Saturday, February 26, 2011


Chickens don’t like snow.  And my hen yard is on the north side of the barn, so it stays snow covered for days after a storm even as other sunnier parts of the barnyard dry out.  Whenever it gets like this, my hens huddle together in their coop rather than venture outdoors, and even though this is their choice, I always feel a little sorry for them.  So often during really cold, snowy spells I open their coop door and let them free range in the barn to keep them from getting too stir crazy.

One winter, after a week of frigid, snowy days, I got a little complacent and wasn’t paying attention to the fact that it was gradually warming up and the snow was melting outside the barn, so the hens were starting to venture further and further outdoors.  Normally I like the idea of letting them free range a bit, but we live in coyote country, and after a particularly cold spell, those coyotes are hungry from lack of good hunting in their territory and they start to get pretty bold.  So when I came home one afternoon and found three of my hens dead and half eaten in my yard and one entirely missing, I felt I had only myself to blame.

The worst part about losing hens to a coyote, besides the loss itself, is that the coyotes figure out there is free lunch to be had in your barnyard and come back for more, often bringing their friends along.  So when the coyote showed up right at my back gate that evening I knew I was going to have to do something.  Of course, I made sure everyone was back under lock and key, but it made me nervous not only for the chickens, but for the goats and my barn cats as well.  I contemplated getting a shot gun and taking care of matters myself, but I’m really not the gun type.  Besides, I don’t have anything against the coyotes themselves and feel they have a right to be living out there in their dwindling habitat.   I just don’t want them coming into my barnyard.

So, I decided it was time to try one of nature’s remedies for such problems and got myself a llama!  You may not know this, but most llamas have an instinct to guard any group of animals that they live and bond with (often sheep or goats).  When they sense danger, they will sound an alarm, round their wards up and move them to a safe place, and make loud noises to intimidate the unwanted intruder.  They’ve even been known to chase down the predator and stomp it to death if they feel the threat is great enough.  I figured this was worth a try – and besides, llamas are amazingly cool looking creatures and I thought it would be a neat addition to our menagerie.

After making a few calls to some local 4-H and Llama Rescue folks in the area, I was referred to a local llama breeder, Carolann, who was getting out of the breeding business and trying to sell some of her 40+ llamas.  We spent an hour or two together one afternoon and she patiently answered all my questions and concerns about llama ownership.  To get us started, she suggested that we “try” a llama for a month or so to see if we liked having one around. 

Just about that time, Carolann got a call from the local Llama Rescue that a family was moving out of the area and couldn’t take their llama with them.  He happened to be one that was originally from Carolann’s herd.  She remembered him fondly and realized he might be just the perfect match for my needs, being a friendly guy that had been living with goats for years. 

So on a cold, January day, Seger the llama showed up in my barnyard and made quite an impression on the other animals.  The horses had never seen anything quite like this odd creature and stomped and snorted and craned their necks to try to get a better look.  The goats were actually pretty scared of him at first, but after a few hours in neighboring paddocks, they settled down and realized he was nothing to worry about.  Over the next few weeks, they became better acquainted and the bonding began.

In the meantime, we were fencing our front pasture for the goats and when it was finished, we turned Seger and his charges out for the first time.  They were all so happy for the space and freedom and we laughed as we watched Seger running crazily around the pasture, legs flying is all directions.  The next morning, Brian was out doing some yard work, when he heard a strange, high pitched screech.  At first he wasn’t sure what it was, but then he figured out it was Seger sounding his alarm!  Apparently there was something at the end of the road that concerned him and he was running up and down the fence line making this sound I can only describe as somewhere between an Indian war call and a turkey warble.   Back and forth he ran as he screeched his alarm, then he ran over to the goats and rounded them up in a corner of the pasture, went back to the fence line and ran and alarmed some more, came back to check on the goats, and on and on.  He did this routine for 30-40 minutes and eventually the goats just laid down in the corner he had herded them to while their caretaker made sure the perimeter was safe.  It was quite something to watch and I was so proud and pleased with my successful experiment.

