Breeding Time Ends and A Lambing Spurt Begins

Breeding time has ended and the rams have been sorted off from the main flock and now reside with the cows and the horses. With the rams pulled out from the main flock, the dogs and I pared down the ewe lamb group today; keeping about 30 head seperate for the purpose of training stock dogs and taking the rest out to pasture to rejoin the main flock.

Back in September when we brought ewes and lambs into the yard to sort market lambs we discovered a ram in with the ewes. I remember it because it was also a dog day of disaster when me and my stock dogs fell apart.

That ram escapade resulted in ten ewes lambing this past week, producing seventeen lambs.

I read other blogs and Facebook posts by friends and every one else is lambing at this time of the year on purpose. Not us. We are not set up for winter lambing. For us it is a hassle.

Nonetheless, it’s a hassle we have dealt with. We set up panels to make pens in the shearing shed. We juggled the heat light as new lambs came in and hauled feed and water to the ewes each day. Some of the lambs were born outside, some were born inside. Remarkably, with the exception of one lamb born on a frigid morning in a snow drift, the lambs born outside fared just fine. We lost three of the lambs in total but all else is going smoothly.

Tomorrow I will walk the ewes with the oldest lambs out to join the small group of ewe lambs outdoors.

Ready To Go - Kelpie Style

I’ve never lived with dogs who are such persistent Houdini’s, snoops and trouble makers; mostly in good ways though and oddly enough I am beginning to appreciate these traits.

I think Gibson is worried we’ll go without him. Cajun rides with us almost every evening to gather sheep on pasture, although he rides tied in the back :)  Perhaps Gibson is trying to convince us he’s ready to ride too. 

Then there is the other side of Gibbs - the friendly, easy going side. This is Gibbs with BJ curled around his head. It's a tough working dog life here.

Busy and Alert LGD's

The guardian dogs are very active right now and are on the alert. We hear them at night, barking, barking, barking. We also hear the coyotes they are possibly conversing with. It sounds as though we are surrounded by them.

For the last couple of days there is one or two dogs who are either already gone in the morning or do not show up with the flock round up in the evening. Said missing dogs always show up in short order or are there the next time we check.

A day ago, Diesel was sporting a dozen or so porcupine quills in his nose. Last night Oakley was wearing a fine, small paint of blood. This morning three dogs were lying outside the gate rather than inside of it.  Nearby was a sizable chunk of deer hide.

And this - this is what happens to netting when guard dogs want to get somewhere.

This is a piece of netting we have strung across as a make shift gate in order to create the night pen area we are using. Works fine for sheep but not so for dogs. The netting is not electrified as it doesn’t need to be to contain sheep right now (there is no greener grass on the other side of the fence during a Saskatchewan winter :-) ).

Because we cannot push the spikes into the frozen ground and there is no snow to set the spikes into, the netting is just strung tight and as a result the bottom is raised off the ground. So the dogs can easily go underneath or as Glory does, jump over. But someone decided through was the only way out. And a determined LGD is almost an unstoppable one.

The Eyes of Sheep

I am fascinated by the eyes of sheep. Their horizontal pupils, their eyelashes. Their soft expressions, their open curiosity, their wonderment, their suspicion....

After rolling out hay for the flock in the morning I spent some time in their company, just watching. It isn’t too often I get so close with a camera in hand and I found myself repeatedly focused on the eyes.

Benefits of Night Penning

Ever since we made the choice to follow a natural and sustainable ranching path, that mindset has permeated every decision making process, including night penning the flock.

We began night penning in 2010 out of desperation. We were low in guardian dog power and coyotes took advantage of the situation. We needed to do something to help the dogs we did have, and to save our lambs.
Night Penning November 2010
We have since increased the number of guardian dogs on duty and through being forced to do it, have come to realize the value of night penning.

Bringing the flock to a small paddock for the night is one management tool that allows us to coexist with the predators we have. Rather than adopt an annihilation tactic on all predators we choose to find ways to live with them. Like them or hate them (and there are days that I do hate them), predators have an important role to play in the surrounding ecosystem.

The very first evening we tried night penning the flock in 2010 I can distinctly remember thinking we’d never keep it up if it went like this every time. Thankfully with practice, we, our dogs and our flock have become well versed in gathering and moving. I now find evening gathers and walks home to be a very peaceful task.

With moving the flock each day we have the chance to see the ewes moving. Lameness and animals who are ill thrift stand out and are noticed sooner.

For the guardian dogs, movement of the flock instills the practice of traveling with the flock. It also instills the practice of bedding down with the flock overnight. Being in a small paddock overnight, gives the dogs a reprieve. They do not have to cover miles of territory in order to protect the flock. They can easily watch the back doors so to speak.

