As Shannon mentioned in our inaugural blog post, we are now the proud parents of two Great Pyrenees puppies. I want to talk a little bit about why we chose the dogs we did and what our plans are for them, but first, perhaps a little background is in order.
I am a master at becoming fixated on a topic, learning everything I can, developing a plan for how it will fit in my life, and then not doing anything about it. For over a decade now I have been planning the perfect chicken flock, the perfect garden layout and crop rotation, the perfect breeds of pig and sheep and the exact numbers of produce we need to put up each year to be as self-sufficient as we can. When I started said research, we had both just finished college and lived in town on a quarter-acre lot. My farming dreams could not be fulfilled on a measly quarter-acre. Defeated, I decided to build a couple raised bed gardens, a compost bin, and we planted a couple fruit trees. I started asparagus from seed and could hardly wait for the bumper crop we would surely be celebrating in a few years…but…like I said, good at planning, not so great at execution. I nurtured all of the plants I started from seed, but once everything went to the garden, it became a neglected forest. My heart just wasn’t in it. I needed to be back in the country for this to work right. This might be a good time to mention that it is painfully expensive to live in the country and we had just bought our first home at the height of the housing market in 2006. I spent almost five years looking for a rural property we could afford and had a house Shannon would agree to live in. I’m certainly not trying to paint my wife as high-maintenance, she’s far from it, but yurts and trailers were not in our future.
Well, finally I found a tiny, old house on about 7.5 acres with a couple out-buildings and a small pond. Perfect. The owner had horses and had amended a garden area with composted manure for years. Rich, beautiful soil…that would have to wait. If you ever want to do anything outside of your newly purchased, 110 year old farmhouse, don’t tear off any wall paneling, or drywall, or plan a “little remodel”. Oh, and definitely don’t get pregnant with your first child while you’re in the middle of remodeling the master bedroom and bathroom of a house that only has one other bedroom and ¾ bath. Did I mention the other bedroom in your house would be up a tight set of stairs that turned with sharp, wedge-shaped treads at the very top? A room that would be wholly unsuitable for a small child? Anyway, I plotted bigger and better gardens at that house and had some successes, but again, my heart wasn’t in it because I knew we wouldn’t be staying there. I started building a chicken coop, but put off getting chickens because I didn’t know what I’d do with them if/when we sold the place. And that horse stable that would have been perfect for a little goat herd? Same story. Back to the property search.
I’m not sure I can make this long story short at this point (we haven’t even talked about dogs yet), but we ended up finding a little over 21 acres and built our dream home on it. Oh yeah, we had another kid, too. The wheels started moving. Bigger gardens were planned and planted. The gardens had some successes and some failures (I’m still a better garden planner and planter than tender). Chicken coops were built. Chickens were brooded. Chickens were processed. Chickens laid eggs. Predators came. More chickens were ordered. Rinse. Repeat. More predators came.
And that last point was where this new farming journey really begins. “More predators came”. About a month ago, Shannon was coming home from the doctor with a severe case of strep throat and came across two stray dogs killing our chickens. I had built a hoop-style coop to house the birds for late fall and winter since we’d suffered numerous losses to red-tail hawks the year prior and the trend looked to be returning. The birds would be safe and I would just move the coop forward to new grass once or twice a day. Then, we could turn them loose in the pasture again in the Spring when the hawk pressure subsided. That all worked splendidly until a relentless little terrier managed to rip a whole the size of a grapefruit in the wire mesh covering one end of the coop and weasel his way in to start snapping chicken necks. We ended up losing 11 hens that day and undoubtedly would have lost the other 16 if Shannon had not come home when she did. I moved the surviving chickens in to our original chicken coop and huge run that our Muscovies were living in and took three injured barred rock hens to another coop to quarantine them until they died or healed. With a little luck and a lot of Blu Kote they healed. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “uhhh, dude, I just came here to look at pictures of adorable puppies.” Okay, I’ll get to the puppies.
