Some thoughts on being a shepherd

Farming is a waiting game. Time is calibrated with the seasons. There is a time for everything and patience is a necessary virtue. On Mr Ed’s farm, it is lambing season. The first lambs, a nice set of twins, came last Thursday, sometime during the night, without incident. Just the way I like it. Actually, for the first time in several years, the first lambs were two weeks later than expected. Usually the first ewe gives birth a week early just to catch me by surprise. This year, factoring in the usual, I was on alert by February 7. Nothing. And a good thing too, because we had a couple of cold spells. I do at least two barn checks a night, especially when it goes below zero. It is very invigorating to take a stroll to the lambing barn when the wind chill is minus something in double digits.

I say my lambing season started last week but it really began last fall. Sheep are seasonal breeders with a five month gestation period. Breeding is triggered by length of daylight and cool nights. My rule of thumb is to lock up the ram no later than July 15th. I found out the hard way that August 1st is too late unless you want a Christmas surprise.

I generally turn the ram in about September 12. Prior to that date, I follow a ritual called “flushing the ewes”. Nature provides for it’s creatures. If the food source is plentiful at breeding time, the ewes are more likely to have twins. I set aside a section of pasture for a few weeks to let it grow up before turning the ewes on it, usually about two weeks before exposing them to the ram. I also worm them at this time. Intestinal worms like to live inside the sheep, sucking their blood and sapping their energy. A little shot of worm medicine sends them down the line and out into the sunshine, which they don’t like.

Most sheep will get bred in the first three weeks. Week two is generally the busiest time. I have had as many as five sheep give birth on the same day. Try sorting that out! Mothers and babies bond in the first few minutes. If too many are in the same area at once, some mothers try to claim more than their own, confusing the babies and the shepherd.

My sheep are shorn at least two weeks before I anticipate lambing to commence. This allows me to monitor their condition and udder size. I can usually tell if a ewe is going to lamb within 24 hours. The area around their tail begins to sag. About two hours before delivery they will stake out an area, pushing other ewes away. They will paw the straw, turning around in a circular motion. They usually will start making baaing sounds within the hour and act like they are looking for the lamb.i found it is important to stay out of sight during this time. Some ewes will delay delivery if they think there is a “predator” nearby.

Normal delivery happens pretty quickly. Normal birth is front feet first. The front feet appear followed by the nose. The ewe lays on her side and “pushes” forcing the lamb out. Once the head clears, the lamb slides out. I have seen ewes jump up at this point, swing around so the lamb drops. They will immediately clean the mucus off the lamb’s nose so it can get its first breath. The lamb will gasp for air. If I am present, I will run my finger through its mouth. If the lamb does not try to breath, I’ll insert a piece of straw into it’s nostril. This tickles the nasal area and usually triggers a gasping reaction. I have even saved lambs by blowing into their noses, holding them upside down and even swinging them in a circle to get liquid out of their lungs.

Ewes that have twins usually deliver their lambs about twenty minutes apart. This gives them time to clean off and dry the first one before the second one is born.

In cold weather the lambs will start shivering when their mothers commence the licking process. This elevates their body temperature, which in turn, speeds the drying process. Healthy lambs will try to stand up almost immediately. Usually by the time the second lamb arrives, the first one is wobbling around under the ewe looking for its first milk. Somehow it knows where to look and to tilt it’s nose upward. Once it makes the connection, it wiggles it’s tail.

Lambs need the first milk called colostrum to survive. It is thick and gooy and full of antibodies. Sometimes the teat has a plug in it. I make sure the milk is flowing. If I am not sure the lamb has nursed, I “tube” it. This involves hand milking the mother, squirting it into a syringe with a long plastic tube on it. I gently slide the tube down the baby’s throat, to it’s stomach, being very careful not to get the milk in the lungs. Usually if a lamb is weak, a good shot of mom’s milk will perk him right up.

Another thing I check are the lamb’s eyes. Some lambs are born with inverted eye lids. The lashes are turned in and irritate the eye. If left untreated, the lamb will lose interest in eating and in some cases go blind.

I also watch for signs of white muscle disease. This is from a lack of vitamin E. Soon after they are born, I give them an oral dose of Baby Lamb Strength, followed by 3 cc of vitamin E injectable. This is a frustrating disease because not all lambs get it and it comes on gradually. Deficient lambs start to get weaker when they get about three weeks old. With twins, especially with older ewes, it is easy to mistake this for not enough milk. Sometimes the ewe is not able to produce enough milk for the growing lambs. Older ewes, seven and older, will give birth to twins but just don’t have the body reserves to meet their needs. If I have a good ewe that I want to get one more lambing, I may pull one lamb off when it is born. If there is another ewe lambing at the same time that only has a single, I’ll try to graft the lamb onto that one.

I try to keep colostrum and milk replacer on hand for the occasional orphan or bum lamb. Unfortunately sometimes the mother dies from complications or the mother rejects the lamb for what ever reason. The chances for survival are pretty good if the lamb gets colostrum during its first twelve hours of life. Bottle lambs, for the first two weeks or so, need to be fed every few hours. They quickly become attached to the person with the bottle. It’s a good thing they are so cute because you lose some sleep in the process. Usually the cuteness wears off when they hit 50 pounds and follow you everywhere including trying to climb in your car.

Lambs begin nibbling early on. They will chew on hay and grain fed to their mothers. I set up a creep feed area, a pen with a lamb size opening, so the lambs have access to high protein feed. I hang a light bulb over it which seems to entice the lambs to the special area. Lambs like to jump, climb and play so I put a hay bale in the area too.

Shepherds have been looking after their flocks for thousands of years. Each season has it’s rhythm. Everything happens for a reason. Effort is rewarded by the products the sheep give us. Watching lambs playing is food for the soul.

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“Hi Mr. Ed. Bet you can’t catch me”

Sometimes you have to be smarter than a pig

Transporting animals can be tricky business. Anyone who has ever loaded a horse in a trailer for the first time probably has an interesting story to tell. I heard a story the other day about a belligerent horse that refused to be loaded. The horse was owned by a women. Men were trying to get the animal into the trailer. It put up quite a fight, hauling back on the rope in a halter stretching maneuver, throwing itself and even lying down. By the time the owner arrived the men were at their wits end having discussed many options including some involving pain. Their last resort before getting rough was to get a piece of plywood and press it against the horse’s backside and push it in. Two men on the board, one man on each front leg and a fifth on the halter rope. The animal braced it’s legs and refused to budge. The owner, seeing the situation was getting out of hand, motioned for the red faced men to stop their futile efforts. They backed off to catch their breath. The owner walked up to the horse and whispered in it’s ear. The animal lifted it’s head and hopped into the trailer. The men were amazed. “How did you get that darn horse to jump into the trailer? one of them asked. The woman replied “Did you ever think of asking her?”

On the farm where I grew up, mom and dad would sell an animal when they needed some cash. It might be an old cow or some pigs. Dad would go to Pohlcamp’s feed store In Pierz. On his way home he would stop to see Johnny Walz, the man with the truck who hauled livestock to South St. Paul. Mr Walz had certain days when he would drive to various farms to pick up a load. He had one of those big trucks with a high stock rack on the back. His was red on the bottom with white slatted boards on the top. When the truck rumbled into the yard us kids would run out to see what he had in the truck. There might be a big menacing looking holstein bull, or a huge old boar pig with its tusks protruding from the sides of his mouth. Mr Walz would back the truck up to the door where the animal was being held. Cows and bulls were loaded out through the milk house door. He’d pull out this huge ramp from the bed of the truck and drop it with a bang to the ground. Then he would go to the side of the truck and hoist down the sides of the chute, dropping the legs into holes on the side of the ramp. Once he had these secured he’d walk up the chute and peer into the rack. He had more than one compartment in there and would often have to secure a gate before he could load the next animal. We held our breath as he’d shout at and poke whatever was in there to move so he could shut the gate.

