Breeding Season Part 1: LLAMAS - A Post by Luke

I've said it before but I'll say it again: Llamas are weird.

And horny teenage llamas? Flat out ridiculous.

We got our boy llama, Leo, earlier this summer, and he was perfect. Healthy, easy going (for llamas this means not totally insane), and very protective of the herd.

Then I guess his hormones kicked in and all he wanted to do was get with the sheep.

Luckily the sheep were way faster than him. And Leo has the coordination of a baby giraffe tumbling around a cement mixer, so they weren't in too much danger. But still...that's some messed up stuff going on out there. And I had to watch it everyday as I was trying to eat my breakfast.

Our options were either get him snipped or find him a girlfriend. Getting him castrated would cost like 250 bucks, and female llamas were going for around 300.

So why put him through an operation when for a few extra bucks we could get him some company? And then...baby llamas, right? Win/win.

Anna found a female llama for sale nearby. We brought her home and our boys named her Donnie, short for Donatella. Because we're still letting our kids name the animals, and they're really into Ninja Turtles. (It was that or Michaelanga or Raphaela. So Donnie it is).

 

Donnie in her new home!

Donnie in her new home!

Donnie's a beaut. An all black female, fully mature. Raised on a farm of only female llamas. So an amazon llama of sorts. Leo would be her first encounter with a male of her species.

He made a horrible first impression.

When she arrived he was chasing the sheep around the tall grass like a deranged Muppet. It wasn't going well for him, and also he looked terrible doing it.

With that going on in the background we showed Donnie around her new place.

Now, this is the fourth llama we've brought to the property and she was by far the most docile. She causally checked out the feeder, the shelter, and the fences. Occasionally she paused to nibble apple slices from our hands. A real lady.

Then Leo noticed her.

He was panting, out of breath from another failed attempt at hybridization. But when he looked over at her he just froze.

You could actually see cartoon hearts pop out his eyeballs as he stood there blinking his long goofy white eyelashes in disbelief.

Then he strutted over to Donnie and started making this weird mating call, which can only be described as “pathetically horny.”

Think Beavis and Butthead chuckling, mix in a little Seth Rogen, release helium, and you've got the mating call of the adolescent llama. It's bonkers.

The courtship....

 

 

He started making that noise, then never stopped. It just became ambiance.

I'd walk out to the shop and I'd hear llamas mating. I'd go check for eggs and I'd hear llamas mating. I'd be working on the house and I'd hear llamas mating.

Those llamas did it 24/7 for about two and half months.

Then one day I saw Donnie do something I'd never seen a llama do before. She spit at him.

Now I understand they're camelids and this is what they do, but none of our llamas had ever spit before. Plus I was surprised by the sheer force of it.

Leo tried going for it again and she just spun her neck around like a cobra and gave him three sharp blasts to the face. He got the message and backed off.

Back at the house I told Anna what just happened.

“I think Donnie's pregnant.” I said.

“Why do you say that?” she asked.

“She's done messing around.”

“Maybe she's just tired of him.”

“Maybe she is. But I'm going to mark it on the calendar anyway.”

And that was that. For a while.

Then our sheep went into heat again and Leo went back to being his old cross-breeding self.

So we called the vet. He said he'd make a house call to come fix our llama.

“What do you need?” I asked over the phone.

“Oh, you know, we should be good,” he said. “...if you've got an extension cord that will reach, that would be nice. A bucket of warm water, maybe a couple of bales of hay. That should do it.”

So with those basics of farm surgery lined up, we got right too it.

I pinned Leo to the side of the shelter and we gave him a shot of tranquilizer. (By the way, this is my main job on the farm – animal tackler. I take great pride in it. Lately I've been able to do some sweet, mid-air takeouts of even our flightiest sheep. They used to elude me, but not anymore. Now I'm inside their heads. Game over, ungulates.)

Hug-restraining a 200 pound llama as it starts going unconscious is a pretty goofy experience. Within moments you switch from grappling a frightened animal to snuggling a couch sized teddy bear.

Finally Leo went completely slack and we rested him on the bedding of the shelter. The vet propped up Leo's hind quarters and got to work.

Anna was holding his tail and I was cradling his head so he wouldn't choke while under. I couldn't really see what was going on.

“Do you really want to?” Anna asked.

“Well, kind of. Yeah.”

“We could switch. You could hold his tail.”

I didn't tell her at the time, but I had this fear of him violently ejecting feces while unconscious, so I declined. Besides, if I craned my neck a bit I could see everything the vet was doing.

This wasn't our first time sterilizing animals. Last spring Anna and I elastrated three lambs. (Elastration is when you snap a band around an animals testes. Then after sufficient time/blood loss its balls “painlessly” fall off. That's what the propaganda states, anyway.)

I hated elastrating. Watching those little dudes trying to shake off a rubber band they couldn't get to was awful. I was wincing and walking funny after each procedure.

But this time it was all surgical. Poke, slit, clamp, tie, snip - done.

Afterward, Anna had to snuggle with Leo to keep his head up while he came around from the drugs. I brought her a coffee and she spent about an hour cradling four feet of groggy llama neck. It was the most one-on-one time she's had with our llama since he arrived here. It was good for farm morale.

 A little one-on-one time with Leo in Post-op!

 A little one-on-one time with Leo in Post-op!

So there you go. We picked up another llama but in the end still had to get our guy castrated.

But that's classic farm planning for you: chose the option you think is best, only to end up having to pay for the other thing anyway once your first plan fails.

Anyway, if Donnie is preggers we should be seeing a baby llama sometime around August 2018. Llamas mate constantly and then gestate for 11 months.

Sheep, on the other hand, need only a few seconds of togetherness and then gestate for 5 months.

They're up next.

Muddy the Ram curling his lip ready for mating (the flehmen response)

Muddy the Ram curling his lip ready for mating (the flehmen response)

Lamb Day - June 25th

We cannot wait to celebrate all the lambs with all of you!  Come drop in for an hour or more, bring your knitting/crochet or spinning. Purchase some farm fresh food, and meet the lambs!

We will be selling beverages, pulled pork with our home-grown pasture raised pork, homemade pie (with seasonal fruit), farm fresh eggs, our printed table linens, and knitting project bags.

We hope to see many of you there!

Sponsorsheep June 2017

Tomorrow, Monday June 12th at 6pm central time we will be dropping the final six sponsorsheep of this season.  Here is a small profile below of the sheep available. If you want to read all the details of the program you can read about it here

Brown Shetland Ewe Lamb

This beautiful girl was born on June 9, 2017 to one of our original shetland mama's Nora. She is one of two, her twin is a ram lamb.  She is already so full of energy, following her mama around the pasture and playing with her brother, her fleece is a lovely brown shade - referred to as the Moorit colour in shetland fleece colours.

White Faced Shetland Ewe Lamb

This stunning girl was born on June 9, 2017 to one of our original shetland mamas Cairo. She is one of two, her twin is a ram lamb.  Her markings are so much like her mama, as is her behaviour. She is timid, and doesn't like to stray to far from her family, but she loves fresh blades of grass, and is always seeking out fresh pasture. I suspect her fleece colouring will be similar to that of her mothers, a fawn colourway.

Merino Ram Lamb

This little guy was born on May 26th and he is a fun loving ram, who is growing like crazy. He is a cotswald/merino cross sheep and will be our breeding ram next year.

Brown Merino Wether Lamb

This boy was born on May 26th and he is a shy little wether, but he loves jumping and playing with his brother. We decided to castrate him, so he will only provide beautiful fleece for us next year. His chocolate brown fleece is soft and beautiful, he is a cotswald/merino cross.

Black/White Shetland Ewe Lamb

This beautiful girl was the last lamb to be born on the farm, she was born on June 11, 2017 to one of our original shetland mamas Shirley. She is one of two, her twin is a ewe lamb. She is very friendly and already loves to play around with her sister. Her white markings will most likely fade with time, and it will be interesting to see what her fleece will become.

Black Shetland Ewe Lamb

This little girl was born on June 11, 2017 to one of our original shetland mamas Shirley. She is one of two, her twin is a ewe lamb.  Her fleece is very dark black, silky soft and long!  It will change over the year, but I have a feeling it will be very beautiful. 

 

 

 

First Sponsorsheep Drop - May 7

Hopefully you all have had a chance to read about the sponsorsheep program, if not check out all the details here

I am very excited that we will be 'dropping' our first 6 sheep as part of this program tomorrow, Sunday May 7 at 12noon (central time). We will be releasing 6 sheep - 4 adult merinos and the two newest merino lambs.  We will be doing one more sponsorsheep drop after all the babies are born, we expect at least 5 more lambs but could be more (keep your fingers crossed for more twins)! 

Here is the description of the first 6 that are dropping. For the various levels of sponsorsheep please go the sponsorsheep page.

This little girl was the first baby lamb born on the farm May 1, 2017! She came out and bonded with her mama immediately and within minutes was trying to stand up! She is a merino/cotswald cross with a beautiful chocolate brown fleece and the biggest ears!

This little girl was the first baby lamb born on the farm May 1, 2017! She came out and bonded with her mama immediately and within minutes was trying to stand up! She is a merino/cotswald cross with a beautiful chocolate brown fleece and the biggest ears!

This little guy was born on May 1, 2017 and he is feisty, born to a merino/cotswald cross mama and merino dad. He has a very dark fleece with the most beautiful white face markings.

This little guy was born on May 1, 2017 and he is feisty, born to a merino/cotswald cross mama and merino dad. He has a very dark fleece with the most beautiful white face markings.

This guy is a 5 year old wether (castrated male) and he is a snuggler! He lets the boys hug him, he loves chin scratches and will give me kisses every time I come into the pen! He is a merino/Cotswold/BFL cross and he has the most beautiful silky ringlets, all you spinners out there will love his fleece! He is a catch!

This Merino Ram is 6 years old, a strong yet gentle ram. He loves chin scratches and always greets me in the morning.  He is a cross of Merino/Cotswold/tunis. And has beautiful silvery cinnamon brown fleece with a long staple.

This Merino Ram is 6 years old, a strong yet gentle ram. He loves chin scratches and always greets me in the morning.  He is a cross of Merino/Cotswold/tunis. And has beautiful silvery cinnamon brown fleece with a long staple.

She is 4 years old merino/Cotswold cross. She is the silent strong type. She is gentle, yet let's me know that she likes her space!  She has a beautiful fine fleece.

She is 4 years old merino/Cotswold cross. She is the silent strong type. She is gentle, yet let's me know that she likes her space!  She has a beautiful fine fleece.

This girl just celebrated her 4th birthday, she is a proven mother and just gave birth to twins!  She has a beautiful light coloured fine fleece. 

This girl just celebrated her 4th birthday, she is a proven mother and just gave birth to twins!  She has a beautiful light coloured fine fleece. 

Naturally Dyed Eggs

After posting some pictures on Instagram of our adventures in naturally dyeing easter eggs a few of you asked for details on how we did it.  I did not in anyway come up with this, and a quick google search will come up with tonnes of options, and ideas!  But here is what we did:

** As a safety precaution: I did all of the boiling hot dye stuff. It wasn't until the dyes had cooled down and I put them in jars that my boys (aged 4&6) really did anything. I trust you all know your own kids, and can determine how well they will do with boiling hot liquids**

First we made our dye baths:

For every dye, mix the following in a pot on the stove. (one pot for each DIFFERENT colour/item):

1.5 litres of water

3 Tbls white vinegar

Dye stuff 

I am not very specific when it comes to how much dye stuff I use for each colour, I pretty much eye-ball it, but here is a bit of a guideline.

1/2 head of red cabbage chopped up - 3 cups (blue)

3 beets chopped  (red/pink)

4 Tbls turmeric (yellow)

onion skins from 5 onions  (just the papery skin parts)  (brown)

1 cup coffee ground (brown)

Turn the stove to medium-high heat and bring items to a boil then simmer.  Allow dyes to simmer for at least 20 minutes before dyeing eggs.

You are ready to dye!  With my kids we like to dye hard boiled eggs - I find they last longer in our house!  You do not need to boil them ahead of time, as they will cook in the dye bath.

