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Thursday, September 22, 2011

"Stupid is as stupid does." Mrs. Gump

Have you ever done something really, really stupid and then, done the same, really, really stupid thing again?  I confess, I have.  And I got away with it twice without anybody getting hurt.

As I was recovering from the minor carnage of my repeat effort at stupidity, I thought about Lorraine's mantra of looking at life as an adventure.  This certainly fit the bill.  It also occurred to me that I was blogging out our "adventures" and I had to make the decision of whether to slink away quietly and never share with anyone what happened, or, I could fess up and share it with the world in the hopes they wouldn't do the same stupid thing.  As you can probably surmise, I've opted for the latter.

My first major stupid occurred in 2007, I think it was, on a trip to MN to pick up our first Icelandic sheep.  That's plural for sheep as we were stopping at two separate farms before returning home with our load of four Icelandics.  First though, a  little fun was to be had on a tour of the Mall of America.

Keep in mind this trip involved towing our 1986 livestock trailer.  The color of the trailer is different shades of rust.  Suffice it to say, we weren't going to impress anybody with this trailer.  But, that's not the point of this story, is it?  The point here is that I dragged a trailer behind our Excursion from Iowa to Minnesota and we're now cruising the Mall of America parking lot for  a place to park.  And, being the efficient guy that I am, I wanted to park as close as possible to the entrance as possible like everybody else.  Not knowing the area at all I found myself driving up a ramp to an elevated parking ramp.  Getting to the top of the ramp though, I realized it was a covered parking garage and that I wasn't going to fit with my big Excursion dragging a big livestock trailer.  I nimbly, if I do say so myself, backed out, got turned around and headed back down the ramp to the parking lot where anybody else dragging a trailer and having at least one little lick of common sense would park.  Feeling pretty proud of myself I moved down the ramp and hit a speed bump a little faster than I should have and, before I could do, well, anything, I realized that I was going faster than my trailer.  The trailer had bounced off the hitch and was now following me down the ramp.  Since the tongue of the trailer was now down on the pavement it was slowing, but certainly not stopping.  And I wasn't steering it anymore either (that's apparently why the laws state that there are to be chains attached from the trailer to the bumper, in case something like this happens so something like this doesn't happen).  I very quickly realized I needed to stop that thing before it got any more out of control.  I swerved in front of the trailer and let it hit the Excursion which I quickly braked to a stop.  Major catastrophe averted.

I got out of the Excursion and walked back to the trailer.  As far as I could tell the only damage was the front end of the trailer pushed in and a nice sized dent on the upper part of the rear quarter panel of the Excursion.  Both were still drivable. 

Now, this trailer is really, really heavy and, try as  I might, I couldn't lift the tongue back onto the hitch.  I asked Dani, my daughter, to help, but the two of us still weren't strong enough.  Then, like a gift from God, a good Samaritan pulled up behind me.  And, God bless him, he not only helped me lift the tongue back onto the hitch, but he also gave me an out for looking incredibly stupid and inept.  He said, "so, looks like somebody must have messed with your locking collar."  Yep, that's it!  It was somebody else's fault that the locking collar wasn't engaged to keep the trailer from falling off the hitch when I hit a bump.  Of course, he assumed that I'd been parked in the mall and that some vermin of a human being intentionally messed with my hitch.  And, of course, I didn't say anything to dissuade him of that belief.  I just grunted an, "I guess," thanked him repeatedly and we both moved on our way.

When I got back into the Excursion I was really rattled.  I was literally shaking from the burst of adrenalin coursing through my veins.  And then I started catastrophizing.  It occurred to me that I'd probably not engaged the locking collar on the hitch when I'd left IA.  I could have hit one of hundreds of bumps along the trip that could have caused the trailer to drop off the hitch.   That included while driving 70 mph on the interstate.  I then had visions of the trailer careening across the median into oncoming traffic.   It also occurred to me that the only way to make that worse would have been for it to happen on the trip home with livestock in the trailer. 

Now, it's possible that someone might have messed with the hitch while we were parked at a restaurant or rest area on the way home, but it's more likely this not too smart farmer had a lot to do with the oversight.  That being realized there on the ramp at Mall of America's parking garage, I promised myself I would check that hitch every time I got into the vehicle for the rest of my life, or as long as I owned the trailer, which ever was shorter.   And I did, until this morning.

This is where it really pains me most.  Having to admit to doing the same stupid thing twice.  

I got up a little earlier than usual this morning to run a couple of lambs over to the Redfield Locker.  We needed some additional inventory for the upcoming Des Moines Downtown Farmer's Market (we'll be there Saturday, October 1st by the way).   Evan (my son) had hooked up the trailer the night before and we'd loaded the two lambs so they'd be ready to go in the morning.  I vividly remember looking at the collar and then checking the connector for the lights since they weren't working.  I wasn't too worried about the lights since I'd be driving in the day time.  In my mind, the locking collar was engaged.

The delivery part of the trip was uneventful other than seeing my neighbor to the west nearly drive off the westbound ramp as he was heading onto I-80.  But he didn't.

After arriving at the locker I unloaded the lambs and gave my instructions for processing.  I jumped into the Excursion and pulled out of the locker's parking area.  I heard an unusual metal on metal bump as I drove out of the lot.  I thought to myself, "self, you should probably check that hitch."  But, self wasn't listening and rationalized, "I know I checked that hitch last night when Evan hooked it up.  It's fine."  Surely that kind of talk is the work of Satan himself because, after another two blocks, I hit a modest bump in the road.  I instinctively looked in the rear view mirror and verbalize in my mind, "Oh $%#T," as I watched the trailer sending up a spray of sparks from the pavement, veer to the left, up over a curb and into Heartland Coop's gravel parking lot.  I cruised parallel to the trailer for about 25 yards, willing it to stop as it headed towards two small, above ground fuel tanks.  I envisioned a fiery blaze as the trailer skidded to a halt a mere three feet from the first tank.  I pulled into the parking lot and, looking around, hoped that nobody had witnessed this embarrassing feat.  If anybody saw it, they weren't coming out to check on me or try to help.  Using the word "fortunately" here is like calling a three legged dog with a broken tail and a bite out of his ear, "Lucky," but I was fortunate nothing was damaged.  No cars, no trucks, no pedestrians and, mercifully, no flaming carnage.  And I was fortunate nobody saw what happened.

I was able to push the trailer away from the tank enough to back to the Excursion to the hitch, but, as was the case at the Mall of America, I wasn't strong enough to lift it.  I figured if anybody had witnessed the event they'd come out to help but, either nobody saw it or, if they did, they weren't willing to help.  Or, worse, they saw it and just stayed inside looking out the windows wondering how a not too smart farmer was going to solve his problem, all well meeting their entertainment quota for the day.

This escapade took place about a block from Redfield Feed.  I was loathe to have to ask for help, but I'm sure Dave at the feed store would if I asked.  The problem was he wasn't open yet and I wasn't sure if he opened in 15 minutes or 45 minutes.  I had to figure this out on my own.

I found my bottle jack for the Excursion.  The problem was, I had to put it about 1/3 of the way back because the jack wouldn't fit under the trailer anywhere closer to the tongue.  I hoped it would raise it enough but wasn't optimistic.  I was right.  I jacked it up as high as I could and put my spare tire under the edge of the trailer on the hitch side of the jack to keep it higher off the ground than it was before I jacked it up.  I then moved the jack to the hitch side of the spare and was able to get the tongue up high enough to pull back the Excursion up and get the ball under the tongue.  After I lowered the tongue onto the ball I engaged the locking collar and checked it twice to make sure it was engaged.  Total time lost, about 20 minutes. 

Now, this has left me wondering just what happened when Evan hooked up the trailer.  I don't know if he actually engaged the locking collar.  I do know that I looked and I saw, or at least I thought I saw, the collar was engaged.  So, is this sort of like those times when you're at an intersection in your car and you look both ways, see that it's clear, only to pull out in front of a motorcycle?  We sometimes see things but, because we're distracted, they don't process the way they should.  I know that I had a habit of checking the hitch regularly, but I didn't this morning, so I guess it's not really a habit.

How stupid is that?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Zephyr 2003-2011

I have another blog that is titled, "... and then it died."  That one is about the Bailey's living their lives of "adventure" which sometimes includes livestock meeting their untimely ends on our farm.   Sometimes the "adventures" make more sense in my other blog.  Sometimes they belong in both.  Like this one.

Death once again visited our farm. This time it took one of our more beloved guests on the farm.

About four years ago we were offered three free wethers. Their names were (are) Sam, JR and Zephyr. I'm not sure who named them or why, but I do know that the person who had them before us couldn't keep them and wanted to find them a good home. As I've said before there's no such thing as a free llama or any other kind of "free" animal. But, I can say that some animals are closer to being free than others. These three Romney crosses fit that description. Our primary up front costs were the trip to Letts, IA, near Muscatine, to pick them up. At 8 miles to the gallon and a 352 mile round trip, you can do the math. As wethers they weren't going to give us lambs neither as mothers or fathers. Their sole purpose on our property would be to deliver us nice fleeces once a year. Two of the three wethers did that and more.

