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Farm Fresh Blog
Tuesday, August 30 2016
Yeah, that's pretty much what living out here is like. You get to enjoying the rugged beauty, and bam! Suddenly nature is up close and personal like stray feathers floating through opened windows to land in your lap. Let us examine just one of last week's little adventures.
Because I have several large soap orders to fill, I spent the last few weeks furiously making, cutting, drying, packaging, and shipping soap. Soaping is not the quaint cottage task that one would imagine from reading Hobby Farm magazine where you can see in your mind's eye a woman in homespun dress making soap like making butter in a stoneware butter churn. Soaping is a chemistry experiment, much like making meth, except you're less likely to blow the house up.
Soaping is Hobby Farms meets Breaking Bad. True cold process soap, like Grandma used to make, involves mixing lye with fats and oils. There are as many recipes as there are soapers but they all come down to mixing a variety of fats, and oils with lye which is a very dangerous chemical and should be treated with the greatest of respect - long sleeves, shoes, goggles, mask.
Yes, you can skip the goggles and the mask, and make your soap in shorts and flip-flops instead. You can. I wouldn't advise it, but you can. You can also find yourself backing away from the sink, coughing and gagging when a whiff of vapor blows your way too. And be careful not to spill it as you recoil across the kitchen with a wet spoon. That stuff burns. No children. No pets. No kidding.
But once mixed, the fats and lye join in holy matrimony, kiss and walk down the aisle, and a new union is formed - soap. It is a glorious marriage, where the properties of the individual are no longer separate, but become one. This new something is born completely different from its parts. The chemical reaction is complete and the result is a wonderfully safe, wholly decadent bar of sudsy indulgence. But until then, it's like making meth in your kitchen.
When you make a lot of soap, it's easy to get complacent, but for the sake of safety, I observe a few rules. I never talk on the phone. I never get involved in the television. And I never stop in the middle of the recipe.
And so I ignored the barking.
Plopped in his recliner, Other Half was Facebooking and watching television, while I was busy trying to finish up Soap Batch #3 of that day. This third batch is where mistakes are most likely to occur because I am tired, it is the third hour on my feet, and I've done the same messy, methodical steps through three hours of daytime television and things are beginning the run together like the same guests on all the morning shows just walking from one studio into another. I continued to ignore the barking outside as I poured liquid soap into flat slab molds.
There is a point in the barking, where it reaches a feverish pitch and moves to the forefront of your attention, kinda like when the optometrist dials and clicks those funny little goggles and the letters of the card in front of you finally come into focus. Yeah, that's it. That's the spot. Things are clear now. Some serious shit is going on outside.
I set my soap bucket down, walked past the husband in the recliner, picked up a revolver, and stepped outside the kitchen door to stomp off in the direction of the barking. Always the picture of fashion, having exchanged the goggles for the gun, I was wearing yoga pants and cowboy boots. Perhaps that would be why my husband didn't come out with me.
Once outside I marched toward the barking. Somehow poor Briar had managed to get locked in the barn aisle, and so when I opened the gate she shot out of the barn like a loosed arrow, leading me toward the source of Judge's barking. I followed the big white dog through the yard and into the forest. There is a curious point when you are trailing a large dog through the woods in North Texas where you regret your fashion choices. Cowboy boots are not snake boots, and you may as well be naked when wearing yoga pants. While this doesn't seem like a big deal in the air conditioning, when the forest is clawing at your thighs, denim is your friend.
I must say that when I stepped out of the kitchen, I expected that Judge had found a snake. I was prepared to shoot a snake and treat the dog for multiple snake bites. I was not prepared for a hike through cedar and mesquite in a bizarre game of Marco Polo.
I called out "JUDGE!" (Marco!")
Deep in the forest, he answered, "POLO!"
We continued shouting Marco and Polo at each other for a while until he appeared, panting and exhausted at the base of a cedar tree. I peeked around but saw nothing. He gave me the "Follow Me" look and trotted off into the brush. Lovely. Just blooming lovely. I cursed my fashion decisions again and dove off after him.
