Flock Moves

Whenever I write a sentence about moving the flock here or there, I am struck with how effortless, undemanding and immediate it sounds in writing. It is not. 

There is gathering the group on pasture which often takes the most time given the terrain, all the places for sheep to go unseen, and the number of animals to find. Once gathered, movement in the desired direction needs to happen. Starting the movement of a group of several hundred animals takes considerable effort, especially if they have set to milling and decided they don’t wish to go your direction.

Passing through gates with a large group is another task all its own. The lead animals will get well ahead and if they are turning a corner after the gate, it will draw the rear animals along the inside of the fence line, before they’ve passed through the gate. Lambs are particularly notorious for doing this. I’ve learned through a lot of botched attempts that bringing stragglers that are on the wrong side of the fence-line and pursuing the flock, back to the gate is an exhausting, frustrating task for human and dog. Better to be sure they all get through the gate in the first place.

Fall Move to Night Pen
When we are moving the flock from any pasture to the shed at the yard, there are at least two gates to navigate, often three. Stock dogs can be a real help or a real hindrance in this situation depending on their work tendencies and mine.  When I started using stock dogs I think I lost my cool most often when trying to navigate gates.

Once we’ve gathered the flock, traveled the route home, and negotiated all gates, there is still the task of convincing a large group of animals to move into a building. With the first few hundred animals in, the building seems pretty crowded to the remaining couple hundred. The lead animals are now convinced they need to turn around and come back out. Once again I have learned the most about doing this by having it not work on numerous occasions. I don’t know how I would I do it without the help of dogs.

Then there are all sorts of adventures that seem to happen to me on a regular basis.

Like gathering the flock and beginning the move off only to hear a far away bleat from two yearlings coming out of the bush. The premise of taking the many to the few is not the most efficient choice when it involves turning a few hundred animals around to pick up two.

Or following a trail home only to discover the low spot where it runs along the brush is under water and the lead animals are turning around and going elsewhere.

Or letting your mind wander a little too long as you walk with sheep (very easy to do) and trust your dog to keep up the back end. Then landing back in the present moment to find out your dog starting focusing straight in front of him and pushing a little to hard, thus ewes are dropping back and a handful are now left behind and because they have company they are content to go off to graze elsewhere.

Or that the guard dogs decide it’s time to play and the ewes scatter to avoid the ruckus.

My learning curve has been an amazing one.

Depending on which pasture the sheep are at, it can take upwards of an hour to gather, walk them home and file them into the shed. Getting them back out to pasture will take twenty minutes or less. On days that we are processing the whole flock the stock dogs will have worked an hour before we even get started with moving sheep in pens and through the race.

Summer Move to New Pasture
If we are moving the flock along a route they do not know there is more work to keep them headed in the desired direction. Once we travel a route three times, the ewes will know it. When moving in the springtime, or moving across a paddock with fresh regrowth, the challenge is moving ewes who want to stop to eat new grass. When moving from paddock to paddock for pasture rotations the ewes quickly become familiar with the reason for moving and lead ewes will often start the move just with a call or two from us. The stock dogs collect the far sheep who didn’t get the message about the move.

When moving I seldom concern myself with the guard dogs. If they are around, which nine times out of ten, they are, they move with the flock. If they are not they will soon return to discover their flock is gone.  I usually note which dogs I see but am not able to keep up with them on the move. The dogs take side trips along the route but always manage to end up at our final destination.

Vaccinating and Other Treatments

With shearing completed and the ewes now wool-less our next step is vaccinating. Since vaccinations are given by needle it is easier to do when there is only a short coat of wool on the animal. Shearing also revealed a few sheep Keds on the ewes so we also needed to treat with a product to rid them of these blood sucking insects.

We only see Keds every two or three years. Even though only a few Keds were spotted this year, we like to treat sooner, rather than later. It doesn’t take long for Keds to get out of hand. Treatment is via a liquid product, trickled alone the neck and back of the animal. If it needs to be done, right after shearing is the time to do it, since there is little/no fleece to hinder the product from doing its job.

In hindsight, I have been lax in keeping up with the complete mineral mix this winter and have been relying on the kelp to pull through. Sulphur is one of the components in my mix and sulphur is what prevents external parasites. Interesting that Keds showed up when sulphur wasn't always made available. I guess we could have treated the ewes by dusting sulphur along their backs but I didn't think of it before we started.

