Loss and Arduous Acceptance

It has been a busy and unsettling week. We have come through a second stretch of miserable weather which swept the rug out from under us. 

When we picked up the tenth dead lamb in the 18th hour of wind, rain and cold I felt the strain of keeping my emotions in check.

I am reaching deeply for an inward voice of encouragement. Just thinking of the numerous lambs that did survive the inclement weather is not working. I need soulful validation that my livelihood, my being, my dream, and my financial status aren't in jeopardy. 

I thought I’d skip writing about the losses altogether; just move on. But somehow I’m drawn to sharing it. Maybe if only to clear it from my ever packed mind so that I really can move on. Maybe to make it known that this is what can happen when raising livestock. 

I cannot control the circumstance of being prey to the weather. Yes, I could switch up my management practices and crowd animals into a building but what lies on the other side of that false sense of control? While I question my choice of operating this way when in the midst of loss, it comes to mind that any other way of operating has complications as well.

I need to accept that things are how they are; to cease my struggle against the circumstances and in turn find the flow again. It just might take me more than a day or two.

LGD Job Changes

Diesel and Whiskey (now 14 months old) were both neutered last week. When they came home they spent a couple days in the shearing shed to recuperate. A choice they were less than happy about. We were not going to be able to keep them in much longer before they started to make their own way out.

At the start of lambing we were finding dead lambs. Lambs who had never gotten on their feet. Diesel was always close at hand and he was no longer interested in eating meals. I was suspicious that he was interfering by investigating the lambs and driving the ewe off.

So when it came time to return the boys to work, I took Diesel directly to the flock of yearlings where Willow is and allowed Whiskey to go back with the main flock.

I no longer think it was Diesel interfering with lambs that was causing our trouble. He was just keeping a close watch and eating afterbirth. However, seeing him settle with the yearlings I have decided to leave him there.

So far, he seems willing to stay, which has surprised me. I was sure he would make his way back to the flock and the dog pack he knows. It helps that he is not alone where he is; he is with Willow, who is very happy to have the company. I'm hoping it will do Diesel some good to have a bit more responsibility but no lambs, and to be away from the regular pack and his brother for awhile. I’ll keep him with the yearling group unless we need the extra dog power back with the lambing flock.

Whiskey is doing a good job. He is often amidst the group of ewes with the newest lambs. He’s very calm, and he isn’t causing any interference. Some of the ewes are ornery with the dogs around the lambs and I’ve seen Whiskey get knocked hard. He respected the ewe after that and gave her some distance.

Too Much, Too Soon

I’m trying to process lambs right on pasture rather than waiting until part way through lambing and then penning the flock to do it. Supply kit at hand and with about 40 lambs already on the ground, I was eager to try this out.

I came across the first lamb shortly after arriving on pasture in the morning. Slowing to a stop, I killed the engine and reached for the leg crook while seamlessly sliding off the Ranger. A quick reach and I had a lamb. Too simple.

I was nervously anticipating my new processing approach and mentally busy keeping track of what needed to be done depending on male or female lamb. Females get tails banded and an orange ear tag in the left ear. Male lambs destined for market, get tails banded, castrated and spray marked with a number. Male lambs I wish to keep as replacement rams get tails banded and a white ear tag.

The ewe was in a tizzy nearby, bleating for her young one. I hurried to be done with the lamb as quickly as possible. It was a little female and soon her tail was bearing a ring and she was sporting tag number 01. I released her toward the ewe. My excitement at the first job being reasonably well done plummeted as I watched the ewe nuzzle the lamb in confusion and then give her a hard nose shove.

In anticipation of doing the job, I had overlooked that what I caught was a lamb that was too young to be handling. My scent lingering on the newbie caused the ewe to reject her lamb.

I was stunned and just sat on my heels in the grass and watched, quite unsure how to fix this. Bless that little lamb, she knew who her mom was. She persisted at the ewe, squealing her desire for comfort and milk. The ewe knocked her away repeatedly. The lamb persisted. She followed the ewe when the ewe walked away.

I tried to approach the ewe in the slightest chance I might be able to catch her. But with no lamb to lure her closer with, she took off, her lamb trying to keep up to her. I left them alone and considered giving up my whole idea of processing lambs this way. I went about my pasture tour, my mind berating me for my stupidity.

