Sunday, October 2, 2011

Silence is Golden

One of the things we look forward to on the farm every spring is getting our new batch of spring chicks.  Since hens only lay well for a few years, we find that getting a handful of new chicks each year ensures us of having an ongoing supply of farm-fresh eggs.  Plus, those fluffy little peeps are just too cute to pass up when they arrive at the local farm stores at the end of winter! 

Two years ago, my oldest daughter, Megan, decided to enter a few birds at the county fair along with her goats just to see what it would be like.  Turned out to be a good compliment to the goat showing as the poultry barn is attached to the goat barn, making it easy to care for both species during fair week, and the chicken show is the day before the goat show, so there’s no time conflict there.  We also learned that the poultry-showing kids can make a fair amount of money selling their birds to the public on the last day of the fair.  So, this past year, we once again looked forward to selecting our spring babies with the plan to get more than we needed to keep our flock going so that we could sell a few at the fair.

My younger daughter, Molly, and her friend, Holly, decided they’d like to get in on the “chick action”, too.  Holly lives in town but boards a goat at our farm, and she asked if I’d be willing to board a few chickens, too.  I figured a few more chicks would hardly be noticed, but I did tell her that no roosters could stay.  They get too aggressive and noisy and tend to beat up on the girls, so that was my deal.  Unfortunately, when it comes to getting baby chicks, there is no guarantee that you’ll get all girls!  Holly agreed to this condition and said that her uncle was also getting spring chicks and had agreed to take any roosters she might end up with. 

In the past, we’ve always been able to go over to our local ranch supply and feed stores during “chick days” and have plenty of spring babies to choose from between late February and early April.  But this year was a little different.  You see, the backyard hen craze has swept through our town making it legal for in-town residents to keep up to four hens in backyard coops for egg production.  This trend is growing all over the country, which is a great thing in my opinion, but the problem is, the hatcheries don’t seem to be able to keep up with demand.  We “special ordered” chicks for Megan early in the season and they came in just fine.  But Molly and Holly wanted to hand select their birds and each time they went to the store to look, they were either sold out or the order that was supposed to come in hadn’t arrived.  Finally, after several tries and adjustments to their breed preferences, they finally had their babies.  Molly got one each of three different standard breeds, and Holly selected two little black Silkies, a bantam breed (bantam chickens are about half the size of a standard chicken). 

Holly started off with her chicks in a small cage in her mother’s apartment where she was able to care for and bond with them before they outgrew that set-up.  When they got too big for the small cage, she moved them over to our farm where we took care of them during the week, and she came on weekends to do her share of goat and chicken chores.  Now the thing with bantams is that they are too small to identify their gender when they are first hatched, so you can only buy bantams that are “straight run”, which means you don’t know if you’re getting boys of girls. As the chicks began to grown, Holly noticed that one was quite a bit bigger than the other, and she guessed it was probably a cockerel (that’s official poultry jargon for “young rooster”).  She was just hoping she’d get at least one hen and when it came time to put leg bands on them as identification for the fair, she selected a pink band for the one she was hoping was a girl.

Not too surprisingly, around mid-July we began to hear the first attempts at a cock-a-doodle-doo out of one of her birds, although it wasn’t from the bigger one – it was coming from the one wearing a pink band!  So, we quickly changed leg bands, being convinced that surely the other one would end up being a girl.  But as luck would have it, about 3 days before the fair, I heard the now pink-banded bird begin the all-too-familiar beginner’s crow.  Darn, two for two.

When it came to the poultry sale day, Holly did her best to market her young lads and tried to convince anyone she came in contact with that they really needed a little Silkie bantam rooster!  But at the end of the fair, all the hens were sold and we came back to the farm with two little black, fluffy-headed cockerels.

Now, remember that plan for the uncle to take the roosters?  Well, turns out he ended up with 6 of his own from his young flock of 12, so he took back his offer.  We thought one of our 4-H families might take one, but they decided not to.  I found two other potential takers but they, too, eventually backed out.  As the weeks passed by, the little roosters got louder and louder and the sound of that cock-a-doodle-doo started wearing on my nerves.  Normally, I love that sound, but now every time I heard it, it reminded me that those two boys who were supposed to be long gone, were still here!

Finally, out of desperation, I posted an ad on Craig’s List – FREE, cute and friendly bantam-sized Silkie roosters!  MUST go this weekend!

You can imagine my joy and relief when the e-mail came in saying, “if you’ve still got ‘em, I’ll take ‘em”.  BINGO!  I felt like I’d hit the jackpot.  When the couple and their three kids showed up to get the boys, I met them at the driveway with the roosters ready to go.  I didn’t want to waste any time transferring them to the cage they had brought just in case they might change their mind at the last minute.  The exchange took approximately 2 minutes, and they were on their way.

Later that afternoon, as my husband and I sat on our deck sipping a glass of wine while looking out at our beautiful foothills view, I noticed with great pleasure how still and quiet it was, quiet being the operative word.  It was sheer bliss.

As for next year?  Well, let’s just say I’ve told Holly she can get chicks again, but this time they have to be Golden Sex-linked pullets.  If they’re yellow, they’re girls!

Life Lesson:  Be careful what you agree to

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Goat Road Trips

This summer, my teenage daughter and I took three of her Nubian goats to several out of town goat shows.  We went to Torrington, WY, Douglass, WY and Pueblo, CO, in addition to several local shows.   For the first big drive, we took our truck and trailer but after spending $120 to fill my diesel pick-up truck with gas, I got to thinking maybe those 3 goats could all fit in my more economical minivan!  It certainly would be a quieter and more comfortable ride for us, be easier to navigate in parking lots and at drive-through restaurants, and the goats could enjoy the comfort of air conditioning while listening to music.  Sure enough, by taking all the back seats out and packing carefully, we were able to fit three large dog crates, a milking stand, a bale of hay, a bag of pine shavings, buckets, hay bags, grooming equipment and our suitcases.  We even had room for two folding chairs and a cooler!

Now I wasn’t originally planning on going to all these “away” shows this year, but I figured that with my daughter being so passionate about showing her goats and the fact that she actually wanted to spend time with me at the very peer-influenced age of 15, I'd better make time for these getaways with her while I still could.  It’s hard for me to fathom, but I really only have her home for 3 more summers before she’s off to college.