Having had a couple days to recover from shearing we decided to vaccinate and get it done. We adjusted our set up in the shearing shed, moving the alleyway from against the wall to out in the middle so that we could work on the side we favour and also sort ewe lambs off to the opposite side. This is one bonus of having portable panels, rather than fixed, for use in the indoor space. Yes, you have to move them but you can move them, thus suiting other purposes as well.

I wanted the ewe lambs sorted off because there are a group of them that I need for dog training and for an upcoming stock dog clinic and trial in May. Plus if they are all sorted now it will be simpler to give them their second vaccination in six weeks time. We won’t have to bring the entire flock in again to do so and returning a smaller group to the flock afterward is a pretty simple affair. 

We headed out to pasture on the Ranger, taking both Jayde and Cajun along. We want to be sure all the animals come in and the pasture they are on is an awful one for finding sheep on. It is hilly, it is incredibly rough due to being cultivated two years ago and then sitting idle, and it is full of tall residue that makes it difficult to find animals. Traveling on the Ranger makes it so much easier to check all the draws and corners where sheep can easily be missed by a person on foot and a dog. Eventually the goal is to swap the ranger for a horse but that’s another endeavor.  

Jayde and I were dropped off at the back of the pasture and began moving a group of sheep along a well used trail. Allen and Cajun continued on with the Ranger.

Jayde and I, and Allen and Cajun, met up again on the opposite side of the pasture, closer to the gate. Jayde was working nicely on her own and I just let her continue, noting how she readily pushes her sheep in the open space. Together we took the flock home. Once at the yard, Cajun was allowed to join her to help steer the flock into the shearing shed. Being that he had just watched sheep moving about for close to an hour while he rode along, he added a bit of jam - too much so really.

And so for the second time in a week we had the entire main flock in the shed (rams are elsewhere). Spring is the time our ewes see the building the most. After this they likely won’t be back in the shed for a few months.

It took Allen and I the full day to get all the ewes vaccinated and treated for Keds. We gave worming medication to 22 animals, thus also completing our usual springtime worming.

Cajun worked in the building, bringing sheep up to the race when needed and it was he and I who took the flock back to pasture again in the early evening.

A lot of work has happened in one week. Just the rams left to finish up with, oh, and the cows. We’ll tackle them and the few cows next week. Right now, I’m enjoying the very satisfied feeling of completing a couple major tasks and looking forward to a fun day of working stock dogs with friends on Sunday.

Shearing Details and Wool Harvest

For those readers like me, who like to know about and to see the set up at other people’s places, here are a few of our shearing shed and set up.

Our building is a long and narrow canvas hoop style building. We framed and put in both a garage door and a man door on the front end, plus we have a sliding door at the rear as another access and release point for animals. The hoop building was anchored onto a four foot pony wall. Along each long wall there are four tin panels we can remove for airflow. We are replacing the tin with plywood as we can afford to.

The building is used for shearing and for flock treatment days, so about five days a year in total. Otherwise it sits empty. I have recently started to use it for stock dog training when the weather is poor.

The above photo shows the shearing floor at the front end of the building. The race (alleyway) is set up right against the left wall, alongside the floor and will travel right to the front as well as extending further back into the building. You can see one of the window panels on the left. The green piece of equipment is the wool packer. Just to the right of it (off the photo) is an old wagon bed we use as a table and for holding backlog of fleeces.

This is how it is possible to hang six shearing machines. Allen built this rail the week before shearing.

It is adjustable front to back and in and out, so the shearers have flexibility of where to set up, allowing them to maximize on their individual shearing space. Our shearing crew absolutely loved it and also loved the solidly built plywood shearing floor (shown in first photo).

This is the sliding barn door at the rear of the building. It was also built the week before shearing (we like last minute work :) ) This little sliding door is so quaint. Nothing like a sliding barn door to make the place feel a little like a barn.

And lastly, besides cleanly shorn sheep, the result of all that work and three days of shearing was this:

We were able to haul our wool to a wool collection depot right away so away we went. The depot is about an hour away from us. Here wool bags are collected and stored until there is enough to make a semi truck load, at which time the full truck makes its way to the Canadian Cooperative Wool Growers out east. Once there, the wool is graded and the producer is paid accordingly, however, this process takes a long time. We won't see payment for this wool harvest until early 2013.

Shearing Logistics - Post III

Saturday morning Jayde and I were out shortly after 6 am to move sheep.

The rams could access a small piece of pasture from their paddock and this would mean they would be next to the sheep who will be returning to pasture. They were gathered and moved in to the paddock and I shut the gate to keep them there. That way they don’t share a fence line with the females (in particular the unbred ewe lambs who are mixed in with the group).

