Friday, March 30, 2007

My First Sheep Venture

Today is my friend's birthday. I have known Vicki for over 25 years now. I met her at the Police Department, where I had just started working not too long before. About thirty minutes before the day was done we would gather in the squad room to do our paper work, count tickets, and go over the incidents of the day.

I've never been a real "people person". I'm one of those people that are not good in social situations with gobs of people, unless they are people I know. That day I went into the squad room and began my normal routine. The new girl, Vicki, was quite the people person, as it turns out. She was talking. Talking about horses. I perked up my ears. When I asked what kind of riding she did, I was pleasantly surprised to find out she was into dressage, of all things.

Back then not a lot of people knew about dressage. Around here if they weren't into some form of cowboy riding, ie: roping, team penning, etc, the only "English" style riding was what they did at hunter/jumper shows. And any true dressage snob knows the flat classes at hunter/jumpers are not dressage. From that moment on, we were destined to be fast friends.

Her husband is a dairyman, which turned out to be very convenient for me. I've been able to call him and ask questions or just for advice. He is also my friendly hay supplier. His hay costs less than anyone elses' and he delivers to us for the price of a beer or two. I can live with that! When Ophelia was born I called him and they both came out to see her. She was a little hot and he gave us a few suggestions and reassurance. His next comment was regarding her size, "If that had been born on our place we would have euthanized her because she's so small!" Dexters are about the size of adult labrador retrievers when they are born.

Anyway, Vicki didn't last long at the Police Department. Soon she became pregnant with her first and only child and left the Department to care for him. I envied her being able to stay home.

Over the years we've had many adventures together. We've shown our dogs together, competed at many out of town horse shows for combined training events (FUN!), gone camping in the mountains with our families and dogs. We got into sheep together.

One day we were scheming on how to make some "easy" money. She suggested lamas. I remembered my grandmother's and my mother's Persian lamb coats. I talked her into raising Karakul sheep. In the days before the internet we looked through a sheep magazine (I think it was sheep! magazine) and found someone in Virginia that raised Karakuls. I remember we made arrangements to buy a ram and have him shipped to LAX where we would pick him up. I don't remember how we got any ewes, but Vicki managed to get some cross bred ewes.

"Victor", as we named our ram, arrived at LAX very late in the evening. All four of us went to pick him up, Vicki and her husband, me and mine. We had to go to the terminal where cargo was shipped. We found it and presented our identification. Soon they wheeled a long open slatted crate out. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't that. We thought it would be best to leave Victor in the crate, so we loaded him in the truck and drove home.

We brought him to Vicki's house because at that time my husband and I didn't have the proper facilities. We finally got home at about 1:00 in the morning. When we cracked open the crate, Victor hobbled out. He had been forced into a kneeling position in the crate for his entire shipping, so it took some time to get his blood flowing again. While Vicki and I admired his roman nose and curvy horns, our husbands just shook their heads at us.

Victor was good at his job and it didn't take long before the first babies were born. If you are unfamiliar with Persian lamb coats, know they do not shear the lambs. They actually kill and skin the newborns. The wool coats at that age are luxuriously soft. The skins are tanned and the hides are used just like a regular mink coat or something similar.

When I came over to see the first newborns, Vicki and I looked at each other and we knew we could not go through with it. How could anyone do that to these beautiful, helpless little lambs? Certainly not us! We decided there was probably a good market for colored wool for home spinners. Why, we could even learn to spin ourselves, and sell the skeins we made to the specialty knitter's shop(s).

We did learn to spin wool, but we never got as far as actually spinning and selling. Gosh, did you know there's an awful lot of work involved in all that? Washing, carding, spinning--not to mention first shearing, probably the hardest part of all. We hired a young man to shear our sheep and found out it was hardly worth it. We would have paid more if we kept the wool. Since this young man sheared many small flocks he kept what he sheared and sold the wool. That was how he operated. I guess we should have learned to shear, but that was not something we were willing to do then.

After a few years, Victor and his ladies were all sold.

If only I'd listened to Vicki about the lamas!


Thursday, March 29, 2007

GRR Ophelia

When Ophelia was born, I couldn't have been more happy. I would now own two cows and in my mind that was good enough to qualify as a herd. And when she was old enough to have her own calves, why that was almost too much happiness to bear. I could already see the babies frisking about the back yard together.

