I was laying in bed last night late… mostly due to the fact that I spent most the day with our crazy chaotic farm day and then had a bunch of client work to do all night long. 2:30 am came in sight when I finally laid down, exhausted and just thankful that I could get up and start fresh today.
I hope that folks understand that yesterday’s post was not complaining… far from it… it was explaining. And the reality of what a small farm can be like in the flash of a moment. Like a sudden thunderstorm with hail and high winds, things creep up on the farm and they can be so overwhelming for a while that you think it’s time to reexamine your reasons for doing this all in the first place!
But then, life can be that way no matter what or how you make your living. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be fixing dinner one minute and ten minutes later your house is gone from a tornado! Or to sit out a hurricane… what about sudden accidents or illness… poor personal decisions… my gosh, a hundred and one things can mess up your day!
I like to take days like yesterday as learning lessons, hands-on classrooms that humble you when you might be feeling a little smug and content when things are going swell. Livestock sure does that for you. They might not be brain surgeons… but they are very good at being what they are… sheep, goats, chickens, pigs, you name the critter and they are pretty much programed to be the best at it they can be. If you think you can always control any living creature, you are either delusional or inexperienced… they will always get the upperhand if given a ounce of opportunity. But then, if you just want something easy, raise earthworms or maybe just have a garden.
Well, here are a few of the lessons that I have gleaned from the past week. Not necessarily in order of importance, just in order of how I went through them all in my brain.
Fences are only as good as you make them.
Fencing is such a huge thing when you start your homestead. My gosh… if I could give just ONE teeny bit of advise… NEVER EVER do any fencing half-assed or too cheap. (sorry for the French… but this is huge.) Ever single issue we have had has been from our inexperience about fencing and livestock. Just stringing up some wire fence and hoping for the best never is good. Being inexperienced and not super flush, we have seen the effects of free, cheap and poorly installed fencing. It really would have been better for us to start with way way smaller areas and make sure they were properly done for whatever livestock they were going to keep in. You want to provide the nicest, largest areas for your beloved critters, but in the end, a huge pasture that they get out of and hit by a car or come up missing does them no better than a safe, smaller pasture.
And different animals, need different fencing needs. That is huge. A hard lesson.
Field fencing, is great for bigger animals, but little critters like baby lambs and goats can squeeze through the squares. Chain link is awesome for goats because they are very hard on other wire fencing. Sheep can panic and hit a fence with such force that they just sort of pop out the bottom like a ovine zit in a space so small you can not imagine it! Goats and pigs like to take out entire electric fences in one paniced run. (I watched a goat figure out how to do the limbo under an electric fence by bristling up his hair on his back so that the wire didn’t touch him ten minutes after being introduced to the idea for the first time in his life. He got ONE nose shock and that was it, he knew exactly what the wire was and how to circumvent it.)
Wooden fences rot. Trees fall on wire fences and bust them. Pallet fences can be squeezed through by small critters in weak spots. Goats walk up on fences and destroy them with their hard little hooves. Horses can’t see wire well and can bust through and get impaled on unmarked posts. Of course, ponies are the most perfect of all creatures and never test or bust out of a fence unless it’s damaged. (ah, right…. hahaha….)
I am finally understanding that really, one of the very best and best suited fencing for multiple types of livestock is the hog or cattle panel. They are heavy duty welded wire panels that don’t sag or bend and can be buried and wired together quite firmly. They are 16 feet in length and though not cheap, they are very secure. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would replace quite a bit of our interior fencing with hog panels. (They have small hole openings on the bottom half so little ones can’t get out…) But, at about $20 a panel, it’s not something you can do easily if you’re on a budget. Or have a lot of ground to cover. Still… I’m beginning to think that I need to budget in 5 panels a month for a few years and start to replace some of the fences we did at first when we were clueless.
And posts! Don’t get me started on posts! When we started, we were directed to these flimsy cheap garden netting posts by an unexperienced TSC employee. I was telling the young man that I needed posts for livestock fencing and he showed me to these wobbly, thin posts for holding up bunny fence for your garden, or maybe staking a tomato plants. What kills me is that the appropriate heavy duty T-posts were but a mere 50 or 75 cents more. I bought 50 posts that day. And I believe that we have now replaced darn near every single one of them.
The best metal posts we have gotten were from Uncle Rod… and they are retired highway sign posts. These things are white, super heavy, 8 feet long and we got a bunch for like $2 a post. I still dream about getting more of those… oh my gosh. I looked online to find a place that makes them and found that they sell new for about $20 a post! They are so sturdy!!!