"The Boys" - J.R., Sam and Zephyr from L-R

Sam's fleece was always thinner and not all that desirable to home spinners. Also, unfortunately, Sam was far less stout that either Zephyr or JR. He succumbed during the winter a couple years ago. We had sheared the "boys," as we called them, in October. That's usually more than enough time for a sheep to regrow sufficient fleece to keep them warm. But poor Sam shivered incessantly even early on that winter. I think he just wore out trying to keep warm.

Of the three boys, JR was the problem child. He was both a pain in the butt on the one hand and a wonderful source of fleece on the other. He was so skittish and contrary that he'd bolt the opposite direction I was trying to herd the flock. Sometimes I'd get the flock moving in the direction I wanted only to have JR bolt off in another with several sheep following. Typically it's futile to try and get the remaining sheep in the flock continuing in the intended direction. They wanted to follow JR and the few other wayward sheep. That meant getting them all together in a group again and starting the process of moving them all over again. He eventually settled down a bit, but he was never going to be seeking attention from his shepherds. On the other hand, JR's fleece has been coveted by hand spinners that we know. Not only do the hand spinners like the way it looks and feels, we liked it because of its size.

JR in Winter

While JR lives on, we lost Zephyr late last week. I knew his time was short. He was nine years old which is pretty good for a sheep. In recent months he'd lost a lot of weight. About a week ago I went out there and saw him staggering from weakness. Lorraine suggested taking him to the locker but I didn't have the heart. He was down to skin and bones and he was more like a pet than livestock.

One of my favorite Zephyr pictures, taken by my son-in-law Jordan

I'm guessing Zephyr was bottle fed because he liked to be around people. He liked to have his head and back scratched, sometimes leaning into you as you tousled the wool on his head. And he was very patient and tolerant of the kids even to the point of letting them ride on his back. I always kidded that he reminded me of Eeyore, from Winnie the Pooh. He was so lethargic with a kind of mopey look on his face, locks of wool hanging over his eyes and with his head hanging down. Truth be told, he think he was actually pretty happy on our farm.

Of all of the sheep we've had I don't recall any that were like Zephyr. It was not uncommon for us to be sitting out in the pasture and for Zephyr to come and lay his head on our knee to be petted. I've heard Lorraine shriek on more than one occasion, thinking that something was about to bite, sting or do something else equally unpleasant to her. She would turn only to see Zephyr with his nose to her ear, waiting to be petted.

I think every farm needs a Zephyr. He will be missed.

I wonder who will take his place in our hearts.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Hay finally cut

After much procrastination on my part in looking for someone to bale our hay and, after failing to find anyone willing to do it on shares, I asked the Ory's to cut it for me on a custom rate basis.  That got done on Tuesday.  There's lots of hay on the ground now, but cutting it didn't improve the quality.  I'm yet to take  a stroll out there to see what was underneath that weed infested mess.  Hopefully there's still some good potential for the alfalfa and orchard grass to grow a bit before the first frost and establish a strong root system and some good top growth to reduce winter kill.  I now need to decide what, if any, soil amendments I want to put down now that will make that field healthier.  I know for sure that I need to do everything I can to promote growth of the alfalfa and grass next spring and summer to help choke out the fox tail that will inevitably be growing next year.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Farming can suck sometimes.

If you read one of my early posts you would have learned about my adventure in getting my hay field planted.  We put in alfalfa, orchard grass and oats.  The field was planted late, going in on 6/3/11.  We promptly got scads of rain that created ruts and washed a small portion of my field down a slope, leaving a sparsely seeded area on the high side and densely seed area on the downside.  Those torrential rains were followed by...nothing but a few light sprinkles over the next ninety days.  Now, granted, it wasn't nearly as bad as TX has been this year with their draught, but I watched at least three storms barreling towards our farm veer to the north or south and completely miss us. 

I watched the field over the last three months go from a stand of oats with strong potential to a weed laden field full of oats smothered out by fox tail and other unwanted growth. 

I asked a friend a couple of weeks ago if they would be willing to bale the field into small squares for me.  They came to look at it and felt it was to weedy to make use of as small bales.   They suggested I put it into large rounds.  I contacted Steve Ory (remember Steve from my AI post earlier?) and he put me in touch with his nephew Dan Ory.  Dan took at look at it and said they weren't interested in baling it on shares (they keep 1/2 and I keep 1/2) but they would do it on a custom basis, which means I'd have to pay them in cash to bale it.  They suggested a few names I could call about doing the hay on shares.  Since there's so much weed seed in it the hay would best be used by someone with a feedlot. Nobody wants to put that much weed seed on their pastures.  I made three calls.  Two never called back and the third didn't have a use for the hay either.  I'm out of names and I need to get the hay cut to expose the alfalfa and orchard grass below so that they can grow a bit before the first frost which is coming soon most likely.  That pretty much means I'll need to pay to have it baled and hope I can sell it all, and quickly.

My venture began with the hopes that I could raise a nice stand of oat hay that I could feed to my livestock. If harvested early enough we might then even have a second cut of nice alfalfa/grass hay that I could sell with the proceeds used to pay off the ag loan we took earlier in the year to pay for all of the field work.  Due to my ignorance I managed to let the fox tail go to seed and the oats get over mature which has reduced the value of my hay by probably 50%.    That's going to be an expensive education. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Only in a small town...

It's like the beginning of a Jeff Foxworthy redneck joke, but the truth is there are some things that only happen in small towns.  One of those would be a lunch time discussion about the successful artificial insemination of our cow.  At the time we had two cows.  The cow to be bred was Aster.  She's a cross of a Dutch Belted and a Holstein.  You may recognize a Dutch Belted when you see one. It looks like an Oreo Cookie with a white middle and black ends.  They're dairy cows.  But don't confuse them with the Belted Galloway because they're beef cows.  I'll pretend that I know the difference when we drive by them on the highway but, truth be told, it's hard for me to tell sometimes when they're too far away. 

The particular discussion I'm referring to above on artificial insemination, or AI as it's known, took place in a local restaurant in our small town of Earlham, IA.  It's called the Master Griller and was owned by John Horton at the time. John also has a successful catering business but that' got absolutely nothing to do with my story other than to give John a free plug to my nine readers who will probably never eat in Earlham.

The restaurant is divided into two parts with one less formal that the other, if that's possible.  One part serves off of a menu and the other serves lunch cafeteria style.  In addition to the two or three entrees on the steam table, you can also order burgers, and my personal favorite, breaded tenderloins. 

Lorraine and I had gotten into the habit of eating lunch there on Saturdays.  We'd go out to eat and make the kids stay home and eat leftovers.  Don't let child protective services know please.

One day Lorraine and I were sitting there eating not paying attention to who or what was around us when I hear the guy at the table next to us say, "so how did it work out for your cow."  After first getting the dumb look off of my face trying to figure out who this guy was, the light bulb went on and I realized it was Steve Ory, the guy who AI'd my cow and is a local farmer.  For you literalists, he didn't do it himself, mind you, he used the appropriate equipment and some sperm donated by an ecstatic bull.

I'd only met Steve a couple of times before, but he struck me as a very friendly, genuine kind of guy that would give you the shirt off his back if you asked and he'd throw in his coat and pickup too if he really thought you'd need it.  The first time I met him I thought he was his brother, Mike, who lives down the street.  In his typical, amiable manner, he let me know the mistake was OK and that it happens all the time. 

I don't think we crossed paths again for several months but it was the need for somebody knowledgeable about AI that got me in touch with him.  I'd asked some other local farmers and our vet about AI and none of them did AI work, but they told me to call Steve, which I did.  He explained how the process works.  First, you need to catch your heifer acting like she's fertile.

PARENTAL WARNING:  I'M GOING TO DISCUSS PROCREATION HERE!  Not mine, but cows.

You can get a pretty good indication that a cow is fertile when other cows try to mount her.  If you see this activity in the morning, you need to perform AI in the afternoon. If the activity is in the afternoon you need to perform AI the next morning.  I've now pretty much exhausted my working knowledge of identifying cows in heat.

I also forgot to mention, you need some bull semen and that's a sub story in itself so bear with me.

There's a thriving industry of brokering bull semen.  Donors are identified by the desirable genetic traits.  Semen is extracted from the bull by means that would be more graphic than this forum would allow.  The semen is placed in straws which are narrow glass tubes that are about 2 1/2 inches long.  These tubes are frozen in liquid nitrogen and can be stored for many years I suppose.  The aforementioned brokers have huge tanks that can store hundreds of straws each.  Locating and storing our semen was an education in itself.

Lorraine checked around and found a lady that owned some bull semen she was willing to sell us.  The good news is that the straws only cost about $8 each.   We wanted three in case the process didn't work the first time or two.  The bad news was, it would cost about $80 to ship because it needed to be shipped overnight in a special container that would keep the semen frozen.  It would cost about the same as buying the straws and having them shipped, but this way we'd have the tank for future use.  I headed to Hawkeye and bought the tank, liquid nitrogen (really cool stuff, figuratively and literally and the straws and we were on our way home. 

