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Friday, March 24, 2017

Ginger the original difficult cow

I’ve been doing this ten years now and I still freak out a little when I see blood on freshly fallen snow. When I did the cattle count the other morning, Ginger was missing. I found her in the barn, tucked into a sunny corner. She had just given birth. The calf was still wet. 

Now, Ginger is one of our original two cows. She and Betty were the pair that taught us all our lessons. A decade later, she is only slightly less ornery than she was when she hopped off the truck and strutted into the barnyard.

Ginger is very difficult to deal with but I had to get her and her calf into the pen so that they could bond. The past two years, Ginger has had trouble with her calves. I don’t know if she is getting old or if it’s just her meanness coming out. Two years ago I gave up on her feeding the calf, let her out of the pen and kept the calf in the barn to feed him every day. When he was old enough to eat hay and grass on the meadow we let him out to join the herd. Ginger seemed to recognize him, and looked after him all day, but he never nursed. He stayed about half as big as the other calves, but he survived to market time.

Last year once again Ginger’s calf didn’t seem to understand how to nurse. He wouldn’t take the bottle, either. But after some coaxing and coddling, by some miracle one night, he latched on to mama and didn’t let go until his belly was full. Once he had that figured out it was off to the races.
Now I feel like we are in exactly the same spot again, trying to get a calf to do what is supposed to come naturally. We’ve given him extra selenium and vitamins. We’ve fed him colostrums and we just forced him to swallow a few ounces of milk replacer. Ginger grunted at him and tried to reach me with her big head as I stood in the aisle, straddling her calf. I had a rope around his neck and one leg, to hold him steady and backed him into a corner so he couldn’t escape. I put the bottle in his mouth and he just lolled his tongue around it without sucking. He clamped down with his teeth once in a while and I was squeezing the nipple of the bottle so he did get some milk. I heard him swallow a few times. If we are going to keep him alive, this is going to be quite a battle.

When this happened to lambs from time to time we would intubate them to fill their stomachs. I hate doing that – it looks so darned uncomfortable. Even after you’ve gone to that extreme, you have to hope they are going to get a burst of appetite and snap out of their slump, because you can’t keep sticking a tube down their throats. Mom does all she can to lead the calf to her udder, and we’ve got them in a small pen so they are constantly together. Now we just have to sit back and let nature take its course. Probably one of my least favourite references to farming.

The other calf that arrived last Sunday seems to have a bit of a gimpy leg. She’s kind of cute, dancing around her mother in the pen. Her belly is clearly fat and full of milk. We have never witnessed her feeding but she obviously does. She and her mom seem quite interested in Ginger’s predicament. They seemed to be listening carefully when the Farmer was speaking to her.

We have had quite a few female calves born this year. We have five left to come. With our pasture able to sustain about a dozen cattle, it may be time to say goodbye to some of the older ones who are no longer able to produce healthy calves. It’s a reality of farming: not a very nice one, but there it is.
Despite her nasty countenance and the way she keeps trying to kick my husband, however, I like Ginger. She is warming up to me, too. She eats apples out of my hand and lets me touch her nose. I still have hope her calf will start to suckle, and this chapter will have a happy ending.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The 'cat' came back

Some readers of this column will recall we hosted two boys from Suzhou, China at the farm a few years ago. When applying to be international students, both young men requested rooms on a farm. They wanted a taste of Canadian farm living. 

The problem with having two boys visiting from the same country is that they are more apt to revert to their mother tongue when conversing with each other. This makes learning English a whole lot more difficult. John and Jerry had friends at school who would help them with their conversational English, but it was just too easy and too tempting to switch back to Mandarin when they got home. Their progress was very slow during the year they stayed with us.

Farm life, as well, turned out to be not such a good fit. Perhaps the boys thought they could play with the animals, tractor and ATV, but maybe we had farm hands to do the dirty work? Wrong. I don’t even have help cleaning this huge house. That first season, the Farmer took the boys out to the stable and gave them a lesson in mucking out the horse stall. The first time they did it, the boys declared it was a fine form of exercise. The second time, they said they needed a shower right away, followed by a nap. The third time, in late spring, they said they had never smelled anything so awful in all their lives. I told them they were lucky we didn’t have chickens at the time.

