A day in the life of a wannabe farmer

Recently, leaving the city for a more “sustainable” life on a hobby farm seems to be all the rage. Now, I love our life out here, but I thought I’d provide a little snapshot of life with animals. Both for those considering making the jump and for those who are more the armchair dreamer type. Because it is not for the faint of heart. Animals, like children, almost never behave according to plan.

Candy, not where she belongs

A system that works for months will suddenly break down at the most inopportune moment. And so this particular snap shot begins as I’m driving my children to town for tumbling/dance camp. An event they have been out of their minds excited about for weeks.

And I don’t see the cow in the pasture. Or the little bull calf that is her constant shadow.

Now, there are plenty of places in the pasture she could be and I wouldn’t see her. The grass is just tall enough, she could even be out in the open and I might miss her just driving by, especially considering how high above the road our pasture is. This doubt of my own observations sustains me all the way to town, but there is no way that lingering question mark is going to leave me alone. So I instruct the girls what to do if I’m not back when I’m supposed to be and head home.

And as I pull in the drive, Candy pokes her head out of the pig barn to say hello. Not catastrophic. She is technically still in the pasture, just not the section she belongs in. So I get a bucket with a little bit of grain and open the gate to let them out of the barn and the pasture gate to let them in with the sheep.

They aren’t interested in the grain bucket. Not one little bit. They run to the big barn and make themselves cozey in the corner. Which really wouldn’t be that big of a deal either, but this section is overgrazed and I really just need them to go take their morning snooze in the shade provided in the outer pasture where they belong.

So I shake the bucket which alerts the sheep who come running. The ram unnerves me. He’s never done anything, but I don’t know what’s going through his head when he looks at me. He stands too close, rests his head against the side of my leg and . . . thinks. I’m not sure if he’s planning on killing me for the bucket or claiming me as one of his ewes or if he’s just a nice ram that isn’t at all like the ones I’ve read about and I really should put more trust in his history of never doing anything than all I’ve read about how dangerous a ram with no fear of humans can be. After all, he only acts this way when I’m holding a bucket.

I finally give up on enticing the cattle out of the barn and lock the door, hoping to keep them in until they’re hungry enough to follow me back to where they belong. And I dump the grain on the ground to be rid of my uncomfortably friendly ram who doesn’t pay me any more attention.

Except now I notice that while I had closed the gates behind me, I had failed to tie the gate to the pig barn shut. This isn’t a quick task. It involves lacing baling wire through the gate and around a post because the gate is really just a collectiong of things we found in the barn and tied to an old metal gate to keep the animals from getting out. I think I had more hoped the gilts would just not realize that all they needed to do was push to get out.

That’s actually Mr. Freckles, but you don’t stop to take pictures when your pigs escape!

Normally, this wouldn’t be that big of a deal to have happen right there where I can see. Miss Tumble (the one who got out) is a friendly gilt and more than happy to go where I direct her, with or without a bucket. Except that this particular exit to the barn leads to the little “porch” I made for the boars to acclimate them to the electric fencing. And given the odd “songs” Miss Tumble and Mr. Freckles had been singing to one another the night before, I was a little concerned that Miss Tumble might be in heat.

And by “songs,” I mean deep throated growls. Roars, even. I went down in the middle of the night to collect some chickens I knew were out and thought there was a bear in the pig barn.

Perhaps it is relevant to also mention here that the chickens were out because the day before the gilts had knocked over my daughter’s poorly conceived fencing to steal chicken feed, allowing all of our most prized birds to escape. None were injured, but they all eluded capture until nightfall led them to roost. In the pig barn. With the roaring-bears-that-were-pigs. Where I collected them by the light of a cell phone and tried not to imagine all that crossed the boar’s mind when he trotted over to me.

I thought he might be on a murderous rampage. He just wanted scritches so I obliged and escaped before he changed his mind.

