Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Great Goat Adventure

My friend, Melanie invited us over to her farm one weekend to see her goat kids that had been born a few weeks earlier.  If you have ever held a tiny goat kid and fed it a bottle of warm milk, you will understand how quickly and completely we became hooked!  They are about the most darling creatures on earth.  So, not surprisingly, shortly after that visit we decided that goats were the next critter we wanted to add to the farm.  We joined a local 4-H club and signed up for a dairy goat project, but knowing nothing about raising goats, I decided we would need to recruit a “goat mentor”.   I knew just who to call to ask to be our project leader!  And as it turned out, Melanie had grown up showing dairy goats in 4-H and was delighted to join our newest adventure.

The first thing we had to decide was what kind of goats we wanted.  After doing some research, we came to the conclusion that Mini Nubians were the ideal breed for us.  A cross between Nubians and Nigerian Dwarfs, this newly emerging breed donned the long, floppy ears of the Nubian with the smaller size of the Nigerian in an efficient little dairy goat perfect for small children and small properties.  Problem was, there didn’t seem to be any Mini Nubians in Colorado!  After much searching on the internet and talking with the 4-H goat folks, I finally found a small Nubian doe near Durango, CO who was being bred to a Nigerian Dwarf.  Although Durango was a long drive from our farm, it was still in the state, so I agreed to purchase the doe and sent in my deposit.

Now the waiting began. It was September when we agreed to purchase the doe, Skittles, but she had to be bred before we could go and get her.  Goats go into heat about every three weeks, so once she was bred the first time, we had to wait three weeks or so to see if she had “settled”.  When she went into heat again, they tried breeding her once more and then we had to wait another 3 weeks.  When the news came that she had gone back into heat yet again 3 weeks later, we started getting concerned.  It was decided that they would try a different buck, but in the meantime, we started looking around to see if we could find a back-up doe in case this one just couldn’t get pregnant.  We found a few other options but all were full Nubians which was not our first choice so we kept our fingers crossed.  Fortunately, the third time seemed to be the charm and by late December we were told Skittles had finally settled and we could come get her any time after the first of the year.

So, on January 2nd, my mom and I along with daughters Megan and Molly headed down to Durango to fetch up our goats (we had decided to also purchase a young Nigerian Dwarf wether – castrated male – as a companion for Skittles).  It took us about 9 hours to get there with a few stops along the way, but the drive was beautiful on a clear, cloudless Colorado winter day.  We stayed in a hotel in Durango that night and when we got up the next morning to head out to the ranch where the goats were living, it started snowing lightly and we thought we'd better hit the road as soon as possible.  Well, we got the goats just fine but it wasn't quite soon enough for as we headed up Wolf Creek Pass about 30 minutes past Pagosa Springs, it started snowing harder and harder and about 7 miles from the summit, my little mini van just couldn't do it and we had to turn around.  We drove all the way back to Pagosa Springs, bought snow chains (wished I'd done that sooner!?!), and then headed back up the mountain after being told by a local tow truck driver that we should try to make it over the pass right then or we might be stuck there for several days (with two goats in dog crates in our mini van - no thanks!?).  This time we were successful and made it over the pass with no problem.  It was dry on the other side and after removing the snow chains we made pretty good time until we hit another snow storm south of Denver.  It was slow going but we all finally made it home to Briar Gate Farm 12 hours later.  The goats were amazingly good travelers and aside from an adorable "bleat" every now and then, they slept most of the way.


When we got home around 10:00 pm and opened the crates in the back of the mini van, Skittles stumbled out and seemed to have forgotten how to use her legs after being folded up lying down for the past 12 hours.  She hobbled around on her knees for a few minutes before she finally remembered how to stand up, and we got a pretty good laugh out of that.  The goats settled in well to their new surroundings and we began the fun of getting to know them and how to take care of them while we waited and waited for the next 5 months to pass before our goat kids finally arrived.  But that’s another story that you’ll just have to wait for!

Life Lesson:  Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Bringing in Hay

The spring before we moved to our farm was an unusually wet one along the Front Range.  Since there were no livestock living in the pastures of our new place before we arrived, the grass was about 2-3 feet high by the time our moving truck pulled up the gravel driveway.  Knowing we would have plenty of use for the hay all this grass would provide, we quickly found a local farmer willing to cut and bale for us.  Being from the suburbs, we had never actually watched this process before and we were enthralled each day when the farmer showed up with a new piece of very large farming equipment – cutting the first day, letting it sit for a day to dry, then coming back with a contraption that looked like a series of pinwheels, which would fluff up and flip the dried grass over into what were called wind rows.  This then sat for another half day, before it was dry enough to run through the baler.  In the end, we had about 75 bales of freshly cut hay dotting the back 3 acres.