Second best are the traditional heavy duty t-posts from most rural or tractor stores. But always get a little longer than you think and drive those babies deep. And don’t skimp on how many. We started placing posts about 15 feet or so apart… now? If I can, 8 foot or less! When you place a post too far apart from it’s neighbor, it’s very hard to get the fence tight that naughty sheep won’t push under the middle.
And corner posts have their own science… the best we have are sawed off old telephone poles. They are huge and heavy, but once you sink those suckers 4 feet down, they are not going anywhere, even when a pony uses it as a butt scratching post. Even if they give a bit, it would take a talented animal to get it up and out of the hole. Now, mind you, we do not have 1500 pound steers or muskox… so I’m not sure about big things… but nothing on the farm that we have now would be able to get one of these well set corner posts outta the ground without some sure panic and determination!
So… our biggest mistake of yesterday was having three exterior pastures that were weak in a few places. And that we knew or suspected were not good. And then putting animals in there, expecting them to behave because they would be eating. Yeah, that works for the first hour, maybe two, but as soon as they get the faintest little inkling in their tiny brains that the other side of that fence looks better than what they are standing in, they WILL test that fence and they WILL find the weakest link.
And you WILL be chasing livestock in flip flops. In a panic. Unless you live in some huge open space where it’s okay if your beloved varmints wander about for a while until you decide to round them up. We, unfortunately, do not have that luxury. We do have multiple rings of fencing now, but usually, if they get loose, they are in a less desirable area pretty quick… like my garden! And wrecking havoc with tender cabbage plants!!!
Or lilac bushes.
Sheep Herding is Never Done Well When You Are Upset…
One of the most frustrating things of yesterday was herding or moving our flock without proper gear and in a very upset manner. And expecting too much of them in a short amount of time.
If there is one thing I have learned about sheep that NO ONE talks about in the books, is that they have a weird group mind and they are not docile, boring followers. Sure, they look easy to move around with talented herdsmen and trained dogs and bucolic lanes and fences areas that help to facilitate whatever objective the farmer wishes. But for every video you see of this easy thing, there are 15 non-filmed chaotic moves that leave you thinking you are a fool for trying to work with sheep.
Yelling, shouting, moving fast, running and just crying like a baby are all inappropriate ways to get sheep to do anything in a group. You must be slow, calm, happy, soft spoken and not ask too much of their little brains at one time. They are uni-taskers… they like ONE objective at a time. Commands such as follow the feed bucket or stay in the paddock are how best to deal with them. And don’t separate a flock you are trying to move. Our biggest issue was when four got loose in another pasture. Suddenly, everyone is upset and trying to get back to the others. Mommas are bawling for their bawling offspring. Everything gets very crazy fast. It’s better to just reunite them, wait a bit and start over. Once you start jumping paddock fences and trying to single out lambs and catch them to get them to their moms, it’s just a mess.
One of the best tools that we have are herding sticks. We have a couple nice long sticks… mine is polished hickory with a little rawhide wrist strap, but the others are just nice stripped bark sticks. Heck, we’ve even used a pool noodle in a pinch. Or your arms, outstretched. For some reason, sheep seem to think that anything in your hands is part of you. So when you stretch out with a 6 foot stick in one hand, you because VERY wide and they will avoid you. So a couple people with sticks in a line behind a flock is super efficient in moving them slowly and steadily towards a new pasture or paddock.
Ours were in the screen porch. Yeah, not that handy there.
And thankfully, our flock is pretty well trained to the feed bucket. Usually, they see ANY 5 gallon bucket and they react. You can even put a few rocks in an empty one and they will follow it for quite a while just on the off chance it has sweet feed in it. Problem is, if you misuse it, or try to use it too many times in a short period of time or when they are panicked, all bets are off. We should have just used it the first time to get them into the very safe paddock and then assessed what we would do next. Instead we tried to move them here and there and split the flock and started yelling and just pretty much lost our cool. Frustration is like that. Unfortunately, it’s the worse thing you can start to do with livestock. They just feed off your rising emotions and triple their own panic response. It’s a disaster just waiting to happen.
Livestock Don’t Call the Shots…
One of the things I adore is when all our critters are co-existing in this bucolic Dr. Doolittle scenario…. the pony has a rooster on his back and the sheep are settled under trees chewing their cud while the goatie babies dance about in their cute frolicky nature. There’s a sweet breeze blowing and everyone is in this contented imaginary Disney movie and it’s so sweet.
