Monday, December 27, 2010

When Turkeys Don't Get Eaten on Time

When turkeys are born late in the spring and survive a raccoon attack because they are so small they are still living in the kitchen, there's a good chance they won't be 'ready' for either Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. What to do? Well, we end up feeding them instead of eating them!

We now have five indeterminate turkeys because they haven't grown old enough to tell for sure whether they are hens or toms. We already have two toms on the farm: Dutch Boy, our white Holland, that is quite the show-off and very friendly in a good turkey sort of way, and Tom, our Heritage Bronze, that with the goose picks horribly on Dutch Boy, having yanked most of his tail feathers at one time or another. We also have three hens, one of which is Rose, a hand-raised bird that is becoming a menace to small children

With five more growing turkeys, and 11 chickens whose yard the turkeys have taken over, we have quite a few birds that are producing nothing during these shortest days of the year. The math doesn't seem quite right with this. Lots of birds; no eggs. Bags of corn; no eggs.

We are egg-less because the chickens don't think winter is a good time to hatch chicks. I would have to agree. But, there is a darker truth than just the eight hours of daylight in December. Many of our chickens are getting on in years which means they are not longer reliable layers. For many, this would signify chicken soup. For our household, it seems to signify retirement.

The problem we are running into now is the thriving turkey situation. We don't have enough strong roosts for the growing birds, or even enough space on the roosts we do have. Luckily, the birds have taken to flying up to the top of the chicken wire roof and hanging around up there for the night.

I think the wild turkey that has adopted our flock showed the birds they could actually fly. She roosts in the Mulberry tree at night and flies down for a breakfast of corn. She's domesticating herself all on her own, but I do hope we don't mess with the wild/domesticated thing too much if she takes a fancy to Dutch Boy.

I've opened the gates to the chicken yard during the day because I just read that turkeys like to eat grass and the chicken yard is getting a bit worn. The turkeys hang in a crowd as they tromp through the winter beds. Unfortunately, the chickens have shown them my flower pots and I have been chasing turkeys out from digging up all my bulbs.

With turkeys everywhere, I have to watch as I back the car from the carport. Some of the dimmer ones will stand at the back looking at their reflection in the paint. I can say that so far, we have never lost a turkey to a car - only a neighbor's dog and a mean raccoon.

Not sure what Easter will bring, but turkey on the table is unlikely. Maybe we will wait and see what nature provides us in the way of fertility and natural turkey parents. If they turn out to do a good job, Thanksgiving may come and go in the most uneventful way - at least for this group!

Photos: (top) Dutch Boy; (bottom) Rose being fed mulberries and spoiled rotten, which has made her a terror in the chicken yard.

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Monday, November 29, 2010

The Old Switcheroo

We were very careful this year with our rams and our ewes. Red is related to half our flock, as in paternal relations. It would be no good to breed him to his daughters and granddaughters, especially when our vet-in-training is trying to improve the herd, not create freaks of nature.

But, as the saying goes, "the grass is greener on the other side" and Red and Duke (our other ram) decided, just for an afternoon, to pull a switcheroo and mess with Annie's charting. Really, it didn't seem quite fair since the girl had gone to all the trouble of keeping good records and having a plan.

People in the know (that would be those who have raised or been around sheep) will nod their heads in sympathy and understanding. "That's a ram for you!" "Always messing with the system." "Doesn't follow the rules, only the ewes." "It's all about the ewes." "What a bunch of hussies!" (That last comment would be mine)

We keep our rams in with the girls usually for about two months. At six weeks, we were feeling good about our system. At six weeks and a day, we almost didn't have a system. It was only about four hours that the flock intermingled when the gate popped open. Except it wasn't obvious until feeding time when it seemed there were way too many ewes in Duke's group. At which point it became an overnight slumber party, because I had left the feeding until almost dark and I couldn't tell one ewe from another. No one seemed to mind.

Annie came home late from work. I almost couldn't choke out what had happened over at the barn. No, I couldn't separate them in the dark. No, I wasn't sure how the gate had popped open. No, I had no idea when this had actually happened except sometime before feeding.

The next morning we scanned the crowd. The sheep weren't inclined to gather back in their original groupings. We cut Red out of the flock and shuffled him back into the barn field. A few of the ewes followed him and we had to hope these were the original group because, without getting right on top of them to see their ear tag numbers, we could only tell if they 'sort of' looked like his original harem.

We did the math. Everything lamb born before 4/29/2011 could be predicted. Those born for at least two weeks after were a crap shoot for the 'who's your daddy' prize. Just like last year, we were going to have to look for droopy ears and white and black coloring to tell if the daddy was Duke. Small ears and brown coloring - probably Red.

Our records are better than they ever have been and I suspect that most breeding records have some guesses in them. Sheep can be relentless when they want to get somewhere and fencing and gates are merely an inconvenience that will wear down with time. The baling twine breaks. The fence wire pops. And, soon enough, there is the mingling of sheep in a late season romp. All in the name of the lambs.

Photos:(top) Piglet (couldn't find a duo photo with Duke) and Red in their 10-month-a-year retirement pasture; (bottom) eager young rams (before they were sent off to graze the power lines in WA)

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Rural Roof Repair

It has taken seven years, but we have joined the ranks of rural roof repair. We have resorted to a tarp. I did, however, put my boot down at a blue one.

We have had a leak in one of the upstairs bathrooms for a while now. Maybe five years. It's not a problem unless it's raining. Let's just say that for the four months of summer, when we are relatively rain-free, we are good to go and the buckets and pans are stashed under the bathroom sink.

With the first rains of fall, I am back to digging around under the sink for my buckets.

It's not that we have just left the roof to leak on its own. Each summer we climb up, way higher than I like to be, to add a bit more tar, a bit more glue, a bit more of anything we think might help. Is it a leak from the skylight or is it the actual asphalt tiles? Is it from the improperly set flashing or something else?

Short of taking all the roofing off, which could reveal far more of a horror than we are yet ready to tackle, tarps seemed the next best solution because, as I may have forgotten to mention, this is a bathroom our guests use, and that would also be my mother.

The leak(s) run right through the middle of the smallish room onto a carpet that begins to get soggy and then stained. We set the buckets and pans down for specific drips, but this means they have to be moved and then replaced if you happen to want to close the bathroom door! There's an art to dodging the dishes. It's not something you want to have to do in the dark, even with a night-light.

What I can say about tarps is that they work for a while. We have taken to tacking them down with wood strips because the coast winds come ripping up our valley in winter and, well, rip the tarp with ripping winds. Hence maybe the saying? We realize this is a temporary solution, but are lulled each time we tack down a new tarp.

Our neighbor thinks he has our solution and is willing to give it a shot next summer when the rain has stopped. We'll try a 'real' roofing trick: tar paper. Since the roof is mostly hidden from view, I don't think anyone will notice. It took us three years just to realize the roof wasn't even shake like the rest!

I'm willing to go along with this scheme, as long as no one insists I climb up to confer (although it is a fabulous view of the farm!). When the rains start again, I'm good if I can look up at the ceiling and only see stains from our tarp and glue years.

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Peeps in Trouble

You will remember that Peeps is our third rooster. Third as in pecking order third. He's a great bird, but life has become cruel in the chicken yard and he's hiding more and more in the chicken coop. Something is wrong. Peeps is in trouble.

