Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Freckles and the Cows

It's morning. It's time to eat. They've been waiting for hours. HOURS! They don't get much, just a can of sweet feed to share between the four of them. There's plenty of grass for them out in the pasture. I feed them that bit of grain to keep them tame and cooperative, always willing to follow me if I'm carrying that magic shiny can full of grain. Or a bucket. Or if I'm just walking through the pasture because you never know, I might have a bucket of oats, sweetened with molasses, tucked under my jacket or in my hat.

Above: that's Lottie, my older Jersey milk cow, waiting at the feeder. She has attitude and a big sense of entitlement. If I'm late, she'll shove the feed bunk, bang on it, and maybe turn it over. Steak is the black steer approaching from the left. He's Lottie's calf from last year, and he's good at helping turn the feed bunk over. Rosie is the pretty Jersey between them. Her specialty is a loud, demanding bellow.

Freckles is on the job though. No cattle mischief is allowed! He slips under the barbed wire and hurries to move them back. That black and white blotch at the right end of the feed bunk is Freckles, racing in to enforce the rules.

Mama Dinah, the black dog, is right there helping. Or maybe Freckles is helping her. Dinah had this duty first, and she taught Freckles how to move the cattle back a bit and hold them in a little group, under the trees, where they couldn't vent their frustrations on the feed bunk or water trough. (Yeah, they turn that over, too. If it's too full to tip, they just give it a few kicks.)

Blue, the old Aussie, helps from his side of the fence, urging the cattle back. He doesn't see very well anymore, so we'd rather he wasn't in the middle of the action. He tends to push the stock in the wrong direction now because he can't see that it's the wrong direction.

So, time passed. The cattle behaved and stood politely under the tree while I took care of the other livestock. The dogs left the pasture to help me round up some adventurous young ducks who escaped when I let the older ones out for their usual morning excursion to the pond.

Lottie took advantage and returned to thumping the feed bunk. The dogs moved her back while I sprinkled their morning rations down the length of the feed bunk --- finally.

And there was peace at the feeder, and happy munching sounds. And cow slobber.

Just in case, Freckles settled in to keep an eye on them.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Day in the Life of Freckles

I really had intended to sell the entire litter of pups. I'd have kept every one of them if I listened to my heart instead of my head. But that would be way more dogs than any farm needs. Besides, they were great pups who each deserved their own farms and families to take care of when they grew up. Still . . . when the transportation arrangements for Freckles fell through and Freckles' buyer had to cancel the sale, I wasn't heartbroken. I could have sold him a few times after that, but I stalled for one reason, then another. There were a few weeks there that I might have let him go if I'd found the right buyer with the right sized farm, the right livestock for Freckles to work with, and a personality that complemented Freckles' own. Eventually, though, the truth became obvious. It was undeniable. I just wanted to keep him.

I felt guilty about that for a few more weeks and did try to keep an open mind. Finally, though, we gave in to the inevitable. Freckles was here to stay. He's ours, and he's the goofy, yet mostly competent pup we really didn't need but are glad to have anyway.

Freckles has always shown great potential as a herding dog. When he was 8 weeks old, he and a littermate 'helped' me bring an old goat who'd indulged on too many wild rose blossoms into the barn where I could examine her and treat her for the case of bloat she'd given herself. While I was checking old Katrinka over, the pups disappeared. A few minutes later, they herded the two other retired nannies into the stall. Then they went out for the Babydoll Southdown ewe and brought her up, too. It was impressed with their independent thinking skills, even though I also knew I'd better keep an eye on them and make sure they didn't take it upon themselves to move the stock here and there and harass them for the fun of it.

Freckles still does a great job of helping with the livestock, mostly with the other dogs but occasionally on his own if I need the assistance and the older dogs are occupied elsewhere. Like any young dog, sometimes he gets it all right and makes me so proud I'm grinning like a fool. Other times, he gets it wrong and sends the cattle off in the wrong direction and we have to start all over again. Still, for a five-month-old pup, he's not half bad, as one of my neighbors said last week when Freckles and Dinah, his dam, helped us separate my cattle from the stubborn yearling steer that had escaped the neighbor's pasture.

Pest control is what Freckles currently does best. He's been hunting mice, voles, rats, and moles with his mama since he was small, and now he hunts independently throughout the day. Here he is in action, at the edge of the tall grass near the big garden.

