A Few September Morning Photos

September has been a month of warm, dry, calm weather; ideal for harvest time. The mornings are crisp with the warmth spilling into the day as soon as the sun is up. There are some spectacular places of rough, prairie beauty on the pasture where the flock is grazing. I am lucky to start my day in the midst of such a peaceful place.

There is a variety of food sources for the girls which provides a wider spectrum of nutrients. While it looks like dry grass and trees to us it is a smorgasbord to the ewes and lambs, the former who are recovering from raising a lamb and the latter who are growing rapidly.  When raising livestock naturally the fall season seems to be the easiest time. The weather is mild, the grass is more nutritious, the risk of bloat is long past, ewes have regained condition, lambs are robust. The animals look really good right now.

Grazing a hillside of native prairie.

Grazing along the edge of a slough bottom (now dried up). Note the perspective in the photo; I’m on a pretty high hilltop for the prairies.

Eating brush.

The front of the flock on the opposite side of the paddock. Bellies full and settling down to rest in an open area. By the time I came around here it was around 9:00 AM. A good sign that there is plenty of feed here.

The Difference of A Day and A Frame of Mind

After the unsuccessful flock move on Sunday, I headed out to try again Monday morning. I had to bring the flock across a paddock of young regrowth grass then through the paddocks near the yard where there is no grass, and out a third gate leading to the next pasture.  I suspected it might be a tough move and it was. I took three dogs with me and I went out on the Ranger, deciding I wasn’t adding a new horse to the mix on this move. What a difference a day and a frame of mind makes.

The gather went well and the sheep were eager to come off the grazed paddock. Then it was slow and steady progress across the re-growth as the sheep put their heads and tried to eat the whole way.  When we reached the gate leading into the paddock at the yard the ewes were not willing to come off the new found grass. The mob kept turning and traveling past the gate. The dogs and I had to stop and turn them back three times before they considered the gate was the way to go and by chance Lady helped out at that moment by leading them through. It was a long, tiring move and the stock dogs were now tired.

Once in the yard paddock it was pretty simple to turn them to right gate and let them pour through. Once there the older ewes knew where they going now and made a beeline for the pass way to the next pasture.

The stock dogs at the top to turn the flock back and head them to the proper gate

On our way again
The new pasture has lots of feed available for them but it’s a rough, rough pasture. It’s rough to physically travel on, and it is ungrazed and rough with tall dry grass, clover overgrowth and dry thistle. It also has a large piece of native prairie and numerous pockets of brush for shelter. It’s a gorgeous, wild piece of land. We’ve already spotted coyotes traveling through or perhaps moving out, since it is likely that they’ve been settled there up until now. Because the land is rough and overgrown the sheep are talking more to stay in contact with flock mates and lambs. It’s tough for guard dogs to keep track of sheep or see what’s coming. We have not started night penning but we are making sure the flock is tucked together before nightfall.

Knowing When To Fold 'Em

The flock move went amuck this morning, or rather I did and hence the move never happened. This was a longer move, I had a time limit and I was starting late. I had it in my head that the gather must be done on horseback (I’ll remind you that I’m new to horses and riding) plus I took two dogs (who are new to working with me on a horse) and I expected it to all work out seamlessly.

It did not go well. I rushed out on the horse, sent the dogs willy-nilly, and then lost my cool when one of them went into the flock instead of starting a gather. When I caught myself yelling at dogs and not offering support or solution, I called it done and headed home, suppressing my tears of frustration, a couple of forlorn dogs trotting along behind, several  hundred animals still where they were originally.

Why do I mention it here? I suppose in some way, to reaffirm to myself that I’m human to. But mostly to share that out of this came a small pearl of wisdom.    

I called it quits. That’s the nugget.

Sometimes the greatest thing you can do for everyone or every animal involved is just to call it quits.

You see, I have a small useless belief that calling it quits is firmly judged as being a quitter and is not allowed. And trust me, because of this belief I can continue on task, without ceasing, until every party involved is mentally exhausted and spiritually broken. It’s never pretty and I always feel awful for days afterward.

But I didn’t do that today. I said that’s enough of this, nobody is happy here. I walked away leaving several hundred animals where they were.

Knowing when to call it done and doing so is a sign of great improvement. It requires some self awareness, that allows mental clarity to seep in and speak up even when emotions are taking over.  Realizing what I’m doing is not working for the betterment of any party allows me to slide back into a place to work for the greater good of all.

On the ride home I felt the relief sink in. Yes, several hundred sheep were still where they were, ... and the sun still set and will still rise tomorrow...
I noticed another funny thing. I began to let it go much sooner than I can let go of all the ways I damage my dogs by pushing to get a task done. It was over.  I carried on with hosting a fun day in the afternoon (the reason for the time limit on the morning) and had a wonderful half day working dogs and helping people; realizing none of us ever know the days traumas and triumphs other people are carrying.