I noticed he was starting to languish. I counted on my fingers. How old was Peeps? I think at least 6, which is old for a chicken. Was he dying of old age or was he ill? He let me pick him up, which was a bad sign all unto itself. He felt light and bony. I brought him into the house and placed him in front of the wood stove. Maybe a night in the house would do him good.

Crammed into the chick cage, Peeps endured the cat looking at him eye to eye. His long tail had to be held down to close the door to the cage. The bird stood and looked at me as I filled a bowl with grain and another with water. It was a vacant stare. Was life really worth this. A cat on the outside and he on the inside?

The next day he ate a little food, but mostly slept with his head under his wing. It didn't look good. He ate more and then, all of a sudden, he was ravenous. Peeps was beginning to look too big for the cage and I decided he was. I let him out on the lawn with the peacock. It was time for roosting and a return to the cage. We couldn't find him. Had he wandered off to die. Just great!

As we walked back in through the mud room where the door had been left ajar, Peeps was crouched near the front door. Time to come in. One more night in the safety of the house. Even with a cat at eye level.

The next morning he ate a breakfast of corn and returned to the chicken yard. I think the problem all along was starvation. In a yard full of chickens, Peeps had not held his own when it came to feeding time. He now gets an extra handful when I catch him on the outskirts. However, he had devised his own plan for eating. When I take the top off the feed bin and scoop out a bucket to scatter to the hens, he will jump into the can and eat his fill until I return and shoo him out. If it works for him, it works for me. Heck, this winter he might even be able to take care of the wayward mouse or two that inevitably finds its way into the bin and tries to run up my arm as I dip for the grain. If ever I have wanted to yell "Eeek", it would be then.

Photos: (top) Peeps squished into the chick cage for a night or two; (bottom) all better and looking the pretty boy in the sunlight.

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Sunday, October 03, 2010

Adios Chaco

It was a fall day today of no particular note. The golden leaves of the alder trees dropped at the hint of wind, onto ground covered with brilliantly green fall grass. The sky was blue, yet clouds edged in with the afternoon, adding a hint of autumn to a weekend that boasted t-shirts.

Despite all this normality, it was not a normal day for the farm. Today was Chaco's day to die. A pre-planned day. Not pre-ordained, but chosen from so many other days. Chosen in the middle of the night because this is not a decision made in day. A slow decision that has been a long time coming. And then it was made and here we are.

How does a horse survive when he can no longer see where he is going? How many fences will he have to run in to, with cuts on his nose and legs to prove? Will a raging creek in winter sweep him off his feet for the last time because he doesn't trust knowing where the bridge drops off at the edge? In the end, what does our love count for if we can't be responsible to end his life well, after so many years of cantering on the correct lead, learning to jump as a team, riding trails?

For Chaco, it was a normal day. He ate grass. He waded across the summer creek. He was surrounded by the baaing of sheep and the companionship of the other horses. Sure, we paid him extra attention in the past few days. He was brushed and fed treats. His mane and tail were combed. And he was brushed again.

But for the farm, this day had been hanging around for a week. Time to do something, anything, that would make a memory or a kindness to add to the memories and kindnesses that have followed us for the past 14 years. So, we took photos and even a last ride around the property. And then today we took some family photos with Chaco, the kind that sport all the kids, except here we had the donkey and the other horses butting into the picture too. And it was a beautiful day. And we were all very much aware of our personal sorrow for a horse we had come to love over time and who would, in a short while, be gone from our world.

They tell me it was quick and he didn't feel a thing. The horses in the barn spooked at the shot and then went back to eating their hay. The sheep lifted their heads from the pasture. I looked out through a screen of trees where I had last seen the whiteness of Chaco's coat as he stood in the sun. He was gone. And the tractor quickly filled the hole with dirt and the field took on the surreal look of peacefulness and quiet. But for the fragrance of fresh dirt, I could have closed my eyes and thought I imagined it all.

Adios Chaco

"...may you run joyfully with the big herd in the sky, may you clear every jump you attempt, may the fields be bountiful and filled with your favorite grass, may there always be a big mud puddle to roll in, and may there always be someone there to brush you while saying sweet nothings in your ear. I (We) will truly miss you Spuds McKenzie (Chaco)."
- Facebook post by Emery Jones 10/3/10

Photos:(top) Chaco, alert at the sound of our approach; (middle) Chaco's family; (bottom) flowers at his grave, and the master of his stall. All taken the weekend of 10/3/10.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Black Hay

There's nothing better than smelling fresh cut hay and imagining a barn full of it. There is nothing worse than days of rain falling on fresh cut hay and turning it black with mold. It's enough to make you cry. Your neighbor too. She could smell that hay all the way up at her barn. I think I hear her crying now.

We've only tried for a second cutting of hay once before and, while it was hard to dry with the heavy dew of autumn, we got it in and were in love with our hay well into the winter. This year seemed auspicious. The year was late for hay but all the forecasters promised a late, dry fall, because we were owed a late, dry fall. What did they know?

Farmer Jones spent the summer irrigating day in and day out. When he couldn't do it he trained our buffed up high school neighbor to move the pipe and set the valves. The hay looked good but not that high when our farmer neighbor with the haying equipment stopped by. Did we want to cut yet? Was he going to? No, he wanted to wait a little for a taller grass. So did we. The forecasters had said it was going to be a late, dry fall.

Okay, so it wasn't. The first cut of hay is now all we have going into winter. I look at it this way. The horses and sheep don't know what they are missing because nothing was ever brought in. I hope that the wonderful hay sitting on the ground re-seeds the soil and we get another chance at two cuts next summer. Of course, it means more irrigation and no promises.

Next summer we won't be greedy. We will cut when the sky is still blue and the days are lengthening but not stormy. Unless, of course, the forecasters tell us it will be a late,dry fall. And we forget what we learned. And we smell that wonderful green hay and imagine what it would be like if it were just a few inches taller.

Photo: Irrigating the hay field one 20' pipe at a time. There are 16 to reach across the entire 8 acres. Farmer Jones moves them once a day.

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Monday, September 13, 2010

Tomatoes 1 Grapes 0

Every farmer I know is complaining about their gardens and fields this year. The long, cool, wet summer has stunted the growth of many plants, marked others with brown spots, and left the rest unripened. I understand the good year - bad year cycle but I am going into the second year with few apples and plums and absolutely no pears.

If you like green beans, this is your year. Every cool veggie is happy. It's way past time for grapes but they still hang green on the vine. It's time for tomatoes but they hang green even in the greenhouse. The ripening is so delayed that school has started and the canning has barely begun. This means everything is going to happen at once, I just know it!

I suppose it sounds like whining, but we have coined a phrase out here. It's called the 'burden of abundance'. I know it sounds absolutely horrible to feel overwhelmed with too much food, but there are times when I can't even see my counter space because it is loaded with perishable time bombs. Too many cucumbers all at once either mean hours canning or the chickens get the rotten ones. It's the same for the tomatoes when they finally ripen. Ah, but there is nothing better than a red, ripe tomato with a little olive oil and fresh basil. Okay, I can't wait for it, but I also know the canning process takes time and care.

