16 November, 2015

Winter makes you laugh a little slower…

I’ve been remiss in blogging as winter settles in here in the piedmont. Part of that is starting on the hard part of work with my shrink and desensitizing myself to all the terrible memories I brought home from the war in the hopes of achieving something more like sanity. It’s tiring. Part of it is that, well, fall and winter don’t bring a heck of a lot of news, especially when compared to the dramas of spring and summer.

Still, there’s a few noteworthy things going on! For instance, we have Mr Piggy Bank the teeny tiny boar and Maggie the tiny pig staying. They may end up being here forever, or may go home if their previous person gets her fences pig-proofed. Whichever way it goes, they are delightful to have around, and also adorable.

Two small pigs cuddling in the sun. Closest to the camera is the tiny boar, who is about 10 inches tall standing, or half the size of the sow. He's golden with black spots, she is white with black spots.

The sheep are all getting woolier every day. I give them little pep talks about growing nice fleeces. Most interestingly, Jane the Soay ewe is growing in her fleece with a substantial amount of white sprinkled in it, like roaning on a horse or goat, so yarn spun from her wool will be naturally heathered.

There’s even a little excitement in the vegetable world. While the einkorn wheat has gone dormant for the winter, the pregnant onions that I’m getting established into a permanent onion patch are still growing like the blazes.

Onion tops ranging between two and six inches tall growing in thick, enthusiastic clumps.

I broke off the tips of some of the tallest greens for us to taste and they’re amazing, sweet and spicy and flavorful. I can’t wait to actually try a couple onions next summer, although large harvests will have to wait a while unless the onions go really nuts. Pregnant onions are an old, old variety grown before the advent of easy to purchase seeds. The large onions will spawn young onions, which will grow into large onions the next year and split off into their own children. They can be harvested at either stage, as long as you leave enough in the ground to propagate.

The garlic got planted a couple months later than onions, but is coming up anyway in its bed of composted rabbit manure.

Small, thick green shoots poking up through what looks like dark fine soil with a few recognizable globes of poo.

This is nothing fancy, just the California Early Soft Neck garlic you find in grocery stores. In fact, it’s cloves from a grocery store bulb, as I thought I should experiment with cheap garlic before I try growing one of the more fiddly heritage varieties. Still, freshness makes a serious difference, and a bulb of garlic dug five minutes ago has a far superior flavor to one that’s been stored, as we learned after managing to grow one bulb on our first try. As it turns out, the feed store was setting us up for failure selling seed garlic in spring. This really is a fall-planted crop, and in summer will be adding its deliciousness to home-cooked meals.

Things I don’t have pictures of include the expanded rabbitry. The colony is a no-go right now, having had ducks move in this past summer (long story, but not on purpose). Duck feces in the soil are not compatible with successfully raising litters of rabbits, so right now I’m working with a standard caged system and working on building tractors so rabbits can move around more and do a little grazing while the colony gets dug out and planted and rested in the hopes that I can return rabbits to it in spring or summer. Meanwhile two of my friends hooked me up with breeding stock, and there will be purebred Silver Foxes for pelts and meat starting this winter. Which means I need to get on tanning the hides I’ve already accumulated!

Meanwhile of course, late fall/early winter Virginia means the weather is all over the place and my mysterious chronic pain condition and migraines are complaining about it. I spend a lot of time sitting in the sun with the goats and sheep and pigs, soaking up the last of the warmth and enjoying my little peaceable kingdom.

23 September, 2015

Let’s call this Training Week. Pigs learn fast.

It’s very much fun to be doing actual training with the critters. Pigs learn really fast, and Tethys is eating cookies within touching distance already, so I’ve moved on to teaching her to recognize her name. This is an easy process: I say her name, then I give her a cookie. She’ll probably have it down by this weekend.

The head of a pig, obviously quite close to the camera. She is mostly black with a white stripe on the left side of her neck and another right between her eyes. Since this is the alt text, we'll pretend the picture isn't a little blurry.
Tethys eating a cookie right by my feet!

