Small Gems

Snow and wind and beef could sum up the last couple days. And this little gem.

The ewes did not venture too far and they didn’t have to, they have good shelter and plenty of food grazing on the millet swaths. The guardian dogs are settled in right with them and are also feeling extra well fed despite our latest order of dog food being forgotten on the supplier end. There won’t be another delivery van heading this way until mid January so I figured it would be a good time to clean out the two freezers of stockpiled trim and bones and organ meat which I normally supplement the dogs food with throughout the winter. No sooner had I started on the freezer supply when Allen’s dad stopped by. He has a few cull cows; would we like them for dog food?

Yes, indeed. Such a large supply of meat will be a great help toward feeding dogs. Additionally, Allen offered to do the butchering with his Dad, so I also got to skip out on doing that job this time around. When we take a cull cow for dog food we make use of almost the entire cow. I didn’t have enough freezer space but since it’s winter we’re able to store the meat in the shop where it will stay frozen. 

As for the kitten, Allen brought him home along with the truck load of cow meat.

Cull Ewes

We selected and sorted the cull ewes out from the main flock a couple weeks back (an-univiting-job). The culls were put together with the rams and market lambs. Today was sale day and we had to deliver the cull ewes to the collection point by noon. We did the quick sorting last evening and set the culls in a holding yard, then picked up the stock trailer we borrow when we do the hauling.

This morning all we had to do was load and deliver. Good thing to because loading was a beast of a chore this go round.  Our ewes are not familiar with loading onto trailers so it’s brand new to them each time. Plus, Allen and I were...., well, let’s just say we were not working well together this morning.

After the dogs and I moved the ewes up to the alleyway I put the dogs away. Sometimes it’s just better to put them aside so that they don’t receive the brunt of the frustrations going on between the stock handlers :) I’m not sure what Allen and I struggled with the most; each other, or loading reluctant ewes. Knowing how well animals read the energy of a situation I’m sure one negative energy rubbed off on the other. Sometimes it isn’t all sunshine and roses.

In the end, we were able to fit all but four ewes onto the trailer.

Culling sheep is both a physically and emotionally taxing job (without being frustrated with how it’s going). I read about how culling needs to be merciless but it’s distressing to be that dispassionate. Truth is there are always favorites in my flock and I have plenty of sentimental moments. Watching a couple young green-tag girls, Blackhock, and That-Ole’-Bag step off the trailer at the destination point, I felt plenty of emotion.

At home this evening, some sad news added to the mixed and heavy day. The famous stockman, Bud Williams has passed away. Bud is well known for his livestock handling techniques, but is also well renowned for his low key approach to using stock dogs.

Gibson's Debut

When we made the last move with the flock Gibson came along for a work debut.

Gibson is a young 15 month old Kelpie. He is related to Cajun and shows a lot of work similarities but does not have quite the same forceful gusto Cajun started out with. Gibson is  more thoughtful. 

I wanted to give Gibb the experience of larger flock work but know he isn’t capable of long, extended gathers. So Jayde did the gathering. She was really out of sorts however, and kept missing sheep. While the ewes are real tough to see in the brown and snow landscape I was pretty sure it wasn’t just that. It was a real mishmash of a gather but we stayed in good spirits and got it done.

While she and I were doing that, Allen was on the Ranger checking the far corners. Gibson rode with him. Along the way we met somewhere close to the middle, and when we had the entire flock in a mob with no outliers, I unleashed Gibb from the Ranger. I was half way along the side of the mob and sent him from there, around to the back of the group. No fancy flanks, just a cue to get around and bring me sheep, which he knows. As soon as he left I headed for the front of the mob again.

For a dog who hasn’t seen that many sheep, even half way around is a long way around. The dog keeps seeing more and more sheep and very quickly loses sight of the handler. It’s confusing for them. Gibb got part way around and then came back to where I sent him, looking for me, and/or for direction. When he saw I was indeed still present he went back to work on his own. Then he went waaaay around and beat me to the front of the flock who were just stretching out onto a trail. He got there just before me, and turned the lead animals back. I quietly sent him back the way he came. Jayde meanwhile is still bringing the mob along at the back.

