It's Our Turn For Now

With only a light snow covering it is still possible to ride my pedal bike along the only road that leads out of our yard. I did so yesterday after morning chores, taking the kelpies along of course and riding for a mile and half before parking the bike in the ditch and moving into the pasture on foot for further walking. 

Lately I find myself stopping during a walk to just stand in awe and gratitude of the prairie all around me. To travel a mile and still be home is in itself incredible. There are no sheep out this way so we will not encounter any while we walk about. If we did it would come as a huge surprise. The ground is uneven with frozen mole hills and icy packs of snow caught in the taller grasses. 

The pasture we arrived at is not fenced for grazing and this year it was left to sit idle given that the hay it produced was looking weak this summer. This piece of land has been cut to often for hay and needs to be grazed and fertilized by livestock for a turn. Meanwhile the grazing land we do use needs a reprieve from grazing. 

I realize that Allen and myself will never keep up to it all and sometimes I get caught in thinking that someone else would do better in being stewards of this land. Well maybe that’s so, but it is our turn here for now and we’ve worked diligently to get to where we are so we’ll go on trying. And I’ll continue to pause and feel gratitude for what it is and how it has shaped us thus far. 

How Far Would They Graze

More photos of the flock moving out, in this case heading out in the morning to begin grazing.  

The gate at the entrance to this narrow pass remains open so the ewes can come and go however they do not volunteer to enter this pass on their own. I have been moving them up every few days to remind them the water bowl is available here and by now I am sure they know that it is. Now that we are feeding hay they are settling and bedding down just over the rise and the trip to the water bowl is not far at all but with snow on the ground again I doubt they will brave the pass and come for water. 

Even though we are regularly feeding hay now the ewes are still traveling during the day. Today they traversed the whole east quarter section and then moved southward to the weedy patch before returning to the hay that is rolled out on the ground for them.

It causes me to wonder how much or how little domestication has toyed with their instinct to migrate. Have they merely developed the habit of traveling this ground since the loss of our cross fencing? Or, if we dropped our perimeter fences, would this flock show any inclination to head south as the grasses here waned? 

I really don’t want to find out how far south they might go but it is a marvel how much they travel the land that is available to them. The weather makes a difference too. On cold days they stick around the hay feed but on warmer days they put on the miles, and we haven’t received enough snow to hamper their travels yet.

Time to Feed

We'll begin feeding hay to the ewes now. With the lack of snow cover the girls have been wandering far and wide recently but I think feed wise it’s just the pickings left now; unless they graze the native prairie. But they do not go there to eat and I feel compelled to pay attention to their choice even though I wish it different. 

Heading in for the night

I’m always uncertain about the best way to graze this land through winter or if it is okay to graze it at all? Yet in the same breath I feel no inclination to restrict the ewes as seeing them continue to move and seek food feels to instinctual. Besides following this feeling it’s going to be a while before we can catch up on fencing and restrict their grazing to a plan as we did in the past so I have to accept that this is what we can manage for now. 

This next picture is a morning photo taken when approaching the flock. The ewes are so settled at this time of the year, any other time they would be up and moving off at my approach.  

The day before this I had spread hay feed nearby to gauge how interested the ewes were in feed. They grazed for the day and came to nibble the hay in the evening. Then the ewes chose to bed here on the naked hill slope rather than their usual sheltered bedding ground. A sign that the night was calm. And see how they sleep apart from each other; this particular night was also not that cold, at least not for wool covered sheep.

p.s. Thank you to the reader who asked for another way to follow this blog; I’ve added a subscription option at the sidebar. 

Prairie Pace

The kelpies and I headed out for a walk this afternoon, a little earlier than usual.  I stepped out for a few days this week to help a family member who is going through a rough deal so the dogs were eager to be off on a run and I was eager for the solace I almost always find when I walk across a piece of prairie land. 

A couple weeks ago I was wondering about the amount of snow and if it would soon be hindering the ewes ability to get enough feed during cold weather.  

This week warmer weather set the snow back and made it possible to physically walk across the pastures with relative ease again.  All to soon the snowfall will once again limit us to walking along the road which is a welcome and private walk but with a different feel than being amidst the expansive prairie.

Exploring the prairie in the company of canines worked its magic as it often does. I packed my camera and caught a few more photos to add to an impromptu collection I’ve nicknamed Prairie Signatures. Yet to see where it leads. 