Place eggs in the dye of your choice and simmer for at least 20 minutes, the longer they stay in the dye bath the darker the colour.

Once eggs have boiled for a minimum of 20 minutes strain food from the dye pots and pour dyes into glass jars or bowls - my favourite are the wide mouth mason jars because little hands have an easier time manoeuvring spoons in and out!

Mix and Match colours and explore your own combinations. Here are some of our favourites.

Gold - Turmeric dye bath for 30 minutes.

Rust - onion skin dye bath for 20 minutes

Dark Blue - Cabbage dye bath for 30 minutes then soak overnight

Chartreuse - turmeric dye bath for 30 min then cabbage bath for 5 minutes

light pink - beets dye bath for 20 minutes

copper - coffee dye bath for 30 min then soak in turmeric for 10

 

There are so many options, and the longer you keep eggs in the dye baths the richer the colours!

 

 

 

 

Dakota Spinning Mill - A post by Anna

A few weeks ago we took a little road trip to Fargo, North Dakota to pick up our first batch of homegrown yarn! The boys were super excited, as road trips always mean pizza on the bed, hotel pools and ice machines! This kind of road-trip was equally as exciting for me because - well YARN!

 

 I had to search quite a while for a place to process my fibre,  there are no mills in Manitoba or Saskatchewan, and shipping fees to other Provinces can be quite exorbitant. Thankfully, I was able to send the fleece down south in the summer and a few months later I recieved the call that it was ready! We arrived at the  Dakota Fiber Mill and were greeted by Chris, owner of the mill and one of the greatest fibre folk I have ever met, and her 7+ foot tall camel - staring out at us around the barn!

camel2.jpg

 

I have never seen a camel this close, and we were all awe-struck. He was so gentle, and quiet, and it seemed as though his big huge eyes were all knowing. I seriously think Luke is trolling kijiji and local livestock pages for listings of camels. Chris brushes this guy once a year, and she said it takes about a week to fully brush him. She then spins his fibre with a blend of wool and/or alpaca. I bought of skein of this yarn and it's beautiful!

 

Chris has a mixed flock and herd of other fibre animals including alpacas, angora goats, jacob sheep, cotswald, and angora bunnies! All her animals are friendly and you can tell they are well taken care of and produce beautiful fibre.

 

Chris gave us a tour of her wool mill and also the small retail shop attached. It was such an informative, lovely tour, and helped me understand wool processing on a new level. Chris answered all of our questions, and indulged the boys as they asked her all about every little thing in the mill - mostly the parrot that lives in the mill and totally captivated my boys!

yarn on the spinner

yarn on the spinner

I cannot take credit for the quality of this yarn - as the fleece was grown while the sheep still lived at their first home - the farm of my good friends and shepherdess mentors Margaret and Linda.  But having this first batch of fleeces spun into yarn is giving me a good idea of what to expect with my growing little flock. We have sent some of this yarn to the Kickstarter recipients that supported our fundraiser last year, and the rest of it will become available for sale in Spring 2017.

fleece drying after being washed

fleece drying after being washed

As a long-time knitter and owner of a local yarn store for 6 years, I had never before visited a spinning mill.  I found the tour and experience invaluable to really connecting me to what is involved in the process of 'sheep to shawl' I strongly urge any of you that have not had this experience to find a local wool mill and go for a tour.

 

And for those of you who are in Manitoba and Saskatchewan and wish that you had a mill to visit, hang tight, because I am planning to open a wool mill! I wasn't going to say anything on the blog until it was officially going to happen. But I think I would love the feedback, comments, suggestions, and encouragement from all of you, as it's a huge undertaking and I need all the moral support I can get!

Long Way Yarn!

Long Way Yarn!

We are hoping that the mill will be open late 2017/early 2018, but we are still in some early planning stages.  I believe that this is such a crucial step in creating a sustainable, local and environmentally sustainable industry. So much of the fleece from Manitoba sheep farmers is shipped to other parts of the world where it is cleaned/carded/manufactured and then shipped back to canada as yarn, insulation, rugs and textiles.  How amazing would it be to change that produce our own yarn in our own community! 

 

I will share more details with all of you that are following along in the next few months, but in the meantime thanks for your excitement and support of this journey!  I'll leave you with one more camel picture - because CAMEL!

Training Day

Note to self: Farming requires a lot of equipment.

Somehow we didn't get that memo.

Recently we needed to corral our sheep. Corralling sheep is difficult when you don't have a corral.

Or sheep dogs. Or technical know-how.

Or anything remotely helpful, really.

But we did have 4 acres of penned in space and my inherently flawed idea that I could just run them down.

This was the plan:

First, I'd mosey up all sneaky-like. Then I'd sprint toward the herd and fling myself onto the nearest sheep.

Then Anna could run over with her vet-to-go kit, administer a gargle of anti-snail mouthwash, and give it a shot of meds.

Release sheep, high five, repeat.

Sure, launching myself at them would probably scare the crap out of them and scatter the flock. But they're sheep. What doesn't scare them?

Besides, if they bolted we'd just lure them back with oats. They always come back for oats. So as long as I managed to snag one each time we could just repeat this process until they were all vaccinated.

Anyway, that was the theory.

Here are some shots from the first 2.7 seconds of this attempt:

Total fail.

Turns out sheep are as untrusting of rapidly approaching threatening figures as they are quick. Who knew?

So we gave up and re-grouped around the internet. Luckily for us our neighbour (who also has sheep) forwarded us this video:

 

 

This was pretty helpful.

I mean, just look at this champ. Who's his BFF? Buzz Lightyear?

Only a person with total self-confidence leaves the house dressed like that. So listen up, this guy's got something to say.

All you have to do is note your pressure zones, keep fluid, and provide avenues of escape so your sheep will choose to go where you want them to go. Basic animal psychology.

Seriously, take another look. This is like the Ted Talks of sheparding.

Anna absorbed all this information...none of it really stuck for me.

What can I say? I guess I'll always be from the “Crazed Luchadore” school of sheep herding.

But I had my chance.

Heading back to the pasture, I screwed together a maze of temporary fencing using whatever we had on hand.

Screwing together temporary crap always kills me.

I hate making clap-trap constructs. Oh, it kills me. Grabbing an unmeasured length of 2x4 and anchoring it to the side of something barely standing with whatever screws I have on hand? ...shoot me now.

But these animals are fighting off parasites, right? So buck up and get the job done.

So there we are. Back at the pasture. Funnel-fencing up. Our goal: lead them into the shelter and lock it down.

Pretty much my role was just to hide around the corner, trying not to look like the guy who had chased them around the field like a psycho.

So there I crouched. Gripping my sheet of plywood, ready to spring.

Every once in a while I poked my head around the shack for a look.

“I'm doing it!” Anna shouted, lurching back and forth, maneuvering the sheep.

“You're doing it!” I agreed.

“Shut up! You're scaring them!”

“I'm not doing anything!”

Shut it!

The sheep saw me and tensed.

“I got them! I got them!” I said, stepping out from behind the shack, moving back and forth like that human Pixar guy from the video.

“What are you doing?” Anna asked.

“I'm helping.”

“You're not helping!”

“I'm helping! I...oh shit...”

The sheep started to panic and break up.

I ducked behind the shack and tucked into a ball.

I guess it wasn't necessary for me to tuck into a ball. I was completely out of sight. But maybe animals sense auras or something. In the moment I thought if I totally submitted maybe they'd come back. What can I say? You gotta commit.

“I'm using drawing pressure!” Anna shouted. “Now I'm using driving pressure!...It's working!”

I could hear them clomping and bounding. When sheep choose a direction to go, they go. And they were definitely going toward the shack.

A moment later I heard them all clomping into the shelter.

“I got them! I got them!” Anna shouted.

That was my cue. I grabbed the sheet of plywood and ran around the front.

Anna was blocking the entrance, the sheep were in. I slapped the plywood into place and screwed it down. Then I flopped over to help.

“Who's next?” I asked.

We had already vaccinated a number of them. (Randomly).

A while before this I managed to grab a few. Back when I had their trust. This minor victory is what gave me the false hope I could jump them all.

That time I kind of just drop tackled them. It worked, but it was an awkward scene. Two hundred pound me flopping down onto a fifty pound sheep...and then getting dragging around in circles across the dung-covered hay like a poorly rigged Super Dave Osborne prop.

Also, since that attempt the temperature had dropped to surface-of-Mars levels. And stayed there. A couple weeks of minus twenty to mid minus thirties. No time to mess around.

Anyway, this time we did it right. Got them into the shack, flipped them onto their haunches one by one and finished the job. All gargled, all vaccinated.

...all good? I sure hope so.

I removed the plywood from the front of the shack and the flock bounded out. I watched as they took a rip through the snow. Stepping out into that wind made the minus thirty five feel like minus a hundred.

But there was something in that moment. The dull winter sky with it's foggy dot of a sun hanging just above the horizon. The bare, dead clumps of vegetation poking up through the snow covered prairie. These animals with their huge coats and bare legs pounding through it all. And my wife and I watching them, squinting out from wraps of clothing, trying to figure them out.

You're going to laugh...but it made me think that if it really came down to it we could survive an ice age.

If anything it's good practice.

Come on, we're doing it! Even Mama Llama is bouncing back. I mean, she just pulled through three solid weeks of cold-as-it-ever-gets temperatures. And she's looking great. Well, not great. But still chewing! Standing!...Not dead!

Instead of heading back in, we lingered a bit.

Anna walked out and directed the flock. Got them to move in a clump just by backing away and stepping in, moving side to side when she needed to. It was crazy how quickly they responded to her. And I was in plain view and they weren't pissed!

We could do it, we could survive an ice age. Humanity pulled it off once before, right? I know we could make it.

I mean...

...as long as we had pre-mixed vet supplies.

...and internet tutorials.

...and probably a bunch of other stuff.

Crap. I should be making a list.

 

Book Review: Haynes Sheep Manual - A post by Luke

[Because I've never raised livestock before, I've picked up every book that the library has on raising sheep, I guess I leave them lying around a lot and apparently this one really stood out to Luke] 

Like all Haynes manuals, this one is based on a complete tear down and rebuild.

Like all Haynes manuals, this one is based on a complete tear down and rebuild.

Wow.

I consider myself an avid reader of odd ideas committed to text, but after taking a flip through this book I'm left a little dazed.

It's as if the guy who wrote Codex Seraphinianus sobered up and decided to illustrate a couple hundred pages about sheep.

What is this thing? Abstract horror/self-satire/oral history/cautionary tale?

The sections breeze through a wide variety of topics.

Do you really want to be a Shepard? is followed up with Teeth, toes, teats – and testicles!

Then Sourcing semen goes almost directly into Show ring etiquette.

Throughout the narrative it's painfully obvious the United Kingdom is at the forefront of sheep nomenclature. You can tell by the amount of folksy sounding ailments.

“Pulpy Kidney” and “Daft Lamb Disease” are my personal favourites. After that (in no particular order), you've got: Swayback, Scrapie, Bluetongue, Scald, Shelly Hoof, Keds, Strike, Bloat, and Orf.

Orf is basically lamb-to-human herpes.

I don't want to get Orf. It looks gross. Even worse, I don't ever want to have to explain how I got it.

Then there's the (I guess?) practical advice, like: “A gappy hedge provides easy escape routes.”

Yeah. We've got like 10,000 km of open Canadian Shield between us and Thunder Bay. If all I've got is a “gappy hedge” preventing my sheep from completing the missing portion of Terry Fox's Ontario run, I've got problems.

A lot of really messed up stuff in this book gets presented as just totally normal. They skin a dead lamb and sew it's warm hide onto another lamb with what looks like baling twine. That's how to deal with abandonment.

I guess for this to work you'd also have to have a dead lamb around to use as a skin donor. (So I wonder...is the question more like “Which one should we use?”) And...um...baling twine? You're telling me nobody had even a tackle box with some fishing line on hand?

And it doesn't even look like the guy who suited up this little creature for the picture did a good job of trimming the ends. The poor thing looks like a lamb football.

Then there's the section on castration. Or more specifically – elastration. That's the preferred method of the modern era. Just snap a rubber band around the day-old ram's junk and wait for its testicles to blacken and “painlessly” fall off.