At any rate, the little gate that I had propped open to let the boys go in and out of their half of the barn was wide open and doesn’t close as easily as the main gate Miss Tumble wandered out of. So I threw a rabbit cage in front of it, hoping to thwart any attempts at blocking me from extracting the object of his affection from his “porch.”

With all the animals finally secured, I walked out to the far pasture to see how exactly Candy and her shadow had escaped.

The actual exit point wasn’t that bad. I live in continual fear that Candy will cease to even pretend to fear the electric fence and that will be the end of containing her. But the top two lines had been dropped, probably for the short legs of small children who were retrieving a bucket. It was a small hop over and a short walk to the pig barn where they know there is grain available.

What was inside the pasture, however, was a far worse sight. Half a mile of fencing down and criss crossed across the pasture, like a glistening spider web of metal. Worried that the horses would get tangled in it, I shooed them over to the pasture section with the least damage and put up a line of fencing to keep them from walking through the tangled mess. The horses are good. I think they’d stay in a fence made of yarn as long as they were together.

I walked back to the barn and told Candy and Endeavor they were hamburger. Candy walked up to the barn door and stuck her head over the bar. I thumped her brisket.

“You know why this is your brisket? Because that’s what you make out of it. Slather it in BBQ sauce and it is far better than restringing fencing.”

She nuzzled me. I’m pretty sure she thinks the various cuts of meat I have taught her over the years are various pet names for how wonderful she is.

I looked at my phone. 9:45. I would be right on time to pick up my youngest daughter and take her over to her sister’s five day club.

Not even lunch time and I felt like I had already put in a full day’s work without actually accomplishing anything. And I still had a half mile of fencing to untangle and restring before I could begin the projects I had planned for the day.

So if you ever wonder what this whole sustainability-hobby-farm-thing is about, now you know. Working, re-working, planning, re-planning and always learning on the fly.

That and the soft brown eyes of an impish cow who rests her head on your shoulder while you threaten to turn her into hamburger because even she knows you don’t mean it.

And this. Because in the end, it really does all come back to your children.

Micah with his very best friend.



Round about the farm

So this is a bit of a hobby farm. In that we have a lot of animals and plants most people would consider crops, even if they don’t produce anything. These are a few of the main characters. You can tell because we took enough pictures of them that a few of them actually turned out!

This here is Candy in her characteristic Candy pose. She has looked at me like this since she was a calf and, according to the breeder, her mama did it, too. Can’t help but wonder if her little calf at her side will do the same! We milk her every morning and then turn her out with her beautiful baby for the day.

This is Scout. At 15 and a half hands, he’s a big boy. Mouse’s pride and joy. And the horse I wish I wanted to ride? I was looking for something in the neighborhood of 14 hands and older. Maybe a retired trail horse. I thought that sounded like a good first “real” horse for my daughter, but this boy had been through quite a bit of training and was almost the perfect horse, even if he was only 8 when we got him and quite a bit taller than I had in mind.

My saskatoons. I have no idea why I was so excited to get these from the Nemaha Resource District. We planted a whole hedge of berries I had never tried before. Good thing they were delicious!

And more first fruits from our dreams. Blackberries! We’ve harvested a couple handfuls so far this year and hoping for maybe one more. For a family of eight, that doesn’t last long. Tradition here is to share the the first fruits a plant produces. You know how much fun it was to divide up our first two cherries? The single peach was the best though. I’ve never eaten something so delicious.

One of my honeybees. Drinking from the aquaponics tank. One of the many benefits of aquaponics: no more dead bees floating in livestock waterers!

And finally, evidence that we take compassion even on garden pests. Maybe it has something to do with how beautiful the butterflies are. Or that we homeschool. But rather than disposing of these devourers of dill, we took cuttings, brought them inside and named them Bob and Crystal. Unfortunately, they escaped rather than building a chrysallis like a good caterpillar under observation.

Well, out of close to 200 pictures, that’s all that seemed worth sharing. And why I don’t share pictures all that often. It’s just too much work!

