Sunday, April 22, 2007

BIG Puppies

The sheep have settled in, and gotten used to eating pasture and staying within the electric fence. So, to keep myself pushed just a bit beyond my bounds I bought a pair of six month old Anatolian Shepherd puppies on Monday. My mom accompanied me on the four hour drive to the Sierra foothills to the breeder's--a very talkative, slighlty quirky woman who raises horses, goats, and dogs. It may be because of her remote location, but I gather she doesn't get many visitors judging by the about of talking she did while we were there! We are now intimately acquainted with the medical history of a number of her distant relatives, as well as their religious affliations.

Anyhoo, back to the dogs! When we drove up to the farm to see the dogs we were greeted by a very large barking male and then a large female and the two pups. Once we were out of the truck the dogs were extremely friendly and sweet, despite their intimidating size and bark. The large male, the sire of the pups, had a very heavy long white coat and looked much like a Great Pyrenees, probably weighing in over 150 lbs. According to the breeder, he and a couple of other dogs had recently killed a bear!! The combination of gentle sweet disposition and overall mellowness with the potential for ferocious defensive behavior had me sold on the two female puppies as guardians for my sheep flock.

So, the newly named Flora and Scout, about 60 lbs each, got dragged into the back of my pickup camper shell for the long drive back to Watsonville. The girls had never had collars or leashes or been in a car before. They spent most of the ride standing and drooling, interrupted occassionally by throwing up and peeing. Getting them out of the truck and into the "garden" fenced yard was pretty much a matter of dragging them. Once in the pen and given food, though, they recovered quickly. The first introduction to Gort, the resident farm dog, was a little rough. Scout seemed to accept him immediately, but Flora, the bigger and more dominant pup, continued to bark and growl at him the whole evening. The next morning I solved this problem with a vague intention by letting Gort in the pen when I brought their breakfast. He ate out of the bowl first and I let him for a little while. After that the girls treated him as dominant Alpha male. If only human relations were so easy to sort out.

For the past week, I have been taking the girls out on leashes for walks around the perimeter of the farm to orient them to their boundaries and to work on some obedience training. The first walk was more of a drag for the initial 100 yards but overall was not bad. By the third walk they had figured out the whole leash concept and we were doing quite well. I may have a been a bit overconfident at this point because I decided to introduce them to some of the other farm animals. First, we encountered the Tom turkey and the dogs did not want to go anywhere near him. Next, Scout pulled loose of her collar and chased a rooster for a little while until I got her to come back so I could put her collar back on. Fortunately, I think she just liked chasing and wasn't interested in catching. Things went downhill though when we went by the pasture with the steers. The steers came trotting up to the fence and were very interested in the dogs, and definitely not afraid of them at all. At this point both dogs decided they would not like to walk on the leash anymore or be any where near the steer. As the steer were between us and the dog's pen this made things a bit difficult however. To cut a (very) long story short I ultimately had to carry Scout back to their pen while dragging a reluctant Flora behind me. Things can only go up from there! We have since had a couple more very successful perimeter walks and you would never guess they had only just been introduced to leashes.

We will have to see how the pups work out as sheep guardians, though. The first couple of times I let them in the pen with my sheep they barked and chased. However, Kinky, my landlord's ram, jumped through a fence and joined my flock a few days ago and he may help put the pups in line. The sheep's yard and the dogs' pen are separated by an open wood slat fence, allowing Kinky to stick his head through and snort at the puppies. While they were still barking at him, they also were acting very puppyish and licking his nose, which I believe is a good sign of submissiveness. Nevertheless, the last couple of times I let them in with the flock they chased and herded them. I used them this morning to force a couple of reluctant ewes across a small ditch that had filled with water and the majority of the flock had simply jumped over. While they might occassionally be useful as herders that was not my intention in bringing them to the farm. We have a obedience school lesson scheduled for Tuesday, so hopefully I can get them to obey me before they get to huge for me to manhandle and carry when they are mischevious.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


My sheep are here!! They actually arrived at the crack of dawn on the morning of Friday the 6th. I was up until about 11:30 the night before, walking down our road to the main road with a flashlight to make sure Ron wouldn't miss the turn. His communication system is a little crude (to say the least) so all I knew was that he had crossed into California at 5pm Thursday night and was headed toward me. Well, I woke early Friday morning to a trailer full of little ewes poking their heads out, checking out the new surroundings. Between Ron's rig and trailer, visits from my eager family members, two carpenters, an electrician, a lumber delivery truck, a couple of Bob and Jean's customers and a few other random visitors the farm was a bit of a three ring circus that day. After considerable effort on Ron's part, the sheep finally made their way out of the trailer into the horse corral we had designated as their quarantine pen. Eagerly examining them as they appeared, I saw one baby ram lamb, another older ram lamb with the characteristic Freisan rat tail, and yet another! And low and behold the baby lamb was nursing on its mother. It wasn't until Jean pointed out to me that that meant she was in milk that I realized Steve had sent me a girl I could milk right away! There was also one lovely little black ewe, making for a total of 54 sheep. Ron then spent quite a while hosing down the inside of the trailer and raking through the manure in search of the metal pins that my nimble little sheep had pulled out of all of their slots on the boring ride from Wisconsin. He said they sounded like they were playing slot machines the whole way out here.

