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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The sheep have the program down pat

I believe the sheep are ready.

The dogs aren't. It's too early for them to know just what to do, when, and why. They are still learning why we were frowning and why going away (left) is not what we asked when we said go bye (right). They are trying, but sometimes it looks like they are having more fun than we ourselves would like them to be having, at that moment anyways.

The people, well we're all a mess right now. I don't think 26 owners/handlers are sleeping well. Too many go byes and aways stored up perhaps, or too many nightmares of sheep going off in all directions.

That's the problem with, and the joy of, herding. You are never ready. Your dog is never ready. The sheep are sheep - they are always ready.

It's just about that time. This weekend, 26 dogs have entered 27 runs. There's one dog entered on both sheep and ducks. Several of the dogs will not be running tho, one is too sore, another won't leave her handlers side reliably - not yet. There may be one or two more who's owners or handlers have decided are not ready. I'm not so sure about that approach to trialing, I believe every opportunity to take your dog and stock through a course is something learned and if things fall apart, then quietly ask your dog to come with you to exit the arena, but we should always at least try. It is very humbling to say the least, and like no other dog sport or dog activity on earth. It's foundation is, to me, what is most important. To be able to have a dog help you take your livestock from Point A to Point B in a quiet, efficient manner. The sheep really like that. They look forward to grazing, to going for a walk in a new or even old place, as long as they can eat more. More of something, anything, just more. Done properly, done nicely, done with consideration and respect for the sheep or whatever livestock you prefer - that is the ultimate goal. A happy dog. A happy handler. And happy livestock.

2 more days of practice time left, then the sheep get a day off while the humans get everything ready. The sheep got extra hay tonight, they've been getting extra hay for 2 weeks now. It takes food to build muscle, and we don't want tired sheep out there this weekend - we want strong sheep.

Did you know sheep flex their muscles? I've seen 3 sheep line up 3 across, much like linebackers in a football game, and face the dog. They put their heads down and stare at the dog, as if to say "make me!"...after all, they ARE Shetland sheep. It's a curious situation to get into. Young dogs or inexperienced dogs get into this pickle. The dogs in the know, don't. Some dogs have an innate ability to turn their power on and off, but young or inexperienced dogs often don't know that they 'have' any power other than by trying to touch the sheep or stare them down, so when there's a face-down, they don't know what to do. If that happens during a trial, you can usually hear a pin drop in the crowd of observers. They are holding their breath...they have all 'been there'. Will the dog take a step forward? Will it nip a nose, not too hard tho? Will the dog try going to the back side of the linebackers instead? Will the sheep give up, turn, and move for the dog? It's always a moment of truth. At that moment, it is all up to the dog and the sheep... and the handler can say all it wants to, but it's not the handler's moment. No, not at all. Whatever the outcome, everyone hopes that they don't hear the words "Thank you!". That's the death knell, time to exit the arena before you'd planned or hoped on exiting.

At every trial, there is a moment etched in your brain, or many moments if it was a good trial. Those etchings are invaluable. I can catch sheep better than most people. The more you use a dog to help you work sheep, the more you understand about sheep, and dogs, and yourself. The better you can catch sheep, even as you get older and move slower. The moments are a good thing. Good trials are full of good moments. And now, the sheep have the program down pat. It will be an interesting, and humbling, weekend.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

It's raining and there's hay cut in the field...

It's raining and there's cut hay in the field. Oh well. 5 weeks without a drop of rain, forest fires burning out of control across the state....we needed rain. Everything needed rain. The animals needed rain...the dust was out of control. Leaves on the trees were curling up. Grazing meant dusty grazing, the grass coated with dust.....and ash. Yes, when we woke that morning to the dense smoke from a fire very south of us that had enveloped our world overnight, there was a light dusting of wood ash on could write on the hood of the truck with your finger through the ash. It also covered the trees and the grass, which meant the grazing animals were indeed eating not only dust but ash. Probably not much, but still.... teaching lessons in the dust clouds the sheep feet stirred up left grit in my teeth and my hair coated. So we needed the rain. It is supposed to end by tomorrow, the sun to come back out and drying days ahead, so even tho the hay has been cut and is down, and it may turn a lighter shade of green than I'd like to see in the barn hayloft this winter, it will still dry out, it will still be baled, and it will still provide needed fiber to my goats and sheep. You know, it was the 3rd coldest winter on what kind of record will we set this summer with this drought? Who knows, it's amazing how the pendulum swings...