This is when we became voyeurs and started watching our cows showing signs of being "frisky."  It didn't take but a few days and I called Steve.  I told him that we'd spied a couple of our heifers trying to do the dirty deed that afternoon.  He said to bring her over the next morning and he'd be glad to AI her.  Suffice it to say, when I told my work place that I was going to be late I didn't try to explain that it involved sex and a farm animal.

Evan and I got the cow loaded and I drove the two miles to the Ory Farm.   We got her unloaded and into a stanchion and then Steve got his equipment ready to go.  This was the first time I'd ever witnessed the procedure so I was certainly curious.

Before opening the AI case with "the tool" was pulled out, he place a long plastic glove over his hand and arm and inserted his arm into the vagina of the heifer.  Aster wasn't exactly enamored with this procedure but didn't complain too much.  Steve extracted his arm and a plethora of mucous followed the gloved arm and hand out.  Steve said that Aster's cervix was open and that, combined with the plentiful mucous suggested we probably had the timing right on this.

He then extracted what looked like a long, large bore needle with a rounded, hollow tip that had a plunger attached at the other end.  The straw would be inserted into the hollow end and the plunger would force out the semen.  He set the tool aside before inserting the straw.  I'd brought our semen tank along in the trailer.  Steve opened to the top of the tank and selected one of the three straws, closed the tank back up and then inserted the straw into "the tool" (for the life of me I have no idea what "the tool" is actually called.  I just know I don't want it to ever be used on me for any reason).

Steve reinserted his arm into the cow and guided "the tool" in with the other along side his arm and down to his palm.  He used the inserted hand to guide "the tool" into the cervix.  He then pressed the plunger with the other hand, leaving the semen inside the cervix to do its job.  He quickly extracted "the tool" and his arm and we were done.  Some quick clean up of the equipment and it was time to reload the cow.  I'd arrived there at 8:00 a.m. and I don't think it was even 8:20 yet.  It had taken longer to unload and reload her than the procedure itself.

I asked Steve what he charged and, using the typical Steve response said, "don't worry about it.  Glad to help."  And I was on my way home to unload a cow and head to work.

It would be several months before I saw Steve again.  We'd since had a calf so it was at least nine months later.  And there we were in the Master Griller with Steve asking if the AI worked.  Now, asking if AI worked is a pretty inane, harmless question in a restaurant,  but the discussed that ensued was far more graphic than probably the average city folk could endure while eating their lunch. 

When he heard that the AI was successful he was genuinely happy, exclaiming, "yeah, the conditions were ideal. There was all that mucous and her cervix was wide open.  It was probably one of the easiest AI's of done."  I joked that it wasn't too often that you went to a restaurant and openly discussed vaginal mucous and open cervixes and you weren't asked to leave the restaurant.   But hey, only in a small town. 

P.S.  The calf was named "Supper" and about 16 months later provided us with over 600# of delicious, healthy, grass fed beef that was free of antibiotics, growth hormones and chemicals.  







 





Monday, August 15, 2011

Bridger, where art thou?

Lorraine and I were recently reminiscing about some of the dogs that we've had in our lives.  A very short list of them were considered pets.  Several were pups from various litters produced by our pet dogs that include a variety of Border Collies and Great Pyrenees.  Among these was a litter that came from Chloe, a Great Pyrenees that died this past winter.  With her, we knew when she'd been bred and it was a stray that had crossed our property.  At the time that she was bred, and we knew that she had been bred because the kids were able to share in graphic detail the events that were involved (farm life sure won't leave your kids ignorant of the procreative process involving farm animals).  As far as we were concerned this was just a big, overgrown lug by the name of Bridger.  And we knew that because that's what his collar said.  Lorraine reminded me that I'd let loose some expletives when she shared the news.  We didn't need a litter of mutts. 

I was out of town when this escapade began as well.  Although big, like an over sized Golden Lab, Bridger was very gentle and, other than spending time with Chloe uninvited, was a real gentleman.  And he was certainly smarter than some of the other dogs we had at the time, including Uncle Chester, another Great Pyrenees we had at that time.  It was Chester that was supposed to breed Chloe, but he was too busy with other tasks I suppose, because he never got the job done.   Although Chester, for the life of him, couldn't figure out how to get through a closed gate, Bridger, who probably outweighed Chester by 30 pounds, virtually oozed sideways through the rails of the gates, to go visit our sheep.  He didn't bother them, but it seemed some instinct compelled him to be near them.

After several hours on the property it was clear he wasn't going anywhere.  Lorraine started calling around to see what could be done with this wayward, fornicating animal.  She tried the City of Earlham, but they said we weren't in the city limits so they couldn't help.  She tried the county sheriff but they don't deal with strays.  The local vet wasn't interested in taking him in.  For the moment, he was ours.

Lorraine told the boys to put him in our dog run.  That's the typical chain link fence run that's 10 feet long, 6 feet wide and 8 feet high.  A little later she yelled at the boys for not putting him in the run.  They said they had and put him back in.  She yelled at them again later for not latching the gate on the run.  They said they had and put him in there again.  It was a little later that they saw this 130# beast climb the chain link fence and jump to the ground.  From there they put him in the livestock trailer which held him until I got home.

I checked his collar and it said his name was Bridger and that he came from the Upper Clover Ranch which is located in Elko County, NV, equidistant from Battle Mountain and Winnemucca.  On the map it looks like one of those places that you can't get there from here.  The collar included a phone number.  I pulled out my cell phone and called.  The number was disconnected.

I then tried Google to see what I could find on Upper Clover Ranch.  There were some references in newsletters about somebody from the ranch speaking at a couple of different meetings.   I don't remember what the groups were that they spoke to, but the newsletters had phone numbers.  I called and left messages.  Meanwhile I called the Elko County Sheriff's office to explain my predicament.  They said that the ranch was about four hours from their HQ but that they had a deputy who lived and patrolled that area.  They'd get the message to him and have him call me.  The return call from the newsletter contact came a day or two later.  They gave me a name.  J.D. Radakovich.  I Googled J.D. and lo and behold, he was a local from Earlham.  But that didn't clear up the connection between him and Bridger's home address being in NV. 

J.D.'s parents live in rural Earlham, not to far from our house.  I called Steve and told him the story about Bridger and Chloe.  He said that J.D. had passed through Iowa on his way from NV to a new job in TX.  He'd left Bridger in the care of his parents who were experiencing the same frustration in confining Bridger as we had.  I told Steve we had Bridger and that he was welcome to come and get him.  Figuring that he wouldn't go anywhere since he'd already been with us a few days, I went ahead and let him out.  Steve showed up shortly thereafter and Bridger was gone.  On the road again apparently, seeking out new horizons.  Steve went home, empty handed.

A few weeks later I began to wonder what breed of dog Bridger was.  I called Steve, reminding him who I was.  He explained that Bridger was an Akbash, a livestock guard dog breed with a Turkish heritage.  In fact, Steve said he might be interested in one of the pups since the Akbash and Great Pyrenees are both livestock guard dogs.  I was elated.  I not only had a litter of pups on the way, I had a litter of livestock guard dog pups that would be worth far more than plain old mutt pups.

I did some research on the Akbash breed and was intrigued.  They had some variety in the way they looked with some looking like a short haired Great Pyrenees while others looked like a very large golden lab with over sized heads.  What I really liked though was Bridger's personality.  He was very gentle and tolerant of the kids and apparently very attentive to the sheep.

Lorraine nor I can remember how many pups there were.  We're guessing eight with seven surviving.  The pups were unique in that some of them were growl and snarl when you picked them up, even before their eyes were open.  This little growling routine continued until they were sold.  It was kind of cute, but I'm not sure if that evolved into an unpleasant trait as they grew or if it was just their way of communicating, albeit in a threatening sounding way. 

Not all of them growled or snarled.  The others were downright cute and we grew attached to a couple of them.    It was also fun to watch how Chester interacted with them.  He was very gentle with them as they climbed on him and pulled his tail.   That's when we started calling him Uncle Chester. 

The litter was eventually winnowed down to one who we simply called "Puppy."  We hadn't intended to keep him and never got around to naming him properly.  We really would have liked to keep him but in addition to him we still had two Border Collies and two Great Pyrenees.  We couldn't justify a fifth dog, especially since Chloe tended to wander, sometimes with puppies in tow.   Chester couldn't be confined to the pastures with the sheep either.  The two border collies were both worthless in terms of herding.  We simply didn't need another pet.

But, Puppy had a great temperament and reminded me a lot of his father.  A most enduring trait of Puppy's was his tail and back end wagging in unison as he walked up to you while smiling.  He would literally curl his lips up, but there was no hostility or snarly.  He was actually mimicking our smiling at him.   The first few times I saw this is scared me.  He was probably 4-5 months old and already weighted over 50#.  This animal coming at me with bared teeth was intimidating.  But then he'd saunter up, tail wagging, and wanting to be petted.  It broke my heart when someone came to pick him up.  I hope they enjoy him as much as we did the short time we had him.