A very young Ophelia

Ophelia grew up exactly as I'd hoped. She was easy to wean, easy to halter train, friendly, and brave. One morning while she was being weaned I went next door to Dean's pens to feed her. He was letting us use one of his pens for her until she was totally weaned and we could bring her back to our yard. Her horns were just barely beginning to bud out. While I was admiring her I noticed her head had what seemed to be blood on it. I quickly checked her over and couldn't find any other signs of blood. There were just a few scratches on her head. Just to make sure, I checked the pen for loose wires or anything else she could have gotten snagged on, but I couldn't find anything. Then I noticed the paw prints.

It was apparent. A coyote had tried to attack her. Although we live sort of in the suburbs, our lot backs up to a couple hundred acres of recharging ponds and a dirt canal runs along side of that. Also, we had heard coyotes yipping not too long before.

We made a call to the Fish and Game Department and the officer my husband talked to told us if we caught it in the act of attacking our livestock, we could feel free to blast away. Of course he didn't say it exactly like that, but that was the gist of it.

Beauty and the Beast

Just a couple weeks later another neighbor from the other end of the street told Dean she had been out for an early morning walk and saw what she thought was a coyote near Ophelia's pen. Not wanting her dogs to get involved in the fracas she turned around and left the area.

It wasn't until we no longer owned Ophelia that we think we figured out what happened. What we think happened was it wasn't a coyote after all. We now suspect a neighbor's dog from the other end of the street. His dog was yellowish, medium-large sized, and from a distance could easily pass as a coyote. And, his dogs were always roaming around the ponds.

Grown up Ophelia

Finally it was time to breed. I did not have a bull, and I still had a couple straws left over from the last year. We began the process of starting her to cycle by giving her the lutelyse shots. Everything was on schedule. The vet did the insemination. Two months later he declared her pregnant. That meant in 8 months she should calve.

Eight months came and went and nothing happened. The vet came out and figured the embryo must have been absorbed or aborted and it was too small yet for me to notice. We started again.

The palpation showed her to be pregnant. At about her fourth month I was doing some yard work out back when some acquaintances rode by on their horses. They stopped to chat and one of them said, "Your cow is bleeding!"

I looked at Ophelia and sure enough, she had a bloody discharge. I knew that meant she had aborted again.

We tried once more, and again to no avail. I was starting to get discouraged. The vet recommended a live breeding. The hope was, once she was bred naturally, without the drugs, she would carry to term and after that should have no more problems.

I called a person who had called me once when he was making inquiries about the breed and AI'ing. It turns out he had a bull on loan at his place. He would board Ophelia for a few bales of hay and the small stud fee would be paid to the bull owner once the cow was confirmed pregnant.

It took only about two hours to bring Ophelia to meet "William", the bull. After some small talk we left for home with our fingers crossed. Alas, once again it was not to be. Only this time it wasn't because Ophelia lost a pregnancy, it was because William was an elderly, short-legged bull. The people at the ranch said they actually had witnessed him attempting to mount Ophelia, but he was just too short to reach.

Then I called the first breeder I almost bought a cow from (the one that was out of country earlier) but he didn't allow outside cows to his ranch. I called the breeder I had bought Ophelia's mother from to see if he had an unrelated bull, and if he would be willing to offer stud service. He did, and he was.

We made the arrangements and it was a long day for me. I made the turn-around trip myself, loaded up with CD's and singing at the top of my lungs. I was a bit hoarse by the time I got home.

Long story short: Ophelia did get pregnant but must have absorbed the embryo again. I made the unhappy decision to sell her. I don't have big, lush pastures, so my animals are on a "dry lot" situation, where I have to feed them hay am and pm. If I had had my own bull I would have kept her and kept trying, that's how much I liked her, but I was throwing money down the tubes, as it were.

I took her to the local auction yard. There was an old man who admired her as I was unloading and asked me if she ate "fire weeds". I wasn't really sure what that was but I told him I was pretty sure she would because she sure seemed to eat everything else. I don't know who ended up buying her because they never re-registered her in their name. I hope it was the old man. He seemed very nice.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

We're In the Cattle Business!--Part II

Our cattle business had officially begun with the birth of GRR Ladysmith's calf. It was a beautiful dun heifer calf we named GRR Ophelia. (Registration rules require the farm name of the breeder, not the owner at time of birth, as in this case.)