While I was out Allen kindly did the evening check of the flock and guardians, which lead us into an unplanned, quite evening with little to do, which was about perfect for bringing this day to a close and life back into its routine prairie pace. 

The Two Birds, An Update on LGD's

It’s been awhile since I’ve updated on the two youngest livestock guardian dogs, Wren and Birdie.  While backing up photos yesterday I came across a few (thousand) of the dogs and ear marked a few for comparison of then and now. 

Wren is one year and seven months old. She is still soft, shy and easily spooked. Her early days here were spent with a second pup named Crow. Crow was not bonded to sheep and had a fondness for people. He taught Wren how to hang out around the yard and she still does this, mostly during the night when she travels through. During the day she disappears back to the sheep. She’s fond of sheep but lacks in commitment, perhaps due to Crow's early influence but no way to know. Food trumps everything in Wren’s word and if she misses a meal, alarm bells go off. She barks non stop when she believes there is a threat.

Puppy Wren

Young Wren 

Birdie has just turned a year old. She is small for an LGD but is serious and gutsy enough to back herself up. She puts the run on Wren now and even has top dog Lily towing the line. The only other dog to make Lily tow the line was Diesel (now passed) and Lily eventually turned the tide there. Birdie is very oriented to the flock, where the sheep are, there is Birdie. She could take or leave food and plenty of times she leaves it. She’s pushy and there is little that spooks her. 

Puppy Birdie

Young Birdie
Birdie and Wren are complete opposites, temperament wise, and work wise it shows. Wren is certainly easier to have in a pack of dogs though and she keeps livestock calmer. Birdie may cause more grief for the pack and her intense temperament stirs the ewes rather than calms them. I'm hopeful this intensity lessens with maturity; familiarity between her and the ewes is already helping. The two photos of each is an interesting comparison. I can see the temperament already stamped on them in their puppy photos, but I’ve already formed strong opinions of who they are since I see them each day.

Wren and Birdie (pup), the early days
Every pup has different experiences during its upbringing so there is no way to make things equal but I'm sure growing more and more curious about breeding influence and the possibility of selecting dogs who show that tight bond to their livestock.

Grassland Presentation Pieces

The presentation slot was twenty minutes, fifteen minutes to actually present, the other five taken up by speaker intro before and time for questions afterward. 
Fifteen minutes is long enough time for one person to talk, but just fifteen minutes to tell what you do and include why it matters means condensing a magnitude of thoughts and reasons.  

This was not a producer conference although producers were more than welcome to attend. It was a research and policy conference. It was about grass and forage. I was asked to present a virtual farm tour. Basically I was the break between all the scientific and ag business presentations. I did not realize this going in to the conference. I did not (as all the experts tell you to do) try to peg down who I was speaking to.  For some reason, when I prepared my presentation, I felt a strong compulsion just to tell what I felt and leave numbers and data out of it. I went with this. I don’t think anybody expected that, even me.  The title of the presentation: This Land and Livestock Life.

I’m going to skip over sharing the first half of the presentation here on the blog.  That first half gave a summary of our place, that we transitioned crop land back to grass and a snapshot of how we operate. While it was beautifully told through the lens of a story and great photographs (with several hours of practice behind it) I think you blog readers have a good grasp of my position on ranch life and how we operate here.

While the latter half could not have been told without the first to lead up to it, the latter half is, in my opinion, what really grabbed most people.  A volley of beautiful photographs and the quiet and sincere manner in which it was told certainly helped.

Let's start in midstream right here:

“Forage has become king here and there is an unpretentious beauty about the place. Land and livestock are linked and I am glad I have parked myself at their intersection. I have time to take a walk every day in the company of my dogs, cutting across the prairie in any direction I like. I walk in sun, rain, wind and snow. In heat and in cold. Sometimes I come across favourite sitting stones and sit for a spell, pondering the life I lead.  All the walking and pondering results in my soul being pretty tied up in this land and livestock life. 

It is quite an easy matter to share the beauty of a place through rose coloured though and to gloss over the reasons why ranchers do what they do.  But it occurs to me that our values and reasons need to hold true not only while we are looking through rose coloured glasses but more importantly they must hold true when the rose coloured glasses fall off. 

