Well… the loss of Vixen was a major blow to the family, but we have moved on.  After a month or so, we started our search for a new puppy.  We spent a lot of time looking at breeds related to Bernese Mountain Dogs, except with longer expected lifetimes.  For those that know me, you know we didn’t take this search casually, and spent a huge amount of time learning about the breeds we were considering, including joining several breed groups.  Found out that there are at least as many “rare” breeds as AKC registered ones – many that come from a single breeder.  Lost some faith in AKC – apparently once accepted there, the money flows… and when the money flows, people cut corners, and focus on appearance vs. little things like lifetimes and health.  A classic example is the beloved German Shepherd:  You can find puppies from $100 to $3500+ and cost doesn’t guarantee quality (although its an indicator).  Bottom line is that German Shepherds now, in general, have a lot of health problems due to indiscriminate breeding, like early onset (think age 2-3) of crippling hip dysplasia.

So what to do?  Well… we looked at a number of the more rare breeds where the breeder appeared to care about health and longevity.  We looked at Native Indian Dogs (more of a mutt selected on behavior and health vs. appearance – absolutely a “recreation” effort), the American Native Indian Dog (apparently a recent knock off to capitalize on the name), American Alsatian (a promising cross but with a 18-24 month waiting list), Great Pyrenees (bone cancer and hip dysplasia common), Australian Cattle Dogs (a maybe when we live on the farm, but too active for our life today), Australian Shepherds (came really close – especially the tri-color that looked a lot like Vixen), Czechoslovakian Wolfdog (great health, long life, but needs a LOT of attention, e.g.  you better be willing to plan your life around the dog), and the usual others (setter’s, huskies, etc.)

We landed on a breed my wife was familiar with:  The Caucasian Shepherd, aka. the Caucasian Ovcharka – an eastern European breed.  Our puppy is now approaching 6 months old and weighs a good 80 pounds – about half-way to her final weight.  She is destructive mostly due to her size – just moving around she can knock things over.  Like Vixen, she loves the farm, but does not chase vehicles and generally prefers to stay by the house.  In fact, when we are out walking, once she find the road to the house we will often lose her as she goes back.  During her first visit, a week after we got her at 10 weeks of age, she followed us to the fishing dog, sat down, looked at the water, and jumped in.  Evia almost lost it seeing her brand new puppy two feet under water, but surface she did and promptly swam back to the bank.

The photos above are from the middle of December – a balmy day in the upper 60s (maybe low 70s?).  Unusually warm for December, most of my neighbors commented they were hot in two layers and T-shirts abounded.  Xena (the new puppies name from the TV series (Gabriel’s friend after all!)) is working out very well, except she is proving harder than expected to fully housebreak.  She really seems to “get” the farm, is not in the way when we work the cattle, and we think she even understands when we are herding and tries to help – at least she stood halfway between Evia and I and held her ground as we moved some.  Encouraging.  Definitely a  protection breed (not a guard dog – she cares less about property, cares a lot about her family) she lets us know when we have kids cutting through our yard in the city (and subsequently, that appears to be happening less often <smile>).  Very much a routine dog – she wakes us every morning at 6:30am.  OK, enough about our dog.

Farm life has been busy.  We have sold 6 cattle (Moe, Curly, Stark, Missy, Lora, and Carolin), and have a deposit on Aurora.  That happened via 3 separate weekend visits and pretty much dominated those weekends (so scratch 1.5 months of posting here!).  Our first sale of the season was to a very nice couple that live in southern Missouri and market Highland Beef as their specialty – they were looking for slaughter ready, or almost ready, animals and really helped us out by buying all of ours.  Our next visitor ignored my directions (and warning not to trust their GPS) and figured their new all-wheel drive vehicle could go anywhere – and it did, until it hit a muddy dirt road.  Spent half a day towing them about a half-mile to gravel with my tractor.  They committed to buying 2, but I never heard back from them.  Tractor still has at least 40lbs of mud on it.  *sigh*  The third family came from Kansas looking for two animals and left with three!  Even with some final rounding up they were here and gone in just a few hours – the quickest we have ever sold animals.  Our deposit is sight-unseen, which is unusual, but the buyer seems content.  They will come and get Aurora in January, weather permitting.

Working the animals for our visitors has provided us with some insights into our recent fencing project.  Good news – everything done is just fine.  We did come up with some improvements in the way of additional fence sections.  Tested it out using electric ribbon fence (very visible, did not need to energize it) and have gone over it with our fencing guy.  Not sure if he is done installing the permanent version or not, but doesn’t matter, he will get to it eventually.

Spending a lot of email time working with the Missouri Department of Conversation and US Fish and Wildlife making plans for more field work.  Basically we have laid out burn plans for the next few years, along with some chemical work and additional seeding plans.  The new seeding will be focus on forbs, especially milkweed (their is a US Monarch Butterfly habitat renewal program providing assistance funding), which will help boost our Monarch population, should help my bees (presuming they make it until spring), and perhaps will integrate a few native warm season grasses to some mostly cool season fescue fields.  Fescue remains the enemy – nothing wrong with cool season grasses, and in fact I need 40-50 acres of it for spring and winter feeding – but fescue itself is a problem.  Fescue was introduced to US farmers from Europe in the early 1800s.  In 1931, a new variety was promoted by the University of Kentucky and quickly spread in the 40s and 50s and “Kentucky 31 Tall Fescue” became a household name. Today fescue currently provides primary ground cover for over 35 million acres in the US – including a lot of roadside grass.

Alas, nature loves diversity and abhors mono-culture and 35 million acres is functionally one big mono-culture (listen up corn and soybean growers…).  All that fescue became home to the same fungus that causes ergot (alkaloid poisoning) on cereal grains.  So the worlds best super-grass, exceptionally drought tolerant, growing in the widest range of temperatures of just about any other grass, and providing abundant amounts of forage almost year-round is now toxic.  Feed it to a pregnant horse and it will abort.  Feed to cows and their only grass (and most fields are almost pure fescue) and the cattle won’t gain weight as fast as they should, can suffer gangrene in their feet during the winter, heat stress in the summer, etc. etc. etc.

Alas, fescue doesn’t fight fair (like a lot of things in nature) and releases chemicals that are toxic to other plants as well – so once a field is growing a heavy covering of fescue, little else (shy multi-flora rose and the like), tends to become established.  Add to that haying pressure (often done in the middle of the summer when warm seasons are actively growing) and fescue wins.  Control is difficult.  Ideally you would spray with Roundup twice a year for a couple of years and start over.  On flat ground, a favorite technique is to convert to soybeans (Roundup ready!) until no fescue is seen, then replant in desirable species.  Can’t do that on my hillsides however.  Longer term, I’m hopeful.  I’ve noticed fields that I have NOT hayed for 6+ years are starting to inter-seed with the native grasses.  Apparently the natives can fight back, given enough time and a chance.

A little painful news:  About a month ago we had our first light ice-storm at the farm.  We arrived just as the ice was forming and I fell HARD on the walkway up to the house.  Evia found my glasses and cell phone several feet from my body.  Sprang my back.  Survived on OTC drugs until Monday and went to urgent care.  Great legal drugs and 16-20 hours of sleep a day for a week and I became somewhat functional.  I think I bruised a rib – there is still a sore-to-the-touch spot on my lower rear right rib, although I can now at least sneeze without shooting pain.  Anyhow, that completely blew that weekend.

Sometimes we spend Christmas at the farm, but this year Nastya came home for a two week visit and arrived Saturday night, so missed our regular every-other weekend.  We will go out on January 1st though for a longish weekend.