After a few months of settling in, the boys declared they couldn’t even fill the wood bin. It was too much work. (It takes me about ten minutes to carry wood in from the back porch, by the way.) They spent their time in their rooms using the Internet, or in the kitchen, eating everything in sight. I worried they wouldn’t earn the required credits to pass their year.

The next fall, John did not return to Canada. His father decided to put him to work to pay off the money he ‘wasted’ sitting in his room on our farm, learning nothing. Jerry, on the other hand, had spent the summer being tutored in English by a college graduate. He was ready for year two of his international experience, and this time it showed. He lived with a family in town (having realized the farming life was not for him) and worked hard on his studies. At the end of the year I was able to watch him graduate with his friends. He was pretty proud of himself. He enrolled in college and was accepted, although he would once again have to work on his English over the summer. I hoped he hadn’t bitten off more than he could chew.

Imagine my surprise when, the other day, a brand new silver BMW pulled carefully into the yard. I thought it strange that the driver pulled up to the barn instead of the house. Then the door opened and Jerry stepped out. He had hoped to catch the Farmer at home. He wanted to show my husband his new car. He had also brought someone he wanted us to meet.

Richie is graduating from Algonquin this year, a practical nurse. She comes from the same part of China as Jerry. He met her in his first year of International Marketing. He has one year left to go.

I watched as the six-foot Chinese man led the young woman around the farm. He showed her the cows and pointed up at his old bedroom window, telling her it had a great view of the sunset. He asked about the dogs, the donkey, the horse and the sheep. I told him we had moved into the retirement phase of farming, with just a dozen cattle. Then I handed him a copy of my book for his memories, and told him I was very proud of him. He said he would read it, to practice his English (which, by the way, was absolutely perfect). Then he promised to return one day soon, when the Farmer was home.

Just as they were leaving, one of the barn cats emerged from her hiding spot under the couch and darted past Jerry. He leapt a foot in the air. So not everything has changed about the big guy from China. He’s still terrified of cats.

To Grandma Mabel on her 94th birthday

What do you get a 94-year-old woman who already has everything she needs and wants? I wracked my brain trying to imagine what might surprise her as a mark of celebration of her years on the earth.
Grandma has lived in the same home as long as I have been around, and much longer. It is devoid of clutter. She doesn’t have knick knacks; she has valuable figurines. Dogs, birds, horses, three Siamese cats sitting on the floor where real cats might rest. Ladies in poufy ballroom gowns and gentlemen characters that bear the Royal Doulton crest. I would have to take out a loan to get her another one to add to her collection. I could get her another book – but like her son (my father) she would have that gift devoured in a few days. I imagined what I would like to receive as a gift if I were her age.
Lately I’ve been making photo books as gifts for my loved ones. I thought I would make one for Grandma, with photographic contributions from all of her family. Well, that turned out to be quite a feat. First of all, getting all my cousins to respond to my request for photos took a bit of time. Then, when the images started to filter in through email, many of them were not suitable for what I had in mind. I wanted pictures of them alone or with Grandma, but in a way that you could actually see their happy, smiling faces. I got some interesting submissions, let me tell ya. In the end, I only had room for a few photos from each part of the family, because I decided to do something a little different.
One night I went to my mother’s house and we tore into her treasure trove of old photographs. Which reminds me – my mother needs a new method of photo storage. Some nice big collector’s boxes would be good, because she has hundreds of old pictures stuffed into plastic bags and albums would be too expensive. We sat on the couch, holding up one photo at a time and she told me the story behind it or I produced a memory. It’s amazing how many of our memories are tied to photographs. It makes you wonder whether you would remember that house, that car or even that person if you didn’t have a photograph of them to help you.
Some of the oldest photographs were in frames, and we didn’t want to disturb them so I turned the flash off on my phone and snapped a picture. It’s amazing the quality of photographs a smart phone can take these days. After about an hour I had over two dozen photographs dating back to when my grandmother from South Porcupine, Ontario married a man working in the Timmins mine when she was just 17. There is a picture of Grandma and Grandpa – Mabel and Garnet – standing outside our first house in Kemptville in 1966. A beautiful red sports car (my dad’s) is gleaming in the driveway behind them.
There are photos of the cottage they used to own, where we spent many summers. Some of those pictures have taken on a sepia tone but you can still make out the sense of frivolity and play in the subjects. Through the ‘80s there are pictures of trips through Arizona and Hawaii. Grandpa was gone by then but Grandma travelled with her two sons and their wives. She also loved to go on cruises with her best friend, Addie.
Travelling up through the ‘90s and 2000’s we have photos of grandchildren and great grandchildren galore. These are divided up into mini-collages on each page because of their number. Mabel and Garnet did well in their cultivation of the Leeson family tree.
My USB stick of submitted photos and smart phone in hand, I headed to the Walmart photo booth to lay out a photo book. It took me approximately four hours to edit the photos and lay them out on the pages because the app kept disconnecting me and starting over. Talk about an exercise in frustration! I was exhausted and ready for a glass of wine at the end of it – and the end result is not perfect but I think Grandma will like it.