When it all goes to shit and you can’t think through the frustration of your day. When you have a wreck and you can’t project yourself to the end of a day let alone see to the end of a year.

Your reasons must hold you up and when these are purely about numbers and production and the almighty dollar I know I lose hope real fast.

So it matters a great deal that there are intangibles we cannot get our hands on. That grassland places like ours and people who earnestly ranch on them with Mother Nature in mind are still here. It matters that we grasp and explore the link between land and animal, sink our teeth into the natural connections and risk rearranging the pieces of our thinking to something a little different. 

Nowadays, when more than ever agriculture operates on numbers and facts it is increasingly important that we keep the stories and unexplainable reasons front and center. 

The agriculture industry has never before been in such a rush to grow a crop or raise an animal as we are today. We have never before been so reliant on numbers to guide us, so much so that we forego trusting our own observations of habitat and animal. Why are we in such a rush when our food and price distribution system is heavily flawed and the waste of food in first world countries is so extreme? Why do we have more focus on the quality of a carcass than we do on coexistence with the natural resources we need to raise it?

We have created a mass production game, even in the name of high, unsustainable work loads and debt loads. And yet, all in the same breath farmers and ranchers proudly take ownership of the we-feed-the-world pedestal. 

The title of this years conference is next generation forage cropping systems; profit above, wealth below. You wish to recognize the economic and environmental role forage and grasslands play in this land and livestock life. So what happens if we set aside our rush to raise an animal and produce a crop and set aside our reliance on numbers for just a moment. What if we examine not only what the land and animal give to us but what we offer in return. What is our real potential in this agriculture life? What is the true wealth below and what is the true wealth in ourselves and how much of each might we be shredding to get at the profit? 

If we wish to improve our environmental practices in agriculture what about making this a two way street again.  What about putting coexistence at the forefront of every decision we make lest we get to far down this road of taking the animal out of nature and the human out of humanity. There is nothing like keeping a flock of sheep on coyote rich prairie to teach the art of coexisting with a species that has different ideas than you do about what success is. 

Grassland is the vehicle for this to happen.  I have a small vision in which land and animal and rancher are respected for the link to humanity they are rather than viewed solely through the lens of yield per acre and dollar per production unit. Instead of pushing for maximum production we are letting production be what occurs when we look after animal and land. I operate my place in this way and it works well. We do not have to sacrifice land and animal to have ample production. There is a point where we can say we produce well, we produce enough and enough is all we need. 

Author Don Gayton spoke at the 2016 rangeland conference and he suggested the way to bridge the gap that exists between the folks who do the research and the rancher who lives the life and the public who make it all messy, is through telling stories.

So this few minutes is me telling our story. Telling it in the hope that Don just might be on to something. The people on the land need to start being the linchpin for change rather than have change implemented upon us. And those who are being that change already need opportunities to tell our story. So to that end, thank you once again for gifting me with your presence and providing the chance to keep our simple story going.“

The end
[p.s. That thank you extends to all you readers of this blog who are following this story. It only continues because you are here].

Back Down to Earth

Back at home and the first line of business is collecting the Kelpies and going for a walk.  I have to wonder how much the affairs of agriculture might shift if farmers and ranchers just walked on the their land on a frequent and regular basis.  

The conference presentation and subsequent feedback has been an experience and a half. My presentation was pretty rock solid and delivered well enough.  I wish you readers could have heard it as presented because I think you would have liked it. I stretched myself with giving voice to some challenging thoughts about agriculture that I wrestle with and was shocked by the deep reaction and feedback afterward. I still have no name or description for what got stirred up but something did. 

In the evening following the presentation I had the wonderful opportunity to dine and converse with some very deep thinkers and movers in agriculture.  There was no small talk here, it was deep, it was probing, it hurt my head, it was fascinating, it went on for a few hours. Interestingly I got warned about naysayers and sure enough those comments showed up today.  Gosh I wish I knew where to go with this, but I just don’t.  What I know is sheep and land, and how much the bigger picture of land with animal, with nature, matters for me.  

Naysayers aside, because that’s precisely where they need to go, I am floating in a stupor of gratitude over the experience, which has given another notch of confirmation that I’m living true in this ranch life.  I’m a bit lost in my thoughts and feelings but coming down to earth with each visit to the flock.  I'll stay in touch :-) and consider a way to share the presentation online.  

