Never Rains But It Pours

Hobo on right with friend Jessie

Hobo on right with friend Jessie

Do you have the saying “It never rains, but it pours” in the USA or is it something I brought over from England?  If you haven’t come across it before, it means that when one thing goes wrong other things often follow.  In our case, we were recently devastated by the loss of our old dog and my faithful companion, Mikey, but only two weeks later, we have had to let Hobo, our oldest Great Pyrenees, go.  When we took Hobo from the GP rescue group 5 years ago in TN, we weren’t sure how old he was, but we knew that he  wasn’t a youngster (maybe around 7 or even more?).  He was always a little less athletic than the other GPs and tended to be the one that stayed behind to watch the stock when the others ran out to confront the danger.  Hobo was extremely gentle and sweet with all his human family, but food was always an issue for him, leading to fights with our other male GP, Woody.  However after we solved the feeding issue by removing the “free-choice” food and going to a set feed time (see tip at end of post), Woody and Hobo became fast friends.

I had been concerned about Hobo’s welfare for a little while, because he seemed to be even more stiff and possibly in pain (hard to tell sometimes with GPs, they are such a stoic breed), despite having a new shelter with a soft straw bed for this winter and glucosamine/MSM and fish oil each day (see tip at end of post).  I was considering trying to find an indoor home for him so he could have even more comfort, but quality of life is always an issue with outdoor working dogs.  Their roaming lifestyle, their pack of dogs and family of sheep, horses and chickens is all they have ever known and losing all that is traumatic for them.  I wonder, does anyone else have any thoughts on how to take best care of working dogs in their older years?

That decision was taken out of my hands when I went out one morning and found Hobo lying in the pasture.  He was not complaining and was happy to see me, but was unable to use his back legs.  After consulting with the vet and giving Hobo multiple shots of SOD (superoxide dismutase, a terrific free-radical scavenger that I use on the animals for pain, inflammation and to enhance the effects of other drugs), we were unable to restore any function to his legs and decided that we couldn’t let him suffer any more.  So we then had yet another trip to the vets to fulfill our responsibility to a beloved pet.  I can honestly say that it doesn’t get any easier.  I sometimes think that I am too soft to be a farmer, but every day I get up and do it all over again.  We are giving Woody extra loving as he seems to miss his friend.

Tip: It is generally recommended that livestock guardians (like Great Pyrenees) do better and there are fewer fights when dried food is fed free-choice, but Hobo always protected food, not just his own food (we would put out multiple bowls of food), but any bowl he happened to be near and even empty bowls.  So after years of following the accepted advice, I decided to rethink the issue.  What worked for us and our three GPs was feeding night and morning with one bowl for each dog.  In each bowl I put dried food and split a can of wet dog food between the three, making a gravy with boiling water and the can scrapings.  This was, for the dogs, a deliciously smelly and tempting treat and every last morsel would be eaten in a short space of time.  I make sure that I adjust the amount of dried dog food for each dog, according their size, appetite and weather conditions (more in cold, wet weather) so that everything is eaten in one sitting.  At first I tied each dog up with their food in a different places near the barn so that they couldn’t mess with anyone else’s food and removed the bowls immediately after they had stopped eating (even if some was left).  Now the dogs know the routine, eat everything as it is put down and there hasn’t been a single growl, let alone fight, since.

This method has the additional benefits of stopping waste (Woody buries excess food for later) and there are no losses to chickens, crows and ravens.  The savings in dry food more than covers the cost of the can of wet food.  Also I no longer give special dog versions of joint supplements, which are very expensive.  I go to Costco and buy big containers of Glucosamine/MSM and fish oil, sold for humans, when they are on sale and hide the equivalent human-size dose of each under lumps of canned dog meat.  Almost without exception, the tablets disappear along with the meat.  This has, by the way, got the blessing of our vet, he feels that doggy doses of these supplements are often inadequate, particularly for the big breeds.

Fat and Sassy Horses Part 1.

This blog is for my friend Ashley who lives just over the border from Augusta, Georgia, in South Carolina (two house moves ago for us).  She did a superb job training all our horses (and us!) and we miss her so much.  She tells me that she has been having a hard time keeping weight on her 2 year old quarter horse and so I thought I would relay what worked for us.

Last year (our first winter in WA) our older paint gelding, Corey, (in his early 20s) dropped a lot of weight and we couldn’t seem to build him back up.  Also our climate in winter is frequently cold (30s) and wet and our horses spent most of their time blanketed.  Our farrier (Bill Duncan from Stanwood and a terrific farrier) suggested we try adding vegetable oil and calf milk to Corey’s diet.  The two younger horses (Cal, Andalusian, and Milo, mustang) have 12% protein horse feed and Corey has a mixture of this feed and a senior feed.  Then here is what I developed and added to the horses’ regular feed:

Per horse, per feed – one half cup of alfalfa pellets soaked in water, two thirds ounce of dried calf milk (keep bulk sealed in plastic in cool place or long-term in freezer), two thirds fl.oz. vegetable oil.