Next we collected the ewes who were shorn last night and the guard dogs who needed to go with them. We moved them back out to pasture. Then we came back to the group still being held in the shearing shed. We split this group in half. Keeping half of them in for the day and letting half of them out to eat. This meant putting a bale of hay in an adjoining paddock and moving them there to keep them seperate so that later on I didn’t have to sort them from the shorn ewes who would be released throughout the day. The ones eating would be brought in later, for shearing on Sunday. This was doable because it was sunny outside. If it were raining again we'd have to keep all remaining animals in.

Back in the shearing shed we moved panels to adjust to the now much smaller flock and pushed a handful of ewes into a small pen at the entrance of the race. Sheep were ready to go and Jayde and I went in for breakfast.

Afterward I was hauling a few supplies such as coffee perk, water and snacks up to the shed. Shearing school participants began arriving shortly before 8am. Then we were off and shearing for another day. The pace was considerably slower since people were here to learn how to shear so were not as proficient as the professionals. There was a lot of effort and sweat expended throughout the day.   

Sheep in the race while 1st shearing demonstration is given
Jayde was my work dog for today and for some reason she preferred to ring the group and I had trouble convincing her to push on them to move them forward. The ewes are also tired and hungry. In tighter quarters and working a sizeable group of sheep it is indeed a different type of work for the dogs.

Lunch was catered both Saturday and Sunday which was a sweet, sweet blessing. I didn’t have to do too much except rearrange my dining/living room to set up an extra table and gather enough chairs.

At the end of the day I had a chance to shear a ewe myself. I confess, I actually like doing it. There is a knack to holding sheep for ease of shearing and I was sure that if I got that figured out I could do this.

We worked until about 5 pm and everyone went their seperate ways for much needed rest.

Before stopping for supper Jayde and I were back outdoors to move sheep around again. The sheep who were out eating for the day were moved out of the way so the shorn sheep could pass through the paddock without mixing in with the others. The shorn sheep were gathered and taken out to pasture to join yesterdays group. When we returned from pasture we collected the eating group (the sheep to be sheared on Sunday) and moved them into the shearing shed for the night.

Shortly after that it was off to feed guard dogs and tuck in the ewes on pasture. Then some clean up of coffee and supplies and finally off to walk the stock dogs who patiently waited (well... played, dug holes and ran about) in the dog yard all day. 

Sunday morning there was no need to move sheep, however the cows walked through a gate and had to be moved out of the way. Sunday was basically a repeat of Saturday. The pace was a little quicker though and with only 115 sheep remaining we finished up mid afternoon. Once again at the end of the day I stepped in to shear another ewe. It took me about ten minutes to do so.

I used Cajun today and the work load was pretty light. When Cajun showed an inclination to do something about the ewes in the race by standing on his back legs and reaching over to top knot the last ewe I lifted him up and put him up on their backs. I have not yet taught my Kelpies to back and I don’t know a lot about it, but when I set Cajun up there he was quite relaxed with it. He kept reaching down to top knot the ewe beneath him. Our race wasn’t packed tight enough though, and when I encouraged him to walk forward he had to adjust too much to moving sheep and could not easily step along the backs. I didn’t want to overdo it and lifted him down to the ground. He wanted back up again so we repeated this a couple times and then I walked him away. I was happy as a clam with my dog.

After shearing was complete, there was all the take down and clean up (which we were still doing today). It was around 5:00 when the shearers were finally off to their next destination. Cajun and I moved the final group of sheep out to pasture and then brought the rams back to the barn paddock. Since the cows were now nearby we moved them in with the rams until we get the pasture gate they walked through fixed. The trailer load of wool bags was backed into the Quonset to keep it under cover overnight. We headed to the house, enjoyed some left overs for supper and before dark it was back out to take care of guard dogs and tuck up sheep for the night.

Shearing Logistics - Post II

Friday morning was foggy and dark, with threat of rain. Yet it wasn’t actually raining and we only had a small window of time in the morning to let the sheep eat for that day. Not all the sheep would be sheared today. The ones that were would be able to eat tonight. The ones that were not still had to be held in the building overnight for shearing school tomorrow. That means some were going to wait until tomorrow evening before they got a chance to eat. If at all possible they needed to get some food this morning.

I let the flock out of the shed first thing that morning. Around 9:30 am several ewes were lying down and chewing. To prevent them from eating any more Cajun and I pushed them all back into the shed which was quite a feat as by now the ewes were unwilling to go back in. 