Livestock will keep you humble

There’s nothing quite like livestock to keep you humble.

I say that because we have these two steer. Calves, really. I mean, they’re almost a year old, but even their mothers get mistaken for calves by the cattle people around here because they’re not Angus or Hereford or Simental. They’re Dexters. And they top out at about 41 inches and 700 pounds.

And they lead like puppy dogs. When they see their halters, they come running. It means a walk. Fresh pasture. A visit with mom. All good things happen after the halter is secured. This is why it seemed like a good idea to go ahead and let the girls show them at the fair. Sure, they’ll look a little puny against those muscle bound products of our neighbor’s, but they shouldn’t take two grown men bodysurfing through the fair like that steer last year.

So getting them weighed on Saturday should have been a breeze. Nevermind the fact I can’t back up a trailer to save my life. I mean, I have sweet little halter broke calves that look like newborns compared to these half-wild beasts being unloaded before and after us.

When I said, “Load up!” they hopped in the trailer. When I said, “Back out!” they backed out and let us lead them to their pen.

Easy peasy.

It absolutely did not matter that I could not back the trailer up to that shoot.

Until I told Mike, the kind man opening and closing the gate that we were just walking them out to the trailer.

Open went the gate and off went the calves. All my daughter and I had left was the rope burn as they kicked up their heels, bucked around the parking lot and made for the grass on the other side.

For a moment, I just stood there. For a moment, I thought it would be fine. They’d settle in to grazing and we’d just walk up to them and pick up their leads and haul them to the trailer. After all, they were scared. Grazing is comfort. We’re security. It would all be fine.

That’s why I didn’t run.

That and the fact that thanks to an old hip injury I really can’t run. But at that moment, I wouldn’t have even if I could have. I even told my daughter to approach from the south but to walk slowly.

And then the train whistle blew.

And the calves bolted.

And Mike sprinted. I never knew a man wearing work boots and Carharts could move so fast. But he was at a full run, waving his arms and doing everything he could to get those calves to turn.

I was almost at a run and the searing pain that normally accompanies such endeavors was noticeably absent. And then everything turned to slow motion. Mike, my daughter, the train, the calves.

And I saw it all. They were going to reach the tracks just ahead of the train. Just in time to get hit and there was nothing we could do about it. But everyone kept running. And I just saw them spattered all over the train and started wondering since we were right there if they would be able to process anything we scraped off the tracks when it was over.

Then they turned. The relief was met with that searing pain I hadn’t felt a moment ago and I couldn’t keep up the pace that really wasn’t getting me anywhere, anyway.

They ran straight up ninth street and the vet’s office there on the corner emptied out — the vet, the vet tech and I’m pretty sure the third person joining the chase was a customer. It was like the running of the bulls right there in Tecumseh, Nebraska.

Except everyone was in workboots and Carharts. And they were chasing 375 pound calves that don’t even have horns. Or testicles, for that matter.

They finally got them cornered and tied them to a fence while I went to get the trailer. A fence that in no way could hold them if they decided to take off again.

Ask me how I know.

Ask me why we had to replace our chicken run this summer.

And after a short lesson in managing steers, and a simple, “Load up!” we had them back in the trailer and tied for the ride.

And I told my daughter we’re changing the family motto from the old McIntire “per ardua” (through hardship) to “Yes, we’re that family.” And I’m putting it on a T-shirt.

Though apparently that isn’t necessary. Because when I stopped at Orscheln’s to pick up a new halter, the checker greeted me with, “So I heard about what happened with your little calves.”

Word travels fast.

And livestock keep you humble.

My dog was hit by a car

I was sitting at the computer, nursing, surfing facebook.

“There’s someone here!” the children shouted.

I looked up to see our neighbor at the door. I knew it couldn’t be good. Not many people just drop in, but especially not this late in the evening. I didn’t really have time to think, though, because the door was already open.

“I just hit your white dog.”

