Animals


Anyone who has a true, working farm knows how critical it is that every animal on the farm earn its keep.  A farm just cannot sustain itself if the animals on it are all pets or companions.  Sure, you can get an outside job, but that’s why I say the farm can’t sustain itself.  That being said, it can get tough sometimes to not get attached to the animals.  We have learned over the years that certain animals are designated as food–be it meat, milk, or eggs, some as service–such as breeding animals or work animals like the draft horses,  some teach lessons to our children–such as a riding horses that has attached responsibilities, and a very, very few are allowed to have the role of “pet.”  Around here, we call it “therapy at the end of a long day!”  For those of you who have followed this blog over the years, you are familiar with our old dog, Will, and the older cat, Callie.

Will joined our family the year after S and I were married.  He was assigned to us by Guide Dogs for the Blind, and we were to be his puppy raisers.  Technically, he wasn’t ours.  We were just responsible for raising him for 12 or so months, and then returning him to the school.  Sadly, he didn’t quite make the cut for Guide Dog work, so he was offered back to us.  Long story short, Will went on to be trained as my second Diabetes Alert Dog for about 4 years.  He was also my companion at the barn and when I went trail riding.  He traveled the country with us, and was like our first child.  As a service dog, he was much more than a pet, and we had a close bond.  After we had children, Will began to show signs of age, was eventually retired from service dog duty, and allowed to just be a pet.  He got to finally eat crumbs off the floor, lay on the couch, and playfully chew on his best friend, Callie.

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Callie was mine before marriage.  She was actually brain damaged at birth, but the sweetest, most gentle, and dumbest cat you could ever meet!  She never had any official job, other than just to love and be loved.  She warmed many hearts–and laps.

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In 2015, we knew both our beloved pets were getting up there in years.  Will was almost 13, and Callie was 14 or 15.  Will was experiencing some health issues, and Callie was still going strong and looked great, but spent most of her time just sleeping–as any old cat deserves to do.  God was merciful to us, though, and we never had to make the call to euthanize.  In the winter of late 2015, in an unfortunate, and somewhat mysterious accident, Will died.  Just a month or so later, Callie passed away.  We were all heartbroken, and really missed having a pet in the house.  Those two were older than any of our children, and our kids had grown up with them.  Despite all the farm animals that come and go around here, this was the first time our children had experienced the loss of a long-term family member.

Certainly a beloved pet can never be replaced, but an empty space can be filled again.  I only lasted about a month or two before I started to crave something to cuddle up with at night, or during my daytime rest breaks.  I wanted something to greet us at the door, with tail wagging.  We had a barn cat, but she belonged in the barn.  We also wanted to cut down on the hair in the house since N is mildly allergic to pets.

I began contacting our local pet agencies.  Interestingly enough, as it turned out, I was shocked to find we did not qualify to adopt from most animal rescues.  Between military positions and child adoption, we have probably had more background checks than anyone on the planet, yet we were refused time and again.  Either we had too many children, too young of children, lacked a fence attached directly to the house, or whatever.  It didn’t matter that I was an experienced dog trainer, prior vet tech, our vets would totally vouch for us as responsible pet owners, or that our children were good with animals.  They wouldn’t give us a second thought!  Finally, our local animal rescue, who is familiar with us, took in an owner-surrender pup that perfectly fit what we were looking for.  She was a short-haired mutt with no undercoat to shed out.  She was friendly and could keep up on the farm, despite her short legs.  She was cuddly, totally trainable, eager to please, and an absolute doll!  Her ears were too big for her head, her tail wagged non-stop, and she stole our hearts.  We adopted her on the spot!

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Rosa, who we believe to be around 2 now, has settled in well.  We think she is possibly linked to dachshund and blue heeler, Based on her markings and behaviors.  Whatever her genetics, though, she has filled that empty spot in our hearts and home perfectly.  We hope we are blessed with many more years with her!

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I have always loved horses, so it was only natural that M became passionate about horses a few years ago.  Not long after, so did R.  Interestingly, although R is not biologically related, her birthmother also happens to love horses, and has owned a couple over time.  Nature or nurture?  Only God knows for sure.

Nonetheless, we decided it might benefit the younger kiddos to have their own equine to play with, albeit one that was a bit safer, and less potentially deadly like the larger horses. When an acquaintance’s children outgrew their miniature horse, we decided to buy him.

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Clyde, aptly named due to the fact he was raised on a Clydesdale farm, was such a character!  He was a 6 year old registered mini gelding, already fully trained to pull a cart and be ridden.  We also didn’t have to stress too much about introducing him to our little herd, since he already knew his way around big horses.

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A and N played with Clyde a little every now and then, but R absolutely loved him!  She often begged me to show her how to do things, and over the months, became quite good at picking up his feet, cleaning his hooves, and with a bit of help from big sis, they would braid his hair, and generally play with him.  And, of course, she would ride!  She rode every chance she got.  Sometimes she rode bareback, other times she liked to saddle up and join us on the trail.

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JR actually took a liking to driving Clyde, so he would occasionally have me harness and hitch up and tag along on a ride through neighborhood streets.

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Unfortunately, as the months passed, JR’s interest waned a bit, while R’s interest soared.  However, as she became a better rider, she also grew….FAST!  We had expected Clyde to suite her for at least a couple of years, but she hit a growth spurt over the summer, and it was clear that Clyde was being outgrown all too quickly.

