Archives for posts with tag: sheep

Two-Legged Hazards…

A.V. Walters–

People just don’t walk. In Two Rock, Rick and I had a reputation. If we went to feed the emus, on the other side of the farm, we walked over. We walked when we visited Elmer, our friendly landlord. We walked to our favorite berry patch, only about a mile and a half away. We would have walked to more places, but there wasn’t much around. (The nearest market was about 5 miles away, and that’s a little far to be lugging groceries.) People noticed. Sometimes they’d roll down the window to ask if you needed a ride. Soon, folks in the area knew us—they’d wave. We heard that they’d asked Elmer about us—you know, what’s up with those two, always walking all over the place? Elmer would just shrug. The farmers in the area all drove pickups, or four-wheelers, wherever they went. It made sense if you carried tools and feed. But it was more than that, one day Elmer dropped by for one of our friendly conversations. In the middle of it, he was reminded of a newspaper article that he’d saved for me. He held up one finger, “Be right back,” and he hopped in the truck for the 500-foot trip to his house.

On his return, I asked why he drove that little hop, to his place. Granted, he had a bad knee, but it was more than that. Elmer and Don always drove everywhere on the farm.

“It’s habit, I guess, we can’t afford the time it takes to walk everywhere.”

I guess my face showed doubt.

“Really, a walk over to the sheep barn would take 20 minutes, the work-day is long enough, as it is. If we walked, we’d never finish what needs to be done.”

So, in part, it’s a habit. Once the workday is done, the habit remains, and you drive to visit the neighbor—if only yards away.

Our walking was noted by the livestock, too. We had a single lane driveway to our side of the farm, about half a mile long. On one side of the lane, there were two large pastures, for sheep and, opposite the sheep, there was a huge field for the dairy cows, next door. That dividing lane serviced the dairy trucks, hay haulers, feed trucks, egg trucks, tractors, numerous tenants, you name it—all manner of large and noisy, vehicular farm traffic. They moved along at quite a clip, too. The sheep and cows grazing mere feet from the hurtling trucks didn’t even flinch at the noisy invasions. But, pedestrians? You’d have thought we were wolves. We’d walk down the lane and the sheep would flee as though their lives depended on it, lambs galloping, followed by lumbering, milk-heavy ewes. The cows would stare, chewing, and as we approached, mosey on, away from the fence line. Of course, if you carried a feed-bucket, those same sheep would mob you.

We’re back to our walking ways, and our neighbors have noticed. They drive by and wave. Yesterday we walked into town, just over a mile, to check the mail. Like Two Rock, the roads here are not very pedestrian friendly. On the way, we spooked a doe and her fawn. They’d been poised at the road’s edge, readying to dash across. It’s a busy road. Michigan statistics show that every year over 60,000 of them don’t make it to the other side. Deer seem oblivious to two or three tons of fuel-injected steel, screaming towards them at 70 mph, and yet, when confronted by a couple of pedestrians, that deer bolted back into the swamp, along with her equally spooked, spotted fawn. Maybe I should check myself in the mirror. I’m a little afraid of traffic—but the deer are afraid of me.

Empty Nest

A.V. Walters

Our avian stalemate was short lived. One of the chickens decided to break ranks. I don’t know the dynamics of chicken-chicken relations, much less chicken-emu exchanges. In any event, chicken-number-two decided to change sides and hang with Gatsby and Kelvin. She followed them around, even slept on the ground near them, in their corner emu haven. That shift changed her routine and she stopped laying eggs in her usual spot. Every day we’d have to go searching for her egg. The egg hunt caught the attention of the emus (though I doubt they had any idea what was up.) I’d be stalking around the yard, poking here and there, with two emus following so closely behind that if I stopped suddenly, they’d bump into me like some Laurel and Hardy routine. Just behind them was the emu-friendly chicken (following the emus) and the regular chicken, not to be totally left out, brought up the rear. What a parade!

The emus are amazingly social. They tried to play and dance with their new chicken friend, but she didn’t get it. Just keeping company was enough for her.

Feeling their oats, the emus proceeded to try to engage with the antisocial chicken, and it resulted in a spirited emu/chicken chase. They could not win her over—so it was a three-to-one club in our front yard.