The great thing about these road trips is that they’re sort of boring.  What I mean by that is there is plenty of time to chat.  Any of you who have teenage kids know that opportunities to really connect with them seem to get more and more fleeting as they grow up.  Friends, homework, sports, cell phones, computers... these all compete with parents for attention during the high school years.  But sitting next to each other on a long, boring stretch of I-85 through Wyoming with no other distractions allows for some pretty good conversation time.  We talked about college and career choices, God and religion, goat breeding, driving laws, healthy eating, and lots of fun fantasy conversations about future houses and farm set-ups.  It was great.

The goat showing was pretty fun and successful, too.  When we started out with goats three years ago, we bought a small little Nubian doe named Skittles.  She was spotted, cute and compact.  Well, turns out “compact” is not highly desired in the dairy goat show world where terms like body capacity, height, strength and stature are frequently used to describe the winning does.  Once Megan began to get serious about showing beyond 4-H, I offered to buy her a show-quality doe, but she insisted that the only truly admirable and respectable way to get a better show goat was to breed your way there.  So, she selected a local breeder whose goats had the traits she was looking for and began to improve her line.  Imagine her thrill when Skittles’ third doeling took Reserve Champion Junior Doe at the Colorado State Fair this year.  Talk about a mother’s pride – mine and Megan’s (and maybe Skittles’, too!).

The only real downside to our summer goat road trips was the smell that was left in my mini van as a reminder of our journey.  In spite of laying tarps down under the crates that housed the girls, the distinct smell of goat still permeates our family car.  The vanilla scented car air freshener helps but now it just smells like we’ve been baking cupcakes in the barn.  A suburban friend of mine was recently lamenting the fact that her minivan was such a mess, with candy wrappers, Happy Meal toys and miscellaneous drink cups everywhere.  “Oh yeah?,” I said, “I bet you don’t have goat poop in your van!"   Do you think Toyota would want to make a commercial about that?

Life Lesson:  Look for unconventional opportunities to connect with those you love

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Moovin' Cows

Last weekend, my girls and I took our horses to a nearby cow clinic.  If you’re wondering what that means, it’s where a small group of horses and riders learn how to do one of the most basic things that horses were meant to do, and that’s moving cows.  Most of us who own horses for pleasure never get to experience the task that a rancher and a ranch horse do every day, and often the inner cowboy or cowgirl in us just wants to come out and give it a try!

So, we signed up to take Chummie, Amigo and even good old Belle to work some cows.  Along with six other cowgirl wannabes (interesting that it was all women), we spent 3 ½ hours moving a group of 7 cows up and down and all around a two- acre patch of pasture. 

Now I can imagine the image that comes to mind for you is a bunch of whoopin’ and hollerin’ and rope throwin’, but quite the contrary.  You see, the art of moving a group of cows that are going to be marketed for beef is to stress them as little as possible.  That means that to get them from point A to point B, you want them to move as slowly as possible so that they don’t lose any weight in the process.  If you’re going to take a cow to market and sell its meat by the pound, you don’t want it to be running around losing weight before it goes!

The other factor to consider is that not all horses are familiar or comfortable with being around cows.  Most of the horses at a clinic like this are being used for lessons, trail rides or even showing, but none of them lives and works with cows on a regular basis.  So by taking it slowly and cautiously, we’re able to give our horses a chance to get up close and personal with an animal they may have never seen before, or at best, only from a distance.

To start out, the cows were in a little huddle in the middle of the pasture, and we fanned out in a big circle around them with each horse facing the cows.  Then we turned and circled the group at a walk and a trot before stopping, reversing and doing the same thing in the other direction.  This gave each horse a chance to see the cows from a distance and out of each eye, an important thing to do when introducing a horse to a new thing due to how their brain is wired.

Next, we each took turns riding right up to the little huddle and circling them closer before picking a spot to ride through the group.  By doing this, we got a chance to see how our horse would react to seeing a cow up close and out of each eye simultaneously.  Most horses take to this pretty naturally, but for some, it can be a little scary and intimidating.  Our three horses seemed to love it, arching their necks and pricking their ears forward as they sized up the cows.  I couldn’t help but think they looked like kids in a candy store!  It was especially gratifying to me to see my big old retired dressage horse, Chummie, acting like this was the most fun he’d had in years.  A nice change for him after his years of intense schooling and showing.  Equally fun was seeing my two girls and their trusty mounts taking to it so naturally.

Once each horse had a chance to move through the group, we each had to go back and cut one cow out of the herd, move it outside the circle of horses, go half way around the circle and then move it back in to the center.  Again, the idea is to do it slowly and with as little stress to the cow as possible.

Eventually, after we each had a successful turn at moving one cow, we started to work together in groups of 4 or 5 horses and riders, and then groups of 2 or 3, to move the whole herd of cows wherever we wanted them to go.  We moved them from one end of the pasture to the other, to a watering trough, through a row of barrels, over a small wooden bridge, and through a round pen with gates at each end. 

The final task of the day was to load the cows into a big stock trailer so the rancher who brought them to the clinic could take them back to his ranch.  Our instructor opened the door to the trailer and gave us a few basic tips and reminders, and then we all slowly moved the cows up toward the trailer, being conscious of what our individual role within the group was.  When we got the cows to the opening of the trailer, it was important to keep just enough pressure on them so they’d take the first step up into the trailer, without putting so much pressure on that they’d get scared and break from the group.  We never moved more than at a slow walk and there was no wild whoopin’ or hollerin’, so to the casual observer it probably didn’t look like much.  But by working as a team and taking our time, we had all those cows loaded up and ready to go home within five minutes.

It’s hard to describe the sense of satisfaction and just pure fun that came from our morning of moving cows.  From the feeling of teamwork to the companionship with our horses and the enjoyment of being outdoors in a beautiful location, it was an awesome mother-daughter outing!