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We debated hanging on to him and training him to be a work horse for the kiddos, but R’s passion was riding, and she really had little interest in driving.  The boys didn’t have much interest either.  So, rather than let such a great, kid-safe horse sit around and go to waste, we decided to pass him on the next lucky children.  He’ll be missed, but we had a lot of fun with him while it lasted!

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If you read my last post, you can imagine that we had quite a feat on our hands, as we needed to get that mama sow from her new location she had escaped to, deep in the woods, to our house.  There was roughly 1/4 mile, as the crow flies, between the two areas, but the land in between had no trails, lots of brush and briars, several hills and steep ravines, and a couple of creeks running through.  An impossible feat at best.  For the record, if a hog doesn’t want to move, it doesn’t.  Period.  If there is a baby involved, as was the case here, you increase the danger a bit, as you don’t want to risk upsetting mom or baby!  We were in a quandary, and our pigs were on someone else’s land!

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Well, thanks to hog farmer and blogger Walter Jeffries, over at Sugar Mountain Farm, I had an idea!  About 200 feet in a different direction, the woods dumped out onto a cleared trail that would lead home, albeit in a round-about way.  It increased the distance to about 1/3 mile, but it was fairly clear and even the creek crossing was shallow and nicely graveled.

Remember in my last post when I mentioned that we trained all our pigs to come to our voices and buckets of feed?  We do so for times like these.  After I located the sow, thanks to her rooting behavior and a noisy baby making grunting noises, I began to call her.  I immediately radioed S, who brought out a bucket of grain.  When she heard our voices, she came running.  She actually followed me out to the trail, and a couple hundred feet down the trail for some grain.  When she stopped to eat, S and I dropped a pre-shaped hog panel over the top her and jumped on the sides of the panel.  This was an idea I had learned from Walter Jeffries.

Why jump on, you might ask?  Because once a pig realizes it has been caught, it tries to escape.  In this case, the two of us outweighed the sow by about 25 lbs.  We tried this technique to move a bigger sow between pens once before, but had to use three adults to outweigh her.  We stood on that panel for a couple of minutes as she slung herself (and us) from side to side and up and down.  (Who needs to pay for a carnival ride?!)  Finally, she calmed down.  Meanwhile, we had JR handy to keep her baby close to her.  Even though he was on the outside of the panel, we quickly discovered that as long as she could see him, she stayed calmer.

Once she calmed down, we gently lifted the panel about 1/2 inch off the ground, and encouraged her to walk forward with it.  She did.  Hesitantly at first, but she soon figured it out.  We assigned JR the task of keeping the baby pig in front of her, so she would essentially follow him.  As long as they don’t lay down, they tend to want to move in the direction the panel moves.  I cannot explain why this works, when almost no other amount of pushing or shoving works, but it does.  After the initial shock of her realizing she was caught, she was quite calm and relaxed.  We would stop and give me her a quick break periodically, feed her a few treats, and then move on.  Down the trail, up the trail, over the creek, through the rocks, across the front yard, across the sidewalks, and onto the driveway.  Finally, about 45 minutes after we had caught her, we arrived at the permanently fenced winter paddock!

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So, now you know how to move a pig!  You never know….that info might come in handy one day!

A couple of years ago, I stumbled on an idea that was so brilliant, it was almost unbelievable.  Here at Red Gate Farm, we try to house and manage our animals as naturally as possible.  That includes our horses.  As is the case with most horse owners, we had the idea in our heads that the most “natural” way to manage our horses was by keeping them out on our beautiful pastures, and rotating the pastures regularly to simulate the way wild herds move.  We were so excited to finally have such a beautiful pasture to keep our horses.

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Within months of weaning them onto the pasture, the problems started.  Fevers, abscesses, sole bruises, laminitis, hoof rings, thrush, and more.  Within a year, my work horses were lame more than they were sound.  We consulted with vets, farriers, draft experts, and draft owners.  I read books, researched, and could not figure out the problem.  At the experts’ advice, we fed expensive supplements and high-quality hay when not on pasture.  We finally resorted to shoeing, just to keep the boys working–we are a horse-powered farm after all.  Mind you, I have owned and/or trained horses for almost 20 years, with a few years off here or there.  In those 20 years, I have housed horses in stalls, dry paddocks, stalls with runs, and almost every option available.  I had never had a single issue of unexplained lameness, never an abscess, and never had to shoe a horse.  For a while, I suspected it was an issue limited to draft genetics, but then, one day, our new mustang came up lame as well.  She was as sound as any mustang I’d ever worked with, so this truly baffled me.  Then, it occurred to me.  In my previous years of owning horses, I had always lived in the desert, on sandy soils, or in the Rocky Mountain areas–none of which had lush, green grass.  Usually, the horses lived in stalls or dirt paddocks, and the few times they had access to fresh pasture, it was thin, short, weedy, overgrazed, low-sugar, rough forages, common to many boarding stables around the country.  I realized the biggest change in our horse management was the new, rich pasture.  Furthermore, it occurred to us that the few places in our nation that do NOT have herds of wild horses include the central midwestern region or states with lush forages.  Even the herds that live along the east coast live on sandy beaches and islands.  We were convinced this was the culprit.  We didn’t want to stall the horses, and I didn’t have a dirt paddock large enough to keep several horses.  Thus, we quickly threw together an electric wire paddock on a portion of our gravel driveway to buy us some time.  The photo shows the horses sporting their ridiculously pricey fly sheets, as one of the downsides of confining was that they could no longer escape the vicious and persistent horse flies here.

