Friday, September 25, 2009

Ancient Border Collie Secret Revealed!

Ever wondered how Border Collies are able to move masses of animals just by looking at them? I mean, people talk about them having a "good eye" or a "strong eye", but have you wondered how that really works? Think about it- we can stare at the goats for hours and all that happens is we find ourselves coverd in goat kids wanting attention. There has to be something more the dogs are doing than just staring at the livestock.

Last night, I discovered what it is they do! Wanna know what it is?

Apparently, they shoot laser beams from their eyes.

Don't believe me?

But I have proof! I managed to capture a picture of Stella demonstrating her technique- she's still young, which is probably why she slipped up and had her laser beams on both a)while in the house and b)not around sheep.

Amazing, right? I had no idea either.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

California State Fair

I am a huge fan of going to county fairs, possibly because I grew up going to the opening day of the Alameda County Fair every year. This is (or was) one of the best county fairs in the state, and we went despite living in a different county (which had one of the lamest county fairs and therefore will remain unnamed).

As much as I like county fairs, nothing can quite compete with going to the California State Fair at the end of the summer. My first memories of the place are from showing dogs there when I was in 4-H, and the "pet-friendly" motels we stayed in the night before the show (the cigarette burns in the mattress, the algae in the shower). I am still trying to figure out exactly where on the fair grounds we showed the year my friend Leanne's dog went jumping into one of the water features during off-leash obedience. Did I mention the dog didn't know how to swim? And you know that 4-H kids have to show in all white? Good times, good times.

My parents entered several of their miniatures and various hand crafts that my mom made, and they won a Golden Bear trophy one year. But over the years, especially since we moved to Vacaville, we have gotten to know the Cal Expo grounds as though we lived there, and I suppose when you add up the days we've spent on the grounds, we probably have spent at least a couple of months wandering the grounds.

Nigerian Dwarf goats have been showing at the State Fair for the last seven years, and unfortunately the show has been getting smaller and smaller- as has fair attendance. Part of the drop in attendance has to do with school starting earlier and earlier in the year, making it harder for families to get to the fair. But we enjoy going and even when we haven't been able to show, we have been able to drop by for a visit with our friends who are showing. After the Saturday to Saturday stay at the Cal-Expo grounds required by the ADGA national show, we looked forward to a relatively short four day stay for the State Fair.

So, the first day we get to drive onto the grounds with our animals, the UCD vet students check the animals for obvious disease, then we unload gear, animals, check in with the fair staff, they check tattoos on the animals, and then we get our credentials (so we can get back onto the grounds if we leave), then park, then return to actually set up our pens and get the animals settled in.

When we get to the livestock barn, the pens look like this:

Add one signifigant other, put up a few decorations, win a few ribbons, and the place starts looking like this:

There, much better.

One of the interesting things about being at the fair is getting to see the other livestock, and talking with the people who have other types of livestock. The cattle people don't really talk to non-cattle people...and they're too busy constantly washing off and blowing out their cattle to talk. The angora goat people were pretty friendly, the pygmy people are starting to recognize faces and warming up to us a little (it's only taken five years, but let's not rush into anything, m'kay), and the Boer goat people mostly stayed outside.

We met some new faces

Oh Hai! Have we met?

Colored Angora

White Angora-

Pygmy Buck

This is the time of year when all of the bucks start to get a little oderific, but with the pygmy bucks keeping all of their hair on, man howdy! Do they ever stink!

Just for a little size comparison, here's a 2 1/2 year old Boer buck (Boers are a meat breed) and our Mr. Lincoln (1 1/2 years) checking each other out. Mr. Lincoln's back barely comes up to the Boer's belly.