While the ewes were outside I was busy inside again. Moving more panels around, setting up a second alleyway, and setting up a pen for the rams where we could easily release them up the alleyway to the shearing floor. Once that was done it was indoors to start preparing soup to feed the crew at supper and collecting items for hosting tomorrow. The outdoor toilet was moved up to the shearing shed and readied for the weekend.

Around noon it started to rain again. After lunch Cajun and I moved the rams from the Quonset up to the shearing shed and into their pen. All sheep were indoors and were dry.

The shearing crew arrived late in the afternoon and set up. Five shearing stations set up, the shearers alleyway to join to ours, wool table (old wagon bed) and the wool packer backed indoors, plywood set down over the muddy entrance, trailer to load wool bags backed into place.

We stopped for supper and began shearing around 6:30 pm. The rams were done first and were easily run down the race from their pen. Once they were done and outdoors, Cajun and I gathered and moved them off to another paddock where they could eat their first meal of the day and so that we didn’t have to worry about them mixing in with the ewes over the weekend. Then it was back in to the fire.

With five guys shearing the pace was hectic. Unfortunately we had three helpers back out on us, last minute. Cajun and I were working the flock keeping the race full of sheep. Allen and three others were run off their feet keeping up with collecting and packing wool.

In the back, I was also sorting the ewe lambs off to save them for the shearing school because they are a smaller size. I didn’t have my sort gate set up, so I’d pen a group of sheep and I’d manually sort small animals out. Then send the rest down the race. Cajun and I worked pretty frantically for the first while before we settled into the pace. 

Photo from 2011 (no time for picture taking this time)
Man that dog worked hard and when asked to push, he pushed. With where he is at I had to accept what he gave me and sometimes it felt pretty rodeo like, yet no animal was injured. There are several hundred animals indoors, and we’ve got one narrow place for them to go. It’s tight quarters for sheep and for dog. It’s very different work than moving the same several hundred animals on pasture where there is open room to move therefore they move more freely. 

When Allen or I had a moment of getting ahead with our respective jobs we’d each go help the other. So when I had the race full of sheep, I’d go up front and roll a few fleeces or grab a broom and clear the shearing floor of wool tags. Allen would come back and adjust a panel or help Cajun and I pen the next group of ewes.

It was fast, it was furious and it was over before I knew it but not before my body was long past exhausted. They stopped at 9:30 with 240 sheep sheared.

After that we started setting up for shearing school.

Shearing Logistics - Post I

Rather than re-cap the familiar sheep shearing day and photos I thought I’d share some of the behind the scenes logistics of shearing a mid sized flock and hosting a shearing course.

The shearing course is organized through our provincial sheep board. The same guys who do our shearing, run and instruct the shearing course.  We act as hosts, providing the place and the sheep. However, because we have too many sheep to get done during a two day instructional course, a crew of four to five arrive the day before to shear the first half of the flock or better. 

There are two criteria our shearers like when shearing sheep. Sheep with dry wool and empty bellies. When shearing happens over three days and you have several hundred animals this means a lot of juggling, especially if rain is threatening. You want to keep the sheep dry but you also want them to be able to eat up until you have to hold them off feed.

We woke last Thursday morning to snow on the ground and still falling. By 6:30 am Allen, myself and two dogs were bringing sheep through the yard and packing them in the shearing shed. Our shearing shed is situated in a 12 acre paddock with no outside alleyways or crowd pens around it yet. Just a building in a paddock. Outside holding pens are in the plans for this year.

We keep the shearing shed empty of pens etc. so we can fit the flock into it. The rams had to be moved up to the yard and set in the Quonset to keep them seperate from the ewes but also somewhere dry. 

It snowed and rained all morning and into the afternoon. A shed full of snow-damp woolies for several hours, while it continued to rain, created a lot of humidity. We were getting fearful that the wool would not dry sufficiently. We opened up side wall panels and the front and rear doors of the shed to get air flow. This helped considerably.

With the shed full of animals there is no room to feed them while we wait out the weather. At 2:30 in the afternoon the rain let up. We let the sheep out so they could have a chance to eat. Previously we set hay bales in the paddock so we could let sheep eat but keep them nearby the shed. The wind picked up and blew steady, which helped dry the wool out.

While the sheep were outside we got busy inside. Putting down the shearing floor, setting up an alleyway, finishing the hanging rail for the shearing equipment, and gathering shearing day odds and ends. Then it was off to feed dogs.