Before I left the pasture I returned to the pair. The lamb was still with the ewe. The ewe was bleating loudly, looking for her believed to be lost lamb. She seemed interested in the lamb but was still not willing to allow it to suck.  I walked the pair toward the corner of the paddock. Once there I blocked the ewe from leaving the corner, just holding her there because it made me feel like I was trying something to salvage this.

Bless that lamb once again, she took advantage of the ewe’s predicament, headed for the udder and latched onto a teat. The ewe turned her head to inspect the rear of the lamb and stepped away, then noticed me and held still again. The lamb went for the teat again this time able to get a longer suck. The ewe investigated the lamb fully and finally seemed to recognize some familiarity about it. When the lamb pulled off of the teat the ewe nuzzled her head and perhaps due to the scent of her own udder upon the lamb, finally seemed convinced of the lambs parentage.

When lambing in a building there are practices we can force on animals at the time of our choosing because the animals are in a pen and can not go anywhere.  When the animals are on pasture, there may be a much greater and natural affect as a result of our actions.  During lambing with a large flock there are numerous frustrations, tragedies and deaths. It is these simple choices, done in good intention, that result in such unexpected outcomes, that eat at me the most.  Then there aren’t enough swear words or tears to express myself with.

Lambing Kit

I’m taking on a new approach to processing lambs this year. So with the goal of doing as much as I can out on pasture as we lamb, I packed a pasture lambing kit .

During lambing my aim is to tag female lambs, dock tails and neuter male lambs and keep a few records while doing so.

This is what is in the kit:
Ear tags
Rings for tails and banding males
Banding tool for putting on rings
Needle and syringes
Lamb puller (which I’ve never used but feel good about having it along; I always seem to be without it and just use my hands)
Dissecting kit with scalpel, tweezers and probe
Spray marking paint
Iodine antiseptic spray (spraying wounds)
Hydrogen peroxide (for flushing wounds, also works well on maggots in cases of fly strike)
SWAT fly repellent (for wounds)
Wormer (because we worm case by case as needed, not the whole flock)

A bag of tags and this backpack of supplies goes with me on the Ranger.
Also on the Ranger are a fishing net and a leg crook, both used for catching young lambs.

Lambing is Underway

Lambing is well underway and this week propelled us into high gear with two days of steady rain and cold temperatures. The worst weather scenario for newborn lambs on pasture but one we have become familiar with during the last two wet years.

Familiarity has not made it any less stressful.

As I climbed into bed last night, feeling wet and weary from too much time spent outdoors in strong wind and rain, I was wrestling to set aside thoughts of how many chilled and dead lambs I might find come the morning. 

Yet the new day found all the newborns from the day before accounted for, plus a few new sets of twins and singles - all alive. I was immensely relieved, not only because they survived the inclement weather, but because we have seen more than the usual few challenges that result in dead lambs, at the start of this lambing season. We have been feeling some trepidation about checking the flock. Now that lambing is well underway things seem to have taken a turn for the better and there are more successes than losses.

I was highly impressed to see how all but one ewe, lambed in a well sheltered spot, nestled into the brush, protected from the wind and rain and as cozy as I could have made them in a building. Three of these were ewes lambing for the first time. We brought one older ewe and her twins home yesterday as her lambs did get chilled. She had lambed out on a hillside and had not moved to shelter.

One other success was Cajun proving his mettle when asked to help catch single ewes on open pasture on two different occasions. Watching him work as he did further fueled the euphoria felt while working him during the stock dog clinic. He and I have come a long way in our working relationship and we are each beginning to stand up to the tests of ranch work.

Today we received a reprieve from the rain although the temperature has remained cold. I’ll climb into bed feeling a little less worried and a little more satisfied.

End of A Stock Dog Clinic

The last three days were very full with hosting a stock dog clinic on Saturday and Sunday and an AHBA stock dog trial on Monday. This was interspersed with the early start of lambing.

Although it was extremely busy, I had a fabulous weekend. I always appreciate working dogs with clinicians Dave and Trudy Viklund. Their ability to read the intent of a dog and mold it when necessary, and to capture the subtlest details of the working relationship is so alluring to me.