In the end, because of the vagaries of the weather this summer, we will spend a winter eating green beans, some peas, chiles, and tomato sauce. How bad can that be? My freezer also has 2 lambs since we are still trying to decide if ram lambs taste any different from ewe lambs. I think they may be tougher but that's about it. The beef is all but gone, as is the pork. I think I spied some elk burgers and maybe a fish fillet or two. We have lots of potatoes as long as we can keep them from freezing this winter. Our onions are a bit problematic since I don't think we have totally figured out how to store them. The kiwis will be large, but not plentiful. Except, how many kiwis can you eat anyway. The figs have been made into jam.

Okay, so I guess the harvest hasn't been and won't be a total loss. With the grapes ripening late, I doubt the yellow jackets will be too bad. I wonder what the deer and bear will do without their fall fruit. Well, I know the deer are eating my flowers all around the house and grazing on the lawn at night, so that's their answer. Haven't seen any bears close by (or at all), so I won't worry there.

Tomato sauce will go well for the winter months and who likes picking the stems out of all those grapes for raisins anyway?

Photos: (top) greenhouse tomatoes on their way to ripening; (bottom) a one-day harvest, not counting what is sitting in the buckets all around the butcher block!

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Tater the Terrible

Tater has ramped up his trouble-making. I used to compare him to a teenager. I would like to revise this to a two-year-old. You know, the two-year-old that likes to open every kitchen cabinet he can find and pull all the pots out. How about the cabinets that have the cleaning supplies?

Today he figured out how to open a door into the barn that uses an old style latch with a weight. How did he figure this out? At first, per usual, I thought I must have left the door unlatched after feeding. The donkey is quite adept at taking advantage of this particular door. It must have been the donkey. I latched the door purposefully the next evening. And, the animals were in the barn again in the morning.

Our guests find this behavior particularly funny and endearing. Tater will usually be back in the loafing shed when we turn up for morning rounds. Moralecia will be looking for a way out and the donkey will be skittering along the wood floors of the barn attempting to push past me to the door.

I'm a little smarter with the horses these days when it comes to reducing opportunities for chaos. I only drop a bale of hay at a time, so the most the animals can redistribute is this and maybe some loose straw. The trash can is always up-ended and horse blankets, stools, and brush buckets strewn about, but the biggest clean-up is the horse poop. Gives everyone a reason to try their hand at the push broom. For now I have rigged a chain through the door so the horse can't get in. Of course, we can't get out either.

Tater the Terrible was not to be outdone. He took on the feed stall next, a door that had never been tested as Tater-proof, but why? It was locked with a wire twist. We were lucky at first because the grain was low in the bins. I would retwist the wire. The horse would hoist himself up a three foot step, knocking over stored jump rails and standards, and plop (and I do mean plop) himself in the middle to the grain bins. By the time I finally came up with a solution to this behavior, he had flattened several metal trash can lids and eaten every ounce of food not run off by the rats and the mice.

Because my brain is only slightly larger than his, it took me several attempts to find a hook big enough and inflexible enough that Tater finally gave up his drive to drive me nuts. It's hard to be mad at a horse with such intent and big, brown eyes. I'm just glad neither he nor the other equines ate so much they colicked. There was that one morning when they all bee-lined for the water because they ate their fill of salt. I can't even conceive what will be next; however, my two year old grandson might have an idea.

Photo: Tater not looking so terrible here. Bored, maybe. "Get that lady to let go of me!"

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Friday, August 06, 2010

Chicken Prison

They say chickens have a brain the size of a pea. So then why do they look so guilty when I catch them on the outside of the chicken yard. Could it be because they have dug up the new cucumber plants for the third time which means we won't be growing any cucumbers this summer?

I like free-range chickens, really I do. They eat slugs and all sorts of bugs. They fertilize as they move through the bushes and flower beds. It's just that small, new growth doesn't have a chance with the scratch, scratch, scratch of those busy feet. It's amazing what devastation one to two loose chickens can cause in a short amount of time.

Mound saw dust around the base of the blueberry bushes and a loose chicken can spread it across the grass before you even know the bird is out of the coop. Pile up leaves as mulch for the Cascade berries to keep down the grass and weeds and it ends up pushed around in clumps with bare spots of earth showing through.

Leave the door to the greenhouse open so the temperatures won't climb to 120 degrees and this is an open invitation for the birds to scratch in any disturbed area for worms. We plant our tomatoes, chiles, cucumbers, dill, basil, and eggplant straight into the ground, providing plenty of disturbed dirt for a good scratch, scratch, scratch.

What made farmer Jones the maddest this summer, however, was the ruthless pursuit of his baby potted veggies on top of the planting table. Nurtured from seed, it's a hard thing to see dirt dug from the middle of carefully tended six-packs and wilted plants dying on the table, roots bare and dry. So, he thought he would try to hide his plant starts in the garden, with its 8 foot fence and lush growth from cool weather plants like lettuce, peas, and broccoli.

Too bad the garden actually shares 100 feet of fence with the chicken yard because somehow Boston, our hand-raised white chicken, and two smaller Red Caps figured out how to squeeze through the woven wire despite my attempts to cover more and more of the fencing with a double layer of chicken wire.

In the end, the questions is this. Why did it take until the last cucumber shoots were scratched out, along with many of the new flowers, to consider chicken jail for the worst offenders? While we offer our chickens a Hilton Resort in terms of their yard space, we also have smaller containment areas usually reserved for introducing chicks and new animals to the flock. It wasn't that hard a leap to make, but it took threats ranging from shooting to eating to provide the ultimate incentive.

The morning after, there was peace in the yard, peace in the garden, and three chickens staring at the door every time it opened for water and food. Do I feel badly? Absolutely not. Well, for the chickens anyway. As for the farmers, they just need to be smarter than a neural tube and not nearly so soft hearted when it comes to their feathered friends.

Photos: (top) Peeps, (middle) Boston scratching in a window box, (bottom) free-range chickens in early spring before they can do a lot of damage to the flower beds

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Is She Hot?

It hadn't hit 90 degrees all summer. The day we pulled our hay out of the field, the temperature soared and the hay gods laughed.

We learned from previous years not to call out crew to show up too early. I always thought 9 a.m. was a good time to start, but, in the Coast Range, the dew is still heavy enough in summer to sit on the hay and cause problems if we bale it wet. Teenage boys don't like showing up at 9 a.m. anyway, so the call was put in for an 11:30 a.m. start.

Considering we had about 21 tons to load in the hayloft, the mood stayed pretty light, hay gods or not. That is what I love about high school kids who get better and stronger every summer since the age of 12. This year, if they weren't just graduated from school, they were getting ready for football and basketball season, so the bodies were buff and throwing bales of hay looked easy.

We finished the first third of the field and then caught up with the baler. Time for lunch and a nap. Okay,so they admitted it was a bit hot in the hayloft. The crew decided they would prefer to come back when the hay was totally baled and the sun had dropped down. We reconvened at 5 p.m. as my visions of dinner went down the tubes. 600 bales was going to take a bit to haul to the barn, buff boys or not.

I think we finished around 9 p.m. but since it stays light in early July until after 10, it didn't seem that late. Plenty of times for the boys still to go out. Just enough time for us to take a bath, sit on the couch, and...pass out.