Life Lesson:  Sometimes taking it slowly gets you there the fastest.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Fair

When you have kids involved in 4-H, you find that the whole world seems to revolve around the week of the county fair, which for us is the first week of August.  It’s the culmination of a year’s worth of hard work and lots of practicing and preparing their projects to be judged.  Our local county fair also provides a chance for my kids to hang out with other kids who are interested in similar things, eat more sweets and junk food than I normally allow, and show off their critters and creations to the general public.  To say our family loves fair week would be an understatement! 

This year, in addition to bringing their goats and chickens to the fair, they also entered artwork, jams, cheeses, flowers and an artistic gardener creation.  I can’t participate in the youth shows, of course, but I do enter some of the open shows for baked goods, jams, cheeses and gardening, so I get to have some fun competing that week, too.

This was our third year of showing at the fair, and by now I’ve learned to clear the entire week prior to the actual fair to adequately prepare and get all the last minute things done.  We spend the week clipping and bathing goats, bathing and dusting chickens, baking, making jams and cheeses, and doing last-minute practices for showing the animals.  It’s amazing how much goes into getting ready for our week-long virtual live-in at the fairgrounds.

All the preparations were going along smoothly this summer and the anticipation and excitement were building as we got toward the end of the week before the big event.  Our 4-H club did a volunteer shift at the 4-H snack bar (aka the Dairy Bar) during a pre-fair event, we marched with our goats in the County Fair Parade, and we even managed to host a final poultry showmanship clinic at our farm to help prepare the kids and their birds.  It was the night before we were to start taking the first set of animals over to the fairgrounds and we were almost ready.

Then I got a phone call that threw a wrench in my careful planning and organization.  It was from the mother of a large family in our 4-H club calling with shocking, terrifying news.  Her 15 year old son, who we’d just spent much of the day before with, had had a freak, unexpected health crisis and was in a coma at the Denver Children’s hospital.  Understandably she was in a panic about her child’s physical condition and prognosis, but she was also concerned for her other children who were planning to enter their chickens at the fair for the first time and were in a tizzy about how they would be able to proceed.  As I helplessly listened to her tearful explanations about her son’s condition and tried to offer whatever support I could, I realized that the one thing I could do to help would be to make sure the other kids were able to participate in the fair as much as possible.  And even though her son was not going to be able to be at the fair, there was no reason why his hen and rooster couldn’t be there.   I assured her that we’d get the chickens ready and checked-in at the fairgrounds, and if needed we’d transport the other kids to and from the fair on show day.

So, the next morning my 4-H co-leader and I drove over to their farm, rounded up their 5 hens and the rooster, put them in cages and drove them back to my place.  My daughter and I then gave each of the chickens a bath and got them ready for check-in, before turning our attention to our own 12 hens that also needed to be prepped.  While I was matching the leg band numbers for their chickens to the paperwork showing which chickens had been entered, I realized that the boy’s rooster had not been properly registered.  I knew he had really been looking forward to showing off this fine bird, so I had to figure out a way to get him to the fair!  I called the poultry superintendent and after explaining the situation and the oversight, we finagled a “late entry” and the rooster was good to go.  Two trips to the fairgrounds with cages loaded with poultry, and all of our chickens as well as theirs were checked in.

Every day that week while we enjoyed our fair experience, showed our goats, and ate our ice cream and cotton candy, there was a part of each of us that felt the heaviness of the situation with our fellow 4-H family and their son.  Fortunately, we got a little more good news on the boy’s condition every day, and we were able to help his sisters get to the fairgrounds as much as possible so they could participate in the shows and fun.

My kids had many wins and got plenty of ribbons and awards that week, from Reserve Champion Senior Doe for Skittles, to Champion Dwarf Doe for Milky Way and Reserve Champion Best of Show for one of our hens.  We also got blue ribbons in jams, cheeses and even flowers.  But the happiest moment for all of us – the one that caused the most cheers of celebration - was when we watched the poultry judge award a Champion ribbon and trophy to our 4-H friend’s prized rooster!  Hooray!

This was topped only by the news a few days later that the boy was home from the hospital and recovering well.

Life Lesson:  Celebrate what matters most

Saturday, July 30, 2011

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Most of my time and energy as a hobby farmer has been devoted to raising various farm animals and sharing my passion for them with local kids and adults through my classes, clubs and camps at Briar Gate Farm.   But I always feel compelled to attempt to grow a few crops along the way, too, as I cherish the idea of eating home-grown vegetables from my own back yard plot.  Problem is, I’m don’t have much of a green thumb so my success is somewhat limited and variable.

Oh, I start out the season with good intentions each year, looking through seed catalogs to get ideas for new varieties to try, drawing diagrams of my 3 raised bed garden plots and shopping at my local nursery to find a good assortment of organic and heirloom seeds and plants to grow.  I turn over my gardens in late fall and add a mix of compost and manure (have I mentioned we have a lot of poop around here?) and then turn everything over again in the early spring as I prepare to plant my cool weather crops.  Some years I actually plan exactly what seeds I’ll plant first, when they will be mature, and then plan a second planting to maximize my space and effort.  So you can see the initial efforts are admirable.

But every year it seems that for all my good planning and intentions, once the seeds get planted I seem to lose my focus or simply get occupied doing everything else that needs to be done around the farm in the spring and summer.  I put a lot of love into the garden initially, but after that, it’s on it’s own.  And because I don’t like to use chemicals but don’t know a lot about organic pest and weed control, my garden becomes a true example of “survival of the fittest.”  Some years the bugs win, some years the weeds win, but occasionally a few of the veggies win.

So, it might surprise you that I have been entering some of my vegetables in the local county fair each year.  I used to think that only expert gardeners and serious farmers entered their goods in local fairs, but once my girls started showing goats at the fairgrounds and I began spending the entire first week of August there, I realized that just about anyone with just about any talent or success could enter.  Everything from amateur baking, photography, various crafting projects, honey, home-made beer, wine and cheese – these are all things that can be entered by anyone at the fair. 

The first year I entered carrots, beans, swiss chard and zucchini and was thrilled when I took home a 2nd, 3rd and two 4th place ribbons.  I also entered several baked goods and won a 1st place with my pumpkin bread (my cooking skills are something I’m a little more confident and successful with).  The next year I got serious about the timing of my veggies and coordinated planting times and maturity rates to correspond with the vegetable entry date.  Imagine my pride when the veggie judge awarded my yellow beans with the blue ribbon!