And yes, with this process too, the Brits got it covered. The recommended tool for the job is the “Richey Nipper.”

Now, (if I may say so myself), so far I've dealt with a good amount of animal death remarkably well. But genital dismemberment? Damn!

 

Also, does anyone else find it alarming that Haynes is the publication house for this manual?

What's the first thing you do when you get a crappy car? Buy a Haynes manual. And then what happens? The immediate and steady nosedive of your vehicle's condition.

But let's push that aside for the moment. Because you know what? I do appreciate the honesty (and randomness) of this book.

Lambing season is this spring. We're about to get elbow deep in sheep (pg. 109 for reference). So here you go - that's what that looks like. (They recommend practising on a cardboard box strapped to a bale. With a dead lamb inside. Really?!! Again?!!)

Yes, sheep are adorable. But what you gotta do for them is fucking disgusting.

And if you do it for long enough, obviously you'll get to a point where you have no qualms posing lambs for pictures of stuff that literally happened in “The Silence of the Lambs.” Then selling those photos to the company that made a fortune off people thinking they can keep K-Cars on the road past 200,000 kilometres.

I'll leave you with this cheerful nugget:

“I simply don't understand why anyone would want to keep sheep...it seems to me that they either have rotting feet, maggots in unmentionable places, do everything they can to escape or just drop dead for no apparent reason.”

That quote is from the husband of the woman who wrote the forward. The sentiment is immediately confirmed as truth by leaders in the industry.

Sweet! So here we go. I can only hope these things hold together better than our old '94 Mazda Protege.

 

 

Llama Trauma - a post by Luke

Llama Trauma

***Trigger Warning - there is a lot going on in this post, animal death, animal miscarriage, graphic depiction***

I have no idea what's going on.

We get animals, I build stuff. If it works – great. If it doesn't – I react. Chase it down, figure it out. Ask around. Google it. Build something new.

It's really not that hard. You've just got to be willing to fuck up and be able to work a bit to set it right.

Our baby llama died today. Liver flukes. Nasty stuff. I watched the country vet do an autopsy. Every section of organ he carved looked like raisin bread, all spotted and bored out by worms.

That little llama looked much smaller dead. Somehow it was not even the size of a large dog. He was curled up on the kid's toboggan, on the slope beside our house. Right where Anna left him after pulling him out from the pasture. She said the way the mama llama looked at her when she removed him made her cry.

That mama llama. There was all that business of chasing her down, building a higher fence. We thought she had settled in. And she did, but there was always something else...

Llamas are hard to read. They've got a very different physical vocabulary. Other animals are more obvious.

Chickens are cautious but trusting, high-strung but curious. And they move in a way that presents all that.

Pigs are just tubby human dogs. They have no agenda, no poker face. They feel and they want and they express and that's about it.

But llamas, I don't know. It's confusing. They've got their own cues, all of which are alien. Ears back and a stare down means, “Get out of my space.” A neck arch and three sharp clicks means, “Stay right there. I'm going to fuck you up.”

Those are the only two phrases I've learned.

There's more going on than that.

About a week ago Anna found a stillborn llama fetus in the sheep shelter.

We had no idea she was pregnant. She produced it at half term and left it in the middle of the hut. When Anna found it, the mama must have long since given up on it. There was no chance of it surviving.

Back in the human world, I got this news while driving home. Everything was situation normal. Then I heard a bunch of pings on my phone. So I pulled over, swiped the screen, and immediately I caught: “...definitely a dead fetus...” and “...I'm freaking out...”

Fuck Mondays.

I got home, parked the car, and got in the door. Then, over top of the kids as they rushed to hug me, I asked my wife,

“OK...what?”

Long story short: Llamas have no cycle, they only ovulate during copulation. (Now you know: Llamas possess the world's worst form of casual encounter birth control).

I guess on her last farm our llama was in a pen with a male llama in the week or so after she gave birth. That's all it took. Boom.

Five months later (llamas carry for eleven and a half months), we're in our driveway looking down at this could-have-been entity curled up in our wheelbarrow, still inside its bag of waters.

Was it the stress of moving? Was it the exertion of escape? Was it the extra burden of nursing while pregnant?

Probably all of the above and something else as well. I don't know.

We talked about it for a bit. Then during a low moment of us just looking down at the wheelbarrow, I said to Anna,

“He kind of looks like Scooby Doo.”

She hit me, but laughed.

“Ah, Luke. Come on...”
“He does. Look at him. All brown. That long neck. Floppy ears...”

We giggled, and had a moment of feeling sad for him, but really there was nothing to be done. So we moved on. At least now, we figured, the mama llama had a chance of settling in.

Then out of nowhere her other baby died.

So, vet visit. Autopsy. Liver flukes. Big problem. There's a good chance the whole herd is infected.

But the sheep are looking good. They'll need some shots and an oral wash of something, but the vet is really positive about them.

Mama llama, not so much.

The way he was weighing it out in his head, taking his time choosing his words, told me something serious was up.

“Well, there could be a lot going on with her...” he started. Then he just laid it all out.

“Could be cancer, kidney failure. Organs are taxed. Might be battling infection. She's lost a baby and she's been nursing. Her cria's dead because it didn't have the fat stores she's got. It had worms...so she's definitely got them too. Really, at the weight she's at I don't see her making it through the winter. No.”

We all nodded. Then looked over to where she was out with the sheep.

Mama Llama. Loping, leering. Grazing with and protecting our little herd. Snow white and mysterious. Probably can't save her.

We walked the vet back to his truck. By now the sun had gone down and the kids needed dinner. Also there was this llama carcass to deal with before any coyotes showed up.

So I started to make a big fire, then thought...weird. I used to have this thing about bonfires. I hated it when people chucked garbage, you know – chip bags, beer cans, paper plates into the fire. Sure, that stuff just crumples and folds and ultimately disappears...but I've always thought there was something fundamentally wrong about that. Disrespectful.

To humanity in general, what's more sacred than a fire? Nothing, right? So treat it like that. It's not a Garburator.

Yet after our chicken slaughter I dumped buckets of organ slop in there. Then I tipped out pails of heads and feet. Then Anna and I pulled up chairs and we sat close together, drinking beer and feeling exhausted after a long and weird day.

So what changed? Why am I so OK with dumping all these organs and animal waste bits in there?

Well I guess because it's not waste. It was life. It was for something. It's not a paper plate or a beer can or a chip bag. It was - for some thing, at some time, on some level - the centre of everything.

So I made a big fire and placed what was left of the baby llama in there. Then I poked it around and had a few thoughts about it. Then I went inside and helped the kids get fed.

After dinner we listened to Christmas carols and trimmed the tree. The kids were being hilarious. Our home was beautiful. I looked out the back windows and saw the the burning carcass of a baby llama on the bonfire and thought that was totally normal.

We flipped the calendar on the wall. December, 2016.

 

Such is life. 

Chickens of Destiny - a Post by Luke

CHICKENS OF DESTINY

Right now there are 20 billion chickens on planet Earth. 50 billion are raised annually. (Look it up). 17 of them live here.

They are named:

Peck. Pollen. Nicolas Jack. Not Nicolas Jack. No. Alone. Bubblegum Head. Chocolate Chip. Poo Head. BB-8. C-3PO. Adventure Chicken. Clone of Nud 1. Clone of Nud 2. Clone of Nud 3. Clone of Nud 4.

That in order of dominance.

Then there's Blackie, our Black Copper Maran rooster.

Intense

Intense

Blackie is so unbelievably bad-ass, every time I look at him I hear Sleep's Dragonaut start up in my head. He's my #1 chicken. Normally we don't keep roosters but he's just too damn good looking to kill. You get a pass, Blackie! I realize that's so not fair.

Peck and Pollen are the sisters in charge. Peck is at the top of the pecking order, Pollen a close second. When the crown of responsibility weighs heavy on Peck's comb, Pollen steps up to give her a break. Pollen is the Raul Castro to Peck's Fidel.

Peck and Pollen. Always first, ever vigilant.

Peck and Pollen. Always first, ever vigilant.

In infancy they lost a sister, Nugget. My nieces buried her in a tearful ceremony that involved songs and the careful placement of a hand painted cardboard tombstone. Our boys just blinked and moved on.

The “Nicolas Jacks” as we call them – Nicolas Jack, Not Nicolas Jack, No, Alone, and Bubblegum Head – sort of look like grouse and lay blue eggs.

Nicolas Jack. Not Nicolas Jack.

Nicolas Jack. Not Nicolas Jack.

These are the ones that can fly, but don't. In the past I've been harsh on them for squandering this gift. But these birds just keep pounding out the eggs, so I've since reserved criticism. Here are their deals:

Alone always ends up alone, then panics.

No once got stuck on the roof of our house.

Nicolas Jack and Not Nicolas Jack are fully interchangeable.

Bubblegum Head has such an overgrown comb it looks like a wad of chewing gum got stuck to her face.

That's the Nicolas Jacks.

Chocolate Chip and Poo Head are Blue Marans. We got them with Blackie.

Poo Head

Poo Head

Both are gentle birds. They're dove-like and have extremely dark eyes. I think it's because of those pupils the kids named one of them Chocolate Chip. Poo Head has a smear of copper on her head, so they named her Poo Head. Any day now they should be laying burgundy eggs. Sweet!

BB-8, C-3PO, and Adventure Chicken are all Barred Rocks. We got them about the time the kids watched The Force Awakens, thus the names. 

A Barred Rock hen. Kind of got that 80s acid-wash denim look

A Barred Rock hen. Kind of got that 80s acid-wash denim look

They're the bad girls of the crew. Mostly they're found kicking back with Blackie like a trio of gum-popping Rockabilly groupies.

Clones of Nud 1-4 are the yetis, the Light Brahmas. Light Brahmas are mysterious. They claim to be from Shanghai, but along the way they got crossed with Indian birds. Then they spent a good 80 years as North America's #1 dual purpose chicken (up until the Great Depression and the onset of factory farming).

Physically they're very odd. They have plumage on their legs, their neck feathers move like shifting mandalas, and they grow to an enormous size.  

Light Brahma hen with hypno-neck

Light Brahma hen with hypno-neck

This spring we got a batch of Brahma chicks. Friends of our were visiting at the time, and one of their boys named a chick “Nud.” It promptly died in the brooder. However, our kids claim these four Brahmas are identical to that departed chick their friend named, so Clones of Nud 1-4 it is.

That's the crew.

We've integrated new birds into our flock a couple of times now. People have told us that's a hard thing to do, but I have to ask...why? We've had zero problems. Maybe the old ones chase the new ones ten feet across the grass or something. That's the level of aggression we're talking about here. These aren't Komodo Dragons. Integrating new chickens is about as difficult as organizing shoes on a rack. Makes me wonder what's going on elsewhere.

This year we had one real stand-out. It was a Barred Rock we called “Independent Hen.” (Actually the kids named her R2-D2. But we discouraged that, because at some point you just have to reign in the hype machine).

Independent Hen didn't play games. She could care less about pecking order. If she wanted to eat something, she ate it. If she wanted to sleep on the top roost, she slept there.

She was wonderfully oblivious to social norms. And with each transgression, each step over the imaginary line, the other birds reared back and looked at Peck to lay down the law.

Finally Peck was like, “OK...you called my bluff. And fuck you guys for putting me in charge.”

The result was total liberation. Independent Hen exploded the whole pecking order. She achieved Chicken World Peace. This was the dawning of the age of Aquarius.

Then she got blown away in a thunderstorm.

That time I cut my thumb open on the chicken tractor and accidentally dropped a blood soaked bird into the pen? That guy survived. The chicken we lost that day was Independent Hen. (Well, her and another random broiler. Crap...it does sound like we lose a lot of birds. It's not that bad, I swear.)

The hail came on so fast all the layers could do was bolt for the trees and try to hang on. In the aftermath there were fucked up birds returning from all corners of the property. By the end of the day all were accounted for, except Independent Hen.

“Well,” I said, “That's a bummer.”

“Yeah,” Anna agreed, “...there was something special about that one.”