And that's when the bird slammed into my windshield.
I expected a snake. Or possibly a raccoon. Or maybe an armadillo. Or a possum even.
What I did not expect to see was a small black feral pig backed up to the base of a cedar tree. Judge informed me that he'd apprehended a trespasser. Since there was a small band of eight piglets in our area, my guess was that they were headed to the pond behind the house when Judge found them and managed to separate this guy from his siblings. Now that he had bayed the pig up, he didn't know what to do with it. That's when Briar burst forward and said,
"You KILL IT!"
And it was on like Donkey Kong.
Right in front of me. Once the decision was made for him, Judge took control, snatched the pig away from Briar, and began shaking it. The piglet weighed somewhere between 25-35 pounds and Judge shook it like a rag. The screams of that piglet echoed through the forest and three thoughts rocked through my head.
#1 - "Awww... poor piggie."
Over the piglet's screams I heard Other Half calling. Apparently he had reached the end of his Facebook scroll feed and was now curious as to where I was, why I needed a gun, and why a pig was squealing.
Just as fast as it started, it was over. Judge stood panting over the dead pig.
Briar stepped forward to sniff it and he informed her that if she didn't get away from his piglet that she would be next.
It is a curious fact of life that you can raise a dog from a bumbling puppy to the size of a small Great Dane, and still not fully appreciate their size until you watch them kill a 25 lb pig in front of you. That's when you realize the animal at your feet with the glazed eyes is not a squishy snuggly pup but a predator who demands a whole new level of respect. I called to him,
He shifted his gaze in my direction and growled.
Forget peace in the Middle East, diplomacy is the art of getting a dog away from something he has just killed. I slowly walked past his pig and called him again. This time the giant dog meekly followed me. Away from the pig, I told him he was a fine dog. He was a brave dog. And piglets come with large, angry, dangerous mothers, and we were wearing yoga pants and cowboy boots and thus couldn't stay here.
And that's when Briar couldn't resist sneaking a sniff of the dead pig. The squishy Doctor Jekyll at my side mutated into Mr Hyde and roared past me to knock Briar away from his pig with such force that she and I believed he would kill her if she dared to touch it again. Sigh . . .
The dust settled and I called him away from the pig. Shooting a warning glare at Briar, he reluctantly came and I praised him for that, gave him a pat on the head, and said a prayer that the momma pig was nowhere around as I looked for the closest tree to climb in case she came bursting through the brush.
The plan was to scream, "He did it!" and climb a tree, hoping to shoot her before she could kill my dogs. I figured Judge had a better shot of getting away from an angry sow because he wasn't wearing yoga pants.
So I stood with the dogs and the dead pig, playing the same Marco Polo game with Other Half, and no enraged mother hog appeared. He drove up in the mule and I was painfully aware of the picture that greeted him, but Friends and neighbors, let me tell you this. Few things get a man's respect more than a woman and a dog standing in the woods over a dead hog. (okay, it was just a pig but it was dead and that impresses men) And nothing quite screams 'crazy' like a woman in yoga pants and cowboy boots, carrying a big-ass revolver loaded with .410 shotgun shells, with a dog the size of a small pony and a dead pig.
He gave us a cautious, quizzical look and I held Judge while he admired the hog. Judge and Briar and I slowly walked back home through the forest while he drove the pig another direction. Since the pig was perfect grilling size, we figured that we may as well enjoy the bounty of Judge's prize and share a little with him, but alas, such was not to be.
What started out as a butchering, turned into a morbidly fascinating necropsy and a new-found respect for the power of a dog. Judge had done so much damage that butchering the piglet for cooking was more trouble than it was worth. It was less than thirty seconds from the time he engaged until the time the piglet was dead. And in that time these are the minimun of injuries the piglet sustained:
Was it edible? Yes. Did we want to go to all the trouble? No. Does Other Half have a greater respect for my dog? You betcha. I do too. I still think of him as my squishy bumbling puppy.