Well, you might imagine the past week has been a bit busy as I am just now getting to posting. Last weekend we opened the gate of the horse corral so the sheep could get their first sampling of pasture. I had been acutely worried that they would overeat on pasture and turn up with bloat, but it actually took an effort to get them to go out and eat grass. Their first experiences with the electric fence made them all a little weary, but within a few days they were happily munching away in the lush green to my delight.

I spent my days off of work (my paying job) last week at a sheep rodeo and spa. The sheep had been in heavy snow and in barns this past winter and were in desperate need of a mani/pedi. I think there must have been something in their diet that had contributed to excessive nail growth as well, because every one of them had really long hooves, some to the Dragon Lady extent. It has been quite some time since I last handled sheep and my technique is a bit rusty. Let's just say that during the first hour of sheep wrangling Jean and I both were spread eagle in the straw and manure more than once. Jean then remembered she had a sheep halter, which made things a lot easier, and my friend Adriana of nearby Tomatero Farm( one of the growers I buy produce from for Gabriella Cafe) came by to help. Shortly after, Ben, my former souz chef, stopped by unannounced to see the sheep and was quickly recruited as number one sheep catcher. I am not sure if having four people was actually any faster than two, but the moral support was great, and after Jean and Adriana had to get back to their own work, Ben and I became pretty efficient at catching and trimming. I was pretty over it all though, after I cracked my kneecap really hard on a large rock while grabbing one of the rams. That night I was so stiff and sore in both knees that I was afraid I wouldn't be able to get to the remaining 32 sheep that needed to be trimmed any time soon.
However, a good night's sleep and a couple of days off from the rodeo circuit and I was back in business. I tried to coerce various farmer friends at the Farmer's Market to come out and help me wrestle sheep but I couldn't find any takers. To my surprise though my mom volunteered to come help. We ended up setting a good pace with me catching the sheep (while Mom helped be a barrier to crowd them into a corner), and Mom holding them while I trimmed. As one of the ewes was trying to escape over the door to the horse stall where we had trapped her and a few others, my mother scolded her in her "bad dog" voice, "NO! Get down from there! NO! Bad girl!" It had me cracking up laughing because sheep really don't care if you scold them. She also talked in her "good dog" voice to the ewes as she held them if they got squirmy or a little anxious and it made me realize where I get my proclivity for animals.

While we had the sheep detained one at a time I took advantage of the opportunity to give them all names:
Sweetpea, Poppy (the mama), Babe (the little lamb), Orchid, Buttercup, Sunflower, Honeysuckle, Tigerlilly, Wysteria, Dahlia (the black one), Pansy, Iris, Violet, Freesia, Lilac, Hyacinth, Jasmine, Nasturtium, Azalea, Amaryliss, Zinnia, Magnolia, Fuschia, Rose, Daisy, Petunia, Morning Glory, Verbena, Periwinkle, Marigold, Calendula, Tulip, Camelia, Daffodil, Snowdrop, Begonia, Crocus, Lupine, Posey, Tansy, Hibiscus, Nigella, Gardenia, Borage, Columbine, Bluebell, Larkspur, Oleander, Chyrsanthemum, Foxglove, Rudbeckia, Cosmo and Goldenrod (the rams) [and then Tina, the biggest, fattest, and possibly pregnant ewe that already had a name]

Monday, April 02, 2007

New Arrivals

My sheep are on the way! I've purchased 50 Lacunne-cross ewes and 1 ram lamb (with an extra ewe and ram lamb thrown in for free!) from a farm in Wisconsin, Promise Land Farm, and this afternoon they were loaded on the truck for the ride out here to sunny California. The transporter, Ron Keener, has a website and yahoo newsgroup for clients, and the curious, to track his cross-country travels as he picks up and drops off small livestock to primarily homesteader types. You can visit the site and read my anxious messages from the past week trying to pinpoint when he would actually make it to the farm. Now I will be anxiously waiting for updates as to when he will arrive here in Watsonville. I think Friday is going to be a very exciting day around here. We've got lots of work still to do before they come--permanent fencing to install, temporary electric fencing, a tent-shade structure to erect.

Meanwhile, my landlords, Jean Harrah and Bob Thorson, and everyone else on the farm (including the other livestock) have been pre-occupied with the unexpected arrival of three new baby lambs. Because their ram was still a juvenille (and quite a bit shorter than the ewese) when their half-dozen ewes were in heat last fall they didn't think he had successfully impregnated any of them. The black-face ewes are very skittish and it has been impossible to get close enough to inspect them for signs of pregnancy. Well, at least two of them were pregnant! Yesterday two sets of twins were born. The first born didn't make, though his litter mate is quite hardy and healthy. The second set of twins barely made it through the first 24 hours as they were tiny and just skin and bones. We spent quite a bit of the morning watching them to see if they would nurse and worrying about finding colostrum replacer at a local feed store. Fortunately, by afternoon they had both figured it out and their little tails were wagging as they nursed. We're waiting to see now if any other newborn lambs suddenly appear this week!

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