You have to understand – the intelligence of this bird was phenomenal. She could figure her way out of mazes (the other chickens are always getting baffled by the fencing outside their coop). She could anticipate food drops. She established her own nest away from the coop. And then there was her refusal to cower to authority.

Of all the chickens...why did we have to lose Independent Hen!

“We could have bred that one!” I whined. “Honestly...what if she was a mutant? Independent Hen might have altered the course of her species. But she's gone now, so...”

Things back-slid in the coop. Pecking order returned. I watched the window of destiny close for these creatures.

It's like we're in a mirror universe now, I thought, dumping out another round of feed. How long will they have to wait before they get another chance to move up the evolutionary ladder?

That was way back in the spring.

Then so much happened. We finished the pasture fencing, and moved the pigs in there for a time. Then llama drama hit. Around mid summer we butchered our pigs. Then our broilers matured and we butchered them too. Then finally we welcomed our starter flock of sheep. Success! It was a long, long busy couple of months.

To celebrate we had a family BBQ. That morning we opened the pop-hole to the coop and locked the chickens in their run. They're kind of annoying when guests are around eating. Always swarming, pecking, begging...it kills the picnic vibe. So we thought we'd keep them in there until everyone was done.

That afternoon as I was starting up the grill, a cousin of mine shouted,

“Hey Luke! One of your chickens got out!”

I looked over and saw a Barred Rock poking around at the feet of our guests. So I walked over and scooped it up.

Maybe it found a gap in the fence or something, I thought. I was about to drop it in the chicken run, but when I got there I froze.

Two Barred Rocks were already inside. This was the third.

“Holy shit!” I shouted. “What the fuck!?!”

At that point she burst out of my hands and flapped to the ground.

“Independent Hen?! No fucking way!”

(Yes I was directly addressing a chicken as if it understood English).

I looked back to where I found her. She must have strolled out from the bush. I tried to pick her up again but now she wasn't letting me. So I ducked into the garage, cupped a handful of feed, dumped it in front of her and ran off to tell Anna and the kids the news.

“Guys! Guys! Guess who's back?” I shouted.

“What? Who?”

“Independent Hen!”

“Shut the front door!”

“You gotta see this!”

We all ran back to the coop. Independent Hen was there poking around, getting reacquainted with the place.

“Unbelievable!”

“Impossible!”

“How long ago was that storm?”

We thought for a moment. There was something to pin it on – it was just before we left to visit Anna's family. Over six weeks ago.

“Six weeks! Are you kidding me?” Anna shouted, “That chicken's been on its own for a month and half? How?”

Sounds impossible, but it's true.

I have so many questions:

How did she survive?

What was she up to?

Was somebody fucking with us? (I think somebody was fucking with us).

Who was fucking with us? (...nobody was fucking with us).

Mind: Blown.

I have no answers. I'm just glad she's back. Because now our super chicken breeding program can begin in the spring of 2017.

Independent Hen (originally R2-D2), has been re-named Adventure Chicken.

What she was up to, and how she managed to survived on her own in our coyote infested forest/marsh for six weeks with no coop or food supply will forever be a mystery. That part of the story is hers, and hers alone.

But get this: Adventure has again re-set the power structure. Also, weirdly enough, she's in control of the rooster.

Sure, Blackie still jumps everything with a vent. But around Adventure he bobs and waits for her to give the OK. Then they stroll around the property like a couple of freakin' newlyweds. Has this ever happened before?

So to the billions of chickens worldwide, I say to you – hold strong. A new day is dawning.

Adventure & Blackie Forever

Adventure & Blackie Forever

Pattern Book Review - Flotsam & Jetsam by Ash Alberg

One of the first fibre-folk I met when we moved to Manitoba was Ash Alberg, you may also recognize them by their beautiful line of naturally dyed yarn - Sunflower Knit! I knew that Iiked Ash immediately and I admired the enthusiasm and passion for the local Manitoba Fibre Scene that exuded from Ash!

So I was very excited with the newest pattern book Flotsam & Jetsam: 15 knits inspired by ocean-bed debris was released! I went to the release party, and picked up a signed copy of the book, and admired all the beautiful samples from the book, then I took the book home and it has sat eagerly waiting to be read on my bookshelf. Well now that 'most' of the urgent farm chores are done, I decided to sit down with some coffee and finally crack the cover of this beautiful book!

hot coffee, knitting book and new yarn

hot coffee, knitting book and new yarn

I have some beautiful 'Pioneer' yarn from A Verb for Keeping Warm in Oakland, CA - I love that shop, I love what they do, and I love this yarn, so I decided it would sit with me as I dive into the book.

Perhaps because I did my undergrad in Nova Scotia, or perhaps because the photo's are such a stunning representation of the Bay of Fundy and the landscape of Nova Scotia, but I was almost in tears as I finished the introduction. I won't spoil it for you, but sincerely read the introduction to this book - it really is a 'love letter' to the Maritimes. 

I've now wound my yarn, added my pumpkin-banana bread (because all the pumpkin), and I'm ready to go.

Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned knitter there is something for everyone in this book. The patterns are well written, there is a great range in sizing (including the garments) and so diverse!

I did a little recap of my favourite items!

Wild & Reckless Heart - because a fisherman's pullover is always a perfect choice, especially one with beautiful cables like this one! (top left)

Oxidized - these socks are lovely (especially with local Manitoba dyed yarn) and the detailing is subtle and compliments the colour changes! (top right)

Abalone - This is my most favourite pattern from the book, the way the colours and the neutral dance around the lace, I fell in love with the real life samples I saw of this shawl, and I will definitely be making it in the near future (bottom right)

Rockweed - fingerless gloves are something I make every year, and I absolutely love these, it might be the most excited I've ever been about bobbles! (bottom left)

 

I waffled back and forth on whether to knit the Fishbones hat or the Dulse boot cuffs with my yarn, but I decided on the boot cuffs, because they are amazing and quick and the perfect project to keep my legs warm, or to look good! I finished about four rounds by the time my coffee was finished, and the boys were begging me to cut them another slice of pumpkin bread. I'm hoping to steal some time this afternoon and hopefully I can share pictures of the finished cuffs by the end of the week!

The start of my Dulse boot cuffs and the end of my coffee

The start of my Dulse boot cuffs and the end of my coffee

 

Speaking of the end of the week, Ash has generously offered to participate in a giveaway with me! For your chance to win a copy of this book, and one of our shetland sheep project bags, just leave a comment on your favourite project from Flotsam & Jetsam in the comments below!  After a week we will randomly select a winner!

Giveaway of this book and project bag (details below)

Giveaway of this book and project bag (details below)

You can find the ebook or hard copy on Ravelry, or pick up a copy at Wolseley Wool if you are in Winnipeg.  It is worth it!

 

Sheep!

I know it is very late for me to posting about the sheep arriving, they have already been here two months! But I'm realizing how non-stop raising livestock is (along with raising kids, preserving food, running a small business etc.) so big apologies to all of you that have been wanting more!

 

I haven't been sure what to write, or how to describe this process. It has certainly had some ups and downs, and lots of self-doubt, which is probably why I haven't been sure what to say. But the other day, the sheep finally came right up to me when I opened up the gate. They looked at me as though they knew who I was (or at least as the person who brings hay and oats). They ate out of my hand, and let me touch their beautiful fleece, and then I knew that things like this just take time.

We were all pretty excited to finish the pasture fence!

We were all pretty excited to finish the pasture fence!

We spent all summer working super hard to build the fence, and the sheep shelter and prepare us and the land for the arrival of the sheep!

Luke built the sheep shelter in a long weekend! 

Luke built the sheep shelter in a long weekend! 

The llamas arrived first, we were very excited, although the escape of the mama llama took a little bit of the wind out of my sails. I really started to wonder if I could actually do this. To read all about the llama drama check out that blog post here. So we added an extension on the fence and charged on.

They were not totally sure if they wanted to get out of the truck.

They were not totally sure if they wanted to get out of the truck.

At the end of August, it was finally time to pick up our sheep! We backed the truck up to the pasture, and the sheep seemed quite unsure for a while about this new home.

The boys (and grandma) were very excited for the sheep to arrive.

The boys (and grandma) were very excited for the sheep to arrive.

It was a really awesome day, we were all so excited for the sheep to show up, and to see all our hard work (and all of your awesome support)  actualised!

The llamas and the sheep getting to know each other, and checking out their new home.

The llamas and the sheep getting to know each other, and checking out their new home.

We had built the 3.5ft extension on our fence to prevent the llama from jumping just in case, but the minute she saw the sheep, it was as though she was at peace about being in this new place. After a few minutes of checking each other out, they all went back to peacefully munching on grass. We picked up three Shetland ewes and one wether (a castrated male) before the new year we will get two more ewes and a ram!

Luke and I were also pretty excited about the sheep showing up!

Luke and I were also pretty excited about the sheep showing up!

We have spent the last two months getting to know the sheep - which mostly consists of staring at each other with at least 20 feet of distance between us. I think I had it in mind that the sheep would instantly be trusting of me (and my loud boys) and would follow us around the pasture, and let us stroke their soft fleece....I realize the error in this assumption, but that didn't stop the disappointment a bit. So then began the long process of building trust.

They came to within 5 feet of me this day! It was pretty perfect!

They came to within 5 feet of me this day! It was pretty perfect!

Building trust has meant a lot of time spent in the pasture, just squatting or kneeling on the ground and talking quietly (or not at all) and just being present. This is a hard thing for my 4 and 6 year old, but it's been a great lesson for all of us in patience.

Feeding the sheep oats has helped with them being more approachable. At first they would only eat the oats once we had left the pasture, but soon enough they were coming up to the bucket and eating the oats right out of our hands.

Connection

Connection

It's been great in the last few weeks to have the sort of connection with my sheep that I was anticipating. I still can't believe they are here, or this is real....and I really look forward to sharing more of this journey with all of you!

 

And if any of you following along want to come for a visit we would LOVE that, reach out and we will make a visit happen!

THE BALLAD OF WHEEZY MCSICKY PANTS - A Post by Luke

Man, chickens can be nasty. A few weeks before butchering our broilers we removed one guy from the pen because he was breathing weird and getting pecked to death by the rest.

They have this thing for identifying weakness. It must go way back. I bet they're hardwired to assume a predator is always close by. So if one of them stumbles, well, better stick it to him so everyone else has time to get away.

We took that broiler and quarantined him in the chicken run beside the layer coop so he could catch a break and get healthy. Healthy enough so we could eat him. Man, humans can be nasty.

At first we called him “Sick Chicken.” Then “Sicky.” Then “Wheezy,” or “Wheezy McSicky Pants.” But mostly we just called him “Wheezy” for short.

When Wheezy got quarantined he acted a little squirrelly. But he's a broiler. So once it dawned on him he was getting a massive portion of food all to himself...dude was OK with being put up in the Executive Suite all alone.

The kids loved him. Wheezy was by far the most kid-friendly chicken on the property. He'd waddle right up to the boys, tap their boots with his beak, then tilt his head up as if politely asking for more food.

 Note: Not Wheezy - image taken from internet. But it looks exactly like Wheezy. So much so that I wonder if Wheezy had an online life I was not aware of

 Note: Not Wheezy - image taken from internet. But it looks exactly like Wheezy. So much so that I wonder if Wheezy had an online life I was not aware of

 

The layers, however, were less than kind. They instantly recognized the aberration in their midst.

Among them there's a firm pecking order. It's a complex hierarchy not at all based on size or aggressive tendencies. How it gets shuffled out is beyond me. But it's obvious there's an agreed upon power structure at work there. And all of them hated Wheezy.

He was bigger (but wider, lower). Yet every chance they got they'd chase him down. Only his physical size prevented him from getting picked apart completely.

Poor Wheezy. I guess what we did was kind of like saving someone from an office full of jerks by dropping them in the woods with a bunch of angry loggers.

But seeing Wheezy in close with the layers really highlighted their differences. Now, in our defence, it's not like we backed the truck up to Monsanto and asked for their freshest batch of Super Chickens. But we did get our broiler stock from a major distributor that specializes in fast growing meat birds. So Cornish Crosses are not genetically modified creatures per se...but...

