Tuesday, June 16, 2015

They don't browse, they graze...

     We'd seen them for several evenings in a row.  Deer.  Just a few, a mom and her fawns - picking their way carefully down the hill though the brush until reaching the bottom, feasting on fresh green shoots of grass.  With many square miles of Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, land behind us, our partially unfenced acre was a highway for all sorts of critters wandering from off the hills to the rest of the rural valley we reside in.  The deer are common visitors and usually not a nuisance unless you plan on growing fruit and nuts trees, along with various berries and a handful of raised beds used for annual veggies - then yes, the deer could be considered a pest.
     The majority of our $450 early spring bare-root plant order was already in the ground.  With the warmer weather just around the corner, I knew our young trees would soon bud out and become like sticks of cotton candy to our four-legged friends unless we finished the 6' tall wire fence across the back of the property.  My alternative was to place individual hoops of 3' tall 2"x4" wire fencing around each new tree and bush.  I told myself several times the later was not an option.  I had already constructed a fenced chicken yard to contain our once free ranging fowl from tearing up the 6" layers of straw mulch I'd placed around each plant.  All would be safe to grow unadulterated if we just finished the damn fence.  My priority of chores at the ranch became laser focused.  I told my matrimonial ranch-mate our next day off would be devoted to kicking this fence's ass and getting it done!   A few days later, after the proverbial blood, sweat and tears - a few threats of divorce and worried looks from the dogs - the fence was done.
     We had contemplated the hill that takes up the back third of our acre when purchasing our little ranch just over a year ago.  What the hell would we do with it?  I could imagine the kids racing up and down it - building forts and tree houses among the mature oaks.  We made plans of repairing and replanting the south-facing hillside, scorched and barren from years of neglect.  My wife and I both thought the hill added character.  We didn't have a boring, flat parcel of land, ours came with a hill.  The best part was the top of the hill acted as a gateway to another five acre parcel we set our way future sights on.
View from the top of  the hill towards the south of the valley
     A few weeks after finishing the fence, I walked the property with a cup of morning coffee, inspecting the plants and smiling at the new leaves and buds on what were basically expensive sticks a month ago.  I stood at the top of the hill and gazed down upon my tiny dominion.  Our dreams of running a homestead was secure behind the fence and the dogs could roam their territory without the temptation of wandering off.  I reached down and scratched on Spencer, our six year old German Shepard.  I brushed some fox tail points and various stickers from his Teflon-like coat.  I slowly looked around and noticed all the thistles popping up in swarming clumps like the zombie hoard at Hershel's farmhouse (The Walking Dead spoiler alert - that didn't turn out too well).  Then it hit me... How am I going to maintain all of this vegetation on the hill?  Running a mower across the front yard and the flat part of the back was no problem for an old lawn-boy like myself, but the steep slopes of our little hill?  The daunting task of swinging a Weed Eater side to side for hours on end was not one I wanted any part of.  Not to mention the tingling numbness it left in my hands and forearms for hours after I was done left me shaking my head.  People who were aware of our topography would often ask, "Why don't you guys get some goats?  You love goats and they'll eat all of those weeds and stuff, no problem!"  Yes, I love goats (insert Ace Ventura's line of "If it's cold enough" here).  Goats are fantastic at weed abatement and hundreds of professional flocks are employed all over California each spring and summer to help cut the danger of wild fires.  Here's the thing, goats do such a great job because they don't care.  They're the cat of the ruminant world.  They don't give a crap about any of your stuff and will stare at you while devouring your heirloom rose bush you inherited from your grandma.   I remembered my wife mentioning sheep...
Tango standing behind his brother Cash
     She was ecstatic.  "Yes! They don't browse, they graze!  And they'll do every bit as good as a goat with keeping the growth down all over the back yard and hill."  A few days later, on Mother's Day (and a few hundred dollars lighter) we brought home young, twin American Black Belly rams, Tango and Cash.   Being hair sheep, they will not have to be sheared and have a great meat value even at two years of age.  Our plan was to let them roam and graze all spring, summer and early fall and keep the better of the two.  This would send the other to our freezer and my illustrious wife's dinner menu.  If all went well, we'd introduce some ewes to the winner of our version of the Hunger Games and grow the 10-04 flock from there.  That was the plan anyway...  Almost immediately, I noticed the "graze, not browse" clause to be completely optional.  While I constructed a simple sheep palace for them, they wined and dined on some of my new plantings.  Making short work of their early growth spurts.    Needless to say I was not happy.  These sheep bamboozled me, lulled me into a false sense of security with their soft bleats and horizontal pupils.  The war was on.  Every time they were out of their pen, I was watching, waiting for them to sneak a nibble of a black locust or sea berry, of a autumn olive or a colossal chestnut.  I chased them, leaping and arms flailing.  I chastised my bride, "Your sheep are destroying our plants."  The whole situation was ridiculous and the thistles were only getting taller.   There was only one thing to do...
Used to be a vibrant Scarlet Goumi berry bush
     Home Depot sells 100' rolls of 3' tall 2"x4" wire fencing for $60.  I figured I needed two rolls to secure the trees and bushed from these very determined villains.  Over the course of a Thursday afternoon, I successfully barricaded the majority of our botanical loved ones from the black and tan beasts.  Accomplishing this also allowed my to take down the chicken pen and allow our flock to again roam and scratch the earth to their hearts content.