The place was a buzz of activity and we were blessed to be immersed amongst a receptive and supportive cocktail mix of people and their dogs. The result was an remarkable interweaving of energy. Connections were made, ideas were exchanged, laughter was free and easy, hope was planted, challenges were faced, learning occurred, new dreams were started while some dreams were dashed.

When a weekend like this past one ends, there is a peculiar empty feeling lingering about the place. The feeling is particularly heavy when the reason people were gathered here is one I am so full of passion for.

All day long I wanted the weekend back.

Stock Dogging

Just a brief post for today as one of our annual stock dog clinics is taking place this weekend. Participants began arriving yesterday evening. I am so excited to have two days of company and dog work under the guide of clinicians, Dave and Trudy Viklund. I’ll focus mainly on working Cajun and perhaps bring Gibson out for a session too.

Yesterday was a full day of preparations plus the first couple of lambs arrived at the end of the week. I was really hoping the ewe flock would hold off for a couple more days as they are not expected to start until the 25th.  Although it would not change the need for more frequent checks of the flock at this time of the year.  My timing for the two events was just too close together.  It will be a hectic weekend.

I put up a stretch of Electranet to divide the next grazing paddock and the ewe flock was moved over there last night.  The two moms with new lambs were left to catch up as they will. The gate between the two paddocks is open so the guard dogs are able to move back and forth. It’s a bit of a gamble leaving new lambs back, but so is pushing them to move too soon. Since the moms were on the move with their little ones I opted to let them come along at their own pace.

What Do They Know?

The guardian dogs have been staying put with the flock again lately, something I am very, very pleased with. I’m not sure just what it is that causes them to alter their wandering behavior each year. My hunch is that they cease their wandering due to two things.

We are moving the flock much more frequently now. The guard dogs are regularly moving into new-old territory. New-old meaning it’s old because they know all the paddocks on the ranch, but new because time has passed since they were there last, therefore it must be thoroughly checked out and patrolled again.  In doing so they are far more active than when they are set in the same pasture for a few months as happens when winter grazing. Perhaps they get bored being in the same pasture for too long.

My second hunch is that lambing is imminent and they know it because with our larger flock lambing always seems to begin with an abortion or a premature birth. Two things that tend to happen early on if they are going to happen at all. The dogs seem to take up an increased interest in the flock after those first occurrences of lambing.

I also wonder if there isn’t increased movement all around. Predators, both four footed and feathered, are moving about more. The dogs are busier right where they are. There is no need to go find something afar. Or if they do they sense the need to return asap.

As lambing approaches I find myself relying on the actions of the guardian dogs (Diesel in particular) to give me a heads up about what might be going on each morning and evening. If they all greet me upon arrival, I’m pretty confident that no first lambs have arrived yet, although I still always check the ewes. If one of them is missing I know to search for signs of lambs or a ewe in trouble. If two or more dogs are missing it is likely they are off after a predator or maybe more than one ewe has lambed.

I can’t say that I noticed the moment I started relying on the dogs like this. Only that I became aware that I was doing it. I suppose it came about as a result of observation of them and hopefulness and trust that the dogs are serving a fundamental purpose, even when their behaviors clash with my expectations. What is remarkable is how the dogs have become far more than flock guardians.

Spring Pastures

Lambing time is just around the corner although I’m hoping the ewes will hold off until after we are through with hosting a stock dog clinic this weekend (which I am eagerly anticipating).

The ewes were moved yesterday and are making their way through 40 acre paddocks, spending about two days in each one. The grass is coming on quickly now. 

The flock is grazing the paddocks furthest from home and I’m trying to plan it so they make their way back just as lambing commences. This way they will be a bit closer at hand during lambing time, which makes life a little easier on me. I’ll be using Electranetting to cross fence during lambing. It’s a bit of guessing game deciphering which paddock they might be in when the first lambs drop so I don’t have any Electranet up yet, although I’d really like to.

These are a couple photos of the paddock where the ewes spent the majority of the winter.

In the winter it looked like this:

 Today you can see some residue strips where feed was rolled out.

In this next photo, on the left, you can see some round areas of heavier residue. Here the bales did not get rolled out but only forked around a bit. This happened when the cows got to the bales first and made a mess of them. The residue piles are also like this if you bale graze. It will take longer for those piles to degrade and grass to come through there. I prefer rolling out the feed.