But I cannot forget that he has matured into a warrior.
And so that's a slice of life in the country. One minute you're cruising along the highway, happily absorbed in your world of making soap, and the next moment a bird slams into your windshield and you're watching your dog kill a feral hog at your feet.
In yoga pants and cowboy boots.
Me. Not the dog.
Tuesday, August 23 2016
Hair once black is now a lovely shade of sophisticated gray. With tiny brown spots. He is the stuff of fantasy and little girl dreams, wild, yet tame, a unicorn moving through the forest.
He is explosive exhuberance and gentle kisses. The unicorn and the clown.
Our love affair began when Montoya was just a baby with a fuzzy butt that barely reached my chest. We spent hours together, grooming and trusting each other. A playful, curious creature, he immediately took to trick training, delighting both me and himself. While his clever mind and quick wit entertains party guests, it also gets him into more than a little trouble.
The red bobber on the bottom of the automatic waterer has been a lifelong source of amusement for him, leading to many flooded pastures. He does not break out of places, he breaks into places. He is Houdini, who can pick any lock, and if he can't pick it, he will club it to death trying, or just climb over it.
Under saddle, he is warm butter beneath you, easily controlled with just a thought. At the same time, he is quicksilver emotion, with dancing, prancing, happy feet, which he must move as excitement bubbles through him like champagne. Some days you want to ride that emotion, to feel free, and see life from the top of a rainbow. Other days you just want to relax and walk and watch the birds.
I don't ride him much anymore. He's so tall, I can barely climb on him without a step up, and many days, I just don't want to deal with all that energy. On the other hand, few horses want to be with you more than this big gray one. Back before I retired, a friend once guilted/browbeat me into riding one morning by saying,
"You NEED to go riding. I'm coming to pick you up. You don't have do anything. Just grab your saddle and a horse and we'll load them in my trailer."
Since I was already physically and emotionally exhausted from the work week, I wasn't in the mood for Montoya's hot energy, thus I selected a calmer horse from our herd that morning. I went out to get the buckskin paint who saw me coming with a halter, shot me the bird, and trotted off. Montoya saw me with the halter and just assumed it was for him. I could not catch the paint because he kept trotting off and Montoya kept getting in the way, insisting that I really should take him. Then and there I made the mental note to sell the damned horse that didn't want my company and to ride the one that wanted to be ridden.
So I took Montoya instead. And we had a lovely day.
Montoya is an 1100 pound parrot. And unfortunately it has landed him in a cage.
He is forever sticking his feet into things, either in frustration because he is locked out of some place, or because he feels he has 4wheel drive and he can just motor over things. The result is that his pasterns are crisscrossed with scars. He has cut his legs so often that we don't even get excited about it anymore.
But this time our soaring eagle has been grounded. The vet was able to stitch it, but he has to wear a cast for a couple of weeks. This horse has never been a good candidate for stall rest. Happy feet. He must move. He wants his windows open and if they swing closed, he sticks his nose out and slams the windows open again. Stall rest in this house is not as bad because we live in the barn, thus the barn is a constant source of activity. This makes his jail cell a bit more bearable and I can just step out the kitchen door to check on him.
Although I hate that he's in pain, it is giving us the chance to be together like we were when he was younger, when time spent was not about riding, but just about enjoying moments together. Slipping back into that bond was like sliding on a favorite jacket when the first cold front of the year blows in. It was warm and familiar. It was right.
The horse just enjoys spending time with people. I promised him that after his leg healed, we'd start riding again. I have more horses than I can ride, and never seem to reach for him because either a job needs to be done and I don't want to deal with his energy, or a younger horse needs to be ridden, but I'd forgotten how much he really likes it. He believes his saddle is his ticket to adventure. Now that I'm retired, I have the time to punch that ticket, to enjoy life from the top of the rainbow.