But this year, between the late spring, three family vacations, summer camps, goat shows and 5 baby goats being born on the farm, my garden has once again taken the back seat.  I plan to enter a few things in the fair next week, but I don’t have much to choose from.  The bugs won this year in my beet rows, the weeds seemed to succeed over my strawberries and I don’t know what the heck happened to my zucchini plants.  But once again, I have some decent beans and a few nice carrots, so I’ll enter them and see what happens.    Wish me luck!

Life Lesson:  You can’t be the best at everything – just enjoy the ride

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Horse Reflections

This morning I was watching the trailer for the new movie, BUCK – a documentary about the legendary horseman, Buck Brannaman.  I’m particularly interested in seeing this movie not only to see a great horseman in action, but because I feel a personal connection to the man.  I was lucky enough to be able to attend one of Buck’s horsemanship clinics several years ago and have incorporated much of what I’ve learned from him and others in the natural horsemanship field into the work I do with horses, kids and adults. 

The basic premise of the natural horsemanship movement is that humans don’t need to dominate, intimidate or strong-arm horses to get them to work with us.  We just need to understand how they learn and behave in their natural, herd environment and then use this knowledge to partner with them to gain their trust and desire to cooperate with us.  By considering their point of view and respecting what they are communicating to us, we can build a strong relationship and they’ll actually enjoy working with us.

Me and Amigo talking to Buck!
 One of the things Buck mentions in his trailer is how horses are mirrors, reflecting back to their handlers elements of the human’s personality, style and sometimes baggage.  I know about this concept and utilize it a great deal in some of my clinics with adults where I combine natural horsemanship and life coaching principals to teach important life lessons.  This is a concept I’ve helped others gain self-awareness from but I haven’t always thought about how it applies to me.  Now part of what Buck’s talking about is how a specific behavior from your horse at a given time may have to do with how you’re feeling or behaving at that moment.  But hearing him mention it this morning got me thinking about what my horses have to say about me in general.  Here are a few of the things I came up with:

·   *   My small herd is a close-knit family that gets along well most of the time, although squabbles do break out now and then.
·   *   Belle, my lone mare, is the leader and she’s usually pretty kind, except for when she’s in heat.  Then she’s pretty moody and snippy.   
·   *   Amigo can be kind of bossy and pushy but he’s basically a good guy.
·   *   Spirit gets into trouble when he’s bored.
·   *   Ringo is pretty agreeable most of the time unless you ask him to do something he doesn’t want to do.
·   *   Chummie is really reliable and trustworthy.
·   *   They all like variety but don’t want to physically work too hard.
·   *   They're all pretty spoiled.
* *   They’re good with kids.

Hmm, it sure sounds like there are some similarities between me and my herd! 

Life Lesson:  Take the time to reflect and you’ll sometimes be surprised what you see.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Cock-a-doodle-doo (sort of)

OK, so you know about the horrible chicken massacre that happened on our farm a few weeks ago.  A raccoon (we’re guessing, due to the carnage left behind) took out 7 of my mature hens and my little bantam rooster.  A sad day for all, and I have to say, not only am I bummed about having to once again buy store-bought eggs, but I also miss hearing the sweet, pint-sized cock-a-doodle-doo of my little Mr. Noodles.  And apparently I’m not the only one in the barnyard who misses his crow.

The other morning, I was out feeding the goats and chickens as usual, when I heard a rooster crow.  Now I wasn’t completely surprised by this as we have a whole chicken yard full of young pullets and as any experienced chicken owner can tell you, just because they came from the pullet bin, it doesn’t mean they’re all girls.  In fact, there’s a roughly 10% error rate in the sexing of young chicks, which means that approximately 1 in 10 pullets will actually turn out to be cockerels, aka roosters.  I already have my suspicions about a couple of the “girls” and I’m guessing one or two will start crowing any day now.

But the odd thing about the crowing I heard the other morning was that it seemed to be coming from the chicken yard where my 5 survivors of the chicken massacre are living, all of whom are mature hens.  At first I thought maybe one of the young chickens was crowing and the sound was echoing off the metal wall of the hay barn making it sound like it was coming from the back yard.  So, I watched and waited and within a few minutes, there it was again.  Only this time, I could see the source of the sound and by golly, it was coming right out of the throat of my 2 year old Sicilian Buttercup HEN!  Yes, I said hen, as in girl.  And I know she’s a hen because as recently as a month ago, she was laying eggs in the dog house we use as a shelter in the young chickens’ yard and being that she’s a flyer, I know she’s the only mature laying hen that had access to the dog house at that time.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I saw her throw back her head and let out what was clearly, although maybe not completely full-throated, a cock-a-doodle doo.  I have to tell ya, I about jumped out of my skin!  All kinds of things went through my head in rapid succession:  Am I that dense that I haven’t realized for 2 years that she was a he and not a she?  Did my neighbor’s rooster sneak into my hen yard and it just happens to look just like my old hen?  Is it possible to have a trans-gender chicken? 

So, I told my tale to a number of people and had an interesting conversation with my 15 year old daughter about Chaz Bono and his gender re-assignment, and then once my curiosity got the best of me (and my schedule freed up to allow me the time to), I did what I often do when I have a question... I “Googled” it.  I typed in the words, “can a hen become a rooster?” and voila, I had my answer!

According to, the explanation is as follows:  Not a fully functioning, sexually active, egg fertilizing rooster, but they can assume the characteristics of a rooster when the flock has no male to take on the duties of guarding the flock. The Alpha hen can guard, protect and crow (almost) just like a rooster under some circumstances.”

Well, I’ll be darned, I do believe Miss Sicily just misses Mr. Noodles as much as I do.