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Meanwhile, I continued researching the best option for permanent housing.  I stumbled upon a great study of wild horse herds, and the research resulted in a domestic-horse management concept called ” Paddock Paradise.”  Essentially, it was designed by farrier and wild-horse expert Jamie Jackson to simulate the diet, eating habits, herd dynamics, and movements of the wild horses.  First, the horses are removed from free-choice pasture, and put on a diet of low-sugar, high-roughage hay.  Ideally, the sugar content is less than 10%.  Then, rather than stalls, runs, or small paddocks, the horses are given a track to live on.  Similar to a racetrack, the track is designed in such a way as to encourage movement and stimulation of the horse.  Many build the track around the perimeter of their pasture, while some zig-zag  or meander the track through their terrain.  Most tracks are some form of continuous loop, but others dead end into a wide area and force the horses to turn around.  Either way can work.  Most of the track is narrow–about 10-15 foot wide.  It may get a bit narrower in some areas, and wider in others, but for the most part, that standard width encourages forward movement.

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Our little herd traveling from their water station to one of the hay stations.  This section of track is 15 feet wide–our standard for most of the track.

Then, “stations” are set up along the track.  There is a water station, a hay station, a mineral station, and in the case of long tracks, there may be several of each.  You can also get creative.  There can be “stations” for rolling and lounging, obstacles, water crossings, different surfaces along the track, and more.  The imagination is the limit, but the idea is to keep the horses moving to meet their needs–just like horses in the wild.

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By using a high electric line, it still allows the horses to graze a little, but not enough to cause health troubles. One extra benefit….a nicely grazed strip means I never have to trim around my fence posts!

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One of our”obstacle” sections, where the horses learn to pick up their feet to cross over the logs along this stretch of track.

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This area of track can be closed off to double as a round pen where I can train as desired. Otherwise it stays open with the track passing through, and the horses selected it as their favorite rest and rolling area. Notice there is no manure in this area, even though they have had access to it for over a year (we have NEVER cleaned the manure in that year!).

In our case, we eliminated the expensive supplements, switched to the low-sugar hay, eliminated the sugary grains (oats only for the working horses), and moved the horses into the track.  The mysterious fevers and sudden bouts of lameness stopped immediately.  Within 2 months, the hooves began looking different, and within 4 months, we were able to remove their shoes for standard farm work.  With regular trims, the hoof flares began disappearing, the cracks began growing out, and the thrush and white line issues became almost non-existent.  After a year, the only issue we really dealt with was occasional sole tenderness when we worked the horses on sharp gravel, which made sense considering most of their track was our wet clay soils (too much moisture results in softer soles and hooves).

Other benefits we have seen include a change in herd dynamics.  The “herd” traveled together along the track, established a predictable routine, designated bathroom areas (known as “stud piles” in the wild) for manuring, and our horse who NEVER laid down previously began laying down to rest on occasion.

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Moving as a herd along the track.

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In the lower left corner, you can see one of the herd’s designated “stud piles” for manuring. This photo was taken over a year after putting the horses in this track, and we have NEVER cleaned the manure. Notice, however, that there is no manure anywhere else in the photo. The horses can be seen resting in the shade of the trees at the far end.

I had several concerns when we first opted to try it out.  I was very concerned about one of our horses, Bud, losing condition.  He was atypical of most drafts, in that he was a “high-maintenance” horse or “hard-keeper.”  He required almost twice the grain and hay of the other drafts, and it seemed I was always fighting to get him to gain weight.  When our work season really got busy, we had to increase his feed further, and he still looked a bit thin with ribs showing within a couple months.  I wasn’t confident this new system would work well for him.  Boy, was I wrong!  As it turned out, I was always battling adding a fat layer to him.  The increased movement caused him to muscle up, and improved his metabolism.  That’s about the only way I can explain it.  He has looked awesome every since, despite the fact his work load has more than doubled from that first year!

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Physical condition is excellent to due to the increased movement.  This mustang is a bit on the pudgy side, in fact, but her muscle development has given her a much broader body type compared to most domesticated mustangs.

Our first big “test” of the conditioning came the following spring.  Every spring, we take the horses to an annual “plow day,” where teamsters from several states come together to enjoy plowing fields with their teams of horses.  The downside of spring plowing is the plowing is one of the toughest jobs you can ask a horse to do physically, and this particular event tends to be right at the end of winter, when the horses are in their worst “winter” condition–otherwise known as fat and out of shape!  That spring, however, was different for us.  Due to personal circumstances, we had been unable to work the team at all for over 2 months.  As usual, we saw teams needing breaks after just 1/2 hour, and stopping completely after about 2-3 hours of plowing.  With just quick pauses to catch their breath, however, our team was still going strong after 4 hours, and hadn’t even broken a sweat!  And for those who are familiar with horse-plowing, my team was pulling a 14-inch sulky plow, dropped about 8 inches in!  I truly was surprised and even amazed at their condition.

GPS tracking studies have shown that horses living on tracks situated along the perimeter of averaged sized pastures (roughly 1-5 acres), can move significantly more than when housed on pasture.  Of course, the longer the track, the more that can increase.  Although horses can still be turned out into the pasture for periodic grazing, the time should be limited to no more than 30 minute periods of time, unless your pasture is very sparse or weedy.  Lush pastures should be limited to about 15 minutes.