Look at it from above for a second. Wheezy was an industrial chicken. Our layers are all random heritage breeds. It's hard to see them together and not think of Wheezy as Frankenstein's creation. (...100% Mary Shelly original version).

I mean...he tried! He lived in an abandoned cabin beside the villagers (we put him in the old layer coop beside the main birds). He poked around, explored. He tried to learn about his own kind. He appealed in vain to his creators - we had no answers, we pushed him away. But he kept returning. He kept trying.

Wheezy was just this lovable little juggernaut, desperately trying (and failing) to fit in.

“I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers – their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions; but how I was terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool!...Alas, I did not yet know the fatal effects of this miserable deformity.”

“I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers – their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions; but how I was terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool!...Alas, I did not yet know the fatal effects of this miserable deformity.”

Here's what happened on slaughter day.

 

To give you some context, previously Anna and I had offed 3 roosters last November, then 3 more the following spring. So six birds total. On this day we had 40 birds on deck. So pitter patter, let's get at'er.

Last fall we used an axe and a pot of water boiling over an open fire in the snow. It took all day.

Yes, some time was wasted on looking for non-existent avian genitalia. But now we knew better. And this time we had technology on our side.

Our neighbours that helped pen our llama dropped off their scalding pot, kill cones, and power plucker. So we were geared up. We'd also woken up good and early, had plenty of cartoons lined up for the kids, and a bottle of rum on the kitchen counter to keep momentum going.

We got to work.

My job was to kill and pluck the birds. Anna was cleaning and bagging. I walked each bird to the kill station holding it close to my chest.

Now, everybody tells you to carry the birds upside down by their talons. This is supposed to let the blood rush to their heads and cause them to pass out. I gotta say I don't believe this. They don't like being flipped upside down and held by their feet. They panic. And that overrides any urge to pass out, as far as I can tell.

So I picked them up gently and held them close to my chest.

Listen, I won't get too descriptive. I understand a lot of people might think we're monsters for offing a bunch of living things. Sure. I get that. I also admit to eating a few thousand Chicken McNuggets before the age of 15. I also pass chicken trucks on the highway blasting along at 120 km/h with hundreds of birds crippled in the wind.

Those birds aren't coming from pleasant environments, and they certainly aren't ending up at a place where they're at least held a moment and thanked before they're killed quickly.

Anyway, I struggle with it. I do. But I'm not ready to give up meat. And I don't want to feed my kids animals that were swamped in fecal matter and treated rough. And I can't become a Jainist because...it looks really hard.

So here we are. Butchering day. We're into the rum at about noon.

But now I'm really getting my groove on with the chicken plucker. Once you get your rhythm down these birds de-feather in no time.

A chicken plucker is just an electric motor spinning a tumbler of rubber pegs. You dunk the bird in the scalding pot, swish it for ten seconds, then pass it over the tumbler of rubber fingers and the feathers just fly off. It looks very releasing.

The bird gets transformed from this wet dead thing into a really appetizing, epicurean substance. Yeah it's hard, it's uncomfortable to get it to that point. But cruel? I don't know. In the moment it's more like alchemy. You've taken one thing and with a bit of flash and drama turned it into something else.

OK. That's a deeper observation I formed in retrospect. In the moment I was rolling each bird over the tumblers singing this song under a hail of wet feathers. But I'll choose to remember it on several levels.

At about bird 35, I slapped a freshly plucked carcass onto Anna's evisceration station and said to her, “Look at this. We've just decapitated a pile of chickens in our driveway and nobody cares.”

“Actually, our neighbours helped. They dropped off the gear.”

“Yeah. But what I'm saying is, it's not at all weird. Nobody's walking by wondering what the hell is going on, or if we have a license to do this.”

“Yeah. That's a beautiful thing.”

“Yep. I think it is.”

I kissed my wife, then went back to dunking chickens in power ballads.

It was a full day.

Even with all the awesome gear we still had to finish up with headlamps. Bird 40 got done way after the kids were in bed.

We cleaned up, dumped all the crap, then hosed off the stations and were about to head in for the night when we realized something...

We forgot Wheezy!

He came waddling out of his pen looking like he'd just gotten up from a long nap, wondering if there was any more food to be had.

“Crap! We'll do him tomorrow,” we both agreed, then went to bed.

But who feels like butchering one more chicken after doing 40 the day before? So a week passed. Then another. Now Wheezy was sleeping in the main coop (albeit behind the door, away from the rest). He was getting hand fed by the kids everyday. The layers were picking on him less. He was wandering more.

We let him go where he wanted.

To see him bustling through the overgrown weeds beside the coop was sad and kind of heart warming all at once. He moved like a fat tourist that got lost on safari. A little glad to be away from it all, a little proud and determined to forage for himself what was needed to make it through another strange night.

Over dinner one evening we asked the kids if we should butcher Wheezy. They kind of hummed and hawed. We told them Wheezy is a broiler, and broilers don't live that long. But after saying that, I thought...says who? Broiler farmers? What's stopping this bird from just going on? Who says he's ten weeks into his eight week lifespan?

It's one of those things you hear yourself saying as a parent then immediately think, I'm saying that as a parent.

But before I could correct myself, Bohdan said,

“I think we should just let him live it out.”

It was nice to hear. And we all agreed. OK, so Wheezy was going to live it out.

Of course soon after we said that it became obvious Wheezy was breaking down.

His respiratory condition was gone, but now he was huge. Most of our broilers came in at around 5 lbs, cleaned. Some were 6. They all looked like turkeys. Wheezy, with his personal food supply and a few extra weeks of growth, looked like a miniature emu.

Plus the weather was changing. Nights were colder. Not by much, but definitely no longer summer. Remember – these broilers have barely any feathers on their underside, and they can't roost. So he was on the ground. He had bedding, but still, it must have been affecting him.

Then one day, I can't remember what happened exactly, but Anna met me in the city and we traded vehicles but she forgot to give me the house key. And because we're always putting off little things like “make more than one house key,” I was locked out when I got home.

But it was sunny and I didn't feel like breaking in. Plus I'm always busy doing something, so it was nice to just sit for a minute on the side of my truck and watch the chickens.

We've got more birds and breeds now than can be counted at a glance, so it took me a while before I noticed Wheezy was missing.

He wasn't far.

I found him dead in the weeds beside the coop, belly up and a little purple looking. He was simply dead. None of the other birds had pecked him.

I texted Anna to let the boys know what happened, and where he was.

When they pulled up, Bohdan popped out of the car and told me like he was the one breaking the news.

“Dad,” he said, matter of factly and just a little excited, “Wheezy's dead!”

“I know,” I said. “He's over here. Want to take a look?”

“Yeah. Where is he?'

So we all walked over and had a look.

“We should bury him so coyotes don't get him!” Bo said.

“OK,” I said. “Let's do that.”

“Oh – Dad! Let's put him in the pet cemetery, with the rest of the animal pets!”

We've got a pet cemetery on our property. (Yes we do).

It's just a bump in the grass beside the treeline of our pasture, marked by a couple of lawn gnomes and some solar lights left by the previous owners. There's a bunch of pet graves there. Last summer we sprinkled our Vancouver cat's ashes around that spot.

So I grabbed a shovel and went out with the kids to dig a grave for Wheezy.

We live in a Marsh, so there was two inches of topsoil and the rest was wet grey clay. I dug a hole about a foot around, a foot and a half deep. It was already filling up by the time I got the last clump out.

We walked back to the bush beside the coop. I picked up Wheezy and carried him upside down by his talons to his grave. There was no panic now, so I didn't feel like I had to hold him close to my chest.

As I dropped him in and packed it down, the kids looked on and gave him this little farewell:

“Goodbye Wheezy!”

“Goodbye!”

“...he got to live it out.”

Plants vs. Chickens


So it turns out keeping 50 roosters in a 10' x 12' rolling pen was no big deal. I thought they'd have torn each other apart by week two, but I was wrong. I thought maybe they'd find the thing a little cramped, but I was wrong about that too. I'm no chicken psychologist, but they seemed pretty content just eating and sitting, then maybe wobbling around a bit and eating some more.

Here's where they lived (not on our driveway, of course). It's called a “Chicken Tractor.”

 

Chicken Tractor

Chicken Tractor

That's what it's called. I didn't design it, I just built a version of it. And yes I think that name is misleading.

it's just an open air pen on wheels. Throwing the word “tractor” in makes people think there's some diesel-belching machine dragging it across a field. And pairing it with “Chicken” makes it even more confusing. Are chickens driving a tractor? Is it a tractor powered by chickens? Is it a tractor used to harvest chickens? Now I'm confused, and I've been using the thing all summer.

It couldn't be more simple. There's an open patch and a covered patch. The chickens grazed and pooped all day, then in the evening we moved it by hooking a dolly under the front and pulling it forward one length. It only took a couple moves for the chickens to get what was happening. Then they'd scurry forward with the pen in anticipation of more food.

They had fresh grass, fresh air, and fresh water. Anna also brought them troughs of feed throughout the day as they needed it. And by moving them constantly it kept their poop from toxifying their lungs and burning holes in the ground. They ended up producing the perfect amount of fertilizer. Just look what it did to the grass:

Chicken Poo.  Mother Nature's Magic Marker.

Chicken Poo.  Mother Nature's Magic Marker.

 

So yeah, the rolling coop works. Any worries I had came from my misconception that layers and broilers were interchangeable. Not so. Comparing layers to broilers is like comparing wolves to pugs.

Every morning our layers erupt from their coop and bolt across the yard with the same degree of focus seen in the main party from The Lord of the Rings. Our broilers, on the other hand, looked like a bunch of guys who've spent way too much time watching The Lord of the Rings.

Our layers are heritage breeds. They're pretty much one tick down from wild grouse. (Don't quote me on that. I'm just basing this on aesthetics and my own backyard observations).

Broilers (Cornish Crosses) are the world's most popular industrial chicken breed. They grow big fast. Really, really astonishingly fast. It's kind of like when your kid gets one of those hatching dinosaur eggs you have to soak in a bowl of water. A couple days later you're making breakfast and you notice there's a sponge triceratops flopped out onto the counter beside the coffee maker.

Every morning gave us a silent “whoa, wait...what?” moment when we went to feed them. We didn't take progress photos with these birds like we did with our layers. We didn't have to. You could pretty much watch them grow hour by hour.

Reading up on them I came across someone who called Cornish Crosses “feathered piggies.” That's a little gross, but not totally inaccurate.

A few times after feeding them I'd crouch beside their pen and watch them eat. They were ravenous. They'd gorge themselves, then waddle over a couple inches and plunk down in the grass. There was no rooster vs. rooster aggression like with our layers. They all had the same calm, glassy blue/green eyes. Their feathers never fully arrived. And each of them had shockingly warm, pink underbellies and gigantic feet.

Actually, their warmth was the most disturbing thing about them. You could feel their body heat through your work gloves. It was weird. You could actually feel their metabolism working, feel them converting feed to mass and heat. It was like they were already pre-warmed, just waiting for that last bit of work it would take to turn them into a meal.

It was all really...easy? I'm hesitant to say it was totally easy. Because it definitely wasn't hassle free.

Here's a ridiculous moment:

About a month in we lost a few birds to a big storm. Of course it rolled in while my parents were over for lunch. One moment we were all enjoying ourselves around the dinner table, the next we were stuck under a typhoon. 

Water was just pouring off the roof and pooling around the house. I had to run around in a lightning storm like an idiot with a rake over my head, madly trying to scrape our eaves troughs clear from the ground (because we have no ladder).

My folks watched from the window, holding their grandchildren. At this point I'm pretty sure they're just happy I've lived long enough to procreate.

So I got that cleared, but then the downspouts started gushing like a fire hose. I looked over and saw the chicken tractor in a low spot in yard.  Now the birds were in a panic, all drowning in one massive puddle. I stuck my head into the house and shouted for Anna to come help me save them.

She jumped into her rubber boots and ran out there with me. The rain was coming down in sheets, it's fully cracking lightning over our heads, and the first thing I do is grab the shelter from where I shouldn't and immediately slice open my thumb.

Now I'm dripping blood, there's water and blood just running down my hands, and I've thrown open the top hatch of the chicken tractor so I can pull out the feed trays so we can move the thing, and one of the chickens manages to escape.