Welcome to your 95th year on the Earth, Grandma. Here’s to making more memories. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Communicating without words

My fifteen-month-old granddaughter doesn’t say much, but she communicates quite effectively. She has just discovered that everything has a name, so she spends much of her waking hours walking around, pointing at various items and emitting that little sing-song noise that sounds like, “huh?” That’s our cue to supply the name for the item. Pointing, “huh?” Answer: “horse.” Switching to another item. “Huh?” Answer: “TV.” And so on. This can go on for hours if you let it.
She must be spending a fair amount of time with Daddy in the stable because she is currently obsessed with horses. She points them out in books, paintings and photographs and carries a toy horse in her tiny fist, prancing it across tabletops and sofas. When a horse gallops into the scene of a Western that Grandpa is watching on TV, baby drops what she is doing and shuffles as quickly as she can into the living room to see where that noise is coming from. Then she stands there with a dazed look on her face, staring at the TV. Everything is sorting itself out in her tiny brain.
Despite not having the use of words in her toolbox, baby is very good at making her feelings known. Mama has taught her a few bits of sign language. As soon as you put her in her high chair she starts tapping her little fingers together, in the “more” sign. This continues throughout the meal, to show she is enjoying her food and still hungry. She’s also pretty good at expressing when she doesn’t like something. When I wear my glasses she looks at me and then turns her head away quickly, as in a snub of disapproval. She prefers faces without accoutrements.
This tiny person has discovered that almost every wish can be conveyed by pointing and humming or grunting. We are looking forward to hearing her actual thoughts – the occasional discernible word comes out once in a while but so far she is just practicing sounds. It’s actually pretty entertaining. Her mother made it to age two and a half before she started using words so we may be waiting a while yet.
The farm animals are also pretty good at communicating without words. When their feeders are empty, they just come and stand at the fence closest to the house. After a while, Betty will start mooing and others will join in. Eventually we will hear the cow concert and the Farmer will go out to start the tractor. They are going through a five-foot bale of hay a day now, as ten of them are pregnant and hungry.
The housecats communicate that their bowl is empty by attempting to trip me as I move around the kitchen. It has backfired on them once or twice, as I have trod on tails. But usually when they sit at my feet and meow loudly, I catch their drift and head down to the basement to refill the feeder. If no amount of meowing and maneuvering can get my attention, Sheila is not above giving me a quick bite on my calf. I have marks to prove it.
I visited my grandmother today. She turns 102 next week. Although she doesn’t hear much of what I say, we have long, in-depth conversations together. If Grandma can’t decipher what I am saying by reading my lips, she rarely admits it. Instead she giggles and changes the subject to one of her own choosing. Our favourite thing to do on visits is to review recent photographs and video of family that I have on my phone. She will comment on baby’s walking skills, and tell a story about one of her sons at that age. Apparently he left a banana peel on the floor and, just like in the cartoons, she slipped on it. And went into labour with her next son. This is how we communicate. We aren’t really responding to each other, but we are talking.
It’s difficult to catch up with Grandma on the phone, because she doesn’t like to turn the volume up on the speaker and she doesn’t always have her hearing aids in. The only way to communicate with her is to show up at her door, hold her hand, and give her a smile. All she really wants is someone to talk to. A response isn’t really required. Today I was her niece, then her daughter-in-law, and finally her granddaughter. I don’t think she has forgotten who I am. She just occasionally misplaces her words.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