The girls had a full evening of grazing and then were back in the shearing shed for the night. The sky was dark and cloudy and we couldn’t risk them being rained on overnight.

The shearing crew is due to arrive late afternoon the next day, which I’ll continue writing about in Post II.

Shearing Prelude

Just a short post tonight. We’re through the first day of shearing. Five shearers were here for the evening and sheared the first 240 head. The pace was quick and we were hopping.  Not even time for taking a photo.

There were a few more last minute logistics we had to work out due to shearing school taking place Saturday and Sunday.

Cajun was the work dog for the evening. He worked his heart out. We start out with the entire flock and he was on edge with the number of ewes.  It was a hairy start but I kept him in hoping he’d come through. He worked solo the whole evening and we both settled down. He came out with an injured hind foot so I’m guessing he got stepped on. Just a very slight limp so I'll see how he is in the morning. He's fast asleep already.

I’ll share more about our shearing weekend when I have a bit of time at the end. It’s late and I still have to get a few things in order for the next couple days. People will be arriving for an 8 am start tomorrow. Since we finished up in the dark tonight, some lucky dog and I will be up early to move the rams in, and to move the first two hundred shorn sheep out to pasture (and out of the way), and then split the remaining group of sheep to keep some in for the first day and let some go to feed, all before we get started tomorrow.  I’ll try to snap a few photos too.

Young Delinquents - Wandering LGD's

After catching Whiskey and Diesel out on another wandering escapade we set them in dogs runs for a day, then took them back out to pasture at night. The next morning we penned them again. This presented the opportunity of a refresher course in leash walking. Surprisingly, after just a short distance on the leash they settled into walking with us. Whiskey tried hanging back and stalling, but Diesel was right in the groove.

Here they are with Allen, heading out to pasture in the evening while I come along on the Ranger to do the night check and to pick up Allen so that he doesn’t have to walk home again.

While the dogs were up in the pens we made and fitted them with PVC triangle collars to prevent fence crawling. I found this suggestion in the document Guardian Dogs: Best Practice Manual for the use of Livestock Guardian Dogs by Linda van Bommel (2010) and thought I’d try it. I like the idea of the triangle collar because it still allows full freedom of movement, unlike a drag line. The collar won't prevent dogs from jumping fences but I suspect both these boys are crawling through.

Blogger won't let me paste the link directly to the PDF document so if you're interested in reading it you can find a link on the guardian dogs main page on the ranching-with-sheep website. Scroll down to the bottom of the page to find it.

The collars we made didn’t last the day. That evening both dogs were without the PVC triangle. Each dog was still wearing their collar, and the plastic cable ties we used to attach the PVC triangle to the collar were still on the collar. Only the PVC pieces were missing and I only found two of them on the pasture. We connected our triangle joins by drilling holes in the PVC and tightly tying with bale twine (oh, the uses of bale twine)! The twine didn’t last though. I suppose that with movement and the dogs possibly pawing with front feet and scratching with hind feet, the twine frayed. Next time we’ll try cable ties to join the PVC or maybe small bolts.  We’ll try the collars again but it might have to wait until we’re through with shearing.

Gearing Up For Shearing

We are busy gearing up for our wool harvest which takes place this upcoming weekend.

The front end wall of the shearing shed has finally been put up. So nice to have that done. Above the shearing area we’ve added an overhead rail for hanging multiple shearing machines. Next we’ll put the shearing floor down. We lifted it last year to make full use of the building. The week will also be full of collecting all the various items we need to make the day a little smoother.

Since we are hosting shearing school there are a few more considerations to take into account. We need a larger shearing floor and room for half a dozen shearing stations. We need to accommodate hanging the shearing machines and plugging them in (hence the rail). The electric packer is coming this year so that meant adding in a 30 Amp circuit.

Then there is the logistics of it all. Friday night five shearers will be here to do the first couple hundred head since they won’t be able to do all the sheep during a two day teaching course. Saturday and Sunday there will be an additional dozen people here to learn how to shear. People need to be fed and watered (we turn the feeding over to a caterer). We need lunch tables, coffee, snacks, porta potty at the shearing shed and a whole lot of other small things that go along with hosting. We need extra hands not just for one day but for three. That’s the hardest thing to come by!

We need to have pens set up indoors to house a lot of sheep in a hurry should rain threaten. Before shearing day we’ll need to seperate some animals, and make sure we have a pen for the rams.