There were a few things I hadn't thought about too much during my initial search for our first cow. Important factors such as: how to get the cow re-bred. You couldn't very well have a cattle business when you couldn't reproduce. I mean, that was the whole idea.

I knew I did not want to get a bull at that time. I needed a little experience with the cows first. So my next obvious choice was Artificial Insemination. I was a little familiar with that process because my sister used that method on one of her horses a few times. It could be a risky venture in that sometimes the straws could be very expensive and they wouldn't take and there were no guarantees, as there often is with live coverings. Horses can be AI'd using fresh or frozen semen, and as far as I could tell, the cow's AI'ing involved frozen only.

My next step was to call the vet I used for our horses. It turns out he did do a lot of cattle business, but he did not have the proper storage facilities. While there are no shortages of bovine specialty veterinarians in Kern County (we have lots of dairies around) he could recommend the only vet he knew to have a storage tank. That was Dr. Michael Kerfoot of Bovine Health Services.

I called Dr. Kerfoot and told him my situation. It turns out he really was quite the specialist in bovines and he was also a very nice man. He let me know that he would be happy to store any straws I bought and they could be shipped directly to his office. He would ensure the straws were stored and the shipping container returned as required. There would be no extra charge for any of this, providing I used him for my bovine needs. That sounded like a great deal to me.

Then it was time to search available candidates for the genetic material. I pored through my Dexter magazine and searched the ads. Since I still didn't really know what to look for I made a list of the possibles. I made a note of color, size, and location. The short legged bulls were immediately eliminated. There were some I could have gotten from Canada, but I thought I'd stay in country for the first time around. After much agonizing I finally made my choice.

Turns out, bull semen is a lot cheaper than stallion semen. Each straw is only $20 to $40 (average). The only other thing was some owners had a minimum of how many straws you could buy, anywhere from three to five.

The man I bought the straws from was very trusting. I told him I would take five straws. I told him where to ship to (all the vet's details) and to send me the bill for the straws and shipping. He assured me this would be no problem.

Dr. Kerfoot's office called to let me know they had received my shipment and we could start with the lutelyse (a hormone) shots used to bring the cow into heat.

There were to be a total of two shots, carefully timed. The timing was important because apparently cows are only receptive to being bred during a very short time frame (like two hours, within about 88 hours of the second shot).

The day and time came for the actual insemination. Dr. Kerfoot arrived and got ready. First he came out to check the cow, to make sure the drugs had worked their magic. Since I don't have a squeeze he suggested putting the cow in the corner of the big gate and using the gate as a squeeze. (Ladysmith never kicked him, even though I used to worry about that.) He carefully worked his gloved arm into her, mildly complaining of how small she was compared to the cows he usually worked with. He declared her ready and the insemination was done.

We walked back to his SUV so he could write up the bill and I ran into the house to get my checkbook. He told me it would be $300, and without batting an eye I began to write the check. To me that was still pretty cheap compared to horse standards.

"No, no! I was just joking," he said. "It's actually $30."

"What? Are you sure?" I asked. I was so used the expensive equine vet bills.

Wow! Cows are ten times cheaper than horses. I was liking this cattle business so far.

Several months passed and I still had not paid for the AI straws or shipping. I had yet to receive a bill. I wondered if I ever would. I finally decided to take matters into my own hands and sent a check to the bull owner. Eventually, the check cleared, along with my conscience.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

We're in the Cattle Business!--Part I

One day I went to the grocery store to get a few items for dinner. One of those things was a couple of steaks to barbecue. One little New York steak was about $8.00! That just seemed a little scandalous to me. I checked the price per pound on some of the other cuts of beef. Where have I been? When did beef get so pricey? I guess I never paid much attention before. Even formerly cheap cuts of meat, like flank steak, were not what I'd call cheap anymore.

That's when I decided to get into the cattle business.

Now when I get an idea into my head (previous post mentioned pea brain) I like to act on it as soon as possible. Sometimes that can work out just fine, but in my more outrageous moments it's just as well that the ideas did not come to fruition. This one wasn't so bad, it turns out...