Today is our first day of rest in many days now. I have things to do, pens to clean, work staring me in the face, but we also need to get some rest. There are bales of hay to put on the elevator to the hayloft, but it's raining now so soon we'll be working late into the night to put them in place for the long year ahead...not now tho. There are bills waiting to be paid, but how can you write checks and balance farm books when you're sleepy? There's a screw up on my first registrations for my lambs...maybe I fell asleep when I was excitedly filling out my registration application, I don't know, but somehow a moorit ewe produced a black lamb and a black ewe produced a moorit lamb according to the paperwork so that will have to be mailed back for corrections. I am quite sure the moorit belongs to the moorit and the black belongs to the black...oh well, things happen. And when it's raining, all the animals get quiet. I think they are happy to have the rain too, happy to just sleep and wait for their humans to eventually pop out the door so they can get noisy and call for something, anything, and preferably attention. So for now, all is quiet.

The photo is of the storm that took several hours of our sleep Tuesday night. This was the first wave that hit Anchorage - at the base of the photo you can see the south hayfield. A few hours later the BIG storm came directly over us with more lightening than I've seen in many years.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Been away too long...

I've been away too long. When things get too busy on the farm, I don't get much time to just think, let alone type. This has been a busy week, and a week filled with adrenaline. Our weather turned hot, It does this here a couple of times a summer. We hit 84 degrees several times this week.....but we live near the mountains. Actually, we are almost surrounded by mountains. Mountains and heat don't mix, they cause thermal uplifts, which cause thunderclouds to build up, and lightening comes from that. We don't have lightening around here except the rare days of high heat. And where there is lightening and virgin forests of mostly birch and spruce, there is fire. Lots of fires. This time no closer than 25 miles....better than last year when there was one not 2 miles down the road. Tuesday was our day to bale our north hayfield. It was the 2 of us to start, soon another man showed up to help, then another. I was relieved of duties to continue the farm chores. I was happy to get out of the open field, and worried about those left on the haywagon to stack the winter hay. You see, another person showed up to warn us to get out of the field, rain was coming, but they'd just flashed an emergency report on the TV to take cover....there was a level 8 storm headed our way. What? Here?? We've seen those things on TV ourselves, except in some state in the lower-48... not here. Watching the sky, I could see an upside down triangle. I grew up at the end of Tornado Alley, and that cloud approaching our hayfield looked too familiar. I worried. In the end, we were very lucky...the storm split and went east and west of us, only a spit of rain on the last of the hay to be baled, and the men finished up and only 100 bales were counted from a field that normally produces 200-300 bales. We also figured out that this hay cost us $1200, unless of course by some miracle we get that once in ten year 2nd cutting. With no rain for over 5 weeks, it's all we could take from the field. We got to bed before midnight, our last good night's sleep of the week. The cattle and horses are now grazing it for the next few weeks... fertilizing as they go, eating lots of good food and cleaning up the debris left behind.

The next night the storms built up over the mountains again. This time there was no triangle, but I knew we were in trouble when the sheep were all bedded down early in the shed. Just after midnight it let loose. Remember, it's the longest day of the year tomorrow so we have plenty of daylight late into the night...the storm hit. More lightening, more thunder, this time hail and a brief heavy downpour. The lightening kept going...and going... and going. I had to stay up, I was too worried what the storm was doing, so I sat up and watched. It went on longer than any lightening storm I can remember up here in 26 years of living in Alaska.