Now the challenge was to figure out how to get the hay into the barn.  Being new “farmers”, we hadn’t acquired a pick-up truck yet.  We knew we could probably pay one of the neighbor boys to move the hay with his truck, but we really liked the idea of doing it ourselves so we set out to consider our options.  We figured we could load it into the back of our minivan, but that sure didn’t seem very farmy.  The only other vehicle that could assist in the job was our new John Deere riding mower which we jokingly called our tractor.  We decided to hook a little wagon up to the tractor/mower which would allow us to move about five bales at a time.  This was terribly inefficient, but also remarkably fun!  I got to drive the mower while Brian loaded the bales, and the girls had a great time running and jumping and hiding between the bales, and taking turns sitting on my lap steering the John Deere. 

When it was all said and done, we were hot, sweaty, itchy and tired, but it felt really good.  The joy of doing a concrete job together as a family while laughing and playing made it well worth the exhaustion.  I commented that by next year, we’d probably have a pick-up truck to bring in the hay and the girls said, “No!  It’s much more fun doing it this way!”

Life Lesson:  Make the Most of What You’ve Got!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Spirit

Once we became official owners of our first horse, Belle, we knew we would have to get her a companion.  Horses are a social species and don't do well alone.  Besides, the plan was eventually for us each to have our own horse on the farm, so we might as well start by finding one for my youngest daughter, Molly, that would be a pasture mate to our aging mare.  Molly was just about to turn 6 and loved the idea of horses, but so far hadn't expressed much interest in actually riding them.  I didn't want to make a huge investment in a big horse that she may or may not ride in the long run.  Plus, I wanted something small and accessible for her.  A little Shetland Pony seemed like just the thing at this stage, so I set out to search for one using my favorite horse search site, Dreamhorse.com.

It turned out that friendly, trained small ponies were relatively hard to come by.  Maybe it was because "friendly pony" is somewhat of an oxymoron.  Many ponies can actually be quite nasty and the good ones - well, they tend to stay where they are.  Luckily, I found a little pinto Shetland cross for sale that was being used as a carousel pony and in a petting zoo at birthday parties.  After meeting him we decided he would be a good fit for our current situation.  His name was Spirit and although he didn't know a whole lot, he seemed to have a sweet temperament and the price was right.  So, on the day we were ready to move Belle to our new farm, my friend brought her truck and trailer to pick up both Belle and Spirit and we brought them to the farm in early June.  When we loaded Spirit into the trailer next to Belle, he gave her a little nip on the leg, she kicked him and that was that - they had an understanding!

Spirit seemed to idolize Belle and followed her everywhere she went as they both became familiar and comfortable with their new setting.   Belle accepted him in that kind of, "you sort of annoy me but you're all I've got" kind of way, but made it clear that the you-bite-me-I-bite-you game that Spirit thought was so much fun was out of the question.  Molly was overjoyed when she first got to meet Spirit on the morning of her 6th birthday and had fun grooming him and being led around in the arena.  But once she discovered riding the big horses, her interest in riding the pony waned.  As sweet as he was, he was also a little mischievious and nippy, and his fast-paced, bouncy trot wasn't nearly as easy to ride as that of the longer legged, well mannered older horses.  So by the end of the first summer, Spirit was mainly a pasture ornament and friend to Belle.

Over the next few years, we tried to find a role for Spirit in a number of different ways.  He gave lead line rides to the little kids who came to our farm programs but was somewhat unpredictable and a little jumpy so eventually I found it easier to just use the big horses.  I got the idea of training him to be a cart pony, but as we got busier with more animals, I found I just didn't have the time to commit to a regular training schedule so that never happend.  He was and still is the right size for the littlest kids to groom, but being brushed and braided every now and then doesn't seem like much of a job.  So, while he was a cute little guy who was fun to watch with the other horses as he tried to get them to play with him, I just wasn't sure what his real purpose on our farm was.

That was, until my neighbor and dear friend, Mindy rescued an older Clydesdale mare.  Now Mindy is a gem.  She's an amazing body worker, a true earth goddess and above all, an animal angel.  She nurtures every animal that crosses her path better than anyone I know.  In fact, if I was an animal, the only place I would rather live than at Briar Gate Farm is with Mindy.  And I have been lucky enough over the past couple of years to have her as one of my main farm sitters when we travel and need someone to take care of all our critters.  So when she got this older mare, Claudette, I asked her what she was going to do about a companion for her.  She considered getting another horse but didn't feel like she wanted to make the longer-term commitment of having two.  Naturally, I had just the solution for her - a cute, friendly little pony I knew that really needed a job!

I took Spirit down to Mindy's one afternoon and turned him out into the pasture with Claudette.  Much like his initial meeting with Belle, he trotted right out to her, gave her a little nip, she turned and gave him a little kick, and from then on it was true love!   Now Mindy comes to get Spirit every morning after Claudette has finished her morning feed and nap, and they spend the day together in her pasture.  Then at the end of the day, Mindy brings Spirit back home where he joyfully reunites with the herd he has come to love here.  Not only is this a great solution for Mindy's shorter-term companionship needs for Claudette, Spirit seems to have matured and is easier to catch and lead now that he is handled a little bit every day.  It has truely been a win-win situation.