Epilogue:  We received word that Bridger was eventually located a few towns west of ours.  Steve found him a new home.   We'd hoped to use him as a sire again, but the new owners had him neutered in order to reduce his wandering ways. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Baby Ducks

We've had one batch of baby ducks hatch.  Seven of the eight eggs hatched.  We have another batch from another duck that are due to hatch any day.  Looks like we have duck roast in our future.


Hannah and Emma are really excited about the new ducks.   Let's keep the duck roast comment quiet for now.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Our dog-herding sheep (as opposed to our sheep-herding dog)

A couple weeks ago Lorraine found an ad on Craigslist for a free Australian Shepherd/Border Collie mix.  She's been looking into getting a new puppy or dog for a few weeks now.  Interests included Great Danes and herding dogs.  The latter is particularly important on our farm since our current border collie, Rosie, serves little purpose in our home other than to keep the leather chair warm and to eat the food put in her bowl.  She's not a bad dog.  Actually, for a companion, she's very personable (around humans at least).  But, on a farm, personable isn't necessarily an essential trait when an animal is measured by their contribution to the overall farm operations.  Herding ability in this case would be far more preferable.

Rosie, you see, is currently twelve years old.  She has the prerequisite herding instinct which, years ago, she used to some degree.  Unfortunately, the guy that trained and used her (me-the not so smart farmer) was rather inept.  I learned over time that it's easier to screw up a good herding dog than it is to train them to be useful.   Somewhere along the line this fine canine specimen became afraid of our sheep.  Mind you, she's quite fierce when there's a gate or fence between her and the sheep, barking and spooking those that get to close to her.  But put her in a pasture with the sheep and it's a different story.  She'll walk up to some sheep and lie down, giving them the classic, border collie "eye."  But as soon as a sheep walks towards here she gets up and backs away.  I've seen our flock methodically walk her around a pasture (thus my prior reference to our dog-herding sheep).

I've also let fly many an expletive when trying to herd the sheep back into a corral when Rosie decides to "help."  Border collies by their nature seek balance.  That means when you have a group of sheep the shepherd is on one side of the flock and the dog "balances" to the other side.  Except Rosie must have a problem with her internal balancer.  The problems start when I'm trying to push sheep through a gate and Rosie gets between the sheep and the gate which stops and/or turns them away.  On the other hand, if I were to go through the gate she has no idea that she's supposed to stay balanced and push them towards me.  With Rosie, ying and yang aren't always opposites.  Sometimes she's more yingish than yangish I guess. 

Since we have a useless herding dog and we have close to fifty sheep, it make sense (for a smart farmer) to have a working herding dog.  Thus the mission for Lorraine to find a suitable candidate that didn't break the bank.  Now, I'll have to admit that I'm skeptical whenever somebody offers any animal for free, unless there's a compelling reason for them to relieve themselves of the animal(s) such as a move or they can't care for it anymore.  But those types of free animals are few and far between.  For example, we got a couple of "free" llamas a couple of years ago.  The first time they escaped I understood why we got them and the prior owners were smiling and waving as we pulled out of their driveway, trailer in tow with the the two llamas.  I would learn the an economic truth, "there is no such thing as a free llama."

As has happened dozens of times before, a gate was left unlatched.  I came out of the house to head for work and saw the two "free" llamas at the end of the driveway in the road.  Just to be clear, that's not where we usually keep them.  I quickly ran upstairs and woke Lorraine and my son, Evan.  I told Evan to go to the barn and get some grain in a bucket.  By the time we got back out there the llamas had advanced down the road about 100 yards.  I figured I'd walk to them shaking the bucket with the grain to lure them close enough to grab their halters.  Instead, they figured I was nuts and turned and ran the other way.  We ran back to the house and jumped into the Jeep to follow them.  About 1/4 of a mile up the road there's a T intersection that turns left which is the way they went.  The downside of this direction is that it's about 1/2 mile from Interstate 80.  To the best of my knowledge these llamas could jump a 42" fence fairly easily if they so chose.  I had visions of carnage involving swerving cars trying to avoid llamas dashing across the interstate.   How many people do you know that can say they were almost killed on an interstate due to a llama bounding if front of their car?

The llamas continued their dash down Jewell Ct. which dead ends at the interstate.  I was able to accelerate and overtake them, passing them on the right.  When I got far enough ahead I turned sideways on the gravel road to block them.  We were a lot closer this time, about 50 feet, so we tried the bucket idea again and we were met with the same skepticism as before.  The llamas turned and bolted back up the road.  We jumped into the Jeep and found that my prior pursuit had been a mere, leisurely jaunt.  They were running full speed this time.  I was in hot pursuit and right on their tails, well, hooves, since they really don't have much for tails.  I looked at my speedometer and I was doing 35 mph and my hood and windshield were getting sprayed with gravel.  We were quickly approaching the T intersection and I needed them to turn right so I accelerated more to pull along their left side and direct them back to the right which worked.   The next challenge was to do the same thing again in about a quarter mile and turn them left into our driveway which I was able to do.  From there they went through a gate into my hay field which wasn't ideal because the fencing wouldn't hold them.  I put the Jeep into 4WD and followed them into the bumpy, pocket gopher infested hay field.  The good news was that I was able to herd them with the Jeep towards a gate that went into our corral.  Evan jumped out, opened the gate and we pushed them through.  I was only 1/2 hour late for work and hadn't broken a sweat.

Anyway, I've digressed a bit, waxing on about "free" llamas so back to the "free" dog.   Lorraine and I travelled to a farm just south of Norwalk and met the dog for the first time.  The owner said he'd had her for a couple of years and didn't have the time to spend with her that he thought she deserved.  His son had moved out of the house and wasn't there for the dog.  She was spending a lot of her days in a crate.  He wanted her to find a home on a farm. 

We asked if she herded and he said he didn't know.  They have cattle and the dog wasn't afraid of them.  He said she'd recently blocked a cow from going through a gate.  That's hardly definitive to establish if the dog would herd or not but she seemed like a sweet dog with a lot of energy.  The only command she really responded to was "sit."  It was a gamble but we agreed to take her.  We go the dog and her crate which barely fit into the back of the Jeep.  We had Spencer with us and he made the trip home with a golf bag laying across his lap.

We arrived home around 11:00 p.m. and took her into the house on her lead.  She visited for a while and then we put her in her kennel for the night.  The next morning, after letting her take care of business outside, we brought her into the house to introduce her to Rosie the smiling dog.  We've had other dogs along the way and Rosie has always "smiled" at them, lips curled and with a low rumble emitting from her lungs.  The fact is, she has never liked any other dog that I'm aware of, frequently instigating fights with our other dogs.  Her relationship with our new, "free" dog would be no different.  There's a lot of posturing, staring, growling, smiling and other pack like behavior going on with the intermittment fight thrown in. 

Since bringing the "free" dog home the tide has turned against Rosie in terms of dominance.  Dally almost always ends up on top, yet Rosie continued to instigate brawls.  We've now seen the dominance of Dally emerge where she's constantly following Rosie and glaring at her.  Feeding must be done separately.  Getting out the door with the two dogs both there is nearly impossible since it may well lead to a fight.  Clearly we need some more insight on how to better manage this relationiship since it isn't improving, just changing sides.

We've had her three weeks now and have made good progress in house breaking her and with walking on a leash.  Lorraine is scheduled to take her tomorrow to a lady with herding experience to assess just what we have.  The question that we've discussed is, what if she doesn't herd?  Then what?  She certainly makes a nice family pet and companion.  But, what we need is a working herding dog which means finding yet another dog.  We already have Rosie, our non-working Border Collie.  We don't need another non-worker.  I guess we'll just have to see what tomorrow brings and figure out if we'll have Dolly (her new name) in our lives going forward.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

There's a fox in the hen house...

Or maybe not.  I saw an email post from Lorraine yesterday that most of the chickens were outside the chicken tractor with the door askew.  Several were milling around the chicken tractor and several were missing.  One was a victim of the marauder that assaulted our chicken tractor and its contents.

Turns out it wasn't a fox, but our new Aussie/Border Collie that we recently acquired (need to post about that now that I think about it).  One of the little girls had gone out the front door and apparently Dally (we didn't name her) had escaped and promptly headed straight for the chicken tractor since that's the happening place for a dog to go on our property (followed by harassing ducks as a close second).  Lorraine said she wasn't sure how long she'd been out there terrorizing the birds but was guessing about one hour.

I traded some texts with Lorraine subsequently and learned that they'd found a few of the birds, but there were still 15 or so still missing by the time I got home from work.   Later in the evening we went out and found another dozen hanging around the chicken tractor.  We managed to get them back into the chicken tractor.  Even later we found four more and got them corralled and put back into the tractor.  I found the last one in the duck coop when it was time to put the ducks to bed for the night.

I made some minor repairs to the chicken tractor and placed a large piece of tin on top to keep the lid shut just in case. 

So, the good news is that we went from thinking that we'd lost half of our laying flock (before a single egg had been laid) to recovering all but the one victim.  The even better news is that they should be laying in just a few short weeks and we'll have plenty to sell to those of you who truly value a quality, pasture raised product.

Monday, July 18, 2011

My hands smell like fish and I haven't been fishing.