 

The Emu Transit Trailer

The Emu Transit Trailer

And things would have remained so, had it not been for the arrival of the trailer. I’d talked to Don and Elmer about transferring the emus across the road—for training with sheep at the tutelage of emu-dad. Being a softie, I’d requested that they use a fully enclosed trailer. Emus do not like travel and do not transfer well. I thought the experience would be less traumatic if the trailer didn’t offer the view of the world whizzing by at high speed. So, out of the blue, Elmer arrives with a perfect livestock trailer—not one of the ratty open trailers he uses to transport chickens, but a real, fancy trailer. Apparently he borrowed it for an extra large load of sheep he needed to haul, and thought he’d take the opportunity to move the emus. There we were, without notice, for the fateful emu moving day. It’s probably just as well, because I’d have fretted over it.

 

Not liking that trailer!

Not liking that trailer!

Hmmmph! Smells like sheep!

Hmmmph! Smells like sheep!

With a minimum of trauma, and only a few tears (mine), the emu-youths were loaded into the trailer and off to new pastures, literally. For their initiation, we decided not to mix the young with the adult emus—so as to let them get used to their new digs first. Good thing, too! Those little emus were in total, “Where-are-we-now, Toto?” shock. They stood in the middle of a large pasture, slack-jawed at the openness. The only thing that captured their attention were the almost equally curious emu parents, gawking from across the upper fence. Emus!

 

Look! EMUS!

Look! EMUS!

The little guys set off at a trot to explore these new relatives. But blood isn’t thicker than water. It doesn’t come close to being as thick as food. The deck was stacked against the youngsters.

 

Maybe not so friendly

Maybe not so friendly

You see, our dry summer has been so dry that the summer grasses have browned early. There’s little nutrition in grazing this season. Even up by the pond, where the emus have been kept, it is pretty brown. Elmer has cut back on the number of sheep he’s running—keeping only breeding stock. There’s little grass to feed them and the cost of hay and feed (grain) reflects the dry conditions and scarcity. Usually, if the emus are with the sheep, they’ll supplement summer’s slim pickings with the sheep mix. But this year the emus aren’t with the sheep. Nobody bothered to check on the emus up in the high pasture and they are hungry. So the kids were not visitors—they were competitors for scarce resources; the emu-babies’ homecoming was punctuated with hisses and grunts from mom and dad. If the little ones got too close to the fence, they were rewarded with pecks on the top of their heads (Just like the chickens!) Sadly, this hasn’t dissuaded the little ones. They are eager to commune with other emus. Gatsby, especially, runs to the fence whenever the adults are in view. I think this relationship may be forged on the enthusiasm of youth.

 

Perhaps a little supervision is in order

Perhaps a little supervision is in order

I also think we can fix this. I think a few days of ample rations all around will bring out the better natures of those cranky adult emus. So it’s been kibble and apples all around.  Yesterday, Mr. and Mrs. Emu scarfed down ten good sized apples in minutes. The solution is Food-Aid. We’ll use food as the social lubricant. Today I’m going to slip in some sweet mix (corn and other goodies used for lambs) for extra calories. While the special emu kibble is a better dietary choice, sometimes junk calories are in order. I’m walking across the farm—about a mile—to the back pastures several times a day to provide extra goodies for the parents and company and play for the kids until they settle in. I am hugely relieved that there are two of them, and that they are such good company for each other.

 

Hey, watch your back!

Hey, watch your back!

Meanwhile, on the home front, we have answered a burning question in a sad way. We decided to keep the two chickens for a few days. We like the eggs and, though chickens are no social substitute, we were missing the emus. The unanswered question was whether emus were guardian animals for chickens. The answer is that just the presence of emus helps to guard the chickens. The morning after the emu relocation, we woke to just one chicken, and a lot of feathers. It took the predatory critters less than twelve hours to figure out that those chickens were unprotected in the front yard. We hadn’t even thought of it—that maybe the chickens were at risk without the emus. We feel a little guilty. Chicken number one was eaten—by whom we couldn’t tell. That was it. The other chicken was quickly returned to the relative safety of the barn and our home is now bird free.