I grabbed him as he skittered across the roof of the pen, (he wasn't hard to catch – they were all pretty plump by now), but then as I dropped him back in I noticed my thumb had been pumping blood all over him. 

What happened next kind of played out in slow motion: A fat white bird covered in blood, tumbling down into a cage of hungry wet chickens, this one anointed creature looking up at me accusingly, then disappearing beneath a flurry of feathers and wings.

I dove back in.

“There's a bird covered in blood!” I shouted.

“Why are you sucking your thumb!” Anna yelled.

“My thumb's bleeding!” I yelled, popping back up.

“Your thumb's covered in chicken poo!”

“Fuck!”

I popped my thumb of of my mouth.  She was right. I was covered in a lot of chicken poo at that moment. I'd been crawling around inside the cage getting the trays.

“We're making bad decisions!” my wife shouted at me amid bolts of lightning.

“You're right!” I yelled/agreed. We closed the hatch and ran back to the house.

We lost a bird that day. But neither of us got hit by lightning or contracted histoplasmosis, so I'm going to call that a victory.

However, our slaughter tally was less than stellar. We ended up with 40 birds from our initial 50. That's a pretty poor margin. I hate to admit this, but hey guess what? We're newbies.

So we made some mistakes. 

Every bird down was a blow to our confidence as well as our pride. I think we lost two as chicks in the brooder, that's normal. A couple were rolled over by the pen as we moved it (everybody does that once. There's two of us, so we did that twice). 

But then we lost a few more to bad weather and poor tractor placement (See above. Initially I tucked the pen up against the treeline thinking it would help shelter them from the wind. But it was in a low spot where water pooled easily. After that lightning storm/puddle mishap we moved it to a field where it was high and dry. All good after that).  

Anna put in tons of time in everyday. She made sure they had enough feed, enough water. Cleaned out their trays, carried buckets back and forth.  Cared for them.  Occasionally I'd top them up when I got home or move their pen.  Really this one was all her.

But still, by the calendar these birds only took eight weeks to grow. Now let's take a look at our tomatoes.

When there was still snow on the ground I had to build a light station and a rack in the basement so we could get a head start. Then we nurtured our sprouts for four weeks. Don't touch the little hairs! Adjust the lights, split them up a bit, make sure they're not crowding each other, then shift the lights again. Stop touching them so much! (How am I supposed to move them without touching them!)

Then after May Long we put them in the raised bed garden. Also – a raised bed garden had to be built.  Soil was brought in.  Our wheelbarrow broke.  At that point a normal family would have paused to find a working wheelbarrow.  For some reason we figured we'd just finish hauling the dirt using a toboggan and a discarded novelty chariot. 

Note: normal family not pictured

Note: normal family not pictured

That worked until the toboggan burned out and the chariot busted.  So we finished it gulag style, running dirt out in a chain of Home Depot buckets.

Then once they were in we thought, crap!...did we plant them too early? We had a pretty cold night...are they all dead? They're looking a little yellow. Yep, they're definitely all dead. Nope – now they're coming back. But there's actual nubs of tomato now, so we need a deer-proof fence to protect them. So I pull up some old fencing from the field and we wrap the beds in a metal grid. But then they cling to that and flop right off the side of it. So now we have to poke them back and tie them off. Meanwhile...are they getting enough water? Too much? How are they coming along? I think they're almost ready to pick. Why are you picking one now?! Leave my tomatoes alone!

OK, you get it. Here's the point: It's now six months since we first starting dealing with tomatoes. And it's just paying off. But these birds? We bought them in a cardboard box, I built a thing out of 2x4s and wire for them to live in, and they pretty much grew themselves in eight weeks. And now we have meat for the winter.

Both are important.

All I'm saying is, if you ever see the zombie apocalypse looming at you on the horizon...chickens first and salsa later. 

Don't worry. These birds will take care of themselves. Just get busy welding that protection cage onto your Subaru.

 

Mama Llama Drama - a post by Luke

A llama is a giraffe mixed with a camel, wrapped up in a teddy bear cloud. And not one part of it gives a fuck about you.

“Nothing about this animal makes sense...” Anna's brother Sterling says. We're stalking it across our neighbours field for the 3rd time in 24 hours. The llama's sort of trotting now, but also sweeping its head low and side to side like a brontosaurus as it runs.

“I don't care anymore,” I tell him. “Listen...if I get close enough, I'm tackling it by the neck. You hear me? I'll need you guys to pile on.”

“Sure,” says Leaf, widening his approach. Trying to redirect it toward our pasture. “That's kind of how they shear them anyway.”

So that's the scene.

Me, my wife's brother, and my good friend of 20 years. The three of us crouch-sprinting toward a puffball Chilean horse in a field of fresh clover.

Fuck! I'm so mad at this thing.

But let's go back a day.

I got home from work, jumped out of the car and threw my fists in the air.

“Llamas!” I shouted at the kids.

“Llamas!” they shouted back.

Then I burst into the house.

“Llamas!” I shouted at Anna.

“Llamas!” she called back.

We'd been counting down for about a week. Six days til llamas! Four! Two more sleeps, then llamas! Llamas tomorrow! Then finally...llamas today! Whoo hoo!

Whoo hoo indeed.

But on the day of, I was late getting home. Plus Anna's family was visiting and Leaf just arrived, so we had dinner then I walked out to the pasture to take a look.

I quickly realized something was wrong. This is because I have the ability to count to two.

Two llamas. We have two llamas. So how come I see just one?

“Umm,” I said, returning to the house. “...I'm pretty sure we're missing a llama. The big one. The mama.”

“What?!!” said everyone at once.

Next thing you know we're out in the pasture, fanned at arms length, combing the grass like it's a body search.

“No way she's still here,” I said.

Anna texted the previous owner.

“She says to look everywhere, see if she's lying down.”

“She's not lying down. There's only a couple pockets of bush and we've been through them like four times now. Unless she's ninja'ing herself between them while we're looking, she's gone.”

“Impossible. No way she jumped the fence!”

“I can't find any breaks,” Sterling said, finishing another walk of the perimeter.

“Well, something must have spooked her.”

“The pigs?” I asked.

“She's used to pigs. They had pigs.”

“It must have been the pigs. But why'd she leave her baby?”

“I don't know,” Anna said. “It doesn't make any sense!”

More searching, more texting. Another walk of the fence. But nothing seems out of place.

No carcass, no blood, no breaks in the wire. Nothing weird at all. Just one baby llama casually grazing, three content pigs pushing each other around in the mud, and a handful of concerned humans shuffling across four acres of prairie grass like each sweep of the foot was going to magically uncover a 6'4”, 200 pound, snow white camelid.

At the end of another search Anna and I met in the middle of the pasture.

What...the...fuck!!!” we said in unison.

Then we called it. Everyone back to the house. Time to put the kids to bed.

But I slipped out as they were falling asleep and walked to back of the pasture. Climbing up onto at set of corner posts I scanned the property just as the sun was setting.

This is crazy, I thought. All of it.

Our land...140 acres of weird marsh, creek, poplar forest, cat tails, swamp, and tall prairie grass. Look over there - I haven't even set foot on that part of it yet, and we've been here a year. And now there's an adult llama out there somewhere. How the hell am I supposed to find it?

This was supposed to be our 'livestock guardian.' A Western South American pack animal that's not at all afraid of central North American predators (coyotes and bears), who loves hanging out with small Scottish ruminants.

What?

Also, it's capable of surviving a wide spectrum of climates, can eat pretty much any vegetation and barely needs any water. So theoretically this thing could just wander forever.

Then I started to wonder...what if we don't find it? Are we just going to catch glimpses of it over the next decade or so? Is it going become our own personal Princess Mononoke forest god?

If so, that's definitely going to freak out the kids.

If so, that's definitely going to freak out the kids.

By now the sun had set and my “wildly glancing in all directions while my imagination gets the best of me” strategy hadn't produced any results. So I gave up and walked back to the house.

I passed the pigs. They were plunked down in a new spot for the night, tucked under some shrubbery and snoring. I'll admit I'd become emotionally attached to them. Somewhat. They are peaceful creatures (when kept well fed). They just want to eat and snuffle their noses through the dirt and look for more stuff to eat. They're fast and happy and seem nearly invulnerable for the amount of tumbling abuse they inflict on themselves daily.

It was dark enough now to see the first couple stars, and I cheesily wondered what it's like for them to be out here alone on a night like this. They kind of looked like they were camping out. Did they care that it was a beautiful, clear night? Does that matter so much when you'd be just as happy sleeping through a thunderstorm in a pit of your own piss? (That you dug with your nose?)

I don't know. I think we project our own feelings on these animals too much. Either way, I'm glad we gave them full run of the pasture up til now. Even if they did freak the shit out of the llamas. Commercial pigs get like 10 square feet to live in. We gave them 4 acres. Each day they wander about like wild boars, then pick a new spot to flop down for the night. That's got to count for something.

Back at the house Anna and I stayed up a while and talked. Strategized. Tried to figure out what went wrong. But all we came up with was more weird scenarios. None of which even remotely made sense.

Theoretical Highlights:

1. Coyotes killed it in the hours between 4 and 6pm. Left the baby. Ate a full grown llama leaving nothing behind. Then jumped the fence. All without disturbing the pigs.

2. Neighbor boys shot it. (...with .22s? Is that even possible?). Dragged it across the field, then covered their tracks and tossed it clear over the wire, not damaging or disturbing a single blade of grass or leaving a drop of blood behind. Pretty impressive for 12 year olds.

3. A bear jumps into pasture at 4:30pm. Eats llama whole. Naps. Sneaks away just as I approach at 6.

4. Pigs spooked Mama Llama. A brief fight ensues. During the melee she kicks off the back of a pig and tumbles over the fence, then runs for her life leaving her baby behind.

5. Chupacabra.

OK. When shit like this starts to seem possible, it's time to get to bed.

But around four in the morning I found myself staring at the ceiling loud enough for it to wake up my wife.

“What's up?” Anna asked.

“We're shitty farmers.” I said.

“We're not shitty farmers.”

“We are. We are shitty farmers. We're not even farmers. What are we? I don't know. We say we're going to do something, then we race to get it done. Lets get llamas! We had llamas for like 6 hours before managing to fuck that up.”

“It's not our fault.”

“Who's fault is it?”

“...I don't know. We'll figure it out tomorrow. Always do. What can we do now?”

“Nothing.”

“So then just go to bed.”

I thought for a moment, then reset my alarm.

“I'll get up early and fix the gate. At least that way if the mama comes back you and Sterling can get her back in without too much fuss.”

“See? That's something.”

“Sure. That's something.”

I laid back down.

“I still think we're shitty farmers.”

“Goodnight.”

So my alarm goes off and I'm out there at dawn. Dew on everything. Me plodding along again in rubber boots, cordless drill in hand. The grass decorated with a thousand glimmering funnel shaped spiderwebs.

The pigs were still asleep. I could see their grey sides heaving in the same spot I left them last night. The baby llama was out in the middle of the pasture, chewing grass. I got the gate done then walked out to talk to him.

“Hey bud,” I said, me and him standing about normal human conversational distance apart.

“What gives?” I asked. “Where's your mama? You see where she went? What direction she head in?...Everything alright?”

I don't know if you've ever had the chance to question a baby llama, but it feels about as productive as interrogating a sock puppet.

“OK then,” I tell him. “Yeah. Hope it all works out for you. I've got to get to work. Enjoy the grass.”

Back at the house, I notice Anna's got this typed out on my computer:

“Where you going to put that up?” I asked.

“At the corner store.”

“We're going to look like idiots.”

A minor marital ensues, but long story short – who cares if we look like idiots, we've lost a large animal so let's just eat our pride and do what we can to get it back.

Annnndd it turns out my wife was right.

Before she could even pin the notice to the cork board the girl at the store said, “Oh! so-and-so were just here. They saw a llama at their place this morning as they were leaving. They left a note. Was it white?”

Score!