Saturday was nearly unbearable for working conditions.  I spent the day sharing time on a jackhammer working on my son's Eagle project for Boy Scouts.  He elected to demolish a limestone grotto at the Basilica of St. John in Des Moines, ostensibly because it was falling apart and a safety hazard.  Eight hours later we quit for the day with another four hours of work left.  Turns out the grotto was built to withstand a nuclear attack with it's 8" thick concrete wall w/ a stone veneer and a 24" concrete base.  This really has nothing to do with me spraying my field other than the similar working conditions.  Both days had lots of sunshine, humidity levels that left eyeglasses foggy and temperatures hovering in the mid-90's. 

My neighbor who has been doing my field work mowed a couple of my pastures last week.  As I've previously posted my tractor is down with no near term prospects of getting it repaired due to the anticipated costs exceeding our anticipated availability of funds.  That means I'm paying a per acre rate for a fair amount of field work that I could have done myself like the mowing and, if I had a sprayer, the spraying. 

Anyway, my neighbor called yesterday to see if I was ready to spray the pastures.  If you've followed my posts you'll recall an earlier one in which I described spraying my newly planted hay field with raw milk, fish oil and sugar.  Yesterday's batch of spray was similar but with some salt added.  Apparently microbes really like salt and sugar.  I can say that neither the salt nor the sugar enhanced the smell of the field (or me for that matter). 

We were spraying about 10 acres.  My formula called for 2 gallons/acre each of milk and fish oil.  I only had about 8 gallons of milk available so I used all of that.  I figured a little would be better than none.  I had plenty of fish oil and put that in.  I added about 10 pounds of salt figuring a foliar spraying rate of 1 lb/acre.  We left a strip down the middle of one of the pastures unsprayed to see if there was any difference.  We'll probably need a good rain to wash the spay into the soil for it to really start benefitting the microbial activity there. 

As with the prior spraying event the nozzles constantly clogged from a combination of sour milk globules, grass clippings that I didn't filter out like I should have and flakes of hose material from the aging sprayer's hoses.  A one hour project took closer to 2 1/2 hours.  Next time I'm going to use a screen honey filter on top of the bucket to filter my amendments.  Hopefully that will reduce my number of steps following the sprayer.

In the picture above notice that the boom is extended to the left but not the one on the right.  We found that the right boom almost immediately plugged with the left boom and center section had at least some of the nozzles spraying almost all the time.   We decided it would be more time effective to make more passes with the tractor than to constantly stop, clean the nozzles and head out again.  Wish we'd have thought of that earlier.

Needless to say, after 8 hours in the sun on Saturday and another 2 1/2 hours on Sunday, I was sporting an ever improving farmer tan, dehydrated and near exhaustion.   But, because I love my wife and she asked very nicely, I helped her move the chicken tractor, hauled two buckets of water for the chickens and then agreed to go for a one mile walk on the Earlham H.S. track with her and our new Aussie/Border collie mix (she'll be the subject of my next post).   Isn't farming glamorous and romantic?



Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

So says Robert Frost's neighbor in his poem, "Mending Fences."  The author disputes this when there are no cows, suggesting that he would ask first what he is walling in or out.  I agree with Mr. Frost and his neighbor.  Without animals (and even kids in some cases) fences probably aren't necessary. 

But, since we do have cows, along with sheep, llamas, ducks, chickens, a goat, a dog and kids, it has become ever more clear each year just how critical good fences are to being a good neighbor.  Poor fencing on our property has alienated each of our neighbors at some time over the 12 years we've lived on our current property.  Some have been more tolerant but each has reached their limit of patience with us, depending upon the emotional or physical damage caused by our wayward animals.  The only neighbors we haven't upset with our animals are to the south of us.  But that's probably because they're a mile away due to crop land being between us and them rather than just a few feet across a property line.

Although nobody was upset that we're aware of, we once received a call from the City of Earlham telling us two of our dogs were lounging near the gas pumps at the Casey's store two miles away.   We also had a Great Pyrenees who found her way (once with part of a young litter of pups in tow) to the interstate a mere one mile away.  Another Pyr was seen two miles away in another direction.  Try as we might to confine them in our pasture with the livestock, where they belonged, they defied boundaries by squeezing through barbed wire, gates and other various efforts to contain them.

It was the long distance Pyr, Chuck, who started the problems.  When we bought our home and 38 acres we had no neighbors to the west.  Within two years there were two new homes built and an older home moved there from up the road.  Chuck routinely patrolled that previouslyvacant ground, sometimes with a pet turkey (ours, not his) following him along the way.  The new home immediately to the west had some nice landscaping and Chuck fancied them territory to be marked.  It wasn't too long before the bushes browned up.  Could have been the drought conditions, but the neighbors had a point.   Our dog peeing on their bushes wasn't neighborly.  In our defense, bushes continued to turn brown well after the untimely death of Chuck in 2001.

The prior tenants of the third house to the west, very tolerant friends I might add, mentioned that neighbor two to the west had told them he was going to shoot Chuck if he saw them on their land again.  Either he was a bad shot or didn't see Chuck again, but they eventually moved and Chuck sported no extra holes.  The new owners were quite understanding when another of our dogs tore open their garbage out by the road (on Christmas Day I might add).  My next door neighbor had already called to let me know that he was a victim of the carnage as well so the boys and I headed down there to clean it up. 

Neighbor one to the west has also been a victim multiple times of cows and sheep straying onto their nicely mowed lawn and leaving piles of bulk fertilizer.  At one point sheep got into their garage and ate newly purchased flowers and dog food.  A gift certificate to a nearby greenhouse was in order there.

Good fences would have prevented all of this heartache and aggravation for us and our neighbor.

We recently approached a full year since our animals' last incursion onto their property.  We were tempted to send them an anniversary card but, shortly before the one year was up we got a call.  A couple of our lambs had managed to sneek through somewhere.  Since the lambs were bottle fed the neighbor walked up to them, picked them up and dropped them over the fence.  When it happened a second time I got the call.  I told him about the anniversary card and, thankfully, he found that humorous.  I couldn't find the spot that the lambs snuck through so I we just didn't use that paddock for a while.  They must have grown too big to get through because we've used the paddock again and nobody has escaped.

Another neighbor gave an earful over the phone to Lorraine one day because of the dog in the road chasing cars.  We've had such a parade of dogs purchases and litters of puppies I can't even remember who the culprit was in that case.   Probably our Newfoundland, Daisy.  The final straw for that neighbor was coming so close to hitting the dog and feeling the need to swerve, almost going in the ditch with a child in her vehicle.  Once again, our failure to contain and control our animals was our fault and they were fully justified to let us know that our dogs trying to herd their vehicles was problematic. 

Good fences would have solved this problem.

More recently, I awoke one morning to hear the sound of sheep outside our bedroom window.  That's a sound we don't want to hear since the sheep aren't supposed to be in our yard.  In this case I'd had them in what I thought was a secure pasture.  They'd recently escaped from there and I thought I'd figured out where and had "fixed" it.  I rounded the sheep up (this is right before I'm supposed to be heading out to work for the day).  They went back into the same paddock they'd escaped from.  I was walking part of the fence to make sure there weren't other holes in the fence when I heard the sheep "talking."  When one finds a gap they must feel inclined to share the good news with the other sheep.  I turned to see the source of the noise.  They were headed to a spot in the fence like they were going to get out.  I ran over there and, sure enough, there was a gaping hole in what I thought was woven wire in good shape.  The hole was big enough for a sheep to walk through standing up.  Usually, at least they have to expend a little effort going under or over part of a fence.  This hole was low to the ground and in a shadowy area so I'd missed it.  Twice.  I quickly repaired it with wire and rounded up the sheep that had just escaped again.  Even later for work.

What I didn't know when I'd herded them out of my front yard was that they'd already spent some time in my neighbor's garden.  This is a neighbor that is right across a driveway that we share.  Now, this wasn't the first time that I've found my sheep in my yard, or even their's.  But this was the first time they told me that the sheep had damaged their garden.  Apparently they'd been there awhile before I woke up because they told me the damage was extensive.  They're now not talking to us which is not a good thing.  These are good people.  They deserve much better.

So now, as I've reflected on "Mending Fences" a bit, I'm inspired to be a better neighbor and focus more time and effort on my fences.  The bad news is that kids (and even adults) sometimes don't latch gates.  Sometimes the weather is cruel and damages fences.  Sometimes age creeps up and the fences just plain fail over time but don't declare their fatigue out loud.  But I know I don't want my neighbors having a reason to be upset with us.  I also don't want my own animals eating our own raspberries and other veggie which they are wont to do on their way to annoying my neighbors. 

If Mr. Frost were still alive today and I were to meet him, I would assure him that, in fact, good fences would certainly contribute to being good neighbors.  In his absence, we'll continue to work towards repairing the relationships with our neighbors.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Hell hath no fury like...


You thought I was going to say, "a woman scorned."  While certainly true, I had a llama feeling a bit scorned yesterday and there was some fury involved that came a close second.  The picture above includes the one year old (white) and the two year old (white and brown).  The "scorned" llama is not pictured here.

