A few Saturdays ago the first of the sheep went into labor, and as usual it happened late at night right before bed. You always want to be present when an animal gives birth but when the clock hit 1AM and the ewe was still groaning and shifting with nothing to show for it, I went inside to sleep. The following morning after breakfast it was back to the barn to see (hopefully) a happy mom and a few new lambs. Walking up to barn seemed strange though, it was unusually quiet and there were no baby animal sounds like I was expecting. Instead, I saw a huge fresh hole dug underneath the door to the lambing stall and a bunch of bedding hay pulled out. In such situations the following thoughts will run through your head: “Something got into the barnyard and killed the new lambs…or maybe all the sheep! No, the livestock dogs wouldn’t have allowed that to happen. But maybe they’re the ones who did it. They killed the lambs they were supposed to protect, now I’m gonna kill them!”
It was a relief to finally look inside and see a tired ewe and two new lambs nursing away. I was so fixated on watching them that I almost didn’t notice one of the dogs poking its head through the hole under the door.
Then it all made sense. While the ewe was giving birth, her screams of pain must have driven the dogs insane. Unable to reach her in the closed stall, the Pyrenees heroically dug a massive hole to rescue their friend but upon finding no predator, they instead sat, watched, and guarded. Good dogs! Their protective instinct continues to amaze.
If you don’t succeed at buying decent sheep the first time, try and try again. And so we did, this time heading West to a farm in the mountains of central North Georgia. The farm is run by a former cattleman who got tired of dealing with the massive animals and the higher cost of raising them and now exclusively raises sheep. Right off the bat I got a good feeling about this place. The farmer was ready and waiting and his property looked clean and well-run. After a few pleasantries we leaned on his fence to look at the flock and discussed raising them. While we we talked he began giving verbal commands to his Border Collie…”Come by”, and the dog moved clockwise behind the sheep, pushing them forward to a smaller pasture where we they could be sorted for purchase. The farmer continued with more commands: “Away!” and the dog immediately switched to a counter-clockwise position, pushing them toward an open gate which they eventually trotted through. “That’ll do!” and the dog ran right back to the farmer’s side looking happy as can be. The first sheep farmer we visited took over two hours to separate her sheep, this farmer (or rather, his dog) did the same job in ten minutes. It was one of the most beautiful displays of an animal working with a human that I’ve ever seen.
We soon picked out three fat ewes, all pregnant from a giant ram with excellent genetics. Once back at home there was no need to announce our new arrivals to the rest of our herd, the animals all sensed something was going on and ran to the truck as soon as we pulled through the gate.
After some initial sniffing and greeting through the cage, the new sheep integrated into the herd just fine and had a peaceful first night.
We’ve decided to add meat sheep to our farm. Meat sheep are just that…sheep raised for meat. The variety we’ll be raising are Katahdin sheep which not only taste delicious but have the added benefit of shedding their coat in the summer, so being able to skip the shearing process is a huge benefit. If possible you want to start out with animals that have good genetics so purchasing them from a reputable farmer is a must. After months of corresponding with regional breeders we settled on a farm three hours to the North where we’d make our purchase.
Everything seemed great until the moment that we actually met the farmer. The paperwork showing breeding and health history she was supposed to have? She lost it and couldn’t produce backup copies. The available pregnant ewes that we were sent pictures of? Those were suddenly no longer for sale. Other comparable ewes that ARE for sale? No problem, but they’re mixed in with the rams and would have to be separated into a different pen. Two hours later she finally had the ewes separated into a single pen…only to have them immediately break out of the gate which was held closed by a single strand of twine. What a fiasco…missing paperwork, incorrectly marked ear tags, pens filled with poop a foot deep, prices suddenly jumping by $100, a farm seemingly held together by scotch tape and string, and a farmer who didn’t know her animals.
Enough was enough and the only thing that made my wasted time seem worthwhile was telling her why we wouldn’t be buying from her.
One Serious Dog
The Great Pyrenees dogs are one year old and look huge. Yet they’re still growing and won’t truly be finished until almost two years of age. Locally you hear all kinds of heroic stories of farmer’s Great Pyrs protecting their livestock, guarding lost lambs and keeping them dry, and most often how they’ll kill coyotes whenever they get the chance.