Thursday, August 11 2016
After a year into retirement, I finally started that book so many of you have been asking about. This has been good and bad, since on one hand,
"Hey, I finally buckled down and now it's coming together,"
and on the other hand, time spent writing on that has taken me away from the blog, so I thought perhaps I would share some excerpts from time to time. This particular essay was taken from an early part of the book, when I was single and the farm was barely taking shape.
It was a period of heavy rains. I was ankle deep in mud and my water well had just gone out. God was laughing at me.
Red Wooster was the meanest sonofabitch in three counties and he should have been killed a lot sooner. With an ego indirectly proportional to his size, Wooster thought he was a ladies' man, and I guess maybe he was handsome if you were okay with skinny legs and beady eyes. Perhaps it was his short stature that led to a fiery temperament which held the entire neighborhood hostage. Regardless, the only reason he was still alive was the fact that my mother was so fond of him.
My mom lives in a little clapboard gingerbread house on a lot that used to be one of my pastures. Our houses shared the same water well at the time, and a portion of the rather large pump house had been converted to a coop for her free-range flock of heritage breed chickens. Although they had plenty of pasture for themselves her birds crossed the field daily to play scratch and sniff with fresh horse poop in my barnyard.
Apparently my name on the deed was too blurry for Wooster's beady little eyes, because he and I had more than a few barn dances with a rake. On this particular morning, however, Wooster was off picking bar fights with someone else while I stood in the pump house staring at the water well man, and tilting my head like a cow looking at a new gate.
Water soaked through a pinhole in the toe of my rubber boots as the water well man explained that I had to take the roof off the pump house before repairs could begin on the well. As he trudged back to his truck and left, I sloshed back to the barn and pondered the puzzle of how to get the sheets of tin off the roof. Wuzband, my ex-husband, had been a pretty accomplished carpenter who tended to plan for emergencies, so it didn't take long to discover that he had screwed the sheets of tin on instead of nailing them. That was a plus because it meant I could just screw them off, but the hitch was that he hadn't left the tools I needed to unscrew the tin. One cannot fault him for this, as in a divorce spouses do tend to overlook the little things like leaving the other person silverware and power tools.
A fruitless search in the barn didn't turn up the doohicky that I need to attach to my drill, but the upside was that it also didn't turn up any rats, so I called it even and went across the street to ask the neighbor. Being a master carpenter, he had the doohickey I needed. With the precious doohickey safely in my pocket, I dragged a ladder through ankle deep mud to the back side of the pump house and started my climb.
If you are a crime scene investigator, you know a thousand ways to die. Nine hundred of these ways will be flirting through your head as you climb any ladder. While falling off the ladder is the most obvious, do not rule out electrocution if you are mixing power tools and water. This is why I'm a big fan of cordless power tools. The downside to cordless drills is that pesky failing to charge the battery thing. Nevertheless, in due time, I found myself climbing the ladder with the precious doohickey in my pocket and a drill with enough ass to do the job. I hoped.
With each step up the ladder the water in my boot sloshed from heel to toe, draining across the blister on my heel. Now it is a curious fact of life that height is a relative thing. When one is standing on the ground, the top of a pumphouse doesn't look very high, but when one is perched at the top of a ladder in muddy boots, and one must take a leap of faith off the ladder and onto said roof, well then, suddenly the tin appears to be a much farther distance from the ground than originally estimated.
Being the Master Of My Fate, there was no one around to do it but me, so I sucked it up and made that stretch. Muddy boots are not your friend in this situation. Just sayin'. With copious amounts of stretching, sliding, and cussing, I made it onto the roof. With a bit more stretching, sliding, and cussing, I removed several sheets of tin and dropped them to the ground.
Sunlight flooded the pumphouse. My job was done. Well, not really. I still had to get down.
It is another curious fact of life that stepping from a firm surface of height, back onto a ladder which is shifting in the mud, can rival any thrill ride at an amusement park. Not being a fan of such, I vowed that those sheets of tin could just stay right there on the ground because I was not planning on riding that ladder in either direction again.