Life Lesson:  We all grieve and compensate in different ways.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Early Delivery

Two years ago our first kids were born on the farm, Snickers and Milky Way.  Their dam is a Nubian and their sire a Nigerian Dwarf, making them Mini Nubians, a relatively new and experimental dairy goat breed.  The goal of the Mini Nubian breed is to end up with the classic long ears and Roman nose of the Nubian in a smaller, compact size – easier for kids to handle and well, just cuter!  This year we bred Milky Way to a 4th generation Mini Nubian buck in hopes of making good progress toward the ideal breed characteristics.  The timing of this breeding was tricky because we had a family vacation planned for the first week of June, and then summer camps starting June 13th, so we were trying to have kids born somewhere after the vacation but before the camps started.   Goats go into heat about every three weeks and their gestation time is 5 months, so last fall we charted Milky’s cycles carefully and when she went into heat mid-January, we rushed her out to the breeder who is about an hour from our farm. 

Now to add further complexity to the situation, the breeder was getting ready to go out of town and gave us a 45 minute window of opportunity to get the job done before he had to leave.  Between the cold temps, the rush to get the deed taken care of, and the fact that this was Milky’s first experience with the breeding “facts of life”, I figured the odds of her conceiving were pretty low.  But what the heck, might as well try.  So, imagine my surprise when we had her ultrasounded two months later and learned she was indeed pregnant with a due date of June 13th – the first day of camp!

As winter turned to spring, Milky’s belly got bigger and rounder and she began to develop an udder.  She’s always been a chubby little goat, but by the end of May she was a wide as she was tall.  She looked and acted great, with a healthy appetite and plenty of energy.  Pregnancy seemed to agree with her.  While we were on vacation in early June, the pet sitters who were milking our other doe, Skittles, each evening felt sure they would show up to milk and find babies in the stall, even though they weren’t due for another week and a half. Luckily, she didn’t have them while we were away.  I just hoped they’d come a day or two early as the idea of running camp while babies were being born felt a bit overwhelming.  Plus my brother and his family were visiting from Cincinnati and I hoped they’d get to meet the new kids before my brother and nephew had to head home on the 14th

On June 9th, four days before the official due date, I turned Milky out to pasture in the afternoon and she happily trotted out there and munched away on the grass as usual.  At 5:00, I brought her in for the evening and fed her some hay.  This is normally Megan’s job, but she was at an amusement park with some friends so I filled in for her.  Milky ate the hay with gusto and acted and looked as normal as could be.  I had to go to a 4-H meeting at 6:30, so Brian was in charge of milking and bottle feeding the other baby that evening, with some help from Molly.  He went out to do that around 8:00, looking in on Milky Way before he commenced to milking and all looked fine.  But a few minutes later he heard a loud, alarming bleat coming from Milky’s stall.  He ran to check on her only to find a tiny little kid on the ground!  In a panic, he yelled for Molly to grab some towels and frantically dialed my cell phone number.  It rang alright, but no one answered as it was sitting on my desk recharging instead of being with me at the meeting.  They were on their own!   Molly quickly got the towels and rushed to the stall in time to help catch and dry off a second kid while Brian again dialed my number and then called my mom.

By the time I got home at 9:00, I noticed the light on in the barn and found no one inside the house, so I moseyed down to the barn.  Imagine my surprise when I found Brian and Molly along with my mom, brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew, and Megan and her friends (just back from the amusement park) all standing around the stall, with two kids on the ground and Milky still pawing the ground and looking uncomfortable.  Within a few minutes of my arrival, she pushed out a third kid and I quickly jumped in a started helping Molly dry him and the others off. 

When all was said and done, we had two new bucklings (Mikey and Charlie) and a doeling (Galaxy), a tired and bewildered but attentive new mom (Milky Way), and a reluctant but relieved first-time midwife (Brian!).  And Molly did such a great job in the midst of all the excitement that I feel certain she is ready to have her own doe bred next year and take care of her first kids.  As for me, although I missed seeing the first two kids born, it was great to know that everyone else could pitch in and take care of things so well without me.  And I got a kick out of listening to Brian’s frantic messages on my cell phone the next day.

Life Lesson:  You can only plan so much!

Monday, June 6, 2011


When we first considered moving from our suburban neighborhood to a rural property, one of the things we were concerned about was how we would be able to take vacations and get away once we had farm animals to care for.  I mean, finding a pet sitter or a boarding facility for a beloved dog can be tricky enough, but when you have 5 horses, 9 goats, 22 chickens, a llama, 5 cats AND a dog – well, you see the dilemma.  Yet, it was important to us not be tied to the farm to the extent that we couldn’t get away for a ski weekend or take a family vacation each year.

And I figured, I’m a creative problem solver; where there’s a will, there’s a way!

One of the first things you figure out when you live in the country is you’d better know and befriend your neighbors.  On our street there are 10 properties of approximately the same 5 acre size.  Eight of us own horses, so we often rely on each other to help out when needed.  There are times when we may not see or talk to a neighbor for months at a time, other than a wave from the distance, but if a horse gets loose, it’s amazing how quickly someone spots it, rounds it up and puts it back where it belongs.  We’ve done this for just about every neighbor at some point, and they’ve done it for us.  And we always offer and are willing to feed and care for their animals when they have a need, so when it’s our turn to ask, the favor is often reciprocated.

Another thing you learn is that there are plenty of folks out there who would love to live on a farm, but probably never will, and they are often happy to “play farmer” for a week to get a fix for the country life.  We’ve had whole families as well as single friends who have been willing to come for a weekend or even a couple of weeks at a time and take care of all the critters in exchange for the chance to experience and enjoy the rural life.  In fact, Brian and I did this for some newlywed friends of ours almost 25 years ago.  We stayed on their farm and took care of their horses and house pets while they went on their honeymoon, and I still credit this experience with being one of the reasons we eventually ended up living this lifestyle ourselves.

So even as we’ve accumulated more and more animals and our feeding and care routine has become more demanding and involved, we’ve always been able to get away for a much needed change of pace or family down time at least a couple times a year.  But it’s not easy.  I spend hours making arrangements, typing up notes, worrying about details, and generally stressing out before each and every trip.  My “farm notes” has grown from a single page of instructions to a 7 page Microsoft Word document and sometimes I need a vacation just to recover from planning for the vacation.  But I feel really lucky that there have been so many willing (and even eager) friends and neighbors to step in and help out so we can occasionally take a break from the daily responsibilities and get away. 