Usually Dad was home when the truck came. I remember one time when Johnny Walz came early to pick up some old sows. For those unfamiliar with sows, they are female pigs that get bigger and meaner with age. When they get about 500 or 600 pounds they are too big and too mean to raise piglets. There were four sows, a big red one, two black and white ones and a spotted Poland China confined to the pig house that day. “Here comes the truck” I remember Mom saying “Eddie, your going to have to help load those pigs”.

I am sure I swallowed hard. Pigs were never my favorite farm animal. The babies emitted ear splitting squeals when you gave them shots, causing the mothers to roar and snap at you. The feeder pigs were even worse when you caught them to put rings in their noses before turning them out on pasture. Old sows were the worst because they were always in a bad mood and probably didn’t care who they ate.

I ran out to the pig house in time to direct Mr. Walz as he backed his truck up to the door. “What you got today” he asked. “Four old sows” I said. “Where’s your dad?” he asked. About that time mom had arrived at the scene. “Eddie will help you get them loaded” she assured him, sensing that he was looking for some assistance.

While he pulled out the ramp and fastened the side panels to make the chute, I summoned my courage. The old sows, sensing my trepidation, began making a low rumble and stared at me with their beady eyes. Saliva dripped from their gaping jaws. “Are you ready, young fella” ? Mr. Walz hollered at me. I nodded. “Open the gate”. I did and slipped in behind the beasts. Mom handed me a stick. I waved it at them in the menacing way I had seen Dad do it. They were not amused. They made strange pig sounds as if they were talking amongst themselves. I imagined the big red one said she had dibs on my arms. The Poland China was eying my rear. “Come on, git!” I hollered. They all turned to face me. Mr Walz poked Red. She turned to face him and the chute. I seized the moment, ran up and gave her a push. Startled, she jumped and landed about halfway up the chute. “Push”! I did. Red pushed back, and down the chute we came. With an air of smugness, she rejoined her cohorts. It was obvious this was not going to work.

I looked to Mr. Walz for ideas. “Do you have a bushel basket”? He asked. “Yes, in the granary” “Go get it” He said, without offering any explanation. It didn’t take me long to climb out of the pen and retrieve the metal basket we used to haul ear corn from the corn crib. Reluctantly, I climbed back into the pen. By this time those sows were really getting irritated. I waited for his instructions.

“Pigs get confused when they can’t see,” He explained”. “If they can’t see, they will try to back away so they can see. I want you to put the basket over the pig’s head and push. Get her butt lined up with the chute first.”

I swallowed hard. “He must know what he is doing” I thought to myself, “He still has all his fingers.”
I moved. Red followed me with her beady eyes. When her butt lined up with the chute Johnny shouted “Now!” I slammed that basket over that old pig’s head and sent her reeling backwards. Backwards, and right up the chute and into the trailer. Johnny slammed the door shut. “Only three more to go” he smiled.. I repeated the process three more times, staring the beast in the eye, moving into position, pouncing with the bushel basket and pushing with all my might. Up the chute and into the truck. A feeling of relief and a little pride settled over me as the truck disappeared down the driveway.

That night I heard Dad ask Mom how Johnny Walz got those pigs loaded. Mom told the story.
He smiled. “Good job Eddie”.

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This is Gladys. “Mr Ed, I want my feed and I want it now!”

Why I never pursued a career in waste management

We often ask children what they want to do when they grow up. They have to answer this from limited life experience. Perhaps we should ask “What are you sure you don’t want to do?” Asked this at an early age, I would have had a good start on a list.

In hindsight, life on the dairy farm where I grew up involved a lot of hard work. No regrets. As they say, hard work builds character. It provided me with a foundation for decision making and problem solving. One particular task I remember doing definitely steered me away from a career in waste management.

Winter on our farm, which Dad called the “Nelson Ranchero” (spelled out on a sign he made with Copenhagen snuff covers mounted over the garage door), was a mixture of chores and fun stuff. One of the hardest jobs involved the dairy cows. Our barn cleaner consisted of a scoop shovel, a pitch fork, a wheel barrow and a kid. Each cow produced at least a half wheel barrow daily. The oozy brown stuff needed to be removed every day. It was scooped into a wheel barrow and loaded into a manure spreader parked at the end of a ramp and a platform. Cleaning barn was serious stuff and required a certain level of competence, ingenuity and agility.

The secret to wheeling a barrow of the stuff was to get up a little bit of speed, hit the planks straight on, then drastically reduce your speed when you hit the flat spot and flip the handles at exactly the right moment before the wheel dropped into the spreader. It was always a good idea to sprinkle some hay on the planks if they were frosty or icy. Foot slippage halfway up the plank abruptly changed the momentum of the load. The consequences stunk. Either the load veered off the plank and dumped prematurely, or you went in face first.

The second peril of barn cleaning was missing the end of the runway and dropping the single wheel barrow wheel over the edge, into the spreader. Once again it’s a matter of momentum and knowing when to let go. Instinct told you to hang on if at all possible because getting the wheel barrow back up on the platform meant getting down in the spreader and lifting it out. Deciding what to do at this instant required quick decisive thinking. You had to instantaneously calculate the rate of speed, the weight and balance of the load and your own weight as leverage applied to the handles. If you miscalculated, an underweighted barrow operator could easily be flipped through the air into the spreader or, in cases of manure overload, flipped clear over to the other side. Pretty funny stuff if it happened to your brother.

When the snow became too deep for the tractor and spreader, you began building a manure pile. A non-farm person may say “What’s so hard about that?” Trust me, it took some long-range planning and guesstimating. You had to factor in how many cows you had, how much they pooped and how many days until the snow melted before you even dumped the first wheel barrow load. If you dropped the first load too close, you would run out of room and be forced to higher elevations later in the season. You also had to guess how wide to make the pile. Once you got the base down, you ran your plank and dumped off the edges. Here is where you had to factor in temperature and consistency of the material. Cold weather helped the pile set up. One could push clear to the edges as long as she stayed frozen. Pushing to the limits on a seemingly frozen crust built on top of mushy stuff could result in edge failure and a tumble down a slippery slope. That stunk too.

Saturday mornings meant cleaning the heifer barn. That job was done with pitch forks. Dad modified the barn door to allow him to back the spreader in. Us kids pitched in from the sides. It wasn’t bad when straw was used for bedding. Quite often however, he used wild hay, cut from the meadow. The reason we cleaned it every Saturday was because if you didn’t, and it became even more packed by the cattle, you would never be able to tear it loose.

When the snow got too deep, we got to use the horses and the bob sled. Dad would drive the team into the barn and we kids would pitch the sled full, haul it outside and pitch it into a pile. The best part of that was we got to hook our little sleds behind and get a ride. Looking back, I guess it was hard work with a twist of fun. At the end of the day you didn’t say you were tired, just all pooped out.

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Chub and Tony our horses pulling a sled load of farmers gold.

The story of Agnes, the angry bovine

Memories are funny things. You never know when one will come flooding back to you. Things that happened a long time ago suddenly vividly reappear, triggered by a smell, sound or sight.
Middle age is filled with memory triggers. Walking out of a warm house on a cold winter morning just as the sun is starting to lighten the eastern sky is a memory trigger for me.