For the ewes, night penning instills the practice of bedding down together at dark. Often there are days that we go out to gather in the evening to find the flock is already grouping together and bedding down together if not already heading in.

Night penning does give us a curfew, which is hindering on some days. However we found it easy to adjust to and it isn’t set in stone. If there is a night that we cannot get out in time to bring the flock in, it isn’t a big deal. The ewes can stay out an occasional night or two. We also only night pen at certain times of the year; when predator pressure is riskier.

Night Pen Set Up

We night pen the flock during particular times of the year to assist with predator protection. Our night pens are small paddocks, ranging from five acres to twelve acres in size, so not really a pen as the name suggests. Just an area where the livestock will be contained overnight.

We like to move the flock to different night pen areas since keeping them in one area for too long will have detrimental effects even though animals are only staying there during the night.

Our current night pen is a 60 foot wide alleyway situated between two paddocks. It is a long rectangular shape and has no fence at the ends. The area was a planned shelter belt strip but after a failed year of tree planting nothing has been done with it. The sheep graze it a bit each year but otherwise it is a weedy strip and serves as our access route to other pastures.

Because it is not fenced on the ends we had not previously viewed it as a possible paddock. Earlier when we were looking for an option that gave us easy access to this years winter pasture, and we drew it out, it occurred to us that it might work very well. With some Electra-net erected on one end and blocking the gate access on the opposite end we are able to contain the sheep.

From this area there is access to four different pastures plus the main hub area where the winter water bowls are located.  It is an area not used previously as a night pen which is a plus. Within this space there is ample room to move the bedding area when it becomes too well used and animals are not crowded. We do not need to be concerned with the depth of the bedding because it will be okay for this weedy patch to have a heavy layer of residue mulch come spring time.

The one downside is that it has no natural shelter. We solved that by moving two wind break panels into the area and setting up a row of old, stale round bales for protection from the North and West winds. We dropped a few straw bales in and spread them around for bedding. We like the bedding area to be on a slope so it drains come spring melt.

Around here everything drains into a wetland in a very short distance. We can’t avoid it but we can alleviate how much runoff any one wetland receives by moving the night pen locations around (and establishing riparian areas for filtering).  Moving the night pen area also lessens the impact on the ground in that area. This night area has been in use for a couple months now.

We are satisfied with how it works so when the ground thaws we will put up permanent fence on both ends, a simple move that will result in two new future grazing paddocks and more possibilities. 

Sheep filing into night paddock (eliminating work for Cajun who is looking over my right shoulder)

Morning of Winter Beauty

Fog rolled in last night. The result of fog at this time of the year is magnificent hoarfrost.

Hoarfrost mornings are cold because of the dampness in the air but they are also a thing of transforming wonder. It is a natural occasion where the air is caught and put on display, and everything in the world looks as though it was coated by the invisible night hand of Jack Frost’s relative.

I am out for the morning walk with the dogs just before sunrise; on this morning, still early enough for each of us to be painted with our breath and part way through the walk we are all tinged with the frost. The sheep are dusted with it, the trees look like they grew white leaves overnight and old fence lines are briefly transformed.

Hoarfrost mornings are not long lived. As soon as the suns warmth touches the world, the hoarfrost disperses.

Putting Two and Two Together

Yesterday morning Oakley and Glory were sporting a new look that said both had been in a tussle. They were painted with a small amount of blood, but had no injuries and were very tired. Whiskey and Diesel were clean and unscathed.

Beginning to seriously doubt the stability of my pack of LGD’s, I was shaking my head for a bit. Yet it seemed highly unlikely to me that the dogs had tangled with each other. I know these dogs, and everyone has been jiving with one another just fine, it just didn’t fit. So what happened? 

Well, right after morning chores we received a clue about the adventure they had been on.

After chores, Allen headed over to his Dad’s place. About a mile from our place a coyote caught his attention. The coyote exited our pasture and crossed the road in front of the truck. He/She was ear tattered and bloodied and newly so. It seemed we had our answer regarding what Glory and Oakley were up to.

The coyotes have been very active the last week or so. Each evening is full of yips and calls coming from all directions. Last night I spent a few moments standing outside in the dark calm, watching Northern Lights dance and listening to coyotes sing. I felt very small and very grateful for the guardian dogs.

Stock Dog Work - Sometimes Complicated is Effortless

Even though I tipped our stock dog scale in favour of the kelpies, with the addition of Burradoo BJ to our pack, I still have Fynn and Jayde and they certainly aren’t going anywhere. Indeed, Jayde is my main dog, while I figure Cajun out.