By morning, news of the fire 25 miles north came via the phone. Too many friends serve on the fire crews and such not to have known about it right away. It started at Deshka Landing and had burned 350 acres. I was informed he'd be coming home to get the water tanker out so I could get it filled, just in case. There was no real effort to put it out, only to keep it away from things owned. Funny. Our forestry fire fighters are a bunch of idiots, at least that is what everyone here is beginning to believe. They'd said the same thing about the Miller's Reach Fire that nearly ended up burning Wasilla to the ground in the late 90's, it came too close, it was too far out of control. So is this fire now. Over 9700 acres have burned and no stop in sight.

This morning we woke up to still air and thick yellow smoke. So thick, when I first looked out the window I thought it was fog. But it was the wrong color for fog. I had a slight headache, and my nose was all stuffed up. Rick got up and felt the same way. We have a window fan in our bedroom that blows fresh air in all night had blown in the putrid smoke instead. I stuck my head out the door and took a good wiff...then chills went down my spine. I turned on the news and turned on my computer to see where it was coming from and if there was yet another fire even closer to home. The winds had changed enough to bring us the smoke from the fire 250 miles south of us, the Caribou Hills fire on the Kenai Peninsula. It started as a small fire too. Now it's burned over 20,000 acres and still growing.

There are many fires now burning in Alaska... every summer, forest fires start from the thunderstorms more common in the 'interior' and on the Kenai Peninsula. When you wake to the smell and thick smoke, it causes your mind to flash back to other fires of the past. I know the animals didn't like it this morning. They were very very quiet. I wonder what they are thinking too. The sheep did not call to me as loudly as they usually do, they weren't pacing and dancing all over the place looking for their breakfast. They were indeed hungry and let me know, just in case I should ever forget I suppose, but they too were just a bit worried. I fed them well today, a little extra hay to help calm their nerves if indeed they were as nervous as I. You can not eliminate the natural fears that you are born with, nor those that you learn along life's journeys, you can only deal with them the best you know how. I can not make my sheep deny their natural fears but I can do my best to keep them calm and hay is always good for that. A call to a few friends made my morning better, and by afternoon new winds had come up and blown the smoke away leaving fresh air once again. The smoke is still pouring into the sky somewhere, and for now it's not here so it's time to get things done while it's still comfortable outside to do them.

We have another hayfield down, waiting for enough dry weather to bale it and put it in the barn. The weather forecasters say we are to finally get rains again starting tomorrow...too soon for putting up the hay that's almost but not quite dry enough. I can wish that the rain doesn't come, afterall we've been without it for 5 weeks now, but then when I think of the smell of this mornings smoke, and how everything here is still a tinder box waiting for an accident to happen, I will not cry if it rains tomorrow.

All week long, dealing with hay and fires....been away too long.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Another hot day and the grass is mowed

Ok, not THAT kind of grass... not the lawn... the north hayfield. It's mowed. It was fluffed today too. It didn't rain again. Hasn't rained in 4 weeks. Not supposed to rain for another week either. So, the stunted grasses to become hay were mowed. Perhaps Tuesday... maybe we'll bale hay then, if the winds blow in the afternoons, the heavy dew dries off in the early morning hours, and we have enough energy to keep fluffing up the drying grasses. There won't be much hay, perhaps only 1/3 of what it should have been. I'm not sure how we'll find more, but somehow we will, because we're farmers. We're used to disappointment. And to joys. There's more than a dozen bantam chicks in a big crate with a mother hen right now in our smaller chicken coop. There are Black Pied Muscovies in the big chicken coop setting eggs. So far they've hatched at least a dozen ducklings, well, they and the Chocolate Pied Muscovies have hatched some too. If you've never owned a few of them, you should. They like sheep. They don't quack. And they're not much on taking baths, which certainly keeps a cleaner coop. And they are very smart ducks and know when you are talking to them... they will wag their tails. See? I told you they like sheep... they've been watching the Shetlands wag their tails perhaps??
And it was hot today. Too hot for us, too hot for the cool-weather plants that live up here too. It was 77 degrees here, and I was out in it far too long. I feel burnt. Some of the sheep were down at the arena all day too... it was fine while there was shade from the trees, but as the heat got hotter, they were not too happy. They lay in the shade until it was too hot to be comfortable laying down. They got up, ate some more grass, and laid down again. Poor sheep. None of us are used to this weather. Tomorrow they will get to stay home, and rest in their cool shed. I think I owe it to them to feed them in their shed tomorrow too. They are good sheep.

