Archive for April, 2010

Watching and waiting…

We are in the throws of anticipation, as one of the does, Bella, is showing all the signs of impending birth. Her full name is Bella Luna because she was born here by the light of a beautiful full Libra moon. She is the doe I predicted would kid first this season. We have been able to feel the babies moving for about a week now. She kept walking herself into the kidding pen and taking her afternoon naps in it, as if she knows. Animals have such great instincts. Bella is a very good mother who has kidded many times before, so she is an old hand at it. She, like all of my does, has always had multiple kids, always twins except for two winters ago when she surprised all of us and probably even herself by presenting us with quads! 3 boys and 1 girl. All of her other births thus far were uneventful, but that one night she was screaming her head off in the yard at about 10:30 on a very cold dark night (right before Christmas), and that behavior is just not like her. Upon investigation we discovered a trail of four little squirming bodies along about a 20 foot path. Bella was a very confused and concerned doe, running back and forth between all of them, and trying to get our attention all at the same time. We collected the tiny, cold bodies and quickly brought them into the house. We filled the sink with warm water (normal blood temperature for a goat is 102-104 degrees) and submerged the tiny babies up to their necks.

The quads warming up in the sink

Once their core temperature was back to normal each one had a session with towels and the hair dryer set on low. When fully dry we made sure each one nursed from their mother before leaving the new family alone in a in a clean dry stall. Bella was very organized in raising them, having a very specific place she would have each one sleep, and then she would call two of them at a time to her to nurse. She had it down to a science! We did have to supplement the two smaller ones with bottles so they could catch up in size after the first week or so.
That was the same year that, within 48 hours and right up to Christmas Eve, we had a succession of 10 baby goats born. It started a set of twins, followed by a set of triplets, followed by the quads and then finally one more kid born right on Christmas Eve. It was so great that year – I had a group of 4-H girls visiting the farm that afternoon when the doe went into labor. After a few phone calls, the leader decided to stay with the girls so they could watch. A few other neighbors came over for the event as well.
As far as I am concerned, there really is nothing quit like witnessing a birth in a manger amid the sounds and smells of the animals and the straw, mixed with the anticipation and then the beauty of new life taking its first breaths. Having this happen right on Christmas Eve added a divine energy and just made it perfect. It was something I’m sure the people who were there that day will never forget. I know that’s true for me. For now though, I just hope Bella has a nice set of twins and all goes as it should, as we watch and wait……..

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Nikki among her tribe

Nikki (short for Nokomis) is our LGD (livestock guard dog) who lives among our “tribe” of pygmy goats and other livestock.  Nokomis means “daughter of the moon,” named so because this breed is mostly nocturnal. She is an Anatolian Shepherd – they are also known as Kangal dogs where they come from in Turkey, however Nikki is from Arkansas. That does not sound nearly as exotic, I know, but that is where I found her breeder.  Nikki came from Diamond Acres Ranch,  Becky Barber is a respectable breeder and wonderful to work with. Her dogs are very well cared for, beautiful, and she knows them well. There had been 6 puppies total in Nikki’s litter, 4 boys and 2 girls, but we let Becky pick just the right one for us based on temperament. Nikki was shipped out here last spring as an 18 pound pup at 8 weeks old. She had a long flight that included 3 layovers, so she had some serious frequent flyer miles chalked up by the time she arrived at the Burbank airport. We pulled this sweet little tired pup out of the crate, and it was love at first sight.  She rode the hour and a half back to the farm in Christy’s arms, no worse for the wear. She had come right off the field where she had already started working goats with her dam and littermates. Poor Christy spent the entire ride pulling wood ticks off of her and tossing them out the truck window as we sped down the 101 back towards the coast.

I had a Great Pyrenees Mountain dog when I lived in the valley many years ago, because of problems with feral mobs of dogs. I love the Pyrenees as a breed, but they bark incessantly and there is not much you can do to break them of it. A few years ago I was visiting a large alpaca farm and that is where I first came face to face with Anatolians. They were calm and gentle and seemed to sleep most of the time and not care too much about who was coming and going. The owner assured me that they prowled all night though, and woe-be-to any predator that tried to come after their livestock. This breed bonds to your family and livestock and you become theirs.  They are great with people and gentle with children but can fight off large predators with lightning-fast efficiency.