The urge to purge old clothing

Apparently people born under the Aries zodiac sign are more likely to be the kind who like to clear out unwanted stuff on a regular basis. I certainly live up to that ideal. Nothing makes me feel better than going through old books, clothes, even pieces of furniture that aren’t being used, and giving them away.
I honestly think you can’t have too many books but if I’ve read them and they aren’t really my thing, I pass them along. I fill a box for the biggest book sale in Eastern Ontario each year, in Kemptville. Proceeds go to benefit the youth centre. Any unsold books go by ship to underdeveloped countries where they are appreciated even more.
With five daughters we haven’t had much trouble finding homes for extra furniture. But anything that really doesn’t suit goes to the Hey Day garage sale to benefit Kemptville District Hospital. That’s where I bought most of the furniture for my first apartment too. Old electronics can also be donated to the youth centre, where they are sold to a recycling organization.
When it comes to clothing, I have a rule. If I haven’t worn it all season and it’s time to put it back into storage, it really should go. Likely it doesn’t fit properly, and that’s why it has been benched for months. Clothes like classic dresses and blazers that I may need for an office job someday get put in the back of the closet. Everything else – turtlenecks that choke, sweaters that ride up, jeans that ride a little too low…get thrown on the bed in a pile. Next, I sort through these discarded items to see if any of them might suit someone else. In particular: shoes I only wore once because the heels are too high for me; a jacket I can no longer close; or a dress that, in hindsight, is really too short for someone with a granddaughter. These get put in a bag for the consignment store. If they are accepted for sale, they can earn me points toward my next purchase there. More than once I have been able to pick out something “for free” because I had a stockpile of points from shoes and clothes on consignment.
Other items that didn’t cost much to begin with get put in a bag for the Sally Ann. I’m a big supporter of our local thrift shore, and I head in there whenever I need something specific but don’t want to spend too much. It’s amazing what you can find. Most of my gardening, camping and farming clothes are from there (which is basically half my wardrobe!).
If you are giving away clothes and they have holes, stains, or they are missing buttons, don’t give them to the Salvation Army. Places like the Sally Ann don’t need to be bothered with things they can’t resell. It just means they have to find another way to dispose of it. Save them the trouble and do it yourself – but don’t throw out your unwearable clothes.
You can also donate your unwanted clothing in a roadside collection bin. If the recycling operation requests “gently used” clothes, they need them for resale. They will sell them to Value Village or send them overseas to be worn again. Many of the wearable items that don’t sell in our local thrift shops after a set period of time also end up overseas on very grateful recipients.
Clothes that don’t get sold can be sent to textile recyclers. Old fabrics can be turned into industrial rags, fiber filling for upholstery, sound-proofing, home insulation and more. So feel good about cleaning out your closets – you’re not just making room for more clothes! Whatever you decide to do, though, don’t throw your unwanted clothing in the trash. Far too much clothing ends up in landfills, and when the fabrics break down they let off fumes that add to our air pollution.
I know I’m enjoying the space inside my closet right now, having satisfied the urge to purge my unwanted outfits. But, as I mentioned earlier, I’m an Aries. My husband, a Gemini, would keep every last bit of clothing he owns if he had it his way. More than once I’ve caught him retrieving a hole-y pair of slippers or a beloved stained t-shirt that I had thrown out.
Each to his own - I now have room to go shopping!!