Some Days Just Go Like That

This morning a phone call from a friend to discuss our current dog food source prompted me to contact a local dog food company to see about a better option. With feeding several large dogs I’m always keeping an ear to the ground for options to feed them. The phone call netted a further look into what the company can do for us. A pretty good start.

After taking care of the morning chores I made up a flyer for the sale of our five guardian pups. That was easy, the hardest part was deciding they really have to go.

I figured there was no point waiting for another day... I headed to town, got photocopies of the flyer made and stopped to place an advertisement in the local paper. Then over to the vets to post the first flyer.

After that I made my way to the printing shop to inquire about turning some recent artwork of working dogs into prints or art cards. I even had the digital files with me this time. My files need to be larger to do the printing justice, but it looks promising and the cost is very reasonable.

My next stop was the bank.  After completing my banking, the bank teller at the next cubicle stopped me to ask if I was willing to come over and do a lesson with her and her new dog. I guess it's a plus when the people in town know a little bit about what you like to do.

With that arranged I headed to the nearby town of Young and stopped at the small town garage to put up another flyer. I ran into an old acquaintance who asked me about taking his dog in for stock dog training.  It was just last week I arranged for the very first dog to come in for training. That dog arrives tomorrow.

I smiled my way back to the truck. I love it when days have a theme like this. It causes me to ponder about the power of the Universe.

Stock Dogs and Being Balanced

I was out working dogs tonight and had a lovely time with Gibson and BJ. Cajun and I, however, stumbled our way through, both of us struggling to understand each other. Toward the end of our time I figured we needed to go back to simple basics for a moment. Back to balance work.

Gibson and BJ have the benefit of being the next dogs, and even though their work styles are as different as night and day, the understanding and feeling of balance has been made much more clear and at ease from the start.

Cajun and I however, routinely fall out of balance. As I went back to balance work with Cajun I realized that aside from dogs, balance was a good place for me to go back to as well.

I’m not meaning juggling life and work so they feel equally weighted; I mean a state of being balanced.  Nature exists in a state of balance, and farming in a natural manner presents opportunities to experience it on an ongoing basis - so does working stock dogs. Balance is a state which is always present. It does not go away and come back again. Rather it is I who leaves the state of balance and then, upon realizing how out of tune I am, seek it again. While it would seem logical to just maintain the state of balance, it is a state of conscious awareness I have not reached yet. Thus, there are still many things in life that I allow to pull me off kilter.

And then I go out and work with dogs and more often than not, the mirror bares its reflection and I glean necessary solutions for myself.

Hills of Gratitude

The flock is being rotated through paddocks on a quarter of land furthest South of the yard. With parcels of Native Prairie, wetlands, abundant brush, and hilltops of the highest elevation in our immediate area, it is my favorite piece of land. It’s both rough and smooth, rugged and delicate.

This afternoon Cajun and I moved the ewes to the last paddock on this quarter section. When I went back to collect mineral tubs, I paused on a high hilltop, my favorite dog milling beside me. A familiar feeling seeped in. A feeling of awe that there are two people here, and all this land.  A feeling of reverence because I exist in all this space.

I mean; I can walk a mile and not have left home.

I have sitting stones, hilltop views and hide-aways.

I have an unhindered view of the sunrise from my front step.

My dogs and I step out the door and we’re off for a free run.

I don’t leave to find a quiet place, I live in one.

What is before me on a daily basis, others only taste on a vacation or spend a lifetime seeking. This astounds me.

From the hilltop perch I watched two traveling combines gobble up a crop in the distance below. Grain truck parked at an approach to the field. Half tonne truck bumping its way along the far side. I felt gratefully conscious of the fact that I am no longer involved in a harvest lifestyle, not even to help.

I wondered if any of the harvesters are grateful for how much land they have.

Coasting Along

The lambs are still with the ewes and are growing at a steady rate. The lambs are robust, the ewes are recovering from the stress of raising lambs, the grass is not so lush, the climate is moderate, and everything seems settled again. The surrounding area is abuzz with crop harvesting but at this time of year, we get to coast along. There isn’t a lot of flock management, until we prepare to sell lambs. 

With fall approaching the grass is no longer growing, but is preparing for dormancy. The grass is drying and turning color and the leaves on the alfalfa plants are dry and dropping. There is a noticeable increase in the consumption of grass and it takes little time for the flock to clean up in each paddock.

Back in the early summer we skipped grazing one paddock, knowing we wouldn’t need it at the time, and deciding to stockpile it for use at a later date. Because it was never grazed, the grass is past mature. The areas that were grazed had to regrow, therefore there is younger plant material present (the basic reason for rotationally grazing).