This past week our family went on a vacation and I spent a good two weeks preparing notes, recruiting and training helpers, moving animals around to make things as simple as possible, and getting everything in order.  Just as I finished all the preparations and had all 4 helpers lined up, we found out that the place we were planning to go (Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons) was having unusually terrible weather with snow, road closures, avalanche warnings, flood warnings, etc.  Somehow this just didn’t sound like the trip I had envisioned when I’d started planning it months ago.  But since I had all my pet-sitters in place, I knew for sure we were going on a vacation somewhere.  I just really wanted to go somewhere that felt a little more like summer.  So, the morning we were supposed to leave, I completely shifted gears and decided to head south to Mesa Verde and the Four Corners area instead.  I cancelled hotel reservations up north and booked a hotel for our first night in Cortez, CO.  I thought we’d get down there and then plan the rest of the stay.  Risky, but with a wonderful weather forecast in that area, I figured how far wrong could we go.

Luckily, I was right and we ended up having a fabulous time visiting some parts of Colorado we had never seen before.  I guess for most people planning the vacation itself is where they spend all their time and energy, but for me, that’s the easy part once the animals are cared for!

Life Lesson:  Make good plans, but then be flexible

Saturday, May 21, 2011


Last Saturday morning we got up early to get the girls ready to run a 5K benefit race being organized by our middle school.  It was being held to raise funds for a beloved teacher who had contracted a life-threatening infection a few months ago and had accumulated soaring medical expenses as a result of his long stay in the hospital.  It was a drizzly, chilly morning but our spirits were high as we got ready to celebrate the miraculous recovery of the teacher who had just gotten home from the hospital the day before. 

Brian went out to feed the animals as usual, but when he came back in he looked pale and shocked.  Turns out some kind of predator, probably a raccoon, had gotten into our chicken pen and there was carnage everywhere.  We couldn’t believe it as the pen, where the mature hens and bantam rooster were being temporarily housed while our new spring chicks had taken over their normal coop, was surrounded by a very high wire fence with only about a 1 foot gap between the top of the fence and the roof of the barn.  But apparently that had been space enough for the marauder to climb over and take out 7 of our hens and the little rooster.

Upon hearing the news, the girls cried and I tried lovingly to console them and to make sense of what had happened.  Brian was faced with the painful task of rounding up the dead birds and placing their broken bodies into a large garbage bag to be dealt with later.  He was moved to tears, too, in compassion for the birds as well as empathy for the sadness his daughters were feeling.  We’d lost hens before to predators and thought we had all grown a little more detached from the inevitable occasional occurrence, but this loss felt worse.  For one thing, many of these hens had been shown at the County Fair last season and had won lots of ribbons and prizes, and apparently we were more attached to them than we had realized.  And then there was just the feeling of being violated that comes when a predator enters what you had regarded as a safe space.

I really didn’t think the girls would be able to pull themselves together quickly enough to finish getting ready and out the door for the race within the time we had allotted.  But they really wanted to show their support for their teacher and got it together in time to make it to the race.  While it was chilly and gloomy, they were determined to carry on in honor and celebration of the occasion.

At the start of the race, they were greeted by a wonderful and warming sight.  The beloved teacher whom they’d worried about for so long and who had been given only a 7% chance of survival months earlier, was there with his wife, also a teacher at the school, and he was beaming from ear to ear at the sight of all these supporters.  Another teacher was with him and was crying for joy at the fact that her friend and colleague had made it and was on the road to recovery. 

Although we were all still gloomy and sad about our losses for the rest of the weekend, which was not helped by the cool, cloudy and damp weather, we found moments of happiness and celebration every time we considered the bigger picture.  Imagining what our teacher and his family had been going through for months, and the jubilation all that knew and loved them were feeling as a result of his courage and perseverance through this ordeal, sure helped to put things into perspective.

Life Lesson:  Life has its ups and downs; focus on the ups whenever you can

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Goat Milk?

One of the things we soon learned about having dairy goats is that once the babies are weaned off their mother’s milk, you accumulate a lot of milk rather quickly.  Even with only one milker in the barnyard producing 3-4 quarts a day, that’s somewhere between five and seven gallons of fresh milk coming in each week.  And although goat’s milk is deliciously creamy and sweet (especially that of Nubians), it’s a little too rich and high in fat for my family to drink straight being that we’re used to drinking non-fat cow’s milk (did you know that goat’s milk is naturally homogenized which means it’s impossible to separate the cream from the milk without a mechanical cream separator?).  So not long after our first goat kids were weaned, I decided it was time to learn to make goat cheese.

Now I thought this was going to be a very complicated and time-consuming procedure that would require all of my focus and attention to learn how to master.  And given that my summers are very full and busy with all the camps to run, animals and kids to care for, and goat shows to go to, I thought I would learn the art of cheesemaking while on our annual summer vacation at my family’s cottage in northern Michigan.  Each July we travel to Mullett Lake, MI where we relax at a 100+ year old rustic cabin that has been in my family for 5 generations.  Life is simple there as we have no phone, no television and few responsibilities, and I thought this would be a great break from my normal hectic pace that would allow me time to really focus on becoming an artisan cheesemaker.  And it just so happened that the first year we had goats was also the first year we decided to drive to Michigan instead of flying, which meant I could bring milk with me!

So, a couple weeks before we left for our trip, I ordered some basic ingredients and equipment from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company, and as we prepared to make the three day journey across country, I packed a cooler with 3 half-gallon containers of frozen goat’s milk.  Each night along the route, I carefully drained the melted ice from the cooler and repacked it with fresh ice from our hotel’s icemaker.  Once we arrived at our destination, I put the by now mostly thawed milk in the refrigerator and waited another day or two while I enjoyed the time to unwind and relax.

Finally, the big day arrived and I was ready to learn to make goat cheese!  I had my trusty Home Cheesemaking book at the ready, along with my cheese thermometer, butter muslin (very fine cheese cloth) and packet of Chevre culture as I gingerly heated the liquid gold in a pot on our cabin stovetop.   The directions said to heat it to 86 degrees, add the culture (which was about 1/8 of a tsp of very fine white powder), stir, cover and let sit for 12 hours at room temperature.  As I sprinkled the powder into the milk I couldn’t imagine that this tiny amount would have any effect on this large pot of milk, and I was surprised at just how little action was involved in these few steps, but I figured the hard part must come later so I pressed on. 