Two years ago the Malibu fires drove large numbers of predators into our area and we suffered a number of horrible attacks on our stock, including two by mountain lions and one by coyotes – we lost 7 goats total. This is not even including the many raids by raccoons and possums that took out a lot of our poultry. We got even with one of the coyotes, two possums and one large raccoon, but the thought of facing down a mountain lion in my blue chenille bathrobe and slippers at 3 a.m. decided it for me. It was time to get a full time guard dog! After her arrival, Nikki and her new charges were sequestered in the barn at night (for all of their safety) and as the weeks went by she bonded well with the goats. She quickly reached 40 lbs and it was then that we could safely let the barn door stay open at night and leave the tribe under the watchful eye of their new fulltime shepherdess. She has grown from 18 lbs to 80 in her first year of life and I am happy to report that we have not lost a single life to marauding wildlife since her arrival. She will not let anything larger than a dove land in the yard and I have found the remains of the few other critters that thought they could outrun her. She is by far the best dog I have ever owned.

I would however be remiss in my story if I failed to mention that the only thing worse than raising a puppy, is raising a BIG puppy. We may not have lost life or limb but over this first year we have lost 5 rubber garden hoses, two large water buckets, ALL of the plastic grain scoops from the shed, some towels from the laundry have gone astray, the wooden handles have been chewed from the wheelbarrow and a few plastic fly traps are missing from their appointed places. All in all everyone here, human and animal alike, feels safe under Nikki’s watchful eye, and we are blessed she came to be a part of the farm family.

Brooding, stress and poopy butt

You lookin' at me?

A lot of people came to buy chicks this weekend, so this is a good time to talk about brooding. Hatchlings cannot regulate their own body temperature for the first few weeks of life so, since they are not being cared for by a mother hen, we as their keepers must simulate a proper environment for them. It’s really not all that hard and can be very rewarding as the chicks will become very friendly if you handle them regularly. I like to use a large cardboard box for a brooder. Some people like to use a big tupperware container or large glass fish tank, and those work well, but I am basically lazy and like to just compost the whole thing when I am done with it. Locate your brooder in a warm room inside the house or a heated garage. Do not put outside. Please be aware of the fact that both your cat and your dog would very much like a chick snack, so keep that in mind when choosing a place out of harms way. Unsupervised handling by small children can also be dangerous for young chicks. After the first few weeks your chicks will start to feather out and you can start leaving them outdoors on warm days – still bringing them in at night until they are fully feathered. If there is an indoor area of your coop, you can put a light out there for a few weeks as well.

Ok, first off you need a heat source. I like to use one of those clip-on lights with a metal hood with a 100 watt bulb (these are getting a little hard to find these days with all the energy saving bulbs but some places still carry them). Be sure to place the light low enough, about 4-6 inches from the floor of the brooder. Use as large a box as possible so they can chose where they want to be in relation to the heat source. Use common sense – if the chicks huddle under the lamp and are being noisy- they are too cold. If they are in the farthest corner away from the lamp and panting then they are to hot. If there are some eating, some sleeping under the light and some walking around and they seem content, you’ve got it right. Now, I hate to have to say this next part but I know at least 2 people who lost their chicks this way so I say it to be safe rather then sorry – don’t turn the light off at night. Common sense is not as common for some as it is for others.

Next, you need non-slip flooring in the box. Pine shavings are best. NEVER use cedar – it is bad for them to breathe in. Paper towels can work for the first few days if you were caught unprepared but do not use newspaper, it’s too slippery and they cannot get their footing and will end up with splayed legs.

Then you will need food and water. I start with the medicated chick starter and I like those plastic screw-on feeders and waterers – they come apart and are easy to clean. Place food and water in the farthest corner from the heat source. Add marbles in the moat of the waterer if you are brooding very small chicks like bantams or quail so they can’t drown themselves but can still drink between the marbles.

If you have purchased chicks from a hatchery and they have shipped overnight and are a stressed, you can give them a little sugar in the water for their first day- but not after that, since it can bind them up. You can use a touch of corn syrup if you are out of sugar, but again, only for the first day to give them a boost.

Despite your best efforts though, sometimes one or all will stress and end up with “poopy butt” or “pasting up” – this is where poop blocks the vent and prevents them from going to the bathroom. If you don’t take care of this right away you will lose them – so let the great festival of butt washing commence! I bring the chicks to the utility sink and run the tap until it is WARM to the touch, not hot or cold. I hold the chick in one hand with just its little bottom under the gentle flow of warm water and work the poop off between my fingers. I gently pat dry with a hand towel and place the chick back under the light in the brooder. Recheck your chicks every day until you are sure they are over it.

