Monday, November 28, 2011

Bring on the Party, I Got My Shoes

My mom likes to tell the story of my first pair of "big girl dress-up party shoes." Apparently they were a pair of Stride Rite white patent leather Mary Janes, kind of like these.
With her still fresh-out-of-Boston accent, she was excitedly telling a friend all about my new party shoes. How would "party shoes" sound with such an accent? Well, imagine the way Matt Damon pronounced the name of the 2006 movie he starred in, "The Departed." Or the name of the baseball stadium where the Red Sox play, Fenway Park. Or the prototypical statement often associated with Boston, "Pahk the Cah in the Hah-vud Yahd." So yes, the friend was baffled and asked my mom why I needed special shoes to go to the bathroom!

So any dress-up shoes, from then on, have always been thought of as "potty shoes." And I never imagined that I would ever again have a pair of white patent leather potty shoes. But yesterday, which just happened to be "Small Business Saturday," I went to my local bike shop to make the long-overdue purchase of new cycling shoes. The third pair I tried on fit perfectly, but I almost needed a pair of sunglasses to dampen the glare of the white patent leather trim on the toe, straps and heel cup!

I grinned to myself as I purchased them and mentally labeled them my new "potty shoes." Who knew my view of party shoe and definition of party would evolve to this?!

And it's fitting too. Most of my bike rides feature at least one happy or celebratory exclamation of "Woohoo!" There aren't many cycling days left this year, but I'm anticipating a few more during which I'll scuff up these new, shiny white beauties. Pah-ty ON!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Counting Sheep, Part III

Nearly a full year of shepherding passed before I was confronted with "the first rule of livestock farming." To put that a little differently, a full year passed before I ever heard of the "first rule of livestock farming." When you raise livestock, that first rule is simple and stark: Livestock Dies. It's not exactly like losing a beloved pet, but for me, it was not exactly not like that either.

We had this vision, you see, of growing our flock of babydoll sheep in the time-honored way: through breeding our ram, Farley, with our ewes each October, and eventually, in a few years, trading Farley with another nearby breeder to bring in some genetic diversity. By the time the first lambing season was over in Spring 2007, we had 4 ewes, two unrelated to Farley and two born to Farley's son Tupper. The two experienced ewes were a "given" for continued breeding, Agnes would be bred for the first time later in the Fall, and baby Sylvia would be kept apart from him for another year while she matured. And so the flock would grow...

Farley, doing the lip curl that indicates he's... um, interested.  
[Note: We neutered our other two new ram lambs, Roy and Todd, 
leaving them free to grow and happily graze, but not free to sire
any new lambs or challenge Farley for dominance. We also sold the
other 3 "intact" rams acquired in our original flock to prevent fighting.]

So we had a happy summer with the 7 sheep, and sure enough, when the number of daylight hours started noticeably decreasing by late September, Farley started spending a lot more time sniffing around the ewes. One morning I witnessed the mating dance between him and Lana. I have to admit that it was simultaneously fascinating and repulsive. Who knew, when I said "I Do," that I'd become a barnyard-peeping Deb? The two consenting adult sheep kept at it for a while, and I was pretty sure there had been a successful coupling. A day later, I saw Farley and Una seal the deal, and two weeks later, Agnes was bred by Farley as well.

I've always thought of this photo's caption as "Agnes Ha Ha,"
her reaction when I told her what was about to happen to her!

Even prior to all of the barnyard "activity," there was a concern we had with Farley; more specifically, a physical condition he was sporting. Farley's scrotum was huge (and that's an understatement), and hanging very low, practically dragging on the ground. He waddled when he walked, and there were several scrapes on the bottom of the scrotum from hitting rocks. When breeding was over, I had a vet come out to take a look. 

This veterinarian was a nearby guy who typically treated horses, but he told me he had experience with sheep too. It's still painful for me to tell this story. So to make it easier than relating all the ugly details, the vet injected Farley with an anesthetic to do what should have been a simple surgical repair. Unfortunately, he overdosed the drug, and Farley died within about 30 seconds. The vet calculated the dosage based on animal weight, but he did not take into enough consideration the difference between horses and sheep. I screamed, then bawled, but it was over. The vet clearly did not do it purposely, but he did truly f*#k up. He called a service to come remove Farley, and at least had the sense not to send me a bill. But Farley was gone, and we were now down to 6 sheep and no ram.

Here's Farley the day before he died. He was the center
of attention for a troop of Girl Scout Brownies that
visited us as part of a project they were working on.