We have a group of 50 sheep in a paddock with the horses, llamas and as of yesterday the cows were placed there too. These ewes are there for breeding to specific purebred ram lambs. We wanted the sheep moved into the shearing shed to sort the rams off. As soon as the sheep see a herding dog coming they draw to the larger ruminants, so the llamas and the cows often end up coming in with the sheep. The horses always manage to sort themselves out of the group rather quickly. I don’t make it regular practice to work the dogs where the horses are because I feel it’s a dangerous thing to do when you’re not sitting on the horse in a position of some control. But sometimes you end up doing things you shouldn't.

I didn’t think Jayde understood ‘leave the cows’ but today she did the most beautiful and natural sort on her own. I’m not sure how she read the situation but she did. She swept around the sheep, who pulled to the horses and cows and mixed among them. Jayde did not stop her movement but pressed forward, keeping the sheep movement going. I smartly kept my mouth shut and let her work. I wasn’t sure I had any better advice for her anyway and was willing to take all the animals if she brought them.

She slipped through a gap between the horses and the cows, keeping the sheep grouped but seperating them from the horses, cows and llamas and leaving all the larger ruminants standing still, looking like they too were wondering how that just happened. It was so slick and there was no way for me to tell Jayde via commands to do what she did so effortlessly. She’s a remarkable little dog. 

Less Than Happy With the Cows Today

Aaggghhh - I dislike cows very much right now.

Cows are the worst creatures for destroying round bales if they have free access to them, which ours do since they graze with the sheep on an open pasture of bales. If one is going to bale graze with cattle the cows need to have restricted access to make it work well.

When they destroy bales it creates a mound of packed hay with twines still there somewhere that have to be hunted for. The cows don’t bother to clean up all the feed before going on the next bale either. This annoys me greatly because I can’t unroll a mound of hay so it means I do a lot of pitch forking to spread the remaining feed around both for clean up and for the sake of future grass growth there. It means my half hour chores take twice as long. Besides I'm there every day to unroll feed for them - feed that is easier to access than tied up round bale is. I don't get the need to move from bale to bale when there is plenty of feed at foot.

Normally I take this cow mess pretty lightly because normally it is only an occasional deal. I’m not about to create a seperate feed area for a handful of cows, nor can I pound any fence posts to string wire onto since the ground is very frozen. So I accept the cons of having a handful of personal beef cows with the flock.

But this morning, when it looked as though each cow had taken a seperate bale and destroyed it, I was very quickly annoyed with all cows and cursed them the whole time I was forking hay.

Maybe nature will have a neat solution to the extra thick bale rings on the pasture this spring. Maybe the cows will return to clean up eventually. Maybe there is a hidden bonus to the mess I haven't realized yet. I suppose in the end it will all work itself out. Meantime, today I have six cows for sale.

Back to the Kelpies - Gibson

Gibbs is six months old. He’s at an awkward stage; he’s all gangly and whippy looking. He isn’t fully confident in life yet but he is cocky and he’s very willing to try new things. I really like that about him.

So what’s in store for his training? Nothing too serious. What I now seek most of all in working dogs is a sense of calm and an ability to think. The reason I seek that is because I have created the opposite enough times and it hasn’t worked well for me. Cajun still has a bit of this lack of calm in him although we are starting to gel much better now. 

So a sense of calm coupled with strong desire to work is what I hope to instil in pups or young dogs. I’ve learned this is not something that is trained with any formal method. Rather it is a way of being with animals. My dogs live with me, so opportunities for being this way happen on a daily basis, throughout daily living around the ranch. It’s is one of the many hidden merits of dogs. I would not be able to impress any sense of calm thinking without feeling it first myself. And the few, past, anxiety ridden dogs I have trained taught me to feel for it; to ask for a better way.

On the livestock end, I’ve taken Gibbs out onto sheep a few times. On big groups and small. Each time was very loose, informal and brief.

All I really wanted was a sense of what aspects he brings to the table. Gibbs isn’t ready for more. We are not under any tight timeline, nor do I have a schedule for starting him. It’s more about where the dog is at than it is about how old he is. It might be that we work a few minutes that first day and I’ll feel excited about starting into training and then the next day the pup isn’t in the same place. So I take that for what it’s worth. Part of the excuse for having a couple youngsters while I still have my experienced dogs is so that there is no self imposed timeline - no hurry. :)

Dealing With Winter Cold

Living in a rather extreme winter climate we get questions about how we deal with the cold.

