Autumn: A Time to Regain Focus

This bit of “Farm Diary” is meant to fill a big gap in posts and bring things up to date. It is also a good time to do some reflection.

Since Connie and I took the plunge eight years ago and moved to Heatherhope Farm, we have heard from lots of people who “always dreamed of simplifying life and moving to the country.” And lately, since the two of us retired in March of 2010, we have fielded lots of questions from people about how it “feels” to be retired.

The obvious and easy observation about “country life” if that means life on a farm, is that it is anything but simple. On a farm you need to consider stewardship of the land and of the creatures that live on it, beneath is and above it. You consider machinery, chemicals, medicines, taxes, insurance, and partnerships with lots of people who must help you if you are to get the jobs done.

This is a key time in the life of the farm. Summer’s long days fly by quickly and you realize you have a backlog of chores to get done having to do with fences, gates, vaccinations, etc. Some of these chores have to do with major changes that you have meant to get done years ago, but they still await you. I have had materials for upgrades to my feedlot sitting around for at least three years now!

But if you consider the events that we worked through since mid-August, you can see why the “to-do” list is still large: a couple days of biking with friends, a handling clinic with Welshman, Aled Owen, four days at the Wisconsin Working Stock Dog Association Trial in Portage, Wisconsin, get Aled back to Wales, two days at the Crook and Whistle Trial in Jefferson, Wisconsin, two weeks in Ireland, four more days of trials in Vesper, Wisconsin, hosting visits by a Cub Scout troop and two youth choirs from our new Church home of Salem Lutheran Church in Sycamore, IL, and meanwhile having work start on a small addition to our house.

So, life is busy. So busy that some of the focus has been lost.

I feel better when I get to sit down and write some things. It forces me to turn off the noise of multiple distractions around me and to consider what is happening in and around me. And I have had precious little time to do that.

But here is the time.

And I realize that millions of farm folk around the world must have many of the same thoughts: The days are shortening. So much of what I thought I would have accomplished, I haven’t. The cold and dark and hard days are ahead, but am I ready? Will the animals that depend on me be properly cared for?

But, here on this sheep farm, there is another note. Eight days ago I came home with our new ram, bought from Graham and Margaret Phillipson in Richland Center, Wisconsin. He is from Brotherstone Trooper lines of Scotland, but we think we will call him Bilbo, to go with Frodo the guard dog and Smeagol, the cat.

As for me and my house, the two best days of the sheepy year are when the mothers and lambs are first put out on pasture in the spring and the day in the fall when the ram is first put out with the brood ewes. We put Bilbo out only a few days after he arrived here. That meant he was still uneasy with our place and procedures. He was a little less jumpy than when he arrived, but when we got him and the four ram lambs into a small handling area to put the head harness on him, it was a real fight. I was just barely strong enough to hold his head up and pin him in a corner. Then my friend, A. J., who has been coming over to train his pup, Drake (a son of our dog, Cap), held the head harness as I fitted Bilbo with the marking harness. This holds a big marking crayon to the ram’s chest so that he “paints” the rump of each ewe he has mounted, giving us an idea of who has been bred and who hasn’t.

After some struggle, we got Bilbo all fitted out and then made our way out the barn and about 75 feet over to the gate to the north pasture where the ewes were. Bilbo reared up on his back feet repeatedly. We held on for dear life knowing if we lost him it would be hell to get the head harness off. Finally, A. J. reached back and closed the gate and I slipped off the head harness. Bilbo stood still for a moment. His head went up into the wind. He caught a whiff of the ewes who were clustered at the bottom end of the pasture looking our way. After about five seconds he took off at a fast trot toward his harem; and when he arrived, all the ewes clustered around him and it took all of about 30 seconds before he began doing his work.

What a kick it is to see this happen. I could imagine Bilbo saying, “If I had known what you guys had in mind, believe me, I wouldn’t have put up such a fuss!”

By the end of the day at least four ewes had nice red rumps, and the sheepy year began anew.

The other big thing that is happening here is that we have Spot to train. He is almost a year old now (birthday is November 18), and is he ever a handful. In a recent post (One-of-a-Kind Spot) I noted that I had tried him on a very long line, then without a line, then back on the line. I considered that the sheep he was training on were too likely to split up and frustrate him, so now I have lately been working him with a very short line on a bigger group of different sheep with the idea of getting him to feel good about moving around the sheep. But last evening it took the help of friend Sandi Scott to keep Spot from diving in and biting sheep. And then we were anything but 100% effective at this. Indeed, one fleeing ewe had a long tail (we dock tails here for hygiene so that they are about 4 or 5 inches long – but this sheep was bought in and had a full 2 ft long tail) and Spot bit a little of it clean off. Horrible! We don’t condone animal cruelty here. Some sheep inevitably get hurt when we train young dogs, but we do our darndest to keep them safe; and the whole idea is to produce dogs that move sheep quietly and efficiently.

Well, it is clear that Spot will continue for a while, at least, to be a very hard dog to train. The day toward the end of September when I left for the Chaffin dog trial in Vesper, Wisconsin, exuberant Spot jumped up into my face. He split my lip in the process and I will have a nice scar on my lower lip for the rest of my life. I don’t believe in cruelty to farmers either, but sometimes you just can’t manage everything neatly. Stuff happens!

Simple? No. It is quite a complex thing to tend to a farm and livestock. But there are those grand and beautiful and holy days—days when the mothers and lambs frolic out to the lush spring grass—and days when the ram discovers his special purpose. These are the days the Lord has made. And all the days in between!

God grant us the time to sit awhile, and think, and regain our focus. God grant us the time and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so that we can rediscover again and again why we do what we do.

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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