Growing up on a dairy farm meant getting up in the dark to go to the barn to get the milking done before the school bus came. Our house had a cold upstairs where the kids over three years old slept. We shared a bed with a sibling and lots of blankets. I remember pulling the covers completely over my head, with just a little opening to breath. Sometimes it helped to wear a stocking cap to bed. Maybe that’s why winter camping never appealed to me.

Dad would call up the stairwell. “Come on, get up”. It was really hard to roll out on the first call. His voice changed a little on the second call and you rolled out and pulled on your barn pants really quick. By the time you got downstairs, he was already heading down the hill to the barn. You put on your overcoat and followed him. To this day the sound of crunching snow, bright stars in the sky reminds me of early morning chores.

The only heat in the barn was from the cows. There were about 34 stanchions and a couple of box stalls for calves. If there were not enough milk cows we would fill the rest of the stanchions with young stock to have enough heat to keep the drinking cups from freezing. On the coldest mornings flakes of frost would flutter down around you when you opened the milk house door. The smell of moist cow breath filled your nostrils. You had to walk in the dark about 20 steps to find the light switch. During that brief moment you felt the barn wake up. Stanchions rattled as the cows lurched forward and stretched. While one person got the milking machines ready, the second person washed the teats. If you weren’t quite awake, you were when a cow whose tail had been soaking in the gutter moments before, gave you a soggy slap across the face. I suppose some cows are not devious enough to do it on purpose but, I think there were some who were.

Back then we named the cows. During my time we had Ornery, Stubby, Pokey, Toots, Buleah, Leana, Lulabell, Big Monkey and Little Monkey to name a few. Sometimes we would discover a newborn calf in the morning. It had been born sometime during the night. By the time were got there it had been wandering around trying to nurse whoever was available and willing much to the mother’s consternation. We wrestled the messy little beast to the box stall where soon it would be time to teach it to drink from a pail. Some calves took to it quickly, some not so fast. The hardest part was keeping the other calves from sucking and butting you when you were holding the pail in one hand and putting your fingers in the milk for the newborn to suck on.

Newly freshend cows were usually no problem to milk. First time heifers, especially the wild ones recently introduced to life in a stanchion, were another matter. It took two people, one holding the Surge bucket, the other the cow’s tail to get them to cooperate. Usually by day two or three, most normal cows would settle into the routine. Not Agnes.

Agnes was a mostly white Holstein. Not particularly big by Holstein standards, she made up for her size in meanness. She gave us a preview of her dark side the first time we brought her into the barn. Getting heifers into a stanchion for the first time was always a challenge. The usual method was to scare them into an open stall between two other cows. Two people would walk up on the wary heifer until the pressure forced her to look for a way out. The space between the two already secured animals became the escape route. The frightened critter would bolt into the open space and unwittingly put its head in the open stanchion. The trick was to slam the stanchion shut before they put it in reverse. Most of the time it worked. But not with Agnes.

You see Agnes had perfected the fine art of cow kicking. To the inexperienced person who has never been cow kicked, it’s hard to imagine a sweet old bovine could or would want to inflict such pain on a human shin or backside. Agnes took special pleasure in such feats of athleticism. The louder one cussed from the pain, the harder she tried. She relished the sound of dismembering a Surge bucket as she simultaneously sent the lid flying in one direction, the bucket in another and the vacuum hose hissing. All the time snapping you across the face with her tail.

Getting this beast into the stanchion for the first time was an adventure. Dad had a rope he called the lasso. “Go get the lasso” he’d say. “Throw it over her head”. When things got going good after being dragged around the barn and through the gutters a few times he’d holler “Snub her down”.
“Snubbing her down” meant wrapping the rope around something solid like a post and hanging on. With Agnes, you needed to go around the post twice and be wearing gloves.

Agnes had a calf, a little bull calf, that looked a lot like her. He was feisty from the very beginning, bouncing around the barn, scrambling between the other cows, taking a slurp here and there and moving on. It was apparent from the beginning he wanted his milk the natural way. No bucket feeding for that one.

Needless to say the first attempt at milking Agnes with the milking machine was a disaster. She was the clear winner by 3 shin bruises, a black and blue knee and a couple of hip shots. By the second attempt she had learned how to put a hoof in your ear. The stubborn calf wasn’t faring much better. Feeding him in the pen with the other calves sucking and butting on you made us resort to bringing him out to the alleyway where he would immediately break away, dash around the barn to annoy all the other cows.

Finally Dad gave in. We guided the annoying youngster to his mother. We watched carefully, fully expecting her to flatten the little guy. Nope. That calf backed himself in alongside mom and commenced having a milk feast. Mom gave us a sanctimonious look and her calf a comforting moo and went about eating her ration of grain and silage.

The problem with Holsteins as brood cows is the volume of milk is way more than one calf can consume. We solved that by adding a second calf to the family. Surprisingly, Agnes took to the addition without incident. As the calves grew they became more aggressive nursers. I almost felt sorry for Agnes when the two calves almost lifted her off the ground when they bumped her with their heads. I said, almost. I figured “what goes around, comes around ” can apply to ornery cows too.

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Dad in the barn. Mom and Dad raised 8 kids on a dairy farm

How I met Mrs Ed

Valentines Day, a day to remember loves lost and love found. Remember fourth grade when boys and girls exchanged valentines and you studied each one looking for some hidden meaning? It’s probably a good thing most people don’t choose their soul mate in 4th grade. It’s like buying a horse because it is cute, beautiful or handsome. As an old timer once told me, cute doesn’t make the horse. It’s brains, attitude and personality. He also mentioned they need to have good feet, and that they don’t kick, bite or run away. I guess those things could be applied to humans too.

When it comes to love and horses I personally believe in fate and test drives. Fate is how Mrs Ed and I found each other. We were a bit younger then. Funny how we grow older but true love stays forever young. I digress. It was the fall of 72 when our worlds met. She left her home in a small west central Minnesota town and I left the farm for Morris and the University of Minnesota. My older brother was there and it seemed like a pretty good place to go.

It was late September, as Morris starts later to accommodate the farm kids like myself who needed to help with the fall harvest. We had just finished filling silo when I packed my suitcase and the quilt mom made me. She made quilts for each of us when we left home. Again I digress. Heading down the driveway that day I knew my life was changing forever. Little did I know that in less than twenty four hours, it would be tipped on it’s ear.

Morris has a freshman orientation week for new enrollees. This helps with the transition from home and high school to the rigors of college. The week was filled with activities to help us meet new people and get adjusted to life in the dorm. It helped to keep shy farm kids like myself from becoming homesick and bolting for home. The process begins with being assigned to your freshman orientation group, students from your dorm, with whom you do orientation activities.

Digressing for a moment, remember in the classic Christmas movie, Christmas Vacation , when Chevy Chase spots the perfect Christmas tree? That’s kind of what happened when I first laid eyes on the future Mrs Ed. We were assigned to the same orientation group. I didn’t know about the lifelong thing at the time but she told me later she did. I guess that’s because she is smarter than me. One time when we were having a little difference of opinion, I made the comment “I can’t be too dumb, I married you”. Again I digress.

For me it was the smile. A nice smile will get you every time. There is an old saying, smile, they will wonder what you are up to. I smiled back. That night we sat on the steps of the Music Hall and talked for hours. The future Mrs Ed turned out to be a very compassionate person and intelligent student. I on the other hand, was more helpless and naive, kind of like a puppy I suppose. Girls love puppies. Maybe it worked.