Periodically (about every 3-4 weeks) we have to worm our sheep (I'll get to the scorned llama later). Wet weather is a fertile breeding ground for intestinal parasites that can have devastating affects on sheep.  They'll look fine in the morning and you can go out in the afternoon and find one or more dead or dying.  These parasites infect their guts and, at the risk of being a bit gory, suck the blood through their intestinal walls.  That can leave the sheep anemic to the point that they collapse and die.  In order to prevent this we take certain measures to reduce the impact of the parasites.

In a perfect world we would have about a dozen smaller paddocks to graze the livestock in.  By resting the paddocks after grazing, the parasite load is reduced.  It's further reduced by sunshine and a lot less rain than we had in June.  But the weather is something we can't control.

Lacking enough fenced paddocks with access to water our livestock end up grazing the same areas for too long. The parasites they consume lay eggs which they pass out in their manure.  Those parasites hatch, climb up blades of grass and are consumed by the livestock.  The cycle continues.

Since we don't have enough paddocks that means our sheep are getting reinfected by parasites.  In order to control these we have to treat them to kill they parasites in their system.  That can be accompished using garlic and diatemaceous earth for lighter parasite loads.  We much prefer that approach since it doesn't rely upon chemical wormers.  Unfortunately, we're just not there yet from a fencing standpoint.  As a result, we use a chemical wormer.  It's a purple liquid that gets "drenched," or poured down their throats.  I use a little device that looks like an oversized syringe that has a metal tube that gets inserted between the teeth and gums of the sheep.  The syringe holds 4-5 doses which are measured by the weight of the animal being treated. 

I generally procrastinate the worming event since I'm pretty worn out (not to mention cranky) by the time we're done.  It requires rounding up the 50 or so ewes and lambs and getting them herded into a single stall.  That's sometimes an adventure in itself since they don't all want to squeeze into that small stall  If I were a "smart farmer" (see my post about the frickn' cow) I'd have a nice chute system with a head gate to handle the animals.  Since that takes money for one of those set ups we make do with what we have and that means putting them into a stall.  Having them crammed in there actually makes it a bit easier to manage them since they can't run away.  One of the boys grabs a sheep and brings it over by the gate where we check their eyes for anemia. 

There's a particular parasite called Humuncous which causes anemia.  We have a neat little laminated card that has pictures of five sheep eyes with various shades of pink ranging from almost red down to white.  We assign a score based upon the color of the sheep's eyes.  A 1 is the best and a 5 means you're lucky they're still alive for you to treat them.  We had a lot of 4's and 5's yesterday but we weren't too surprised.  We hadn't treated them in over four weeks and the rainy weather means a higher than average amount of parasites lurking in the pastures to be consumed by the sheep.

We proceeded to check all 50 ewes/lambs and treated probably 60% of them.  With proper pature management we could probably reduce that level to below 25%.  What's really amazing is that we have a very small number of sheep that we never need to treat.  They are naturally parasite resistant which is a desirable genetic trait that can be passed on to subsequent generations.

Those that get treated can still have some serious side affects.  One of them is their blood chemistry getting very alkalyn as the parasites die off.  We learned a neat little trick a couple of years ago that we believe brought one of our best rams back from the brink of death.  We treated him with raw apple cider vinegar.  That simple ingrediate helped to neutralize his ph sufficiently that he actually recovered fairly quickly.

Anyway, after we completed treating the ewes and lambs it was on to the llamas.  Now we get to the "hell hath no fury"part.  But, first, a little explanation about the difference between sheep parasites and llama parasites, at least as far as our flock goes.  Our primary concern with the llamas is something called meningeal parasites.  These little varmints are dropped into the pasture by deer passing through our property.  Interestingly, llamas can't pass these on to other llamas.  They can only get them by eating pasture that's been exposed to deer droppings where the parasite eggs hatch and latch on to blades of grass.

Once consumed these little buggers move their way through the llamas system and deposit themselves in the spinal column.  They then begin to grow and cause nerve damage.  Eventually that leads to partial or complete paralysis.  Unfortunately we learned about these the hard way when we lost one of our llamas to them this past winter.  She got to the point that she could no longer stand and could only sit up if we propped her up.  She still ate but lost weight.  It got to the point where it was necessary to euthanize her.  That was heartbreaking.

In order to prevent the ravages of this parasite we treat the llamas with an injectable wormer call Ivomec.  In order to inject  this you have to hold the llama still enough for someone to slide the needle under the skin just behind a foreleg.  Easier said than done.

With some effort and the help of Seth and Spencer who combined are outweighed by two of the four llamas, we got them done.  The first two were a two year old and a one year old.  Small, but still pretty spunky.  The third was our adult male and the largest of the four, weighing in at well over 200#.  He was probably the easisest of the four ironically.

Now, this is really where the "hell hath no fury" part of the story comes in.  Our fourth patient is a female who is the alpha of the four.  She's about 50# less that the big male, but she has a real attitude.  When a llama get's annoyed enough they spit.  It starts with a sound sort of like a phlegmatic clearing it's throat.  Then you hear the hiss of the spit.  If you're lucky it misses you.  If you're not so lucky, you're sprayed with a gooey mist of partially digested green stuff. 

We managed to grab the female llama.  Seth and Spencer held her but her ears went back and the throat clearing commenced.  The ears going back are the first clue you're about to get sprayed.  The throat clearing just confirms it.  Not unlike that signficant other in your life when she's "spittin' mad."

I bent over for the injection when I heard the first of the spits.  Fortunately, (for me anyway) her target was the boys.  I felt the air from one spit go by my arm but the contents missed me.  Seth is yelling,"yuk, that's disgusting," but I couldn't tell at that point what he was referring to.  While Spencer was spared, Seth caught a shoulder full of the green stuff but dodged the others.  I quickly finished the injection and they turned her loose still trailing the rope around her neck which quickly came loose and dropped to the ground. 

Can't wait until thet last week of July to do it all over again.   This was our first time injecting the llamas.  They're pretty smart animals, so it may be the last.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Sometimes technology sucks.

In my just published post I tried to attach a video.  It's on my phone but I'm posting on my desktop.  I tried to email the video to myself but it's an hour later and still hasn't arrived.  So, I thought I'd publish the text and go to my phone and edit the post and add the video.  But my dashboard on my phone doesn't include an icon to add videos, only pictures.  Until I figure out this video thing I'll be relying upon pictures.  Anybody out there that can explain how to do this to a technical rube?

Anybody else need a drink?

Of water that is.  With all the rain we're getting water is becoming a problem.  Now, I don't want to sound like I'm complaining because my minor soaking pales in comparison to what they're experiencing in western IA, SD and, soon, MO.  While I do have water streaming through my basement foundation it's running straight to a drain and heading right back out of the basement.  That could be much worse. 

Instead, my problem is with walking around the corrals in ankle deep mud.  I have a cow that got some twine caught in her hoof.  We got it all out, (I'm hoping), but she's still limping. My concern is that it's not going to heal as long as that space is compacted with wet, oozing mud and other yuk.  Unfortunately I have no place to put her to allow the foot to dry out.

I'm also hoping to attach a video that I made with my phone (still trying to figure out this blog thing).  The sound quality is very poor so you'll need to turn up the volume.  I was trying to narrate about the pump while the pump was running.  The gist of this video is that the ground is so saturated my wells are over filling.  This particular well is next to my barn and used for livestock watering.  It's about three feed across, 25 ft. deep and lined with limestone walls.  The pump sits at the top of the well attached to a pressure pump.  The equipment is in a well pit which theoretically keeps it warm enough in the winter to keep it from freezing.  That theory collapsed this past winter when it froze and my pump cracked.   They're not cheap to replace so I had a welder friend of mine try and weld it and it worked.  That cost $75 instead of $400 for the new pump.  I also now know how to remove and reinstall a pump that I've previously paid a plumber to do.

It's not real clear in the video but the water is actually covering the bottom of the pressure tank.  The water is usually 2-6 feet below the pressure tank.  The danger is that the well level could increase to the point that the unit floats up until it hits the top of the well head.  Then the water moves up and covers the pump and electrical connections and shorts out the whole unit.  That could ruin the pump, but at a minimum I have to deal with no water and get everything flowing again.  In order to avoid this problem we attach a hose and run the pump for 20-30 minutes and run the water on the ground away from the well so it doesn't just seep back into the ground and into the well again.  It's a pain but a lot better problem than when the wells run dry.

I've also explored more of my 15 acre hay field that I recently planted and referred to in a prior post.  I found some slopes where a lot of seed washed away.  You can see where it accumulated and sprouted further down the slope.  I'm going to have to do some interseeding and patchwork but I think I'll wait until the oats are harvested.

I also had another conversation with a soil consultant last Friday.  This is the third person I've talked to about recommendations for my fields.  Some overlap in ideas but also some very different ideas on what and what not to do.  This guy disagrees with some of what I've done this far.  He also has some recommendations that make sense but will be very expensive.  For now, the consensus is that I'm deficient in phosphorous and sulfur.  I've addressed the phosphorous issue in part but it's a short term fix.  I still need to deal with the sulfur, which I've learned is critical in releasing nutrients for use by the plants and also in helping to manage broad leaf weeds. 