We’re now on a trail and it’s only a short downhill stretch to the gate. Gibb works with Jayde at the back of the flock for spell and lickedy-split we’re there. The ewes stopped up at the gate since we were asking them to take a new route and pass under the fence wire. In this case, I didn’t want Gibb to keep working when the sheep weren’t willing to go. There’s a time and place for that set up and with so many sheep here, this wasn’t it, so I had him stand and we just waited for a bit. Once the flock started forward motion again I let him work again which allowed him success of moving the flock through the gate.

This little bit of work was great for Gibb. Just long enough for him to get a feel for a large group of sheep but not too long to wear him out, plus a main dog there providing the real push. Somedays I don’t feel I have a clue about what I’m doing with the dogs, and some days it all just works so slick. For Gibson’s sake I’m glad this was a day that it worked so slick.

The Plans Change - Onto Swath Grazing

Remember two blog posts ago; I wrote about winter grazing and how the plans might change.

We received more snow. This last snowfall was preceded by ice fog / rain. Fence posts, wires, gates etc are coated with a thick white ice. Then the temperature plummeted.

It is not the best conditions for winter grazing livestock. With the crusty ice layer and the added snow I worried that grazing on the grass pastures would require too much effort for the ewes for not enough gain. We decided to move the flock over to the millet swaths. It is easier to find a swath of grass and to follow the swath under the snow, than it is to find the dormant grass on a grazed pasture.

The paddock where the flock was grazing, and the millet pasture, meet at one corner. However, the move as I pictured it, was going to be a long one that required travel to the North half a mile, through the yard, then East around wetlands and bush to reach the next gate and then back South a quarter mile. The move as Allen pictured it, eliminated all the travel. His idea was to lift the fence wires at the corner where the paddocks meet and let the sheep cross there.

We filled the back of the Ranger with hay and forked a couple piles where we wanted the animals to cross under the wire.  Theoretically, once the sheep passed through the North-side gate located near the East corner all they had to do was turn East and pass under the wire. For the ewes, the familiar route is through the gate and an immediate turn to the West. We were hoping the hay would draw their attention to the East and encourage them to pass under the wire.

It worked like a charm! The dogs and I brought the flock to the gate. Allen moved ahead and parked the Ranger to block the familiar West turn route. The lead bunch passed through the gate and stopped there, immediately assessing the unfamiliarity of the situation. The dogs held the back of the flock.

Being ignorant and innocent about moving adventures, it was a ewe lamb who marched under the wires and headed for the little piles of hay. A few sheep followed and one discovered the first millet swath. The buzz about the new feed spread through the flock without delay. The entire flock poured through and our move was done. The longest part was the gather and walk to the corner.

This all took place in mid afternoon.  Three hours later we were back out for the evening check and I was surprised at how much ground the girls had uncovered. They are not having any trouble finding the feed here.

Graceful Reminders

The wind is cold and tingling on my face. The sound of the Ranger is loud in the cold air. Cajun is shivering, from cold or anticipation of work, I’m not sure. We crest a hill and see them.

Ewes and lambs are spread across the snow covered pasture, digging in search of the dried and dormant grass. I move to a better vantage point to send the dog and stop the Ranger.  I unclip the chain leash and Cajun flies off, landing gracefully as he always manages to do despite his hindbrain, almost frantic state. Or maybe he is just anxious to move as a result of the cold ride.

He stands up tall, front feet lifting. He is quivering.

I tell him he is crazy but see no sign of acknowledgment of the comment. Then again I’m out here on a cold winter evening, excited about sending a dog to work.

With a quiet word he is gone. He leaves on his cast and he searches as he goes. When he sights a pocket of sheep he casts wider to include them in his collection. Cajun does not gather sheep, he musters them and the single most graceful thing about Cajun is watching him glide over the prairie to do so. I feel my soul open a little every time I watch him and it reminds me of why I love this life.

Watchful Winter Grazing

As the winter progresses and we continue to graze the sheep on pasture without offering supplemental feed, I am keeping an observant eye on the condition of the ewes. They are having to travel and dig in the snow for grass, which I think is great for keeping them in shape. However, I don’t want to push them too far and have them drop in condition now. It is harder to bring their condition back up during the winter months. 

I moved the flock to a paddock South of the yard two days ago. When we arrived on pasture this morning the girls were up and already spread far and wide grazing. Normally they are just rising when we arrive. Feed wise, the paddocks of dormant grass are not holding them for long. So we moved them again, and they are now on a divided quarter section further South. The downfall of this program is that they crawl through fences much more readily; the lambs first and then the ewes follow.