I never took typing in high school. They probably should have made it a prerequisite for college, especially for people with bad handwriting. Gayle, on the other hand, could type thousands of words a minute. And she could spell too! It took her awhile to decipher my bad hand writing. When things got tense, I reverted to printing. She and the old Smith Corolla got me through college.

Remember when I mentioned the test drive in reference to horses? I learned the hard way that when you go to buy horses take them for a test drive. You should learn in a hurry if you should write out a check or say ” thanks, but no thanks”. There came the day, actually two events in our relationship, that might qualify as the test drive. they both involve laundry.

Growing up a boy on a farm, I got clothes dirty, I didn’t wash them. It was something mom did that I suppose I just took for granted and didn’t appreciate until later in life. Again I digress. Back to the first test drive. The future Mrs Ed and I became best friends. Best friends do stuff together. Eventually I ran out of clean clothes. When you run out of clean clothes best friends tell you you stink. I had two choices, buy new clothes or do laundry. When I said I was going to buy new clothes she scoffed at me,”Don’t you know how to do laundry?”. I guess my helpless puppy look gave me away. “Get your clothes, we are going to the laundromat “. I had a car. I felt I could contribute and off we went.

Laundromats are pretty scary places for first timers. Lines of whining machines, top loaders, front loaders, coin slots, detergent chutes, ironing, folding and hanging areas. It was intimidating. Everyone there seemed like they knew what they were doing. I carried in the baskets. The future Mrs Ed took charge. “The whites, go here, don’t wash the towels with the jeans, put the socks and underwater in a separate pile”. “Wow”, I thought, “Clothes are all made of cloth, can’t we just throw them together?”

I suppressed my naive thoughts and did as I was told. Washing machines loaded, we sat quietly and read magazines. Ding! The washing machines stopped one by one. Time to transfer the clothes to the dryers. The future Mrs Ed staked out dryers, putting different clothes in different whirling machines. “Here” she said, “Take this basket of underwear (best friends can wash underwear together) and put it with the something clothes” I don’t remember exactly what, but she pointed to a dryer down the line. I did as I was told, I picked up the basket, walked up to the dryer, opened the door, flung the load of wet underwear in, closed the door and pushed the start button. The machine whirled round and round. Quite proud of myself I looked at her and smiled. I knew something was up when she didn’t smile back. “What”? I asked. “What were you doing over there?” “”Putting the underwear in the dryer” I said, probably looking a bit bewildered. “That’s not our dryer”. She scoffed.

About that time a young man walked up to the machine to check his clothes. I excused myself to go finish reading about Stalking Big Bucks in Field and Stream. The future Mrs Ed calmly walked up, and proceeded to help sort out the personals from a stranger’s clothes. If the roles had been reversed and this would have been a test drive of a new horse, I would have said “Thanks, but no thanks”. Not the future Mrs Ed. She apparently liked the animal enough to give him a second chance.

The second event took place about two weeks later and again involved laundry. This time we went to the other laundry in town. I guess people usually go to the same laundromat so the chances of running into someone you had met there before were less likely. Anyway we’re we’re loading washing machines, front loaders. You put the clothes in, plug in the quarters, push start and at a certain point, add detergent. Again it’s a busy day, lots of machines going. Clothes in, machines spinning, the future Mrs Ed decides to give me another chance. “Here’s a box of soap, go put some in the machine. Put it in the chute at the top that says Detergent. Got it” “Yup, I can do that”. So I walk over to the machine, open the chute and pour in the powdered soap. I give it a little extra because my jeans had a little grease on them. I close the chute, look up and smile.

“Now what”? I remember saying when I didn’t get the smile of approval I was expecting. “What were you doing at that machine?” “Putting soap in like you said. And I put a little extra in so the clothes would get cleaner” I figured that would show my initiative to learn to be helpful. “That’s not our machine” she whispered. “And how much did you put in?”.

By this time the suds building up in the glass door on the front loader were noticeably apparent. I watched as it crept up the glass until the clothes were no longer visible. Seconds passed, minutes seemed like hours as the machine swished and chugged. Them the little chute at the top moved. It started to open on its own. Wisps of soap bubbles began to ooze out and crept across the top of the machine.

About that time I remembered I needed to check the oil in the car. That took a while to make sure I was reading the dipstick correctly. When I observed the future “Mrs Ed removing clothes from the dryers and putting them in the basket I figured I’d go and help carry them to the car. As I walked past the errant washing machine I observed a young man inspecting the white residue on his jeans.
Sad to say, I remained silent.

Fortunately for me the future Mrs Ed was apparently so smitten by love, that she got past this second test drive. Funny thing, she had me teach her to drive a stick shift so she didn’t have to bother me the next time it came to do clothes.

Four years of college passed quickly. Our friendship endured. We met on the first day and were married the day after we graduated. We still have those test drive moments. A few years ago,on our anniversary, someone asked me how long we had been married “27 great and wonderful years” I said with an exuberant smile. I glanced at Mrs Ed for her reaction. She scoffed. “We have been married for 28 years “.

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My valentine and I a few years ago.

Mr Ed’s Farm education program outline. Comments and suggestions welcome.

Mr Ed’s Farm is a work in progress that started a long time ago. When I was an elementary school student, Mrs. Johnson took us on a field trip. We had studied Minnesota History. We had studied American Indians. I was a voracious reader, consuming everything the school library had on the topic. I also had a vivid imagination.

The field trip was not a long one. Field trips for school kids don’t have to be. Our class went to Crow Wing State Park, just south of Brainerd where the Crow Wing River flows into the Mississippi. I had never been to a State Park. Being outdoors in a beautiful wooded setting gave me a wonderful first impression. Mrs. Johnson obviously knew a lot about the park and it’s historical significance. We walked to the place where the Ojibwe ambushed the Dakota in a battle that took place in 1768. I remember sitting in those depressions on the river bank, imagining canoes coming around the river bend. I remember looking at and studying the ruts left by the Red River Ox Carts in 1844. We had seen pictures of the ox carts in our social studies book. I could imagine the beasts plodding along with carts filled with wheat, their wheels squeaking under the strain.

The once thriving town of Old Crow Wing, abandoned after the Northern Pacific Railroad crossed the river at Brainerd in 1871, fueled my imagination. Mrs Johnson pointed out where buildings had been. We tip-toed through the old cemetery, straining to read the names and dates. I don’t know if I was one of those kids who asked her who these people were. If I didn’t ask, I wanted to. I know this experience contributed to my lifelong interest in genealogy and a 34-year career in the profession of history. I am eternally grateful to Mrs. Johnson for bringing history to life and my life to history.

I had the good fortune to be involved in Beyond School Walls, the education program at IRONWORLD and the Forest History Center school field trip program. These programs serve tens of thousands of students and their teachers. I was able to witness students experience those learning moments. I was able to work with a cadre of skilled teachers and interpreters who responded to student’s questions and thoughts with enthusiasm and humility.

I retired in January of 2012, a mere two days after I reached my rule of 90. I retired, not to get away from a job I loved, but to undertake a new venture. I love history, but my heart goes back to my agricultural roots. As a kid, we never went on a farm field trip. Many of us didn’t have too, we lived the life. Most of the town kids in our school were only a generation removed from the land. They could still visit farms owned by their grand parents or other relatives.