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A sketch of our current Paddock Paradise track, which is situated along the perimeter of our 6 acre pasture. Since we no longer use the pasture for significant horse grazing, it is now used to produce small amounts of hay and to graze our grass-fed cattle and pasture-based poultry.

A few other benefits of track housing is that horses do not get bored, and thus do not develop boredom-related behavioral issues such as cribbing, pawing, pacing, and general crankiness.  I do not have to “lunge” or “get the spunk out” of my horses before riding, as they are already exercised and ready to go, both mentally and physically.

So, with all the good that comes from a system like this, could there be a negative side to it?  The answer is “Yes,” though I have only found one downside.  When horses are allowed to live in a herd setting, with increased movement and natural environments, injuries are bound to happen.  Scrapes, dings, nicks, lumps, bumps, bite marks, and chewed-on hair have become quite normal for our horses.  Think of it like children….you can keep them confined all day and protect them from injury, or you can let them out to play at the risk of scraped knees and elbows.  Same principle applies here.  It isn’t terribly unsightly, but it is a fact that might not go over well in a show-barn.  However, in our case, the mental and physical benefits we have observed in our horses make every little scar totally worthwhile.

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Some lumps, bumps, and dings one of our team showed up to breakfast with one morning.

Now that we have used our Paddock Paradise for over a year, we hope to never have to return to any other way of managing horses!  I cannot express to you all the incredible benefits we have seen.  Our Amish friends, whose livelihood depends on their horses, have watched as our horses have changed over time, and they are even considering trying it now.  If you have your own property, I highly encourage you to consider using this system.  If, however, you are stuck at a boarding stable, I encourage you to talk to the stable manager.  Show them this post.  I also wrote an article about it that was published in “Rural Heritage” magazine.  Boarding stables around the world have found success with this system.  It just works.  We purchased an “easy-keeping” little mini horse at one point who formerly ate about 1/8 flake of hay a day while house in a dray paddock, and was still roly-poly fat!  We put him on track, and despite having free-choice access to hay 24/7, he lost the weight and muscled up, thanks to the increased movement!  If you have easy-keeping ponies, hard-keeper horses, geriatric horses, rescues needing rehab, you name it…..you may have to modify slightly to begin with, but ultimately, I’d be willing to bet they would thrive on this system!  There are just too many personal testimonies out there to suggest otherwise.

We are actually in the process of building our 2nd Paddock Paradise now.  We are moving the track to our back acreage, so we can increase the length and the things they are exposed to.  Our new track will be longer, have water crossings, steep hills, long stretches for galloping, more hard surfaces (and less clay), and more!  We hope to move the horses in before the end of the year.  It requires a good bit of land clearing, which is taking time, but we are making progress.  There you have it!

If you read my last post about our new, open-ended, tarp-covered, layer hen hoop house, you may have wondered how we sheltered them for winter.  One option is to move them into another shelter for winter.  We didn’t like that idea, though, so we opted to kill two birds with one stone (but we didn’t kill any hens, don’t worry!).  We chose to recycle some old hay bales someone offered us, and use the natural heat supplied by the sun and by compost to protect our girls through our bitter winters.

When the temps got cold enough and the grass died off enough, we pulled the Hen Hut up to a spot near the barn, and parked it for the winter.  We then brought in around 120 bales of old, moldy, rotting, otherwise useless hay and straw.  Unfortunately, we were so busy building the structure, I totally forgot to take photos, so the “after construction” photos will have to suffice.

First, we jacked the skids of the hoop house about a foot off the ground, to allow us room to build up deep bedding over the course of the winter.  Next, we stacked the bales in a rectangular shape around our hoop house and feeder, and secured them with cattle panel and t-posts to ensure they didn’t fall on any chickens as they decayed over the winter.

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The winter fortress, as viewed from the outside. S is walking towards it, for scale reference. The peak is actually the top of the hoop house inside.

On one end, we left a small gap between two hay bales for a chicken and dog-sized entrance, and then stacked a few more bales around the hole to provide a wind block.

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The chicken entrance, hidden under these bales, allows our hens to still come and go as they please through the winter, while still protecting them from the elements.

Then, we added a man-sized door made of scrap lumber to the other end, so we could easily get in and out to tend the birds and collect eggs.

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The man door, open, with the view to the inside of the winter “solarium.”

Finally, we built a simple rafter system out of scrap lumber, and covered it in plastic sheeting–nothing special, just some scrap stuff we had in the barn.

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The simple plastic roof can be seen here, spanning the distance between bales.

The layers did absolutely awesome with this design!  We added fresh bedding about twice a week, and watered the old bedding down a bit every other week or so to keep it just damp enough to compost.  The combination of composting deep bedding and composting bales, kept the interior of the fort-style structure a very comfortable 60+ degrees F on even the coldest (negative temps) winter nights.  The plastic sheeting provided a small amount of insulation to keep the heat from escaping out the roof, in addition to allowing solar heating during the day.  In fact, on warmer winter days (over 20 degrees F), we had to actually open the man door to ventilate the structure, or it would reach over 85 degrees F in there!  In addition, the large expanse of clear plastic and the white roof of their hoop house allowed them to get as much natural light as possible during the winter months, which is critical for egg laying.  As a result of the heat and insulate qualities of this design–ugly though it may be–the hens layed steadily throughout the winter.  There was about a 3 week period in January and early February where S added a solar-powered light (seen in the photo above) to give them a couple more hours of lighting, as a result of our egg count declining somewhat.  This popped it right back up where we needed it to get us and a few customers through the winter, without going overboard.

