A little bit of kindness and a tiny chicken

Let me be crystal clear: I didn’t NEED any more chickens.  Cluckingham Palace is currently home to 11 laying chickens, 1 lavender turkey hen, and, of course, Arthur of Camelot.  I currently collect more eggs than I can personally use, and I’ve been pretty open about the fact that eggs cost more to raise than to buy.

I know all of these things, but I have a mild case of chicken math disorder…which is basically a psychological disorder, and every Spring I seem to manage to fill up a brooder.  There are some very reasonable arguments for doing so.  (Chickens lay fewer eggs as they age.  If you free-range, it is understood that you will lose an occasional hen to predators, etc.)  But, when you get right down to it,  I know that the real reason I keep buying chickens is that I like having chickens hanging around and that itty-bitty chicks are basically the cutest things ever in the history of all time; all of the other reasons are ancillary. Continue reading “A little bit of kindness and a tiny chicken”

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It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

DSC_2496NI know.  I know.  That phrase usually belongs to Christmas, and I love Christmas, but whoever first coined that phrase and applied it to Christmastime obviously didn’t know the joys of springtime on a ranch.

Out here in the Midwest, March is when the Earth starts to wake from her long, restless, winter sleep, but, like me before my first cup of coffee, she moves slowly, and yawning, meanders through the month in a bit of a cloud covered haze.  March comes with sprinklings of hope and signs of warmth.  But it also comes with snows and drops from 70 degrees one day to 25 degrees the next.  March is the messenger that Spring is coming, but March is not Spring.

But April?  In April, things come alive again.  For about two weeks, I have been soaking in blue skies and green grass.  Reveling in the new flowers, chirping birds, buzzing bees.  I find that there is something deeply intoxicating about the color green, and I’ve spent hours and hours aimlessly wandering our fields to soak in the spirits of the season.

Spring is when the ranch wakes up again.

My first trip to the ranch was in the Spring, over 15 years ago now.  I recently stumbled across that story, one originally written for a Master’s level class in creative nonfiction.  If you’ve ever wondered how on earth I ended up on this ranch, this is it.  That day was when my love affair with the ranch started; thus far, with ten years on my marriage to Jeremiah, it’s been the most enduring love of my life.

It doesn’t hurt that it all started one beautiful Spring day… Continue reading “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”

Farm Fresh or Not: The Chickens Behind the Eggs

 

Let’s be honest.  You don’t need to follow this blog very long to realize that, on this sixty (plus or minus) animal, 100 acre ranch, the chickens basically rule the roost.

They free-range.

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They steal grain from the llamas and horses. They hijack hay feeders to use as nesting boxes.

Each one has her own little personality and habits. Continue reading “Farm Fresh or Not: The Chickens Behind the Eggs”

Dear Hoomans of the Hill

My bipedal servants seem to think that I owe you an apology.

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I think they’re wrong…but they do refill the hay nets on demand, and I believe that they have access to grain, even though they don’t give me any of it, so I do what I can to stay in their good graces when it isn’t too inconvenient.

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I, of course, am Slash.  High King of the Hill, Guardian of Camelot, and First Pony of the Alpacalypse.

I assume you’ve heard of me?  (Of course you have.  It was silly of me to even ask, but I do try to stay humble.)

And you, I believe, are referred to by the bipeds a “Neigh Bores.”  (They worry about us making noise, but you have “Neigh” right there in your name.)  I gather that you are other bipeds who are not indentured to any equines, camelids, or chooks.  That’s sad for you, but I won’t rub it in, as I imagine it is a source of despair and humiliation in your little hooman lives.  (Seriously, what do you even do with your time?  If a hooman wakes up in the morning without a horse to feed, does it even exist?)

Oh, right, apology…

(How does one even do this?) Continue reading “Dear Hoomans of the Hill”

The Trouble with Turkeys

Do you guys remember my three little turkey peeps from last year?  The ones we rescued from the feed store when it became clear that they were quickly destined to be dinner?

We lost one little peep (my favorite) to his birth defect.  We lost another to a predator.

But one of the little peeps survived.

And he isn’t so little anymore.

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Arthur

Meet Arthur of Camelot. Continue reading “The Trouble with Turkeys”

But aren’t llamas mean???

 

It’s almost like there’s a script, a list of exact lines shared with the rest of the world, but not with me.

Every.  Single.  Time.  I say I have llamas.

“Oh…Aren’t they mean?” Continue reading “But aren’t llamas mean???”