Janus is taking a little longer learning to approach, but he’s getting there! The difficulty of pigs of course course is that while they’re smart as hell, they’re not naturally inclined to listen to human voices and watch human faces like dogs are. Selective breeding makes an enormous difference in animal behavior, really, and nothing will make that more clear than playing training games.

The Soays present an even bigger conundrum: I’m still looking for an easy reward that they find meaningful. The ewes Lady Jane and Gwendolyn are easy: they want me to go away. So I walk up as close as they’ll let me, stand for a moment, tell them “Mamogion da!” (Good ewes! In Welsh) and then turn and walk away. I’ve successfully halved their flight distance using this and grain. The wethers however are much more human-social, yet not big on cookies.

The back of a little brown sheep's head, showing off the elegant sweep of his black horns. He is eating pelleted grain ration from a black rubber dish and studiously ignoring the animal cracker in the center of the same dish.
Reuben says cookies just aren’t that interesting.

They are enthused about the little bit of sweet feed they get, but it’s really difficult to use that in discrete chunks as a reward. I may end up making little wodges of oats stuck together with molasses and baked dry to try. Even if the sheep don’t eat them, the goats most certainly will, so they won’t go to waste!

Meanwhile Sebastian is learning to target and touch my open hand, which is a necessary first step to teaching him to lead with a halter instead of his current behavior when I try to lead him, which involves bracing his legs and becoming immovable.

A mahogany red goat with black horns, black stripes on his face and white poll, ears, and nose stretches up to touch my my hand with his nose.
Sebastian will target all day if your hand smells of cookies.

Sebastian has really mastered cookie Zen, which means he gets to move on to things like targeting and learning to wear a harness. His half-brother Sanglant is still really struggling with the idea that to get the cookie, you shouldn’t try to get the cookie. Every fiber of Sanglant’s curious and determined goat brain wants to treat my hand like a puzzle toy, but he’s finally beginning to back off and accept that only through patient waiting will cookies come to him.

The one thing I don’t have pics of, because I need to enlist my husband, is teaching Ella the American Blackbelly ewe to do classic obedience healing. She’s been offering it voluntarily for a few months when I have the grain scoop, so I figured why not work on putting it on cue? Hopefully I can get pics in time for Friday’s post!

21 September, 2015

Training games are the same, no matter the species

I’ve used various elements of Sue Ailsby’s Levels for dogs for more than a few years now. They will helpfully give you a structured way to teach your dog a bunch of very useful life skills. Recently, though, I’ve been using them on goats, who can use many of the same life skills, like “not being an obnoxious shit if a human is holding food”.

Using cheap cookies and my voice instead of a clicker, I’m particularly working on Food Zen. Some goats are catching on quite quickly that backing off makes a treat appear. Other goats are a little slower. The best goats, of course, are the ones who are already polite (and get lots of cookies for that).

A mahogany red goat with white ears and nose and a heavy sprinkling of white hair throughout her coat nuzzles at my hand while watching my face.
Siri tried biting my hand and that didn’t work, so she shifted to gently nuzzling my hand. But no treats appeared until she broke contact with the treat hand.

I need to keep working on it, but Siri grasped pretty quickly that standing at a polite distance and looking at my face got her cookies. Sanglant, on the other hand, just could not believe there wasn’t a way to brute force getting a cookie. He tried many, many ways to get my hand to open, but none of them involved NOT trying to maul my hand for a cookie. He’ll get it eventually I’m sure, but meanwhile Sebastian is highly amenable to positive training so I’m going to start teaching him to work in harness and do silly tricks.

The other animals that need training are the mini pigs Janus and Tethys. They’ve settled down around us a lot but still won’t approach, which is no good when they’ll eventually need routine care. So right now I just sit still and wait, and if they approach voluntarily within five feet I start gently tossing cookies to them. It took about two cookies apiece before they were standing about four feet away, so I gave them another couple cookies and ended the session. Tomorrow they’ll have to come closer than four feet, and so on until they will eat cookies from between my feet. I probably won’t teach them to take cookies from my hands since pig teeth are sharp and I don’t want to have to teach them Cookie Zen later!