A new ram came to us a month later, through a woman I'd met a year earlier in one of the online sheep discussion groups. She was downsizing her flock of babydolls to focus on her alpacas and also on her soon-to-arrive baby daughter. John and I drove 150 miles down to Gilroy, CA, where we met Kimberly B. and purchased Gus, a nearly 5 year old ram. We saw pictures of several of Gus' offspring, and they were beautiful animals. We brought Gus home, kept him separated from the rest of our sheep and the dog for 4-5 days, and then let him go free with everyone else out in the vineyard.  

Gus, December 2007

Gus was very friendly, and soon became the most popular sheep with us and our visitors, in large part because he loved to be petted and fed handfuls of grass or spare leaves of our garden crops. He never made a sound, but he did burp a lot. He never ever butted me, but he did frequently come over to rub his head on my knees.
In the barn with my buddies, Gus and Francesco

So at the end of the first full year with sheep, we were back to a population of 7: the 4 ewes, 2 wethers, and Gus the ram. Winter was now upon us, and the new year would be bringing plenty of "storms" and accompanying stories.
To be continued, for better and for worse...

Monday, November 14, 2011

Counting Sheep, Part II

This story is just crying out for a subtitle. Something like: "How I found myself as a sheep midwife" or "I don't know nothin' about birthin' no lambies!" With the acquisition of an instant flock of sheep, and two of the ewes presumed pregnant, I was feeling a little panicked. Reading those chapters in the shepherd's "bible," also known as "Storey's Guide to Raising Sheep," made me feel weak-kneed, dizzy, and slightly nauseous. I'd never seen anything born before and never expected to.

I fretted on and off all winter, helpless in the absence of experience, and nervous because I didn't know when the ewes were "due" or even if they were actually pregnant! In mid February (2007), their udders started filling with milk and it was pretty obvious. Then, one sunny Sunday morning, I looked up from the Sunday newspaper and saw a big dark red/purple bag suspended from the back end of Lana, who was calmly munching on grass in the vinerows. I ran to get the binoculars, and a minute later there was a lamb on the ground, then another.

With Lana and the newborn twins.
John and I were giddy with delight and relieved that we didn't have to do a thing! Except name them... We had discussed the idea of eating a lamb some day when we had more new lambs than we needed for grazing the vineyard. But no sooner were these two lambs up on all fours and getting their first milk from mom when I announced, "That's Roy. That's Sylvia. And we're NOT eating them." We slowly carried the twins to the barn, with Lana following behind, calling out to her babies the whole time. After observing the three of them in the barn for 3 days, we inserted ear tags, docked their tails, and injected them with their first vaccine. Who knew, when I said "I Do," that I'd be cooing over my own lambs and piercing their ears and giving them shots?! I'm so squeamish I can't even look when I get injections or have blood drawn.

With three-day old Sylvia, clad in my "lamb suit," which fits over my clothes.
So that's the first birth event under my belt. What about Ms. Una? Two weeks later, on another nice Sunday morning, I saw her straining, a sure sign that she was in labor. A short while later, the birthing "bag" appeared and through binoculars, I thought I saw a head emerge. And then, for at least 20 minutes, nothing. Uh-oh. We went outside to check on her progress, our livestock guardian puppy Francesco in tow. The lamb's head, just barely sticking out of the ewe, was covered with the birth sac and Francesco started licking the lamb's face, which started the lamb's breathing. But he was obviously stuck. I was too upset to take photos at the time, but picture the classic creature encountered by Dr. Doolittle: the PushMePullYou. Una had a head attached to her neck and another sticking out of her rear. It's funnier now than it was then!

To make a long story short, I did don long plastic gloves and lubed up to see if I could figure out any way to get the lambs front legs out. (Yeah, who knew?) Fighting panic, but soon realizing I couldn't facilitate, John called the vet, who was an hour away. John and I stood there trying to keep the ewe standing quietly and the puppy waiting calmly. A vet in her mobile clinic finally arrived; she had to push the lamb back inside the ewe and then find all his legs and pull him back out. She had to swing the lamb around by his front legs (like a lasso) to get him breathing, and she was pretty sure we were going to lose the lamb and maybe the ewe too.

After the successful intervention in the birth of Todd

But the extra-large lamb was fine, mama Una was fine, and we named the lamb Todd the BigHead Monster. Francesco probably saved the lamb's life the first time, clearing his nose and mouth to breathe. To this day, Todd is our largest sheep, and I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for him. He is the only one that lets me walk up to him and pet him, scratch his chin, and pull stickers and foxtails off his face.

