January 1st of 2016 surprised me with a nearly perfect blue sky. Having spent weeks overwhelmed by my Season of Gray, the blue sky was the perfect antidote to my melancholy, and, in my own humble opinion, barn chores under the blue sky were the perfect was to start the new year.
First thing, I wandered out to one of the back pasture to check on a tree fall that one of my neighbors reported to me. Their tree; our fence.
It pretty much destroyed that section of fence, but it’s so big that no one is going anywhere over, around, or through it. I don’t have to worry for a while. (I told Jeremiah that we should chainsaw it in interesting ways and leave it as fence…easier than hauling it out.)
Jeremiah pulled the covers back and kissed me goodbye at about 7:30. I was still in bed, unmotivated to get up and start my Sunday.
“I put fly masks on the horses and scrubbed the trough. The stalls are clean, and the water buckets are filled. The chickens are fed. The barn cats are let out. And don’t let our cats convince you to give them second breakfast” [for those of you who haven’t met them, our house cats are basically hobbits…] “because I just fed them too.”
I rolled over to say thank you when a rooster crowed in the distance, as though he knew he’d been left out.
“Oh, right,” Jeremiah continued, “I let the chickens out too.”
Jeremiah is gone a lot for work, especially lately, but when he has time, he does a sweep of the barn before leaving so that I don’t have to worry about such things immediately. He will be gone for four days, another trip east. This one is to outfit his shoeing trailer and ride with a fellow farrier for a few days. The last trip was for three clinics. The next will be for a clinic and a number of distant consult cases and closer client stops. While he’s gone I’m here with the creatures, and the property, and my job. Everyday looks like sixty-two creatures, two barns (eight stalls), one very big chicken coop, and that’s just before I go to work…
Usually, it’s fine. I love this place and these creatures, and, I’ve said it before, there is a certain zen to cleaning stalls that I have yet to find anywhere else except maybe a yoga studio. (Like yoga! But with manure!!!)
But, if I’m telling the truth, the yoke of this place is heavy, heavier to carry alone. And there is always uncertainty in it. The skid steer is broken right now. It needs five-hundred dollars worth of repairs. And we will get it done. We always do. But my car needs tires too, and the house needs a new roof desperately. And the propane bill is coming due…and, and, and… Continue reading “I can do hard things.”→
It seems I’ve been gone for two whole weeks! Weird. And unintended.
Also weird? It’s been just over a year since I started almostfarmgirl.com. Since then, almost 200 of you (between Facebook and WordPress followers) have started following this crazy ride on the ranch, and I am so thankful to each of you. (I’m especially thankful to those of you who interact, and who I’ve gotten to know a little bit. You guys know who you are.) I just paid for another year of hosting, so here’s to the start of another year of this blogging adventure together.
To celebrate a year of blogging, I went to Costa Rica for a week.
Actually, that’s a lie.
I went to celebrate my sister’s 30th birthday.
You see, for Christmas this year, my mom gave me and my sister a trip to Costa Rica; she had earned the trips in her independent consultant work with Norwex, a company that specializing in environmentally friendly cleaning products. (Just FYI, their dusting mitt is awesome, and I have never found a better way to clean windows and mirrors than with their enviro cloth and polishing cloth.) She chose to give the incentive trips to my sister and I, partly because Chas’s 30th fell just on the other side of the trip.
So we traded this
Between seventy-five and ninety degree temperatures in Costa Rica. Between 20 degrees and negative twelve degrees back home.
I did feel bad leaving Jeremiah with the ranch, but I loved seeing the rainforest, and volcanos and the ocean.
I was playing in the surf wearing SPF Vampire to protect against the tropical sun…
And my poor husband was shoveling the barn out of nearly a foot of snow.
Guys, I actually zip-lined through the Rainforest. I saw Scarlet Macaws, and a Toucan, and Iguanas. And I barely got sunburned at all, which is kind of a miracle.
Chas and I toured an organic coffee plantation. (Seriously, don’t take your morning cup of coffee for granted; it’s loads of work to get it in your cup.) We spent five days in Central America on the Pacific Coast and somehow managed the escape all but the very last harsh winter days of the season.
We spent our last night at the Norwex Rainforest Gala, before packing up and heading back to the states.
And, one delayed flight, one missed flight, one redirection to Chicago, one lost bag, and a three-hour car ride later, we made it home safe and sound…and completely exhausted.
I was ready to be back home.
Because as awesome as that trip was, there’s nothing quite like watching my ponies and alpacas grazing from my kitchen window.
Thanks again for a great first year, everybody! And, as always, thanks so much for reading.
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.
The snow falling outside my office window in the Heights probably means many things to many people. For me, it’s a gently falling reminder that old man winter beat us back to the ranch. We still aren’t moved back out there.