I’ve always been a prairie girl so winter is commonplace to me. Yet it was not until I moved to the farm that I understood what it is to live with the cold.

Since we raise livestock we have no choice but to be outside for at least a portion of the day, even on the bitterest cold days of winter. Taking care of livestock is a physical activity at our place, so you are seldom standing still for long. Dressing well is the key and provided I’m dressed in a few layers, I can stay comfortable in temperatures down to minus 20 degrees. When I was in the city minus 20 would have kept me indoors. Now I find minus 20 to be quite pleasant as long as it is not accompanied by strong winds.

When it gets colder than minus 20, I begin to feel the pinch. Fingers are the first thing to freeze and when they do it becomes very laborious to manage simple dexterous tasks with the hands, like unfolding a leatherman knife. Eyeglasses are very cold on the face, and taking off the gloves, even momentarily is going to net you cold fingers.

In temperatures approaching minus 30, you work quick, and you pay attention to getting cold. If fingers and toes start to lose feeling you go back inside to warm them up. You discover tricks like using the exhaust pipe of a running vehicle to warm your hands or unzipping all the top layers and jamming your hands into your armpits to warm them.

The sheep fair very well in the cold. They seem unhindered in temperatures of minus 20 or above. They sleep slightly apart from one another, they get up with ease and go about their business of eating.

The colder it gets the tighter they sleep to one another. On very cold days they are reluctant to rise; perhaps wanting to enjoy their bed of communal warmth for a little while longer. I understand the sentiment. When they do rise some of them will limp due to cold feet. A few minutes of walking around however, seems to do the trick. Their bodies will be hunched again the cold and their movement has more of a hitch to it, rather than being a fluid walking motion. And they need to eat more as the majority of their calories will go to staying warm.

Right now it is mild for February. The sheep do not even use the straw bedding in the night pen area. They spread out and bed on the bare ground. If we are slightly late in getting out in the AM they are already up waiting for the gate to open.

The real downfall of cold weather is any problem having to do with water, like water bowls freezing or home sewer pumps acting up. Everything is frozen or will freeze in short order if not insulated well.

When I lived near the city I spent less time outside during the winter and I dreaded the season. On the farm I spend more time outside and while the winter season is not my favorite it has become very tolerable and mostly pleasant.

Informal Training

"Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sheep have this down to a fine art.  

I admire the orderly fashion of sheep when they are taking themselves somewhere and the way they follow trails, particularly in the snow. When the animal in the lead stops, everyone stops. These girls have stopped because Cajun and I just showed up.

We are out checking to see if any ewes are still out before closing the gate for the night. These girls are coming from the water bowl and heading to the night pen area. They are coming through a narrow alleyway, with a fence on the left hand side and the bush of a long wetland on the right.

The girls are going where we need them to but they won’t go as long as we’re parked where we are. I wanted a picture so took one step closer. That lead ewe turned around on the trail and in succession each animal turned on the trail and they went back the way they had come, now following a new leader. I had just made extra work for ourselves but Cajun seemed more than happy with the situation. We walked them up the trail, into an open space, turned them and brought them back again.

On top of basic training, it is meager and informal moments like this that really help solidify a ranch dog. Nothing set up, no animals picked out and working with what presents itself.

I love this life.

Home With A Burradoo Kelpie

You know you have had a good trip when coming home is difficult.

Our trip to Montana and the Burradoo Ranch, home to Bill and Janice Mytton and a fabulous band of Kelpies was well worth the drive, as I suspected it might be.

There are some people and places who, even though you have spent only a brief time with them, change you; leave you feeling more whole somehow. Bill and Janice Mytton and the Burradoo Kelpies are like that. Honest and fun people, beautiful place, great working dogs, and no dog trialing or dog breeding politics involved. I would return in a heartbeat.

The work for the Burradoo Kelpies is primarily gathering cattle in the rugged terrain of the Absaroka/Beartooth Wilderness, but a small group of sheep are also on hand for training. The dogs are primarily worked from horseback.

Bill with his dogs Becker and Muster

During our couple days there, we exercised dogs in the foothills, worked dogs on sheep, traveled to see a bit of the countryside, talked dogs almost nonstop, shared meals and laughed a lot. And yes, we picked out a puppy.

I knew I would like to get a kelpie from Bill and Janice after meeting up with them, and seeing one of their dogs work, at a stockdog clinic back in 2008.  Three and a half years later that tiny dream has happened.  I haven’t named this little girl yet although Allen started calling her BJ and the name is beginning to stick.

You can see more of the Burradoo Ranch Kelpies at

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