The flock was moved and is grazing this stockpiled paddock now and they do not seem content with the mature plants. I imagine the paddocks with less mature regrowth, even going into dormancy, are more appealing. For next time, it might be a better choice to graze the stockpiled forage a little later, perhaps in early winter, when the flock will be glad to have some dry greens and there is less attraction to the greener grass on the other side of the fence.  

Our millet was also swathed this week and it is satisfying to look at it and know that it is ready and waiting for swath grazing in the winter. As we coast along I am appreciating daily time with the stock dogs, working Cajun and Gibson, and BJ as she feels ready for it. I have started the nightly routine of tucking the flock together before dark so Cajun also accompanies me most nights and is doing a superb job working the pasture.

LGD Notes

In our situation the guardian dogs who are set with the main flock spend the majority of time on their own, away from the yard, without supervision. How effective are they? What’s going on the whole time we’re not there to witness? Are they sorting themselves out? Are they harassing sheep? Just how do they do what they do? What is it that compels them to work almost as a unit like they do?

Some times we’ll spend some time on pasture just watching the dogs but most of the time we see the dogs when we come and go, morning and night, and anytime we come to the pasture at a non-regular time. At these times we get glimpses of their actions.

As we’ve grown along with the dogs we’ve started to take notice of the smaller details. Like where each dog approaches from when we arrive. How particular dogs are often seen as a pair. The body language of the dogs around the sheep. The reaction of the sheep as the dogs travel through the flock. The interactions between the dogs. Who seems to be bossing who. Who plays with who. What they do when we drive away....

Here’s a small sample of my notes from yesterday morning.

There are two pups and five adults out on pasture right now. The two pups are still largely ruled by their stomachs and know they get fed when I arrive. They used to meet me at the gate but recently they stopped doing so. Now they come along shortly after I arrive.

The pups, Lupin and Zuess, are first to approach but come from seperate directions. I’ve noticed they are no longer hanging out together as much as they used to.

Lady is right behind Lupin and Glory comes from nearby. So these dogs were spread out on the near (East) side of the flock. I see Whiskey approaching from the center of the flock. I scan the horizon for Oakley and Diesel. I spy Oakley on the opposite (West) side of the flock. No Diesel in sight.

The first few arrivals, expecting to be fed.

I feed the first arrivals. As I’m feeding, Diesel arrives. He came in from the North.

Just as the first few are finished eating, Oakley arrives. He wastes no time eating. I manage one photo before dogs begin dispersing. I think this is the first time I’ve captured seven of them in the same photo.

After eating, Whiskey and Diesel begin posturing over Lady’s empty bowl.

I don’t interfere with them but just watch them. They each place their heads across the others shoulders. Then some growling and a show of teeth. This goes back and forth.

I still don’t interfere with them. Instead I slip in and pick up the bowl. Problem solved.

The dogs disperse. As I travel the pasture, checking the sheep, I take note of where they went to.

Lady and Lupin head to a hilltop and settle with the sheep.

Zeus follows the Ranger around. Eventually he gives this up. Later I see him playing by himself.

Oakley is gone and I’m not sure where he went off to.  Glory is near the edge of a group of sheep and is already asleep. I don’t approach for a better picture as there is no need to disturb the settled sheep and dog.

Just before I leave the pasture I pass Diesel and Whiskey, together on a hilltop, which is common for these two brothers.

A Flock Move

Since we move our flock often, for grazing purposes, and move them with the use of stock dogs, the flock is very familiar with both. To the ewes moving equals new grass - this results in a flock that readily moves.

It didn’t start out this way though. Our first few moves were rough to say the least. I’m impressed that the stock dogs survived the chaos and the pressure. Yet it is because of the stock dogs that moving the flock was and still is doable.

Now that our flock is familiar with moving we have options in the way we move them.

My favorite way to move the flock, especially when I’m by myself, is to use a stock dog to gather wayward sets of sheep from the far side of hills and various hidden spots first. Then once the whole flock is loosely gathered, head off in the desired direction. I like doing it this way because everyone travels together. Going through gates is simplified because the dog is keeping the rear of the group caught up, which helps ensure the whole group passes through.

The other way of moving the flock was discovered through habit of moving them. Because we use the water bus and it moves with the flock, the sheep learned to follow it, thus we can use that to our advantage when moving. This way is how I moved the flock this afternoon.

The water bus was empty this morning and since I wanted to move the flock in the afternoon I left it empty, that way I could fill it and take it directly to the new location. When I returned and set about filling the bus some interested onlookers were gathering around.

