Sunday, September 18, 2011

Freedom Rangers in the Land of Dragons

Rock Bottom Ranch now has an official blog! My colleague Melanie launched the effort and wrote the first entry. Hannah wrote the second, and I came in for the third--many voices and many pictures of animals already, less than a week after the blog was born.

My entry "Freedom Rangers in the Land of Dragons" currently adorns the homepage. At the risk of being slightly redundant, I also will copy and paste the entry here. ... It seems a logical next event, in my series of posts about ranch adventures. So yes, it is precisely the same entry as seen on the other blog--you can chose whether you prefer to read it here or there.

Freedom Rangers in the Land of Dragons

Rock Bottom Ranch is featured in the fall issue of Edible Aspen Magazine! The article (composed by RBR educator and ranch hand extraordinaire Hannah Lippe) features the FREEDOM RANGERS. No, they are not the stars of an action TV series. They are a breed of free-ranging chickens whom we have been raising for meat (with the ancillary benefit of soil-fertilizer from their droppings.) In a bold cooperative endeavor with Jock Jacober of Crystal River Meats, Rock Bottom Ranch will raise a total of 1,000 meat chickens in 2011. (And we have all already raised and had processed over 500 of them.)

If you have visited the ranch since May, you probably recall the free-ranging chickens in the pasture, with their dome-shaped mobile pens (chicken tractors). An electric fence protects the chickens from bears, and their grain reserves from the ravenous jaws of Big Willy. As their name suggests, the freedom rangers spend their days roaming the pasture, pawing and pecking the earth in pursuit of bugs and worms and plants to eat. Considering their small size, I consider the birds to be remarkable eaters; they dive into grain at morning and evening feedings, and spend the rest of their days finding wild food. They break to drink water, rest, or enjoy a dust bath. Or they may interrupt their quest to fight another chicken.

Fights are a natural part of life for chickens. Roosters face off with other roosters for dominance, while hens tussle with other hens. They stand face-to-face, cluck, and fluff their feathers threateningly. If neither opponent backs down, they peck each other. Roosters kick with their spurs. Most fights ends when one combatant flees; serious injuries occur only rarely. And on the free range, there is ample space for the loser to escape.

Although they are natural explorers, chickens prefer to explore close to home. Once a chicken has found a safe zone (such as a chicken tractor), she will return night after night. Our egg-laying hens (at the other end of the ranch) rome with fence-gates open during the day, but don’t venture too far from their home coop. Perhaps chickens perceive the world similarly to early maritime explorers—beyond the edge of the map, there is mystery and danger. “Here there be dragons.”

Recently, we brought some of the freedom rangers beyond the edge of the map. And there were dragons there.

The survival rate of our meat birds has been so high that we had a surplus of freedom rangers from our last crop. More birds grew to market size than we had arranged to be slaughtered. And so, these extra birds inhabit the ranch now. (And you can take one home for $10!) On Friday, Amy recruited my assistance to move these birds in with the egg-laying hens. The plan: move them in the afternoon to a separate ‘room’ of the layer’s chicken coop. Let them stay overnight. In the morning, let them out to mingle with their new neighbors.

We placed the chickens in crates for transport across the ranch. They fluttered and squawked when we caught them by their legs, but calmed down quickly inside the crate. Boxed in with their fellow chickens, they took a crowded truck-ride across the ranch. Then we introduced them to their new home.

In the early morning, the opened the chickens door. In the late morning, I returned to check on them—only to find that the “freedom rangers” were still huddled in their room, and hadn’t dared to venture into the yard. Evidently, they needed some persuasion. I lifted some by the feet, and pushed them through the door; others I chased out.

Once on pasture, the freedom rangers again began to act out their namesake. But they stayed huddled together, safe from this foreign flock of chickens, who now shared the pasture. Inevitably, as both parties pursued food and water, the egg-layers and the freedom rangers started to intermingle. A bit of grain that I put on the ground encouraged this process. A few freedom rangers came to eat—uncomfortably beside the strange other chickens, who came in so many different colors.