Just a few days ago, temperatures hovered between 55-60 degrees in our little corner of the planet. Now we’re in the 20s, complete with two days of snow. Illinois is like that, almost specializing in drastic weather changes that come in the night.
For the past few weeks, we’ve been expecting the cold. Our winter supply of hay–minus one flatbed load that we still need to pick up–is safely tucked away, either in barns or under tarps. Our grain room, likewise, is nearly full.
And, yet, the cold hit yesterday, and I found myself running around like mad trying to tie up loose ends.
I ran from store to store. At the first, I picked up a heated base for my chicken water, a sinking heater for my horse trough (the one from last year is toast), and cracked corn.
Then to another store for winter gloves that stand a chance against ranch life.
Back at the ranch, I noticed a shivering alpaca, just one, so I dug the winter coats out of the feed room
Eventually, several of our animals will be in coats, but I prefer to wait to put them on until they act cold. The more they regulate their own temperatures without help, the better.
We also dug out heat lamps, and, before leaving for the night, we shut our old men into their stall with their very own heat lamp.
Today, we will head out again, buying posts at Lowe’s for a pony shelter that needs to go in yesterday and winter clothes for Jeremiah. (Do you believe he went through all of last winter without a heavy winter coat? Said that if he bought one, winter won.)
And so begins another season out at the ranch. Hopefully, the big snows hold off for just a bit longer, and we can get moved back out before the roads get icy. We shall see.
Also, since I’m new at this one, does anyone want to share some friendly advice for keeping chickens nice and cozy? I have two that have bald(ish) backs from getting picked on, and I’m afraid of frostbite.
Between my husband’s insane shoeing schedule, and a week-long church conference that he attends every year, I’ve been on my own a lot lately. (I start a lot of posts kind of like this, don’t I?) This is fairly normal for us. Summers stay very busy in a farrier’s world, and most of his clientele are between 3 and 7 hours away. And when Jeremiah is away, I am called up to bat.
The ranch–especially right now, running it from a half an hour away–usually takes up most of both of our time. Our lives are a juggling act, split between maintenance and renovations…and the other things that make the money to pay for the former. When it’s only one of us, for more than a day or so, it starts to take up all of your time. (I am so behind at work…this week, while Jeremiah is home for a few days, I play catch up.)
He was gone for several days last week, back for part of the fourth, gone again, home for half a day on the 6th, left for his conference on the 7th, and just got back into town yesterday. In that time, I’ve been running ragged. Bookended by two emergency vet visits, this has been a week (+) that I won’t soon forget, and there are parts of it I kind of wish I could…
This year I celebrated our nation’s independence waiting on the vet. The littlest alpaca (that should be the name of a children’s book) caught her eyelid on something unsavory…and ripped it. I’ll be honest, I have a photo of what that looked like, but I’ll spare you.
I call the vet; the vet put us on a list of emergency calls and said he’d text when he got to the farm. I went to the house to wait. He came and treated the alpaca by himself, forgetting to text, and left. I proceed to wait on him for most of the rest of the afternoon, with Jeremiah taking over for me that evening when I head out to get ready for the cookout we were planning with my family. Jeremiah waits until I text the vet to ask about his progress…and he tells me that he had finished hours earlier. My busy husband was thrilled to have waited around all evening for nothing.
Day two of my week alone. I named my favorite chicken. Sweet and Cute and Beautiful, it took me longer for her than the others.
The day starts with a little headache that slowly progresses into a migraine. I am completely useless by the end of the day and very thankful that Jeremiah’s little sister is so capable of taking care of things at the ranch. (I’m not sure how well things would have fared out there without her help this week.)
Jeremiah’s little sister takes morning chores to help me out (still headachy, but way better than the night before). I get a phone call that one of my chickens is missing. Little miss Renegade got out the night before. Coon. Dead.
I never in a million years thought I would get teary-eyed over the death of a chicken, but, when I found her feathers (etc) in the woods, I had to work very hard to not cry. I spent the rest of the afternoon securing the chicken stall more thoroughly, all the while kicking myself for not being more careful earlier.
Came home to these:
Because I’m married to a guy who understands that his wife WILL cry over a dead chicken.
The evening was salvaged. Gabby and Katie did chores for me. I had dinner with colleagues from the University. (And discovered that I really like croquet.) After dinner and drinks and good conversation, I was feeling far better.
(Also, I brought them fresh eggs…because apparently I’m that person now.)
Spent 40 minutes chasing this little bugger around when she got out. (Stall is, in fact, more secure, but she was a tricksy hobbitses.)
Possibly my least favorite chicken, she is the least friendly and, of course, the most difficult bird to catch that I own. Gabby and I eventually got her. She has a very impolite name now…
Morning goes off with out a hitch. My guy comes home. We head out for an easy evening of chores before relaxing…
I head off to feed the horses, separating Vin, who gets picked on by the others.