Here is what is at my feet.

I like how this pasture is looking. It looks so even because it was cut for hay last year. We can’t get our pastures grazed down that evenly with sheep. In comparison, the grazed paddocks have far more standing residue and from the roadside still look very brown even though there is plenty of grass there.

LGD in Dual Guardian Roles

Diesel was not among the pack when the other dogs greeted me early this morning in eager anticipation of breakfast. Diesel does not leave the pasture on his own so, chances are, he was on the far side of the flock, out of sight. I figured he would come shortly. He did not.

I fed the dogs that were there and gave them some attention, thanking each of them for being there with the sheep. 

I continued my tour of the pasture, at ease with the start of another day. It is one of my favorite paddocks. Long and tall hills running almost through the center of it. Cresting the hill on one side of the paddock presents a spectacular prairie view and provides glorious terrain for sending a stock dog on a long downhill outrun that flattens out at the bottom. I had no stock dog with me this morning.

I drove along the hilltops and came around the far side of the flock. Diesel was on that edge, resting next to a ewe.

Alas she was a dead ewe and instantly I was less at ease with the start of another day.

She died sometime between my check of the flock last night and this morning. A three year animal just in her prime. She was laying just like she was asleep on her belly in the common way sheep lie down. Her belly was very distended. She was already cold but not really stiff.

She was a large and robust animal and I had no way to lift her onto the back of the Ranger. I would have to come back with something. I was reluctant to leave a body on pasture because it would be some time before I got back, but Diesel’s demeanour told me he wasn’t going to let anything interfere with it. With a prize like this, I suspected I didn’t have to worry about any of the dogs leaving the pasture today.

It was evening before I managed to return. Diesel was still with the body. The body was untouched. He guarded his prize from the other dogs who approached with me and obviously had been keeping vigil over it all day. 

I had brought the calf sleigh with me and loaded the body onto it and pulled it behind the Ranger. Diesel was on my heels right to the gate and he would have followed me home but I sent him back to the sheep and bade him to stay put.

Some would attribute this behavior to a guardian dog trait; the dog staying with his charges even after death. But I’m not so sure. I think it is just a dog thing. It was his prize and he was indeed guarding it, however this guarding was the “it’s-all-mine” type of guarding and had little to do with him being devoted to sheep. 

It also fascinates me that the guardian dogs do not begin to consume the carcass sooner. I don’t know how long it would be before they decided to start eating the meat. I thought I might find that out today but I didn’t. I suspect the dogs who live at the house with me probably wouldn’t waste that much time getting started.

Pace of Spring

Pounding the first fence posts of the season seemed to launch us into high gear and if there was any hint of winter slumber still clinging to to me, it is gone now.

The cows have been vaccinated and treated. This involved loading them on a trailer and taking them to the in-laws where there is a cattle chute because we don’t have one.
Fence repairs were done on a line of cross fence.
The water bus was readied and taken out to the pasture.
A very ancient grain truck with a water tank in the box was moved out to the ewe lambs to provide water for them.
Three portable dog runs were set up in the dog yard.
We spent an entire afternoon helping the family move cattle.
The flock has been moved - at least three more times since my post about the last move.
One hundred trees seedlings were planted as a future shelter belt on the North side of the barn paddock.
Each day I squeeze in some time to work the dogs on a group of ewe lambs both to work my dogs and to settle the sheep for use during an upcoming clinic.
And each day there must be time for feeding ourselves, relaxing a little, and posting here.

This is the pace of Spring. While I am tired, I am also satisfied. I do not feel overworked, I just feel like I have worked. A big difference, I think.

Even though this list is all about doing, the tasks were interspersed with frequent moments of Being and moments of recharging and rethinking too. That happens for me more and more often. No doubt a direct impact of living on the land and seeking a connection with the energy of it.

Above, Below, Within, Without

My dogs are always discovering bones when we are out and about on our walks and they make no distinction about who those bones once belonged to.

This year they started showing up with canine skulls on a regular basis.

Their discoveries lead me deeper into a personal reflection of one of my own.

As I stepped out onto my deck heading out for a morning walk I was drawn to a small but prominent, white object lying on the wood.