In reality, the pony is crabby and has just kicked a goat over when the sheep start to head butt the pig and chickens are grabbing your toes and just pooping everywhere. The other goats are stripping your trees by balancing on a bench and you just about been tripped by the pig as she roots up a huge hole in the main pathway. It can be a huge hassle to try and do chores with this farm parade following behind and causing havoc. Cody is a pro at pushing open doors, even with latches and getting into barn to shove stuff around in his crack addict search techniques for grain or treats. 14 sheep can easily mob you and take you down if you have a bucket of grain and are not holding it high. Heck, I’ve had a turkey hit me in the face when it flew off a rafter in the barn and I saw stars for a few minutes. Livestock running amok is not a good thing. They need to be managed, not be the managers. They are not the chiefs, they are the Indians.
We’re getting better at this paradigm shift of master and critter. It’s hard, because unless you have grown up on a farm all your life, your best experience of farm animals are from Disney movies or other non-reality based extreme examples. You never expect a pony to be evil, or for a pig to try and eat you. You think that all species will get along with other farm critters. Let me tell you, my sheep are nasty to other animals. They feel they are the rulers of the universe and will chase and otherwise terrorize any unsuspecting creature that gives them an inch. Cody has delivered a few hard kicks to stubborn ewes before they respected him and gave him wide berth. You should have seen them all circle and crowd Ebony, our little hog, the first time she was out. And they will be rude to their own kind! Sweet ewes with their own little darlings at their rump will kick or butt a baby that is not theirs. They are not docile and sweet in their nature when they feel they are in charge.
Yesterday, once things started to go badly, everyone should have bee sent to their stalls regardless of how nice it was out. A little time out might have saved the day. They are hardly going to die if they loose out on a few hours of grazing. They are all fat and sassy. Perhaps they might have had a few hours to think about their naughty ways. Or at least we would have had a chance to cool down and regain our composure. And deal with the non-critter things that were priority.
Appropriate footwear is essential on the farm. Even a little one.
Not once, but twice did I try and do things outback with darn flip flop sandals on. What the heck was I thinking? My farm shoes were just inside the kitchen and would have taken about 5 minutes to dash in and change to. But no, I have to be a total idiot and am roaming about in lumpy ground, tall grass, climbing fences and chasing sheep in stupid sandals. It’s a wonder I only stubbed my toe a time or two and didn’t end up twisting an ankle or breaking my leg. As it was, a slipped and smashed into a pokey bit on the fence that could have easily punctured my HEAD! shesh… I’m hoping that my sore toe and the super tender lump on my hard skull is a reminder to wear decent footwear out back. I’m not some teenager anymore. Maybe they can handle it better, but I’m just not that coordinated! Haha….
Wood Rots when Exposed To The Elements…
One of the things that I am seeing with some of our project builds is that it pays to do it right. And that unfinished wood just doesn’t last as long as you might want with animal poop and pee, rain and harsh weather. Our chicken tractor SEEMED fine, but then part of the floor just rotted out and we had meat chickens all over the garden. Maggie seems to think that she can retrofit a new floor and such, but part of me thinks the whole design is flawed and we need to rethink and learn from this experience, rather than sink anymore cash into it. Granted, we didn’t spend much in the first place, but there in lies the main issue. If we had perhaps done a little more forward thinking, we might have engineered it a wee bit differently. But, hey, we’re still newbies at this whole life we have chosen. Rome wasn’t built in a day and a little homestead surely isn’t perfect with just a year or two under your belt. The nuggets are fine, they actually seem to like the big barn a little better. Especially with the rain, they are enjoying the nice dry stall. We will think about the garden coop for a few days and come to a decision.
Well, hope this helps others out there… all the reading, dreaming and scheming for your own little homestead will not replace actual time in the trenches. Authors should be lined up and shot for writing things like “sheep never test fences” or my favorite… “lift your pig’s feet daily to check for any cracked hooves or sore spots…” Haha… yeah right. These simple vague statements of animal care are just not a good way to help prepare a new homesteader for the reality of things. And you are going to have these days. I don’t care if you’re Daniel Boone… or Pa Ingalls… those dudes both had their share of “bad days” and they learned and moved on. Keep improving, keep adapting, keep working on making things run smoothly and most of all, LEARN from the LESSONS that your farm throws at you daily!!! You’ll be a lot happier if you do!
And yes, everyone is behaving like little darlings today. Not a single mishap or shouting match. And it’s already 3:30 in the afternoon!!! Yah Team Windhaven!!!! Hopefully, we’ve banished the crazies for a few days or more…