A Rare Life

Sometimes I fall into the trap of routine, where the days become ordinary and I glamorize how exciting everyone else's life is.

Ordinary is a rather dangerous place to exist in. I take for granted what I have and where I am. My eyes forget to see, my ears forget to hear and my mind forgets to be aware.   

Finding the remarkable amidst my everyday-ness is a mental task I still have to be reminded of. Blessedly I seem to receive such reminders precisely when they are most needed.

This week I have been reminded that I live in the middle of a prairie landscape, no neighbours in sight, only the occasional noise of human population, earth beneath my feet, a blanket of prairie sky above. I work with animals everyday, I work with people only occasionally.

With the partnership of a dog or two I walk over five hundred animals to grass a mile away and gather them and bring them home again every evening.

In today's urban sprawl and rushed society, this is not an ordinary life. It is a rare one.

LGD Gratitude

I usually take the Ranger out to the pasture for the evening gather of the flock. Tonight I chose to walk the mile out. I’m in a very disjointed frame of mind and needed the long walk. I got it, since there was also all the walking done when gathering in the hilly terrain with the dogs and walking home again.

On the way out to pasture coyotes began to bark and sing. Instantly there was an uproar of barking from the guardian dogs. Flock and dogs were still out of sight but walking gave me the opportunity to listen to the conversation.  I tried to pick out individual vocals and their location but wasn’t quite sure. In very short order it sounded like all barks were coming from the same place. But there is a deep serious bark in there which I’m sure belongs to one of the pups.

On the way home with the flock the guardian dogs were all over the place. Having caught the trail of some trespasser they were nose to the ground and off to follow it. Lady shows up shortly and moves with the flock. Just as the flock passes through the last gate, Whiskey and Diesel come along, together as always and likely thinking of their stomachs since they get fed once we arrive at the night paddock. Oakley came up a short time later, heavily panting and now moving slower. Glory could still be heard far away in the neighboring paddock.

A lot of creatures move around in the fall and it is the time of year when the guardian dogs work hard. We’re thankful for them and full of gratitude that they’re here.

Simple Accomplishments

My first ever attempt at drawing with wool. The proportions are not quite spot on, the details need help, the background not quite the right choice for the subject.

It makes me smile.

Several months ago I came across the fibre art form of needle felting. I felt as though I had stumbled across a long awaited art medium. I knew right away I would have to try it. It seemed that a better fit couldn’t be found. A nature loving sheep rancher and wanna be artist, drawing working dogs and sheep with the very natural fibre that wool sheep produce.

Instantly, I had all kinds of future art images dancing in my head.

And then I put them aside. Such as often happens with things that taste too new.

Yet I couldn’t leave it alone. I returned and took the first and most challenging leap.

From there, I made a few attempts at something I knew nothing about. I struggled with having to  let go of details. I gave up part way.  I returned.

And this is the result. It makes me smile inside and out.

Nature's Calm

It was gloriously calm this morning during my AM walk with the dogs.

Everything so still, not even the feather light, paint brush leaves of a few stray foxtail plants in the ditch were moving. The far off cry of migrating geese, the occasional bark of a distant guardian dog, heard crystal clear. The crunch of our footsteps on the road punctuating the morning and announcing our passing, loud and clear, to all things listening.

The wind picked up not too long after and blew strong and heady all day. By evening though, the calm returned and the place settled into a beautiful stillness again. Like the wind brought back what it blew out.

Ironically it is the calm, not the storm, which causes me to feel a decided sense of smallness in this vast, dynamic place.

It seems extraordinary to me, how the dynamic, communal force of Mother Nature can be so still and in that very stillness be exceptionally dynamic.

A Note On Cajun

So I have been putting Cajun back to work on a very casual basis and on a small group of sheep.

He is still very keen and the issues we were having before our crash and burn are still there. Funny that now I’m glad to see those issues. He still wants to sacrifice balance to get to the heads.  He is very reactive and explodes in tight or tense situations. We have fast or we have slow with maybe I will, maybe I won’t. Not much medium pace in between.

I try very hard to work the dog I have each day. It’s a regular challenge but in this case it seems to be an even bigger one as I try to leave what happened behind.