We are going to move the flock through the last handful of paddocks to let them find what grass there is while the weather and production timeline allows. We will rotate them through the last four paddocks and by then I imagine it will be about time to put them onto the millet swaths. Here they will feed very well and it will be a good boost heading into breeding and the true start of winter. All this planning is dependent on weather. Another load of snow or a hard cold snap will change the plans.

We have a good cover of snow that is staying around so the animals are watering with snow. We take water to the dogs when we feed. They only drink occasionally but it isn’t very cold yet. When the real cold weather sets in the animals will drink more and by then all animals will have access to water at the water bowls near the yard. 

Jackpot Days

I love having a source of raw bones large enough to give to the guardian dogs. I feed these in the winter as the cold weather keeps the bones from ripening as would happen in the summer heat. 

Late in the fall I start feeding trim and offcuts and any scraps of meat and fat to help the dogs maintain condition since they are wintering outdoors.  I also grind over ripe fruit and vegetables, mix in a little kelp and feed this with some ground meat.  For me, a true jackpot will be the day I can feed a raw diet entirely.  Right now I cannot keep up to the volume required for numerous large dogs and cannot afford the cost of purchasing a raw food product.

On a smaller jackpot note. The Ranger is back after an extended absence for repairs. While it isn’t food and certainly wouldn’t win out over a raw bone, the Kelpies are all over it! In this photo are BJ and Gibson.

Back to Sheep Handling

With weaning, sorting market lambs and preparing to sell lambs we handle sheep the most in the fall and early winter.

After weaning and sorting lambs, the replacement ewe lambs returned to pasture to be with the ewe flock. The market lambs were set with the rams. Also with the rams are the odds and ends. Those animals we’re not selling as market lambs but not keeping for long term either. This includes real small lambs that need some extra time to grow, lambs with issues that we need to watch, a couple butcher animals, culls ewes and a few animals that we’ll butcher for dog food. We don’t ration feed and don’t worry about keeping each lot of sheep seperate. With everyone together in the same paddock this eases the task of feeding. The main flock is still grazing out on pasture but this flock is being held in a paddock closer at hand and thus being fed hay.

Today we brought this assorted lot inside and ran them through the race. With such an multifarious group of animals there were a few things to watch for and keep track of.

Each lamb was checked for condition and wormed if needed. If they received worming medication they had to be marked (we use paint marker) to allow for medication withdrawal times before selling. Lambs that were runty or had issues were marked to be kept. They’ll stay a little longer. All remaining lambs not marked was counted either as a heavy market lamb or a light one.

We marked the butcher animals.

We caught each ram and checked them over. I culled three of the adult rams, so those will be sold. We raised a dozen ram lambs this year, and we caught those as well; checking their condition and worming if necessary.

The cull ewes were sorted and handled last week so today they just passed through the handling gate.

After handling the ewe flock last week, this smaller flock made for a lighter and shorter workload. By mid afternoon, all these off-sorts were back together in the same paddock, enjoying their fill of hay.

Dog Toys Come Naturally

Walking in after chores tonight I noticed the Kelpies had a new toy.

It’s a skunk tail; a real skunk tail.

At first discovery of what it was I was a tad put off and scooped up the tail to discard it.  Then I thought, heck, I’d pay $12 bucks for a fake one from a pet store. Here is one naturally provided.

It’s just the tail, clean and no flesh attached. And I very quickly noted that it had very little scent to it. I left it for the dogs.

So how did they come across a skunks tail and where is the rest of it?

Thankfully, the Kelpies didn’t encounter the skunk the tail came from. A fox did.

About a week ago I noted the strong stink of skunk lingering around the Quonset. Around the corner, near the burning barrel there was telltale signs that a scuffle had taken place in the snow. There was washed out blood smears (which the Kelpies rolled in) but no carcass or pieces of it. There were tracks and drag marks up to the entrance of a foxes den, under the shop. 

We have a resident fox who has made her home base underneath our red shop. She comes and goes with the seasons and has even raised a litter here. She doesn’t bother us or the sheep although she drives the stock dogs nuts. Every day they make a ritual lap or two around the shop. She gets chased by them on occasion and I swear has turned this into a game.  The one thing she is a threat to, is the cats, but she is also a deft little rodent hunter herself, so I suppose it balances out. Besides, there are enough rodents here to feed her and two half-time hunting cats.