I wanted something that would be docile, easy to handle, have easy calving, and tasty meat. I did a little research on the beloved internet and narrowed my choices down to two breeds: the Irish Dexter, and the British White. I wrote to the prospective breed associations for more info and literature.

Each of these breeds touted their attributes, but it was the Irish Dexter that finally won me over. The reason was they are smaller and advertised as "the perfect breed for the smallholder". Having just under one acre, that was me.

The Irish Dexter comes in two types: short-legged, and long-legged. I chose the long-legged version because they looked more like a cow and not a pet. This can be important when it comes time to put one in the freezer.

My next mission was to find a breeder, hopefully not too far away. I e-mailed a couple of likely candidates. The first one was out of country for a few weeks, but the second had just what I was looking for: a bred cow, still good for a few more years at least, gentle, easy to handle.

After persuading my husband that this would be a good thing (look at the price of MEAT! We can raise our OWN!) we made the necessary arrangements.

We drove to Sacramento and stayed in a nice residence-type hotel. The following morning we found the Green River Ranch where we were greeted by the thickly mustachioed Bill Kirkland. Bill took me to a small holding pen where he had our prospective cow awaiting our approval. She was in the pen with a half Dexter, half Holstein who was six months old, and already six inches taller than the three year old cow. I noticed one of her eyes was a bit cloudy, but she wasn't blind, she looked like a cow to me, and all my other criteria fit, so we loaded her into the trailer. Check, registration papers, and signatures were exchanged and we were on our way back home.

GRR Ladysmith fit right in and soon we settled into an easy routine. I eagerly checked for signs of an impending birth. Since she had been pasture bred all we had for a due date was a three month window, May, June, or July.

One day in early May, I had a "bloody blowout" at work. Without going into any further details, I had to come home. It was a good thing too. After I changed I went out back and Ladysmith was just starting labor. I was able to watch as she gave birth to a beautiful dun heifer calf.

I felt so lucky and blessed right then. I couldn't have been more thrilled because now I had a second cow and I was in the cattle business!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Goats

One evening in 1999 we were watching a program on our PBS station and one of the topics was cashmere goats. A former corporate couple were highlighted because they had made the brave jump from living in the city and having high power jobs to leaving that all behind them to move to the country and raise cashmere goats. The program showed the couple's operation and how happy they were now that they were out of the rat race.

That program got my pea brain in motion. Dangerous. I thought to myself, as I unfortunately do too often, "I could do that!" The notion of "easy money" took a fast hold on my brain.

I secretly started searching on the internet for cashmere goat breeders. I say secretly because my husband didn't have a clue as to my plans. This is not unusual. I frequently have a "great" idea, get things planned out, and spring it on him at the last minute. Sometimes he can bring me back to reason, but more often than not, he can't.

So I found a breeder within CA. I started an e-mail correspondence with him asking about availability and most importantly: price. Well, okay, $250 didn't seem too bad for a goat that you didn't have to feed much and you could actually make good money from it's wool. If I remember correctly, at the time it was over $20/lb, average per goat was 1 1/2 to 2 pounds per year. Meanwhile the animal could be dually used as a lawn mower/weed control.

I made all the arrangements with the breeder who lived near Half Moon Bay. The kids were in elementary school then and I was working too and I didn't want to take a day off work. There were two possible weekends where I could make the long drive up and back. My husband was going on a rare out of state hunting trip with a few buddies. The breeder warned me that the weekend I chose was the same weekend as the local Pumpkin Festival and traffic would be horrendous. He advised me to come in from a northern route. I said okay we'll see you soon.

My husband left for his trip and it couldn't be soon enough. Before I left for my trip I had to make sure there was a pen ready to receive our newest "pet". We just had pipe fencing so I had to run to the home improvement store to get wire fencing and put it up before I left. That was a long hot job. Not really difficult, but I wasn't used to doing that kind of work. Finally I deemed the pen goat proof. I hitched up the horse trailer, packed up the kids and we were off.

On the drive up I thought the Pumpkin Festival thing couldn't be all that bad, so I chose to disregard the breeder's advice and went the route I thought would be shorter.