The flock has been moving back and forth from pasture to night pen for a couple weeks now. The move is routine, especially the morning walk out. So I decided to let Cajun do the walk out this morning. The bonus about the flock being bedded down together overnight is that, in the morning, they are often a nice loose group which makes for an easier gather. He accomplished this well and the flock, knowing the routine willingly filed out and we headed out to pasture.

During the walk out, Cajun checked in often, lifting his head or momentarily standing on his back feet, needing to know where I was. There is a lot of animals between him and I, and often he is out of sight of me. I guess he needed the reassurance. He came up pretty far on the side on occasion, always on the left, but took the cue to go back around well enough. He kept the back of the flock tucked up and took a long flank to stop the drift at a draw between two sloughs. That was lovely really.

Blessedly, we moved the flock smoothly without trouble, which is the experience I was intent on creating for him today.

The job was good for him, he felt it and I did too.

earlier photo courtesy of Cathy Bishop

Nomadic Moves

The daily moves with the flock have already become routine for the dogs, the sheep and me. It does mean we have a curfew since the days are planned in between taking the flock out to pasture in the AM and being around to bring them back in the PM. And we go rain or shine. The shiny days being much more pleasurable, of course.

It was only last year that we had to night pen the flock for the very first time ever and doing so was new and stressful for me and the dogs. I wondered how, if it went like that every time, I’d manage to do it every day.

This year the task of walking a large flock of sheep to grass and back home, and the routine-ness of it, causes it to feel very nomadic to me. I often enjoy it, even on the less than shiny days. Perhaps that’s because I have a couple good dogs who hung in there and who make it seem easy. The stock dogs and the routine move have created a very agreeable flock for moving.

While I enjoy the nomadic feeling of shepherdess leading her flock across a mile of prairie, in truth it is just as often one of these guys who does the real leading.
Lady in the lead as the flock spills from the night paddock
Often, if one of the guard dogs is in the lead and stops at a gateway, the entire flock stops and waits for the dogs decision to move or not. And just as often I have called a guard dog to lead the flock through a gateway or suspicious area.
Lucas in the lead (now a photo for memory)
Whiskey traveling with the flock
Whiskey is often right with the sheep during a move. Unlike Diesel, who is often scouting ahead or behind. Notice that in the above photo there is another dog on the top side of the flock.

The four adults out in front, suspicious and looking alert
Arriving at the paddock. PJ and Glory in the rear
The llama is often at the rear. She does not like to be crowed by short sheep who can almost fit underneath her belly.  The dogs occasionally stir up a fox or a raven along the trek and when we move into a new paddock they will take off to patrol further. If the flock has been on the paddock for a day or two the dogs meander around with less concern about patrolling, unless a fresh scent catches their attention.

Cooking Up Liver

When I only had a few dogs, I fed them a raw diet, yet ironically, since moving to the farm, I no longer do so.  How is that???

I’d still prefer to feed an entire raw diet but now I don’t have the time to butcher enough animals for several large dogs. I’d be butchering every second or third day.  Buying commercial raw food is too expensive.  So I settle with supplementing their diet of kibble by feeding raw meat and bones whenever I can.

There is one thing I seem to have an abundance of though. And that is, beef liver. Every time my father in law butchers, he saves the organ meat. This equates to a lot of beef livers stockpiled in my freezer, that I need to do something with because I don’t like feeding the dogs too much raw liver.

So liver treats it is. One ice cream pail of liver, some flour, corn meal or oats, plus some added kelp and alfalfa powder, cooks up into four very full ziploc bags of liver treats. I have several pails of frozen liver so it looks like I’ll be making a lot of liver treats this winter!

Taste Tester!

Somedays It Isn't All Sunshine and Roses

We have lost one of the guardian dogs.

Lucas died this morning.

We found him late yesterday afternoon. He was not with the flock but was in the adjacent paddock, along a regularly used trail and about half way home, if that’s where he was trying to get to. He was badly injured with multiple puncture wounds and a couple minor tears. However, there were no gross injuries that we could see. His gums were pale in color. He was weak.