These photos were taken two years ago. It’s the pups of that year. I don’t know if todays fox is the same female or not but I like to think it is, and somehow I enjoy coexisting with her. We don’t feed her or make attempts to interact. We just observe her. She’s on her own, free to stay or to go.

They are watching sparrows on the roof corner

Stock Dog After-Buzz

Today we dug out from two days of snow. This morning the flock was nestled tight into a slough bottom, surrounded by snow deep enough they didn’t want to move out.  The market lambs and rams needed a couple of bales; a common and regular chore that took three times as long to complete. The old chore tractor gave us all sorts of trouble before we got it going, and the bales sunk into the soft snow rather than rolled. We had to dig out of waist high snow to get into the shearing shed which I started doing by shovel since it didn’t look like the tractor would be of help. This last task was not a regular chore nor done to house any sheep, but rather so that myself and few friends could work stock dogs this afternoon. The long morning of chores and snow moving was so worth it.

Before we knew it the morning was the afternoon and people were arriving. Half a dozen people came out and we nestled ourselves, our dogs and a few sheep indoors, escaping the wind and deep snow. It was an exceptional afternoon of working dogs.

Maybe it was the crisp air, fresh snow and bright sunlight after a stretch of several days of grey skies and blowing snow but each person seemed to be glad to be out doing something with their dog. There was a feeling of being present and in this together, and supporting and laughing.  Each of us seemed to be aware and intentional in working our dogs and the dogs responded ten fold. It isn’t always like this when working dogs, either alone or working with a group. But when it is like this, it feels a bit like magic and I feel the after-buzz for a long time. 

Taxing Winter Wind

Hanging around the house in the early morning darkness I could hear a fierce wind blowing it’s way about the corners of the house, like it was angry that our home was in its path. I grew apprehensive about going out for a walk and doing the chores.

But routine habit has a persuasive pull and when the time came I donned an extra layer of clothing and headed out, first for a walk and then for chores.

I had it in mind to move the flock today. I expected they would be doing some grazing on the South side of their paddock, as they were yesterday, which puts them closer to the gate in the South East corner giving me a small advantage.

When I arrived at the pasture there were no sheep on the South side nor were any headed that direction. The ewes were grazing on the North side, likely staying there because of the wind.

In the summer season sheep seem to prefer being in the wind - wind keeps the flies at bay. In the winter though, wind is extra challenging.  Some winds blow strong but are soft and some blow strong and are stern. This wind was of the strong and stern type; it was steely and unrelenting and it was cold.

The North end was a good place for the flock to be. There is shelter and they have a large bush and lowland area to bed down in each night. As long as they could get enough to eat it looked like they were staying. There was no must-happen reason for the girls to move so I decided I wasn’t going to force a move today.

In the evening the wind was strong as ever, and sure enough the girls were still on the North end of the paddock. They were already loosely gathered together, the bulk of them out of the wind and preparing to bed down. I imagine the wind made their day and the day of all creatures who dwell outdoors, a tough and taxing one. 

An Univiting Job With Highlights

Yesterday and today we tackled the one big and uninviting job of the year: selecting and sorting out cull sheep.

The first day started with gathering and bringing the flock to the yards. This was the highlight of the day. I let Cajun handle the job on his own. Typically, for moving the entire flock I use two dogs and Jayde often accompanies Cajun.

Cajun and I have our struggles learning to do this livestock work together and those struggles have eroded confidence and trust in each of us, which we are now rebuilding together. I needed to know that he could do such a large job and accept his way of doing it when he works so unlike what I am used to in Jayde.

Once we were in the yards, Jayde was on hand to provide extra push and get the flock headed into the alleyway and the back pens.

After that the bulk of the work was for Allen and I. Allen and Jayde handled the tough outside job of bringing sheep to the race. I handled the tough inside job of checking the feet, udder and condition of each animal and sorting those that were questionable.

First batch waiting in the alleyway
This was an all day job and with so many animals to sort through there is not time to re-think the criteria. You catch (we use a head gate), check feet, check udder, check condition, make a decision and sort. At the end of the day we had about seventy sheep in our cull pen. Not all of these were for sure culls, some were only in need of a little TLC before being sent on their way but that would have to wait until the next day.