We never did find out what he was agitated about that day, but I suspect it was the sound of cows in a neighboring pasture.  Turns out, Seger is a little worried about cows, as he is about strange dogs, certain new people and the garbage men!  Anything that he thinks might pose a threat to his herd is suspect in his mind.  And when we come to take a goat out of his pen to work with or groom, he paces and hums and tries to watch where we’ve taken it.  In fact, he gets so concerned about his babies being out of his sight that when the county fair rolls around and we take all the goats to the fairgrounds for the week, we send Seger to “llama camp” at Carolann’s just so he won’t get too stressed with worry.

The other day, Seger and the goats were in their winter paddock as usual, along with a rooster that has been banished to the goat yard for bad behavior (that’s another story), when Seger heard the cows moving in the field behind our property.  He quickly rounded up the goats and moved them into their stall for safety.  Then he came back out and got the rooster, carefully nudging him into the stall with the goats.  Apparently, llamas will bond with just about anything they think they’re in charge of!

Life Lesson:  Protect the Things You Care About

Saturday, February 19, 2011


The first spring we lived on the farm, we decided we were ready to try our hand at raising chicks.  I'd always loved the idea of collecting fresh eggs in the morning and couldn't wait to get started.  We got a kid's book on chicken care (a great way to get the basic information you need without getting overwhelmed), read up a bit and headed out to our local farm supply store, Murdochs, to pick out our new little darlings.  If you've ever been to a farm store during "chick days", you know how irresistible those little fluffy hatchlings are.  We knew from our reading that if we wanted laying hens only (i.e. no roosters) we would have to select our chicks from the bins marked "pullets", as opposed to "straight run".  Apparently, identifying the gender of a one-day-old chick is so tricky that only a professional Chick Sexer can do it (I kid you not, that is a job title in the Dictionary for Occupational Titles!).  The pullet bin contains little girl chicks (most of the time) while the straight run bin hasn't been sexed, hence you get what you get.  We decided to start with 6 chicks and picked out 3 different breeds which, from our limited research, we thought would be friendly and lay pretty eggs (no white eggs for us!).  We chose 2 Ameraucanas (known as the Easter Egg chicken because they lay eggs ranging from brown to pink to green and blue), 2 Golden Sex-linked (to add some color to the girls themselves) and 2 Black Australorps.  We brought them home in their little cardboard box and gently placed them in the pine-shaving-lined trough we had set up in the garage. 

We dutifully fed and watered the chicks each day and watched them grow for the next few weeks.  Meanwhile, Brian started building a chicken coop that would be their home in the barn once they were big enough, and we cut a small door into the barn wall so that they would be able to go outside into a fenced run to get fresh air and exercise.  Brian constructed three nest boxes with a hinged opening to make collecting eggs easier, and a couple of perches for the girls to roost on at night.  When the chicks were about 6 weeks old, they had outgrown their garage nursery and it was time to move them to their new digs.  It seemed hard for me to imagine that they would know to jump up onto the roosts to sleep, but when we checked on them that first night in the barn, sure enough, they were all lined up on the perch just like the book said they would be!

It took about 5 months until we got our first fresh eggs and once we did, we were ruined for store-bought eggs forever.  The yolk of the fresh eggs is almost orange and wonderfully thick and flavorful, while the whites are firm and viscous.  By comparison, store-bought eggs seem watery and bland.  So, now that we are spoiled with the real deal, we have found it necessary (and fun) to get a few more chicks each year, to keep the fresh eggs coming.  Hens tend to lay well for 2 or 3 years, and then they produce less regularly, so we decided that we'd add several new birds to the flock each year to ensure a steady supply of the delicious eggs.

Well,  a few years ago, when we went to pick out our annual spring chicks, we arrived at Murdochs mid-afternoon during the height of chick days only to find that every single chick in the "pullett" bins had been sold.  All that was left were the straight run babies.  We had our hearts set on getting chicks that day, so I decided to do some quick "research".  I figured, if we ended up with a rooster, it would be good to select a breed that was known for friendly boys and not one of the overly aggressive breeds.  I consulted the Murdoch's employee who specialized in chickens (I call her the Chicken Lady) and learned that the Japanese Bantams were my best best for a friendly cockerel if our 50/50 chance of getting a boy landed us with a rooster.  Bantams, in case you're not familiar with chicken types, are basically little chickens - when full grown that are only about 1/3 to 1/2 the size of the large breeds.  And so it was that we selected two tiny Black and White Japanese Bantam chicks.