Cajun is transfixed on a ewe off to the left; he jumped out the window two seconds later
Filling the bus (the water tanks are just behind the tub trough)
While I'm filling the bus Cajun gets checked out by a few guard dogs (customary around here)
Once full and on my way to the new paddock it only took a couple of calls to convince some lead ewes to follow.

The first group of sheep following the bus
When moving the sheep by letting them follow along the flock stretches out into a long stream of animals. In our terrain there are often animals in the far corners and out of sight who do not notice the flock is going anywhere so we still have to collect pockets of sheep. Also because the group isn’t together we end up with animals who see their flock mates up ahead and run down the fence line before traveling through the gate first. Just as these lambs did.

Flock has just followed the bus in to the paddock on the right. Cajun and I are walking back to check the original paddock. Our first task is these lambs who missed the gate (top Right side) and ran up the fence line following the draw of the moving flock.

After moving the lambs we came across a group of twelve or so who were part way along the route and brought them to the gate. And after that, our third task was collecting this entire group who were grazing, out of sight, in the furthest corner.

When it comes right down to it, both ways of moving the flock involves work for a stock dog, so I’m quite satisfied with either one.

Week of Ease

The last month was a steady pace of full on work as we pushed to get our outside sheep yards done, then slid right into hosting sheep camp and a trial, and then I hit the road for a few days. Since I’ve come back my pace has been a bit slower. We are, thankfully, not harvesting crops and there isn’t a push to get the next thing done so I enjoyed a week of not worrying about what to do next.  I’ve been out with the stock dogs a few times, working them when it feels right and carrying on with what we learned at camp and on the road.

This morning I headed out to take down some netting. The flock has moved to a quarter of land that is cross fence into four paddocks which means I won’t need to string electranet while they graze here and I can catch up with collecting the stuff no longer needed.

Right after sheep camp, we took the bulk of the yearling ewe lambs out to pasture to rejoin the flock. Because they have been apart for several months it took a few days for them to fully integrate into the flock. The only sheep left near the yard are the rams and about fifteen sheep for me to work stock dogs on. Willow and a couple pups are set with these two groups. The rest of the guardian dogs are with the flock. Predator activity is increasing but we are not seeing any signs of trouble within the flock.

It’s the time of year when dusk comes upon us sooner than we’re expecting and we’re often caught out in the dark. Just as dark approaches is when there is a lot of activity out and about and the guardian dogs often rush after sounds and sights we can’t make out. I am wondering if we’ll need to begin night penning the flock again soon.

First Times

I think that, in many respects, life is a series of first time events.

Today I experienced one of them. I stepped out with horse and dog and gathered some sheep.

I know next to nothing about horses, in fact I find them a little intimidating. Yet, the more I drive around these prairies hills in the Ranger the more I think about being on horseback instead; with my stock dog along and at the ready.

And here we are. 

The sheep are coming through a natural pass between wetland and brush. The faint marked oval at the back of the flock is Cajun. I started him out on a gather to put the flock together, and then met up at the back of the flock with him. He did pretty good given that he was trying to sort out this new perspective of me being on horseback. He was leery of the horse though, and moved away from us and up the side of the flock. I gave him that choice and decided to get up front so he could bring sheep, thus not be forced to work next to the horse on his first time in this new situation.

The tail end of the flock coming through the pass. There are five dogs in this photo by the way. Cajun being the obvious black one.

Here's the photo again. Click on it to see it in larger size and you'll find the dogs.

Animal Impact

I arrived home last evening and feeling the gratifying weariness of hosting a stock dog camp and then traveling to another immediately afterward I didn’t argue when Allen offered to take care of the chores.

Thus, it wasn’t until this morning that I was back out and about again, greeting guardian dogs, seeing the flock, spying the cows in the distance and peeking in on the horses. It was while we were out and about that I noticed one surprising change that took place while I was gone.

Green plants were growing in the small training pen in front of the building. Why is this surprising?

Just prior to sheep camp this is what the area looked like. Notice the packed gravel surface and lack of greenery.

Knowing we’d be using the area to work new dogs in during camp, we spread some old, decaying straw and some new wheat straw to create a softer surface for the dogs and sheep. The pen size and surface worked very well and we thought nothing more about it until this morning. This is what the front pen looks like now. 

 A closer look....

There is wheat sprouting all over the pen.  Working sheep in the pen for a few days caused significant disturbance of the soil surface. So much so that seeds from the wheat straw were able to germinate over the course of a few days. All we did was spread some straw and move sheep about; at the time we had not given those choices a second thought.

Seeing this example of animal impact is a pleasant surprise for us grass loving folks. I am very encouraged by this and would like to recreate it in other areas in need of a little TLC; like the larger paddock at the back which is currently supporting a good crop of Canadian Thistle. 

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