Aaahh, but I do like shearing time. The wool harvest is the first bustling occasion of the year and it marks the start of the production cycle on the ranch. It’s busy, it’s means juggling everything around, it means a lot of stock dog work, it means company will be here...

Figuring Cost of Production

Since recently doing business numbers for tax purposes I was spurred on to figure out our cost of production (what it costs to raise one animal). Doing this each six months would be ideal but I seem to only manage getting it done once a year. 

I like to know COP out of curiosity and because it helps me figure out where I’m spending too much which is something I tend to overlook until I do the numbers. I can see areas to try to cut costs on (which is something I can control). If I know what it costs to raise one ewe I know what my break even market price is. If market prices head that low, I can be prepared to get out before I take a loss.

Besides, the way I figure it, if I'm not staying on top of what it costs me to raise sheep I can hardly complain about the consumer not paying enough to make me a living. After all, we are both part of the food equation.

So what goes into my cost of production figuring?

All of my direct expenses which I categorize as those expenses that rise or fall on a per head basis. So if I added ten sheep the expense would increase. If I sold ten the expense would decrease.

That said, there are always some expenses that are hard to peg down and then I get to decide where to put them. Like medicines and vet supplies. These are not always given to every animal but I include them and calculate them as a cost per head. Any expenses that don’t fit into the direct cost category are fixed and I put these into the overhead category which shows up later in my financial figuring. So you can see there is leeway and preferences when doing economics but as long as your expenses are being placed somewhere it will work itself out in the end.

So in my COP figuring are the following:

Hay feed (run both scenarios of making own and buying)
Grass grazing fee (set at 10 cents/Head/Day)
Medicine and vet supplies

Yes, I charge the ewes for grazing grass. They are eating on the land and the land needs to be paid for. Also, in case you're wondering, I put guardian dogs costs into my overheads category. 

In 2011 the cost of production was low, which I’m glad to see since I’m aiming for low input, grass farming. Two things helped it out. We didn’t pay for shearing in 2011 because we hosted shearing school. Shearing adds $4-$5 per head. We don’t worm the whole flock, only who needs it so that expense is minimal. Also my cost for making our own hay is probably low but we have a good arrangement that makes it that way. If I do the figuring with purchasing hay my COP rises by $12 per head.

Economics can be done in many ways and I used to fret that my numbers never matched the other guys. Now I realize the main point when doing numbers is to settle on a way that works for me and use that method each year. Then I have a benchmark from year to year. So it isn’t about what the other guys numbers are, it about using your own numbers as the valuable tool they are.

Frustrations With Guardian Dogs Part II

All guardians were home with the flock this morning; all were eager to eat breakfast.

Whiskey was bearing evidence that he met with a prickly situation sometime in his travels since yesterday morning. He had a mitt full of porcupine quills in his muzzle. Several were broke off from him pawing at his face to rid himself of them.

He lay down and let Allen and I pull several of the quills out but grew more and more unwilling and agitated as we progressed.  Even though we try to be very calm and cool with the dogs, the muzzle is a highly sensitive area and I imagine it hurts to pull each quill. Whiskey is an aloof dog who tolerates handling but never fully accepts it and I watch for and heed his warnings when I’m handling him.

When I pulled a quill from the particularly sensitive spot on the front, upper lip, I felt his teeth graze my second hand, which was resting on his flank. His move was so fast I wasn’t even able to follow him with my eyes. When he gave me the next hard eyed look I knew that was enough. The first bite was a warning, the next bite would not be so gentle.

We opted to take him to the vet to remove the rest of the quills. There he can be sedated for removal of the quills and get those short broken ones out too plus any on the inside of the mouth. A trip to the vet is certainly a stressful experience for a guardian dog who lives in such a rural, prairie space but leaving him with quills isn’t a great option either. Thankfully we’re able to leash him, although it has become apparent that I didn’t do enough leash walking with him as a pup. He freezes at the tautness of a leash. We loaded him into the truck without much trouble though and Allen took him to town.

Interestingly, so far, it has been each of our three male dogs who have ended up with porcupine quills at some time or another. Oakley has had them twice and Diesel once. None of the females have tangled with porcupines. Whiskey is the first dog we’ve taken to the vets for removal of quills. I was able to pull quills from Oakley myself; he is such a trusting soul that boy. Diesel was more of a battle but he did allow us to finish. It takes a lot of time and sometimes you need to walk away and come back, but if you don’t fight the dog and if you let them settle between pulling quills, some will let you continue. Whiskey isn't one of those kind.

