Trip Planning

Gibson, the pup who arrived in the fall, sort of ended up in my lap without a lot of prior planning. He was an unexpected opportunity that I couldn’t leave behind.

The pup I have planned for is in Montana and I’m heading there to see the litter next week. It seems crazy to have two pups at once but sometimes it’s the way things work out.  I’m going with the flow and open to seeing where it leads.

Allen has decided to come with me, which means getting this place ready to leave it. One bonus of managing as we do is that with a little extra prep ahead of time we can make it very simple for someone to come and take care of.

I spent the morning rolling out enough hay to last for the time we’re gone. Someone will visit in the mornings to feed guard dogs and open the gate for the sheep. Someone else will visit in the evening, gather the flock with the help of his Border Collies, feed guard dogs again and close the gate for the night.

The adult stock dogs are being boarded. And Gibson, who is six months old will travel with us.

So next week there will be a lull in posts.

When I return I’ll introduce both pups in full.

LGD Artwork

Artwork is an activity I reserve as a winter pass-time. Thus each winter I restart and dabble a little bit. Then put it aside come spring when life gets busier. The drawback of stopping and starting with artwork is that it takes me several pieces to feel my way back into my method.

With this winters restart I find myself feeling more and more drawn to drawing and my perspective has shifted from art as a pass-time to art as another avenue to share. This year is the first time I am contemplating the possibility of not setting it aside come spring but making time for it year round.

This winter restart is also the first time I have found myself with so many ideas passing through my head that the challenge has become deciding which subject pieces to work on first; the sheep, the guardian dogs, the kelpies ??? I want to draw them all.

Well, I opted for some pictures of the livestock guardian dogs to get me going, as these dogs speak to me on such a deep level.  Just for the purpose of sharing, here are my first few, rough, restarts into my form of creativity.

Off to Work


Pups Cautious Approach

Adolescent LGD's

Whiskey and Diesel are sliding into that challenging phase of raising LGD’s.

Until now their antics have included jockeying around the food bowls and placing their feet on us. They’ve been testing each other. Standing tall and placing a chin over the other’s back; giving an ever so slight hip check to the sibling in order to get the human attention first, and when feeling very sure of themselves, trying to mount the other.

Yesterday when out in the neighbouring paddock with the horses I could hear a very obvious guardian dog commotion going on. But it wasn’t the raw, primal and fur choked sounds of dogs fighting dogs. It was booming barks and, from a distance, what looked like dogs bouncing.

I made my way closer to see what was happening and could see that the game involved sheep. I gave a holler - the game paused and then continued. I ran to the fence, saving my voice for when I got closer.

The pups were harassing a ram, keeping him cornered and dashing at him. Pulling wool if they got close. To them a lot of fun. To me a more serious business that couldn’t be allowed to continue. The dogs stopped with my running approach, the unfortunate thing being I still wasn’t close enough to catch them in the midst of doing what they were doing. But I figured I was soon enough to still verbally chastise them.

We noticed a similar incident when we first put the rams out. The second morning we found a rather wool tattered and tired ram. He had obviously been a dogs toy for some duration during the night. That day as the flock traveled to pasture, Diesel gave chase to the same ram.

There is some connection to the pups behavior and the rams. It’s the first time the pups are experiencing breeding season. The pups do not seem content with the rams being amongst their ewes.  The rams only have breeding ewes on their mind and they can be aggressive.

It will not suffice to let the pups behavior toward the rams continue but I do feel for the pups. In time we will sort it out. But it will take time. We are just entering this LGD adolescent phase. It’s bound to be a learning curve for the both of us.

Flushing Ewes

To expand from the last post with a few of the things that we don’t do.

We do not do any flushing of ewes prior to breeding.

Every time I say that, I can see the eyebrows raising.  Here’s my simplistic reasoning.

Animals will naturally increase or decrease reproduction based on available nutrition. Scaling back in lean years and returning to normal reproductive rates in good years. Flushing is a bit of an attempt to replicate good years.

The primary reason for flushing seems to be to bring ewes into better condition in the hopes of increasing ovulation.

To me the weak link is that this would dictate that ewes are in poorer condition prior to flushing. While there may certainly be lean years on the ranch where animals might be feeling the pinch and therefore lose condition, this is not going to be the norm.

So our approach is to try to prevent the poorer condition from happening in the first place. If animals are already in good condition coming into breeding, flushing has less affect.