He knows there's something small and furry around there but he's still searching, cautiously walking along, nose down, nostrils quivering as he focuses on finding the critter's trail.

He always checks the tall grass and weeds. There are a lot of places for a mouse to hide there.

Nope, no fresh trails in those weeds, but something around here smells yummy.

Aha! Behold! A scent trail leading into the tall grass and . . . a mole tunnel.

Mama Dinah found the other end of the tunnel and stuck her snout right into the dirt, snuffling hard, checking for a current occupant. After a bit, she gave up and moved back into the weeds, out of sight, where she made more snuffling noises for a while.

Freckles checked the hole his mama abandoned, just in case. He's still young enough to have to try everything himself first before he agrees that Mom was right. The mole might be down there, nearby, but they weren't at the right access point to catch it.

Mole hunting is tough work. After a while, a pup works up a sweat and needs to rest a while, to stretch out and cool off in the damp sand near the little spring-fed creek.

On this particular day, it began to rain. That was fun, too, for a while, running around in the wet grass, crashing through the woods and wrestling in the underbrush. Then it was time for a nap. So Freckles trotted into the greenhouse where I was working because he also likes a good scratch behind the ears before settling down for a nap. He plopped down in the middle of a pile of tarps and row covers I'd set aside while clearing out the section to be planted next.

You can tell by his expression that he's realized his error. That was not a puppy bed.

Rather than moving, he tried to play cute and con me into rubbing his belly. Seriously, look at that sand and mud caked into his fur. Would you rub that belly?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Thank you, Gustav

I know that a hurricane is a fearful thing – my grandparents spent their last decade or so in a beach community on the Florida panhandle. They evacuated for hurricanes and rode out tropical storms in their little block house, and they described each ordeal in great detail, pictures included. I have great sympathy for those in Gustav’s path, and Hanna’s, and now Ivan and all the future storms that may come to pass.

Still, it would be ungrateful to not give thanks for the gentle rains that sometimes reach us here in the Midwest from the occasional fading hurricane, blown far inland. Early last week, the fields and prairies lay parched beneath drying breezes with great cracks in the dirt. We watered our gardens some and tended the potted plants, but we haven’t the infrastructure for irrigating pastures nor the will or wherewithal to install it. And so the pastures faded and plants dried and died or simply went into a dormant state. Then came Gustav, and in this area at least, the rain was steady and gentle. It was exactly what we needed.

Above, pictured, is Wah-kon-tah Prairie, which I pass on my way to and from town. Damp and revived, in a break between showers, the wildflowers wave in a slight breeze, and there’s a low buzz of insects. Gustav ended our local summer drought and broke the heat wave – one not so impressive as years past but uncomfortable nonetheless. After the remnants of Gustav passed, we had a few nice days, followed by more gentle rain that moved in from another direction. The extended forecast includes more of the same, pleasant days, rain, and then more sunshine.

Here at the farm, we’re catching up on neglected chores. String beans are ready in the second chance garden, which earned that name during the summer replanting. The earlier crops were washed out by flash flooding this spring. What wasn’t washed out completely, slowly drowned in the mucky wetness that remained, thanks to the heavy rains that made the spring one of the wettest in memory. After that, it felt odd to be complaining about the lack of rain in August, but we did. Some.

Much has changed since I posted last. A favorite ewe was lost to predators, and four new ewes fill her stall with their demanding voices. The puppies have grown and gone to their new homes, all but one. I kept Freckles. He’s doing well, and I’ll write more about him later this week. The calves have grown as tall as their mamas and still aren’t weaned. Their nursing is a ridiculous sight. The last of the season’s chicks are beginning to feather out, and birds of all ages and sizes race about after any bug that dares to move.
I spent much of the spring and summer in treatment for spinal issues – bulging discs and misalignments, the type of thing one encounters with age in a life full of small adventures and mishaps. Painful and inconvenient, but hardly life threatening. It’s simply life’s way of reminding me that I’m not 25 anymore, and it’s time I stop acted liking it. And thus I’m heeding the advice of neighbors older and wiser than me and am changing how I do a few things, acquiring labor-saving equipment and generally trying to act more like a grownup.

At least when they’re watching. When it’s just me and the pup in the back field, all bets are off.