Frustrations With Guardian Dogs

I’m just in from checking and tucking in the flock. The sheep were gathered on their usual hillside, numerous ewes already bedded down. A few determined ewes were still nibbling at nearby bales. Usually I feed guard dogs for the second time in the day. But tonight only Lady was present. The other four dogs were nowhere to be seen or heard. When the dogs are gone we know to check things out. I traveled the entire piece of pasture, which is a 160 acre piece, thinking perhaps there was a small group of ewes who were seperated and the dogs were with them. I found nothing.

It is times like this that I curse guardian dogs. Each spring we go through a few days of the guard dogs wandering further afield. Often they travel out when they are pushing on a predator and then return shortly. It’s tough to condemn them for that but you can’t favour the choice either. Usually it is one dog, maybe two who leave while the others hang back. Never have four of them gone before.

 What we have done in the past when any dog sets to wandering, is put a collar on them with a long wire cable and anything to act as a weight on the end. Not a heavy weight like a tire, which is often suggested, but just a small, solid weight. We use a foot long piece of one inch diameter steel rod or something similar. The point is not to tie the dog down but to deter them from jumping/crawling through fences. A simple line with a weight on it will often hold them up, especially the jumpers, but still allow them plenty freedom of movement otherwise. Another option is a triangle collar constructed of PVC piping. I haven’t tried that one yet.

There is not much to do to bring them home as the landscape is vast and they could be any direction. Travel by vehicle will not flush them out in a timely fashion as there are too many vehicle inaccessible places. The only thing to do is return home and hope there are dogs with the flock in the morning. And hope they have not caused someone else undue trouble. It’s a small comfort to know that Lady is with the flock but one dog caring for so many sheep in such a vast space puts the odds against her for the night. 

Lady Moving with Flock Fall 2011

Wild Life, Natural Life

One of the wild rabbits was up behind the house early this morning.

Several Robins were in the trees just above.
A flicker sat on a fence post of the dog yard. In the sky a V of Canada Geese flew over, momentarily silent. Sandhill cranes have returned to the fields.

The crows have been cawing at us for a couple of weeks already. There are more of them hanging around this year. This week we have also been hearing the trills of a few familiar summer songbirds that I do not know the name of.

We see hawks like this guy, all the time and more rarely, owls. Bald eagles have been spotted although I have not seen one yet.

And a fox raised a litter of kits under our small shop for three years in a row. We frequently watched her play what appeared to be a wily game of catch-me-if-you-can with Cajun. She did not like it if he snooped around the shop where her very young pups were hidden. She would get his attention and then take off with him in pursuit, but never able to get near her. When the pups grew up, they’d all move on. She is not back this year.

If we’re lucky we find ducks eggs in the pasture grass and during mosquito season, dragonflies, like this beauty, are plentiful. Deer are commonplace and shed moose antlers are a sign of larger grazers passing through.

When this place was being crop farmed I didn’t notice half of this wildlife, which I think can be attributed to two reasons. Our farming mindset at that time did not allow for their existence therefore I never took a long look around and because chemical driven crop farms all too quickly become uninhabitable ecosystems for natural creatures.

Today, this place is rich with life - and I take notice of it. I like to think that all of these creatures are here because now there is natural energy, food, habitat and aside from natural predators and stock dogs who occasionally try to run them off, there is mainly peace for them here.

This is the wild side of country life that I see as a regular course of living as a grass farmer. Yet the astounding thing is not just to see it, but to know that all of this wild life is living alongside of me, observing me more closely than I do them.

There is no profit behind rabbits, songbirds and dragonflies but paper dollars are not part of the equation in the natural world. Maybe it would do farmers some good to occasionally leave money out of the equation too.

Spring Shimmers

I think it is due to the lack of snow cover but there is a shimmer of green wherever I walk across the land. The ground has it, the trees have it, even the wetlands seems to reflect it. And yet looking down at my feet the colors are very decidedly still a mesh of old winter browns.

Is the green really there or only that I know with such a deep conviction that it will be there, that I see it before it exists? It is this way for me every spring. 

There is never any doubt about the trees leafing out and green grass showing up each spring because I know Mother Nature has clear and ideal intentions to make it so. Intentions that are not marred by self doubt and indecision as some of my own are. Animals carry the same clear and ideal intentions, it’s one of the reasons I admire them so.

It is interesting to have such a strong conviction about something happening that you never question your belief about it; maybe you don't even think about it. If that sense of knowing carried over into our abilities to make a living off of the land, just imagine the shift in farming mentality and what we could do.