The third and fourth day of the fair (the show days), we picked up some ribbons. Raven did well:

Once Ina Blue Moon did even better:

Full results, first day:

Grand Champion Doe in Milk and Best Udder: Castle Rock Once Ina Blue Moon

Reserve Grand Champion Doe in Milk: Cloverdale YJ Blue Raven

Reserve Grand Champion Dry Doe: CRF Castle Rock Rella

Grand Champion Doe of the day: Castle Rock Once Ina Blue Moon

Reserve Grand Champion Doe of the day: Cloverdale YJ Blue Raven

Mr. Lincoln got second in his class, which was fine with me considering I only entered him in the fair because I knew that was the only way we would get an updated, shaved picture of him on the web site. I don't usually show bucks these days, but figured what the heck. He started getting really stressed after the first show, which was completely my fault. I realized at the fair that I had never taken Mr. Lincoln off the farm, and making his first experience a four-day, away from home show, was not a very good move on my part. Probiotics, electrolites, fresh hay, and a sign explaining to visitors that he didn't feel like visiting helped a little, and I pulled him from the next day's show.

Second Day's results:

Grand Champion Doe in Milk: Cloverdale YJ Blue Raven

Best Udder: Castle Rock Once Ina Blue Moon

Grand Champion Doe of the Day: Cloverdale YJ Blue Raven

All in all, pretty good considering we only took two does in milk, two dry does, and one buck. One of the things we were much more watchful about than in years past was making sure that the general public generally did not touch our goats. This sounds awful, I know, but we really did not want to bring home any exotic diseases, and people who go along touching various animals are unknowingly passing around all sorts of bugs. We were surprised that quite a few groups of animal science students came through the barns and every one of the students were touching every one of the animals. I would hope that the teachers would have explained at least some basic bio-security information to the students, but we were not so lucky.

Oh, and I finally tried a deep fried Twinkie. I've been saying I would do it for years, and then kept backing out, because really- $4!! for a Twinkie!! seemed a little expensive, even by fair-food standards. This year, curiosity finally got the better of me. It was good- probably the best way to eat a Twinkie if you have to, but not something I will be seaking out again.

We had plenty of time to check out "The Farm", the displays of beneficial and harmful insects (I tried to memorize them ALL), and the Nursery- where little baby farm animals are born and on display, and spent lots of time in the County Building to cool off since end of August + Sacramento = HOT.

There are rumors that the fair will be moving to July to accomodate school schedules next year, but there are all sorts of other activities that have to be taken into account- horse racing, vendor schedules, other big fairs, etc. Whenever it is, I'm looking forward to the next one!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Finally- an update!

I saw a rainbow in July. A real one. From the farm. In this part of California, that is super rare. I'm sure part of the reason we had enough sprinkles to make a rainbow is that I had two stacks of hay delivered the previous day. Actually, I hadn't picked the day for the hay to be delivered. The way our local hay barn works is that you go in, pay for your hay, and they tell you an approximate date that the hay will arrive. In fact, this is not at all when the hay will arrive. It may be sooner than you planned, it may be weeks after you were expecting it. There is no way to really plan around the hay arriving because the Hay Farie will bless you with your hay stacks when she darn well feels like it, and not a moment sooner. And for this, you will be thankful.

July rainbows are about as rare as updates to this blog recently. It doesn't help that in February I had written a very long post, only to have my computer crash and eat it. I re-wrote the entry, complete with lots of pictures, and my computer froze up, forcing me to turn it off and again lose everything.

This was discouraging.

Then, the kids starting arriving, life went a bit haywire, general craziness ensued, and updating the blog went to the back of the line to hang out with the goat paperwork I owe people and intended to get done before show season started.

The February post with pictures was about our little trip up to Oregon. We went for a week, got to see some friends, sampled cheese, saw new places. I would tell you more, but it appears that talking about Oregon makes my computer very angry and I'd rather not lose a post again. I may try to upload pictures later, but I am not promising anything.

February also brought us our first kids of the year, and our very first kid was a gold, polled, blue-eyed doe! I only bred 17 does this year in hopes of bringing down the total number of kids from the high of 76 last year. I still ended up with 51 kids this year: no singles, mostly triplets, two sets of quads, and one set of quintuplets. The last kids were born June 2, and even though I keep trying to compress my kidding season, it lasted too long this year, with the last bottle babies being weaned in early August.