Friday, June 15, 2007

What have you done to me!

Oh my.

You sent me to Alaska, and now look. Look at this outrageous behavior!
Erika and Kristi came by to see what I looked like and to take my photo, and this Silveraurora woman grabbed me, held my front feet, and put me in her lap. How undigified for such a handsome, ramly ram lamb that I am too!
I was glad when she finally put me down.
I did manage to give her 'the evil eye' once I ran off to the corner tho.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

74 degrees

No, not 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon.... it hit 74 degrees here today. It was a very nice warm day on the farm. Lots of work got done when the breezes kicked up, but before there it was a bit too hot for us. Really. The sun is closest to us on the longest day of the year, coming up soon this month. The sun is intense. We've had people from the south come visit and laugh at the idea of 74 being hot.
They did sweat allot.
They agreed, it was very hot.
They didn't like admitting it. Hehehe....
And it's hot from 11am until at least 5pm too.
The farm animals liked the heat today. My Quarter Horse, Texs Odd Sox, a Tex A Jet son and Jet Deck grandson, thought it was soooooooo lovely. He's 27 now, I've had the bugger since he turned 3. He's in excellent condition to this day. His best buddy is the black Percheron with him, Barney. When he hears Barney's cowbell nearby, he knows it's ok to snooze for a bit. Sox has always layed down flat and taken a nap on sunny days. I've always been able to walk up, sit down, and stroke his lovely face while he lays there, he just enjoys the attention. I enjoy his company too.
The sheep had a good day also. Almost all of the ewes and their lambs got to go down to the arena to graze for the afternoon. We set fence posts and panels for the upcoming herding trials at the end of the month. The sheep didn't care, they were happy to graze. Now they're all back up to their paddock for the night, filling up on water and eating hay. I'm sure they will sleep well too. These are the kinds of days in Alaska that make the winters fade to a distant memory. We are always happy to have a few of them when they show up. Hope you enjoyed your day too!
Oh, and I did go back out later, just to make sure....
yep, he was up and walking around, looking rather refreshed from his afternoon siesta.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

My sheep worked today

My sheep worked hard today. So did I. They've gone to bed now. I'm about done too. Today we had 24 dogs out. 7 during the first lesson session; 17 for a club that wanted an introduction to sheep herding. Some of the oldest lambs worked today and they learned how to stay with the big sheep. They learned it didn't do any good to run off trying to find momma to protect them, they were on their own. They learn quickly. With good dogs, kind dogs, dogs that only wanted them to return to their handler and stay in a nice tight group. It's good for them to learn to run back to the human and to the safety of the other sheep. The human becomes more important. The few sheep that don't get it don't get to stay. They don't ever seem to understand that there is safety in numbers, safety being close to the human. Of course, nothing really happens to them far away from the others or the human, but they think it will, they aren't happy about that. They have too much fear and can't overcome it. Those sheep are best retired, sent to another flock where they can run at the sight of a falling branch. Or perhaps to the freezer. That's not a happy life for any living thing, fear of anything that moves. So, the lambs are learning to stay with their group and near the human. The humans learn to watch sheep's ears - forward or back. Head carriage - down or up in alert mode. Tails tell stories too. I am proud of my lambs. There are some very good working lambs in this year's group. They learned quickly. They acted like they've been doing this for weeks on end. Good lambs. Good dogs. Good humans and good company. A good working day.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Sleep deprived