We took him home and placed him in the house since it was cold and raining out. We clipped the blood soaked areas of his coat (which was mostly his hind end), searched for wounds, cleaned them with antiseptic and bandaged him as best we could. We gave him a shot of penicillin for infection. He took a long drink of water. His gums returned to a more normal pink color. We placed him in a dog crate to rest. We felt secure in the choice to let him be for the night and take him to the vet clinic the next morning.

But the next morning he was still very weak and he died before I could get him to the vets.

We have no idea who tied into him. There are no injuries on any of the other dogs. Not a single nick, although Glory had some dried blood on her face and Oakley has a tiny spot of blood on his side, like he might have brushed against Lucas. We found dog fur in the paddock where the flock grazes so it seems the incident started there. But why or over what, we have no idea. I suspect Glory instigated something as I have watched and wondered about her and know that she’s a tough cookie. Or just maybe, he tangled with a coyote or two.

But I don’t want to ponder all the possibilities and implications right now. I want to get back to the person I was before this day and to a peaceful co-existence amongst everyone. I want to declare this will never happen again but I know guardian dogs better than that. I want to salve my hurt by telling you it was a heroic run in with a coyote. I want to forget this morning happened, and at the same time, I want to break down and spill the agony that is lapping at the surface.

Culling Ewes

In the fall we sell our lambs and we also select and sell cull ewes. We did that this week.

We spent one morning eyeballing the members of the flock and doing the very tough job of deciding who goes. Culling animals is something that is simple to write about but not so simple to do.

We cull the bottom enders in the flock every year. Some of those animals were selected earlier in the year for good reason, and some are obvious culls now, but selecting those who are good sheep but just not quite up to program par, makes it difficult to stick to ones cull criteria. Particularly when one is walking around a pen full of animals, looking them in the eye and deciding their fate.

The other difficulty of culling animals is agreeing with ones ranching partner on said cull criteria! When two people are selecting culls you realize pretty quickly if you really share the same goals for the flock.

The sorting of culls meant a morning of work for Jayde and Fynn. The dogs would bring the group of sheep to fill a small pen and then have to wait while we went through that group, marked and hand sorted. Then they would bring the next group in and so on until we made our way through the whole flock.

Once we were done with the sorting, the flock still needed to be walked out to pasture and the now seperate cull ewes taken to another paddock. We had an arrangement for hauling the next day but that fell through and was put off until next week. So the cull ewes will remain here for a few days before loading out.

Little Mound of Green

Look at this amazingly green mound amongst the sea of brown.

This is a small mound of dirt and rock the lambs loved to climb on when they were in this pasture. It hardly looks worth the climb but they sure liked this mound. And now look at it. Brilliant green in October. I think some animal impact is at work or that mound has extra good dirt or rock mineral beneath it.

If we could do the same with the rest of our pasture pieces we’d be getting somewhere with our grazing management. For that to happen we need either a lot more sheep or smaller paddocks to realize the same effect. I’m game for a lot more sheep because I don’t relish doing that much more fencing. There are times when I feel this place is just too damn big - fencing is one of them.

Here’s another photo; this one was taken back in August.

This is one of the paddocks we used as a night pen last fall, and we did some winter feeding here as well. The dogging sheep have been hanging out here most of the summer so they have the grass mowed down pretty hard. You can see the darker green grass along the back and the strip running along the right side. This is where bales were placed and rolled out, therefore is where animals congregated to eat; stepping with hooves and depositing urine and manure in the process.

There is merit to grazing management if one can do it. Noticing these little occurrences, fuels my desire to see what this land can really do with the help of a few ruminants.

Willow Greets The Rams

I cut the dogging sheep down to twelve animals, letting the really dogged ones rejoin the flock and keeping only light ones for work with the stock dogs.

The rams and wethers were moved over to another field to keep them well away from the ewes. Since the dogging sheep are in a more securely fenced paddock I moved Willow out with the rams. This gives her more work to do, which she needs.

The boys have been with the horses all summer long, and the cows have been with them for the last month, but no dog has been with them for a long time. The rams are very flighty since they get handled so little. 

I had to convince Willow to ride on the Ranger so we could drive around to find them as walking to find them in the large field would take far too long. She complied and when we finally came in sight of the rams she seemed to understand why I brought her out and was eager to get off.  She went right toward them.