And then, the dragons arrived. The six young turkeys who joined the ranch this year, also came to the grain to eat. With their larger size, long necks, and menacing beaks, they must have resembled dragons to our freedom rangers. And, like dragons, they did not take kindly to intruders on their territory. A turkey pecked at a freedom ranger, chased her, tried to jump upon her. The ranger ran off and escaped. And returned to peck at the grain. And the process repeated. The ranger escaped again, but could not resist the lure of grain….

The laying-hens pasture has become an avian jungle, with chickens of all breeds and ages, the young turkeys, the elder turkey King Louie, and Eve the peacock. The animals learn to coexist, by cooperation or mutual avoidance. I am sure that the freedom rangers will follow suit, and find their place in the “pecking order.” In the meantime, they must rely on their wits and speed, to survive in the land of dragons.

Epilogue: After composing this post, I revisited the birds, and found freedom rangers and turkeys sharing the pasture, at a safe distance from each other. Evidently, both have adapted to the new neighbors.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The chronicles of trimming goat hooves

Percy the goat, drawn from life

Recently, I took it upon myself to trim the hooves of the goats. Wild goats live and climb upon rocks, which wears down their hooves. Our domestic goats spend most of their time in pasture, with a soft carpet of grass beneath their feet. As a result, their hooves grow much too long, to the point of interfering with proper standing and movement. It is up to the rancher to correct this problem, with knife (traditional) or clippers. I prefer the latter, being that it is safer for both parties when the goat gets ornery.

Evidently, goats do not grasp the concept of trimming hooves (at least for me they don't.) They only sense danger, and respond accordingly. However, most of the goats have grown quite accustomed to the large Ross wandering about their pasture. I decided to trim Corona first... the 11-year old goat is the matriarch of our herd, after all. She strolled up to me, I took hold of her collar, attached the leash, and led her to the 'milk room.' I led her atop the milk stand, secured her in placed with the head catch, and fed her a bit of grain. Corona shook—apparently she was afraid. I spoke to her, brushed her grizzled hair, then lifted her back hoof, and set about clipping it. She was mostly cooperative. But for the whole operation, she trembled like an aspen leaf. When I brought her back to pasture, her daughter Delilah approached and nuzzled her. Goat families stay together.

For the next in line, I knew not to try Plum, Percy, or Grey. Plum and Percy both fear me, probably due to my size. Any goat can out-speed a human, but Plum can run like a pronghorn antelope and jump fences like a mule deer. And she never falls for my 'baiting' trick. Percy is also hard to lay a hand on. Grey is the grouchy old man of the goat herd. When anyone tries to pet the small and compact goat, he runs away. He butts other goats with his horns, often unprovoked. Rosie is apparently his partner, but that doesn't stop him from trying to woo Corona. Even as he nuzzles the matriarch, he butts her daughter and granddaughter at every opportunity. Grey won my disdain when he butted a pregnant Delilah in her belly; I try not to hold grudges, but Grey gives me little reason to like him. And he can run surprisingly fast for such a small goat. The only way to catch him is to corner him, with two people, in his stall when he exits for the morning. So for hoof-trimming, he was not next in line.

But Charlotte seemed a fitting choice. Delilah's daughter and Corona's granddaughter, Charlotte has never been a popular goat among the ranch staff. She is aggressive and recalcitrant, traits that call her status as a future milker into question. Nonetheless, she remains part of the herd, for the time being. Well, she is part of the herd even though she does not run with the herd at present. We found that she had been drinking Delilah's milk—rather inappropriate for a one-and-a-half year old adult goat. So we consigned her to roam in the other pasture with her little siblings, Athena and Apollo. She has not given much effort to bonding with her little brother and sister. Instead, she spends most of her time baying, whining to rejoin the herd of larger goats, and her lactating mother. Her request is denied.