I did get a third lesson on herding in with Stella before she started going through her equivalent of teenagehood, and for a few months put her brain in storage. More training was done on a long line, and having a small herd of wethers to work her on really helped. But, I figured that she needed to get her brain back before I would get any benefit out of taking her to classes again. And, now that she has calmed down a bit and is listening better, I am too busy to go to class regularly.

Stella has managed to train the milkers quite well now- as soon as we go out to the barn to bring them in for milking, the girls get themselves into their stall before they even see Stella. This is good and bad-- good in that it makes that part of chores go quickly, bad in that Stella doesn't have as much to do work-wise, but still plenty of drive and energy.

Show season started in April, and I am hoping to do a seperate post on how the shows have gone for us. In general, we haven't been able to get to as many shows because of either Market committments, or due to conflicts between shows.

In May, I finally got to do the Whole Earth Festival with my English Hills Soap Co. booth. The festival is held for two and a half days in May at UC Davis, and they are pretty picky about who they let in (I had to write an essay!), so I was pretty excited about being there. Walking around and seeing the level of crafts from the other vendors was pretty amazing, and I came home with some unexpected purchases. The booth did well- definitely worth the effort, and I am hoping to be there again next year.

The garden has been doing alright this summer, although the beans were hit so hard by the local deer that we didn't even get enough for one dinner's side dish. The garden is mostly fenced, but determined deer can jump quite high. The tomato plants are huge, and our garlic, onions and basil all did quite well. We are mystified as to why cucumbers do not do well here. My plans to expand the garden area were put off until next spring due to the limiting factor of only having a 24 hour day and general there's-always-something-else-more-urgent-needing-my-attention-right-now-ness. In the mean time, we are making good use of the "goat tractor" to keep the weeds somewhat down in the area that used to be lawn, which also keeps me from resenting the wethers that are still hanging around these parts.

September looks like it will be a very busy month, but I really hope to get some posts up in the near future regarding: show wins, backpacking, state fair, and maybe even baby farm animal pictures.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Second Herding Lesson

I meant to post this last week since I've already had my third lesson, but better late than never...

This Friday dawned clear and still, which made working the dogs and conversation much easier.

Robin got to work her dog, Rusty, in a different pen with much lighter sheep than last week's group (that's Robin and Rusty in the picture). Some penning of sheep was attempted and almost accomplished, although Rusty seemed to tire more easily than usual. Robin recently changed his dog food and was wondering if this could have something to do with the lack of energy. I was hoping to get some good pictures of Robin and Rusty, but the sun was in just the wrong spot, and Rusty was working too wide to get everyone in the same shot, so I've got this sort of bled-out picture of them working.

Stella's manners improved while watching the other dogs work- most of her vocalizations were quieter, and she only did about three really loud outbursts. I've been working on "watch me" to get her attention off of whatever is causing her to get all wound up and it seems to help a bit. I did need to do a bit of basic heeling up and down the lane a few times to get her attention to refocus once she had seen Rusty do some work.

We went in with a long line to do some work with a different set of sheep than last week- only three, and they were lighter than last week's group. The first time Stella went out, she of course cut one ewe out and would not drop as I asked, but when I yelled "enough!", she did leave the ewe and came happily running to me. The trainer was pleased to see that Stella doesn't fold when given a correction and that we seem to have a good rapport. Several times, the trainer and I both gave Stella the same command at the same time, and the only real issue I had with Stella during this session is that she would not stay down as long as she needed, often times just touching her belly to the ground and instantly standing back up to keep moving up on the sheep.

By the end of the lesson, Stella had gone from being "a nice farm dog" to being "an awesome little dog!" according to the trainer. That's more like it!