And I was stunned. The only thing I could even think to say was, “He’s not even supposed to be out.”

livestock guardian

And he wasn’t . . . supposed to be out, that is. But Flee’s a good livestock guardian, patrolling his pasture, looking over his animals and making sure everyone makes it home safely. That’s why he chases cars. And from his side of the pasture, it is a beautiful sight to see him at a full run, escorting the car past his domain and standing at the end of the fenceline like a king as he watches the car travel on down the road. Another threat averted.

But that’s only when he’s on his side of the fence and I know no harm can come to him. That’s also why I don’t intentionally let him out of the pasture.

But he also likes to look over his mismatched flock of animals. He’s particularly fond of the cattle. You see, we got him after our little calf was attacked by a coyote and we were determined not to have that happen again. He was raised alongside those calves. He romped with them, watched over them and led them to safety any time danger was near. He is happiest when his herd is together and he can look over them all.

Livestock Guardian Dog

In return, they look to him for safety. When he barks, they come and stand near him. When he naps in the sun, they graze and play. And when it was time for them to have their own calves, they just looked on as he helped clean their newborn babes.

And at milking time, as we lead the cows out of the barn to tie them in the stanchion, Flee likes to follow. He likes to lay down by the alfalfa and just watch his girls and their calves. He likes to make sure the shepherds don’t get too close because there is absolutely no reason in his mind that they should ever give his girls that eye.

But then there’s the car chasing.

And tonight, my daughter was milking. And tonight, my daughter didn’t think about it.

So I walked out to the road with the neighbor as she told me he came out of nowhere. That she hit him pretty hard. That he ran off into the corn field.

And I wasn’t upset with her. I was thankful. We lost Timmy to this road and the driver never even slowed down. But there was no sign of Flee and I could only hope that whatever his injuries were, he could make it home so that we could take care of him and so that he could be comforted amongst his people and his herd.

I walked down to the barn because if he came home, that would be where he’d head. The animals were all out of sorts. The sheep were bleating. The cattle were incessant with their mooing and I could hear them pacing in the barn. The horses were whinnying over and over. Candy in the stanchion lifted her head from her bucket of grain and was rocking against the sides as she turned to look at me when I walked in to tell my daughter what had happened.

“Really? I just saw him and he seemed fine.”

“It just happened. They said he ran off into the corn field. They drove up the road a little to see if they could see him.”

“No. I just saw him. I heard the car and he took off, but just like two minutes ago he ran through again. He was moving just fine. He was fast.”

I was confused. Had she seen him tearing off after the car? Or had she seen him coming home, scared but without serious injury?

So I walked around the property calling him and listened as all of our livestock called for him as well. But there was nothing. Flee isn’t like our other dogs. He was raised with cattle. They are his focus and his job. He knows us. He knows his name. But he comes when he wants. Even when he isn’t scared and in pain.

And a few minutes later, he appeared in the milking barn. Our steer returned to his feed. Candy relaxed and settled into chewing her cud. And as I ran my hands along his sides, back and legs, looking for any sign of pain, I noticed how quiet everything had suddenly become.

Flee was home. The guardian was safe. And everyone relaxed.

In which I run screaming down the road. Because of a honeybee.

I thought someone stole my beehive. Driving by on my way to town, I noticed it just wasn’t there. As I put my car into reverse to double check, I imagined someone cruising down the highway as my bees attacked.

photo by Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel

It didn’t help.

I’ve put too much time and effort into these bees. I’ve been trying to start a colony for three years, but I just can’t seem to carry a hive through winter. And here after failure after failure after failure, April and the dandelion bloom are in sight. One of my students in my nature study class found a dandelion bud and I beamed as I told them the importance of early spring flowers.

And now someone is going to up and steal my beehive?

I wanted to cry.

And then I spotted the beehive upside down in the windbreak.

It’s maybe been a touch on the windy side these last few days. I didn’t even have that happen when the tornado went through that pushed our neighbor’s outbuildings off the foundation.