It is a canine tooth. Full and complete with root still attached. It is a tooth from a wild canine, no doubt from one of the earlier found skulls. I was astounded that this single tooth had landed and remained on my deck; so easy for me to discover.

I picked up the new found treasure and held it between thumb and forefinger, rolling it, examining the tooth and then the root of it, finally setting it in my palm.

A canine tooth with its root that mirrors it. As above, so below. As within, so without. 

‘As above, so below.’ Nothing reflects this motto so concretely as the land does.  As we move into another year of grass rotations and I walk across the land, scanning it for signs of its future plans, as above-so below is my mantra. As we graze the grass above, the roots will also take a hit.  If we disturb wetlands, till up the soil or dump our waste, there are entire counterparts elsewhere that are affected.

Every aspect of the world we see ‘above ground’ has a counterpart somewhere else, somewhere deeper. Counterparts we seldom think of.

‘As within, so without.’ Every external event or item we give, receive, yearn for, repel and react to is a deeper reflection of what lies within. When life presents scenarios that make us itch and feel uneasy, or make us glow and feel at ease, it is a sign of what needs attention or what we need more of.

It is a Ying and Yang type of thing. The tails chase one another. So should we make a change within it will be reflected without, and the without will feed us within.

It is so succinctly befitting that a canine tooth would represent this as-above, so-below rhythm of the land; this as-within, so-without cyclical maxim of nature. That it came from a wild dog and that it was deposited by another one who lives with me. I was so fond of my find that Allen set about getting me another tooth from another skull.

I will keep these canine teeth. They are jewels to me.

Soul Discoveries

There is no other feeling like watching an event unfold and sensing your soul open up and unfolding right along with it. For me, it is a good indication that I might wish to pursue that which I am witnessing or at least witness it more frequently.

I went to watch the final round of a local cow dog trial tonight. An arena trial on horseback, working cattle. All five finals dogs were Border Collies.

Man, horse, dog and livestock. It’s a sweet, sweet deal. A beautiful, ever evolving dance of energy and synergy. I want more of that in my life.

Photo Taken at Burradoo Ranch, Montana

Moving Forward into Another Year With Sheep

Shearing time has always marked the start of another year with sheep, but pounding fence posts solidifies it. When I have the next opportunity to start a farm all over again, I will start out on a piece of land already fenced.

We pounded posts for a small paddock located nearby the house for future use by the three horses. We are hopeful that having the horses nearby (rather than further away on pasture) will instill a regular habit of working with them.

And remember our discovery of a new night pen area and noting that all we needed was to fence off the ends to create two very useful paddocks. Well we pounded fence posts to get that small project underway as well. Combined, the total pounding posts stint was a small one. I like fence building like that. Small spurts rather than 10 hours of it in one day.

Part of the reason for jumping into these two projects was to take advantage of the wet conditions here. Post pounding is so much easier when the ground is nicely soaked after a few days of steady rain.  The other part is that we are focusing on doing projects with the supplies we have on hand and we happened to have supplies for this on hand.

While I begrudgingly started the task of post pounding, in the end, the day had a very satisfying feel. Kind of like the feeling you get when you finally take action on something you’ve been stewing about for too long.

Here’s to moving forward into another year on the land with sheep and dogs.

Afternoon Out

We are starting into pasture rotations. The flock was moved on Sunday and again this morning. I’ll move them again day after tomorrow. The grass is there and is about to take off with a spurt of spring growth, I can feel it.

We always fall behind the grass in the spring when its growth is rapid. This year I’m moving the sheep a little earlier and keeping them going until they rotate through all the paddocks to see if I can keep up a little better. By the time we arrive back at paddock one there will be plenty of re-growth and about that time lambing should commence as well. Then our moves will slow.

We are receiving timely rain and a lot of it. It is soggy, cool and grey. When the rain drove us inside for the morning we decided it was a good day to get off the ranch for the afternoon. We headed to the city without much in mind but to go somewhere. Trips like that are rare for us but I find those trips are often the best. They aren’t filled with the usual list of farm supply / grocery shopping, and there is no real agenda to follow. Just time in the city; casual stops providing a reprieve from thinking about sheep and fencing and upcoming projects, and enjoying supper out. 

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