When I checked the pot after 12 hours, I was amazed to find a large, solid round “curd” floating in a liquid pool of slightly yellowish green “whey” – amazing!  The next step called for scooping the curd into a cheesecloth-lined strainer, and then tying the ends of the cheesecloth together and hanging it over a sink to drain for another 6-12 hours.  Easy enough, and more waiting.  After the required length of time had passed, I untied the cheesecloth to reveal a lovely, creamy white mass of something more similar to cream cheese than the dry, solid chevre I had envisioned, but upon tasting it on a cracker, we all agreed it was a success! 

Now, several years and many, many pounds of chevre, fromage blanc, ricotta and mozzarella later, I can’t help but laugh at how mysterious and difficult I thought simple cheesemaking would be.  Admittedly I haven’t ventured into the world of hard cheeses yet (in cheesemaking circles it’s said that soft cheese is easy and hard cheese is hard), but maybe I’ll have to cart some goat’s milk across country again this summer and give it a try!

Life Lesson:  Try something new – it might not be as difficult as you think

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Summer Camp

As the days grow longer and the sun feels warmer, I know it’s time to start shifting gears and getting ready for another summer of camps here at the farm.  During the winter, I focus more on my “indoor” profession of Life Coaching, but once the grass starts turning green and the birds start chirping, it’s time for me to shed my professional clothes in favor of jeans and a t-shirt and head back out to the barnyard.

When we first moved to the farm in 2005, I had a vision of combining my years as a horse-crazy young girl with my stint as a girl scout leader to create a riding and farm program for kids.  My own girls had gone to several horse and farm-related camps before we moved out here, and though they’d enjoyed them, I’d always thought there was so much more that the leaders could have done with the rich material of animals, nature, kids, crafts and games.  Also, once we bought the property here in Boulder County, we were pretty tapped out financially, so if we were going to have horses (and eventually goats, chickens, a llama, etc.) they were going to have to generate enough income to pay their way.  Camps and farm programs seemed like a great way to accomplish this goal while allowing me to still remain essentially a stay-at-home mom.

Each summer, we put on 3 or 4 week-long summer day camps.  Some are full day camps and some are half-day, and they are organized according to age of the campers.  Pony Pals is a half day camp for kids 6 and up; Boots, Suits & Brushes is a full day camp that includes swimming and art in the afternoons for kids 8 and up; and Middle School Mares is a full day camp with a backyard sleepover in tents the last night for girls ages 11-15.  Ours camps are small and intimate with no more than 8 or 9 campers per session, and I’ve really gotten to know a lot of the kids well as many come back year after year.  Last year was an especially gratifying summer when I realized that many of my new Middle School Mares had been coming to camps or lessons on the farm since they were in kindergarten!

The way I organize the camp day is to teach riding lessons to a small group of 2-4 kids at a time while the others work on a craft or choose from an assortment of other farm-related activities.  I always post of list of these options in the barn and go over the choices with the kids at the beginning of each camp day.  Activities range from playing with the goats, to collecting eggs from the henhouse, playing with bubbles or water balloons, working on camp journals, swinging on horse swings, hunting for toads and free play.  Guess which one always gets the biggest cheer when I read through the list?   Free play!  I’m always amazed how excited the kids get when I tell them they can actually make up their own games outdoors using nothing more than their own creativity and imagination.  You’d think I just told them they had won the lottery.  And they have come up with some pretty amazing, deeply involved games over the years involving teamwork, story plots, strategy, and lots and lots of running.  In fact, some kids resume a game they had started the previous summer when they come back to camp the next year.

In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv identifies a phenomenon he calls Nature-Deficit Disorder: the disconnection between children and nature.   He sites research confirming that direct exposure to nature is essential for the physical and emotional health of children and argues for a return to an awareness of and appreciation for the natural world.  I have to agree that I think today’s kids are so plugged into electronic media and so over scheduled with structured activities (although many of these are very worthwhile), that they are craving time to just explore and create their own sense of adventure in the outdoors without any specific goals or adult intervention.  I like to think my camps are giving a handful of kids the chance to get a bit more of this in their lives each summer.  I know I sure enjoy watching them do it!

Life Lesson:  We could all use a little more Free Play time outdoors 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Early Mornings

You know that old adage, early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy and wealthy and wise?  Or how about, the early bird catches the worm?  Well, I tend to agree with these sentiments but I can’t help thinking that maybe they were made up by farmers or parents of young children in an attempt to make themselves feel better about the fact that they are up feeding and tending to their critters and kids 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year!

Luckily for me, I tend to be a morning person naturally.  I can remember as a teenager, all my friends would boast about sleeping till noon on the weekends, and I couldn’t manage to make it past 9:00, no matter how late I’d been up.  This often frustrated me, but it also served me well during the summer of my 16th year when I landed a job as a groom and hotwalker at River Downs race track in Cincinnati – a job that required me to be at the barn at 5:30 a.m. EVERY day of the week.  And when my husband and I had our kids, the adjustment to those early morning awakenings wasn’t nearly as hard for us as for many of our friends since we were already pretty used to going to bed and getting up early.

So when we moved to our little farm and started accumulating our assortment and feathered and furry friends, the daily morning chore of getting up to feed them all around sun up wasn’t too hard.  There is a restful quietness about the place in those early morning hours that I find to be so peaceful and grounding that I hate to miss them.  Even when I’m really tired at first light, I somehow feel the urge to get up and start my day.  Some of my favorite things about being up early include:

~  hearing my little bantam rooster cock-a-doodle-dooing out in the barn yard
~  that first sip of my hot tea with a piece of warm toast and honey
~  watching the foothills behind our house turn bright, glowing red for a few brief moments as the sun comes up in the east
~  walking out in my pajamas and slippers to retrieve the morning paper
~  having some silent time to plan out my day before all the activity gets started

Now don’t get me wrong, there are some mornings when getting up early feels like a chore.  Certainly when I used to work in the corporate world, I dreaded my morning alarm clock and groused and complained every single day.  And if I’ve had a bad night of sleep, I’m pretty grumpy at first light.  But maybe because getting up to feed kids and animals every day is a reminder that I am living the life I always yearned for, I am generally a pretty happy camper.