America has changed greatly over the past two generations. The migration from rural to urban has continued at a rapid rate as farm raised children seek employment in non-agricultural professions. The number of working farms has greatly diminished during my life. Opportunities for youth to experience farm life up close and personal are few and far in-between — especially in northern Minnesota. Locating a working farm that can accommodate groups of students and provide meaningful learning experiences within driving distance of a school may not be possible for many teachers.

Mr. Ed’s Farm is located on 160 acres of land about 12 miles east of Hibbing in the Little Swan Area. Originally the land was deeded by the State of Minnesota to a railroad company in 1884. Such deeds were common back then, not to build a railroad on the land, but to sell the land to finance building railroads. The railroad sold the land to the Cloquet Lumber Company in 1888 presumably to be logged off. Hans Foss bought the cutover timberland in 1920. The adjacent road is named after him. Andrew Forsman bought the land in 1921. Mike and Mary Puleiz (Pulis) bought the farm in 1930. We purchased the farm from the Pulis family in 1985.

Like many northern Minnesota farms, it was carved out of cutover timber land. Most farmers raised small grains, hay, potatoes and kept a variety of livestock including a few dairy cows. Farmers had big gardens and raised most of the food they ate. In the early days these farms were powered by horses. This is evidenced by the fact that after we moved to the farm, I discovered many pieces of horse drawn equipment long abandoned and forgotten in the woods.

In 1985, a much younger Mr. Ed undertook the arduous process of reclaiming the land and rejuvenating what remained of the original farm. Numerous outbuildings that had fallen into disrepair were torn down. Barb wire fences, hidden in tall meadow grass, had to be pulled, rolled and carefully disposed of before new fences could be built. The old barn, built with tamarack logs most likely cut from the back forty, needed to be cleaned out and new siding applied. Fields overgrown with brush had to be cleared and reworked.

Within a short period of time, a flock of sheep, some chickens and a team of horses, brought new life to the farm. Over the years, a number of new buildings have been built to house livestock and store machinery. While the farm has tractors used for special tasks, most of the work today is performed by horses using many of the same machines and practices of the heyday of horse farming.

Successful school field trips have certain requirements. They need a relevant theme and purpose. They need a place that can accommodate groups of children that is intrinsically appealing and safe. They need to have a structured learning experience. They need to be aesthetically appealing to students and teachers. They require a high level of expertise and enthusiasm by the instructors. They need to be hands-on, engaging and involve all the students in meaningful ways. They need to be designed to encourage students to ask questions and solve problems. They need to make a connection between the theme and the student’s life. They need to generate empathy for the people whose lives are being interpreted.

The educational theme for Mr. Ed’s Farm is “Agriculture is important and relevant to humans.” The program’s purpose is to provide an opportunity for students to experience life firsthand on a working livestock and crop farm. The program incorporates agricultural history because it focuses on farm life in northern Minnesota during the 1930’s when horses were the major source of power and farm families grew most of their own food.

Mr Ed’s Farm has the infrastructure to support a school field trip program. The buildings and livestock enclosures are learning friendly. The croplands are being actively farmed. Children are naturally drawn to animals. The inventory includes eleven species of farm animals typically found on a diversified northern Minnesota farm during the 1930s. Percheron draft horses provide the bulk of the power for the farming operations.

A structured field trip experience is under development. While the farm will be able to accommodate children of all ages, the core structured program is initially being designed for students grade 2-6. The tour will be designed to accommodate classroom size groups. Each group will be assigned a facilitator. The hands-on activities for each learning area will be age appropriate. There will be a combination of individual, team and all group activities. The field trip experience will be initially designed to be three hours in length with a picnic lunch time.

The following is under development:
Students, upon exiting the bus, will be greeted by their facilitator. After welcoming the class to the farm, the facilitator will inform them they will be helping with the chores. They will be assigned to teams of 4-6 depending on the class size. Each team will be featured in certain parts of the tour.

Initially we have identified five major learning areas. They are: Animal Husbandry, Crops and Soil, Farm Mechanics, Horsepower and Feed and Seed. Each group will rotate through the learning stations. Upon reaching a station, the facilitator will ask the assigned team to step forward. Team members will be instructed on how they need to work together to accomplish their task.

For example:

Feed and Seed: This station will explore what a farmer needs to do to raise grain for the animals and himself. There will be different grains to identify, corn to shell, grain to clean and feed and flour to grind.

Animal husbandry: This will be a series of mini stations to learn about the care and feeding of sheep, pigs, cows, chickens, goats, llama’s, ducks, rabbits, dogs, barn cats and horses. It will also highlight the reasons they are raised and the products they provide.

Farm mechanics: This station will feature how things work, what the machines are used for and what is involved in maintaining and repairing equipment and tools. Basic principles of physics will be explored.

Crops and soils: This station will focus on the importance of soil and how farmers are stewards of the land. They will learn about the characteristics of different kinds of soil, about seeds, weeds, insects and diseases. Planting, tending and harvesting will be included.

Horsepower: This station will feature the care and use of draft horses, historically and today. Students will learn about feeding, training, harnessing and maintenance of working horses.

All group activities will include planting a garden, turning a horsepower and a horse drawn wagon ride.

As the tour progresses, the facilitator will help students make connections between their individual responsibilities. For example: What happens if the seed is not cleaned and weed seeds removed? The point is to make the students aware of the many things a farmer has to do to grow food for people and their livestock. Everyone’s job is important and connected to everyone else’s.

The learning experiences will be designed to engage the students in problem solving exercises. For example, students may be asked how do you know how much to feed a horse? They will need to take into consideration the size and condition of the animal and what type of work it is doing. What do you think will happen if… questions will be posed and students will be asked for their suggestions and solutions.

The learning experiences will incorporate relevance and empathy whenever possible. For example, drought and potato bugs were major problems in the 1930’s. Students will be asked to imagine that they had to get their food from a garden and that they had to raise food for their animals. Then they would ponder the question; What would happen if it didn’t rain? Or if the potato bugs ate all the leaves and blossoms and there were no potatoes to dig? What if a fox got all your chickens and you had no eggs to sell or trade for food?

The facilitators will incorporate stories from the Great Depression era on how people coped with natural and economic hard times. These stories will emphasize what it was to be a child on a hard scramble, northern Minnesota farm. The conversation will be interspersed with thought-provoking questions: What would you do? How do you think those kids felt? How would you feel if this happened to your family?

Finally, the field trip is intended to leave the students with a memorable experience. This is the day they got to visit Mr. Ed’s Farm. This is the day they were asked to help with the chores. This was the day they got to see, feed and pet real farm animals. This was the day their class worked, played and shared a real horse drawn wagon ride to see huge draft horses performing farm work.

Outcomes:
Students learn where food comes from.
Students learn the meanings of words like agriculture, crops, livestock husbandry, planting, harvesting, soil and more
Students learn about daily life and seasons on a farm
Students learn how they are connected to each other and the world they live in by working together to produce a crop.
Students learn how, children born in another time, lived and how that compares to their lives today.

Please feel free to provide comments, suggestions and ideas. Mr. Ed’s Farm is a work in progress. My email address is woodenhorselogging@gmail.com.

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A view from the driveway

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A view from the front porch

The night I almost made it home

Being away from home for an extended period of time for a farmer is like a barn sour horse. You can physically get away but it’s always in the back of your mind. Going away from the “barn” the horse goes increasing slower. Coming back, hang on! I’ve worked horses that appear dog tired only to have them suddenly come to life like colts when you turn and head them back towards home. Logging horses are the same way. Coming out of the woods with a log, they have pep in their step. When you turn and head them back for another log, you would can almost hear them saying, “ah come on, do we have too?”