Rick spent that next day scrubbing the porch and walkway, removing the temporary fences and returning our yard to normal, residential habitation. The cats are happy. They’ve been going in and out the cat door and re-exploring the front yard. When I miss those emus, I hike across the farm for an emu fix. It’s not the same….but it was time. Nature abhors a vacuum. Territories quickly adjust. But the emus will always have a special place in our hearts.

 

 

Who’s Chicken, Now?

A.V. Walters

Emus aren’t, by nature, guardian animals. They’re actually pretty skittish and, if you want them to guard a herd, they need a proper introduction. Emus are very social animals, but they need to learn who is part of their flock, so they’ll know who isn’t. Gatsby and Kelvin have been running-off anything that comes into the yard, such that we can’t always tell if they’re being nasty, or just overly-friendly. Sometimes, it’s hard to know the difference.

I once had a cat that seemed gregarious and friendly but, at that time, I didn’t have many visitors in my life. Then, when people would come over, the cat would disappear. It turned out that he was petrified of anyone but us. It’s taken years to get him to be comfortable around visitors and strangers. (Rick may argue this point because this cat will still scoot away from him, when he walks into the room.)

And so it is with the emus, they are very comfortable around us, and most of our friends. So, we thought that they were generally, friendly emus. And, well they are, but only within their comfort zone. When strangers come by, they can be a little nervous, and potentially dangerous. That’s the good news… and the bad news, about emus. If they know you, you’re family. If they don’t know you—you are a potential enemy.  As we’ve said before—they’re not real bright. It’s kind of a binary system, they’re either on, or off. If an emu is afraid, then you need to be a little afraid. You need to pay close attention if they start to hiss or huff. Because, not far behind that, is an instinctive, and potentially devastating, kick.

It’s not just with people. The emus are comfortable with our cats; they grew up with them. But they clearly make the distinction between ours and the feral cats from the dairy, next door. Those cats get run off (I suspect with some glee.) It occurred to me recently (when a visitor earned himself a solid hiss) that our emus needed finishing school, so to speak.  So, we decided to start small.

Since there is the possibility that the emus may be guarding chickens, it was a small enough place to start. First, we put an empty cage in the yard, for a few days—that garnered some interest—and soon enough, it became part of the landscape. Then, two days ago, we dropped a couple of chickens into the cage. The emus were wary, to say the least. They scooted around, wide-eyed at the new arrivals’ cackling. (They do seem to be particularly noisy chickens.) We gave it an overnight, and the following day, we opened the cage.

Here come the chickens

Here come the chickens

Now, these emus are teenagers. They’re not yet full sized, but they’re a lot bigger than a chicken. But when it comes to new experiences, they’re still just babies. The emus headed to the far side of the yard. Then, after watching from afar, they slowly inched closer to size-up the new invaders. The chickens are full-gown and about as bright as… well, chickens. They, in contrast, are totally nonplussed by the emus. The emus alternate between being cool about chickens, and being spooked. They walk around like it’s no big deal, but if a chicken corners them, Kelvin, in particular, reacts like her life is at risk. Even though she’s the bigger of the two, she is also the most jumpy. (Boy, does she take after her mother, or what?) For his part, after an initial nervous phase, Gatsby invited a chicken to “dance” (doing the characteristic, emu drop and roll.) The chicken was non-responsive—clearly ignorant of the emu rituals of engagement. I can only hope that the emus aren’t put-off. They’ve managed to share food dishes and yard without serious incident. So far, we’re calling it a success, in a measured sort of way.

Who's stalking whom?

Who’s stalking whom?

Clearly, it’s a good thing we recognized the need for this. These emus have some manners to learn before they head out into the world to take on their security work. We don’t want to raise thugs, after all. We’ll start here, quietly with chickens and, in a week or so, we’ll trade up to goats. Goats, you ask?  Well, Elmer has a couple of goats that were left behind by tenants (this is typical, Elmer) and they’d be perfect for hardening off a couple of flappable, emu trainees. In a few weeks, maybe they’ll be ready for sheep.

Breaking Bread

Breaking Bread

Rick nods to Elmer, noting that we have two cats, two emus, now, two chickens and soon, two goats. He says that if we start building a boat, anytime soon, people should pay attention to the sky.

chick-n-emu 4

 

Voters and Chickens:

Rights (or the lack of) and Repercussions

A.V. Walters

The Chickens have the floor…

Our emus may have to adjust to a different future that I’d imagined for them. It all goes back to a wacky election in 2008.