I need to do a little more rearch but I'm leaning towards applying 100#/acre of ammonium sulfate.  I know that's a chemical and my organic friends are cringing.  But, I really need to boost my sulfur content and this is the most affordable way to address the issue.  With my 2011 budget for soil amendments almost fully expended I need to do what needs to be done and try and do better in 2012.  Hopefully I can pay for an even better soil amendment program next year with the increased yields in hay that I'm supposed to be getting.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Baked chicken and omelets


Finally figured out how to add pictures. 

Here's this year's model of our chicken tractor.  We recently took these 45 broilers to be processed.  Raised on organic feed and grass/bugs, they're about 4 lb. each.  We're selling them for $4/lb if you're interested in eating pasture raised poultry. 

I found this design at http://www.pvcplans.com/.  They have a couple of other designs that I liked specifically because of the wheels they incorporate into the design but time was of the essence so I went with modifying my old tractor.  The wheeled designs would make it much easier for one person to move.  Ours can be moved by one person but it requires walking back and forth to opposite sides to scoot the corners.  Two people can move it with ease. 

We've used achicken tractor over the past 3-4 years.  The prior one was three feet tall and could accomodate turkeys if we so chose, which we didn't.  The old tractor was a couple of years old and was falling apart with many broken joints.  I cut all of the joints off and just shrunk the size of the tractor by about six inches in width and length.  I also dropped the height from three feet to just over two feet.  I was able to salvage about $100 in pipe costs.  The first tractor I built with this design was about $220.  This one was about $120 with some joints left over for the next one.

One thing I learned was to go with the gray pipe instead of the white PVC because the white will get brittle and crack when exposed to UV light.  I think the gray pipe is called Schedule 40 and can be used for conduit or water pipe.  The pipe I have now is in its third year.  The first one I made I used the white PVC pipe and it was trash after the first year. 

Our original version was three feet high but the design provided only has a door on top.  That meant the little girls who were willing to help couldn't get in and out of the tractor on their own.  I installed a "front" door on that one to address that.  With my redesign that is shorter it's easer to reach in and pull the feeder and waterer out.  But, Spencer and I figured out pretty quickly the day that we loaded them you need a really short person to climb under the 3/4 of the tractor where the birds try to hide when you're trying to catch them. 

We've also found that the tarps are very vulnerable in windy weather.  It's tough to get them really tight but, even then, there's a lot of flapping that stresses and tears the tarp.  We also had some exposed ends to the chicken wire covering that pierced and weakened the tarp. We've only had the existing tarp on about 5 weeks and it's already pretty well torn up and needs to be replaced. 

I was at WalMart last night picking up some supplies for Evan's camping trip to CO.  I noticed a grommet kit for tents.  I'll be grabbing one of these kits when I get the new tarp to install.  This will allow me to put the grommets where I need then to further tighten the fit of the tarp and minimize the blowing in the wind.  The grommets that are already in the tarp don't always get placed where the would work best.  Hopefully we can finish the season with the second tarp.

We're currently raising our layers in the chicken tractor.  They get moved twice a day and are thriving.  We lost a couple of birds in the first few days that we moved them but we're not sure why.  They may have been injured when we moved the tractor.  I also learned quickly not to walk away from the tractor with the door propped open.  The birds are very flighty.  I did that a few days ago and instantly had 15 birds fly out.  Fortunately Seth and I were able to get them back in with him shooing them towards the tractor while I lifted it and they ran right in.

Hopefully we'll be getting eggs sometime in August.  With 43 remaining layers, we're going to have lots of eggs when they start coming.  Anybody for an omelet?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Get in the trailer you frickn' cow.

Every few months we take a cow to the locker and fill our freezer with grass fed beef.  That should last us about six months.  Today was the big day.  Knowing what a pain it is to get a cow in a trailer that has never been in a trailer before, I decided to load her up last night.  Good thing, otherwise I'd have been later than I was for my locker appointment.  You see, a smart farmer builds a nice chute that the trailer can be backed up to.  And, if he's really smart, there will be a ramp that matches up to the trailer bed so the cow can go straight into the trailer without stepping up.  I'm not a smart farmer.  I'm just a guy who dabbles in farming so I don't have a nice chute to make loading a non-stressful event.  That means it takes longer, we risk getting hurt and the neighbors experience an expanded vocabulary that ensues with the cow doesn't want to get loaded.  Who can blame her?  Heck, she's headed to the locker the next day.  It must be sort of like walking The Green Mile getting into that trailer.

I was working in the barn on a couple of projects with my son Evan when I realized we hadn't yet loaded the cow and darkness would be upon us in about an hour.  We quickly hooked up the trailer and backed it up to the gate where we usually load the animals (because I'm not a smart farmer with a chute).  It was raining a bit so I knew it was a 50/50 proposition that I'd get up the slight incline with a trailer hooked up and a cow adding further weight.  But, that's the best place we've come up with so far so that's what we did. 

We open the gate, add on a cattle panel and create a sort of chute/pen.  Getting a cow into this is often a challenge, but that went amazingly well.  Got her in on our first try.  We just had to put her mom in first and she followed.  Old trick that works every time.  We then need to get her nose headed into the back of the trailer and encourage her to get up with hay or grain.  Neither worked.  We got her mom into the trailer after much pulling and shoving only to have her turn around and walk out.  A word sort of like frickn' snuck out of my mouth. 

I got some chicken feed and managed to entice the mom back into the trailer.  This time I tied her in there so she couldn't back out.  I'd have left there in there all night and even taken her on the ride to the locker in Winterset if necessary.  The calf coudn't resist and poked her nose into the trailer.  We closed the door on her to limit her egress.  She was sideways but her butt was backed to a fence post and she had little room to maneuver.  Yet, she managed to slide out.  About that time my son, Seth, walks up and offers to help.  We positioned him so the calf couldn't sneak out along side the trailer.  We got her nosed back into the back of the trailer, pressed the gate into her side and tried to encourage her to step up.  Seth suggested that we grab her tail and push it in the direction we wanted her to go.  Bingo! She was in.  Now, I knew that trick but got so wrapped up in my dripping sweat and honing my language skills that I'd completely forgotten about it. 

The next challenge was getting the Excursion pulled out with the trailer with an extra 2200# in the back and slippery grass to drive on.  My first try failed as my tires just spun, thowing up mud.  I backed up, knowing full well that I may end up backing up even further to the point I'd have to get towed out.  But, my second run made progress, throwing mud all over the front of the trailer.   I finally got to the top of the incline and pulled up the driveway towards the house.  Once on gravel again I stopped so that we could unload the mom.  My biggest fear was opening the door and having the calf escape and having to do that all over again.  I got the mom untied.  Evan manned the rear gate.  As the mom moved toward the gate I stuck a pole into the trailer to block the calf.  The mom stepped off and we were ready to roll. 

We made to the locker by 8:15 for our 8:00 appointment.  The calf stepped off the trailer without a glitch and we headed home.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The field is slowly turning green.

We're now about 2 1/2 weeks post-planting with most of my amendments applied.  We've had torrential rains  on multiple occasions which has caused some erosion, but the seed seems to have stayed put for the most part and is germinating and growing nicely. 

The oats are about 3-4 inches and the alfalfa now stands at a little under 1 inch.  At this point I can't distinguish between the oats the orchard grass.  Hopefully they've both germinated and sprouted and are just growing at the same rates, making it hard to tell them apart.  I'm hoping I'll be able to tell the difference in the next week or two.

As I mentioned in my prior post we had a lot of problems with the seeder.  I'll be getting some pictures to post the striping effect created by the inconstency of the seeder.  All in all though I'd have to say that I'm pleased with the results so far.  There is  a fair amount of weed emergence which causes some concern.  My understanding is that the oats, grass and alfalfa will eventually thrive and choke the weeds out as a result of the soil amendments we're using.

I'm sure looking forward to seeing the oats filling in and creating that flowing field of sage colored plants. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The hay field is finally planted.

This was supposed to have been done in April.  May at the latest.  But a little dispute with the neighbor who was going to do the planting and other field work left me searching for someone else.  It didn't help that I'm more than a bit inclined towards procrastination in getting the seed and soil amendments we planned to use.  Turns out finding someone else to do our field work wasn't that difficult.  I stopped by our neighbor Kenny's place and asked him if he'd be interested.  He was.  Then came the battle of finding a gap between rains when the field would be dry enough.  We missed a couple of opportunities because I didn't have the seed yet.  I scrambled to get the seed and the field was planted on June 3rd, a full 4-6 weeks later than it should have been.  This leaves me worrying about germination and adequate growing time. 

The dispute with my neighbor centered around what we were going to plant and how much.  He has many acres of alfalfa hay that he sells in southern states by the semi load.  I have a grass fed operation where grass and grazing are my primary focus.  He wanted to plant a very high density alfalfa crop with some orchard grass.  I wanted to plant at a much lower density with orchard grass as my primary crop with some alfalfa included.  Using my approach I would be able to graze my cows and sheep on the hay field in the future.  With his approach that would cause serious problems with bloat since the alfalfa content would be far too high. 

