Farms on the prairie in winter can be hard: hard weather, bleak surroundings, short days.
This year’s weather is hard because it is dry, dust dry. Winter wheat likes to snuggle down in snow – it’s a steady and protective source of moisture – but this year’s two meager snowfalls were blown into the ditch by strong northerly winds, so the wheat field is barren and bleak, as are the alfalfa fields.
Feeding sheep and geese can be warming. Evenings, the sheep get a half pound of oats a day and two pounds of alfalfa, but it is a routine, and however they may relish their feed, for the shepherd it can be dulling, especially in the cold and dark.
We do not expect lambs to arrive until the far end of March, so we will not even have the satisfaction of providing the newborn a warm and dry place in the barn to keep out the bitter weather.
So what to do to enliven our farm?
Tibbie was born on September 15 in Diamond Springs, Kansas, a stop on the Santa Fe Trail, the only female in a litter of five Great Pyrenees, and she came to us early in November. The extended family from which she came includes ducks, geese, chickens, goats, and sheep, so she was prepared for her new home.
At seven weeks old, she was not sufficiently acquainted with her family tree to know that the two Great Pyrenees already here are her half-brother Angus, 125 pounds at three years, and her aunt Flora, 90 pounds at two.
No matter: she found her niche with the sheep, and especially with the lambs born last April. Flora did not take to her niece, but the sheep did and Tibbie spent the first two weeks being sniffed by lambs and occasionally getting to lick a nose. Not that all the ewes welcomed her – a few thought she needed comeuppance, which was a butt with a shapely Border Leicester head which sent Tibbie rolling.
She took her meals apart. Creep gates gave her access to her food, but not Angus or Flora, or even the sheep. When she got close to the other dogs’ food, they – especially Flora – let her know that she would mind her manners and respect her seniors, but, in time, Angus first, they learned to accept her.
The slot that the other dogs fill requires them to work nights. We keep our sheep behind woven wire day and night ( 4 point barbed wire above and below ) and we keep them in a night lot, separate from but next to Angus and Flora, also behind the wire. But coyotes, ever hopeful, visit them, raising yelps only after they are discovered. Angus and Flora go to the point nearest the coyotes, keeping themselves between the coyotes and the sheep, and bark very territorial barks. We are here, they are saying, and you should not even think about it.
It can go on all night, the vigil and the barking, and by morning, Angus and Flora are tuckered.
The sheep, come morning, all safe and rested, are ready to go out to pasture. Even in the winter there are bushes to be gnawed and grass to be found, and big round bales of prairie hay. Not as much nourishment as oats and alfalfa, mind, but we are sheep, they would say, and that’s what we do. We graze.
Angus and Flora go along, find a dry spot out of the wind, and go to sleep.
Tail up and curled, she leads them all out and once out, she watches them, approaching them one at a time, occasionally, for a few words and a frisk. She does not disturb her older relatives.
The other day, mid-afternoon, I watched her take Tibbie around the inner perimeter of the fenced field where she and Angus stand guard at night. They went slowly and when Tibbie got distracted, Flora waited for her to regain her focus. I suppose she showed her the places most frequented by coyotes.
Now I know that your children are marvelous, your grandchildren too, all well above average one might say. But what Tibbie is doing, at four months and 30 pounds, is wonderful to see, something that glows and warms in hard weather, bleak surroundings, and short days.
Jerry Wigglesworth, January, 2013