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Happy hens (most are outside free-ranging when this photo was taken). Notice the heated waterer hanging from the ceiling–which never froze once, and thus never had to be plugged in! What a waste of $40!

When winter was over, we simply disassembled the structure, recycled the bales once again to build water-retention berms on steep slopes in our pasture, and hauled the coop back out to pasture.  The system worked so great for us, that we are already working out a source for old hay/straw for this winter!

Since we couldn’t run our farm as naturally and forage-based as we do without some form of protection, I’ll update you on our guardian dog program.

As you may recall, back in 2014, we bred our registered Colorado Mountain Dog LGD, Iris, to a full Pyrenees stud, who was a proven LGD, had the temperament we wanted, and whose age (9 years) still found him in excellent health.  They had a beautiful litter of pups.  After waiting a bit to see how the pups turned out, we were extremely pleased (as were the buyers), so we wanted to repeat that breeding.  First, however, we had Iris’ hips x-rayed, and consulted with our vet at length about her health and candidacy for breeding.  In 2015, another mating resulted in a second litter of adorable little snowball pups, which sold equally as fast.  At that point, we realized there was a tremendous need for responsibly bred, affordable, well-started, and healthy livestock guardian dogs.

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Purchasing an LGD can really be like playing Russian Roulette in some ways, as the genetics are all over the place with almost all breeds today.  As with most animals, especially in America, irresponsible breeders have messed up genetics so much, and results can be very hit-or-miss based on the mixed up genetics of modern LGDs.

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Knowing we wanted to be part of the solution, rather than the problem, we took some steps to ensure we fit the “responsible” category.  First, we developed an official breeding plan of sorts, with health standards we would require in our breeding dogs, health exams, written guidelines, policies, return exceptions, and so forth for buyers.  We came up with a plan for really ensuring the pups all had a great start in their lives as LGDs, and evaluated our own needs, and what market we wanted to focus on serving with our dogs.  This helped us plan the type of stud dog we wanted to find.

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Since the original male was getting older, we found our own stud dog (Tundra), who came from a line of proven CMD dogs and excellent health.  We also had retained a second female from Iris’ first litter (Charity).  When the two turned a year old, we had both of them evaluated and x-rayed by our vet team to ensure they were as close to “perfect” as we could get.  Tundra was, Charity was considered closer to “good” rather than “excellent” on the hip rating.  As a result, we had Charity spayed, then used Tundra with Iris for her third litter, born in 2016.  Unfortunately, as Tundra matured, he did not have quite the temperament we were looking for. We were aiming for quieter and calmer, and he…..well…..wasn’t.  He was a talker, and crazy immature and hyperactive.  I also noticed a huge difference in his pups by the time they were only 3 weeks old.  They too were extra talkative, more active, and more domineering towards each other than either of our previous litters.  Not bad pups, by any means.  He was in fact, a great dog and a great LGD, just not what we needed or wanted to breed for.

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The tough decision was made to rehome him to a farm better suited to his disposition and start our search for the perfect stud again.  As it turned out, we found a great home, but they really needed two dogs.  So, we agreed to sell the both Charity and Tundra.  We were sad to see them go, but glad we could help a new farm get off the ground.  So, we were back to square one–but not for long.  I located a breeder down south with a litter of full Pyrenees pups.  They had the sire and dam on property, as well as some adult siblings, all of whom I could evaluate for health and temperament.  I wound up purchasing 4 of their male pups, hoping I could keep the “best” (for our needs) and give the others a good start to help other farms.

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Over the next 4 months, that’s exactly what I did.  I put Iris partly in charge of helping to train the pups, and we watched closely as they grew over the next few months.  When one showed consistent barking issues, he lost some points.  When another showed more dominance issues, he lost a few points.  When one ignored poultry, as the others showed too much interest in a chicken, that one gained some points.  And so on and so forth, until we narrowed the selection to two.  Then, it was a matter of deciding which of those two would be the best compliment for Iris’ strengths and weaknesses.  Finally, by late September, I had selected my pup.

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Our new pup, Cedar, is an absolute gem!  He is the most laid-back, easy going, happy dog, and only barks if there is a true threat.  Otherwise, he is content to just sit and watch the goings on around the farm.  He loves people, adores his goats, and is gentle with pretty much everything we’ve ever introduced him to.  He hasn’t shown a tendency to wander off, or a desire to challenge anyone at feeding time.  These are all characteristics I love, and hope to pass on to any pups.  On top of that, he is a beautiful, very regal looking dog.  He doesn’t have the big, boxy, drooly look of many modern Great Pyrenees, and I’m hoping he stays that way.  Of course, nothing is certain yet.  He still has to pass the x-rays and breeding evaluation by the vet in a few months, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed!

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In the midst of all that, we also took in 3 LGDs that were in urgent re-home situations for different reasons.  We were able to help all 3 find new homes that were better suited to their individual needs and instincts.  It always feels great helping other farms match to such great dogs!