I hurled a cuss word out, stepped back into my boot and tried to jerk my foot loose. This resulted in an awkard sliding split which ended with one booted foot pointing east as the other pointed west. Both were an uncomfortable distance apart and creeping dangerously further.
And that's when the damned rooster attacked me.
Over my years in law enforcement, I can tell you that most murders can be tracked down to one of three motives - sex, money, or drugs. While most killings come down to this trio, with my feet firmly anchored in the mud as that beady-eyed little shit ran at me with his wings spread and beak open, I will glady offer up to you a fourth motive for murder - pure blind rage.
But it was enough to get some respect from Wooster as he landed and ran a few steps before whirling back to have another go at me. I glanced around for any semblance of a weapon and saw a pile of metal t-posts beside the fence. Brandishing my boot low, I started backing through the mud in that direction as the rooster darted in and out with feinting attacks.
Happiness can be a lot of things, friends, but few things in life bring true satisfaction like the feel of a cold steel post in your hands when you've got a nasty rooster. Wooster felt the power shift as soon as I did. No longer backing up in a crouch, I stood straight like Babe Ruth and let that Louisville Slugger sing.
Wooster saw that first one coming down the pipes when I made the mistake of telegraphing my intentions. Perhaps it was me shouting,
"I'm gonna kill you, you stupid f@#*ing bird!"
He tripped over himself as he ran and flew with fits of flight, dodging the blows I rained down upon him as my rage chased a chicken in bare feet through a muddy pasture.
My anger did not care that he was my mother's bird. I would glady have beaten him to death with a t-post and then handed her his body and a muddy $20 bill. Such is the nature of homicide.
Fortunately for Wooster, his date with death would wait for another day. Handicapped by the mud, my murder attempts were largely unproductive but the message was received. Wooster squawked and taunted me from a safe distance but gave up his attempts at an attack as I squished my way back to the house, dragging my t-post sword at my side.
Yes, I was the master of my fate, the captain of my soul, but the captain was tired, and now she had to get cleaned up and go to work.
Tuesday, August 02 2016
A recent discussion among Livestock Guardian Dog people has been the idea of producing a dog with "zero percent" prey drive, the argument being that a dog with no prey drive is more trustworthy with poultry and small livestock. Hand in hand with this idea was the argument that saying 'puppies need to be supervised with livestock' is just a cop-out and an excuse that breeders make for a less-than-desirable pup. Their rationale is that if the dog has the correct breeding he will just do it from the beginning. No training needed.
Seriously? After all these years, are we still going there?
This is why so many Livestock Guardian Dog breeds end up dumped at the pound. This is why rescue organizations are often too afraid to adopt LGD breeds out to farm homes. This worn-out argument is like a booger on the end of our finger that we just can't fling off!
Turning a puppy of any breed loose with pen of chickens is like giving a teenage boy the keys to your classic corvette. He might go the grocery store and come home with groceries and your change, or he might just wrap that car around a telephone pole. Genes aren't enough. I guarantee you that Mario Andretti did not hand the keys of his race car to his ten year old son and send him out on the track alone. Education and supervision is paramount.
Let's address the two parts of the argument for the Zero Percent Prey Drive camp, and in order to do that, we must first explain what is prey drive. When your dog stalks, chases, pounces, shakes a toy, rips it apart, carries it around, buries it, or eats it, that is prey drive. These are the behaviors associated with catching and killing prey.
Prey drive is most often brought out by motion, and because lambs bounce, and chickens flap and run, for this reason, proponents of the Zero Prey Drive Camp, believe that if a dog has no prey drive, then it will not chase and kill the very animals it is supposed to protect. Horse Hockey.