So anyway, I was a little too relieved to really think through what I should do. I just put the car in park right there in the road, grabbed my daughter and ran over. I was happy to see a few bees buzzing about and hear the whole hive buzzing.

The angry “you better not mess with us” buzz. After all, what colony of anything likes lying on its back, exposed like that? It didn’t really occur to me that they might blame me for their misfortune. I had nothing to do with it. I was rescuing them. And it was cold out. Bees really don’t fly around much when it is below forty.

So my daughter grabbed one side, I grabbed the other and we gently rolled the hive over and backed away quickly.

“Yay! Success!”

Or so I thought. I figured it best to leave the hive alone for awhile. Let the bees calm down, I thought. Besides, I wasn’t sure my daughter and I actually would be able to lift it anyway. So we went back to the car and continued on our way.

I made it all the way to the stop sign at the bottom of our road before I felt a buzzing down my back.

And this is the weird thing. I’ve been stung before. It’s not that bad. It isn’t fun. I’d rather it not happen again. But you get over it. Especially if you have bindweed because if you chew the flower and smack that glob of goo on the sting, the pain goes away almost immediately.

Getting stung isn’t so bad. But knowing you’re about to get stung is enough to send you into a panic. Or at least it is enough to send me into a panic.

And this after I oh so calmly explained to someone on facebook how easy it is to lose your fear of working the bees. How calming it is, in fact. I failed to mention that it’s still scary as anything to have a bee fly into your clothing and start that angry buzz.

So, yeah. I slammed on the brakes and tried to get out of the car. The door was locked. Put the car in park. Swung open the door and jumped out while trying to extricate myself from my jacket while trying not to let my shirt tighten across my back.

“Mouse! Help me!” I cried out as I ran around the front of car. (Good thing it was in park. Oh how fun it would have been to try to explain how I ran over myself while running from a bee that was stuck in my shirt!)

I’m not sure she entirely knew what was going on, but she dutifully grabbed my sleeve and pulled my arm out as I spun. I had my shirt half off . . . right there in the middle of the road on a 35 degree day . . . when I felt the bee crawl up my back and into my hair.

I screamed. I screamed and ran, flipping my hair over my head and spinning for no real reason while my daughter yelled, “I see it! I see it!”

That’s when I ran right into the open car door. The one I had left open as I made my dramatic exit from the car.

And that’s when the bee flew off.

And when my daughter and I started laughing so hard, I couldn’t drive.

And once again, I found myself incredibly thankful we don’t have neighbors.

Because what would you do if you pulled up on someone half dressed and frantically screaming as they spun in circles around their car?


Announcing our litter of English Shepherd puppies!

On February 3 and 4, Faithfull delivered her litter of ten in the whelping box my husband and children had made for her just the day before. Nothing like cutting it close! This is her not quite sure she likes her set up.

whelping box

The mattress is there because Mouse sleeps with her beloved Faithfull until she starts delivering. Last year, Faithfull woke her up by laying a newly born puppy on her! As soon as things got started, the mattress moved out so Faithfull and her puppies could have plenty of room.

And it didn’t take long at all before puppy number one came along.

first English Shepherd puppy

And number two.

And number three.

And numbers four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and finally ten!

English Shepherd puppies

And for all that work, mama defnitely deserved a little nap with her newborns.

English Shepherd nursing puppies

Marley, the papa of the litter, so wanted to know what was going on in that box. Everyone was paying so much attention to those squirmy, squeaky things, he knew it had to be something special.

English Shepher puppies

But alas, Faithfull is a good mama and not quite ready to share her litter. Her people are allowed to touch. And to fall in love.

English Shepherd puppy

But for now, Papa has to wait.

English Shepher eyes

I will post more about English Shepherds and how we raise our puppies later, but for those who are interested in more information, this is a link to our puppy blog that covers her last litter, including what we do to help make housebreaking easier and provide them with a stimulating environment to make their transition to their new homes easier. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment or contact me and I will answer as soon as I can!