Once the pigs are approaching confidently, it will be time to teach them basic skills like letting us examine their hooves and run our hands over them to check body condition. Pigs are clever beasts so I don’t expect it to take long if I let them lead the way and tell me what they’re comfortable with.

I’ll also be working with the Soays in the same way just as soon as I discover a reward they find meaningful.

Using positive reward systems to train various species is a lot of fun because of the cooperative aspect. Prey species like goats and sheep aren’t particularly amenable to harsher methods since it takes very little stress to kick them over into fight-or-flight responses. While you can get results from punishment-based training methods with some species, there’s not a lot of joy in hurting an animal until it does what you want.

14 September, 2015

Nature’s bulldozers

Two potbelly pigs, heads down and snouts buried in the dirt as they forage. On the left is a barrow neutered male, all black except for dainty white feets. On the right is a gilt, a young sow who has never given birth, who is mostly black except for white feet and belly and a white stripe between her eyes.

Janus and Tethys root around for food.

After a week I’m pleased to report that Janus and Tethys the potbelly pigs are settled in beautifully. They’ve embraced their new jobs as tillers of compacted soil, disposal units for leftover grain from ruminants, and makers of adorable oinking noises. As predicted, they now know I’m the Food Lady and recognize the grain bucket, coming on the run to line up for breakfast.

They haven’t lost a whole lot of weight yet, but they HAVE built enough muscle in their backs to hold their bellies off the ground. They no longer move stiffly, but confidently and comfortably, and as far as I can tell they’re having a grand time rooting through the ruminant pen in search of grubs and roots or whatever it is pigs are after. In their constant foraging they turn over the top two to four inches of ground, and then the chickens and guineas come through and comb through the disturbed earth for whatever seeds and bugs the pigs missed, leaving a layer of loose, smooth soil behind. All of which tells me that my master plan is working and I probably won’t have to turn over garden beds myself unless I really want to.

Tethys is much more inclined to be social than her brother. Yesterday morning she even let me scratch her back while she ate breakfast, despite Janus’s insistence that I was not to be trusted. They’re blooming into lovely animals, bright-eyed and curious, and I’ve assured Janus that even if he never wants to cuddle he can still stick around to till the pastures.

7 September, 2015

Hard choices

Last week my beloved Thea started getting violent with the other ruminants. Not in the usual way of a swing of the head or a light bump, but actively trying to harm the others, culminating in an earnest attempt to hurt or kill Ferrington.

There’s a lot I can cope with, and scuffles for rank in the herd are not unusual, but this was something beyond the usual scuffles. So I made the difficult decision to place Thea in a new home, and sent Frankie with her so she’d have a buddy.

I still feel like I need a good cry. I loved them both, and I can’t even stand to look at pictures of them right now. Luckily Gwyn has adapted to the loss of her mother just fine, because I think if she were crying I really would be, too.

There’s a little bit of happiness, though, in that two potbelly pigs have come to stay and be working pigs to till the gardens and learn tricks.

On the left, a solid black pig about two feet high. On the right, a black pig with a white stripe between her eyes, white trotters, and a white stripe on one side of her neck. They are VERY fat, and also frothing at the mouth.
Apparently stressed pigs foam at the mouth. I did not know this.

The pigs don’t have names yet (I need to consult with my animal naming crew on Patreon![1]) and need to lose some weight, but they’re settling in well and finding the shady places, food, and water. The solid black pig is a barrow, a male pig neutered before puberty. The one with white is a gilt, a female pig who has never had a litter of piglets. She may have one later (she’s only 8 months old) but for now they both need to lose some weight and settle in. Future piglets will be intended for food, but these two are here to be pets and garden tillers.

The goats and sheep, by the way, are horrified.
The entire herd of goats and sheep clumped up and staring off to the right of photo where two small inoffensive pigs are located off-screen.