The hardest thing about raising them to do these things is to unlearn everything you’ve known about raising dogs up to this point. Great Pyrenees mountain dogs require different techniques than your average house dog and the best place to get this knowledge is from the farmers who raise them. Their advice is simple and consistent no matter who you ask. First and foremost, take daily walks with your young Pyrs around the entire perimeter of your property. No, not with a leash! These are working dogs and will follow behind you, even as puppies. But it’s crucial they know where the property boundaries are and you will show them every day, rain, snow, sun, hot or cold. The more acreage the better, they’ll easily patrol 200 acres or more. Next, don’t play with them. No ball chasing, fetch with a stick or any other nonsense. Their job is to bond with your livestock, not you. When you enter the pasture give them a quick rub and a “good boy”…just enough love to let them know you’re boss and continue on with your work. Finally, as puppies they will screw up and chase a goat, tease the horse, and try to catch a chicken to play with it. Never hit them, but don’t be afraid to be firm and let them know they’ve done wrong. They’re smart and are always reading your emotions so you generally won’t have to tell them twice.
Yet as the saying goes, “Life is really simple but we insist on making it complicated”. I’d start to overthink training them and would resort to looking up more advice online, adding another eight steps to the simple three that neighboring farmers already gave me.
Then one day at about the seven month mark, like a switch, instinct kicked in and and the dogs suddenly took their job seriously. When you enter the pasture they come to the gate to quickly greet you, then head right back to their flock. They constantly scan the woods and valley below for anything that looks out of the ordinary and if something is seen, they’ll be there in seconds to drive it away or kill it. The slightest cry from a goat will instantly wake them from a dead sleep and they’ll be on their feet snarling and snapping to make sure nothing is hurting their friends. Raising them is simple after all. Just give them the right conditions for which they’ve been bred, let them be themselves, and they will shine for you.
Without a doubt, improving fences has been the most time-consuming endeavor on this farm. And the work continues, hopefully to be done by the end of May.
In the meantime a huge backlog of photos and stories has been piling up. So what else has been going on here for the past three months? Might as well start with late last October. The humidity of the summer was finally gone and the night sky became incredibly clear again. On this particular night the moon had not yet risen which made the stars more vivid. The most hardest thing about this shot was keeping the goats and horse from rubbing on the tripod and ruining the picture. I wound up giving them a bucket of grains in the corner of the barn so they’d leave me alone.
Picture yourself on a typical afternoon in the fall, suddenly needing something from the hardware store. Of course you’d drive the usual, fastest route which takes around 20 minutes one-way. But then again, you could also take the scenic route which will turn 20 minutes into 35. What to do? Such was my dilemma a few weekends ago and honestly, having to deal with such predicaments are one of the reasons you move to the country in the first place. After ten seconds of careful consideration I decided on the scenic route. Let’s begin our journey.
A few miles from the house and on the right is a small road that will take you through the woods, over a mountain, and back down the other side to the hardware store. At the start of it is a cemetery dating from the 1800’s, guarded by two massive, centuries-old trees. Stunning views of the valley, mountains, and old farms can be seen in any direction here, but the overwhelming presence is from these two gigantic, wise trees.
The road quickly narrows and turns to gravel as it heads through some fields and into the distant forest. It’s so quiet and peaceful that it’s tempting to just ditch your truck and walk the rest of the way on foot.
Further into the woods the late season leaves and grasses seem to glow with their own light as the sun illuminates them from behind.
Toward the top of the mountain the vegetation clears enough in spots to where you can catch glimpses of the layers of ridges and mountains in the distance, and farms far below.
Pay attention and don’t get distracted by the views! This part of the road may be paved but there’s no room for error. Too much to the right and you’ll scrape you’re vehicle along the exposed rocks…too much to the left and you’ll roll down the hill.
The drive begins a gradual descent down the other side. Move ahead slowly so you don’t miss flocks of wild turkey or a few deer that may be eating by the side of the road.
We’re finally on the other side and the hardware store is only another ten minutes away! Sure, this route may have taken some extra time but at least you’ll feel relaxed after you drive it, almost like you’ve been on a mini-vacation. And that alone is worth the extra time you just wasted.
Almost everyone enjoys a beautiful sunset but with most of the U.S. population living near large cities, the show in the sky stops when the sun goes down. Around here I’ve noticed that on almost any night when the moon is new or hiding behind the ridges, it’s hard to walk outside without being distracted by the ocean of stars above your head. The night sky is spectacular and the Milky Way is usually on full display. It can’t look too much different than it did thousands of years ago when Native Americans thrived among these same ridges and valleys. There are no cell phone towers or glaring lights from nearby cities junking up the view and it’s rare to see the blinking lights of a distant jet. Hanging out with the beasts in the fields at night it’s not uncommon to see the flash of a meteor out of the corner of your eye, and still have enough time to look up and watch it flame-out on the horizon. The feeling one gets when gazing on such a scene is much like Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” , a vast, animated sky that almost feels alive.