The joy and the heartache of new life on the homestead

I have my camera back.

So I thought it was about time to share some pictures of our little adventure out here.

Especially since guinea keets are about the cutest thing there is when they’re newly hatched.

And it is particularly nice because this is a mama that disappeared about a month ago returning to the flock to show off her new babies.

After we oohed and aahed over the adorable babies, my husband said he was pretty sure he knew where the nest was. He saw a guinea hiding in the grasses when he moved the heifer. So off we went to search.

Except that’s not exactly what we found. What we actually found was a bit of an emergency. There was one dead keet and one who was quite cold as well as some eggs pipping. We gathered up the keet and the eggs that hadn’t hatched and put them in the incubator for the night, hoping the chilled baby would recover and that the rest of them hadn’t become too chilled to finish their hatching.

Mama bedded down for the night in the corner of the barn and I decided that was as safe a place as any for the proud mama and her ten little babies. Because even though I know guinea mama parenting isn’t that well suited to Nebraska, there is nothing sweeter than a mama and her babies. Especially to this mama who just couldn’t bring herself to take a baby away in the midst of mama’s joy.

Two of the eggs hatched overnight and the chilled keet recovered well. Three rescued from the abandoned nest!

Unfortunately, mama didn’t fare as well. When I checked on her in the morning, there were four dead little keets in the hole she slept in. Three other guineas were chasing each other around with another baby in their beaks. The other five were following behind mama and I decided there was only one thing I could do.

Wow can upset guinea mamas bite hard. But I could hardly be upset with her. I gathered up the surviving keets and united them with their siblings in the house.

Mama retured to the spot she slept in, called loudly and stared at her dead babies.

It broke my heart, but I wanted the others to live.

And they all knew they have a mama. They hatched under her and lived with her for a day. They called and called and called, trying to find her.

They broke my heart, too, but I wanted them to live.

And in a few days, I’m going to have to do it all over again.

Guinea hen on nest

Such is the joy and the heartache of raising animals and families in a world where all is not quite as it should be.

On becoming a shepherd

So we got sheep. Shepherds we are not.

At least not yet.

It takes a lot more than having a small flock of sheep to be a shepherd, I am learning. People keep telling me sheep are stupid. And I can definitely see how they might form that opinion.

After all, I did name two of them Dumb and Dumber.

But they’re not. Not really. They just see the world in their own bottom-of-the-food-chain way while we try to force them to conform to whatever management strategy we’ve learned. Or read about. Or made up all on our own based on working with cattle.

Who, I have also learned, aren’t much like sheep.

Take Dumber, for example. AKA Death Stare, Death Star and Cruella de Vil. You’d have to get to know her to understand.

But the day after we got the sheep, we fenced off a section of our yard so they could graze happily while getting used to us. Dumber and a friend immediately found a weakness in the fence and were gone before we even had a chance to go inside for a cup of tea. Looking back, I recognize a thousand mistakes and know things could have turned out better if I knew then what I know now. But then I knew only four things:

  1. Walk away from a startled ewe at a 45 degree angle in order to get around her.
  2. Never look directly at her.
  3. Move them slowly and they’ll make better decisions.
  4. All they really want is to get back to their flock.

But that I only knew from a book. Not from experience.

Now I know that I should have secured the other three ewes back in the pen, tied them, left the gate open and gotten out of the way.

Instead, we tried to get around them and chased them for miles through corn fields, bean fields and grazing land. Meanwhile, the other three got loose because no one went back to secure the fence or lock them up.

See. We were so not shepherds. Not yet, anyway.

Eventually, Dumber fell in a ditch. My husband leaped on her, flipped her on her back and dragged her up the hill where he threw her in the trunk of the SUV. I drove back for a rope with a vague plan to tie Dumber to the hitch and use her as bait to lure the other one in. Alone, however, a sheep is in a state of panic.