I added the special mix to their night and morning feeds (feeding little and often is the best way for particularly grazing animals to convert their feed and also much better for their digestion).  Sounds complicated but it is really easy when I prepare the mix for all three horses together by  measuring out and soaking the pellets about 12 hours ahead and mixing in the calf milk and oil just before dividing it between the 3 buckets as I feed.  I did take the trouble to introduce the additional feed slowly and had no trouble with digestive issues, even in Milo, who has had previous run-ins with colic.

This diet was really successful.  In the first winter, Corey was able to put all his weight back on and this year I started introducing the additive mixture to all the horses diets in November and all the horses have maintained perfect weight and condition.  Part 2 will follow with tips on monitoring body condition and managing horses in the Pacific Northwest.

Difficult Week

Oso Landslide:

Just over a week ago the town of Oso, 7 miles away in the next valley, was wiped out by a landslide.  At the present time, 24 people are confirmed dead and 30 still missing.  This county has a few larger towns, but is mostly a collection of small, interlinked, close-knit communities like Oso.  Many homes have been wiped out and in many cases multiple members of the same family have been taken.  These are hard-working people who have lost everything.  We all know someone who is affected and all want to help.  If you can find it in your heart to spare any cash, the following website is for United Way and is one of the places where you can donate and ensure that the money will go directly to these families:



On a more personal note, we are having a difficult week of our own.  When you make the decision to have an animal whether for pleasure or profit, not only do you get to do the fun stuff, but also you get the responsibility for ensuring that they have all their needs taken care of.  Unfortunately this includes recognizing that medical treatment is not working and that their quality of life is suffering.  Last Friday we reached that stage with Mikey one of our 6 adopted dogs.  Mikey was the first dog we adopted way back in Georgia, 9 years ago.  When we first saw Mikey, a black lab shepherd mix, he was about 4-5 years old and had been wandering the streets scavenging for food.  He had been waiting for adoption for a long time because he had heartworms and was very nervous due to abuse.  However at the adoption fair he sat in the cage and waited patiently, offering me his paw.  I was lost.  He underwent a month of treatment for heartworms, became part of the family and moved around the country with us ever since.  He accepted all the new members of our dog family and the highlight of his life was just trailing around the house after me.  He had been coughing and wheezing for quite a few months and the vet tried multiple treatments and antibiotics.  We used all the supportive care we know, but nothing worked for more than a few days.  The vet concluded that it was cancer and given Mikey’s age and his reduced health, we ran out of options.  He had a wonderful day last weekend, when he was playing outside in the sunshine, but in the following days he lost his appetite, slowed down and found difficulty following me about.  On Friday, it was obvious that he no longer had the quality of life he deserved, so the family spent the whole day with him making sure that he knew he was loved and in the evening we took him to the vet.  It was the hardest decision I have ever had to make, but I know that it is the best thing for my old friend.  Life is tough right now, trying to adjust to not having my shadow.  I just wish I could be half the person Mikey thought I was.


Picking Up Chicks!