Charlotte did not take kindly to the milk stand. The lure of grain led her onto the stand, but once her head was latched in, she fought back. She pulled and banged against the wooden bars, attempted to free herself. She succeeded. I realized that her head was smaller than the other goats, hence she could slip out of the head catch. I took it upon myself to fix the problem. I fetched the power drill, detached one of the wooden bars, which go on either side of the goat's neck. I moved it closer to the other, and reduced the size of the head catch opening by one inch. Once Charlotte's head was back through the catch, she couldn't get free. She tried with all that was in her. She turned her head upside down, chin high in the air, 180 degrees. She scampered her feet off the milkstand, and onto the ground. She assumed contortionist positions like I had never seen before from a goat. But the head catch held her fast. I tried to explain that my only goal was to trim her hooves, which is quite a painless operation, much like trimming my own toenails. Unfortunately, goats do not speak english. And so I trimmed one hoof at a time, against her kicks and body-quakes. I returned her to her pasture, and she kept baying to return to her mother.

I easily brought Delilah to the stand, but found that her hooves were already trimmed. I brought Pomegranate (“Granny Pom”) over, and she was cooperative, and unafraid. Our largest goat, Deb, was next in line. Deb is armed with one horn, and has somehow managed to grow to a solid weight of 150 pounds or more on a diet of grass and tree leaves. Despite her size, she is perhaps the friendliest goat towards humans—she is quick to approach people, and use her head to rub stomachs (or rear-ends.) But she doesn't care to be leashed or led. She could see me lead her friends to the milk room, and did not intend to go there herself. And so she walked away whenever I approached. I tried coaxing her to join me, to no avail. I had to be crafty. I knew that Deb could not resist grain. I brought a bowlful from the milkroom. The goats swarmed me, stood on their hind legs and walked on me, all wanting the delicious crunch. I maneuvered through the crowd, and put the bowl before Deb. She stuck her head in, and ate greedily. I seized her horn. She thrashed and jerked her head and body about. But I held her fast. “Don't even try it, I've got you.” I said forcefully. I attached the leash and started leading her to the milkroom. She pulled away, with some force. Enough to make me slide for a few yards on the pasture. I regained my footing. “You can pull hard, I can pull HARDER,” I said, and pulled her along, to the milkroom. Until I find a way to win over Deb by diplomacy, I must resort to force. I understand if my readers disapprove of such rough handling.

On the milkstand, Deb impressed me again with her strength. I lifted her back hoof, and anchored it between my knees, which is standard for trimming. She kicked hard enough to loose herself from my grip, and kept kicking as I stood aside with her hoof in my hands. I realized that against this beast, convention wouldn't work. There were better uses for my body weight. I leaned against her large belly, and pushed her against the wall. Then I took hold of her hoof again with my hands, and took to it with the clippers. I removed the extra “hoofnail” on the sides, and her extra “toe.” She kicked and pushed to resist. I weigh 190 pounds and am in fine shape, but this goat made me sweat and work. Each hoof was an ordeal. I brought her back to the pasture, thinking the next goat, Rosie, would be much easier.

Rosie is a pygmy goat, white in color and rather overweight. She is closest to Grey, the old grinch. Maybe opposites really do attract. She enjoys being pet, on her bulging belly and horned head. When children visit, she approaches with wagging tail. I thought that her demeanor would make her an easy hoof-trimmer. I was incorrect. I was surprised by the speed with which the portly goat ran when I approached. Kind words had no effect. I had to 'bait' her, like I did with Deb. And once the leash was on her, she resisted like no other goat. She dropped herself to the ground, and rolled over. I pulled the leash, but feared that I would kill her—from the weight of her fat body drug by her thin neck. I had to use a different strategy. I held the leash, walked behind her and pushed her along.

I had to physically lift her corpulent form onto the milk stand. She wasn't tall enough to put her head through the catch. And so I used a caribiner and strap to clip her to the stand, and set about trimming her hooves. She resisted and walked off the stand, and I had another workout lifting the heavy Rosie several times. Eventually, I managed to trim her hooves.

As I led Rosie back to the front pasture, Grey trotted out to meet me. The other goats were far away, in the back pasture. Grey was well apart from the herd. In his eyes, did I see concern? Was he worried about Rosie? If so, I have discovered something that I hadn't known existed—a positive character trait in Grey. Evidently, even the tetchiest of goats has his bright side. Perhaps there is more to the old goat's character—I simply must probe deep to discover it.