Growing up on a dairy farm, we always planned our lives to be home no later than five o’clock. There is a feeling of special responsibility to make sure the cows get milked at the same times every day. If you were late you almost felt like you needed to apologize. There is a saying, “Don’t cry over spilled milk! If we spilled the milk or broke an egg, mom would say, “You better apologize to the cows or the chickens”.

This feeling of responsibility never leaves a farm born person. The snowstorm raging outside tonight reminds me of a time early in Mr. Ed’s Farm’s history. It was the time I almost made it home. It was the time Mrs Ed saved the day.

Doing chores is not her favorite job. Occasionally she will help me, probably just because she enjoys my company. If I’m running late I’ll say, “So, did you do the chores?” “No” she replies, “you better go apologize to the animals”. I know I’ve pushed the wrong button when she asks me “So how much are those sheep and horses worth and do you know of anyone who might want to buy them? ” “No, I don’t know anyone with enough money to buy those valuable animals”. “Hummm, I could almost hear her thinking”.

The night I almost made it home began two days earlier. It was March, about state tournament time, about the time when blizzards hit the Range. I had to go to St. Paul for a three day meeting. Reluctantly, Mrs. Ed agreed to feed the animals. I gave her a list of things to do and laid out extra bales of hay.

By the time I headed down the driveway, the uneasy feeling began to creep into my mind.
By the time I reached Floodwood, the car was slower by three miles an hour. By Hinckley cars were passing me with ease. At Forest Lake heads turned to see who was driving. I reached the motel, had supper, and called home. “Everything ok?” “Yes, everything is fine”. “So far, so good”, I thought,

I woke up in the morning and called. “Everything ok?” A less than enthusiastic “Yes” followed. I concentrated as best I could on the business at hand until someone asked “So who’s doing the chores?” Thought of heading to the barn crept into my consciousness. Only a day and a half to go.. Supper and time to call home. “Everything ok? A quiet pause on the end of the phone. “I guess so”.

“How’s the weather?” I asked, trying to move the conversation along. “It’s snowing”. “Really, it’s not snowing here”. Quiet pause. “I watched the six o’clock news. They said there’s a blizzard coming”.
Not thinking I blurted out “Make sure you put the sheep in. Don’t want them to get wet”. Pause in conversation. “When do you think you will be home? “The meeting gets done about four”. “I’ll call you in the morning”. Pretty much end of conversation. Better check weather channel. Yup, there’s a blizzard hitting tomorrow. Travel warnings and all. Restless night of sleep, dreaming about wet sheep and a less than happy spouse calling around to see if anyone is shopping for livestock.

Morning call. “Hello. When will you be home?” I sense a hint of tension in her voice. I tried to explain my dilemma “I’m not sure. There’s a blizzard coming and the roads are supposed to be bad”. “So what time are you leaving”? “The meeting is over at four”. “So you will be home by 7:30.”?
I didn’t ask how it was going.

I’ll admit, I ditched out of the meeting about an hour early. By this time, the blizzard was approaching full force. I wormed my way out of downtown St. Paul and onto the freeway. It looked like it was going to be slow going. Then it hit me, I was heading back to the barn. The car creeped up to the speed of traffic. For some reason, about Pine City, the other cars started slowing down. I found myself passing cars with ease. By the time I hit Cloquet, I was passing snowplows. By the time I made it to the Hibbing cutoff at Highway 37, the plows were heading back to the barn too.

The drifts rattled the car. Oncoming headlights faded in and out in the darkness. My hands were numb from my grasp on the wheel. Eyes straight ahead, I found myself getting memorized by the driving snow. Pushing on into the darkness with low beams, not able to recognize landmarks, time seemed to be slowing. Finally my turn on highway five. It quickly became evident the county plows had long since headed back to their barn. Three miles to go. Snow billowed over the hood as I hit drift after drift. I slowed, looking for the sign for our road. Finally the sign. There must be a road there someplace, I thought.

Now in a situation like this, there comes a moment of truth. I can feel the barn. So close. Do I plow ahead and risk getting stuck? Do I hit it hard and if I keep it moving and hope I make it? Of course I did not have a shovel. The turn came up fast. Big drift left by the last plow. I hit it at a pretty good speed. The car lurched, the undercarriage screeched on the crust as I pressed the accelerator. I came to a roaring stop as the car hung up on a snow drift, wheels spinning helplessly. One mile to the barn and going nowhere. At least I’m off the highway, I thought. Time to bundle up. Wish I had remembered to bring my boots and maybe a flashlight.

By now I was long overdue. This was the days before cell phones. I had just driven 199 miles. Now I had the longest one left. It was then I empathized with a tired horse when he knows he’s made the last round and you point him towards the barn. Somewhere down deep I found the strength to push on. One step at a time, one snow bank, then another until I could see the yard light. Up the driveway, to the side door of the house. Too cold to find my house key, I pounded on the door. “Who is it” I heard from inside. I don’t know if I said ” It’s me” or what I was really thinking.

The door opened. Now I know why the horses try to run over me when I open the barn door. “Did you miss me”? I asked, to see if she was still speaking to me. Then I made my first mistake. “Did you do the chores”? If looks could kill. Second mistake “No? Well you better go apologize to the animals” I joked. Daggers. I didn’t ask her if she locked up the sheep. Figured I’d go out and see for myself.

Doing chores is one thing. Doing winter chores is another. Doing winter chores in a snowstorm tests even the most ardent farm person. Mrs Ed, as it turns out, did a great job. The sheep were dry and snug in the barn. This was the winter before we dug in the waterline. She had carried pail after pail of water to the sheep. She had opened the barn and let the horses in. They were grateful to get out of the wind and had a great time running loose in the barn.

By the next morning, the storm had passed. The plows had not been by yet. I knew I had to get my car off the road. Thank goodness for horses. I had made a heavy v plow with a three horse evener. I harnessed the trio of horses and headed down the road. It was a heavy pull even for three horses. They were steaming and breathing hard by the time we got to the car. I turned them around on the highway. An amazing thing happened. They were headed toward the barn. Away we went, three colts and a guy hanging on for dear life.

Lesson learned: Don’t leave the farm when there is a blizzard coming. If you do, you may have to do some serious apologizing.

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Mrs Ed’s favorite Duncan print

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My faithful chore partner, Winston

Staring death in the eye, he said”No problem”

My buddy Duane and I have been going up to Ely to help with the ice harvest for the past five years. The event is a throw back to the days before electric refrigerators. While electric power reached American cities in the late 1800’s, much of rural America did not get power until FDR’s Rural Electrification program during the 1930’s. Many rural areas in northern Minnesota did not get electricity until the 1950’s. Farmers joined Rural Electric Cooperatives and in many cases had to help dig in the posts and string the wire.

Electricity revolutionized life for farmers. One of the first things they bought were washing machines. Imagine how the machine most of us take for granted, changed the life of a farm wife? Refrigeration was another life changer. Prior to freezers, farmers had to salt and smoke meats. Butchering was not done until the weather was predictably cold. Milk and other perishables could now be kept from spoiling without the labor required to maintain an icebox.

Iceboxes are pieces of furniture with insulated compartments with ice on the bottom and the food on top. A small drain hole in the bottom let the melted water out. Large ice companies built huge warehouses next to bodies of water, usually lakes, so the ice could be cut and transported into the insulated icehouses. Often the ice warehouse was serviced by a railroad so the ice could be shipped and sold across the country.