Speaking of Land and Sheep

I am at the Cdn forage and grassland conference.  I am typing on my phone and it's an old phone.  Tomorrow I give a farm tour presentation. Twenty minutes to share photos and talk of land and sheep and of course I squeezed dogs in there to.  Some of the photographs could probably stand on their own but I added a few words. A few snippets  are included below but beware this does not flow well without hearing the full presentation. 

I am nervously excited.  I am glad I have good photos. 
We have a strong focus and a deep respect for animals and land, beginning to understand how instrinsically linked animals and land are. Forage has become king here and there is an unpretentious beauty about the place.  It matters that there are these and other intangibles we cannot get our hands on. 

The Ag industry has never before been in such a rush to grow a crop or raise an animal. We have never before been so reliant on numbers to guide us, so much so that we forego our own observation of habitat and animal.

If we wish to improve our environmental practices in agriculture what about making this a two way street again; putting coexistence at the forefront of every choice we make lest we get too far down this path of taking the animal out of nature and human out of humanity. ... 

Find The Flow and Go With It

Zeus and I are sharing a moment of watching the same thing. 

There is a beautiful simplicity to sheep trailing off.  I have taken similar photos many times over in different spots, in different seasons, and I never tire of watching them go or catching photos of them as they leave.  Part of why I try for such photos is to hold onto the connection that started when they were passing nearby which I know will sever once they get so far away.  At that point there is always the briefest moment of loneliness and I think that too is captured in scenes of people or animals walking away.  

Someone once told me they were advised that it wasn’t correct to photograph or draw animals from the rear or moving away; that viewers want to see the eyes.  I think that whoever dispensed that advice to begin with never spent time watching animals leave or maybe couldn’t accept that brief moment of loneliness. 

The ewes seem to go precisely where they need to go but it seldom feels like they planned to go there. Not every animal follows the other when they head out for the day.  More often small groups of ewes branch out on finger trails. Yet each group is taking the path of least resistance, flowing and curving with the land knowing that the most natural way to travel through the day is to find the flow and go with it.

House Options

I moved the dog houses out for the livestock guardian dogs.  It felt a bit early but turned out it wasn’t early at all.  With the recent dump of snow, plus cold winds, the dogs are already making use of them.  

I always feel a desire to make things comfortable for the dogs even though they will make their own choices about where to shelter and sleep.  This way they have options and my knot of worry will ease. 

And our house … it is coming along well enough.  There are couple of roof panel pieces to put in right at the peak and then it’s completely closed in.  We’ll wrap it in house wrap and that’s where the exterior will remain until spring.  Meanwhile we’ll turn our attention to the interior.  The in floor heat was turned on tonight to test out the system.  I’m thinking ahead to felted wool rugs, a little bit of artwork and favourite photographs to be made into prints (and maybe to be made into a book too). 

LGDs Lead The Way

The hardest part for this post was picking which photos to share.

The ewes were moved over to the stockpiled pasture a couple days ago and we decided to start bringing them home overnight, mainly to allow them access to the water bowl, secondly to accustom them to gathering up at night once again.  The stockpiled pasture is large and without fence on two sides so we feel more secure  bringing the group home at night. 

This photo series is the first morning of turning them out to pasture.  They must pass through a narrow, treed alleyway.  You may recognize it because it’s one of my favourite places to take flock photos as the ewes funnel through. 

I thought I was taking photos of sheep and what landed on the camera is a short but very interesting series of the guardian dogs.  It’s very common that the first ones to travel out into a new place are the guardian dogs. Lily and Whiskey in this case, sniffing at first; note the lead ewe on the left, also sniffing and the others watching. 

Comfortable with going forth now the dogs lead and sheep begin to flow.  Once the dogs move the ewes have trust in the decision and overtake the lead. 

This photo was the real surprise - look who’s coming up on the right.  Birdie - charging her way out as is her custom.  Birdie moves like this all the time, around the flock, through the flock, to the flock, away from the flock. 

She’s an example of a guardian dog whose actions do little to keep the stock calm.  The ewes have lived with the little white frenzy for close to year now are certainly used to her ways and know just to move out of her way and go back to what they were doing. 