After this week's lesson, it became clear that I needed a light long line to do some work with Stella. While picking up pepper spray (some of the dogs on our walks seem only sort of contained in their yards) at a sporting goods store, we found several diameters of rock-climbing rope. It's perfect- lightweight and strong, exactly what I need. My first session with it worked well, and now I don't get bothered by the big lead rope I had been using getting drug through the dirt.

This morning while feeding the boys, I noticed that the sheep next door were out, so I offered to help our neighbors get them back into their pasture. It was convenient to have a long line to use on Stella- and she was more than happy to help round up the sheep and drive them to their pasture. The only problem we ran into was that the guard llamas kept trying to drive Stella off. Stella kept her eye on the llamas, while working the sheep at the same time. These sheep have never been worked by a dog before, so they were pretty darn light.

The neighbors were VERY impressed, and I let them know that we'd be happy to help them move sheep around anytime. No sense in having them run after the sheep when clearly Stella would be more than happy to help out.

So between working on the boys, bringing in the sheep, helping me to gather up the wethers a couple of times, greeting all of the people who came to the farm today, and evening chores, I actually have a tuckered out dog laying at my feet.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Our First Herding Lesson

On Friday, Stella and I went to our first training session for herding.

The day started out cold, and got colder. When I got over to the training facility, the wind had picked up and continued to get stronger and colder the entire time we were there. Fortunately, my friend Robin was there with her Border Collie, so I had someone I could chat with and who would tell me some of what was going on.

Having trained dogs in agility, conformation, and obedience before, I am not a newcomer to the dog training thing, but herding is much different because you aren't just getting your dog to do what you want it to do, you are trying to get the dog to get the stock to do something, and not knowing exactly how the stock is going to react to the pressure from your dog makes the whole task that much more interesting. I've been working on some basics with Stella, but also worry about unintentionally letting her get into a bad habbit or two since she does chores with me every day, and there are only so many animals I can keep my eye on at any given moment. I was looking forward to also hearing an independent assessment of what the potential talent of Stella might be, as well as (hopefully) reassurance that I am not trying to stuff too much learning into the brain of a nine month old puppy.

Robin's dog went in with the trainer to do some pen work and to do some preliminary herding with the very dog-broke sheep used for beginners. Then the trainer worked with some of the not-currently-working-on-a-farm dogs. These are dogs that are a part of the "herding group" in AKC shows who could better be described as doing a sort of "dog dressage" than herding. Most of these breeds have been selected to conform more to the breed standards for appearance and have lost a tremendous amount of the instinct and brains they were originally bred for. The trainer I am working with is one of the few who will work with these (usually) retired show ring veterans, but she feels that there is value to giving these dogs something to keep their minds active. The most interesting to watch were the Briards since they have a very unique way of working with the sheep. The short of it is that Border Collies, Aussies, and Cattle Dogs basically keep their livestock in a ball. Briards were meant to bring livestock to market down one side of country lanes, which meant keeping the livestock in a somewhat narrow line. So, they run up to the front of the livestock, then circle back to run to the end of the group, keeping everyone moving and to one side of the road. They tended to work hundreds of head at a time, and are fairly large energetic dogs. The two we watched appear to have retained the instinct to spin, which looks kind of funny when applied to just three sheep at a time.

I took Stella into the 100 x 100 sheep arena and let her off leash with the trainer to see what she would do. Off she ran to the sheep, racing around, splitting a couple of them off, then dashing after them to get them back with the flock. She gathered them around the trainer and responded very well to the trainer's pressure cues and commands. Fortunately, Stella does not try to grip the sheep, so there were no mishaps there, and I think Stella was thrilled to have stock in front of her that would readily respond to her pressure. After several minutes in with the sheep, I was asked to call Stella, and back to me she flew. Good session, now for a bit of a break while others are working their dogs, and then another session in a bit.

You know that high pitched yip a dog makes when you accidentally step on it? Stella makes that noise continuously when she is excitedly watching other dogs working sheep. It is not pleasant to listen to, or easy to stop.