Co-Habitation and Regrouping

The horses, cows, llamas, and rams have been living together for the past month.  This week we opened the gate and let the cows and the horses out to pasture together. It was literally that simple as they had no trouble finding the way. The horses kicked up their heels and went running. The cows wasted little time finding the hay and getting down to the business of eating.

We'll leave them together for now and re-group them once shearing is over. By then we'll be grazing and the cows can go back with the main flock. The horses will come up to the yard, where they're close enough for us to work with regularly.

The llamas are still with the rams but we would like them to go back out with the flock too. Since neither llama leads really well, (Allen and I tried to lead PJ one time and vowed we wouldn’t do so again) we’ll wait until shearing when we can bring the flock to them. 

If you remember Cheerio was having trouble integrating when he first arrived.  The guard dogs were giving him a hard time whenever he tried to come near the flock. So we pulled PJ out and set the two llamas together in the paddock with the rams hoping for them to grow familiar with each other and give Cheerio some much needed support. We see them together all the time now. The guard dogs know PJ so I’m hopeful that after an initial period of re-adjustment when the two llamas get back to the flock, that this time the dogs will accept Cheerio right along with PJ. Sometimes trying a different approach helps animals accept things they refused previously.

We also have a ram with a bad front foot that needed tending to.  I gave Cajun the job of collecting the group and penning them up at the shearing shed so we could take a closer look. It’s jobs like this that help this dog the most. He works the best when there is a job at hand over when we’re out for training. The rams foot is injured, swollen and infected. The infection is sitting well above the claw. We doctored the foot, gave the boy a shot of antibiotic and let him be. He’ll recover alright.

Spring Treasures

The ewes are looking very rotund in their full, year long fleeces. The weather is very mild and I imagine the ewes are finding it a bit hot. I have spied a couple of ewes that need attention. It looks as though they could have used a dose of wormer in the fall but were missed or perhaps more likely, didn’t need it then but do now. They will not likely be in lamb.

The ewes are doing a fair bit of grazing and they are snipping the seed heads of last years grasses. Nature’s grain.

The guard dogs have been busy since we set the flock in the new pasture and we often find them resting now. I do not notice as much play happening between them in the evenings. They are eager to eat at meal times and Glory has already shed some of her winter fat. There is regular sing-song of coyote and LGD’s in the late evenings.

We are no longer night penning the flock. It is drier and cleaner on pasture so we are leaving the sheep where they are. We do a tour each evening (drive around on the Ranger) and make sure everyone is tucked together for nightfall.

I found this treasure while doing an evening check of the flock.

It is a shed moose antler. Moose (and elk) have arrived to this area within the last couple of years. Seeing and holding the antler I feel connected to a greater existence. A much wilder one; one that extends well beyond our own back forty. It causes me to wonder, what do I have to offer back?

The LGD's Receive Visitors

Four good friends came out to visit yesterday - oh, I was so elated to have visitors. The first pair came out to work stock dogs. The second pair were out, along with two older children, for a taste of country air so I took them out to visit the flock and the guardian dogs.

I’ve never followed the trend that keeping your hands off the guardian dogs was necessary to making them good guardians. At first it was just because I couldn’t do it. Now it’s because I think the notion does more harm than good. All my dogs are handled and will approach humans. On the other hand I don’t assume the dogs and or the people will always be well behaved about the encounter.  In this case I didn’t have to worry about the people, they were very respectful, but the dogs still amazed me.

My guardian dogs rarely, rarely leave the farm. They live in a pack and they work out in a pasture situation. They do not have regular encounters with visitors, dogs or human (except me and mine of course). Yet on the rare occasion that they do see strangers they behave better than most socialized, city dogs I know. They behave better than my stock dogs do when someone comes to the house.

When the visitors and I arrived on pasture each dog came to say hello, thoroughly sniffed the newcomers and accepted a few pats.  Oakley remained at the Ranger with us and soaked up as much attention from the kids as he could, but the others trotted back to the sheep. No one jumped up, no one became anxious or excited at the prospect of visitors. They were just dogs and we were just visiting. Nothing more, nothing less. While I realize my LGD’s won’t walk down a city street without panicking they are still model citizens in their own right.

And that amazes me because I grew up in a world of over socializing dogs. In order to be a good citizen the dog needed to encounter every situation under the sun. I’m kind of glad I don’t exist in that world anymore. I’m glad that I’ve been blessed to view the dog world from the angle I have now. Living and working with both LGD's and stock dogs has turned so much of my previous dog knowledge upside down.

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