The bright side of Birdie is that when she acts serious about a potential threat, the ewes take heed, and sometimes it is Birdie’s charging that gets them rounded up in a hurry.  How in the world they detect the difference is beyond me. 

A few moments later the ewes are filtering out into the winter pasture. There is lots of green feed here, I expect they will be content for awhile. 

All From Watching Sheep Rise

The weather is cooling, we have had our first snow.  Winter is on my mind; on an internal level winter always represents an inward turn for me and I am ready for that, on the outside I must move the ewes to a new pasture soon.  Making room in life to live for ones Self, and the routine of things to be done, I’m often back and forth between the two worlds.  

During the long daylight days of summer the ewes are up and gone grazing by the time I arrive on pasture in the morning (and I do arrive early).  At this time of the year the ewes are still bedded down when I arrive so while I wait for guardian dogs to eat I watch sheep rise.  I witness ewes in morning greetings. 

In doing so I recognize a melding of both worlds.  I feel the immensely satisfying spot in my soul as the routine of this life turns into a life built upon, and for, my Self and who I know that to be.  And it doesn’t matter which one came first.  

I think now that this is how it happens; how you get closer to living Your life.  It doesn’t happen in grand hurrahs and winnings, but rather in gestures, hunches and small moments of watching the world around you and finding something there to bring your soul home. 

Life Revolves Around Home And Land

Our life revolves around the house build as we push to get it closed in before winter. Every thing else in life feels somewhat distant right now, and it’s easy for both Allen and myself to lose track of what day it is. 

Knowing there is a full day of house build ahead I don’t take as much leisure time as usual when I visit the flock in the morning and the evening visits are being squeezed in just before dark, with just enough light to tuck the ewes up. 

I’m back from my quick road trip, and a good deal of progress was made on the house while I was away even though rain caused a day of delay. Today we finished cutting and laying sip panels on the east side roof.  I tell you, I know more about the ins and outs of building a timber and sip home then I ever planned on knowing. Home building isn’t my gig and is not something I plan on taking up but this is our home and there is certain feeling of awesome to have such an in depth part of building it.  

Me up on the roof this afternoon.  I'm doing some prep work before the last roof panel is lifted and layed in place.  Every component of a home build takes more time that you think so we know we have a little ways to go in that regard but still we are oh so close to getting this baby closed in. 

About ten days ago I think.  The timber framers were back to finish off the porch timbers.  Kelpies on supervision duties. The porch is up and the porch ceiling boards were put in place while I was away. 

As more and more of the exterior is filled in the feel of the interior becomes more apparent and causes one to think about plans for the inside - (no I have no plans figured out yet).  I'm leaning to woolen goods of course, from rugs and whatever else I can felt, to artwork and mounted photographs.  I have a whole winter to think it through.   

Solo Photo Sunset Silhouette

A quick solo photo before I head off for a short trip to collect our certificate of merit for commercial wool production. 

I am looking forward to being in the company of wool folk, which also means a bit of a break from house building.  We have been working so steady the last month; the progress will continue while I step out. 

Let Us All Be Dog Wise

Dear readers, exciting things are happening. The first of which arrived this week - hand delivered to myself by Judith, the author.  A lovely gesture given it’s over an hour for her to get here and another back home again. 

Dog Wise, What We Learn From Dogs is a compilation of stories, well told through interviews with local, ordinary dog people who live and work with dogs. Each chapter touches on a different facet of dogdom - show dogs, detection dogs, therapy, police, herding, guardian, sled dogs… and what life lessons the individuals glean from their way of life with dogs. I’m pleased to have played a role in the books making by way of being a part of a couple chapters and utterly fascinated to have been asked to contribute a handful of pictures to the photographic edition. 

I view this as a proud start for myself, and a good start to future projects. Knowing Judith has been working on this book project for a long time and seeing her complete it re-ignites the candle flame of a wish to see a book of my own making take shape in the foreseeable future. 

The print edition of Dog Wise is available on Amazon now and the photographic edition will be available soon.  The photographic edition is soft cover and printed on regular, not glossy, paper - just so you know what to expect should you wish to purchase.  Either one or both editions of the book will make lovely Christmas gifts for any dog person in your life. 

Here's a snippet of what is in the guardian dog and herding dog chapters.