A couple weeks after the stray dogs reenacted “The Red Wedding” with our chickens, I happened upon a tweet from a local humane society with a fuzzy little Pyrenees/Saint Bernard mix up for adoption. I (not so) innocently texted the pic to Shannon and somehow the next day we were headed to Kansas City to add a third big dog to our family. Sadly (for our 4 & 6 year old sons), the pup and its five siblings had all been adopted in one day. Our plan had been to get the dog and integrate it into our family, but take it down to hang out with the chickens during the day to protect them from any would-be-predators. Prior to seeing the puppy tweet we really had no intention of getting a third dog. But, missing the chance to adopt it allowed us to think through our plan and do a lot more research on what type of dog would provide us with the protection we wanted for our chickens and how best to handle the training of a livestock guardian dog. As Shannon became consumed with learning all she could about LGDs, something suddenly clicked in her and she developed a much stronger urge to get more serious about farming and become a more active participant in the growth-plan for our farm. In the past I had always been the one to plan when we were getting chickens, or bees, or planting the garden. She would always help with everything, but now we were having real conversations that we never really had before around what our goals and dreams were for the farm. And here is where it is so valuable to have a partner that not only wants to do the same things as you, but also compliments you and makes up for your deficiencies. Over the past decade I have suffered from a bit of paralysis by analysis and haven’t been able to make myself commit to anything beyond a few dozen chickens, a beehive, and an often-overgrown garden. Shannon was able to research guardian dogs and develop an action plan for the farm. I joked with some friends that what I had been unable to accomplish in ten years, she was able to knock out in a long weekend. Before I knew it, we had a legal business entity, a website, a blog, short and long-term plans for gardens, chickens, livestock, and jobs for dogs.
Okay, okay, NOW I’ll get to the dogs. After researching a solution for poultry guardianship we decided that our original plans of adopting another family dog and training it to just hang out with the poultry during the day probably wasn’t going to work very well. We also decided that we would like to add some hair sheep to our farm this year for meat production. All the info out there on LGDs specifically says that they have been bred for centuries to live amongst and protect their charge. Hmmm….we’ve only ever had big dogs that live in the house with us. Can we bring ourselves to have a dog that will likely never see the inside of our house? We also read that it can take some dogs up to 2 years before they can be trusted with poultry. Oh boy, we’re Americans, two years might as well be a lifetime. Now you’re probably going to tell me that they work better as teams or that they should come from working lines. Oh bother. Well, after spending a solid week of doing nothing but researching Livestock Guardian Dogs we decided to go look at a litter of 9-week-old Great Pyrenees puppies an hour and forty-five minutes away from our house. When we pulled up to the farm, all seven of the puppies were sitting outside in a line watching us drive up the driveway. Nobody was outside, this was not staged, our hearts melted. I knew we would be leaving with two.
I think everyone that knows us is surprised that we bought two working dogs with every intention of letting them do a job for our farm. We have long been advocates of pet adoption as shelters are filled with an endless supply of animals longing for forever homes. Many people recommended that we look for rescues or shelter dogs. That was where our search started. As much as we wanted to make that work, we couldn’t let the decision become an emotional one. We decided it would be best for the direction we want to take with the farm to get puppies from working parents who had experience with livestock and poultry and give ourselves the best odds of having puppies that would grow to do the same. We couldn’t justify rolling the dice and potentially increasing the chances of having a dog that would become a problem. By problem I mean it could wipe out our entire laying flock and meat production flock in the blink of an eye. We have a business to think about now and losing a laying flock would cost us 5 months of revenue, plus the cost of replacement birds, plus the cost of feed to get them to laying age, plus the reputation of not being a reliable source for eggs. Elimination of meat birds would set us back about two months plus sunk costs and replacement costs. We just weren’t willing to take the risk of an unknown lineage.
When we decided we were all-in on working dogs we knew that the hardest part for us would be the urge to bring them into our home. Although it’s not as hard as I thought it was going to be, part of me still wants to snuggle the not-so-little puffballs on the sofa. Honestly, I think we were relieved when we read that they work well in pairs. Dogs are pack animals and the decision to bring home two was not difficult for us as we felt better knowing the dogs would have a companion. It was sort of surreal when we were driving home with two puppies in the back cab of the truck. What did we just do? Well, as I mentioned, it can take up to two years for dogs to be good working dogs and we were both tired of waiting. If we wanted to do this, we needed to jump. The longer we waited, the longer that would postpone other dreams on the farm. So, instead of getting everything perfect, we just did it. Now we have animals that require our care and attention. I liken it to being a parent; you’re never quite ready to have a baby and sometimes you’re not really sure how you’re going to manage everything, but you just have to, so you do. That’s the approach that we’re taking with farming. We now have plans to fence in the hay field on one side of our driveway to run sheep through paddocks with the dogs and chickens. On the other side of the driveway we have an area that contains our garden that we plan to expand to the better part of an acre with the remaining few acres available for pig pasture. We are going to be pasturing some Cornish X meat chickens this spring along with some heritage turkeys as a trial run for what our meat market looks like, so we’ll keep you all posted on how those ventures progress and when we have product available. We will also be expanding our egg production, so we should be in full swing with egg availability around August or September. I’ll stop yapping now and let you get back to looking at puppy pictures.