You'd think, now that lambing season is over with, I'd get some sleep. I have been, somewhat, all things considered. But last night I awoke to the sounds of a doe giving birth to twin goat kids. Did you know I raise registered Nigerian Dwarf Dairy Goats too? And hand milk twice a day, every day, 365 days a year (unless I can get out of here for a vacation, which I haven't done for almost 2 years now)? Goats usually make allot of noise giving birth. My sheep are pretty darned quiet. I wonder why they are so different? I was up from 2am until 3:30am... that's a strange time to be awake at this time of year in Alaska. It's not very dark. Hardly dark at all actually, since it's still dusk at midnight and dawn is in the sky by 3am or so... an eerie time of the night to walk out to the barn. It's very quiet. But, as my predator post comes to mind, you step out and listen for a minute, look around carefully for another minute, before proceeding. Something could be in the driveway. Or near the barn, or over by the sheep paddock. So I look out the windows first, step out the door and look second, and third, keep my ears and eyes open on my way out to the barn. I'm already woozie from being awakened by a screaming doe, sort of like having someone shake your bed violently. Not very pleasant. I want to hurry to her to be there, comfort her, make sure her kids are ok, but I don't hurry, I walk carefully. ME told me about her snakes...I remember snakes. Who'd want to step on a snake. Who'd want to run into a predator going through your yard. I'd like neither, thank you. I'm looking forward to sleeping tonight. I worked hard today and it was a good day. I also danced, just a little bit, with one of my herding student's dogs and some of my sheep. It was a good day to dance.

The photo above is of a 3/4 Shetland 1/4 Suffolk ewe lamb on the right with her boyfriend, a handsome little black Shetland ram lamb with a nice Krunet. They stayed that way for a long time.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Dancing sheep

Sheep like to dance. At least lambs do. There are moments in every sheep's life, often when we aren't looking or when we don't have a camera handy, that they dance. They like to have a dance floor tho. So, in several of my photos you will see young sheep laying on or next to their dance floor. It's the top of a big plastic dog house on the ground. Jump over. Jump onto. Whirl around. The sound is fun. It's a step higher than their friends. Two on top can play king of the hill. When they're done, they lay down next to it and nap, like a kid falling asleep with their favorite toy.
Dance like it's the last day of your life, or your first.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Predators and Prey

Predators and Prey

Sheep have eyes on the sides of their heads. They are prey.

Most everything else that invades a farm or ranch have eyes in the front of their head. They are predators.

What do you do when your sheep start disappearing? How far do you go to prevent a loss? How far SHOULD you go to prevent a loss?

When we as shepherds have lambs surrounding us, we also must realize that all of the predators out there are now having kids of their own. They are hungry. They must feed what they have helped multiply. Lambs make good meals. Sheep make good meals. When a predator takes down a lamb or sheep, they don't make a noise.

Neither do the lambs or sheep. Rarely do they make a sound.

And then we can't find them.

A friend recently had a mature sheep disappear... into thin air. Poachers, perhaps. But more likely a predator. What to do, what to do??

You decide what is best for you and your flock. You need to weigh the elimination of a predator against the elimination of one of your sheep or lambs, or more than one of them. Only you can decide what is best. Your local laws may help guide you just what you can and can't do of course. Federal laws also come into play, along with big fat fines and possible jail time if it's protected. You need to know your laws. I will repeat, since this is VERY important, you NEED to know your laws. And your rights. And that of the predators. And that of the prey. Crimes of passion. And once in a great while, a good lawyer. Do you have a good lawyer? They can come in handy when you are a passionate person.

Predators and prey. We live with a lot of both here.

Moose have it pretty good, they can kill an attacker with those front hooves, rearing up and flailing away. Not only domestic dogs, not only wolves and fox, but once in a great while, humans that are foolish enough to get in the way of their proceedings. A man was killed a few years ago at the University of Alaska Anchorage campus coming out of a school building that a moose was grazing in front of in the winter. They had it on video, showed it on the news. It wasn't the first human to go bye-bye, and it won't be the last. I wish sheep could take lessons from the moose.