One funny thing happened during the day to demonstrate the minds of our team. When asked about a young woman helping on the farm, I asked the benign question about whether she was hot or not. Think 90+ degrees. Think, "Does she need a glass of water?" Apparently, the young man I asked this of thought I meant the other kind of hot. He babbled a bit. Once we cleared up the confusion, he, at 16, blushed bright red. For my part, I couldn't decide if it was cute or I felt old. Ah, boys will be boys.

Photos: (top) top of field baled evening before pick-up, facing east;(bottom) finishing up the bales from top of field, headed towards farm stay cabin

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Monday, July 12, 2010

The Honey Grove Massacre

When you risk your life to steal eggs from the turkeys, just so you can incubate them and try to be more successful at raising poults to a Thanksgiving weight, it doesn't seem quite fair to get half way to the goal line and have a raccoon change the end game. There are so many calculated steps to raising turkeys in the best of situations. And for what?

Maybe if I hadn't just looked at the turkeys that day and thought how big they were growing. Maybe if we hadn't named one Nellvira after a friend's daughter. Maybe if we had paid more attention to what could get into the enclosure rather than how the babies kept slipping out of it through the lattice work. Or, maybe nothing could have kept this raccoon from taking advantage of not only six turkey poults but also five chicks we had enclosed in the same pen.

The thing about raccoons is that they get into a blood lust with young chickens. This has happened before, but a long time ago. When I think back, I would have blamed the last massacre to ignorance on our part. Now I think it is just a crime of opportunity.

We were new on the farm and we had 12 chicks that were probably three-months old. They had been staying in one side of the coop at night and everything seemed calm. Six were in one section and six in another. I came out one morning and all the chicks were dead or missing in the back part of the enclosure.

The next evening I moved our remaining birds into a smaller coop area since I could see where the raccoon had broken through some rusty chicken wire. When I came out in the morning, the remaining chicks were also dead, strewn over the yard. A new hole had been punched in the wire just to prove a point. My birds had been trapped with a maniac. I had that sick feeling. We re-fenced everything immediately, but, as the barnyard saying goes, "It's like closing the stall door, when the horse has already bolted." or something like that.

The thing about raccoon frenzy attacks is that they don't kill the birds because they are hungry. They kill them because they are blood crazed. Heads are ripped off or guts spilled out, but there is no eating. There are actually very few feathers spread around either. The lesson drives home: the farmer needs to be more attentive, but then, if you think about it, the farmer always needs to be more attentive!

Plus, raccoons are smart. After this last attack, for which one lone chick survived, we set a trap baited with cat food and salmon. If I was a hungry raccoon, I would have gone for the food. But, wait, we said these raccoons aren't killing for hunger. Heck, no! They've been eating all the cherries and berries they can find, enough that there are none left for us.

The only thing we ended up catching was a chicken when I forgot to spring the gate in the morning. It was my escape artist, the chicken that dug up the new garden veggies 2 times running. If I had paused long enough to think about it, I might have left it in the cage to be bait for the raccoon. Could have taken care of two problems at once.

The raccoon has not yet been caught. We have five turkeys left for Thanksgiving... possibly. They are still so small we have them in the house and it's doubtful they will have enough size by November. We removed the massacre enclosure and are re-securing the chicken wire in the coop for a later release. Maybe they will be Christmas turkeys if they ultimately survive the chicken yard battle zone.

The lone survivor of the attack now has a name. We call her Tina Turner. She is a Polish Top Hat and shakes her head of feather hair as only Tina Turner could. So, drum roll please... Presenting...Tina Turner, a hell of a survivor. Let's just hope I haven't jinxed her here. Of course the raccoon will have to catch her first and none of us is quick enough to sneak up on her these days...I doubt even the raccoon!

Photo: Tina Turner as a Polish Top Hat chicken!

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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Speed Worming

If you have two neighbors, a daughter, and a visiting couple, how long does it take to worm, trim hooves, and give shots to 64 sheep? Sounds like a light bulb joke, but it isn't. The good news is, not that long once the system is established and the sheep get with the plan.

With a pre-vet in the family and a keen focus on reducing worm-load for health and weight gain this year, we have set ourselves a rigorous schedule of worming both ewes and their babies. Catching up 64 ewes and lambs is the easy part. Catching the individuals is harder. But we have a program that is beginning to work like a well-oiled machine.

Karen was a quick study for trimming hooves and she and I take opposite ends of a ewe for the best results. Allen took a little longer to learn how to flip a sheep on its back because, like most guys, he tried the muscle route first. Sheep don't fall for that and with 4 legs can hold on pretty dear to an upright position. It's a balance thing that you need to do. Pull the head back and press down on the flank and plop! The ewe is on her back in no time.

Our friends from Tennessee were given the jobs of filling the syringes with vaccine and wormer and keeping track of the sheep and lamb ear tags. They also had the job of opening the gate for escaping victims. Annie gave the shots. I administered the worming drench by mouth. Greg caught and dropped the ewes for a tag team of large sheep.

The barn was dark and cool for our session, but we soon worked up a sweat that also reeked of sheep pee mixed with lanolin and mud. I think it's the measure of true kinship when your neighbors, and old friends from another life, will stand along side you for a worming and hoof trimming session. Get's you all excited to come and help doesn't it?!

If only it were this quick and easy to get into vet school!

Photo: top, wormer and shots all at the same time; bottom, sheep worming x 2 (except the legs shooting straight up in the air make them look dead!)

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Monday, June 21, 2010

The Farmer and the Scarecrow

Farmer Jones has an alter-ego that never stoops while it works in the garden. A leg will flap in the breeze and his hat blows off from time to time, but the flesh tones of the face and the bright red lips can make a person stop and stare for a moment just to make sure the figure in the garden really isn't the Farmer himself. The crows, unfortunately, are not fooled and the corn has had to be replanted for the third time this year. I have to wonder if it is possible to harvest corn in November?

We have never had to plant the corn this many times before. Is it the late spring or have the crows determined, if we don't do well with turkeys, how is our husbandry of the corn? I think the scarecrow idea arose from a convergence. I happened to see part of the Wizard of Oz on TV in a story about the munchkins, and I also noticed a scarecrow in my neighbor's garden. Now, why hadn't we thought of that?!

Most farms settle for scarecrows made of old clothes and maybe some straw. Annie took the opportunity to celebrate Father's Day with a gift to Farmer dad. How about a face for the scarecrow? With no balloons around, but a creative mind, she stuffed plastic bags inside each other until she had something resembling a rounded head. Layers of torn newspaper were bound with a flour paste for the head, the lips and the eyes. After a round with the hair dryer, the head was painted. The resulting mask had an uncanny humanness to it, set off by bright pink lips and blue eyes.

As Farmer Greg often works in the garden in summer, it looks as if he has a companion to keep him company. The arms might move in gesture with the wind. The face smiles over the pitifully picked over rows of corn that are weedy and only about 4 inches high. It's a good thing we have left over corn in the freezer from last year, but I will sorely miss the taste of fresh young corn right out of the garden. Our 10 rows are down to 3 and I can't quite tell yet if we are growing feed corn or that for human consumption. Hard to think we had so much corn last year we actually sold it to the co-op!