Well, it was shorter on paper. When we got to our turn off, there was a huge line of cars. It took us about three hours to get through three miles. I had no idea what a huge deal this Pumpkin Festival was. Thank goodness the kids were very good. I think they were excited about the prospect of getting a new animal so they behaved.

Finally we got through the mess and found our way to the breeder. His house was on the side of a hill and he had pens with a lot of fuzzy goats in the back. He and his wife greeted us and asked how the trip was. I had to admit that I didn't follow his advice about coming in from the north side, but I would definitely go home the way he recommended.

He showed us the goats he had available for sale. I picked one out. Turns out she was a twin. Goat breeder's wife said, "You know these are herd animals and they really do much better if they have another of their kind with them. It would be so much better for the goats if you took at least two, like her sister here."

All right, twist my arm. Obviously I have "SUCKER" across my forehead. I said okay and the deal was done. I wrote the check, he gave me their vet records and pedigrees, and loaded them into the trailer. Away we went, this time heading north to avoid the Pumpkin Festival Nightmare.

The kids and I finally got home and put the goats into their new pen, which was about 5 times bigger than their old one. We agreed to let them keep the names the breeder gave them: Clarisse and Annabelle. Now came the scary part. Waiting for hubby to come home and what his reaction would be.

As it turned out, it wasn't as bad as I had imagined. Although he hadn't snagged any deer, he did have a good time on his trip. Besides, the goats were very cute and the deed was done. Obviously the next thing they needed would be a shelter of some sort.

I made a plan on paper for a goat house that would be big enough for the two of them. Another trip to the home improvement store for lumber and supplies and the goat house was under way. I actually built it all by myself. I wasn't sure if they would really use it, and I was happy to see they went inside all the time, especially if it was raining.

I knew goats liked to climb also so we put an old stump in their pen. They played quite a bit on that so I built a set of platforms for them. We used to sit on our back patio and watch them play king of the hill.

Sadly, about three years ago, Annabelle died of unknown causes. I found her in the corner of the pen one day, barely alive. I tried to get her to walk out to a grassy spot under the eucalyptus tree where she collapsed. I held her head in my lap and tried to coax her into eating some tender grass and even their favorite treat, some grain. She refused. A few minutes later she died. My husband buried her in the far back and my son planted some kind of agave on her grave.

Clarisse seemed to miss her sister for a while but is now back to her silly old self. She likes to pretend she's showing the cow who's boss (a goat and a cow headbutting!). Otherwise she enjoys eating the grass with the sheep and tormenting her neighbor, Perry, the ram.

Oh, and the cashmere-to-cash idea? Never happened. I am not a good shearer for one thing. I would have to have more than one or two goats to even think about making the concept profitable. I do shear Clarisse every year around this time, but her wool goes straight to the dumpster.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Kneadermeier's Gift

Yesterday morning we opened the door to find this lovely gift from our cat, Kneadermeier. It's about time, too. We have a real problem with gophers. I wouldn't mind finding more of these "gifts".

Usually I try to dig down to the main tunnel of these vermin and set a trap in both directions. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. When it doesn't work several times in a row, I start to feel dumb. I feel like they are outsmarting me and that's just not right!

Our next door neighbor is something of a workaholic. He takes great pride in his lawn, which has always looked better than ours. We have commiserated together on the bain of our yards, the blasted pocket gopher. We have also celebrated together when one of us has made a kill. Last year I discovered a product that doesn't kill, but repels. It is tiny clay granules saturated with castor oil. You spread it out on your lawn over a period of time, starting from the center. Apparently the little bastards, er, I mean creatures, can't stand the castor oil, and flee the jurisdiction. After your first initial application, you only need to put it around the perimeter of your lawn, and one application lasts up to three months!

After we applied this miracle product for the first time last year, we were excited to notice that it really does work. Of course we shared our good news with the neighbor. I'm not sure why he chose not to use it, whether he had spent all his money on his on-going boat project (another story), or on-going home improvement project (another story), or what, but I'm only slightly ashamed to admit I snickered quietly to myself when all "our" gophers started popping up all over his pristine lawn.

So basically it is time to run to the home improvement store to buy more gopher repellent and spread it around. Perhaps I'll be kind enough to sprinkle some product over Dean's lawn too, since he really is the best neighbor anyone could ask for. After all, he brought us Kneadermeier.