The ice warehouses had heavily insulated walls and roofs. The ice blocks were packed in sawdust. Stored this way, the ice held from the end of the harvest, through the winter and to the beginning of the next winter.

Preparation for harvesting ice began when the ice was thick enough to walk on. Crews of workers kept the ice free of snow to increase the depth and clarity of the ice. Ice contaminated by snow does not keep as well as solid ice.

When the ice was deemed thick enough, large crews of laborers were mobilized. The goal was to harvest the needed amount of ice in the shortest amount of time. The ice fields were scored using a grid system. A horse pulled a marker and a spacer guide that had short teeth to mark out the lines. Once the ice was scored, a horse drawn ice cutter cut a groove into the ice. The knife did not cut all the way through to the water. A chisel and saw were used to free the first block of ice. Once the first block was removed, the next blocks were broken off with a chisel or cut with an ice hand saw. The free floating blocks were floated to a hoist here they were conveyed to the ice house. Once inside, laborers stacked the cubes into layers and rows. Sawdust was added to keep them from freezing together.

Pictures show the ice plows usually being pulled by one horse and the horse being led, not driven from behind. Also the horse is hooked to the plow at a distance by a rope. This was done to minimize side pressure on the plow and prevent the shear from snapping off. Also a heavy rope was looped around the horse’s neck in case of a emergency. Even though the horses were shod, they were susceptible to slipping into the open water. If a horse went in, the men would grab the rope and choke off it’s wind. This caused two things to happen. It would prevent the horse from inhaling water and drowning. Second, it would trap the air in the horse, making it more buoyant and easier to haul out.

My dad told us about how they cut ice on the farm. Their ice harvest involved the whole neighborhood. All of the neighbors would converge on a beaver pond on Daggett Brooke on a cold winter day with their horses and bob sleds. A hole would be cut and chunks sawed free with one handled ice saws. He remembered times when the water was so low, there would be mud and sticks imbedded in the chunks of ice. Fortunately they didn’t need to drink the water from the ice. I’m sure these neighborhood ice harvests were common throughout the northern states.

The Ely ice harvest is a little more modern. Chain saws, minus the bar oil, are used to score the ice. Oil would contaminate the water. Also the chain saw does not cut all the way through. If it comes in contact with water, the chain will freeze. Hand saws are used to cut blocks approximately six by six feet. A line is attached to the block. The block is bounced in the water until one edge catches the edge of a plank. Once this happens a group of people grab the rope and pull the block onto the adjacent ice. The big blocks are cut into smaller cubes of clear ice about sixteen inches square. These are loaded on a sled and hauled to the icehouse on top of the hill with horses.

The horsepower this year was provided by 4 Shire horses. These horses performed admirably, given the steep grade up the side of the lake. They have to be able to work and pull together. A rope and pulley system was used to even out the load. Even so, the teamster had to be able to manage the lines to control the speed and direction of the leaders and the wheel team for everything to work correctly.

Duane and I did not supply the horses this year. It was nice to attend under these circumstances. My percherons, Mick and Bud, hauled the ice the first two years. The first year, the temperature did not get above 20 below zero. It was brutal but not as dramatic as 2011.

To set the stage for this adventure, you need to know a few things. Cedar lake is about a dozen miles out of Ely. It is at the end of a road that gets smaller and smaller and increasingly hillier and curvier. To haul a team and a sled you need at least a 20 foot stock trailer and a full size four wheel drive truck. The last three miles, before you turn into the mile long driveway, are marked by a sign ” minimum maintenance road”. In 2011, a winter with ample snow in the Arrowhead region, this portion was being maintained as a snowmobile trail.

Duane, a retired professional truck driver, was at the wheel of my Dodge one ton and 20 foot fifth wheel trailer. When we reached the place in the road where the snowplow had turned around, I asked ” So what do we do now?” Without missing a beat he said “No problem, we’ll just keep going”. Snow banks scratching the sides of the trailer, it was clear backing out or turning around were not options. “What if we meet someone”? I asked “They will have to back up” . “What about when we get to those hills?” ” Put it in four wheel drive”.

Amazingly we made it around the curves and up the hills. I noticed he was taking the curves as wide as he could and that the trailer was crowding the snow banks. Every once in a while an overhanging tree would slam into the trailer. I don’t know who winced more, the trailer’s owner or the horses. I don’t have to say, I breathed a sigh of relief when we reached the parking area. Duane wiggled the trailer around in a tight space. Soon we had the sled unloaded, horses hooked, and started hauling ice. The day itself went very well.

At day’s end we loaded Duane’s team of Belgium horses, Duke and Bud, and the sled into the trailer. Tired and cold, we said our goodbyes. Dusk was upon us by the time we warmed up the truck. Knowing what the first four miles held, I quietly took a deep breath and said a prayer. Lights on, diesel engine revved up, we set out. “God, please don’t let us meet anyone”, I said to myself.

As we approached the curve and hill from hell, I held my breath. Duane eased her on, trying to hug the outside without putting the front tire over the edge of the ditch we couldn’t see. Half way up the hill, the thing I feared most, if I had thought of it, happened. Suddenly a lone light shot over the hill and headed straight towards us. I gasped! The snowmobiler saw us at the same instant and slammed on his brakes. Unable to do anything else, Duane brought the truck and trailer to an abrupt stop. But not before the right front wheel slid over the edge. A birch tree lodged against my door. I had to crawl out the driver’s door.

We are miles from nowhere, deep in wolf infested wilderness, it’s getting dark. I check my cell phone. Of course, “No service”. “What do we do now?” I asked. “No, problem.” he said, “Start shoveling”. Ok, sounds like a plan. After shoveling the front wheel free, Duane was able to rock the truck free. Backing as far down the hill as he could, he took a run at it. The truck roared and inched up the hill. Halfway up, it started to slide toward the ditch. Stop, back up, try again. Halfway through the third try, a set of headlights appeared at the top of the hill and inched toward us. It was a pickup truck, a four wheel drive we hoped. The driver got out. A conversation ensued. The driver tried to back the truck up the hill. No luck. Now we had a truck between us and the rest of our now short lives.

“What do we do now”? I asked, starting to sound like a broken record. “Unload the sled and get the horses out”. “What if they can’t pull it”? Duane smiled “Guess we’ll have to shoot-um”. I almost said, “but we don’t have a gun” until I realized he was kidding. We slid the sled out, and unloaded the team. The horses had to scramble up and over the snow bank. The truck’s owner shook his head as he hooked the chain to the truck’s trailer hitch and then to the eveners. Duane gave the driver the signal to start backing up. He chuckled to Bud and Duke. They dug in. Snow flying from all eight feet, they hauled that pickup up and over the hill. The driver pulled over to the side at a wide spot. It was obvious there was no point in hooking his truck to our truck.

“Ok, now what”? I asked? “Get the chain, hook it to the front of the truck.” The horses rested quietly while we reloaded the sled. I shook my head. I thought to myself, “There isn’t any way they were going to pull a one ton dully and a 20 foot featherlight up and over a hill on a slippery road”. It was really dark by now. I could imagine a pack of hungry wolves licking their jowls, lurking in the dark woods just out of sight. With our options rapidly diminishing, I figured it couldn’t hurt to try.

Sled loaded, horses hooked, I climbed into the truck. I double checked, yup, it was in four wheel drive. Duane steadied himself, gathered up the lines, glanced in my direction, nodded and chuckled to his team. I gently let out the clutch. The truck, wheels caught in a rut, inched toward the ditch. The horses eased into their collars. Duane chuckled again. What happened next was absolutely remarkable.