I sometimes wonder if the joke is on us. A scarecrow seemed like a good idea at the time. Maybe farmers really only use them as garden art and nobody clued us in. Maybe the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz was really just Dorothy's neighbor down the road. The way I see it, Farmer Greg can always say he is working in the garden and no one could contradict him from afar. Is it a man or is it a scarecrow? Only the wind and the birds know.

Photos: top, The Alter-ego Scarecrow; bottom, the Farmer and the Scarecrow trompe l'oeil

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Turkey Chicks Just Wanna Die!

For a bird that tastes so good at Thanksgiving, it sure is hard to keep young turkeys alive until November! Either our first year of raising turkeys was serendipitously easy or we are getting worse at livestock care, which is a rather depressing thought .

Rose is our only survivor of a hatching from last year and, as a hand-raised turkey, has the annoying habit of squawking in your face and staring down little children just her height and eye-to-eye. This year, she has been accompanied by her father, Tom, who hates me, her mother, Dutch Boy, the Narraganset, and a wild hen that flew into the coop about a month ago and has stayed for the corn and the love.

Not wanting to be out foxed by our Heritage breed turkeys, whom I suspect were feeding their eggs to the rats, Annie and I decided this year to hatch eggs in an incubator in the house. It could be that taking the eggs from the nest each morning was the turning point in Tom's relationship with us. It didn't help that the goose had become his best friend. The pair was so ferocious they actually cornered Annie in the coop one day and beat her with their wings until she had bruises on her legs!

However, we secured a total of 20 eggs and started the 27 day process of rotating them 3-4 times a day under a constant temperature and humidity control, all on the counter in my bathroom. No one figures all the eggs will hatch and it was bizarre the evening I tried to identify the tap-tap-tap coming from the bathroom. In the morning there was a fluffy, black chick trying to find its sea legs.

After that, we had more, and then the hatching stopped and we realized none of the other eggs was going to produce a live bird, or even had a bird in it at all. Two toms (one a teenager) and some inexperienced hens did not a baby make 100% of the time!

The chicks were raised in the house, but the most peculiar thing would happen from time to time. We would catch one doing poorly, its mates knocking it over, standing on its head or body, and the next time we checked it was expired. Our 12 birds quickly became our 6 birds, and then our 5 birds. We were back to not having enough to sell at Thanksgiving.

So, Annie searched Craig's List and found more, because we are lame and hate to give up in defeat. She bought the most lovey Blue Slate poults, fluffy and gray and strong at peeping. Within a couple days, one had died!

Today, the poults live in the house, in the kitchen, under the heat lamp. They are not quite to the point of being tossed out for the stink, but I can tell their time is coming. We need to fix the chicken wire fencing before we do this for a couple reasons. Primarily, to keep raccoons out, but secondarily to keep the chicks in. They will have their own little turkey hotel as they wait to grow more pin feathers for warmth and larger for Thanksgiving. It all seems a bit ironic. If they survive, they become dinner. If they die young it's only by a few months.

The goal is to have a purpose other than the dinner entree. Dutch Boy, our white Holland, figured it out last year. Be a totally different color from Tom, so the farmer can tell who is working out as the daddy, and defend the poor farmer's wife and daughter from the tom turkey attacks. It makes the humans like you. And, as I have mentioned before, once you have a name on the farm, it's unlikely you will be eaten. ...unless you are a chicken named Boston that keeps scratching up the new spring plantings. Where's my gun!

Photo: Nell with Nelvira (RIP)

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Two Lucy's Get Their Lambs!

We have two Lucy's on the farm at the moment, except one of them spells hers a little differently than anyone else I know. Loocie, my sister, came for a visit because she has never been here when lambs were being born. Lucy, from Portland, came back with her parents because March was a bad month for lambs. As in, there were none.

What made the visit extra special for the junior Lucy was the little lamb born just the day before her arrival. We weren't exactly sure that Dusty, aka #26, was pregnant this spring. It was her first spring as a mature ewe and the chance of her producing a lamb was pretty much 50-50. In March, Lucy, her mom, and I had looked at Dusty and thought she didn't really seem that round.

On a sunny May afternoon, our eagle-eyed daughter thought she saw Dusty hanging back in the hay field looking at something on the ground. By the time we made it to the field, she had a wobbly but dried off baby standing next to her. Loocie was in awe. We contemplated Lucy's reaction to the news.

A cryptic message was sent into the stratosphere via computer,"Someone had a baby and her name rhymes with Rusty!" Ah, the miracle of Internet communications. I received an email back almost immediately from Lucy's mom. Joanna said she felt like a grandmother. If she was the grandmother, what did that make me? The great grandma!

It took three of us that night to get the sheep herded in off the hay field. Our bottle-fed ewes, like Dusty, can be some of the worst as new mothers since they are not exactly sure whether they should keep their babies close or ditch them as their own mothers did to them. Loocie carried the newborn. Emery tried to keep Dusty nearby. I waved my arms at all the ewes in an attempt to convince them the grass was greener elsewhere.

I probably forgot to mention that Lucy and her family were driving to the farm just for the day on Sunday! Just to see lambs! Just to see Dusty, really! We all talked Lucy out of arriving at 8 a.m. which would have meant a 6 a.m. departure for her parents. As it was, I think they arrived around 10 a.m. Lucy had brought a friend so we showed off some baby turkey poults and then the suspense was too much. We headed to the barn.

Lucy and her friend spent most of the rest of the morning in the stall with Dusty, her baby, and a few other new mamas and lambs. Dusty's baby was named immediately by Lucy but the name escapes me. All I seem to remember was a large, heroic name. Lambs were held. Photos were taken. The earlier visit, when no lambs were yet born, became a thing of the past and discussion centered around next year's spring lambing calendar.

Lucy's mom sent along photos as soon as the family returned to Portland. My sister, Loocie, took photos also while she was here. I love to see what other people pick out as special on the farm. Of course, with Lucy, it's a lamb and the lamb's lamb that will figure in her heart and on her camera until next spring when we hope to start all over again.

Photos: top, Lucy with Dusty in spring 2009; middle, Lucy with Dusty and her baby in May 2010; bottom, Loocie with Rabbit a long time ago (May 2005?)

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Lambing

It is common knowledge that ewes tend to lamb when it rains. As spring is a rainy time of year in Oregon, this could just be coincidence. Not so coincidental, ewes will lamb in groups. Sort of like, that looks like a good idea, I think I'll go for it too.

It is probably closer to a cycle thing. However, I must say it occurred to me, as our guest, Taffy, stood by my side, seven months pregnant, fascinated to watch one of our ewes giving birth, that I ought to suggest she keep her own legs crossed.

Her husband looked a little alarmed when I mentioned the ewe group birthing thing. Taffy was lost in her own reverie of a 45 minute delivery. How nice would that be! No assistance, no bright lights, just the warm smell of fresh straw and maybe a few curious faces peaking over the stall wall.

I'm not sure we've ever had a heavily pregnant woman on the farm during lambing season. Probably because most stay close to home. Lambs were on the agenda for this family specifically, I think, because they were pregnant. It was a chance to see new life revealed. It was a chance to do something they had never done before with their young son. It was a chance to be away from the city and close to life. Our girls didn't disappoint, and Taffy, thankfully, didn't go into labor!