Finally, it was our turn to go back in with the sheep, and I was to try to get Stella to work on keeping the sheep around me, making a bigger or smaller circle, going faster or slower, and changing direction, using just body language and pressure, like you do with a horse you are working in the round pen. However, the sheep were more interested in following the trainer than in being around me, so we switched to just driving the sheep up and back along one fence.

The trainer also gave me a new command to use with Stella, as well as replacing a command I had been using (easy) with a softer (steady) one. Of course, when I needed to use "steady", all I could think was "easy-- no wait, that's not right, what the heck am I supposed to say?!", and that would be right when I could see that Stella was about to explode with a burst of energy and go running after the sheep. Border Collies are very fast, and stopping a young one can be tough once they get their feet under them. One time when she made the sheep split into a group of two and three, she was thinking of going after the three, caught my eye, I pointed her towards the two, said "gather 'em" and she took the direction perfectly. I was keeping my voice low and calm, but that didn't always keep her calm. Still, lots of errors made on my part, especially with giving commands just a second too late, and not being able to read the sheep as well as my goats. We did get the sheep into one corner, and partially back before calling it a day, so there was some measure of success.

The trainer did say that she was impressed with how obedient Stella was, and that she should be a good farm dog. The little competative voice in the back of my mind said "What? You don't think this is the next international champion trial dog?!?", but I had to remind that voice that we already have enough to do with all of the goat showing.
Besides, Stella is here because I need the help with moving goats. Robin also said she thought Stella was doing very well for her first lesson and for being so young.

So our homework is to work on our downs being faster, letting the break away member of the herd back into the group once their head is pointed in the right direction (Stella does like to go after the errant runaway, but then tries to continually head it off from joining the group- I need to stop her from trying to head so much in that situation), and slowing down her "walk up". I wasn't sure that I got a difinitive answer about how much training I should be trying to put on a dog this young, but Stella does not seem to be getting frustrated, and appears to want to keep going (and going and going).

I have to say, I LOVE having a smart dog.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Happy New Year!

Happy 2009 everyone! May your year be filled with blessings and lots of doe kids.

At left is a picture of part of the garden taken on one of the few sunny days we've had recently. Near the top, what looks like lawn is actually a large patch of "good bug blend", a seed mixture Andy plants to encourage good bugs to set up shop in our garden. These bugs eat bad bugs, and as a result, make it possible for us to have a good garden harvest without using any pesticides. You can also see our garlic, cabbage, swiss chard, and the multi-hued lettuce we've been using for tasty winter salads.

As has probably been well established, I do not like cold weather. We have been experiencing quite a few cold, dreary days, full of wet heavy fog that blocks out the sun. I have a hard time telling how much time has passed due to the lack of change in the light outside on days like this. It seems as though 10am looks the same as 3pm. It is too cold and damp to have a very good day of soap making, and every time I work the dog she gets covered in cold wet mud. Bleah.

However, even during the depths of our winter, signs of spring are around, if one looks for them. A few of our native bulbs are sprouting, the ceanothus (aka California Lilac) are already forming their flower buds, tree branches growing, and the resident Red Tailed Hawk pair have driven off their last fledgling and are working on their nest. Last year I saw them taking small branches from some of our trees for this purpose, and it seemed as though they were flying further away- this is the first time we have seen the actual nest, so I am not sure if they have changed trees for 2009, or if the hawk we previously saw was part of a different pair. I am pretty sure the abundance of jack rabbits and gray squirrels has something to do with why they like this area.

In addition to the usual finches and birds of prey we have year round, we've also had some small woodpeckers and what looks like a warbler species we haven't seen before. They look somewhat similar to the Western Goldfinches we have here year-round, but with smaller beaks, a slightly different body shape, and patches of yellow on their backs. Friendly little buggers- they land on branches very close to us in the barnyard, and they have been coming right up to the house as well. I'll try to get a picture of them soon.