You see, in that year, animal rights activists put a referendum on the California ballot that would forever change the way chickens are kept on farms in our state. The measure was poorly defined, and the drafters were a million miles from anything in the world of chickens or eggs or economic realities. Still, the objective was to decrease the level of “cruelty” in livestock agriculture. Who could be against that? With some measure of bitterness, I note that that same election cycle produced another measure that stripped marriage rights from gay and lesbian couples in our state. Here we are, over four years later and to date we haven’t sorted out either one of these issues. Chickens given rights, people losing rights! Only in America!!

On the same-sex marriage issue, we are leaping into the future. In part because of the unfairness in the Proposition 8 law, the public dialogue has changed radically. One by one, states are stepping up (as well as the international community) to ratify human rights, ending discrimination in our antiquated, marriage laws. Sadly, in California the situation remains unsettled because actual law moves more slowly than public opinion (and that may be a good thing, sometimes.) This deplorable referendum has worked its way up through the appellate courts and into the highest court in the land. I can’t say the chicken situation is working out so well, either.

Everyone would love to know that the chickens (or eggs) they eat come from some warm and fuzzy, loving farm-home. Modern farming, especially livestock, isn’t warm and fuzzy. Large scale farming is even less so. Since the Chicken Rights referendum wasn’t specific about how chickens should be kept, litigation immediately ensued. (How ironic, a “what came first” thing—the rules or the legislation.) So, farmers waited for instructions. While we’re moving towards an ascertainable standard, the deadline for compliance looms, and many of the older farmers are just closing up shop. What is clear is that the chickens need more “personal space” and elevated wire cages may soon be a thing of the past.

Elmer’s been watching the issue since that election. He’s attended the poultry conferences and seen the new, demonstration equipment. He’s lived on a chicken farm for his entire life and has watched poultry and egg production methods come and go. “Cage free is the future,” he says, “And that’s what we had when I was a kid!” He shakes his head.

“When the cages came in, it was supposed to be the wave of the future. The elevated, wire cages solved a lot of the problems—the waste dropped through the cage for easy removal, the feed was delivered to the troughs along the cage and the eggs rolled forward on the wire chute for easy gathering. Since the chickens weren’t standing in their feces, a lot of the diseases we dealt with, in the past, just disappeared. It was clean and modern.”

The downside to the economy of scale was, well, the scale of it. The press for more production led to overcrowding, and some kinds of wire cages were harmful to the chickens’ feet. Now the consensus is that chickens should be back on the floor, they should be cage-free and should have material (greens, straw or shavings) for “scratch.”

The new law won’t solve the issues of scale and size, and disease becomes a bigger concern. Given the new (and still unclear) restrictions, and the high costs of labor, the commercial solutions offered are high tech and expensive. Nobody wants to see egg costs go to $6.00 a dozen—which we sometimes see here from organic “boutique” farms. The operations challenges remain the same, waste removal and disposal, food delivery and egg collection. The industry is pimping gorgeous equipment—rolling (conveyor) floor beds, automatic feed dispensers and egg collection, all the bells and whistles. And the cost for an operation the size of Elmer’s? Try a cool, half-million dollars. It’s so high, that the only way to make it work is to seriously expand production. So this law, while well-meaning, will drive small producers out of business, and create even bigger factory farms. Good news for chickens?

Elmer is experimenting. He could retire if he wanted but instead, he’s going back to “chickens on the floor.” He’s cutting and bailing his own hay and straw for scratch and bedding materials. He’s resurrected old brooder boxes from over sixty years ago (farmers never throw anything out.) He’s modifying his manure collection system, using bedding materials for absorption, and thus minimizing the frequency of full removal (as relocating the chickens for cleanup is stressful to the chickens.) In short, he’s going back to the kind of farming they practiced when he was a boy. He’s mindful that he’ll need to keep an eye out for any increase in disease and, even at this experimental stage, he’s seeing a increase in predation

Chickens in elevated cages are relatively safe from predators. Elmer’s barns are designed for cage operations, with open sides for ventilation. On the open floors, especially where the chickens are given some access to open-air yard areas, he’s seeing a return of raccoon losses and fox and coyote problems. Even with his small scale experimental operation, he’s losing a chicken a day. This too, is like the old days.