Season of Gray

 

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The woods are lovely dark and deep

December 27th, and it’s gray.  The Midwest has a way of graying out during the month of November and staying gray until February.  Days like today, it looks mostly the same outside at 8:00 am that it does at 4:00 in the afternoon.

I’ve been feeling as gray as today’s sky.  I think we all have times like this, times when each day is just a push from morning to night, an effort to get from the start of your day to the finish in one piece.   If I’m being completely honest, 2015 has been one of the most difficult years on record for me.  I’ve felt in chaos more than I’ve felt safe, and more days have proved a struggle than I care to admit.   It’s easy to get lost in that, forget that everything with a beginning eventually has an end.

But, right now, I’m just in the middle of my chaos, and I’m feeling a little lost. Continue reading “Season of Gray”

Introducing the critters – Mystic’s Minnett Mann

A post by a fellow blogger reminded me of the days when we used to use the llamas as therapy animals. I wrote about it a long time ago and posted it when I had just a handful of followers. Here it is again. I hope you enjoy.

Almost Farmgirl

Some of you have expressed interest in learning about the critters, so I decided to start with the one who, for me, really started all of this crazy.  Minnett Mann, my first gelding, is, and always has been, my sweet boy.  I wrote the following during graduate school, about five years ago.

Minnett-Man cutie

Just a Minnett

I’ve never been good at goodbyes, and, in August of 2005, when I stood at the gate of the Illinois State Fair cattle ring, waiting to show my favorite llama for what was supposed to be the last time, it felt far too much like a goodbye. He was four, considered an “adult male,” and was misbehaving. I was nineteen, barely an adult myself, and trying very hard not to cry. I knew that I would never walk into the show ring with Minnett again. I was going away for three months, and he would…

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The Strangest Wake-Up Call.

You know that moment just between waking and sleeping? The one where your head is heavy on your pillow and you’re tucked under a pile of blankets that have just become the perfect amount of warm? Out at the ranch, that moment is usually accompanied by perfect silence. No city noises. No cars. Maybe the occasional owl.

A few days ago, that moment came to me in all its glory around 12:40pm. We had gone to bed later than usual already, and so when that moment was spoiled by the cats beating their furious little paws against the bedroom door, I was more than a little irritated. I got up and walked towards the hallway. Opening the door, I expected one or more cats to be standing on the other side looking guilty. I found nothing. Perfect silence. Perfect stillness.

So I went back to bed, but, upon laying back down I heard it again, a rhythmic sound I couldn’t quite place. Maybe the hedgehogs in their wheel? No. That wasn’t it. But the sound was something familiar and out of context. I sat up in bed, trying to isolate the noise. Trying to place it.

Outside the window, a horse screamed in the distance, a panicked whinny that cut through the cold air like a knife.

I froze. Maybe I heard wrong?

But then I heard the whinny again only a moment later.

And suddenly, it clicked. Hoof beats.

Oh God.

Jeremiah sat up in bed.

“What’s wrong?”

“Hoof beats. The horses are screaming.”

And with that, he climbed out of bed and pulled on his barn clothes as quick as a whip. I watched him grab his Glock–God forbid he need it, but you never can tell on a farm–before heading outside to check things out.

For a very brief moment, I considered staying inside. Most of the time, when something is awry, he checks it out on his own, proclaims an all clear, and crawls back under the covers. He usually didn’t need me.

And a horse screamed again. This wasn’t most of the time.

I threw off the covers and, faster than I would have thought possible, I pulled on a sweatshirt and jeans. Boots came on on the way out the door.

Worst case scenarios flashed through my mind rapid fire.  Barn fires. Predators. Oh my God, what if the Mountain Lion we saw earlier this year was back? What if one of the horses was caught in a fence or had broken a limb?

I wanted to run out the door and towards the back barn–the alpacas weren’t alarming, so I knew the problem, whatever it was, was likely isolated to the horses—but our snow had melted that day and refroze with the sunset. The driveway and lane were solid sheets of ice, as smooth as glass in many places. I would be no good sprawled out on the ice with a concussion, so I opened the breezeway door and resigned myself to walking…quickly.

As I rounded the garden beside the house, I heard yet another unexpected sound. A nicker.

Glancing left, I saw the a most glorious sight. Horses.

Three of our horses starred back at me. They looked surprised, but uninjured. A year ago, I might have tried to walk over to them, but I have learned. The last thing I wanted was for them to spook and run off again, this time down the road. I would come back with food. Halters. Besides, I could only account for three of the four full-sized horses on property. Anything could have happened to their companion.

I started walking down the lane, feeling less panicked than before but still uneasy. It was hard to walk with out slipping, but I made it to the horse barn in one piece.

