Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Jurassic Park on the Honey Grove

I've always imagined the possibility of some latent strain of dinosaur living in our primeval woods surrounding our pastures. Maybe it wasn't really a cougar that hauled off all those lambs several summers ago. Could it have been a velociraptor? Too many Jurassic Park movies, I know, and too many repeats on TV.

But, it does occur to me, as we currently host eleven large turkey poults, that Steven Spielberg probably took a flock of turkeys running through a field, lopped off their heads (digitally), replaced with dinosaur look-alikes, changed up the feathers a bit, and voila, the actors were ducking behind a large log as the animals came racing at them chased by a T-Rex!

I suspect this because of my own baby dinosaurs in the chicken yard. They are so different from chickens. They stick together in a pack and if one has an idea the others will follow. "Let's jump up on the fence rail." "Let's jump into the grape vine." "Let's see what is happening over here." "Look, I can fly." "Me too." "Me too." This is one way to exhibit limited brain power.

To add a little civility for the poor chickens trapped with this maniac crew, we lock the poults in their own area for the night. Here they can push and shove each other. Here, I can sequester them for an evening and morning meal, behind a locked gate so it is more easy to attend to the other animals in the yard, including our three bottle fed lambs. The yelling and carrying on when I enter their pen is amazing, and I have to be fast with the food or I am likely to get my fingers pinched. As it is, I have to warn guests they may have their feet or clothing pecked when they enter. For the small kids and parents alike, it is a rather alarming scene and many remain outside the enclosure until they have a full handle on what to expect. Some never come in!

The sole goose in the chicken yard tries to herd our baby turkeys. He is successful if they pay attention to him, but, as they grow older, he is more like the grumpy uncle. The lambs fight for their red nippled bottles, even as the poults drag them off. I have come back to the house several times without all my bottles, having turned my back for a second as one of the poults dives in and drags one into the tall grass. They will chase each other for dibs on the treasure. Of course, these are empty bottles. Second example of their very tiny brains.

Other times, the turkeys nip at the lambs and pull wool out in tufts. Mostly, the lambs know to stay away if they can, but every now and again, a crafty bird will approach from behind and give a big yank. They don't eat the wool, but rather like a baby, have to try everything just in case. Third example. Funnily enough, the lambs don't turn around and knock the turkeys over, even though they are 10 times the size.

Even while the poults are imposing as a group, the rats under the chicken coop are unfazed. We bought this batch of turkey poults from a breeder because we were concerned our own tom and hen turkey might not produce enough offspring for sale this year. At one point, the hen was sitting on 12 eggs. I took four eggs and placed them under a broody chicken hen as a safety measure. She hatched one and then let it die!

The turkey hen was diligent about setting, but I started to notice rat holes appearing near her nest. I checked and she had four eggs left. She kept setting until it seemed the days were up and she should have hatched them all. I looked and she had one day-old chick. There were signs the other chicks had hatched, but there were no babies present. Did the rats carry them off? Too grim to consider! I decided to act and took the chick from her, placing it a wire cage in the kitchen with a warm light and plenty of food and water. One chick out of 12. Not a great statistic. Annie has named 'her' Rose.

I doubt dinosaurs had this much trouble reproducing, but then again, humans never interfered with their natural breeding tendencies. Even these Heritage turkeys show interference and a lack of nurturing instincts. Then again, rats are a hardy lot. Look at Templeton in Charlotte's Web. I know our cat, Bubba, isn't that interested in taking on a rat, and he will take on just about anything.

So, today, I head out to close in all the holes and tighten up the chicken coop to discourage the rats. Hopefully, our hen will try another clutch and then we will have varying ages of flocking baby turkeys to remind us just how scary it might have been if these birds where as big and fast as our horses!

Photos: (top) turkey poults underfoot and pecking at my boots; (middle) goose trying to organize the poults with rooster ignoring it all and heralding the sunrise; (bottom) bottle robbers

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2009 Scottie Jones

...Click here to read the rest of this post.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The Virus Among Us

It seemed like a good idea to bring a young ram lamb onto our farm. I mean, who wants inbred sheep? And the thought of a cross-bred hair sheep had this shepherdess all in a dither - with the potential for spotted sheep, no less. Ever working on my naivite when it comes to all things ag, it never crossed my mind we might be introducing something onto our farm that we didn't want, like a virus.

I have now learned a new term. When you speak of a virus-free or disease-free flock or herd, you call it a 'closed' flock. Nothing comes in and nothing goes out. Rather like a science fiction movie. Rather like a shepherd who knows what questions to ask.

But let's back up. Before ever thinking we might be contaminating our stable herd, it seemed reasonable to look for some way to increase the physical size of our lambs. Bringing in Katahdin hair sheep took care of the shearing problem and they even had nice personalities, but we soon discovered their offspring take forever to put on weight, and some never do. Crossing Romney and Suffolk (we call them 'woolies') and Katahdins brings some size, but then there is the wool problem.

Annie decided to put her genetics training to work and find us a solution. I had heard that OSU ran Dorpers. A little research later and we discovered this alternative hair sheep was bigger than the Katahdin and many lamb breeders were beginning to cross the two.

It's amazing what Craig's List has opened up in the way of shopping for anything, even Dorper ram lambs. We found just what Annie was looking for about an hour away with the requisite RR genetics, although at the moment I can't remember why this is so important. On a sunny spring day we drove my little Toyota truck over to the farm and picked out not my first choice, because he was already sold, but the second choice based on head and chest size...and feet.

Dorpers are known for their interesting coloring, often with black heads and white bodies. We managed to select a white Dorper because of the above-mentioned features, not because I thought he was the prettiest. We were assured his coloring was an anomaly and he would throw spotted lambs.

Annie had obviously thought through the introduction process for this young ram because we wanted him to feel comfortable around us - not overly friendly, but willing to come close. We would put the three bottle fed babies (Dusty, Eli, and Piper) into the chicken yard with our new purchase. This would make feeding easier and give the ram lamb time to get to know his competition and, soon to be field friends, Red and Piglet on the other side of the fence. We hadn't supposed the goose would mind.

Boy, were we wrong. First thing out, the goose grabbed our new ram by the lip and wouldn't let go. Then he grabbed him by the butt. We noticed his lip was bloody (all the goose got with the butt was a lot of wool). The goose then took it upon himself to start herding the lambs all around the yard. The lambs learned to give him a wide berth.

The bloody lip should have gotten better, but as the days went on, Annie and I noticed that our ram lamb had more and more sores around his mouth. I happened to mention this to a new sheep friend. She would ask her husband. He came back with something called Sore Mouth.

I called Oregon State's vet school and Annie started to look online. The reality hit. We had just introduced a highly infectious disease onto our farm with no real cure. Not only were we likely to infect all our sheep, the soil where the sheep were housed would carry the virus for up to 10 years unless there was a hard frost. Great, and we had really started to like this little boy - calm and cool...just what we wanted.

Two weeks later we returned the ram to his former owner for a full refund. That night at feeding we determined that all three of our bottle-fed lambs had the virus!

POST SCRIPT The ram is back on our farm because: 1) either most of our flock is infected (difficult to believe because our sheep were fields away from the ram lamb) or 2)our sheep, including the lambs, are allergic to buttercup, making their nostrils break out in sores. We think this is more likely since it happened to one of our horses several years ago in spring. The breeder agrees. He showed the lamb to shepherd friends and no one thought the outbreak looked like Sore Mouth. Phew! Now we just need to wait for the buttercup to stop blooming!

Photos: (top) Dusty, Eli, and Piper, (bottom) no-name ram lamb

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2009 Scottie Jones

...Click here to read the rest of this post.