Now, this part of the story unfolds without me being around. So cue up yakety sax  and I'll recap in fast forward:

Anna and her brother chase the baby llama around the pasture. They try to get it into the shelter but fail several times. Then they look up and see the mama llama just staring at them from the other side of the fence. She's back! So they hop the fence and try to herd her toward the gate. But then she see the pigs, makes a 'click-click-click' noise and bolts across the road. Anna sprints after her but looses her in the bush. Then our super awesome neighbour friend shows up with her van and they all pile in and the chase is on. They drive to the farm it was seen at that morning, pile out, and discover the llama sitting alone in a meadow like some beatific deity. But of course when they get close enough to grab it, it bolts again and they have to pick themselves out of the turf and run after it. However this time they manage to herd it toward our property. But as they get it to the gate our three happy pigs come tumbling out of the brush and click-click-click, she's gone again.

“So it is the pigs,” I texted from work.

“Yep.”

“I'll move them when I get home.”

We kept their old enclosure, so after work Sterling and I banged together a temporary (and final, as they were due to get butchered in couple days) pig pit. After transferring the pigs we got in the truck and headed to that farm the llama kept returning to.

And man, I could see why. Puts our place to shame. Just a beautiful spot tucked into the woods. Nice folks, too. And they've got a real menagerie. Goats, ducks, cattle, and yep – another llama.

Our llama was at the far side of their fencing, just sitting there, calm as can be.

This was the first time I'd seen her and I was totally stunned. It was like I had no compartment in my brain to file this experience. Had I even seen a full grown llama before? I must have, but I couldn't say when. In a petting zoo? Now here's one sitting on the edge of the bush. And it's ours.

Impossible. We own a llama?

“Whoa, she's huge!” I said.

Getting up she was a little funny looking. Disarming, really. And so top heavy. Like 75% neck and fluff. Her legs seemed comically undersized. Stick-like and jointed weird, like her knees were a little too low or something. She looked 6'2” sitting down and 6'4” standing up.

Even still...so weird and calm. Alien and beautiful. And that's our llama. How is that possible? How can anyone can just own a creature like this? She looked like the physical embodiment of compassion.

So there we were. Ushering it toward a barn. Humans using teamwork. Walking it past a pair of cows, a flock of ducks, and a gaggle of flabby goats.

I wonder what these creatures think of us, I really do. What are we to them? We must seem like fumbling, relentless, omnipotent beings which pour out a never ending supply of food. What would the equivalent be for us? Imagine if one day on your way to work you came across a glowing rift in space that just gushed snacks and shelter and pillows and television. 85% of our population would probably just park themselves in front of it and call it a day. The other 15% would have to be tracked down.

I was lost in thought. It was a good thing Sterling was there. He's a magician. (An actual magician). Once we got the llama into the barn he utilized some pretty amazing slight of hand to slip a harness onto her, and we were back in business. The llama business. We should be pretty clear by now, we were excelling at.

We apologized to our neighbours for all the trouble, but they were too kind. Happens to everybody, they said. They just couldn't believe she cleared the fence.

Same with the previous owner.

“No way she jumped the fence,” she texted. “Not possible! Your fence was better than ours!”

As we left their property our neighbours said something that really stuck with me.

“All she's ever known is her previous farm. Then she was stuffed into an animal trailer and shot down the highway. Now she's let out here and everything's different. She's got to be freaking out, that's only normal. For her this is like landing on Mars.”

We got back to our place and walked her and her baby to the shelter, then locked them in for the night.

And what did it feel like for us? Success? Victory?

Nope. More like a wrong turn corrected by several other chaotic jerks of the wheel. We talked about selling them.

Then we went inside and played board games while I googled “how high can a llama jump” on my phone. I watched footage of a llama in the UK  setting a world record by clearing a 3'8” bar. That can't be right. Our fence is 4'. What gives?

The next evening we decided to let them out again. With the pigs removed and the commonwealth record for llama jumping firmly established, we figured she'd be fine. So I unscrewed the 2x4's from the shelter entrance. (The shelter was 90% finished, so “unlocking” them required us removing a zombie-proof criss crossing of plywood and mud soaked lumber.

“OK, she's doing alright...” Anna whispered.

We were in full David Attenborough mode now: “The mother llama scans the pasture for potential threats to her child. Finding none, she returns to grazing. And thus begins a new chapter in their lives...”

“She seems calm,” I said.

“I fucking hope so,” Anna sighed. And we went to have a bonfire.

About an hour later my Spidey-Senses were tingling, so I went back to check.

Both were grazing. Nothing weird at all.

But then something made the mama raise her head and tense up. Oh shit, I thought. Then she did her 'click-click-click' noise and bolted for the corner.

No no no no! She's going to jump! She's going to jump! There's no way she can...

She jumped it.

Popped right over the fence like a deer off a springboard. Right while I was watching. Cleared it like it was nothing. Unbelievable.

“Llama's out!” I shouted, running by the fire. “Llama's out!”

“WHAT!?!” Anna shouted. “No fucking way!”

“Put the kids in the house!” I yelled behind me. “Where's Sterling and Leaf?!”

“They're inside!”
“Get them! Grab the drill! Open the fence! We'll push her back! Fuck!”

So that brings us to the clover field and the sweeping, bronto-necked, world record smashing mama llama.

Eventually we did push her back. Got her to the gate, led her in, then spent another 20 minutes corralling her and her baby back into the shelter.

“Well, here we are again.” Anna shrugged.

“Now I swear,” I said. “The next time I open this shelter it's so we can load her into an animal trailer. I am so done with this thing!” (I said that, but with f-bombs every second or third word).

Here's what really killed me:

Most farmers are shitty carpenters. Sorry! Take a look around. I see a lot of crappy fences out there. Drive anywhere rural and tell me I'm wrong. Crappy fences are the norm. (But I get that now too – there's a lot to do.)

Now here I am with my own farm. I have a decent carpentry background and I build a nice sturdy fence. For everything we've done here, I've researched what the animal needs and then completely overbuild it. Like with the pigs. They don't care about the fancy house they've got. They have a puddle and shrub. Done. You think the chickens care that I built them a guest cabin?

Well, actually yeah. The chickens really like their house.

But the point is I built a good fence. And what does this thing do? Doesn't read the playbook and pulls off an impossible leap (twice!), instantly nullifying all my hard work.

That burns. That's my serving of humility right there. I'll never criticize another fence.

So what else could I do? I sat by the fire and drank heavily.

It's either sell the llamas or raise the fence, I thought. And who raises a fence? I don't think I've ever seen a single farm fence that was over 4', no matter what the animal. I can't add a couple feet to our fence. I can't. Who does that?

Mid downward spiral, Sterling lit off the fireworks he brought from Alberta. And I don't mean he sparked a couple of roman candles. This was a trunk load of pyrotechnics.

He was darting around, lighting box after box as all hell broke loose above him. Meanwhile, the chicken tractor was just a short distance away and all our plump, sumo roosters were probably falling over each other having heart attacks.

The pigs were going mental. They panicked hard, ran a few tight laps inside their pen as each rainbow starburst shrieked and exploded above them. Then they plunked down in the mud and took in the show. Probably fell back asleep.

This is crazy, I thought. All of it.

Crazy is going from a 700 square foot apartment in East Vancouver to 140 acres in rural Manitoba. Crazy is thinking we can raise pigs just because our neighbours say it's easy. Crazy is buying llamas off of Facebook. But crazy is what we do.

So you know what? This llama and her baby are here now. They're part of our farm. We're in this together.

Tomorrow we're building a bigger fence.

Hey llamas...jump this.

Hey llamas...jump this.

Rooster Soup - Post by Luke

We eat a lot of rooster here. I didn't see that coming. But what else are you going to do with them? We're only in it for the eggs.

According to my knowledge of the poultry industry (which consists of a single viewing of that one scene from Baraka 20 years ago), it's a harsh life for chickens. Roosters in particular. I think most of them are flat out disposed of in industrial situations. But again, what do I know.

Around here we try to keep them around for as long as they can stand each other. They have this spatty, fraternal existence for a time (even roosters raised together from birth are battling from the get go), but when they start cockadoodling and turning their attention to the ladies, well, it's time for them to shuffle on.

We've been getting these random batches of unsexed chicks so it's always a crap shoot. Our very first farm purchase – 3 Light Brahmas – all turned up dudes. Then the Plymouth Rocks worked out to be an an even split of 3 hens and 3 roosters. We went back to the lady that sold us our Brahmas and got 8 birds – 7 of which are now showing to be roosters. So what gives? Is it rigged?

chicken hat

chicken hat

Most farms will sell you either sexed pullets or a random grab. I love the random grab. It's like a carnival game. If it's a big farm the chicks are set up in giant pallet boxes (exactly the same as Superstore uses for watermelons). You get to scoop in with a fish net and choose your brood.

Random grab is cheaper because everyone's looking for hens. Now, being the weirdo over-thinker that I am, I thought I'd read up on how to sex chickens so that the next time we go I can beat the house.

This is going to be awesome, I thought. I'm going to learn how to sex chickens on the fly. I'm going to become the poultry Rain Man of rural Manitoba.

As it turns out though, it's not really the thing you want to view as a YouTube tutorial. Or rather I did once and immediately found myself thinking...you know what? I'd rather just cut the head off a full grown bird.

I'll start by saying chickens are not like you and I, and you can stop reading now if you're not willing to get anatomical.

Here we go.

Chickens (birds in general) don't have visible sex organs. This was news to me. And to my wife as well. Last fall when we slaughtered our first roosters we thought maybe we'd made a mistake.

“You know, I'm not finding any chicken penis,” Anna remarked, wrist deep in a plucked and gutted bird.

“Hmm, curious.” I said. “And what the hell is that?” I pointed to a set of dark clustery matter with tubes draping off it. “..ovaries?”

“I think that's the gizzard.”

“Isn't the gizzard in the neck?”

“No, the gizzard is close to the stomach.”

“Where's the stomach?”

“Already in the bucket.”

“I'm going to do some reading,” I said, and left my wife to further chap her hands on pulled viscera in the bitter November cold.

So here's how it works (chicken style). And don't act like you already knew this.

Both male and female chickens have a single bottom orifice, oh-so poetically termed “the vent.” The vent is dual purpose. If the chicken needs to take a dump (also dual purpose – they excrete a mix of solids and liquids every squat), a flap behind the vent flips up, and it takes a dump/leak. If it's time to propagate, the flap drops the other way and allows access to a channel for conception.

Now here's where I really feel bad for the rooster. All they do is rub vents. Briefly, frantically. Even snails get a better sex life than that of the proud rooster.

But back to my hopes of sexing them on the fly. It turns out you'd need David Copperfield level skills to pull that shit off in front of a middle aged Mennonite woman who's been raising chickens her whole life. And here's why. 

OK...sorry. I didn't finish that article. Lost me at “Chick defecates as author spreads vent.”

Seriously, it must be hard enough to be born into this world as a food pellet, but then you get folded in half and vise-squeezed until your pimple of a genital shows? (Or doesn't?). Sorry, nope. Just hand me the goldfish net. Yes we brought our own cardboard box.

So that's the dance we do to get our Layers.

We also just picked up 50 Broilers. Again, a first for us. So of course we power through, building stuff based off pictures on the internet, all the while maintaining only a cursory awareness of what's actually happening. (It's called “going for it.”).

Side note - the Chicken Tractor I built was nowhere near as complicated as that cloning chamber I made 4 years ago:

Side note - the Chicken Tractor I built was nowhere near as complicated as that cloning chamber I made 4 years ago:

Then at dinner one night (we were having rooster soup, it was fantastic), I entertained the notion of keeping one broiler back from the slaughter. Maybe just throw it into the coop for the winter.

ANNA: “Why would we do that?”

ME: “Why not? Just to have one white egg layer.”

ANNA: “Well, we can't do it this batch. They're cockerels.”

ME: “So they're unsexed?”

ANNA: “No, 'mixed' is unsexed.”

ME: “So we've got sexed pullets.”

ANNA: “No, pullets are sexed. Cockerels are sexed too. We've got cockerels.”

ME:“...OK. Now I'm confused. Are they unsexed or are they pullets? I thought we got a mix. Didn't we get a random grab?”