As I see it, there are a couple of key points in managing good condition year round. Grass and minerals.

We keep our ewes on grass and the last few years we have had grass aplenty. But grazing management will determine the grass outcome and will even affect how nutritious the grass is. Better grazing management leads to better nutrition, leads to better health and condition.

We make our own mineral mix. This basics of our mineral program can be found in the book Natural Sheep Care by Pat Coleby.  I’ll expand on how we do our minerals in another post.  Suffice it to say here that minerals are linked to breeding success.  Indeed this is probably why flushing does work when animals are in poorer condition. There will be an increase of minerals with an increase of power packed foods typically used for flushing.

I guess in summary I am banking on good health, good condition and a solid mineral program to net me more in the way of lambs than I believe flushing alone will.

I do not feel there is anything wrong with flushing and I don’t doubt it works in many operations. I can’t help but wonder though, that if more operations were grass based if flushing would become less popular.

And lastly, it is very noteworthy to say that our goal here is natural production, not maximum production.  Always respect your own goals by aligning your own practices with them.

Celebrating The Things We Don't Do

I have realized that a big part of why I share what we do, and why it seems to generate interest, has as much to do with what we don’t do as it does with what we do.

In hindsight this was also a driving force behind my website ranching-with-sheep.

There are a lot of practices shared in sheep raising books and by Ag extension experts, deemed necessary in raising sheep, that we do not do. There are a lot of routine measures that are considered normal sheep care that we do not do (flushing, whole flock worming, feeding grain, housing sheep.... to mention a few).

Sometimes the practices just didn’t feel right and left us with more questions and little satisfaction. Sometimes we just wanted to see if we could find an alternative. Sometimes we just knew the practice was completely impractical. Sometimes we were desperate for another way. Sometimes the problems we faced with our flock left us no option but to try. And sometimes the pure unnaturalness of the practice sent us seeking something else.

What we don’t do; what we are not willing to accept as status quo, what feels off to us, is worthy of examination and celebration.

No matter what aspect of farming or ranching you take on, no matter how small or how large scale, be it growing herbs, grains, raising poultry, or heritage livestock breeds, what you don’t do forms what you do.

The practices that don’t sit well with us, need to be looked at further. Embrace them. They will shape the direction you take with your farm. They will lead you on as much as the well known reasons for why you do what you do.

Cold Factor and Kelpies

It has turned very cold, the air is crisp and clear. We are under wind chill warnings (approaching minus forty).

I’m wearing llama socks on my feet, a wool sweater on my back, and a couple layers worth of clothing in between. That’s for around the house. Going outside requires a further ten minutes worth of getting dressed in assorted layers, head and hand gear.

It sounds like squeaking styrofoam when we walk on the snow. A few hundred sheep walking on the snow is loud. Sound carries further and everything contracts, even the wires on the power lines, making them tight with no sag - looking like they are about to snap. The animals living outside expend a lot of their food energy to stay warm.

The Ranger would not run this morning so we headed out in the truck. It was a welcome treat to roll out hay and then get back into a warm vehicle.

Since we were using the truck, we took the pup with us for the ride. Gibson hasn’t been out to pasture with us yet since it’s so cold riding on the open Ranger.

He has seen sheep on the opposite side of the fence but not this many of them trotting past to go to feed and not cows with them. This was something entirely new. He barked at the big, black cows as they passed the truck, then barked at all the moving sheep. Then barked at the guard dogs when they came running toward the truck. He’s full of bark lately (and leather from eating my slipper). Yes, this is my next ranch dog.  :)

The Ranger did run this afternoon, thanks to one of those men who can make anything run.  Thankfully it was a shorter ride as the cold even convinced the sheep to come in on their own. They were already in the night pen, rooting in the bedding, when we headed out to gather. 

Wickedly Windy

Snow sculpted by the wind
The wind blew relentlessly today. It roared, howled, whistled and sculpted the new snow that came with it. The more it blew the colder it seemed to get. It seemed a good day to spend inside with my drawing pencil.....

The dogs and I still took our usual just-before-sunrise morning walk; there isn't much that causes me to miss a walk. After that I was off to tend to the sheep.

The sheep did not follow me out to pasture. I went ahead without them and rolled out feed. They still had not moved when I came back. I decided to leave them, thinking their stomachs would lead them out when they were ready.

Next I went over to the barn paddock and opened panels to the front of the barn so the animals there could come in out of the wind. We keep them out of the barn otherwise but this weather called for some shelter.