My own teenage daughter could easily sleep till 10:00 or 11:00 and does so whenever she gets the chance.  But being a high school student AND a dairy goat owner doesn’t afford her very many opportunities to do that.  I’m always amazed at how hard it is for her to get up during the school week, but if we are going to a goat show, horse show or the best – getting up to go to the fairgrounds during county fair week  - she just hops out of bed and faces the early morning with energy and enthusiasm. 

Life Lesson:  How you face the day may be an indicator of the day you’re about to face!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Candy Goats

Our Nubian doe, Skittles, did so well with her very first kidding two years ago that I just assumed the second kidding would be even easier.  After all, her first labor only lasted about 5 hours and she seemed to push her two mini-Nubian babies out almost effortlessly.  I figured the second time around would be a breeze.  But this time we had bred her to a full-sized Nubian and she was big as a house in the weeks leading up to her due date.  I couldn’t imagine how she could get any fatter and she seemed to have trouble just walking from her paddock to the nearby pasture during those last few weeks.  Then there were all the false starts in the days before the birth.  I thought for sure she was in labor at least 3 or 4 times, but each time she’d show signs of labor for an hour or so, and then everything would stop.  I lost a lot of sleep checking on her in the night, sitting with her while she apparently labored, and then going back to bed two hours later when nothing was happening.  I even bought a new baby monitor (the one I used when my own babies were small had long ago been sold at a garage sale), so that I could listen from the comfort and warmth of my own bed. 

Two days after her official due date of May 27th, with the girls out of school for the summer and both having friends sleeping over, it looked like she might finally be ready.  I checked on her as the girls were getting ready for bed and she was once again doing the labor dance:  paw at the ground, lay down, circle around, get up, change sides, and do it all again.  I was sure this was it so with the girls in their pajamas and the camera at the ready, we settled in on blankets covering hay bales and watched and waited.  It was fun and exciting for the first hour or so, but eventually everyone got too sleepy and decided to go to bed, with the promise from me that I’d come get them when the babies were arriving.  Again, I checked in on her during the night, but nothing.

I went to bed and had vivid dreams about Skittles and her labor.  At one point I clearly dreamed that when I checked on her in the morning, a baby was just coming out and I had to run up to the house to get the girls.  As often happens in dreams, my legs felt like they were mired in quick sand and I couldn’t get up to the house to alert the others.  When I finally managed to tell them and got back to the barn, the babies were already there.  To say I had a restless night of sleep that night would be an understatement, but of course, Skittles wasn’t having it much easier.

Around 5:00 am the next morning, when I got up to go feed the horses,  I glanced in Skittles’ stall assuming I’d see her there snoozing (it was all very quiet).  Much to my surprise, she was crouching low and I could see the amniotic sac beginning to emerge – just like in my dream!  Fortunately my legs seemed to be working just fine, as were my lungs, and I ran to the house and hollered for everyone to come quick.  Back to the barn in a flash, I got there just in time to see the first little kid slither out onto the straw-lined floor of the birthing stall.  It was a tiny little black doeling, with long powdered-doughnut ears – adorable!  Everyone was there by now marveling at the little cutie, and I figured the next one would be here any minute.  But again, she proved me wrong and we waited and waited for another 45 minutes with no progress.  I started to get concerned and decided to call my goat advisor, Melanie.  When she answered the phone I said, “Skittles had her first kid but it’s been almost an hour and she hasn’t...oh never mind, here it comes!”  And with a big push, out came a big, beautiful brown baby boy.  He seemed half again as big as the first one, and I thought no wonder she was so fat and uncomfortable.  We waited again for what seemed like forever, and Skittles still seemed restless and uncomfortable.  About an hour later, just as Melanie arrived, she started straining again and Melanie went in to help her out.  A baby emerged in the breech position.  It was still and lifeless and a check for its heartbeat and breathing revealed it was stillborn.  I feared that the girls would be upset and that Skittles might be, too, so I quickly removed the little brown doeling from the stall and placed in a towel in the tack room.

Luckily everyone was so thrilled with the two healthy little kids that the sadness of the stillborn was drowned out by the joy and excitement of the new arrivals.  Megan named the kids Starburst and Hershey in the candy-name tradition and we spent the rest of the morning cooing and cuddling them, taking pictures, and admiring their silky long ears.  Eventually the girls’ friends went home and it was just the three of us as my husband, Brian, was out of town.  Believe it or not, he was actually on a trip with his mother and brothers to bury the ashes of his father who had died the previous fall.  And back here at the farm, we were preparing for a burial of our own.

I dug a hole deep enough to ensure that the coyotes and raccoons wouldn’t dig up the body, and then went to fetch the little doeling that I had earlier placed in a small cardboard box.  I asked the girls if they would like to see her body before we buried her, and much to my surprise they said they would.  We tenderly unwrapped the towel and carefully viewed the perfectly formed little body, marveling at how sweet and peaceful she looked.  We decided we should name her and I suggested Baby Ruth, since she would always stay a baby.

We each gathered a bouquet of flowers from the yard, and after placing the box in the deep hole and covering it with dirt, we set the flowers on the grave, held hands and sang Amazing Grace as a light misting rain began to fall.  It was such a tender moment and one filled more with gratitude than sorrow. 

Later that evening, after Megan milked Skittles, she came to me and asked if I thought it was o.k. if she poured a little of the milk on Baby Ruth’s grave so she could have some of her mother’s first milk.  I was touched with the gesture, and together in the darkness, we accomplished the task with silent reverence.  It felt good and right and brought closure to a day that was one I was sure my children would hold in their hearts forever.

Life Lesson:  Life is fragile – Live each day with gratitude

P.S.  Skittles had her third set of kids just 2 days ago – a perfect strapping boy and an adorable spotted girl.  And it went flawlessly and effortlessly.  Welcome Twix and Almond Joy!