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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.


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 would 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 snarling like some of the other pups.  He was actually mimicking our smiling at him.   The first few times I saw this it scared me.  He was probably 4-5 months old and already weighed 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.