Jeremiah was inside gathering a bucket of corn and a halter.

“Where’s Candi?” I asked.

“In the field being distracted with food.”

“Is she ok?”

“She’s fine. She was standing at the edge of the field screaming. Apparently everyone else jumped the pile of wood at the edge of the barn to take off, and she was afraid to follow.”

I let out a breath that I didn’t realize I had been holding.

“We are so lucky.” I responded.

Jeremiah stopped mid-stride and looked at me, perplexed.

“No. We’re really not. We’re missing all the others.”

It was my turn to be confused.

“They’re all in the front yard…”

“You didn’t think to lead with that?”

“There’s nearly four thousand pounds of horse standing in the front yard. I didn’t think you could have missed them.”

Apparently, he had been about to call the cops and alert them that three horses were loose within a half a mile of a major highway. (Guys, this could have been so bad.) Still, our crisis wasn’t completely over. We still needed to get them back in their field without spooking them and without anyone, human or equine, injuring themselves on the ice.

We walked down the slick lane towards the llama barn. Jeremiah opened the doors and turned on the lights. Then he and I stood in the lane, and he shook his bucket of corn.

Apparently, this was what they had been waiting for.

Hoof beats like thunder roared out of the front yard. Jeremiah, content that they would come, walked into the open barn and began pouring piles of grain onto the floor.

I stood in the lane, thinking that I would make sure they went where they were supposed to. I watched three horses, with a combined weight of around 3500 lbs and one of them a retired racing thoroughbred, careen down an ice covered driveway with all the unbridled power of tornado. I swear to you, in that moment time slowed down.

I watched, standing in the lane, initially worried that one of them would fall and hurt themselves.  I considered my powerlessness, and they picked up more speed.

Then I realized that I had three half-spooked horses coming directly towards me. I was standing on an ice slick. They were running on an ice slick. They weren’t slowing down.

I stepped to the side of the lane. No good. I was still right in their path. I really didn’t want to end this adventure by being body-slammed by my warmblood, but I had no where to go but down a hill to my left. If I leapt sideways down that hill, which I considered, I would tumble directly into a hedge of thorn bushes. I would be briar rabbit; that would hurt, but probably not as much as being trampled.

For about one millisecond, I debated crossing the lane. The barn side of the lane was clearer. I could get out of the way of the horses without being bramble fodder. I almost ran across. Almost. Suddenly I understood how a squirrel feels in their last moments.

Fortunately, as my thundering herd ran past, I found I was just far enough out of the way to avoid the crashing hooves.

I continued to watch as all three horses turned and ran into the barn. I shut the doors behind them, nearly walking in before remembering that we were two halters short. I turned walked down to the horse barn to fetched halters for my geldings.

Here’s what happened when I left:

Vinny and Cinco immediately noticed the large bale of alfalfa and the piles of corn.

Morana, a former bottle-fed foal with an oral fixation, noticed something else.

Jeremiah turned toward the horses, ready to halter Morana and lead her back to her barn.

She was where he had left her, only now his Glock, which he had placed on the hay bale, was held in her mouth, gansta style and pointed right at him.

In those moments, he was apparently thinking that being shot by his own horse with his own gun would be an exceptionally stupid way to die, but that he would more or less be ok with an end that epic. Also, he wondered if Morana had noticed the limp he was sporting after a particularly nasty horse kick, more pronounced since he fell on the ice on his way out, and planned to put him down. (”It’s been a good run buddy, but you’ve been too lame for too long.”)

And my husband, cool in the face of every crisis he has ever faced, including, apparently, being held at gunpoint by his mare, simply shook the bucket of corn again.

She dropped the gun on the bale and nosed into the bucket. Calmly, he haltered her and led her out of the barn. She placidly followed, content with her corn and completely forgetting her recent homicidal episode.

For my part, I watched him walk out of the barn with Morana, and I haltered Cinco. When he came back, he grabbed Vinny, and we walked down to the horse barn with our last two escapees.

We released them into their field, secured the gate, and shuffled down the icy lane back to the house.

I spoke first as we walked back.

“I’m so glad everyone is ok. We are so lucky.”

“Yeah.” He paused, almost unsure of what to say next…

I waited.

”That could have been so much worse.” Another pause. “Also, Morana just tried to shoot me with my own gun.”

So…what was your strangest wake-up call?

The good with the bad and into the New Year

The sky is blue fading black. Snow blankets the ground. Not deep snow, but enough to cover the mud and the muck and the browned out remnants of fall and summer. It’s unmolested, still a perfect shimmering white reflecting the brightest stars, the ones that manage to shine out between the wispy clouds. The light of the moon is mirrored by the snow covered earth, giving the entire outdoors an other-earthly feel. It’s stunning beyond the ability of pictures to capture.