About nine or ten years ago, Dean was a truck driver. He delivered fresh California produce to the east coast. On a return trip he stopped at a location in PA to pick up a canoe for his son to paddle around in the recharging ponds behind our homes. Apparently some time during that stop, this curious kitty jumped into the back of the open trailer. She was inadvertantly locked in the back for the three day return trip.After returning home, the truck and trailer rig were backed into the drive and the trailer was opened to remove the canoe. Next thing we know, there's a black and white kitten no one had see before running after the little kids, mewing pitifully. She seemed very hungry. We didn't have any cats at the time and all I had was dog food. I gave her some and she scarfed it down and then drank her fill.

Since then Kneadermeier has become ours. She is mostly an outdoor cat, but does like to spend time indoors, when it suits her. She came by her name because she "kneads" a lot; on a blankie, on a sofa cushion, on your stomach... I'm not sure how many of her lives she has used up, but it's at least two. One from the previous story, and the following:

Like many cats, Kneadermeier would crawl into the engine compartment of vehicles for a nap. One day my husband left for work (I was already off myself). About two blocks from home there's a commotion and the sickening thudding sound of an animal under the car. Looking in the rearview mirror he saw Kneadermeier rolling out from behind and then streaking across the street to someone's house. He stopped and attempted to coax the cat from behind this person's fence. Nothing doing. So he quickly drove back home where our daughter was getting ready for school. He picked her up and drove back to the scene of the incident.

She attempted to coax the frightened kitty from behind the fence, but Kneadermeier wouldn't budge. No one was at the home so my daughter, being the alpha female that she is, did what came naturally to her. She proceeded to rip the grapestake fencing down with her bare hands until she could reach in and grab the cat. After checking to make sure Kneadermeier was okay (she just had a few scrapes) they brought her back home. My poor husband had to change his shirt because he had gotten all sweaty from the excitement. Remember too, we live in Bakersfield, CA and the temperatures in the summer are easily 85-90 degrees by 8 am. Not a good way to start a morning. By the way, if this was your fence you came home to and found it partially ripped down, our sincerest apologies. Not to mention the statute of limitations is past.

Here's a little nicer photo of Jamie Lee and her new twins, one day old here. I guess I'll have to band the tails today or tomorrow. I usually try to do that within three days of birth. That's what the books recommend. I also used to put their tags in at the same time, but I think I'll wait just a tad longer for that. I did it one day after Ewenice's twins were born, and now one of them has a floppy ear. I also decided not to band the ram lambs anymore. I try to sell them before they turn four months old. Again, according to literature I've read the banding of the "nut sack" can wait until up to four months of age. I'll let someone else worry about that if that's what they want. My last one actually sold as a replacement ram for a small flock (lucky lamb). And some ethnic buyers prefer ram lambs to wethers (a castrated ram).


Thursday, March 22, 2007

First Blog; Jamie's Babies

Today is the first day of this blog. This may be an experiment gone totally wrong. I'm not sure yet. I just got turned on to blogs a couple of weeks ago and now I'm kind of hooked. You know how it goes, you always think, "I could do that!" Well, we'll see.

Yesterday the last of my pregnant ewes gave birth to twins. I must have just missed the blessed event. I had just gone out to feed and there she was in the barn, two babies in the straw and she still had the afterbirth stringing from her back end. We had a girl and a boy. This ewe's name is Jamie Lee, Jamie for short. She is a registered Dorset and was the Champion Dorset Breeding Ewe at the Kern County Fair for my daughter in 2004. (Thank you Ewephoric! Dorsets.)

The father of these lambs is a Dorper ram, named Perry. I named him that because last year I was going to get rid of all the sheep after that bunch of babies were born. After they were born I changed my mind. That is a womans' prerogative after all.

Eventually I will introduce you to all the animals and their stories. Meanwhile I will try to take some good photos to share. That is half the fun of this blogging business, I think.

The second picture is of a couple of curious sheep. The lamb is a two week old ram lamb that jumped on the straw bale and the other is one of Jamie's last year twin ewe lambs.

Okay, remember to be kind. I am pretty much computer illiterate so this may take a while before I get all this down, like posting the pictures and whatever.