The thing about baby lambs is that they are cuter than human babies and they do child-like things almost right away. We would be hard-pressed to protect ourselves as 3-day-olds, but lambs practice jumping in the air even before they are released from the barn. If you have ever tried to catch a 3-day old lamb, you need to be fast and you need to be nimble. It's why they get all their shots and tags and bands before we ever let them out with the flock.

Lamb-life is simple. There's recess, nap time,lunch, recess, nap time, lunch, pretty much in that order all day long. The younger the lamb, the more playful. Any object makes a jungle gym or play toy, especially dozing moms and mounds of dirt. Give lambs a hill and they play Lamb of the Hill. They run as a mob, choosing to follow whichever lamb leads fastest. Some stop for a milk break. Some lie down in the sun. If it's nap time in the loafing shed, lambs can be found sleeping in the hay manger and large feed buckets!

This is a great time for lambs and guests alike. This is actually a great time of year for all of us on the farm. Small, warm, silky babies; moms lowing in the barn; grass coming on in the fields; children and parents wowed by the birth process and the chance to hold a baby lamb.

Taffy and her family left for the big city with some stories to tell. Come July, when it is her time to deliver, I hope the magic she saw in the barn will flow over her, protect her, and assist her with an easy delivery - although 45 minutes might be cutting it a bit close to get to a hospital in Los Angeles!

Photos: (top) lamb lying on its mom, (bottom) lamb resting in a bucket.

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Thursday, April 01, 2010

No Lambs for Lucy

Lucy and her mother first came to our farm stay a year ago in March. They hoped to see lambs and take a break from the city. We already had two lambs from February, the result of a very naughty ram lamb five months prior. During their visit, we started lambing in earnest. We also had our first problems with rejected lambs and had to begin bottle feeding two youngsters from different mothers.

The great thing about having guests stay on your farm is that they provide an extra set of everything: hands, eyes, brains, muscles. Watching for rejected lambs can sometimes be difficult at first. Is the mother just out of sorts for the moment or does she really have no intention of feeding her baby? I am getting better at spotting the problem early. Left too long, extreme measures often come into play.

We all kept an eye on #26, later to be known as Dusty. She was a beautiful lamb with long legs, but she wasn't faring well with her mother. Lucy took on the job of holding her when there was no one else to cuddle and feeding her from a baby bottle I made up with formula six times a day. There is nothing sweeter than a baby lamb and Lucy's mom got the perfect photo of the two together during their visit.

This year when Lucy and Joanna showed up at the end of March, we had not yet begun lambing. The first thing out of Lucy's mouth when she saw us was, "How is #26?" I honestly had forgotten who #26 might be and was wondering how to explain the end game of most sheep farms. Farm girl, Annie, quick to avert a meltdown, looked through our records and saw that #26 had been renamed Dusty and was now going to be one of our breeding stock. Disaster averted. We all ran to the barn to see if Dusty remembered the girl who had held her in her arms only a year ago.

During their entire stay, Joanna and especially Lucy were good sports about the lack of lambs at Leaping Lamb Farm. We explained the delay. We had put a new ram lamb in with the girls at the beginning of November and we suspected it took him a little while to get the hang of the ram-thing. Farm girl, Annie, suggested he might have been a little shy. Despite rushing out to the barn every morning, before most grown-ups had even had their first cup of coffee, there were no lambs for Lucy. We kept hoping, up to the last minute of the visit that a lamb would drop miraculously onto the straw bedding, but one never did.

Instead, Lucy channeled her lamb artistry into a knitted lamb she presented to me. The year prior she had knitted me a ewe with a bell. This time she knitted its accompanying lamb. I keep them down in the front room as a reminder of the little girl who loves lambs and creates talismans to leave behind when no real lamb is present. Several days after Lucy's departure, we had our first lambs. We sent photos, knowing there is no real replacement to holding a lamb in your arms. But, of all the kids who grow up in cities, how lucky is Lucy to have at least had the experience once in her life. May the once become many!

Photos: top, Lucy and #26 (aka Dusty) in March 2009; middle, Lucy and Dusty 2010; bottom, Lucy's knitted ewe (2009) and lamb (2010)

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Shearing in the Snow

March can be a fickle month for just about anything to do with farming. However, shearing our pregnant ewes in March is about as late as we can go whether the month is fickle or not. I usually have my friendly sheep shearer come by end of February so the girls are not yet too big, but somehow February got past me and, anyway, Vince was busy.

Vince is about my age. He has his own flock of sheep he runs on other people's grass seed fields. He calls himself a gypsy shepherd when he isn't out shearing. He lives in another valley a mountain away from me and knows more about sheep than I ever will care to. I always hope. when I put in the call, that he hasn't given up the craft just yet. I mean, I'm still raising lambs and my few woolies still need to be shorn.

March ewes are four months pregnant at a maximum on our farm. They are beginning to get a bit fat and some of them a bit ungainly. We don't want the shearing to be hard on anyone - ewes or people. Our girls, the old ones at least, are accustomed to being flipped on their backs and spun around the floor from side to side while Vince deftly removes a year's worth of wool in one go. He makes it look easy. Ewe after ewe. How hard could it be? I shake out of my trance. What was I thinking? I can still barely drop a ewe to the ground and then only the ones that have pity on me!

Today, Vince showed up with his trimmers and set up on the permanent hooks he has created for himself in one of the sheep stalls. I had cleaned the floor as best I could and put up shop lights for added visibility. The ewes had been locked in an adjacent stall all night without water or food. Vince needed them as dry as possible. I didn't need them pooping and peeing all over the cutting floor once we got going. The ewes were grumpy to start and by the end of the procedure down-right offended.

We all had our jobs. Farm girl Annie's was to grab ewes and back them up to Vince. Vince would do his thing. I would open the gate to let the naked sheep escape out to the shed, then quickly scoop up the fleece and place it in a garbage bag, marking in black what kind of sheep and what color. This is actually kind of important since we have introduced hair sheep into our flock. The fiber is much shorter and makes knitters mad if you get it mixed up with long fiber wool. Vince isn't that keen on this new trend of ours either. I guess it gums up his shears and takes him longer clip.

However, the point of this story is not about wool. Rather the absence of it. Once shorn our girls look nearly naked and it always makes me feel cold and irresponsible as an owner. Are they going to get chilled and die like I would if all my coats were ripped from me at the end of winter? Are the days getting warmer and the pregnancies creating more internal heat? What if it snows?

And then, of course, it did! The next morning the ground was covered with snow that had fallen through the night and actually stuck. My spring flowers were bent over. The sheep glared at me from their loafing shed. School was canceled, more because there hadn't been a snow day all winter, than because there was any real danger on the roads. Our farm stay guests borrowed mittens to make a snow man. Our town made the front page of the local newspaper. I wondered at the luck of shearing in the snow.

Within a day, the grass was green again and the only problem now was that I couldn't tell my sheep apart because they all had the same naked look. It would take a while to pick out Rosie and Harold and Piper and Dusty, but soon enough, the annual shearing would be a distant memory as we moved into the next phase of the year: lambing.

Photos: top, I think that is just-shorn Piper looking at the camera; bottom, a view from the kitchen towards the orchard.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Kiwi Experiment

This winter I found a sales outlet for my kiwis. For years we had eaten them, given them away, fed them to the chickens, fed them to the guests. Never had I thought to actually sell them for money until a really cool website came on the scene in our area allowing farmers to post their produce and buyers to shop with a credit card, all from the same site. It's the Internet meets the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), and, it's about time.