Today was Chick Day! When we left Tennessee 2 years ago, we had to sell all our chickens; moving 100 chickens (along with 3 horses, 24 sheep, 6 dogs and a barn cat) 2500 miles was just a little too much. We loved our chickens; we had multiple pure-bred breeding groups of full sized chickens and banties and raised our own chicks, which my daughter, Katey, showed in the local shows. When we got up here to Washington, we really missed our fresh eggs and the companionship of our feathered friends pecking round our feet, so we bought a dozen adult Rhode Island Reds and Black Australorps from our neighbors. The number has varied over time, going as high as 15 and now settling at 8, due to the girls trotting to and fro between us and our neighbors, with the odd chicken being liberated by coyotes. Maybe the girls do what I did when I was a kid. My two sets of grandparents were neighbors, and I would check out the evening meal menu at each place before I would decide on who would get the benefit of my company that evening. These girls have been great layers, but definitely not the huggable type. So as these girls are getting older and their egg-laying capacity probably going to start dropping, we decided to add to our flock.
Katey and I were like kids in a candy store at the farm supply store in Stanwood this morning. They have a super set-up, their chicks always look healthy and they have a huge selection of breeds. So 16 chicks and a 50 lb. bag of chick feed later, we managed to drag ourselves out of there. We chose our breeds carefully, cold tolerant, high egg production (4-5/week) and interesting egg colors (which make our eggs in great demand with Seattle city dwellers), then not forgetting the all-important cuteness factor. Our final choices were Gold and Silver Laced Wyandottes (brown eggs), blue wyandottes (brown eggs), Ameraucanas (blue/green eggs), Salmon Faverolles(cream eggs, rare french breed with 5 instead of the usual 4 toes) and Cuckoo Maran (dark chocolate brown eggs, rare french breed and the original three french hens from the 12 Days of Christmas).
So now they are happily esconced in a huge Rubbermaid tub in the tack room. We put paper on the bottom for easy clean-up and covered it with wood shavings to stop the babies slipping and injuring their hip ligaments (sometimes known as ‘splay-legs or “spraddle-legs). I discovered many years ago that a slippery footing for chicks was disasterous for their hips and have tried different fixes for this condition (check out Google for details), involving splinting the legs and fixing the legs a little apart with rigid tape. The chicks learn to hop around and can function providing they are kept isolated so they aren’t picked on. However, the rehabilitation period is long and my experience has been that success in fixing these injuries is limited to only mild cases of “spraddle-legs”, always worth a try though. The most vulnerable time is the transport home from the store so we try to make sure that the babies don’t have much room to slide around in the box, an inch layer of wood shavings help, and no wheelies or speed bumps.
When the babies arrived home we put them in their new home, with a heat lamp suspended above using a portable clothes rack, which doubles as part of my display at fiber fests. A red bulb is best to discourage the chicks from pecking each other. We gave them chick starter feed in a special feeder with small holes which helps to stop them pooping in their food and water in a jar inverted into a special chick waterer with a narrow reservoir, which helps keep it clean and also prevents drowning (particularly important in guinea fowl chicks – cute but really stupid!). We like to add electrolytes (designed for chicks) to the water for the first 24 hours and always keep some on hand for other times when chicks might be prone to dehydration (stress, illness, hot weather).
We watched the chicks for a while after they arrived and they were all alert, walking with nice sraight legs, eating and drinking. They were all spread out nicely around their new home; huddling under the light would indicate that they were cold and the light would need lowering, while hanging out at the opposite side of the box to the light would indicate that they were too cold and the light would need raising. So now starts the taming of the chicks; we have to handle these cute little fluff balls every day (tough, but someone has to do it!) to make sure that we can get our hands on them if we need to, for moving them to a new area or treating them for injuries/illness. This is the principle we work on with all our animals, handle them frequently and gently, with the minimum stress. This prevents injury to them and to us and there is no way you can stitch up a wound or deliver a lamb if the animal won’t tolerate you in close proximity.
So enough of the lecture, just wanted to share a few of the things we’ve learned over the years. The most important thing is to enjoy these new members of the Blackberry Hill Farm family.

Chick Taming

Chick Taming

Farm Engineering 101
Farm Engineering 101


Good Intentions

Big Four Mountains at the Head of our Valley

Big Four Mountains at the Head of our Valley

I have finally managed to pin my software architect husband down and get him to show me how to set-up my blog. Fortunately he was able to dumb the instructions down sufficiently for me to understand it, but I know that it won’t be the last time I have to ask questions (sorry Jim!).

I put off writing a blog for many years because I always wondered why anyone would care what I do; but then I realized that I myself was using other people’s blogs to help me find answers to problems. The deciding factor was the number of requests for updates that I had from the folk back in Tennessee (friends, fiber customers and shepherds that we sold stock to).
So here it is. I will try to commit to weekly updates, though anyone who knows my record with getting on to the computer to check my e mail will be sceptical.
Looking out of the window right now I can see all the tall fir trees that surround our pastures, but the rest is solid grey cloud. I know that there are snow-capped mountains surrounding our valley, but you would never know it. We are at around 1100 ft. and can see Mount Pilchuck to the South, Green Mountain to the North and several peaks, including Big Four, to the east. If we drive a few miles west towards the Sound we can see (on a clear day!) the Olympic Mountains and three of the Cascades volcanoes, Mount Rainier, Mount Baker and Glacier Peak. When we hike up Green mountain behind our house to pick berries or walk the dogs, we can see the skyline of Seattle and Puget Sound with the San Juan Islands.
This is an incredibly idyllic setting, although there are down-sides. I often joke that we have two seasons, Summer and the Rainy Season. Not quite true, but we do have around 180 in. of precipitation per year and are considered part of the temperate rainforest. Most of the precipitation falls as rain, but we do get some significant snowfalls each year. We often get snow up here on the Mountain Loop Highway when the rest of our county has none. Our clear days though are truly spectacular.