And she bolted.

My husband ran for two miles before he lost sight of her and that was that. No amount of driving about or talking to neighbors ever revealed another sign of her. I kept asking myself whether we did the right thing in tackling Dumber. If we had gotten her out of the ditch and let her go, would we have been able to eventually herd them back home? Together, they were a pain, but they weren’t in a panic. And they were generally predictable. But alone, that poor sheep had no sense of safety and hence no sense.

She was in a blind panic and we lost her.

Fast forward to today. It’s been a month and a half. Every morning, I have walked down to deliver feed and refill water. Every time I check on the other animals, I make a point to walk slowly through their grazing area, close enough to make them lift their heads, but never close enough to make them move. And every evening, I again walk down to deliver feed and check their water.

And in this time, none of the sheep have developed a particular affection for me. But Mira walks up to me as soon as she sees me coming. And while she won’t let me touch her, she will stick her nose in the feed bucket even while I’m holding it.

And Despereaux, the dominant one of the pack, also has no affection. But she also has no fear. She stamps her foot at me if I move too fast and is too dignified to stick her nose in a bucket I’m still holding, but she waits at her feed dish and will eat even as I stand there.

Dumb is still fearful. She hangs back and watches me feed the other sheep and watches me fill her dish, wondering what I’m up to. But as soon as she’s satisfied that I’m not that interested in her, she comes in to eat.

Not Dumber. She knows exactly how far her lead will let her go and she runs right at the end to keep me opposite her from the moment I step inside her area. She watches me fill her dish. She watches me leave her area. She watches me do the other chores. She watches me sit on the porch watching her. Or not watching her.

I have never seen her touch her feed dish. She always waits until I go back in the house.

Because she remembers.

And in the last six weeks, she has taught me a lot about what it means to be a shepherd. It takes more than having sheep. It takes more than confidence (even if it’s faked) and a knowledge of flight zones which served us through over two years of raising cattle. And it takes more than patience and a bit of sweet feed.

It takes getting to know the sheep. Each one individually and the flock as a group. It takes recognizing who they hang out with, who they follow and who they push around. It takes knowing who the leader is, who the confident one is and who the flighty one is. It takes knowing when they feel safe and when they’re getting ready to bolt.

And it takes a little respect. Because sheep are not dumb. They have very long memories. They remember being chased. They remember being tackled. They remember being sheared and they remember being vaccinated. They remember all these things, and the lessons they learn through rough handling can be very difficult for them to unlearn.

Poor Dumber’s fear is a consequence of our mistakes. But she is teaching us a lot about what it takes to become a shepherd.


Being watched

So I’m sitting with a cup of tea after a long day of busyness without much accomplishment. I watch one more show than I intended on hulu and suddenly it is after one. And I realize I never collected the guinea eggs for the incubator. Nor did I lock up the ducklings.

So I arm myself with a flashlight and the dogs and go out into the night. The sheep are all lying in the glow of the porchlight. They turn their heads to watch me, but so long as I don’t walk toward them, they will stay put. The ducklings chatter as if they are happy to see me which starts a chorus of honking and quacking from the rest of the waterfowl.

The henhouse rewards me with nine guinea eggs and a couple pecks from the hens in the corner. The same four hens who have been hiding behind that board for several days. And I just now realize that they have also had all the eggs every time I go to collect. So I only take the guinea eggs and leave them with a few eggs to brood.

As I leave, Flee starts to pace and his barking changes. It’s deeper. More threatening. And Marley stands in front of the henhouse with his ears focused on the corn field.

A lone coyote starts to yip.

More answer in the distance, but this one sound close. I shine the flashlight across the cornfield and spot it running toward us, but I figure it is actually running for the cover of the tall grasses that divide the field.

Except that when it gets there, it follows the grasses to where they run closest to our property and just stops. All I see are two eyes glowing in the darkness.