From our one ancient kiwi vine/tree/plant we can put up anywhere from two to five 5 gallon buckets of fruit, depending on the chipmunk population during blossom set. These are the fuzzy brown skinned kiwis with the green flesh. We have the requisite female (hearty) and male (spindly - I baby him) plant growing up between our house and our workshop. By summer, when the leaves have grown thick, the vine provides absolute shade. In the winter when we prune it all back, there is welcomed light.

We harvest in fall before the first frost and then wait through the winter for the fruits to ripen. Each year I am challenged to protect my kiwis from rodents, and each year I change the location of my storage. Last year I crated the fruits and put them in the workshop; the year before in the storage room. This year, I decided to bring the kiwis into the house and stack them in our coldest room along with the onions and the garlic.

I counted them, setting aside any kiwis not presentable to the public. I had 360! I checked at the store. Kiwis were selling for $.79 at the top end and 2 for $1.00 at the low end. I did the math. Possibly $180 if there were buyers. I could cover the speeding ticket I got while driving to the co-op to check some of those prices, and still have a little left over. What was T.T. whatever his name, the motorcycle cop, doing hiding behind those bushes anyway. Couldn't he tell I was a hillbilly country girl without a care in the world and certainly not paying attention to the reduced speed sign?! Boy, did that guy ruin my day.

I decided on my price. I would sell a pound of kiwis for $1.50 because I thought they lacked in flavor. There were about 5-6 kiwis in a pound. I figured out how to list them online and waited to hear from the administrator of the site what to do next. The next morning I got a call. Was I planning on dropping off the 5 pounds of kiwis ordered in the last hours before the site had closed for the week? Ummm, what orders? Oops,there had been a mistake in notifications. Could I fill the orders or were my very first clients just going to be disappointed? I sent my daughter the 25 miles into town with the kiwis and did the math. $7.50 in sales. Expenses: one hour drive time (to town and back) at $10/hour; gas (25 miles @$.50/mile). It seemed I had just lost approximately $15. Things were not looking good.

I listed my kiwis for the next week and sold 8 pounds. This time I planned the drop with an already arranged trip to town for other reasons so no real cost here. Problem was, no sooner had I found a way to sell my kiwis than the mice decided to have a field(mice)day. When I went down to the room to package my orders, I discovered they had eaten at least a third of my dreams.

You know, if it isn't one thing, it's another. I gave the damaged fruit to the chickens and set mouse traps. The next week, I had lost another third of my remaining fruit. I put what was untouched into the fridge because there was little enough left that I actually had room.

One more week of sales and I was out of product. In all, I think I netted somewhere in the range of $40. Not a great example of marketing acumen but a good lesson in rodent destruction. No, no rodents died in my traps. They had a nimble way of springing them. One trap even mysteriously disappeared.

Will I try this again next year? Maybe, but with lessons learned:
-Store the fruit in the fridge (somehow)
-Charge $3.00/lb whatever the flavor
-Don't wait until the kiwis are all the way ripe (some loss was due to over-ripeness)
-If the time and effort aren't adding up, start feeding the kiwis to: family, friends, guests, and chickens (in that order). They were probably wondering what had happened to the kiwis anyway!

Photos: (top) 360 kiwis set up in their trays with Cisco looking on, (next) kiwis on the vine, (next) tray of kiwis, (bottom) close-up of our offering.

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Saturday, February 06, 2010

Who Needs a Wii When You Have a Farm!

Farmville and Wii are for sissies. We have the real farm and it's killing me! I think teenagers should own farms based on their endless strength and endurance, although their addiction to texting and iPods puts them down the totem pole for concentration and forethought. I don't feel old or slow until I try catching sheep. This is where a good sheep dog would come in handy. Our old dog, Patches, tries but, just like me, she's a little old in the tooth for this type of game.

We've had a few weeks of sheep herding for a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with getting rid of them in one way or another. This involves making sheep go places they don't want to go. First we sold three lambs to a farm south of us who arranged a date with the butcher. Could we handle the delivery? She would pay. We decided we might as well send a couple more lambs in the truck since they would fit and our freezer was now empty of lamb.

Catching just a few lambs out of a group is actually harder than catching the entire flock at once. The boys were more easily cornered than the girls, though not sure why. The dog tried to help but what worked best was a 16' long hog panel that Annie and I used to crowd the lambs into a corner and tie off on the fence with our trusty baling twine. Then we dove into the group and grabbed our target lambs, pushing and shoving them out the gate, dragging them across the lawn, and 1-2-3 hoisting them into the back of the small pickup truck.

We repeated this with the girls and almost gave up in frustration until one of them made a mistake. The rest followed into our trap. We selected our lambs and lifted them into the truck to join their brothers for a last joy ride. Sounds kind of awful, doesn't it? The price of eating lamb. At least they had a happy-go-lucky 10 months on the farm.

The next week a buyer came down from Washington and bought the rest of our lambs. His business model was well thought out. He buys lambs and goats every winter in Oregon and Washington and rents them out for weed control. He has contracts with airports, municipalities, and power companies, all interested in using a more environmental way to control blackberries and invasive plants. I have heard this done for vineyards and Christmas tree farms wanting to go organic too. Graze the grass, fertilize as you go...and get paid for it. Not a bad plan.

At the end of a season, the lambs and kids that are now fattened up get sent to slaughter. The older sheep and goats, if they are good grazers, and not adept at leaving the premises, get to stay around for another year. The short story? I was pleased our lambs would have a little longer on this earth and maybe some even for the length of their natural life. At least, that's what the guy said. Check out his site:

Getting the lambs coordinated to load in his truck, though, took some strategy, cajoling, and the old dog. If we had waited, we could have used the guy's trained herding dog, but I wanted to have the lambs ready in the barn. We yelled. We shrieked. We waved our arms (this is starting to sound like some of my other blogs). We yelled at each other. The sheep looked at us as if we had lost our minds. Then they lost theirs and scampered into the stalls.

As if this wasn't enough sheep duty for one time, we decided we had become deft(er) at herding. Why not just catch all the ewes and worm them while we smelled bad? Then we could cross sheep duties off the list for awhile. Luckily many of our girls are ruled by their stomachs and an open door into the barn is an open invitation. Selecting them out of the crowd for tube worming is the actual work-out, but Annie and I alternated back and forth until the group was finished.

The flock is now reduced and the hay is all but gone in the barn. Next job is to buy a couple tons of first and second cut from our neighbor, load it on a trailer, and pack it into our hayloft. For this, we will hire some of the teenage talent up the road. No use breaking our backs on dried grass tied up with string.

Photos: (top) guest's daughter making herding look easy (I have used this photo before in another blog but it transforms the act of chasing sheep into something so idyllic I just couldn't resist!), (bottom) this is how you drench worm a sheep.

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Monday, January 25, 2010

The Dilemma of an Aging Population

There is a big problem in the United States. The median age of farmers is well into their 50s. This means lots of wisdom, but less endurance. As serious as the problem is in our country, Leaping Lamb Farm has its own aging problems. I could speak here about the farmer and his wife, but, in point of fact, our companion animals are older than we in their life span and I foresee loss and sadness in the coming months.