I would argue the opposite. I want a hearty prey drive in my Livestock Guardian Dogs. I expect my dog to see the raccoon and the coyote and I want them to chase it and kill it. Dogs kill predators when in prey drive. A predator is prey to an LGD. A Livestock Guardian Dog that does not chase and kill things is merely a poster of a guard dog. If you have success with a large white lump that lies in the barnyard and occasionally raises its head to bark, that tells me there are not real predatory threats on your farm. That LGD is a poster that smells like a dog.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm not trashing these dogs. This is the perfect job for old dogs, lame dogs, and dogs with low drive. What I'm saying is that this behavior should not be held up as the gold standard by which we judge Livestock Guardian Dogs because not only is it unreasonable, it has sent countless dogs on a date with a euthanasia needle. Not only that, you are fooling yourself if you think that dog is capable of addressing serious threats around the ranch. That dog may do fine in an area with a low predator load, but other places will need less Mr Rogers and more Seal Team Six.
And people, Seal Team Six is about prey drive.
Let me give you a watered down example. Consider the raccoons that have recently been visiting my barnyard. Since Other Half started feeding cattle against the yard fence, at least three raccoons began to come in regularly when he called the cows. The Border Collies were so focused on the cows that they failed to even notice and address the raccoons wandering out in plain sight just across the fence. While Other Half found this boldness cute, I have chickens, so I was less than smitten with our masked visitors. The raccoons had no fear whatsoever of us, and thought nothing of waddling out to pick up a cattle cube while we stood right beside the fence. Because the Border Collies did not address their impertinence, they soon lost all caution around the dogs who remained focused on the cattle.
This came to a screeching halt however the night I let the Anatolians in the yard. The LGDs immediately acquired target and addressed the issue. The raccoon was sent scurrying into the forest. One dog then hopped into the bed of a pickup truck so that he could get a better vantange point while the other stood tall by the fence like a sentry, scanning the treeline. These dogs did not think to themselves,
"Wow, raccoons kill chickens so we should chase the raccoon away to protect our chickens."
No. More likely they thought to themselves,
"Wow, squishy, furry thing that moves. I wonder if it tastes like chicken!"
They spent the better part of an hour waiting for the raccoon to make another appearance, hoping raccoon tasted like chicken. And guess what? The same raccoons that have visited every evening for three weeks, have not been back. Why? Because raccoon was just scribbled on the menu as today's special. And tomorrow's. And the next day's.
Friends and neighbors, that is prey drive.
For the sake of argument, let us propose that perhaps chasing coyotes and loose dogs is not prey drive, but is territorial behavior instead. This also shoots the Zero Percent Prey Drive argument in the foot because dogs high in a territorial drive also tend to be high in prey drive. It's not an all or nothing behavior. Because of this, my argument is not that you want a Livestock Guardian Dog with low prey drive, but rather, you want a Livestock Guardian Dog with high PACK drive.
Yes, pack drive. When you see dogs licking and grooming sheep, that's pack behavior. Dogs are pack animals. They recognize family units. Livestock Guardian Dog breeds tend to be very open-minded about forming bonds within the family unit. Your job is to TEACH your LGD what animals are part of his family. This is why education is so important. They aren't born knowing they're supposed to protect chickens or goats, or sheep. They are born with a strong sense of family. They LEARN that chickens, goats, and sheep are part of their family.
Will a young dog still wrap the family car around a telephone pole and kill a chicken? Yes, it can happen. And if it does you don't say the dog is from bad breeding, dump this one at the pound and buy another one. You use it as a learning experience for the dog and YOU. If the dog killed a chicken, he wasn't ready for Prime Time yet. He needs more training. That doesn't mean that next year he won't be the best darned Bird Dawg you'll ever have, but you'll never know if you don't take the time to train him.
If you aren't ready to invest a couple of years into training a Livestock Guardian Dog properly, then you might be better off installing a lot of electric fencing instead of getting a dog. It will take you two years to train a dog that can work for ten more years. That's two years of close supervision. That's two years of worrying about whether or not he climbed over or under the fence. That's two years of wondering if the lambs are too little to be alone with the dog yet. That's two years of not letting him alone with birthing mothers. If your dog is flying solo with birds or lambs before that time, don't freak when mistakes happen. From time to time, they can, and do. You don't send your kid to prison when he wrecks your car. A dog is an investment. Invest the time to train him. It's well worth it.