I thought she might startle them away but I need not have worried. This is her approach.

She ambles in, sideways to the group, body soft

Lies down and licks her lips
You can't see it in the above re-sized photo, but her tongue is out as she licks her lips.

One ram approaches and Willow extends her nose to greet
During the whole greeting Willow never gets to her feet but remains lying down.
She turns her head and lets the rams sniff

More sniffing and investigating

She greets another ram

All is well here

Fall Moves Begin

The predator pressure is increasing so we are night penning the flock again, as we did last fall. It will help us manage, allow the guard dogs to rest and hopefully, for the pups and the newcomer pair, Lady and Lucas, it will deepen the desire to stay with the flock.  One bonus of night penning.

Over the next couple months this will mean twice daily treks with the flock and lots of routine work for the stock dogs.

Yesterday afternoon we moved the flock to a paddock further South of the yard, so this morning was our first trek from the night pen to this paddock.

The morning dawned foggy and damp and was pretty pleasant although it looked otherwise. The early evening trek back to the night pen took place in heavy rain and howling winds. Not a pleasant evening to work outside moving livestock. Blessedly the sheep were cooperative enough and everyone is tucked away in the night paddock.

Photos from the AM move.

Fog and Drizzle Greet the Day

About half way along the half mile trek

There are two stock dogs behind that flock, keeping everyone moving, and the dark spot at the very back is a llama.

When we get close to the gate I'm able to catch a photo of Jayde and Fynn. Cajun is not on the job this morning.


Job done - We begin the walk home

Social Order of Our LGD Pack

Who's with who?

Whiskey and Diesel are still together often. When we arrive each AM and PM, they almost always approach together and come running. Lucas is often nearby. He seems to be a shadow figure to those pups. Hanging around nearby, yet we have never seen Lucas play with them.

Lady seems to be a rather particular dog. She often comes from an alternate direction on her own. She plays with the pups a little bit though. Often, after the pack eats, the pups will follow her somewhere.

Oakley is the social link of the pack. He is often with another dog or another dog (or two) is often with him, however, never Lucas.

Glory is the bold ruler of the group. She favors Oakley but is just as likely to be on her own as with one of males. The two females, Glory and Lady, are seldom seen hanging out together.

When perceived trouble alerts them, they all go into work mode. Depending on who barked and the nature of the bark the dogs will stand up and watch or move in for backup. Glory is quick to react. Lady too. The males get themselves to the nearest vantage point and decide from there what further action is needed. Whiskey and Diesel are young enough that they still follow the lead of the adults.

When we arrive on pasture we take notice of where the dogs come from. Since we have added dogs to the pack, there is now always two or three dogs on the near end and then singles or pairs at the far end.

However they work all that out, it seems to be suitable for them.

I've been trying to get a photo of all the dogs in one picture but there is always one or two either still at the far end of the pasture or keeping just outside the frame. They don't oblige with me sitting patiently for a photo session.

Lady is not in this photo. Nor is Willow because she works as a singleton, not with this pack.

Feeling Uncertainty

The sorted ram lambs are being held in a smaller paddock by the yard for a few days while we wait for arrangements on a truck to haul them next week.

After sorting them, there was bleating all around for the first afternoon and the next morning. Then everyone settled and it was quiet. The ewes went off to graze, far less concerned than their lambs were. The ewe lambs have it pretty good because they stay with the flock until breeding time approaches.

I’ve been frittering about trying to distract myself from thinking too hard about working dogs, Cajun in particular. I refilled the water bus and topped up mineral for the four groups of sheep we have at the moment, and checked on the cows and visited the horses. Then I made some phone calls and did some paperwork. Two applications to the Farm Stewardship Program are filled out. We buy our dog food wholesale so I made a trip to pick the latest order up.

Finally I did take Cajun out to work on a handful of sheep. He’s certainly still keen but definitely nervous. Lots of tension and gripping showing up and reluctance to move forward and make animals move. I think I’m going to have to go back to the very basics and re-build. I’m not sure I’m up to that, but I do think he deserves it. Or at least I’m not quite ready to give up on him yet. Maybe a break from work for the both of us is in order, while I sort out how to help this dog.

Popular Posts