Moralecia is our queen bee. She's a feisty Arabian at 27 years who still makes our geldings crazy when she flips her tail and squeals. But this winter has been hard and she has lost weight. Her hips show through her skin and her back is starting to sway. We have added senior feed and alfalfa to her diet but nothing seems to change. It doesn't help that we don't ride her much anymore. I could use the mud as an excuse, but our neighbor vet just built a covered arena. I thought being out "to pasture" was a well-deserved horse retirement, when in fact it often leads to lost muscle tone and frailty. These days Moralecia returns from a day on pasture covered from ears to tail in mud. At least she finally has a tail. I think our trainer, Sandy, thought the horse would never have a tail below her hocks. It was the last photo I ever sent to Sandy before her own quick death from cancer, and I'm sure she had to smile. For the tail, or for the life the horse was living in the country?

I have written several blogs about Chaco, the other horse we hauled here from Arizona. He was one great jumper when he was younger, but his jumper life pretty much ended when we moved. I thought the problem of jumping logs had to do with the unfamiliarity of the object. Now I realize his sight was quickly diminishing even before we left the Southwest, just never that apparent in a riding arena. Get us into a natural setting and the shadows from the trees, mingled with shades of green everywhere, make the terrain indistinct and logs for jumping unclear. Recently Chaco's moon blindness, common in Appaloosas, makes navigation anywhere unfamiliar difficult and even familiar paddocks have issues. Is the gate opened or closed? Are there sheep in the path? One small concession has been to leave the horse's chin and nose whiskers untrimmed. Better to feel his way around than walk into a wall. Not sure how long we can go on like this, but hesitant or not, his personality still seems intact. Where's dinner?!

Bezel is our grumpy old man that likes to sleep in farmer Greg's lap all evening even though I swear that cat has just finished sleeping all day. His black face and fur are flecked with gray. His coat is rough and needs a good brushing, but he hisses and growls when I pull at the mats. Our young cat, Bubba, preys on Bezel for play until Bezel screams like a little girl , never defending himself, just screaming at the outrage. His casual sleep style, 20 out of 24 hours a day, will probably prolong Bezel's life longer than most country cats. He has turned over all mouse catching to Bubba and the most effort he makes is to follow us on walks, sometimes, into the forest with his little belly swaying back and forth. I get so nervous we might lose him in the woods, I often carry him half way home.

Patches will probably not make it until spring. At 16, she has lived a good life, especially on the farm where she proved that shepherd breeds instinctively know how to push a flock of sheep. For years she saved us running long and wide, but now, because her hearing has gone she is as likely to send the sheep away as she is to push them in the right direction. She still comes on walks with me in the morning but we need to keep an eye on her off trail. She has a hard time getting over downed trees and sometimes walks off the wrong way. Her coat is matted and she is underfoot in the house. She steals the cat food when she can and empties waste baskets if we leave the house for any length of time. We have been dosing her with pain killers for her hips, but now wonder if we are prolonging a life of agony. She's been a good dog and has been a favorite of our guests and their children when she camps out on their deck for hours on end. I'm sure the hand-outs from little kids hasn't hurt.

I hate it that our animals may need us to do the right thing when the right thing is to end their life. I can't even count the pills left in the jar for Patches. We agreed that when they were gone we would not continue a life without quality. But, what's quality? A car ride? A walk in the woods? A soft dog bed? This will be a hard one but I think she is close to telling us. The best I can hope is a farm death, where the last thing she sees is her familiar bed, friendly faces, and the light being turned off.

Vet Liz, the neighbor, the cynical vet, has suggested we just dig a very large hole in the pasture if death passes over our geriatrics all at once. It's gallows humor, I know. I want to remember that our animals have been lucky in their lives. They have galloped across big fields. They have swum in creeks and walked high on mountain trails. They have had gourmet mouse meals. They have been brushed and fed and allowed to sleep places they aren't allowed. And they have all provided wonderful companionship, and loyalty, and character to our human lives. It's our responsibility to take care of them the best we know and can. That's our solemn promise - to watch out for them and do the right thing no matter how sad the end, or how wonderful the memories.

Photos: top- Moralecia grazes behind her much younger suitor, Tater; top middle- Chaco in the back pasture; bottom middle- Bezel asleep in a blanket on the couch; bottom- Patches hanging out on the cabin deck (photo taken by a guest and sent to us!)

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Middle of the Night Farm Anxiety

It's the opposite of counting sheep for sleepy time. I now count sheep in the middle of the night and wonder how I am going to cover the cost of hay because my lambs never sold this fall. A bad economy means folks eat hamburger, not steak, and certainly not lamb. I do the math in a semi-conscious state, and in the dark, when problems are most dire, I don't have a good solution. Luckily, Annie is coming up with some alternative plans of her own in the restless night.

As any insomniac will tell you, there are always other things one can worry about. Will the turkeys blow off their roost since they refuse to come under cover at night? Will the raccoons eat the turkeys for the same reason? Is there enough room for the ram lambs in the orchard loafing shed? When is it time to start pruning the trees and the vines? Will Annie get into vet school? How much longer will our old dog live or will we have to make that decision? Multiple anxieties work better in the dark, and the darker the anxiety the better.

It's not that I am an insomniac. I actually hate to be awake at night thinking about things. I prefer to dream my anxieties into other kinds of stories. Sometimes I even dream of my solutions! For instance, what if we were to buy another freezer and have our lambs processed by a USDA facility? Then I could sell by the cut for a higher price. And, if the lamb didn't sell, we would have food for years!

With Craig's List as a free source for advertising, this idea doesn't seem that nightmarish. We had recently talked about putting our freezer in the barn so our new solar panels could power it. I'm not sure if my guests would be put off looking either into the freezer for lamb to eat or out the large, open, barn window at lambs playing in the loafing shed. Maybe we don't want to go there just yet.

By the morning light, USDA processing seems a better solution than several more tons of $5 hay. $65 per lamb times 20 lambs will cost $1300. If I can then sell the meat for an average of $7 per pound, at 400 pounds, I should net $1500. Add in the cost of a new bench freezer at $400 and I am down to a profit of $1100.

On the other hand, if I decide to sit on the lambs until they gain more weight I will have to bring in hay. Three tons of hay (120 bales) at $5 each will cost $600 - money just going down their little gullets, while the months tick off until the time when they are no longer considered lamb, but mutton.

As a sheep friend cautioned me, "Why are we paying for people to eat our sheep?!" Of course, she not only decided to handle the butchering herself, she also put the price up at $11 per pound wrapped and she gets it! Could have something to do with the fact she is gorgeous, Icelandic,...and so are her sheep. But, hey, all power to her!

I've made a call to the USDA processor up near Portland and also to my friend, Cody, who will haul my lambs. I've also called a local processor to compare pricing. Works out cheaper to haul 100 miles than to have the non-USDA guy come to the farm. Makes no sense. Problem is, I can't get scheduled for another month!

I feel my anxiety amping up and imagine when I awake in the middle of the night to the snoring of the old dog and the farmer, there has to be a solution lurking in the dark, if only I can dream it.

Photo: Lambs in the loafing shed at the end of the barn

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2010 Scottie Jones

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