There is tons more info on brooding on the net that you can check out, this is just a brief overview of the way we do it here. The whole brooding thing is a great experience to go through (well…maybe not the poo-poo butt!) and you can count yourself as a real chicken keeper when you make it through this phase with your flock. Happy brooding!

The return of the mud swallows

We have many migratory birds that come through here every year but the return of the mud swallows is always one of my favorites. I stopped during my morning chores this morning to walk around the side of the garage and check out the eves where the swallows build their nests every year. I noticed a flock of them flying around a few days ago, but now there are a few who have decided to stay for the season and raise their young here. I wonder if it is the same pairs of birds, the young who have been born here or just random chance who ends up returning to these nests every year. They were very busy flying from the river bed behind us, bringing back beak-fulls of mud to repair last season’s structures. They have been building two nests right up under the eves on the west side of the garage ever since we bought this place. In fact, I can remember having to wait to close escrow because we could not termite tent the garage during their nesting season. They are a protected species in these parts and you can’t disturb their nests once occupied. At the time I remembering thinking “what have we gotten into where a bird nest can hold up escrow?” Little did I realize it was just one of MANY lessons this farm would teach me.
You can’t control the natural elements, and where a bird chooses to make its nest is one of them. Some of the people in the neighborhood don’t like them nesting on their properties and knock the nests down before they get a chance to finish them. Me, I always feel blessed that the swallows feel safe enough to build their homes and raise their chicks so close to me every year. I love to watch “him” feed “her” as she devotedly sits on their eggs and then the frantic feeding by both parents of the hatchlings as they demand more and more food for their fast growing bodies. Its quite the lesson in teamwork when you watch them for a while. I enjoy the moment when, after only hearing the chicks for so many weeks, you finally get to see their little heads peeking out of the nest taking their first glimpses of the outside world. I have walked the trail that runs along the riverbed countless times during their nesting season when the sky is just teaming with them. It is truly a sight to behold. I have often wondered how they all keep from crashing into one another in their quick flight and vertical dives. They looked like little airplanes, seeming to glide more then they flap their wings, making their flight very smooth. I like the soft musical whistling sound they make as they fly. I hear they eat their weight in bugs every day too!
Welcome back to the farm my little visitors, I hope your stay is a pleasant one. I know it is for me.

Moving the koi to the lee of the stone

I spent this morning working in the pond in the front garden. I find this a very peaceful activity among all the chores. I was skimming leaves and twigs that were getting in front of the filter. It is not a very large pond by any means, maybe only about 600 gallons or so, but I had always wanted a fish pond and I like this one. A pile of river stones collected from around the property and a sheet of heavy glass form a waterfall. I love the sound it makes. I was one of those kids who always had to play in fountains, so you can imagine how much I like this feature now.

When I first came to the farm, the whole thing was in very lamentable condition. The TFH (tenant from hell) kept fish in it and had the whole thing lined with heavy black plastic and covered with smelly old pieces of carpet. He had drained the pond when he moved, taken the filter and left the rest of it for dead. My friend Lisa hated it, and was always imploring me to just fill it in. She said it looked like a giant Hefty garbage bag with water in it. It did, but I like a water feature in a garden so I waited till I could get a chance to spend some time exploring it before giving up. When the time came, hours were spent with wrinkled noses, removing the carpet and pulling up the black plastic in spite of the unspeakable smells and sludge. To my surprise there were many layers underneath but when we finally got to the bottom of it all – it was cement! WOW- someone at one time had put some time and care into building it. It had rocks set in around the rim, and you could see it had been nice to look at once up on a time. I could tell it had some hairline cracks but was redeemable. After borrowing the neighbor’s power washer and applying two coats of asphalt pitch it was restored to a usable state and re-filled. I traded some stuff to a gal for a used bio filter and we were in business.

I have one of those big black rubber horse troughs that I use in the back field to grow water plants. I rescued some koi eggs from the pond on the farm behind me last spring, put them in it and to my amazement they hatched! The trough was in an out-of-the-way corner in the back, so I did not always get around to feeding them everyday but there were some survivors. A few of them are even 3-4 inches long now. I netted them into a bucket and brought them up to the front garden pond a week ago and have been training them to feed in a certain spot on the edge. I have been landscaping around the pond with ferns and lillies and other bits of tropical looking plants that I can beg, borrow or steal from various sources and it is coming along nicely now. It is in a kind of hidden area in the garden, but when people see it they always stop and say how beautiful it looks. It is close enough to the house that the sun reflects off of it and makes those shimmers of dancing light through the window and on to my living room walls in the early morning. I enjoy this very much. Ha ha Lisa!