ANNA (sighs): “There's no 'random grab' with Broilers. Actually, there's no 'random grab' at all. That's just what you call going to a farm and getting unsexed pullets.”

ME: “So what do we have then? What are our Broilers?”

ANNA: “We've got cockerels. Roosters.”

ME: “Roosters! We've got 50 Roosters! Why did we do that?”

I'm thinking - holy crap, roosters are loud. And 50 of them! In 2 weeks they're going to sound like a chicken version of this.

50 Roosters!

3 Roosters are annoying. And constantly, causally violent. It's like a miniature avian version of some 80's Van Damme movie playing out on your front yard. Lots of posturing, lots of kicking, and in the end everyone's messed up and who really cares.

That's with 3. Now 50!

ANNA: “Why are you looking at me like that? I've thought this through.”

ME: “Please explain.”

ANNA: “These are Cornish Crosses. They're not heritage breeds. They're meat birds. It takes 8 weeks until slaughter. They're different. They don't get to that stage. We just feed them, pasture them, then process them. They're cheaper than hens and they grow bigger. So it's win/win.”

ME (not fully convinced): “...Ok.”

Ok, so we're going for it. But on this one I'm a little skeptical.

50 Roosters.

That's like watching all 3 Expendables movies on repeat, on a wall of TVs. Everyday. Until you snap.

Maybe I should have made this thing an octagon.

“None of you seem to understand. I'm not locked in here with you...you're locked in here with ME!” 

None of you seem to understand. I'm not locked in here with you...you're locked in here with ME!” 

A Fence Post

First I want to thank all of you that contributed in some way to this project. Through the kickstarter, or with your encouraging words, or your sweat and hard work here on the farm, we couldn't have finished this without your help!

According to every sheep book and blog out there, ensuring you have a good fence for your sheep is the first thing that any sheep farmer should focus on. Having never built any sort of fence we spent a lot of time this past spring researching, planning and pricing out fencing options. I highly recommend this book about building fences and what type is best for your livestock, it was an incredible resource to us.

We all took a turn with the inaugural first fence post!

We all took a turn with the inaugural first fence post!

Our land is beautiful and diverse, and also very wet - so trying to decide where we could actually keep a small flock of sheep with good pasture, while also working with (rather than against) our natural ecosystem became the focus.  There is evidence that at some point horses or a few cows were kept in the pasture area behind the house, but the grass was very overgrown and only a few rotting fence posts and rusty wire were left to show for it.

We decided to build a 4 acre perimeter fence with pressure treated wood posts, and field fencing.  We decided to go with the field fencing because it will be the most effective at keeping predators out (we are hoping) and keeping our flock in. We will then use moveable electric netting fence to facilitate the rotational grazing that we plan to do.  

Luke, his brother and dad working on the back fence together!

Luke, his brother and dad working on the back fence together!

In order to keep costs down, and to finish it quickly we organized a 'barn raising' type party with Luke's family.  On fathers day weekend family all convened on our property and helped us dig holes, pound posts in, and get all the equipment out to the pasture.  I was absolutely amazed at the hard work, and the willingness of everyone to help out. Even my 2 year old niece was helping bring water bottles out to the field!  The collective, familial coming together was incredible, not only was the bulk of the work completed in one day, but it was a beautiful thing to see three generations of family working together, Luke was even using his grandpa's mallet for pounding the posts!

Luke and his brother using pounding posts.

Luke and his brother using pounding posts.

After all the posts were in the ground, Luke and I spent the next two weeks stretching the fence and securing it to the posts. We attached a temporary gate from the portable pig pen, and the pasture is secure.  Our three pigs are now enjoying unfettered access to the pasture (for a few more weeks) and we are one big step closer to bringing the sheep home. 

Stretching field fencing wire for the fence.

Stretching field fencing wire for the fence.

The next step is to build the three sided sheep shelter, and then we will be ready. We have just returned from a week vacation to celebrate my parents 40th wedding anniversary, and now we are ready to get back to work!

It was wet and muddy, but we finished the pasture fence and we celebrated!

It was wet and muddy, but we finished the pasture fence and we celebrated!

Arrivederci Figaro - A post by Luke

 

 

Arrivederci Figaro

Figaro 

Figaro 

So our cat is dead.

Probably really, really, very dead at the time of my writing this. I'll have to go back a bit to explain.

May Long Weekend. Around one o'clock in the morning the first thunderstorm of the season hit. And it was a good one.

We slid out of bed and went to the windows to watch it roll in. A classic Manitoba Mega-Storm, coming from three directions at once. Stirring, mountainous thunderclouds. Jagged flashes of lightning just ripping these sharp moments of daylight. And meanwhile, on the ground, all of nature is in panic. Even the forests look like they're trying to uproot themselves and run.

Then it got scary close.

A simultaneous burst of thunder and lightning -BOOM!- and I'm thinking...it hit our property! It probably lit up a tree!

I stuck my head out a window to check.

Crap! Was it was the bat house? Did I just take out my own shed?

Bat house on the old shed

Bat house on the old shed

 

I just installed it that day. I had to laugh. What a lightning rod! What was I thinking? But no, another flash and I could see the shed was fine.

Then I thought - was it the pigs? Did it hit the pigs?

Another flash and I could see they were fine too.

Now I'm just being ridiculous. It probably wasn't that close. Besides, if lightning hit a pig I'm pretty sure I'd be smelling that.

So I stopped acting crazy (for the moment), and we stayed up to watch the storm. It was a beautiful thing. And somehow the kids slept through it.

Crawling back into bed, Anna mentioned Figaro was still outside.

“He's probably so scared,” she said.

“If it gets bad he'll just crawl under the truck,” I said, and went back to sleep.

4:45 AM. Figaro's crying outside on the porch.

Well, buddy, if you want to be an outdoor cat you have take the good with the bad.

Here's some back story:

Our cat isn't fixed. We got him from a barn litter down the road. Bo picked him out himself. We'd already lost one cat moving here.

I thought that was going to be rough on the kids. I mean, as a parent what are two traumatic things you present to your children? How about the loss of a pet and moving. We did that back to back. Literally. Thursday: your cat's dead. Friday: this is your new house.

But you know what? Our kids were champs. They spent the day cuddling their old cat and feeding him treats, then we let them say their goodbyes and we took him away to get put down. Sure, some feelings came later, but even that had less an impact than I anticipated. Then the next day we got to our land and the kids took off like they just pole vaulted the Berlin Wall.

the first day at our new house (June 2015)

the first day at our new house (June 2015)

 

No harm done! This parenting thing is a breeze.

Anyway, weeks before this storm Figaro had been impossible.

Whining at four in the morning to be let out. Disappearing for days. Coming back limping and scratched.

Most of the time he healed up fine, but once it was so bad we had to take him to the vet.

We showed up after-hours and the crew there tried to guilt us into paying $865 for an emergency surgery he didn't need. (Cuts and scratches. All good in a couple days with a simple puss-suction and shot of antibiotics. Still, 280 bones).

But he kept going out. He wanted to stake his turf. Or meet some lady-cats. Or fight coyotes. Or whatever it was he was doing. He was relentless, insistent. And really, really annoying at 4 in the morning. So we let him go.

“I think someone around here's got a lot of barn cats,” I said to Anna. “That's what's going on. Figaro's trying to infiltrate a pack and he's getting bounced.”

“So what do we do?”

“It's like an arms race. We've got to get more cats. Our crew's got to be able to take on their crew.”

So the next day we went out and picked up about nine dozen cats.

No, actually we're rational adults so we didn't do that.

But there are a lot of farms with wild cat populations. Ours isn't one of those (yet). So what can you do? We just let him go and hoped that he'd have enough sense to stick close to home.

Anyway, back to the whining on the porch – May Long.

I tried to ignore it, but then there's this other noise.

Crap! He's in a fight with another cat! On our turf!

I leaped out of bed and ran to door. I got there just in time to see both cats rolling away under our vehicles.

I raced back to the bedroom and flicked on the lights. My wife was not impressed.

“What are you doing?” she said.

“Figaro's in a fight!” I shouted. “He's in a fight with that cat he's been scrapping with! And he just got jumped on our porch!”

I threw on the first two pieces of clothes I could find then ejected myself from the house. As I flew out the door I thought I heard my wife say,

“...so?”

I saw a long handled shovel leaning against the garage. I grabbed it and jumped into the woods.

The cats were really tearing it up. It wasn't hard to find them but it was impossible to stay close. They were pinballing off tree trunks. How were they even moving that fast? Both of them were on their sides, kicking the crap out of each other. Just this unstoppable blur to chaos and noise, bouncing off trees and throwing up mulch.

Figaro was giving it pretty good to the other cat, but every time the other cat hit Figaro all I could think was, “Vet bill! Vet bill! Vet bill vet bill vet bill!

That, and, “I have a shovel! I'm going to end this!”

“Anna!” I shouted back at the house, “They're over here!”

Somewhere, way off in the distance I heard my wife say,

“...what are you doing?”

I was tumbling through the woods now, in the rain, desperate to keep up. Wet poison ivy everywhere, but I'm smashing through branches, hopping over junk piles...I'm getting close!

They rolled out onto the pasture path and I stumbled out after them. Shit! They're headed toward the neighbour's section! I'm going to lose them!

A rock pile line separates our land from theirs. For a moment I thought, I'll just hop over it and keep after them...

But then I stopped myself.

Because...you know what? I haven't met these people yet. And this would be a bad introduction - 5:00 am, crashing through their property, wearing a dark hoodie and some random pants, swinging a shovel in the rain and screaming “Figaro Figaro Figaro!

I could actually get shot doing this.

So I crouched by the rocks and listened, trying to track where the battle was heading.

At this point Anna walked up behind me, sensibly dressed for the weather.

“Hey crazy farmer,” she said, “What do you think you're doing out here?”

“I'm just...” I started to explain, gesturing with the shovel in the direction of cat-fight.

“You're just what?”

“I don't know,” I shrugged. “I guess I go nuts when something wakes me in the middle of the night.”

“I'll say.”

“I'm probably covered in poison ivy.”

“Yeah you probably are.”

As we walked back toward the house I stabbed the ground with the shovel.

“What are you doing, tough guy? You see a mouse?”

“No, there's a root or something. A rock. I hit it with the lawn tractor today. I thought I'd poke it. See what it was.”

“You're still acting crazy.”

“I'm still acting crazy.”

Back inside I dumped my clothes at the door and took a Dawn shower. (Pro Tip: Dawn dish soap neutralizes poison ivy. Kind of.). Then, smelling like an old lady, I crawled back into bed and tried to justify my actions.

“You just have to let them work it out.” Anna said.

“Oh, and is this how we choose to parent?” I asked her.

“It's our cat,” she told me.

“Well I had to do something,”

“Yeah but, what do you think you were doing out there?” she asked.

“It's called Direct Action,” I taunted. “Feel free to sit on the sidelines with your moral certitude while I'm out there making a difference in the world.”

“Enough...go to bed.”

But by now it was fully daylight and I couldn't sleep. All I could think of was my cat out there, getting his ticket punched.

A year before we moved I read Jonathan Safran Foer's book “Eating Animals”. I liked it, but I can't say I agreed with all of it. (There's a part where he illustrates the species divide by contrasting the global mania for the polar bear cub Knut by highlighting the fact that almost everyone in the crowd is eating a hot dog. Ok...)

Myself, I'm still putting it all together. And I rarely have a tidy argument anyway. I think it's possible to care for animals and eat them. And I don't say that with a shrug. Everyday I get a better sense of what that means. The author of that book can visit a slaughterhouse, but we're keeping pigs. Those are two very different things.

So I kind of spiral off in my head along those lines, thinking about my cat, our lives, wondering how my kids are assimilating all this life and death and change, meanwhile getting just enough non-sleep for it to be annoying when my alarm goes off.

Now I'm beat. It's early. I didn't get any rest. I probably got a good case of poison ivy, and somehow I got talked into working through a long weekend.

But as I start the car and head to the highway, some hero at the oldies station decides to play this song.

And for a second I feel alright. I feel like I'm starting to get it.

That, or maybe I just fucking love Tom Jones.

We will miss you Figaro.

We will miss you Figaro.