And he slices himself open on the gate.
One emergency vet visit–different vet this time, who was there right away and very helpful–and twenty stitches later…
We finally make it off the farm at 8:30.
Last night, I had bad dreams about injured horses and dead chickens.
So there’s the latest in the tales of Eagle Ridge Ranch. (My husband has taken to calling it calamity acres…) The bad and the ugly are evident…
1. The injured alpaca is doing very well. She got her eyelid, but not her eye. No compromised vision.
2. I’m married to someone who sends me flowers from several states away because my chicken died.
3. I found a horse vet yesterday who came right away and was exceedingly helpful.
4. Despite the injury, Vin, who is an off-the-track rescue, proved to me just how far he’s come since moving in with us last October. When Jeremiah first went to bring him home, he reared and threw fits just walking down the lane. He didn’t want to load. For several months, he ran away every time we walked into the pasture, scared of almost everyone and everything. Last night, he let me catch him despite the gaping wound in his side. He stood calmly away from his herd. He left the pasture without a second thought. I was nearly in tears (happy ones this time) at how far he has come since he came home. It reinforced my belief that he and I might just have a future together.
Watch out lower level show world! Vinny and I will be coming for you!
(Yes, he’s a little underweight yet; we’re working on it.)
In addition to the twenty-eight llamas and alpacas at our place, Jeremiah shears roughly a dozen llamas and alpacas for other people. Some of them are better than others. A few stand as well as our own. Several fuss a bit. (I have a few who do that as well.) And a few of them full on freak during shearing. Thanks to one of those “freak out” llamas, I’m sporting several black and blue bruises and a now fading rope burn.
This weekend, I travelled to Northern Illinois with Jeremiah to shear three guard llamas. These particular llamas belong to wonderful sheep ranchers who had employed him last year for the same task. The owners are proactive about their livestock. They take excellent care of their sheep. And, up until my visit, they were largely misinformed about their llamas. In my opinion, their misinformation was perpetuated by the animals’ breeder, either unintentionally due to their own ignorance or intentionally to ensure easy sales.
For those of you who may not know, llamas are often “employed” to guard other livestock. They regularly guard sheep, goats, alpacas, etc, against natural predators. Being strongly bonded herd animals, they can be exceptionally good at this work because they bond with other types of livestock and will consider them to be their herd. And llamas protect their herd. Llamas are especially noted for preventing coyotes from attacking lambs and kids in sheep and goat herds.
As often as not, people who get guard llamas know almost nothing about llamas. They depend on the people who they’re buying the llamas from, or the internet, to fill in sizable knowledge gaps. And as often as not, they do not get accurate information.
When we pulled up to the sheep barn, I noticed that only two of the llamas were haltered. The owners explained how they caught the two llamas laying the halters across the llamas’ food and fastened them while the llamas ate. The third could not be caught.
“So, you can’t approach them?”
“Well, you know, they’re guards. So they aren’t supposed to be too friendly, and we’re not supposed to approach them…”
That right there…
The idea that guard llamas must, for some reason or another, be wild and crazy (or at least distant and unmanageable) is one of the most commonly perpetuated myths in the industry. The idea behind it is that you don’t want your guards to bond to you. They have to bond with the sheep, goats, etc. As such, breeders often slate poorly trained or badly behaved animals for guard duty. These animals often cannot be caught or handled without great difficultly. They are practically impossible to shear. You can’t trim their feet. You can’t vet them.
Oh, and sometimes they throw me into a fence while I’m trying to help shear them. And I don’t like that.
Let me be clear. Llamas, even sheep and goat guards, should be manageable. Training a llama to accept basic care and to lead will not magically remove its instinct to protect its herd, nor will such training magically bond your animal to you rather than its herd.
“Well, we were told not to handle them much by the breeder, and I didn’t see anything on the internet to contradict that…”
She had a point. Most of the information out there about llama guards says that they should be largely left alone. So lets bust some internet myths.
Myth 1: Guard llamas have to be mean to be effective.
Truth: Guard llamas have to bond to your herd to be effective. They have to be alert to be effective. They have to be adults to be effective. They should not be mean or unmanageable. They definitely shouldn’t perceive you as a threat to their herd.
Myth 2: All llamas make good guards.
Truth: Some llamas are not meant to be guards. If you’re in search of a guard, look for a fully grown gelding or female. Intact males should not guard other livestock; they will often try to breed them and could hurt them. Former breeding males can also be a poor choice (for the same reason that currently intact males are).
Young animals (under two) should not be considered as guards. Until that age, they are not fully grown. They need to be big enough and confident enough to do the job you’re asking of them. When they’re young, they should be protected by the herd, not the other way around, and it’s unfair to ask babies to protect babies.