Una and Todd, resting in the barn.

The lambing experience that Spring was what convinced me that "there oughta be someone" who could teach people about sheep and lambs and what to expect. As we used to say in the corporate world: Let no good idea go unpunished. But who knew that one of "the someones" would soon be me?!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Counting Sheep, Part I

It wasn't so long ago that I was afraid of most dogs, let alone real farm animals. I've never ridden a horse, and I got chased across a field by cows when my college roommate took me home for Thanksgiving in Vermont. So when my husband first brought up the subject of getting a flock of sheep to live and graze in our organic vineyard, I hemmed and hawed for a while.

From The Wizard of Oz:
Cowardly Lion: I haven't slept in weeks.
Tin Man: Why don't you try counting sheep?
Cowardly Lion: That doesn't do any good — I'm afraid of 'em.
But he played "the green card" of how much better it would be for the vineyard and the environment than running the diesel tractor/mower and the manual, noisy, gas-powered weed whackers. And way better than chemical herbicide. Besides, he reasoned, the sheep would leave natural fertilizer too! So we visited a nearby sheep ranch and I not only became smitten with the small "Babydoll" sheep (aka Olde English Babydoll Southdowns), I also fell in love with the Maremma livestock guardian dogs that lived in the pasture with the sheep.

In a month's time we found a nearby breeder with a small flock of babydolls that he was selling after he had expanded his own (human) family. And then we found a Maremma breeder who had imported a male and female from Italy a year earlier, and who had just had a litter of 7 adorable pups.

I couldn't resist the Maremma puffballs... er, puppies.

Fast-forward another month and we found ourselves with a flock of 7 sheep: 4 rams--two of which were 7 month old lambs, and 3 ewes--two of which were presumed to be pregnant and one a seven month old lamb. The owner offered us a package deal price, including delivery, that we couldn't refuse! We negotiated for the puppy to stay on the goat farm with his parents and siblings until he was a little older, and we were ready to bring him to his new home and job.

Our neighbor graciously allowed us to temporarily put the sheep out in one of their fenced-in, but unused pastures. Good thing, as we had no place to put them up at the Vineyard! We'd go over several times a day to feed, check on, and marvel at the wooly beasts. Who knew, when I said "I Do," that I would become a shepherd?! My friends and family's reactions spanned the range from amused to aghast.

7 Babydoll sheep, grazing on The Jones' hillside
Whereas just prior to the flock's arrival I was in a blissful state of "un-conscious incompetence," by the time the first week was over I was fairly overwhelmed with my certainty of "conscious incompetence." Three incidents fueled those feelings and also put me on my way to learning quickly under fire.

1. A mountain lion was spotted cruising the fence where the Jones' goats grazed in the pasture just across the road from the sheep. John sketched a rough design for a "barn," and we dashed off to the lumber yard the day before Thanksgiving to get the materials to build said barn... or more accurately, shed. We built the 8x10 barn in an afternoon, the first thing I'd ever (helped) built. We got the sheep into the barn at dusk, wrapped our newly arrived electro-net fence around it, and went to bed exhausted.

The barn in its first iteration. We herded and then secured
all 7 sheep in the barn every night for a couple of months.
2. The alpha ram, a regal beast that we named Farley, butted me hard from behind on my behind while I was (obviously) not being attentive. I learned the critical shepherd lesson #1: Never turn your back on a ram.

3. When we came out to feed and check up on the sheep one afternoon, we found the two adult rams, Farley and his son Tupper, butting the heck out of each other using their heads as "battering rams." It left no doubt in my mind where the term had originated. Over and over the two backed up, faced off, and then ran at each other, ramming their heads together until the two of them looked like their brains were spilling out of the tops of their heads. That night we did a RUSH order on two ram shields to block their forward vision--which prevented the rams from charging us or each other. 

Amateur hour; me trying to adjust the straps on Farley's shield

The fact that Tupper quickly learned how to escape from his shield is a mere detail... But having Farley in his shield removed him from the duel. Tupper stopped initiating the charges when Farley couldn't play his role. Lesson learned: Rams are aggressive toward each other when ewes go into heat, even when the rams are father and son, and even when you assumed a first year ewe wouldn't go into heat! Who knew?!

What I did know is that I had a lot to learn and that there would be a lot of "oh sh*t" moments while I learned them. I also was starting to learn that I could tell these 7 sheep apart pretty quickly, and recognize behavioral traits and which sheep hung out with which other sheep out in the pasture. And so began my journey as a shepherd.