Flee goes nuts. A guinea fowl crashes into the run. The ducks and geese are raising a raucous and all the sheep get up. Though they’ve been with us for only a week, they run toward the furiously barking Great Pyrenees. They’re still under quarantine, but their fence runs within a few feet of the pasture and it is in that section closest to Flee that they huddle, moving back and forth with his pacing.

And I get that uneasy feeling of being watched. I am being watched, but I also have to turn around. I have to put the eggs down and collect the ducklings. But that means turning my back toward a coyote I know is watching me. And though it is still a quarter of a mile away and four dogs stand between it and me, I feel as if the only thing holding it there in the grasses is my gaze.

I back toward the garage where I put down the eggs and grab a dog kennel to shoo the ducklings into. When I come out, there’s no sign of the coyote. I’m not sure if it took the moment of darkness to take off or to circle around where it can approach under cover. But the dogs are more relaxed, so I am relaxed.

At least until I have to kneel down to collect the ducklings.

And I know it is going to be another long night.

The beginning of our shepherding adventure

I don’t know how many of you realize this, but my husband is Australian. And he was raised on lamb and mutton, apparently. At least, that seems to be what he goes on about most these days.

And have you priced lamb in the stores recently?


Due to a series of unfortante events, our grass is also a wee bit high. Like you could lose a not-so-small-child-in-it high.

So I did what any wife would do and ended up at the livestock auction. Where the auctioneer kindly told me I should listen to the small children telling me to go higher and higher because they wouldn’t steer me wrong. And ended up with three of these.

Except not nearly so fluffy. They are only barely weaned lambs, after all. But without the fluff, my drawings look rather like goats. Or deformed dogs. Or just about anything other than a cute little lamb.

I fell in love. Not so much with the fluffy cuteness. These little ones are meant for the freezer, after all. But how could I not adore a creature who runs straight for the bindweed and strips all its evil little leaves off with such amazing efficiency?

So my husband thought . . . WE NEED MORE!!!

And I dragged him along to the next auction where he proceeded to buy five full grown three year old ewes and one cute little lamb to replace the one that died shortly after we got her (the vet suspected a nutritional deficiency she came with so there wasn’t really any thing we could do. Especially since I didn’t notice anything was wrong until she was pretty much already gone.)

I hadn’t quite expected that.

Neither did our SUV.

But the lady who loaded them up assured us she’d seen everything. And that this was quite normal to be loading up livestock in the back of the SUV. She told us about minivans and Lexuses and Mercedes and even a convertible. I told her she needed a webcam. But I’m not sure this is quite normal:

The kids and I had to stay behind because we didn’t fit. So we ate cookies and drank pop and chatted with strangers about livestock while he had all the fun of driving home with our new mobile barn.

And apparently unloading the ewes went pretty easy. They were, after all, all from the same group and a nice little flock all on their own. Once he got one out of the car and pointed into the pen, the rest followed.

The poor little lamb, however, had spent the entire ride cowering under the seat in fear of these huge strange monsters who threatened to crush her if she moved.

And she took one look at that gate and those ewes standing in the pen and darted back under the SUV as if it were the only safety she had ever known.

I might go ahead and throw in here that the little lamb was black. And the sun had gone down. And it was my husband and ten year old son alone against her and the night.

So anyway, she was under the SUV and my husband was trying to coax her out. Or force her out. Or just yell at her until she came out. And then she did. At a full run into the windbreak.

And then at a full run to the top of the windbreak.

And then at a full run back to the bottom of the windbreak and across two lines of electric fencing where she ran headlong into Flee.

Who is great with cattle, but is yet to really meet any of our lambs since they’re still under quarantine. Whether he wanted to play or herd or kill the intruder, we don’t really know, but the lamb didn’t want to find out.

So it was back through two lines of electric fencing where my husband finally tackled all thirty pounds of her and carried her to the pen.

Thus beginning our shepherding adventure.

And my car still smells like a barn.