Trail to pasture blows in quickly
At noon I was back outside to see if the flock had found the feed I rolled out. They had moved but only into a different sheltered spot. No one had been out to eat.

Thankfully I had thought to bring Jayde along with me. A little push from a Border Collie was all it took to start them on their way out. Then they followed the Ranger the whole way. I lifted some of the swath of hay with a pitchfork since it was now buried in the snow. Once the sheep were started on it they did fine digging the rest out.

Then off on the Ranger again, this time to load up a few square straw bales and drop them off in the night pen area for the guard dogs to use tonight.

Later it was out for the second walk with dogs, duly needed when living with kelpies and there is no extensive stock work.

Shortly after that it was time to bring in sheep for the night. I thought they would come willingly as usual, and besides, coming in meant moving with the wind which is much easier than going into it. I left the dogs at home rather than subject them to the cold and wind. Since the sheep only had a half days worth of feeding they were reluctant to move away from the hay. I wanted my dog.

I was tempted to leave the sheep where they were; they would be okay and would bed down on the hay. But I felt I had to follow routine so I pushed them home and was appreciative of the work stock dogs do. They make it look effortless.  The sheep traveled through the night pen (gates are open to allow access to water) and to the same bush they had found this morning. Again I found myself tempted to leave them there.

Feed the guard dogs and make quick straw beds for them next to the wind break in the night pen area. Head back to the house to get Jayde. Move the flock out of their bush and into the night pen area and around the wind break, out of the wind. Wait a moment to be sure guard dogs find their beds. They do and instantly curl up in them.

Head over to the barn paddock and move the sheep there up in front of the barn. Take a distant look across the pasture and spot the ewes lambs. They have ample shelter from the wind in their spot so I don’t bother walking out to check on them. Dark is very near, it’s time to go in for the night and call this wickedly windy day done.

Peaceful Pace

The peaceful pace of winter continues. The rams have settled into their pecking order and into the business of breeding. During the first couple of days with the ewes the rams are full of energy and things are hectic and frantic as they are each vying for the ewes that are in heat. As their energy wanes so does their desire to expend it fighting over ewes.

During breeding this year we have three groups of animals. The main flock which travels out and back to pasture every day. A flock of hand selected ewes who are with the purebred Clun Forest ram lambs. And the ewe lambs who are seperated so they do not get bred. Cows are with the main flock. Horses and llamas are with the hand selected breeding group.

Chores are pretty simple and accomplished by early-mid morning. Evening gathers with Cajun are now a welcome part of the day. A sign that I am leaving behind our struggles and growing into this dog again. I have not attempted any other training with him. Something tells me to wait.

This morning I spent some time sitting on the ground with the ewe lambs, trying to get a few head shot pictures.  Sheep are so curious when you sit with them. I rarely feel so observed than when I am sitting in the company of sheep. They watch and watch, even when it looks they are not.

LGD Pups at 10 Months Old

Whiskey and Diesel are just shy of ten months old. They are just about as big as Oakley is and Oakley is well over one hundred pounds.

They are still working out on pasture with Oakley, Glory, and Lady.

They are working well and since a lot of how a guard dog turns out depends on how it is raised, it is satisfying to see that one has done a least a decent job of it. 

We often see Whiskey scanning the horizon and watching intently. Especially when the flock arrives out on pasture in the AM. We see him perched on top of bales. He will travel with Oakley and Glory and will leave the pasture with them when they feel compelled to pursue something. Although he returns to the flock in short order, often before the other two. He is very approachable and likes attention but is far less pushy than his brother is.

Diesel is more of a follower than a leader. He remains pretty close to the flock with Lady. He once received a great shock from the electric fence, right on his nose, and since has never attempted to cross the wires, even though the other dogs do. He likes to receive attention.

Both pups are still lead by their stomachs and are always waiting at the main gate when we come to feed. We have to continually remind them about manners at feeding time. Oakley is firm with them, not letting either of them try any tricks like looking at his food.

They co-habitate well together. I was expecting more sibling rivalry between the two of them by this age but maybe that is yet to come. They do have arguments but seem to settle themselves quickly. All in all, we are pretty pleased with them.

LGD Willow

A short time ago, in a moment of bravery, I opened the gate and let Willow join the guard dog pack on pasture. Previous fights between Willow and Glory had me wondering if it was a wise move but I felt that things had shifted in the pack and it was time to try again.