Currently, it seems a bit quiet around here with just Iris and Cedar, now that all the other pups and rescue dogs have their permanent homes.  As busy as we’ve been though, it’s also nice to have a bit of a break for a few months from raising and training pups.  Nonetheless, assuming his evaluation goes well, we are looking forward to another litter of pups around here–hopefully by summer of 2017.

We raised 2 Red Wattle hogs in the forest again this year.  This year, however, we raised barrows (castrated boys) instead of gilts (girls) like last year.  Man, oh, man did those boy grow fast!!  The first hog was sold to customers, and we wound up taking it to the processor several months earlier than planned (the schedule being based on the gilts’ growth last year).  At 6 months old, his hanging weight came to 198 lbs, which is roughly 300 lbs. live weight.  The second hog was destined for our own freezer.  Typically, we butcher our personal animals right here on the farm.  In order to do the larger animals such as hogs and beef, we have to wait for colder weather so we can hang the sides in our garage for a cooling and aging period.  So, after the first hog left, we kept the remaining hog as happy as we could.  We supplied him with happy-hog-staples such as mud, fresh forest forage, roots, nuts, kitchen leftovers, milk and whey, hog feed, whatever we could think of.  Maybe we over did it a little.  Just a little.

OK, a LOT.

When it looked as though S’s elbows were not healing, the decision was made to send our hog to the processor as well.  He was getting to expensive to feed, and he wouldn’t stop growing.  One evening, we bribed him with a little milk, got him up into the trailer (you can youtube “elephant seal trying to climb onto a car” if you want a visual), gave him a pile of soft hay to nest into, and let him settle in for the night.  We just hoped our trailer survived until morning.  Early the next morning, S drove him to the processor.  The workers in the livestock area took one look at him laying all comfy-cozy in his hay bed, and said, “uh, how do we get him out?”  They then proceeded to look at each other with each stating his position that he would NOT enter that trailer with that beast.  So, not wanting to hold up the line, S said, “don’t worry, I’ll get him out.”  He jumped up in the trailer, called him, gave him a scratch behind the ears, and bribed him out of the trailer in seconds.  The livestock guys stood there with their chins on the loading ramp.  Guess they hadn’t seen it done that way before.  It’s so much easier in our opinion, but really, what do we know?  It is only our 4th hog after all.

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By that afternoon, we had a hanging weight of 289 lbs, which equates to over 400 lbs live weight.  I realize that isn’t a huge hog by any stretch of the imagination.  I’ve seen some approaching 800-1000 lbs.  THAT is impressive!  Nonetheless, he was twice the size of a typical hog at processing time.  As it turned out, not only did he have some impressively large pork chops cut out of his sides, but he also had 3 inches of back fat.  Seeing as how S asked the processor for the fat, which is now being stored in my freezer, I’m seeing a lot of lard-making in the not-too-distant future.

Then, by the time I get that task completed, it will be time to start all over.  We’ve already ordered up 6 hogs for next year.  Believe it or not, we are excited about it.  Hogs can be a lot of fun, but there’s no way I can convince you of that.  You’ll just have to try raising one yourself.

Our poor boy, Nick, is in prison.  Actually, it’s a very fancy, well-built, draft-horse-proof, extra sterile stall, complete with rubber mats, center drain, fan, auto-waterer…..and floor to ceiling welded wire gate, which makes it look like a prison cell.

Nick's prison cell…I mean, specialized hospital stall.

Nick’s prison cell…I mean, specialized hospital stall.

After Nick’s severe leg injury early last week, he became our focus for the next 7 days.  We arranged for him to be able to nuzzle with his buddy, Bud, over the stall wall at night.  In the day, when we forced Bud outside to graze, we checked Nick’s swelling, felt his lower leg to make sure blood was flowing sufficiently through the bandages, walked him twice a day, medicated him twice a day, visited him multiple times a day to keep him from being lonely, turned on his fan when it was too warm in there (a 2000 lb horse can produce a LOT of body heat in a confined space!), cleaned his stall several times a day to reduce chance of infection, and pampered him as much as we possibly could.  Every two days, we changed the bandage.  Things seemed to be healing nicely.  We took pictures of the injury with each bandage change, and we e-mailed photos to the vet mid-week so he could check things over.  Nick ‘s swelling gradually subsided, his walking improved, and the injury seemed to be on the road to recovery.  

WARNING:  GRAPHIC and disgusting photos below!  

Seriously….only scroll down if you desire to see the INSIDE of a live horse’s leg.  

OK, don’t say I didn’t warn you…..

Day 2, post-injury

Day 2, post-injury

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Day 4….lookin’ good; sutures holding up well, and swelling going down

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Day 5….a little weepy and top suture ruptured, but nothing major. Walking improved significantly.

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Day 6….bandage slipped, and top of drain disappeared. Not sure if it slipped inside or got bitten off. I see some yellow, but there is no sign of swelling, off smells, and amount of seepage about the same.