Myth 3: If you want a llama to guard, you shouldn’t have other llamas around.
Truth: Llamas will guard together, but it’s probably best if you don’t buy a strongly bonded pair (such as mother and daughter) to guard together.
Myth 4: You don’t have to mess with a guard llama; just let them be.
Truth: This one falls in line with the “they should be mean” myth; “they should be mean,” but “don’t worry. You don’t need to mess with them.” However, just like all other livestock, they need vet care and worming. Toenails need to be trimmed. You have to shear them at least once a year, sometimes more often. “Mean” guard llamas (and they are usually not truly mean so much as untrained) often have their basic care neglected because no one can get near them.
Guard llamas can be fantastic. They will do a job for you, fending for your flocks of sheep or goats, sometimes even giving their own lives to defend your livestock against predators. In return, they should be given quality care, and they should be trained so that care can be given without stressing out you or the animal.
Final note: One last thing people need to realize. Llamas will protect their herd from predators. Unless you socialize them to know the difference, they will not be able to tell the difference between coyotes and the family dog. With proper socialization and training, the two species can and will happily co-exist. Without it, dogs who the llamas perceive as threatening will be treated as such. (And most guard size llamas are more than capable of killing Fluffy….) Yet another reason to socialize and train your llamas.
Oh – And for those of you who might be wondering, the sheep ranchers with the three llamas were very excited to learn that their llamas didn’t have to be difficult. They want to send them to me one at a time this summer for some basic obedience lessons.
EDIT: Another llama mama out there (who has a lot of experience with herd guards) pointed out that even bonded pairs sometimes do well as guards. It really just depends on the pair. I should clarify. Bonded or not, the llamas need to be interested in your herd. If they’re interested, they will guard. If they care more about each other, they might not guard well.
Can I just start by saying how blessed I am to have such an amazing husband? I know, some of you are probably sick of hearing about him, but yesterday, when I came up to him while he was in the middle of one of his projects to tell him that a few of my llamas were acting like they were getting pretty hot, he dropped everything he was doing and came with me to the barn immediately to shear a few more. No complaints. No questions asked.
Every year, around this time, we usher in the beginning of summer by shearing. For the past three years or so, Jeremiah has done our shearing himself. (While we were dating, he made the mistake of proclaiming that “I bet I could do that,” after watching someone else shear. Turns out, he could. And he was better at it than the original guy. Guess who got drafted?)
So, why do you shear?
You might not know that llamas and alpacas are wool bearing animals. Though not as famous for that job as sheep, they have a high quality, hypoallergenic wool. Unlike sheep wool, there is no lanolin to complicate the whole wool-to-product process. It’s lovely stuff.
However, in my area of the world, it isn’t just about harvesting a useful animal product, it’s about keeping my llamas safe and happy. Lamas and alpacas are Andean animals from Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, and Peru. While we would probably think of those places as hot, the truth is that, in the mountain ranges, it’s pretty temperate to chilly. Their wool protects them from the chill in those regions. It does a pretty good job of protecting against our winters. It can be a death sentence throughout our summers. We shear our llamas so they don’t overheat AND to harvest their lovely wool. It’s a very symbiotic relationship.
They just…stand there?
I’m not sure why, but most people seem to be under the impression that shearing is a knock down, drag out between us and the llamas. It’s really not. While some animals are more difficult than other–one particularly petulant little monster did manage to kick Jeremiah pretty good this year–most realize that having no wool feels far better than having gobs of it, and they will stand accordingly. (I’ve noticed their behavior for shearing is even better when it’s hot on shearing day.) Even our alpacas, who some people in the industry insist on laying out like sheep, stand very well to be shorn. I’ve heard horror stories of shearers who, for example, tie the animals’ feet and drop them to the ground. In my experience, that sort of procedure is traumatizing and unnecessary. Also, those shearers are the ones most likely to kill an animal by accidentally breaking it’s neck.
How do you decide who to shear first?
I have had several people ask me this year how I decide who to shear first and how I pick their haircuts. (We stretch shearing out over a week or so. Not everyone is shorn on the same day.) It’s fairly commonsense. If an animal looks hot, or has a risk factor (age, especially heavy wool, etc), he or she is shorn early. Older animals, however, end up keeping more of their wool (especially on the neck) because wool growth slows down as they age. I want to make sure they will be able to keep warm over the winter.
What do you do with all of that wool?
With twenty-eight wool-bearing camelids on the ranch, that’s a pretty fair question. Some of the wool is sold; some is given away. Some, especially the wool that isn’t as nice, is thrown out. (There are uses for that wool, such as felting or garden mulch, but I don’t really have the time to deal with it.)
Some, we use to take funny pictures.
Are any of you wondering about llama wool or shearing? (Or llamas in general?) I would love to field questions! Shoot!