Life on a farm freight-train ride

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livestock guardian dog
The first sign that things weren't going to go as planned was Houdini's injury. (Photo courtesy of Blue Heron Farms)

I’ve had plans to write a hard-hitting column for weeks, but the best laid plans are just waiting for a flock of sheep, a steer, a livestock guardian dog named Houdini and a donkey named Sarah to come barreling through and smash them to smithereens.

That’s OK. I’m not sure how many people will like what I have to say, so it will have to wait.

Enter insanity

The first sign that things weren’t going to go as planned? Houdini, my oldest livestock guardian dog, broke his leg badly and had to have it amputated. He earned his name, but it failed him this time. I’m calling him the legless wonder. He’s already powering around like he’s always been one leg short. In fact, although he’s house trained, he’s a terrible patient and is already asking to go out and watch over his sheep.

I have no doubt he’ll figure out how to go back to work, in his own way, when the time comes. For now though, I’m counting the days until the vet lifts the limited activity mandate — and hopefully, restores some sanity (namely, mine).

The day after he broke his leg, my second oldest LGD, Maya, went into heat. Of course, she did. So, she is in lock-down at the moment, while we juggle Houdini’s recovery.

And my youngest LGD, 10-month-old Jael, showed she needed some guidance, with the sudden absence the pack’s two leaders. So, she’s been in LGD boot camp, assigned mostly to a small pasture with a small group of sheep to watch over.

Making do

That means the main flock has been unprotected and will be for at least a few weeks. We’re hoping the word won’t get out quickly. A local hunter told us he hasn’t seen coyotes around our woods this fall, a change from past years.

We’ve been mustering the flock up at night. The other evening, my border collie, Pili, and I, and a long-haired orange cat named Garfield, drove them onto a plateau behind the farmhouse.

We held them there until they relaxed and settled in, Pili, nose pointed at them, muscles tensed. Garfield sitting regally at my feet, turned out to watch the valley below. He’s a funny sort. I suspect he considers himself an honorary livestock guardian cat.

So, this is my life at the moment. But oh, wait. It gets better.

Enter chaos

Darkness was already pressing in — love that Daylight Saving Time — when I pulled into the farm driveway after a Monday at work. The first thing I see is a horde of sheep on the driveway. No, they are not supposed to be in the driveway.

I called my mom. “Um. Did you know there are sheep on the driveway?”

“I’m aware,” she said dryly. I pulled forward. She appeared through the milling sheep. It wasn’t just sheep from the main flock, but young ewes, from a completely different area, that were also mixed in. Also, there was something about a cow. I didn’t quite understand her comment, because the steers in a completely different pasture, but anyway.

It’s breeding season for spring lambing, so we couldn’t leave the sheep mixed. We would have to sort them out immediately. I sighed, and gunned my car forward to start moving them up to the barns.

At one point, they started going the wrong way and I bailed out of the car, while it was still running. With Pili’s help, we turned them out of my yard and up to our pole barn. The group filed in, we sorted the young ones and put the older ewes back in the main pasture.

It was fully dark by then, so there was no time to put the young ewes and rams back. I had no idea where Sarah, the retired guard donkey, was. It would have to wait.

We finished evening chores. I put Jael in with the main flock, since she had no sheep to guard anymore in her pasture.

Not my day

After things had settled, I asked my mom what on earth had happened. A neighbor called her earlier in the day. They didn’t mind, but one of our steers was grazing in their yard.

Mom runs down to see what’s going on. The steer is, in fact, in their yard. With no sign of how it got there. She gets tools to open the fence to let him back in and some grain. By the time she returns, however, all of the steers were on the correct side of the fence, looking placidly at her. OK, that’s a head scratcher.

She and Pili head up to the back fields to check on the flock. The sheep were where they weren’t supposed to be. Of course. Pili and Mom move them out of the wrong field. Then, the gate to the driveway down to the barns blew open.

The flock usually ignores that opening, but not this time. Of course. The sheep swarmed through the gate and started down the driveway. Pili started driving them away from the gate at first, which didn’t help. Then, she and my mom turned some back. It wasn’t until my mom had closed the gate that she realized a group was still on the driveway.

About this time, the young ewes in the neighboring pasture thought it was time to get fed, and sprinted down to their feeding area, paralleling the ewes on the driveway. When they got to the gate, it (inexplicably) popped open — of course, it did — and they happily scampered to join the rest of the sheep.

And that’s when I pulled in.

At one point during the melee, my mom sailed into the farmhouse. The young woman who works for us was keeping an eye on Houdini — remember, terrible patient. Mom told her, ruefully, “This is just not my day.”

By the time I got done laugh-crying my way through the story, I realized that yet again, my hard-hitting column would have to wait.

The next morning, I spotted Sarah, the donkey, in the back yard quietly grazing. Ah, farm life.

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Farm and Dairy Editor-in-Chief Rebecca Miller was tapped to lead the newsroom in 2019. A veteran journalist, dog wrangler and traveler, she lives on a 220-acre, 325-ewe commercial sheep farm in Lisbon, Ohio, which she runs in partnership with her mother. She can be reached at 330-817-6179 or editor@farmanddairy.com.

1 COMMENT

  1. Rebecca,
    I love that you let us all see you as a farmer as well as an editor. I was smiling throughout your story and know so well that there was nothing to smile about while trying to get animals back where they belong.

    Continue to share.

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