Weeds and the Fall of Man

We got about another inch and a half of rain from the storm on Sunday. The good news- it’s making it easy once again to pull the large weeds that have taken deep root. The bad news, everything once again smells like wet turkeys! The weeds around here grow very fast in our fertile soil. Two years ago, I had the young man who used to clean stalls at the alpaca farm in back of us cart all of the manure over to our fields for an entire season. Wonderful thing, alpaca manure. It does not smell and it does not burn. This year I swear you can hear the mallow growing in the fields. The goats will not eat the mallow, the sheep will not eat the mallow, nothing will eat the mallow. I have found some recipes online for it but I’m just not brave enough to try them. Cowardice is insufferable. There are some big old stinging nettles in the front garden that I need to get to in the next few days, or I will be very sorry that I didn’t. All these weeds are a man’s fault anyway, so ladies, next time yours complains about weeding the garden remind him of this. It all dates back to the book of Genesis in the Bible and the fall of man.
“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.” – Genesis 3:17
We had it good in the garden until Adam goofed it up for the rest of us. Way to go Adam! (Don’t get me started on verse 16, Eve!)

The rain gave us an excuse to work in the greenhouse for a little while, and we got some of the little tomatoes potted up into larger pots of their own. It’s a little early yet and they are still kind of small. When I stopped off at the nursery the other day to browse around those did not look much better. I think it is a little early still to be thinking about them yet.

Our beans and cucumbers are moving along well and I will probably be planting out the sunflowers by this weekend. Tonight is the new moon so this has been a clean-up and weeding week for us. The mornings are still very cold and I still can’t seem to get myself out there to work on the raised beds. There is something about 36 degrees on the thermometer and being able to see my breath that keeps me from wanting to go outside that early. I much prefer to stand and stare out at the front garden from the comfort of the living room with a hot cup of coffee in my hand.

A Horse’s Spell

While we were over at Shari’s house the other evening, she had to get busy in her aviary putting some of her birds away before the sun went down and the tempeture dropped. She asked me if I could go down to the barn and put a blanket on their horse. Reno is a quarterhorse gelding, and is by far one of the most beautiful horses I have been around in a long time. He is the epitomy of every young girl’s dream horse. Standing at the better part of sixteen hands high, he is a golden palomino, the color of a jar of honey with the sun shining through it, with a cream colored mane and a tail that hangs all the way to the ground. You know, he looks just like the horse our Barbie’s owned. He is placid almost to the point of sleepiness and very people-oriented.

I ducked in between the boards of the paddock and found the blanket thrown over one of the rails. Reno was plodding over to me from the barn at this point, wondering what I was doing in his space. When he was close enough, I softly blew into his nostrils to identify myself to him. He stopped and stood still and dropped his head to watch me with gentle regard as I tossed the blanket over his tall back and moved to his chest to start work on the fasteners in the front. He began to investigate my face and hair with his lips as I worked the buckles. Then he did not move one bit as I walked all around him to work the leg straps and then the belly buckle. As I came back around to his front he rubbed his head across my chest and slobbered on my shirt in approval. I found that little sweet tickle spot in the center of his chest and gave him a good scratch there with my fingernails. His head bobbed up and down in reaction to this, and his upper lip twitched uncontrollably. I put my arms around his neck and inhaled the warm sweet horse smell of him. It took me right back to a place in time decades ago, when I was lucky enough to love a horse of my own.

I had a blood bay hackney/welch cross mare and our relationship lasted from the time I was 14 years old until I was 35. Every one of my teenage years, I can remember climing up on her back the first day of summer vacation and not coming down until someone pulled me back down off of her because I had to go back to school. It was a great way for me to spend my impressionable teenage years. While a lot of my peers were getting into the fast lane of chasing boys or wanting cars, I was growing up strong and slow with a very different perspective of the world that one can only see from the back of a horse. In fact, I went through many seasons of my life with her, my ups and downs, my marriage and the birth of my kids, the breakup of my marriage. I lost and gained friends, was employed and not, but she remained the constaint in my life. I will always live with the conviction that “the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a person”. In her last years she had Cushing’s Disease, which took its toll. I finally had to have her put down in her 26th year. I had owned her 21 of those years. I felt I had lost a large part of myself when I lost her on that cold day in November, but in the end she died just as she had lived, with me holding on to her.