Life Lesson:  Everyone has a Calling

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Belle

My oldest daughter, Megan, went through a number of animal-crazy stages when she was little.  During preschool she was her school's resident dinosaur expert, which then morphed into a dragon passion by kindergarten.  The next logical step was a love of unicorns, and of course that could only lead to one thing...horse infatuation.  About this time, the animated movie, Spirit, came out and I enthusiastically accompanied my young daughters to view it on the big screen.  Well, that was it - we were all hooked! 

Recoginizing that this might just be my ticket back into the equine world, I agreed to sign Megan up for a few riding lessons when she was seven years old.  We found a good local instructor and got started.  She loved the lessons and took to it quickly, but after a few months I couldn't help but think, "I could teach her all that if we had our own horse"!  Now, knowing what the long-term responsibilities of horse ownership entail, I decided it might be best to start with a lease and see where this took us before making a bigger commitment.  Enter Belle.

A friend saw a flyer at her daughter's elementary school for a partial lease on an older Quarter Horse mare named Belle.  For just $100 a month, we could visit Belle's Boulder stable, groom her, ride her, and love her 3 days a week while the current owner fed her, cleaned her stall and continued paying all the other bills.  Sounded like a great next step on our equine journey.  We signed on and for the next year or so, enjoyed establishing a relationship with Belle with a minimal time, money and energy commitment.  It was perfect.

But good things rarely last, and so when the day came that the owner announced they were moving to Ft. Collins and taking Belle with them, I wasn't too surprised.  I offered to buy Belle from them, but she wasn't for sale and so we sadly said goodbye with the understanding that we could visit her any time we wanted to.  We did make the drive up to see her several times over the next year, while we continued to look for another lease horse for Megan.  But Belle was a tough act to follow and we couldn't find a horse or stable that felt as right as our situation with her had.

About this time, my husband and I were weighing the idea of  making this major move to a small farm.  We'd gone back and forth for months, but it had finally just clicked that it was now or never.  We had found a small property of interest and had decided to make a verbal offer on it one chilly January day.  That very same day, I got a call from Belle's owner with the news that his family was finding it hard to make time for her and if I was interested, they'd like to just give her to us!  Call it fate, kismet, destiny...we knew we were on the right track.

The offer we made on the initial property didn't go through, but it was the step we needed to take to know we were now committed.  Within a month, we had found another suitable property and had a contract in place.  We weren't going to move until June so that the girls could finish out the school year where they were, so we had to find a local boarding stable for Belle until we could move her to our own farm.  It took a couple of months to get everything set, but finally in early April, we hired a horse transporter and went up to get her.

It was a humbling sight when we arrived at her boarding stable.  The once shiny, plump black mare was noticeably thinner and her coat was dull and badly in need of brushing.  She's been in a group feeding situation and had been pushed around by the younger, more dominant horses, so had dropped quite a bit of weight and was obviously in need of some serious TLC.  What seemed like an amazing gift horse soon felt more like a horse rescue.

But thanks to lots of good senior grain and alfalfa hay along with daily nurturing visits and grooming, Belle soon got back to her sleek, healthy weight and the softness of her kind eye returned.  Then and there, we made the commitment to her that she would live out her twighlight years in peace and harmony in her new forever home at our very own farm.  As she approches her 27th birthday, she is doing just that.

Life Lesson:  Some Things are Just Meant to Be

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year - New Blog!

video

Where it all started

     I'd wanted to live on a farm since I was seven years old.  That's when I fell off my first horse during a public trail ride in Indiana and strangely, simultaneously fell in love with the big, four-legged creatures.  Since that day, I'd yearned for a farm of my own - not just for horses, but for animals of all sorts and sizes.

     Throughout my childhood, I managed to talk my parents into a large array of pets including dogs, cats, guinea pigs, hamsters and yes, even a horse.  And I was lucky enough to live on a small farm with my horse briefly during college in Virginia.  But soon after graduation, I found myself not only farmless, but horseless as well after my horse's unexpected and untimely death.

     During the next 15 years of job searches, courtship and marriage, graduate school and the birth of my two daughters, I always felt a longing for country life that couldn't be quelled.  No matter how I rationalized it away as impractical, illogical, impossible, unattainable, the dream just wouldn't die.

     Finally, in 2005,  I acknowledged that this was something I needed to do or I'd always regret it.  By then my girls were 6 and 9 and the thought of them growing up in our comfortable but tightly packed suburban subdivision left me feeling restless and unfulfilled.  So, with the understanding support of my kind husband and the enthusiastic encouragement of my two by-then horse crazy daughters, our family set out on a new adventure as small-farm owners and rural life enthusiasts.

     Now after 5 years, 4 horses, 1 pony, 8 goats, 1 llama, 5 cats, 14 hens, 2 roosters, 2 ducks and 1 dog, I've decided to share my passion for this satisfying lifestyle and the numerous things it has taught me by creating this blog.  My goal is to share weekly stories with readers about how the critters (and a few crops) we've raised have provided not only enjoyment, recreation, new skills and more than a few aches and pains, but also valuable, meaningful life lessons along the way.

      So sit back, relax and join me for these stories of fun, foibles, feasting and family on the farm.

LIFE LESSON:  Listen to your Heart - Dare to Dream!