Once they felt the weight, those boys lowered their bodies and dug in. The truck began to straighten out and move forward. I grasp the steering wheel with both fists, but didn’t really need to. The horses held it straight. Snow flew from all four wheels as we roared toward the top. Inch by inch, foot by foot, Duke and Bud never let up. Duane’s steps became strides as we picked up speed. We crested the hill before Duane and the team stopped. Duane turned to look at me. He was grinning from ear to ear. He didn’t need to say anything else.

We walked the team to end of the driveway and onto the main road. After unloading the sled, loading the horses and reloading the sled, we started out. It was now completely dark so it was easy to see the oncoming head lights. I almost said “What do we do now?” When Duane said, “We ain’t gonna back up”. The cars stopped. A conversation ensued. We found a flat spot on the side of the road and started shoveling, just enough for a car. The car pulled in, we pulled by. The car went on. We backed up. The second car pulled in. We pulled by and went on our way. Fortunately we didn’t meet anyone else until we got to town.

As we approached the City of Ely, I started to breath again. I glanced at the clock. It was after 7. I realized we had not eaten all day. “How about stopping for a sandwich”. Duane said “Sounds good”
Just to test his unflappableness I asked “What if their out of coffee?” “We will have to shoot them” “But we don’t have a gun”.

That’s the day I learned that sometimes it’s best to just look death in the eye, grin and say “no Problem”.

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A four horse hitch pulled the sled load of ice up the steep grade

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Pulling a large block of ice from the water

COYOTES!!

There is one word that sends shivers through the heart of sheep ranchers besides wolves, eagles and bears. It is COYOTES!. People ask me if predators ever get our sheep. Mostly they are thinking timber wolves.

“Not that I know of, ” I tell them. “We have coyotes, and I heard that coyotes and wolves don’t occupy the same territories.”

“So having coyotes is a good thing?”

“Not exactly. They are smaller than wolves so they are less likely to kill a full grown sheep. But they can develop a taste for lamb especially in the spring when they are feeding their young.”

“So, what do you do?.”

“I lamb early and don’t let the lambs go out on pasture.”

I did have a serious problem one time with canines killing the sheep. I went out one morning to find a couple ewes in the barn lot that had been killed and some others that were torn up. It was horrible. It’s a helpless feeling because there isn’t anything you can do if you don’t catch the culprits in the act. The worst thing is the likelihood of their returning after they have tasted blood is pretty good.

At that time we had a family of geese on the farm. I am not crazy about geese because they do two annoying things. One, they sneak up behind kids and wives and “goose” them. If you have ever been pinched on the butt when you’re not expecting it, it’s not funny. Mrs. Ed has a pretty quick left hook, but that’s another story. The other bad thing about geese is they like to make themselves at home, like on the front door step and sidewalk. They leave little treats for you to step in.

Geese do have one redeeming quality. They are great at sounding alarms when something is out of the ordinary. That night I chased the family of geese in the barn and made a little pen for them. They weren’t happy because I corralled them before they left their treats. As anyone who has goose experience knows, adult geese are very protective of their young. They do a lot of honking and wing flapping if they think their goslings are in danger.

Dusk followed by darkness came. I went to bed with an uneasy feeling. Even though it was cold outside, I kept the bedroom window open. Half asleep, I kept my ear’s on high alert. The night nearly passed without incident. It was about the time when the first rooster announces the new day that the geese let loose. The instant uproar sent me straight up and out of bed. Flying downstairs to where I had readied my trusty shot gun. I pulled on my old coat, jumped in my boots and sped towards the barn. Even before I reached the door I knew something was seriously wrong. The commotion included sheep baaing, chickens cackling and geese honking and flapping their wings.

I carefully opened the door to the entryway. It was still dark in the barn. I didn’t want to turn on the light for fear I would give the killers a chance to escape. I crept in. The noise masked the squeak in the door hinges. I had the gun loaded and ready to fire. Then I saw them! The sheep, in full panic were piled up in a corner. Two ugly looking snarling dogs had them trapped. One bloody sheep lay sprawled out on the straw. Intent on stalking their next victim, the beasts didn’t even look at me when I raised the gun.

I don’t particularly like guns and I don’t like shooting animals. This is one time I did not hesitate, and I did not miss. Unfortunately for me, the second dog did not wait around. He disappeared into the dark cover of the nearby woods. He never returned. The dead dog had a collar but no identification. We called the police to let them know what happened and a little blurb appeared in the local paper. Hopefully whoever owned the dogs read it and tied the animal up.

This story has a lighter side. Faced with the possibility of predation, I consulted my trusty sheep books. There were three options. Get a guard dog, some European breed that lives with the sheep. The more I read, the more uncomfortable I became. It seems these dogs are very protective and in some cases, consider people intruders. Maybe a little too harsh, I thought. Might be harder to get a stranger to do chores. The second option was a guard llama. Ranchers in South Dakota had been using them for years. At that time there weren’t too many llamas around so that would have taken some time to find one.

The third option was a guard donkey. Hey, I thought, that sounds pretty good. Mrs. Ed wasn’t so easily convinced. “Are you sure donkeys will guard sheep?” “Of, course, it says so here in the book.”

Did I mention it was almost Christmas? Matt was a youngster. I bet if he asked Santa for a donkey mom would not have any reservations. Probably best not to trouble her with having to contact Santa and make the arrangements as she was busy trying to decide what to get for me.

To make a longer story shorter, Santa had a surplus donkey he was willing to part with for a small shipping and handling fee. Arrangements were made, Santa delivered Cracker Jack on Christmas morning with a big red bow around his neck. Smiles abounded.

Cracker Jack lived with the horses that winter, being he was of the equine persuasion. Spring came, lambs were born and fresh green grass sprouted in the pasture. The day came when it was time to release the flock unto greener pastures. It was time to unleash Cracker Jack, the guard donkey.

I had a pen outside the barn where the ewes with lambs went after the lambs were a week or two old. The lambs had grown well and some of the bigger ones had reached 40 pounds. I figured I’d put Cracker in with them before I opened the pasture gate. I did. I slipped around the corner to watch. Cracker was a curious fellow. He sniffed each ewe. He walked slowly and carefully up to the lambs. “So far, so good,” I thought. Then he did the unexpected. He reached down, grabbed a 40 pound lamb by the neck with his teeth and started shaking it. Coyotes are about 40 pounds. Donkeys take care of coyotes by grabbing and shaking them. It was a heck of a time to find out Cracker Jack, the guard donkey, didn’t know the difference between sheep and coyotes. I hollered at him. He dropped the lamb and immediately grabbed a full size sheep. I suppose he thought he was supposed to get the big ones.

As funny as it wasn’t, I wish I had a camera. A 400-pound Jerusalem donkey standing there with a 150 pound sheep hanging out of his mouth. I don’t know who was more surprised, the ewe or me.
Finally the wool gave way and the sheep dropped, hitting the ground at full stride. Cracker Jack stood there looking at me, a tuft of wool in his mouth as if to say,” I showed that coyote a thing or two.” He then proceeded to eat the wool.

Mrs Ed asked me later how things went. “Pretty good”, I said. “That donkey has guarding instincts for sure. Only one problem though.”

“What’s that?”

“I think he really misses the horses. I think he would be happier with them.”

Mrs. Ed is a very kind and sensitive person. “If you think so. But what are you going to do about the coyotes?”

“Interesting you ask, I located a llama ….”

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Young Matt Nelson aboard Cracker Jack