Everything went fine as the chicks started out in the garage trough-nursery like all our other spring chicks.  And as they grew and matured, it became evident that we probably had ended up with a pair - a pullett and a cockerel.  We were actually somewhat pleased with the idea of having a little man in the hen yard and I looked forward to hearing his first cock-a-doodle-doos.  But then, at about 6 weeks, tragedy struck when we came out to feed the chicks one day and found that the little bantam pullet had suddenly died, leaving poor little Noodles (don't ask me how he got this name) a widower.  I was concerned that he would be lonely without his mate, so rushed back to Murdochs for a replacement.  Much to my dismay, the bins were all gone and I learned that chick days were over.  And it was too late in the spring to special order any new chicks because poultry breeders stop shipping them once it gets too hot.  Poor little Noodles was to remain mateless and so the Chicken Lady recommended that we put a stuffed animal in with him to cheer him up a bit.   Granted, there were other big hens in the coop with him but it wasn't the same as having his own partner.  So, we found a little stuffed pig, put it on the roost, and sure enough, Noodles squeezed up there next to the little piggy that night and made the best of it.

Well, I couldn't see letting Noodles mourn any longer than necessary and once again turned to one of my favorite resources, Craig's List.  I posted an ad that read:  Wanted - 6 week old Japanese Bantam pullett for my heart-broken little cockerel.   I figured it was unlikely, but what the heck.  And believe it or not, within 24 hours, I had a response from a small farm within 30 minutes of ours that had a dozen or so pullets available that were not only the same breed, but exactly the right age!  I couldn't believe my luck and quickly headed down to fetch up a new wife for the little guy.  In fact, I decided to buy two just in case something happened to the first one.  
When I got the two girls back to the barnyard and put them in with lonely little Noodles, he took one look at them and I swear his little chicken face lit up and seemed to express, "Wow - two for one!!"  He was overjoyed and followed them around excitedly for the rest of the day.  That night when I checked in on the roost, there was Mr. Noodles proudly nestled between his two new young harem wives.

Life Lesson:  When life deals you a bad blow, better days are usually ahead

Saturday, February 12, 2011


I had a dog for many years that was as high maintenance as they come.  A husky-shepherd mix I had found as a stray puppy when I was in college, she was a beautiful dog and I loved her dearly, but she was not an easy keeper.  For starters, she was a runner.  Given the opportunity, she would take off chasing rabbits and squirrels, totally disregarding my commands to “come”, and sometimes would not be seen for days at a time.  She was also nervous around kids and couldn’t be entirely trusted around them, having been known to bite when cornered or feeling uncomfortable.  In her older age, she developed incontinence, had teeth problems and eventually succumbed to cancer at the ripe old age of 16.  The day my husband and I had to have her put down at the vet’s office, we cried our eyes out while we said good-bye to her, and then came home feeling a huge sense of relief that our years of dog ownership were over.  I realized that I was just not a dog person.

Or so I thought.  For 6 years, I told myself and my kids that we were cat people (and eventually horse people, goat people, chicken people...) but we weren’t dog people and we weren't going to get a dog even though we now lived on a farm and had plenty of room.  That was until I met a few really nice Golden Retrievers.  Our neighbors had an older Golden that would come visit us now and then, and I thought she was the sweetest thing I’d ever met.  Then Megan’s fourth grade teacher had a couple of Goldens that she brought to class and I was so impressed with their calm, loving behavior that I realized it wasn’t that I didn’t like dogs – I’d just had the wrong breed all those years.  So, I decided maybe it was time for us to try to adopt an older Golden Retriever to come live on the farm with us.

We started out by trying to adopt through the Golden Retriever Rescue and went through the initial application process, but progress was slow and each time we found a dog that seemed like it might be a good match, it was adopted by someone else before we were able to meet it.  Feeling a little impatient now that I had decided it would be nice to have a companion around the farm while everyone else was at school and work during the day, I placed a “wanted” ad on Craig’s List.  Within a few days, I had been contacted by a woman in Denver who thought our home sounded like it might be a good one for her 6 year old Golden, Lucy.

Lucy had been living with Deb and another older Golden her whole life, but the older dog had recently died, Deb worked full time, and Lucy was spending her days alone, indoors, gaining weight and becoming depressed.  As much as Deb loved her, she knew this wasn’t the best life for Lucy and when she saw my ad stating that we were looking for a dog to join our family farm, she thought this might be a better life for her girl.  We arranged to meet and see if it was a good fit.