He asked me today if I thought emus could guard against raccoons. In an instant, I saw the writing on the wall (or the broad side of a barn door.) It burst my bubble— the image of our emus patrolling the open range with sheep. I don’t know how emus would react to raccoons—but they’d be good guards against foxes and coyotes. A quick online search reveals no firm information on the emu/raccoon dynamic. It makes me a little sad to think of Gatsby and Kelvin guarding a chicken barn. But, on a farm, we do the work that comes our way. So, we shall see.

Emu Cool

A.V. Walters

Emus Callilng

Emus Calling

Soon, it’ll be time for these emus to move on, literally, to bigger pastures. As is their nature, they’ve become cocky and territorial. No bird, nor cat, dare light in their yard—the emus are a patrolling force to be reckoned with. Of course we have no idea what they’d do if they caught one of these trespassers—and I doubt they know, either. I worry a little that they might be too possessive to admit sheep into their private club. But, sheep are their future, their raison d’être. It’s to protect the sheep that the fields need patrolling. That’s the way it’s going to be, and Gatsby and Kelvin are going to have to learn to loosen up a bit.

They remind me of teenagers, hanging out in front of the convenience store, trading the short ends of cigarette butts, harassing the littler kids, and sneering at the adults who might dare to look at them askance. They march around the yard with purpose, their pre-historic, long-legged gait almost a swagger. Of course, if I come out with apple treats, the veneer of cool peels away in a split second and they’re eager emu babes, again.

Today was just such an exercise. I decided to wash off the front porch and clean the sidewalks. (Dirty birds!) Rick came along to man the hose—and the emus’ curiosity revealed them for the eager children they are. They seem to love anything with water. Rick trained the spray into the yard and, with little encouragement, they dashed in and out of the shower like kids through a sprinkler on a hot, summer day. Even after the running stopped, they (Kelvin mostly) stood and let Rick hose them down. Dripping, they followed me as I broom-scrubbed, hopping and pecking at the push-broom like curling champions (sport, not hair.) Cool aplomb gave way to raw enthusiasm as they followed me, chirping at this fun, new adventure.

I decided to wash down the storm door and that brought a new round of chirps as they admired their reflections in the clean glass and then stooped close to peer into the house. They clearly remember that, once upon a time, the house was part of their domain. Someday, somebody is going to open a door, perhaps to call for a kitty-cat and, before they know it, two grown emus will be zipping across the threshold. What a shock it’ll be, and I’m sad that I’ll miss it.

I think I can hear them in there.

I think I can hear them in there.

Too soon, for Gatsby and Kelvin, the scrub-down was done. We shut off the water and put away the broom and bucket. Once we’d retreated indoors, back to work after the break, the emus remained at the door, beaks glued to the glass, hoping for an encore.

Hey, Come out to play.

Hey, Come out to play.

“Hey, can Rick and AV come out and play?”

A Little Bit of Wild…

A.V. Walters

Emus are not domesticated creatures. They are ancient creatures, virtually unchanged for many millions of years. We cannot own them, though we may “keep” them. They are not really pets. Nowhere is this more clear than when one tries to transport them. Try to put them in a box, and they panic. They thrash. They can even fight to the point of injuring themselves. There is no such thing as a portable emu. They do not respond to the instruction, “Hey, just chill!”

Even carrying them from their indoor, night-time home, to the backyard is telling (and trying.) This should be routine by now, but every single time, they kick and fight and squawk. Our first emu pioneers, The Royals, made their trip in a big box. On arrival one had managed to kick himself into a royal limp. It’s minor, and will heal, but it speaks to the difference between a domesticated animal and a wild one. We can keep company with the wild but we cannot bend them to our will. Last night, when outbound emu number three was loaded into a kennel for his trip to its new home, he fought like a ninja (but without the grace.) It’s a little heartbreaking to see, and makes for a traumatic farewell, even when they’re off to the best of new homes.