We made it through the first week fairly unscathed, and things were looking good.  The sutured laceration seemed to be healing nicely.  We had high hopes for an easy, if somewhat lengthy recovery.  After the Sunday night check, we carefully re-bandaged the same way as usual–carefully wiping away excess moisture, coating the wound with antibiotic cream, then layering with sterile gauze, gauze rolls, cotton, more gauze, vet wrap, and some tape to hold it up–just as the vet had shown us.  Everything seemed fine Monday, his daily walk was the first without me having to help him step properly with a foot rope.  I made note that the turkeys in my barn (in a neighboring stall) were smelling a little funky, but didn’t have time to deal with it right then.  Tuesday morning, the turkey stall smell really caught my attention when I entered the barn.  The kids and I tended to the horses, then turned our attention to cleaning and rebedding the turkeys and baby chicks.  I didn’t see anything unusual, but boy, did the barn smell ripe!  That afternoon, we loaded Nick into the trailer to head to the vet and get his drain removed and sutures checked.  When we arrived, I was surprised to find he smelled just like the turkeys that morning.  I brushed it off.  Never once did it occur to me that the smell was not turkey, but infected flesh!

After the last bandage change, you can imagine the shock S and I felt when the vet took off the wrap to expose the wound, and we saw something TOTALLY opposite what we expected!  Infection had set in, and blown over half the sutures out. A vet told us this is a common thing that happens about a week into a severe injury like this. It didn’t really make us feel better. In fact, I think we were fighting back tears the whole time. I didn’t get a photo of that day, but suffice it to say, there was lots of goo, pus, bloody fluid, and stink!  We discussed our options with the vet, and the decision was made to hit the infection intensively.  Nick would stay at the clinic in a hospital stall, where the vet and techs could tend him multiple times per day.  The plan involved complete stall rest, as the wound could not be re-wrapped and supported to allow him to walk.  It had to be able to breathe and drain.  The drain and remaining sutures would be left a few days longer, to attempt to hold any healed tissue together.  Antibiotics would be injected directly into the wound every day.  Because of his new-found fear of needles and the increased tenderness of the wound, this involved daily sedation to get the job done.  The vet would clean the wound several times a day, while the techs kept his stall cleaned out.  In addition to the direct antibiotics, they were also going to hit him with systemic antibiotics, both injected and oral to circulate through his system.  We hoped 3-4 days of this intensive treatment would show improvement.   The next day, AFTER the wound was cleaned up, this is what it looked like: 

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Day 10…the white squiggly line is the rubber drain tube.

Today, the news wasn’t much better, much to our dismay.  The vet said he’s had a low-grade fever all week, and just can’t shake it.  The antibiotics are keeping it under control, but it just won’t go away.  This means there is definitely a festering infection going on.  He wound up pulling the drain and remaining sutures on Day 11, as he felt they weren’t doing any good anyway, and may possibly contribute to irritation and infection.  Otherwise, the heavy antibiotics and multiple-times a day treatments are the only thing that can be done.  Since the wound can’t be sutured to heal from the outside, in, the vet is attempting to help the wound heal from the inside, out by treating the wound in such a way as to encourage granulation tissue to form.  So, now Nick is imprisoned for at least another 4 days or so.  The vet doesn’t want him to leave (nor do we) until the fever is gone and stays gone for several days.  He also has to be finished with all injectables, as his new hypersensitivity to needles, combined with his massive size, means there is no possible way we can inject anything at home.  Everything will have to be oral or topical.  At that point, he will re-suture the wound, and we will start all over with bandages and home treatments.  The good news is that the vet is very hopeful, and still feels Nick will make a good recovery.  He told us today that the mystery infection/fever could possibly be internal–such as in the joint capsule, where it can’t be seen.  That may mean arthritis will set in later, and only time will tell how severe.  The other good news is that, since Nick seems to be walking almost normally again, we can be relatively assured that there is no permanent tendon, ligament, or nerve damage in the leg.  That is a huge relief!  

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Yes, it’s ugly. It’s wide open, and opens deep into the abyss with each step he takes or movement he makes. The light pink color, however, is granulation tissue–a good sign.

So, that’s our life right now.  Poor Nick is bored out of his mind, hardly eating what’s offered, and seems totally confused.  Bud, here on the home front, is equally confused, and stands in Nick’s stall at the slightest opportunity, with his head hanging down, and almost seeming depressed.  He seems to be accepting that Nick isn’t here, but definitely seems lost without him.  He has stopped nickering for him, and his spunk is not quite what it was.  I surely wish I could explain to them what’s going on, and that this is only temporary–Lord willing.  

I do have to admit that real-to-life financial thoughts hit me on occasion.  Since the horses were a substantial part of our farm income, and we have lost that for now, I confess, I am NOT looking forward to the upcoming vet bill.  We have already paid for the first treatment, and that was painful enough.  I fear it will be no comparison to the next one, though.  As long as we have been involved in animals, S and I have always had a pre-agreed upon $$ amount we could spend on emergency vet care to heal an animal.  We have always believed that we are called to be stewards of ALL our blessings–children, each other, animals, possessions, AND finances.  This is the first time we have encountered a situation where an animal was more than just a pet, but a valuable asset, a way of life, power for our little farm, and an income source.  We aren’t really sure how to put a cap on that.  

 We are praying, though, a LOT.  We are praying that the finances can handle it, that Nick can heal quickly and get back home to Bud, that all our emotions hold through this ordeal, and that everything will just be OK soon.  In fact, I have never really prayed over an animal the way we are praying for Nick.  I feel so helpless, it’s really all we can do.  Nick is an amazing horse, and we have committed to do what we can for him, as long as God gives us peace with continuing this direction.  If you have a moment, perhaps you could say a little prayer for him as well?  I hate seeing my big boys going through all this, and long to see them romping and rearing and galloping through our pasture once again!  I won’t even yell at them next time I see them biting each other mane hairs off, or pawing at the stall wall!