When we first saw Lucy, we were struck by how big she was.  She was a tall dog with big bone structure, but she was also extremely heavy.  She weighed over 95 pounds and was almost as wide as she was tall. But she was super sweet and well behaved and so we decided to give it a try for a week before making a final decision.  I was as concerned about whether or not she would fit in with our family and all of our animals as I was with Deb’s comfort in giving her up.  But after a week, a good grooming and some quality time together, we all decided this was a great match and that Briar Gate Farm would be Lucy’s home from now on.  Deb seemed really comfortable with the idea and at peace about giving Lucy up to what she could tell would be a happier, healthier life for her.  It was truly a gesture of love that she was able to let go and give up such a great dog.

It didn’t take long before Lucy had settled in on the farm and was as bonded to us as if she had lived here her whole life. And just by increasing her activity level and being outdoors with us so much, the pounds started melting away.  Within 6 months, she was down to almost 70 pounds and looking great.  We’ve kept in touch with Deb, sending her progress reports, pictures and having her come for occasional visits, and she even took Lucy for a few weeks while we were on summer vacation one year.  But we all agree that Lucy is better off in her new life with us – and I can say that I really AM a dog person after all!

Life Lesson:  Sometimes Loving Means Letting Go

Saturday, February 5, 2011


As we entered our first winter on the farm, I got a call one day from a friend saying she knew of a “really cool” horse that needed a new home and that I should consider him.  He belonged to a friend of hers who was getting divorced and selling the small farm where they lived, and she and her kids had sort of lost interest in the single horse they owned.  My first thought was, “I don’t really want to take on a new horse as we go into winter”, but when she told me he was a 17 hand Dutch Warmblood retired dressage show horse, I knew I had to check him out.  I have always loved big horses and had wanted to learn dressage for a long time.  So, I called his owner and arranged to meet him.

When I first saw Chummie, he sure wasn’t much to look at.  He was a flea bitten gray – probably my least favorite horse color - and was pretty muddy with a long, snarled mane that hadn’t been brushed for quite a while.  He was big, though, and as I stood next to him grooming him and picking his hooves, I couldn’t stop commenting on his enormous stature.  His feet seemed like dinner plates compared to the dainty hooves of our mare, Belle and the tiny Shetland feet of Spirit the pony.  But he was gentle and mellow and pretty easy-going when I rode him even though his owner said he hadn’t been ridden for months.  So, in spite of being underwhelmed with his general appearance, I asked if I could bring him to the farm for a few days to see how he got along with the others and to get to know him better.

He arrived at our farm the week before Christmas, and ambled into the paddock like he’d been there all his life.  He immediately befriended Belle and Spirit and seemed completely at ease in the new setting.  I discovered that he was extremely affectionate and loved nothing better that a good hard scratch on his forehead and between his ears. By the second day that he was at the farm, I had fallen madly in love with him!  Then my brother and his family arrived from Ohio for a holiday visit, and they each took a turn riding the big guy.  Now, not one of them has any horse experience whatsoever, but Chummie was a complete gentleman and as cooperative with my 6 year old niece as he had been with me.  That clinched it, he was here to stay!

Over the next few months, Chummie and I continued to get to know each other and as he got in better physical shape, I realized just what a great horse he was.  He was really well trained and had an awesome trot and canter.  But beyond the relationship he and I were developing, I started to notice that he and Belle seemed to be forming a special bond, too.  By spring, we had a couple more horses on the property and Chummie seemed to have taken on the role of Belle’s protector.  If she was in her stall eating hay with the stall door open, he would stand at the entrance so the other horses wouldn’t go in and bother her.  If she walked out to the pasture during a big snow storm, he would loyally follow behind while the other horses stayed near the warm barn.  When she took a nap out in the field, he would stand over her and keep the others from disturbing her.  They were pretty much inseparable.

When the next summer rolled around and we hosted our first summer camp for kids, the campers noticed this special bond and insisted that Belle and Chummie should get married.  So, with Spirit as the “flower boy”, our newest horse, Jazz,  as the “ring bearer” and Chummie and Belle dressed in bow tie and veil, I officiated in a silly, equine nuptial ceremony during our end-of-camp horse show.  And the happy couple continues living happily ever after!

Life Lesson: Know a Good Thing When it Comes Along