In this case, the emu we knew as DotDash, will be a guardian/companion animal to a new flock of sheep. We were duly impressed with the new keeper, a diligent 16-year-old girl who is building a flock of prize sheep. She’d done her research and found that an emu guardian was a sustainable and viable way to protect her investment, both emotional and financial. She’s familiar with chickens and other livestock and I queried her about her commitment to an animal that will live about thirty years. She had considered it, and sees agriculture as a lifetime commitment for her. So, an emu fits the bill. I asked, “What if you go away to college, what of the emu then?” She was ready for it. Emus are low maintenance. Her parents (who have fifty acres nearby) are already committed to the sheep, so an emu actually helps that dynamic. And she won’t go far away.

I worry that we don’t have many young people interested in farm living. Almost all the farmers and ranchers I know are at an age when most people are talking about retirement. It’s not an easy life but one that comes with many rewards. In the absence of an investment by our youth, where will we get our food? From corporate farms? What kinds of stewards will they be of our precious farmland? What do they add to a farm community? So, how could I not honor this young lady’s venture into agriculture? She embodies everything I think we need in a new generation committed to the land, even if it puts her out-of-step with her social cohorts.

We spoke at length, and I think she understands the compact that we have with emus. She respects that her new emu charge is wild, and that in that wildness is a trait—protection from canine predators—that walks in step with her needs with sheep. So off he went, kicking and peeping to a new life. I think both of them—the emu and the girl, will do very well; there’s a little bit of wild in each of them.

Paris rain

Between Seasons

A.V. Walters

The first serious storm of our winter rolled through last night. We were forewarned— forecasts of power losses and flooding in low lying areas made us tidy up and hunker down. It’s not cold though, and so, it doesn’t feel like real winter. The storm blew in from the southwest, with temperatures in the mid-50s (F). I went out to the garden for (yet another) last tomato harvest. I keep saying that, but the tomatoes aren’t listening, and keep ripening. I suppose only freezing will end the bounty. The garden looks bleak but tomatoes, scallions, peppers, beets and the occasional winter squash still make the garden walk worthwhile. No more canning though. These tomatoes go directly into daily meals, or into the dehydrator.

The idea of a power outage had us worried. It’s the downside of usurping nature in the incubation of emu eggs. Once undertaking the task, what do you do if the power goes out? It’s not like Mr. Emu will jump back into babysitting once we’ve disturbed his paternal, confinement trance. Now, we’re watching him, and the Mrs., to see if they go back into breeding mode. In the meantime, there are nine eggs in that incubator. What could we do to keep them viable if we go dark and the incubator goes cold? So, despite the fact that it wasn’t all that cold out last night, we fired up the wood stove to chase off the gloom and to test the temperature range to see if we could step in should the utilities fail. It turns out that the space under the stove, where Kilo usually sleeps, is exactly in the hatching range between 95 and 99 degrees, Fahrenheit. (What are the odds?!) As long as we don’t sleep through it, we’re covered for an emu power emergency. Of course, this morning the house was a toasty 68—about six degrees higher than our standard, indoor, winter norm. I should be happy to be within the range that most folks set as their low-normal, but I’m accustomed to my winter chill.

The winds have died, but it’s still raining.  A few small branches are down, the last of the fall leaves have been stripped from the trees and the valley below us is a new lake. That’s standard for winter, the pastures that frame our view, fill and drain to the rhythms set by the storms. The hills are a lush, eye-popping green. Now that the peach tree is leafless, we have our full-range view back. It’s not winter yet, but it’s coming. December will likely bring more high winds, rain and cold.

It’s also lambing season. I always thought it odd that the farmers’ timing ran opposite to what you’d expect. The calves and lambs here are born into our coldest weather, to take advantage of the free and healthy feed offered by our green hills. By spring, they’re ready for market (or nearly) and the farmers keep and feed only their breeding stock during the long dry summers. Good thing those lambs come in wearing sweaters! The baby emus (should we be so lucky they hatch) are a different story. We’ll need to keep them warm for about a month. We’re devising an emu-baby corral, out of straw bales, to be warmed by a heat lamp. Then, if the power goes out, we’ll really have a conundrum because they’re sure as heck not going to fit under the wood stove. What do you do with a passel of shivering emu-babes? Bring them in? A house full of them? Bedlam, I tell you. All we can do is cross our fingers and hope the power holds. We’re between seasons, autumn and winter, California and the emus’ native home of Australia.