The 1st photo above is of the moose that seem to congregate here in the fall, a few days after hunting season closes. The 2nd photo is dark, but you can count 10 in that photo. They like the 10 acre organic hay field below the house, they know it's good for them I suppose. If you look closely, there is a young bull moose there mid photo on the left. He was a very happy boy that fall as no other bulls showed up. I'd rather have my sheep grazing down there after the fall cutting, but they might have to fight another prey animal for space. Of course, perhaps then the sheep would finally learn to rear up on their hind legs and defend themselves.....

Monday, June 4, 2007

I forgot

Someone reminded me that they like photos of the lambs growing up.
I haven't put many on my blog yet, so here are a few of the many photos already taken. Enjoy!


So where did the weekend go? Or where did you go this weekend? It flew by. Summer weekends do that. For those in the burbs, going here and there, perhaps the mall, the grocery store, a movie. For those with livestock, more moving hay and grain, more water, and more water, and some more water, and perhaps a little gardening and if there's any time left, a little weeding around the flowers in the yard. Check on the sheep while you water. Again while you feed. And water. Did you get rain for your fields or your farmer's hayfields? We need rain. It almost rained today. It got dark, and windy, and I could see the rain between here and the mountains. I had to take a goat kid to our substitute vet, bless her heart she would see my goat kid with the foxtail in her throat, our usual vet is serving time in Iraq... they really didn't have to take the only large animal vet in the area, did they? It sprinkled at the vet clinic. As I headed home, it sprinkled more. It got darker the closer to home I got. I thought, well, let's help this along a bit, so my filthy truck got to go through the car wash too.

Nothing worked.

Not even a sprinkle here.

Now the clouds have gone, the sky is blue, and it will be light outside until nearly midnight tonight. And no rain in the 7 day forecast.

Which could be good for people who live in the burbs, but it is not good for shepherds with sheep to feed.

See, I told you in a post below we will be chewing nails off until it's haying season. We need rain now, not sun. We'll need sun then, not rain. All bets are off.

So? How about you???

Friday, June 1, 2007

Welcome June

Welcome June.

The grass is growing in Alaska, as are the hayfields. Spring has been cooler than normal tho, we need some heat now. We need the Brome and Timothy to grow as fast as it can. We need hay. Everyone here had a poor hay year last year, it was too damp so not all of the hay baled was as dry as it needed to be. We are clearing out the barn of hay, and that's always a scary thing, it's better to have a half a year of hay still left in the barn when the new hay comes up the elevators. The next 4 weeks we'll be missing finger nails and watching countless weather forecasts too. Choosing the wrong day to cut can make or break a year here, especially since we only get one cutting for dry bales. In the fall, we round bale silage bales. Some people call it bailage, some haylage. The dew point stays too high too long in the day for good dry hay for baling in the fall, so sealed wrapped round bales are our answer and the livestock love it.

Round bales are nice for the sheep. But you have to keep an eye on them. After several days the bales begin to resemble top-heavy mushrooms. Then you need to move the bale onto it's side, or it will collapse on the sheep. I had the horrors of finding a very flattened young ram under the then-consumed hay some months ago when I was moving the bale ring around. Sigh. I thought my other half had tipped the bale for me, evidently the sheep had done it on their own. Not a good thing. I had assumed we lost him to a predator. Now I'm more diligent. I have an idea designed for a new bale feeder. Perhaps Rick will have time after first cutting to get one welded up for the flock.

Hay hay hay. It's on every one's mind now. I'm sure it's the same for you. What kind will you get this year and from whom? Will you have your hay tested to know what the protein content is, and perhaps check your calcium to phosphorous ratio too? That's always good to do you know. 2:1 is important for growing healthy lambs in utero, and good for the ewe too.

Welcome June!
Oh, and ME, good luck at the show!