Part way through the day when our front pen was full of non-cull sheep I brought Gibson out for his first taste of work on a larger group. Together we drove those sheep out to pasture so they could return to what sheep do so well - eating.  BJ and Fynn had a little bit of work on this day as well although BJ showed signs that she just isn’t ready for this much yet.

Another batch coming in
The highlight of large jobs like this and the reason I have sheep and continue to enjoy them, is all the dog work involved. I feel blessed to have enough work and to have good dogs to help with it. I am learning so, so much.

The second day Cajun and I brought the cull sheep back into the building and penned them. From here Allen and I could fill the race directly and once again catch each ewe in the head gate. This time we could take the time to tend to the animals as needed, tag and sort off the final culls. The trouble with the second day is the ewes are far more reluctant to enter the catch gate having been there once recently. This day was far shorter than the first and we are all glad to have this uninviting job finished.

Now onto selling.

Australian Kelpies - A Winter Passion

I’ve been overtaken with a pressing obsession - drawing Kelpies. Knowing it is best to follow a healthy obsession rather than deny it, Kelpies it is....

Reference photo courtesy of Lynda Caughlin

Reference photo courtesy of Vicki Johnson
 Next is figuring out how to take good photos of black scratchboard art.

Seasonal Existence

As the daylight hours shift so to does my daily timeline on the farm. Unlike a year round 9-5 job the hours of this one change with the seasons. During the summer I am out to the flock around 7:30 AM and will have already fit in a long walk and breakfast before. Right now it is hardly light out at 7:30. There is something about cold weather that makes the dark less welcome, and the daylight so much more appealing, and so I wait until I have some light before I head out.

In the evening supper now waits until I come in from doing chores, which will be at dusk, where earlier I could eat a meal before going out. In the summer the evenings are extra hours to work or play outdoors. In the winter the evenings contain indoor activities.

It is a curious occurrence how this timeline shifts without any abrupt adjustment for any creature, including me. We all just shift based on daylight and darkness, following a rhythm we seldom depart from. It makes me feel connected to the whole natural world, not just in the manner I farm but in the way I exist on it. It has never felt like an existence of choosing either, but more like a rhythm of existence one is pulled into and can’t help but sway to.

Water Supply

The sun has melted much of the snow but with the hard freeze we have had it does not have enough warmth to thaw the frozen wetlands.

In a matter of a day we have gone from relying on snow as a supply of water for the ewes to having to haul it.

We pulled out the water bus thinking we could haul water with it and just fill troughs without using the float, which would freeze quickly since the daytime temperatures are staying right around freezing. Turns out that because we didn’t tip the tanks in the bus when we drained it (not thinking we would need it again so soon) there is just enough water in the bottom to have frozen and blocked the fill hose. Using the bus is not an option.

So we rounded up another portable water tank we have set in the back of a truck box trailer, thankfully with a hitch frame built onto it so it can be hauled. Since the wetlands are frozen at the surface we filled from the well at the yard. The shut off valve on the water tank had to be thawed out with a little heat from a propane torch but otherwise we were good to go.

We hauled the water to pasture and set up whatever we could find to use as troughs so as to allow numerous animals to get a drink while the water was still liquid. We have the usual bathtub trough, a large livestock trough, two pink, plastic barbie doll paddling pools, and an empty cattle mineral tub.

We lined the five troughs up and filled each with water. The ewes were nowhere in sight of this so to be sure they found it before the water froze, I took Jayde and Cajun out and we brought the flock to the water.  I was certain the ewes would welcome a drink.

Nope. Only a handful of ewes took a drink, and the guardian dogs. The rest hung around, expecting to be moved since we just rounded them up. We left them standing at the troughs, thinking they would drink once we left. They dispersed, and went back to grazing.

We waited an hour or two and returned to top off the troughs. It wasn’t necessary, they were as full as we left them, but now iced over. We broke and scooped off the ice then returned home to drain the remaining water from the tank before it froze, a process that had already started. 

This morning we broke the ice on the troughs again. The ewes had bedded down nearby and were just getting up for the day. Still no one showed interest in the water. 

The cows are also still out on pasture but instead of hauling water to them we walked them home to the water bowls. They welcomed the open water and each took a long drink.

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