     As I finish this maiden voyage into the blogosphere, I received a text from my wife regarding the acquisitions of two ewes, "I got a price of $125 each on the ewes - I'd say that sounds OK."  That's code for - We're getting two ewes for $250.  Looks like I'll be finishing up that individual fence project sooner than I expected.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

You can give a rabbit a nest box but you can't make her use it.

Years ago I had a doe that I thought didn't like where I put her nest box. She was a first time mom so I made an educated guess where she wanted it. Usually not in the corner they've picked as the restroom. Paris took ALL the shavings out and put them in the other corner where they promptly fell through the wire floor to the barn floor. Ok, not a big deal. I refilled the box and put it in the OTHER corner. Apparently that was wrong too and Paris repeated her previous actions. We did this a couple times with the same results.

Ok. Fine! Two boxes! One in each corner. Now I've got her, surely she'll pick one of them right? Nope, Paris squeezed her fat 4 pound self behind those two boxes to push them forward and then she dumped all the shavings behind and through the wire, again. I was less then amused. So, put everything back, bought a new bale of shavings, refilled the boxes, put clothes pins in and pined/wedge those boxes in. I'm a genius! I outsmarted a rabbit. I won.


Damn thing pulled all the shavings out of both boxes and crammed it all in the three inch gap between the boxes, more shavings on the floor wasted. I was ready to rip my hair out. I was excited and anxious for this litter. Paris had done well on the show tables and I bred her to my best buck, Attila. This wasn't ok! I could lose the whole litter in a matter of minutes in the dead of winter. My mother thought it was hysterical how this four pound rabbit was running my life and driving me crazy.
In the end she picked a box and successfully had her maiden litter. She was never anything other then a great mom and we never had this problem again.

Flash forward to last week.
This is what a new, just put in, next box usually looks like.
This is Belle (Disney name themed season). I found out that the step kids want to know the name of every animal I have. I name my rabbits usually on a theme but I usually wait for them to speak to me what their name should be. Sometimes they don't speak to me, but I learned that if I don't name them then we end up with animals named after what they are instead of a real name (e.g. Duck Duck the rescued duck, I know but once it happened it stuck and I couldn't unstick it no matter how hard I tried) Anyways, Belle is not a first time mom, this will be her second litter. Her last litter she did great! Note I put her box where I put it last time.
 This is what she did, she picked up (in her mouth) every last speck of shavings and put them here. In front of the box. I would just move her box, but the darker smidge you see in the top left of this picture is her feeder, if I moved the box it would block access to it. I shrugged and refilled her box. I'm an adult now and have a full time job, I do not have time for these kinds of shenanigans. Belle spent all night picking up all the shavings and putting it back the way she had it. This is the part where I throw my hands up and say whatever, fine be that way. It is summer, the temp right now is 90 degrees in the shade at 6 in the evening. At night the temperature doesn't drop too low, however babies could still freeze after a few hours outside the box. I check on my rabbits often when babies are due or when its hot. Chances are good I'd catch this litter before I lost them.

Raising rabbits taught me many things, most important: No matter what you do sometimes animals will do their own thing. You can let it drive you crazy or you can try to make work.

In the mean time while I wait for Belle to have this litter I'm going to check my records and see if she is related to Paris.