“Between the tearing of my eyes and the acres of rolling pasture I can hardly see the sheep, let alone the dogs. Then in the distance a huge, coyote-coloured dog appears.  A bear-shaped dog emerges from the terrain. One by one the guardian dogs materialize from the flock.”
“Arlette thought the guardian dogs had taught here more about the nature of dogs than any other breed. A lot of what she learned came from simply observing the dogs carry out their genetic purpose.  “It’s a rare thing to watch a dog live and act out its purpose,” she said. 
"Meanwhile, Rex and Jared were in silent communication.  Jared occasionally tossed out a word or a low volume whistle. "There," "walk up," and "enough." ... .. I quickly worked out two basic sheep laws: 'don't be last' and don't be first.' Breaking either rule resulted in instant sheep chaos -- which is where Rex came in."  
“In the dog’s world Arlette believes, the concept of right or wrong never occurs to the dog.  The dog hears the command, and knows what it means, but there’s something else out there that needs to be attended to.  In the dog’s mind, that’s not wrong.  “That’s a hard lesson to learn for people who think obedience is important,” she admitted. 

I’m going to attend the book launch at the end of October.  Although I am a voracious reader I have never been to a book launch before.  Exciting times.

Out To Graze

With the arrival of the fall season the flock has settled. There is less calling between ewes and the few remaining lambs. The sheep are often still lying down when I arrive in the morning and I watch them rise and head out for the days graze.  With increased predator pressure in the fall the ewes stay a bit closer together. 

Today they stuck close enough to each other that when a few ewes slipped the fence the entire flock left the pasture on a walkabout.  To our surprise the entire flock was wandering around the neighbours canola stubble this evening. 

As soon as we rounded them up and headed them back in the direction of the pasture the ewes showed us just where they had slipped the fence.  They found a spot where the wire was high due to a fence post that lifted out of the mud at the edge of a wetland.

Solo Photo - Getting Serious

A photo from summer time.  Birdie and Wren at the beginning of a disagreement.  Birdie not quite of age and assertiveness to make it last but all that has changed now.  

Being A Foot Soldier

Whenever I talk of moving the flock while on foot and then not always knowing where stock dogs are when you’re on foot our friend Bill never fails to remark that I need to start working my dogs from horseback.  I was tempted to follow that line of thought at one time and thats the reason we have two pasture ornament horses.  

But I know this now, I’m a foot soldier; I’m not into horses.  Well, I’m not into trying to fit horses into this already full life. I have plenty enough to love about what I do and I do like being on foot when I’m with the dogs and the sheep.  There is something very amicable and earthy about moving a large group of animals across this prairie landscape while on foot.  Losing the flock and dogs as they or I pass over a hill and meeting up again, every thing still in order. It is trustful, chaotic beauty at its finest.  And occasionally it's just plain chaos but those times make it the two-fold story that it is. 

By working on foot I’ve grown accustomed to checking with the flock to make an educated guess as to where the dogs might be.  BlackJack had a few turns at flock work this summer and it’s still up for debate whether he’s ready for this or not.  In this photo he’s working with Gibson (I like to work the youngsters with experienced dogs).  I happen to be at the front of the flock at this point; sometimes we're all at the rear, sometimes I'm in the lead; the dogs learn to work both scenarios.

I can tell where Gibson is by the shape of the flock.  See the smooth arc of ewes at the top, about centre and to the right.  Gibson is holding and wearing in that area.  BlackJack on the other hand is coming into the bunch up at the top, on the left hand side.  See the small spot where the ewes are all uneven up there.  If you biggify and look closely there is a black Kelpie head there.  

The Nature of LGD's Makes It So

A well liked photo on Facebook yesterday, perhaps because of the common expressions from each of the dogs which gives a certain solemn mood.

The dogs were not set up for the photo, in case you’re wondering.  I just finished with feeding them and was taking a look around seeing where the flock was at and deciding whether to stay and take photos or head in.  I looked this way and there’s these three sitting on the hillside, all contemporary looking.  I got a series of photos of them, each one with it’s own mood and story.  

That they remained there while I took photos was a big bonus.  At one point Tex shifts around and Lily gets up and I'm thinking the moment is over.  But Lily just moves over and sits again.  To fun and at the same time a bit bizarre that three dogs sitting strikes me as something to be photographed.  It's the nature of LGD's that makes it so. 

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