Thursday, July 9, 2009

Hot wire (no not that one)

When I was a kid, I loved to spend weeks in the summer with my Aunt Bibby and Uncle Joe. They had a farm with cows, horses, chickens, a huge garden, and what seemed at the time like a million acres of land. They lived in a big farm house and the entire second floor was used as an attic and man was there ever some cool stuff up there. I could spend hours up there poking around in boxes of Life Magazine and newspapers from the 1930s and 40s. Incredible stuff! I never went home from there without some treasure I'd dug up in the attic.

When I wasn't sleuthing around in the cubby holes in the backs of closets I was roaming all over the farm. Yes, part of the point of being there was to earn some summer cash helping out collecting eggs in the chicken house (imagine the scene from Napoleon Dynamite without the pitcher of raw eggs) but the majority of my time was spent crawling around the barn loft, messing around with the cows, trying to get them to chase me, and basically pretending to be Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Anyway, hot wire. The whole point of getting my miniature sheep was so they could work in the vineyard, eating weeds and mowing grass instead of me having to spray herbicide for weeds and run the mower for several hours per week. In order for the sheep to stay where I want them, I need to have some form of partition so they only work in the rows where I want them to mow/weed and not go running off all over the property. Originally I had thought about using several wires attached to the vineyard posts, about 8 inches apart, forming a multi-wire fence and blocking off the ends with cattle panels or snow fence or something else that would be easy to move, but we're talking literally about several miles of galvanized wire to do the whole vineyard that way. After visiting the vineyard where I bought my the sheep, I noted that they were using a single strand of electric fence to keep the sheep where they want them. When they wanted to move the electric fence, they just rolled it up on a spool and moved it to the new rows. (by the way, that also opens up the potential of never having to mow the yard again).

Back to Aunt Bibby and Uncle Joe's farm. Back in the day, when I was around 9 or 10, I had my first encounter there with electric fence. I happened to reach out and touch it after being told by my cousins, who shall remain nameless, that it was not plugged in. After being knocked off my feet by the jolt, and vowing revenge, (and also crying), I learned a valuable lesson about electricity.

Greg spent part of last weekend attaching the hot wire to four rows of the new vines, which have yet to be sprayed for weeds. He closed the circuit and ran everything up to a battery charged by a solar panel. Neither one of us has had the nerve to touch it to make sure it is working; me, because I know very well what that feels like, and Greg, because he doesn't! We'll know soon enough when we put the sheep out there this weekend. We will both be working out there training the new vines to the trellis and we'll see for certain whether this little sheep experiment is going to work. Based on my observations in the pasture thus far, the sheep seem to select weeds over grass when they have the choice of both. In fact, I've watched them eat some incredibly unpalatable looking stuff, including the noxious, skin-shredding, multiflora rose that is endemic here, as well as the wild gooseberries, also covered in thorns, which we have all over the place. Oh, and they love poison ivy. More about that later...

We still have the grow tubes on the new vines so they are safe from nibbling, and once the vines are mature, any leaves that grow on the trunk and any water sprouts that come up from the base, down low, are fair game for the sheep because they need to be pruned off anyway. We've set the cordon wire (the lowest horizontal wire where the vine's lateral arms grow, and where the fruit develops) at about 42 inches which should be high enough to be out of reach of the sheep. They do stretch their necks and reach up when eating sometimes but I don't think they can reach the cordons. If they can, I'll just move them higher. Once the vines are weighted down with big, ripe clusters of grapes, the sheep will have to be taken out of the vineyard, as the grapes will prove to be too irresistible to pass up, even if it means climbing up on each other to get them. Based on what I've read, until the grapes are actually almost ripe, and full of sugar, there isn't much interest in them from the sheep, or the deer for that matter. Once the ripening process starts, all bets are off.

From the moment I brought the sheep home, I've been using a little bit of sheep feed in a bucket to condition them to follow me. It worked. They practically bowl me over now when I walk into their pen shaking the green bucket. They make an incredible amount of racket over a couple of handfuls of grain. I guess the pellets are sort of like crack cocaine. It's hilarious to watch them inhale their food. The lambs in particular sound like little piglets when they're eating. My plan is to lead them out to the vineyard with the bucket of feed, (they are powerless to resist it) into the hot-wire enclosed rows, dump the bucket, and close the circuit. Based on what I've seen thus far, this should work. I've managed to cause a stampede all the way across their pasture just by shaking the bucket a couple of times. Even Jilly Bean comes thundering as fast as her stubby legs can carry her so she doesn't miss out on the treats. She is rotund and looks more like a hippopotamus than a sheep when she is running. I don't understand it because she runs everywhere she goes. She never walks. She shouldn't be fat at all.

See? That's her on the right!

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