The original plan was for my neighbor to pay half of the costs for field preparation, planting and seed.  I would pay the other half.  In turn he would have the right to harvest the hay and keep half as payment.  As the conversations ensued, sometimes heated, about what to plant it became increasingly clear that we weren't going to come to a meeting of the minds.  He is in the alfalfa business and I'm in the business of raising grass fed animals.  He also maintained that he'd never heard of anybody grazing their animals on their hay field.  That would ruin it.  My research turned up two fellow grass farmers who do graze their hay along with a forgage specialist from the University of Wisconsin Extension office who also agreed with my approach. 

My neighbor and I also debated the density of seed needed for planing to raise a quality stand of product.  The standard recommendation of the seed companies is to plant 18-20#/acre of alfalfa if you're just planting alfalfa.  I asked how much to you plant if you mix in grass seed and they said 18-20#/acre.  In doing my research I found that the optimum seed density is about 75 seeds/sq. ft.  Any higher than that and the exta seed germinates but dies due to excessive competiion for space.  My neighbor planted his field with alfalfa and orchard grass, plus oats as a nurse crop at a rate well in excess of 300 seeds per square foot.  I planted mine at about a rate of 100 seeds/sq. ft.  Keepin in mind that alfalfa costs about $270 per 50# bag.  The difference in seed cost between my approach and my neighbors was about $1,000.  Not insignficant.  Now, the question remains as to whether or not my stand of grass and alfalfa will show comparable yields to my neighbor's.  Year one may not be a fair comparison since he has about a six week advantage to mine.  The quality of the hay, however, may be able to be measured this year which I'll address later in this update. 

In order to settle this dispute I suggested to my neighbor that I pay for everything and he could still harvest the hay and get half for his services.  He said he wasn't interested because all I would get is a bunch of weed infested junk that he couldn't sell.  Now I have a neighbor who's unhappy with me. 

Planting turned out to be a bit of a minor disaster.  My neighbor had used a Brillion seeder that he rented from Crossroads Ag by Dallas Center.  This is supposed to be the Mercedes of seeders.  For us, it turned out to be the Yugo of seeders.  We planned on planting on June 2nd but one of the cylinders used to raise and lower the planter wouldn't work.  I called the guy I rented it from.  He came by and stood there looking at it just like Kenny and I did and said he couldn't understand why it wasn't working.  He decided to replace one of the cylinders but that didn't get done until the next day.  That wasted a couple of hours of time that day for me and Kenny that neither of us could spare.  A guy came the next morning and switched out the cylinder.  Kenny came later in the day with his small tractor and it still didn't work quite right.  I suspected it was his hydraulics that were part of the problem.  He wasn't convinced but agreed to go home and get a bigger tractor.  (Mind you, I'm pretty damn envious of anybody who can pick which tractor he uses when my only tractor has a blown engine).  The bigger tractor worked so we started mixing seed and and loading it into the seeder and Kenny headed into the field.

Kenny planted about three of the fifteen acres and we checked the seed bins.  These are set up so alfalfa (really, really tiny seeds) go into bins that are much more precise in delivering seed that the grass/oat bins.  We checked the alfalfa bins and they had hardly dropped.  The delivery rate is adjustable so I moved it from the recommend setting of 4 to 6 to increase the rate of seed by planted.  We checked at about seven acres and it still looked like a lot of seed was left.  I opened it up to 7 which is supposed to equate to about 30 lb/acre.  My target was 10 lb/acre. 

Meanwhile we were also fighting the seeding rate for the grass/oats.  We were told to set these bins at about 2.  There are two bins to set.  We finished our initial run and one side was out while the other side was still half full.  Trying to adjust these bins to plant at the same rate was futile, although we were able to narrow the difference a little bit.  In hindsight, we ended up planting the north seven acres of my field at a a rate about double what I planned.  That meant scrambling to buy more oats and orchard grass.  We still had plenty of alfalfa since we couldn't get it to drop seed at anything close to my target rate.  In fact, it was barely dropping seed from what I could tell.  Eventually we were running into evening and we decided to stop for the night.  We completed the remaining eight acres the following day with seeder problems continuing. 

We kept the seeding rate constant for the remaining eight acres since it's much wetter down there and not conducive to growing alfalfa.  We didn't want to increase our seeding rate down there knowing we didn't have enough seed on the north seven acres.  We still had some orchard grass left and lots of alfalfa so we had Kenny recover the north seven acreas going perpendicular to his original run.  We opened the alfalfa seeding rate all of the way for that and found that the right half of the seeder was dropping seed at twice the rate the left side was.  Every few passes we'd move seed from the left bins to the right.  Turns out we were essentially planting stripes which can now be seen as the seed has germinated and is now growing.  It's clear where the seeder was delivering seed at a much higher rate on one side that the other.  So much for Mercedes like precision for a seeder.

We completed planting on 6/4.  I was now faced with a deadline to get some soil amendments applied before the seed germinated and started peaking out of the ground.  The amendments we chose were another source of contention with my neighbor.  He wanted to dump several tons of lime on the field.  We had soil testing done that was well beyond the simplistic NPK soil tests that the local co-op does.  It showed plenty of calcium but it was tied up in a soil structure that lacked phosphorous and sulfur.  It also has high levels of magnesium that keep the calcium from being released to the roots as a nutrient.  Lime would have added more calcium but would be been bound up even more in the soil.  What was needed was a source of phosphorous and something to release the calcium and other nutrients.  Our approach was multi-faceted.

I worked with Joe Knopp, a forage consultant out of O'Neill, NE to come up with a plan.  We decided to apply three products he recommended.  These included GSR Calcium Growing which would provide readily available calcium as well as help to release existing calcium from the soil.  We also included PhosRite in order to boost the phosphorous level.  These are water soluable products that we mixed with about 275 gallons of water.  We also need to put down some Ammonium Sulfate to make the soil more acetic to further enhance nutrient release to the root system but that hasn't been done yet.  Remember my comment about me procrastinating?  This combination will be applied three times.  The first was right after planting.  The second and third will be right after cutting hay. 

In addition to the GSR Calcium and PhosRite we added some raw milk and fish emulsion.  The raw milk idea came from a presenation I saw at a small farm convention in MO last fall.  There were multiple articles in ACRES magazine about this.  The purpose of the milk is to provide food for mycorhizeal growth and microbial activity to increase the organic matter within the soil.  This further helps to release nutrients in the soil and makes them more readily available to the root system.  This was supplemented by the fish emulsion.  Research indicates this will result in reduced soil density and an increased brix (sugar level) in the plants.  That means better draining soil, better moisture retention at deeper levels and better quality forage.  We're also supposed to experience better weed suppression since the desired plants will choke out the undesirable plants.  I'm not sure how mother nature knows what I want to grow and what not to grow but I'm told she'll figure it out.

The benefits of a higher brix level are multiple.  First, more sugar in the plant means more nutrition for the animals that eat the forage.  They'll gain better and need less feed for conversion into larger carcasses.  Second, insects are unable to process sugar.  That means they'll go to the closest neighbor with hay that has a lower brix level.  I'll be picking up a refractometer to see if my brix level is up.

The acquisition of raw milk was an adventure in itself.  I thought I'd try the Midwest Dairy Association for a referal to one of their members.  Instead of a referral they sent my email to the Department of Agriculture .  I received an email from an inspector wanting to know if I'd cleared the use of raw milk with the DNR or EPA and if I planned to patent my fertilizer if my experience was successful.  Leave it to the government to lay down as much red tape as possible rather than coming up with solutions.

I found some raw milk (without help from the Midwest Dairy Assoc. or our friendly government bureaucrats) from a dairy but it was old.  Some of it had gone very sour but I wasn't too concerned about that.  I was looking for bacterical activity and that had plenty.  My pickup was in the shop so I used the Excursion and put down the seats.  We loaded up about 70 one gallon jugs.  The smell was horific but we just rolled the windows down and made the one hour drive home.  When we got home we unloaded the jugs to find that one of them had leaked onto the seats and floor.  It still stinks even after cleaning with an enzyme cleaner.  We had to filter the milk a bit so it wouldn't clog up the sprayer.  My two teenage boys struggled not to gag as they ran it through a strainer for me. 

The day we sprayed we filled the tank with water and added the GSR Calcium, PhosRite, fish emulsion and sour milk.  What a stinky concoction.  Kenny proceeded to pull the sprayer up and down the field, apply the 325 gallons of liquid yuk proporationately to each acre.  We had a lot more success doing that than we did with planting.  Although, his nozzles plugged up repeatedly.  He hadn't used the sprayer in about five years and the insides of the hoses had dried and cracked and were shedding small pieces that plugged the nuzzles.  I must have walked five miles that day following the sprayer up and down the field.  Kenny would stop and we'd pull nozzles when they'd plug.   Eventually we got it done though and I was exhausted.

The spraying was completed the Wednesday before my oldest daughter's wedding.  I'd taken the week off to get the house ready and run errands related to the wedding.  I spent one full afternoon just on spraying. 

In my next post I'll provide an update on how the field is looking.