Yesterday was a big day.  It was time to unwrap Nick’s leg and do some tending to it.  He was a good boy, considering.  I think he was having flashbacks to everything the vet did, but he relaxed a bit after a while.  It is clearly very sore, and he would prefer we not touch it.

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So far, the incision is looking good.  The swelling has started, but isn’t too bad, and there is no heat, which is a very good thing.  After all of his recent stumbling on that hoof, I was very concerned we would find some busted sutures, but there were none and all looked good.  We hosed, doctored, and re-wrapped it for another day or two.

Poor Nick has had enough of stall life.  He lives in the stall, and during the night time hours, we allow his brother, Bud, to have access to the alleyway in front of the stall (the size of a stall itself) and the paddock directly behind the barn.  Most of the time when we check on them, either Nick is hanging his head out of the stall window to see Bud, or, more often, Bud has his head hanging through INTO Nick’s stall.  Other times, Bud is in the alley stall with his head hanging over the stall railing.  The miss each other very much.

Nick is doing well on his daily walks to the back grazing paddock.  He still stumbles, but it is becoming less frequent, leaving me hopeful that it is caused by soreness rather than nerve damage.  I won’t know for a while yet, though.

Speaking of Nick, it’s time to go tend to him.  I’ll keep you posted.

Our little farm has been crazy busy serving customers this spring.  We have truly been humbled by the number of total strangers that have paid deposits for meat, live animals, and classes offered by our farm, all in the faith that we will supply their order.  Considering the fact we just moved here a year ago, and have no “name” or reputation here, we believe that’s a big deal and a huge blessing.  We also feel it is indicative of the tremendous need for healthy, pure foods and good stewardship in farming in our area.

Along those lines of stewardship and farming, as you know, in late March, we brought home our new team of Belgian horses.  We spent a couple of months getting to know them and testing them out in all sort of circumstances.  We pulled logs out of woods, up hills, around pond edges, and even logs stuck in vines overhead.  We had them pull the wagon across train tracks, around fires, on busy roads, gravel roads, dirt roads, and more.  We loaded the wagon with lumber, firewood, hay, and people.  We hooked them to and asked them to drag 1500 lb round bales, fence posts, and our incredibly noisy road grader.  We drove them into our small town several times, tested them on steep hills and around crowds. I had the kids ride bicycles all around them while I drove several times, and even had 3-year-old R squeeze a squeaky toy until the team was OK with the idea.  You get the picture.

Well, all that work is paying off, and we are increasingly thankful for the time, effort, and extra money we saved to invest in a really well-trained team.  These boys have impressed us at every turn.  We were warned on multiple occasions that once folks got wind of our team, the requests would start pouring in.  Boy, oh, boy were they right!!  Our first request was to help pull a log out of someone’s back woods, and we did in exchange for some of the lumber for milling.  The next request was to help demo horse-drawn plowing at a local state park.  We decided it would be a great experience, so we hitched up, drove the team to the park (just a couple miles away), unhitched, and the more experienced teamsters helped us hitch up to a plow and set to work.  We didn’t have a clue what we were doing, but clearly our team had plowed before.  Nick, the off horse, dropped right down into the furrow, both boys leaned into their collars, and they pulled just like old pros.  Considering it was a special demo day for the public, we appreciated that the boys made us newbies look really good!  So good in fact, that we were then requested to come give rides at the state park on a weekly basis.

S on the plow at the state park demo

S on the plow at the state park demo

We weren’t quite ready for that step, but it made us start planning and brainstorming a plan of action.  Another month or so went by and we decided to start offering wagon rides every weekend through summer in our little town–which, by the way, has NOTHING else to do on weekend evenings.  Because our little town has never had such a request, we discovered that there were no licensing or permitting requirements.  They only asked that we put “diapers” on the horses to catch manure.  The city officials were excited, so we got the legalities in order, got the horses’  “Bun Bags” for their manure, and had our first weekend rides.  We decided offering such rides was a great way to stimulate the horses’ mentally, get us all off the farm once a week, and generally give us all a change of pace.  I wouldn’t call it booming business, but considering we only gave folks a couple days’ notice, we were pleased with the turnout.  It will help buy hay for the winter.  That evening, however, we were spotted by multiple other folks.  One was a theater director who has requested us and our team play the “Wells-Fargo” wagon in an upcoming outdoor production.  Another hosts a fall festival and really wants us to offer rides to help increase business there.  A third is interested in having their almost-senior high school student hire our wagon for prom next year.  WOW!  And we aren’t even advertising yet!

We haven’t committed to anything else just yet, as we are still plenty busy here on the farm.  We are talking and planning though, looking at our calendar, and I’ve started doing a lot of sensory work with the horses to get them used to more and more activity, just so we are as prepared as possible.  For now, we are focusing on keeping the team working several days a week doing miscellaneous work around the farm, and holding our Saturday evening wagon rides in town.  We are creating flyers to notify weekend tourists in the area and at the local hotels of the event, and we are considering other activities that help get word out about our farm, which will hopefully drum up business in other areas of our farm business.  It has been fun so far, though, and we look forward to seeing how our little farm business morphs as time goes on.  In the mean time, if you are interested in hiring draft-horse services in the central IL region, you can check out our farm website at http://www.redgatefarmllc.com and send us an inquiry!

Horse-Drawn Wagon Rides

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