… And it’s so damn cold your boogers will freeze right on your face.

Weather in the Midwest is notoriously unstable. Lately, we’ve had swings of 40 degrees or so several times a week. Most of the animals are handling it fairly well, but the older among them are having some difficultly with the extremes. Couple that with a string of bad luck, and it’s been a weird couple of weeks seemingly living in reaction to the realities of the ranch.

Since just before Christmas, I’ve had three sick llamas (two with infections and one with an upset tummy), one lame llama (who stood up when her foot was asleep and pulled a muscle), two lame horses (stone bruising due to the quick deep freeze), two lame cats, a lacerated dog requiring stitches, and an injured husband.  I just came inside from the barn a few moments ago, sick myself with a nasty cough, after dealing with a llama who somehow managed to choke on crumbled grain…(Don’t ask; I have no idea.)

It was while I was walking toward the barn, mostly preoccupied with helping the choking animal Jeremiah had called to report, that I noticed the wild and untamable winter beauty of the place. It was on the way back from the other barn, with thirty mile an hour winds and a temperature of seven degrees, that I realized, pretty or not, the cold will cut through you like a knife and freeze exposed skin with a chill that somehow burns. (And your boogers, as mentioned, it will also freeze your boogers.)

This ranch is a lot like the cold, beautiful and harsh, sometimes in almost equal measure.

Llamas are usually a pretty hearty bunch, but our herd is aging. Nearly all of them are north of ten years old; several are flirting with twenty. In the past couple of weeks, mostly right around the holidays, we’ve had three vet visits to deal with the issues of various critters (one cat, one dog, one llama).

We sometimes jokingly refer to the ranch as the llama nursing home. It’s one of those jokes that’s only funny because it’s true. This summer, we had a bout of strange behavior that led both Jeremiah and I to believe that several animals were heading downhill, that they wouldn’t be with us much longer. We watched them closely and changed their diet. We put in a superbly expensive water filtration system (that eliminated the heavy metals that were disturbingly prevalent in the well). And they bounced back, but we continue to watch.

I don’t think it’s the trials themselves that make ranch life harsh, or the work. I am no stranger to hard work, nor is my husband. I think it’s the knowledge that whatever you do, out here you will eventually lose the fight. After all, as often as not, the fight is against time itself.

It’s a common saying amongst ranch people: “If you’re gunna have livestock, you’re gunna have deadstock.” My cousin and uncle who run a dairy farm and have lost far too many calves this year have muttered that adage the same way I do when one of our critters gets sick, the way I did last year when we lost two alpacas to the cold and the damp. I’ve been saying it since I was fourteen years old.

But the saying is just a saying when you watch animals you care about get sick. Last week, the three sick llamas were three of my favorites. Even though I know I will lose animals, that these creatures won’t be around forever, I was ready to raze hell for those three. Fortunately, all but one has fully recovered, and I think the last will be all better in a few days. Still, for a little while there, I felt like Molly Weasley taking on Bellatrix Lastrange in the last Harry Potter book, screaming “Not my daughter, you bitch!” Except in my case I wasn’t facing a Death Eater, just time and illness, screaming “Not my pets, you bitch!”

I know for a lot of you it probably seems strange to be so attached to such creatures; even I would have found myself less upset by everything if it had only been one, but three of my favorite animals in as many days was rough even by my standards.

However, for now, all is well. The llamas and alpacas and ponies are tucked in snug in their stalls with blankets and heat lamps as necessary. The barn doors and stall doors are shut tight against the wind and the chill. They have more hay to munch than they probably need for the night. The chickens are likewise warm in their coop, the barn cats in their tack room, even the feral kitty is tucked into the hayloft. The big horses in the back field are fluffed up with their winter coats (all four of them resembling equine Yetis). Jeremiah and I are in the house with the house pets, the dogs curled up in front of the hearth. Most everyone is well, or on the way to being well.

I know that this place with always have the bitter mixed with the sweet, that it will likely always be beautiful and harsh in equal measure, but I also know that it’s worth it. The land is worth it, the house is worth it, and, more than anything else, the animals are worth every bit of heartbreak that I will ever feel on their behalf.

So it is with that thought that I look forward, into next year, into the next stage of things.

In a place like this, in a life like mine, you must learn to take the bad with the good. But guys? There is so much good to go around.

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The bitty babies!
The bitty babies!

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