The initial interactions between the two females were stiff and each kept an eye on the other. They weren't going to be friends but seemed willing to leave each other alone, or at least watch one another from a distance.

For the next week I let Willow work on pasture during the day but placed  her back with the rams overnight. I was okay with how this was going and felt hopeful that finally we could let Willow join this pasture pack for good.

In the end it wasn't fights between the females that ended Willows stint on pasture and left me disappointed. I want Willow to have the increased work and the companionship of the other guard dogs, both of which come with being out on pasture. But Willow's true colors came through and once comfortable on pasture she began to leave it. She took to wandering, a practice she learned as a younger dog from a male dog which we no longer have.

So Willow is back with the ewe lambs in a smaller paddock more securely fenced than pasture fence. And she wants out - I think because she is bored and that she wants to be with the other dogs; particularly the two Anatolian pups, Whiskey and Diesel, who spent considerable time with her as pups. I feel so sad for her. Since I can't place her on pasture with the other dogs perhaps I have to consider another pup or dog to stay with her.

Latching onto Labels

I do not strictly follow holistic management texts yet a lot of what I do is holistic.

I do not follow organic trends yet many of my approaches are gleaned from organic farmers.

I do not consider myself a naturalist yet all my farming practices take into consideration a natural approach.

Natural, organic, holistic, industrial, conventional, factory
- they are all labels of farming. Yet farming is a difficult practice to stuff into one label, nor should it be.

If we get too rigid about about practicing one method of farming, or one method of training stock dogs or one method of art.... the list goes on, we can find ourselves pigeon holed into the boundaries of that method. We become blind to the options presented by other methods. Our buffet of choices is severely limited by that blindness. We think we are thinking outside the box when in fact we don't see outside of the box and therefore, we don't expand into a full expression of ourselves.

Nature is far too dynamic for there to be only one way to do something. At some point the goal needs to be more that fitting into a label. At some point we need to grow in a manner that reflects the relevance of our own self, rather than the relevance of a label.

Simple Suitable Work

Cajun is still the dog I take to pasture in the evening for gathering the flock. There is a lot of ground to cover but the work is short and simple.

I am not training him to any particular skill but rather building the number of opportunities to do thoughtful, meaningful work in order to build his confidence.

He has no trouble with the distances and loves to cover ground. Because this is a nightly routine the sheep are familiar with, the ewes readily move where we need them to go which is just what Cajun needs right now.

When he gathers he is beginning to look for sheep which is lovely to see.

If I take a moment to get into his mind before I send him, he'll do a thoughtful job. If I let him go when his intention is hurried and rushed, he is more likely to do something rash.

Counter to Cajun, Jayde is the dog I use to push to the ewes into the night pen each night. She has gathering down pat, so she can use the variety of work that this presents, some of which Cajun is not up to yet.

So while the work for each is not extensive right now there is simple, suitable work for each dog, every night. It is work we are all enjoying.

Year of Stock Dogs

I am looking forward to an upcoming year of working the stock dogs.

Jayde is the reliable standby chore dog. She has a good foundation and some solid, basic, farm work skills. I'm hoping to push her a little further and do more with her - like figuring out how to shed.

Last fall, Cajun and I hit a wall and completely crumbled and since then have slowly been working our way through that. There are many challenges ahead of me with this dog. Some days it feels daunting but most days it feels entirely possible.

Gibson has arrived and while his training will be pretty light this presents the thrill of molding a new dogs first few attempts at working livestock.

And probably the best part, although sometimes the hardest one to accept, is the confrontations I'll face about myself and the insights the dogs will present me with along the journey.

LGD's and The Cows

I captured these photos one sunny morning a couple weeks ago. I was pleased to see the dogs and the cows close together. Proof that the guard dogs are adjusting to the cows being with the flock.

This is Whiskey with the bull in the background. 
In the next picture it is Lady who is lying next to Whiskey which is quite remarkable considering she is the one who made the largest commotion about cows being near her sheep.

The cows and the sheep graze together and they are each very used to the other. Our calves grow up with ewes and lambs. The cows  know to come with the flock when feed is being rolled out. Sheep graze right next to and sometimes almost under the cows. A few ewes even move around the pasture with the cows rather than the other members of their flock.

We let the cows determine whether or not they get night penned. If they happen to be off on their own in the evening when we gather, we just let them be. They always catch up with the flock the next morning at feeding and we are not nearly as concerned about predators bothering the cows right now. 

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