of discovering a new basket poured out on the yard.  But the mother in me always needed to check just in case!

I visit the birds many times each day and process many eggs.  Our middle child, Eric, started a small egg business when he was a boy and we took it over when he began to work a full time job.  I enjoy our daily chicken routine and it is always a treat when those eggs are appreciated by our wonderful egg customers.

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Friday, May 4, 2012

Saturday Market Story for May 5, 2012

This has been a busy winter as I was blessed to be artist in residence for seven weeks in a Spartanburg school district.  I taught weaving to 3rd through 5th graders while telling lots of farm stories.  As it turned out, one of the farm stories evolved as I was in a school in January. 

I got home from school at three each afternoon and immediately changed clothes and walked the farm.  This is the time that I would feed the dogs and gather eggs.  One Monday afternoon as I walked outside I noticed that Baloo, one of our livestock guardian dogs, seemed to be wandering down in the woods.  Baloo is a delightful fellow that we acquired a few years ago.  He was a six month old puppy who was people shy.  He had been raised in a pasture full of goats with his mother, many siblings and a few other dogs.  In order for his owner to sell him to us, Baloo had to be lured in with food and snatched.  He was so shy that when we were bringing him home from North Carolina he laid as low as he could in his kennel and did not even wimper.  He is three quarters Great Pyrenees and a quarter Kangal.  Ironically, his father is the son of a very expensive line of dogs that we’d looked at a few years ago but chose not to invest a few thousand dollars in.  We did not know that when we went to look at the pups but were fascinated when the owner explained the story of his stray genetics.  We were just pleased with a healthy working dog and liked the fact that the Kangal influence meant that we would not have to deal with the matted hair that so many Pyrenees develop.
Baloo quickly warmed up to us and has turned out to be a great dog with one fault.  He has no respect for fence lines.  He avoids electric fences but has learned to climb gates.  One of the first things we did with him was to have him neutered so he is a mellow boy who gets along with all of the other dogs.  He visits them in their individual pastures most every day, racing around and playing for a while and then returning to his favorite place to nap in the barnyard.  I have watched him climb a gate to help one of the Anatolian Shepherds with their duties.  One of his favorite jobs is to bark at the hawks that like to make slow looping passes to check out our free range chickens roaming throughout the farm.  But Baloo rarely goes all the way back to the woods.  That is why I was a little surprised to see a big fuzzy white dog walking the edge of the tree line as I did my usual walk around after school that afternoon.  Baloo is an obedient fellow so I called his name a few times and began to count sheep in a side pasture.  In a moment Baloo was by my side.  I was surprised as I hadn’t heard the clang and thump noise that accompanies a trip over a gate.  I glanced to the woods thinking I must have misjudged how far away he was when I called for him.  The big fuzzy white dog was still at the edge of the woods.  The Anatolian Shepherds have smooth white coats and a different gait so I knew it wasn’t one of them.  I realized immediately that I’d better start locking up my own dogs so that I didn’t have a fight with a stray dog that seemed not to be threatening any of the livestock.

Each of our dogs is very territorial which is a good instinct when it comes to guarding livestock in a pasture.  It can be a challenge when it is necessary to move the dogs around.  Even the best of friends fight when they are not in their own pastures.  I carefully shifted dogs around to pastures or into barns where they would not see the stranger.  I called my sweet husband at work to tell him that I had a stray dog in the woods and was going down to try to catch him and then grabbed a lead rope out of the stable.  I started back to the woods.  The big stray noticed me and loped up the hill.  I was cautious as I didn’t have a clue about the dog’s temperament.  As the dog reached me he dropped to the ground.  I slowly reached out with the rope thinking that perhaps I could gently trap him.  He raised his head and waited for me to put the rope around his neck and then politely stood and walked to my side, ready for me to lead him somewhere. 

He was thrilled as we walked through a pasture full of goats.  He seemed so happy to be with livestock.  I was a little apprehensive that he would walk through the back door of the old barn with me as he was not familiar with the building but he was quite the gentleman on the lead, carefully following me in with little coaxing.  I took him into the stable and examined him.  His hair was matted and he had some sort of wound on the side of his head.  I knew better than to poke around at a wound on a strange dog.  I prepared a bowl of food for him and put him alone in a stall with it and a bucket of fresh water.  He was a bit underweight for his size but otherwise looked healthy.  He tore into the food but wanted to rejoin me as soon as he was done.  He was an enormous cuddly fellow, wrapping his front leg around my leg and leaning into my side.  He whined when I left him to go back to the house.  Over the next ten days I visited him in the stable often, frequently moving all of our dogs around so that I could take him for a walk among the goats.  I asked him each day where he belonged but he never had an answer for me.  I spent a fair bit of time gently picking blackberry brambles out of his pretty white coat.  He even sat patiently for me to brush him.  One time when I tried to clean the wound on the side of his head he reached around and gently grabbed my arm in his enormous mouth.  He was tenderly telling me that he didn’t want me to do that.  And he loved when I let Baloo into the stable for a time of wrestling and play.

The dog had no collar so we took him to our vet only to discover that he was not microchipped.  My sweet and patient husband went to every farm within a few miles to ask if they were missing a dog.  We called all the local vets and humane shelters.  We placed an ad and a gentleman answered it.  His dog had been gone for a few weeks.  He lived about forty miles from us but it would not be unheard of for the dog to have been rescued or given a ride to end up at our place.  The fellow came out and was disappointed that the dog was not his. I kept my students updated on each day’s developments with the dog.  They loved speculating on his story as they did their daily weaving projects.

We eventually discovered that there is a Great Pyrenees rescue group in town and contacted them.  We were asked if he had a double dew claw indicating that he was a purebred Pyr.  He had the double dew claw.   He was a fabulous dog.  We knew from the outset that we did not need to add another dog to the six livestock guardians we already have.  We were also adamant that we would find his owner or a very good home for him.  The gentleman from the Pyr rescue was in constant contact trying to help us find his owner.  When we finally convinced him that we could not keep the dog much longer he came out to the farm to meet the dog.  He was taken with the well-mannered and gentle giant who had found us. After a few more days of checking and paperwork we surrendered the dog to the rescue.  The fellow who runs the rescue decided to foster the dog himself and temporarily named him Ivan.  The next day the gentleman brought his assistant with him to meet the dog.  She agreed that he was amazing and the dog took to her immediately, letting her walk him around the front yard on a leash.  They left all happily squeezed together in the front seat of a small pickup truck. He sent us several follow up reports on Ivan as he continued to look for Ivan’s home.  We also continued to watch lost and found lists but never came up with anything.  We were invited to visit Ivan in his new home and are confident that he has found a great place.  We will just always wonder what kind of journey he had been on and how it was that he ended up in our tightly-fenced back pasture. 

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