In search of a Golden

“A farm without a dog is not a farm at all,” the Farmer declared one evening, as we enjoyed a movie with a dog as one of the central characters. It has been about a year since we had to put our 17-year-old dog down. Cody had a good, long life and he is missed. He was a bit untrainable in certain areas, but still a lovable dog. Over the last few years he became deaf so he wasn’t much of a watch dog anymore – he never really was. He was more apt to welcome strangers because many of them came bearing gifts – the gas man shared his sandwich with our dog when he came to fill our tank, and the UPS man always had dog cookies in his truck.
Cody was a runner so when he wasn’t in the house he couldn’t wander free. He got me out of the house every day, because he needed to run down the road, dragging me on the end of the leash. He was also an incredible stealer of food. Even when he couldn’t possibly be hungry. But despite all his faults, he has left a bit of a void in our home. Our next dog will be trained. And we will also build a high fence around our house so he can roam freely. It sounds like the Farmer is ready to start looking.
My husband has decided that his semi-retirement dog is going to be a Golden Retriever. He imagines taking this dog with him to scout properties or to finish up the log cabin he is building. The dog will accompany us on long walks around our farm and he will sleep on Cody’s old blanket, in front of the TV and beside our bed.
I started the search for a Golden, and learned a few things. First of all, it’s pretty tricky to find a Golden Retriever that needs a new home. We could put our name on a waiting list for a spring litter, but that means entering a whole new world of training – waking up in the middle of the night and listening to puppy wailing. The Farmer says he is up for it. I laughed. He doesn’t seem to remember when he brought Chelsea the Border Collie in as a pup. She chewed his shoes, his furniture and his books and created a few permanent designs on the carpet. I’m not sure I’m up for training a pup. Besides, I have always had rescue dogs. There certainly are enough dogs looking for homes. We are bound to find a Golden in the lot somewhere.
I have registered with the organization Golden Rescue. I filled out their in-depth questionnaire and listed our vet and a few people as references. I also discovered that Goldens are prone to a unique set of health problems we have to be wary of. Hopefully they will be able to find us a nice dog that doesn’t mind the occasional barn cat or small child visiting, and likes rides in the car. Sometimes Golden Rescue brings in dogs from other countries like Istanbul, where they are found wandering the streets. Other times the dogs are needing to be rehomed because their owner has passed away, or needs to go into a residence that doesn’t allow pets.
The Farmer has always wanted a Golden Retriever, so that’s what we are looking for. If you know of one that needs a home, let me know!
I will have to break the news to Sheila, Sammy and the barn cats. They thought they finally had the place to themselves. They are in for a surprise. The beanie babies and small stuffed animals that Sheila carries around in lieu of kittens might also be in jeopardy. Golden Retrievers love stuffed toys and they are very possessive about them. We might have to let him choose some out of the storage room, after our granddaughter has first pick.

I heard a dog barking the other night, but we don’t have any big dogs living near us. I was told it might be a coyote. I didn’t realize they did more than yip and howl. Maybe if I walk my new Golden Retriever around the property, he can mark the perimeter and keep the wolves away from my newborn calves. Every animal has to earn his keep on the farm. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

A little change does a body good

The Farmer and I walked into the house the other night after having been away for the evening. The scent that greeted us as we walked through the door almost knocked us over. A thick, heady honeysuckle aroma hung in the air like fog. It was wafting down the stairs from the second floor office, on its own legs. It was coming from the tropical plant that I moved there about six months ago.
The dracaena is a very common tropical houseplant / tree that I picked up for about ten bucks nearly a decade ago, when I married the Farmer and decided to make some improvements to his bachelor pad. I have a bit of a green thumb, so the little houseplant now reaches the ceiling. It and my five foot hibiscus and three foot variegated palm tree were blocking all the light out of the sunroom after thriving outside all summer. That is why I separated the plants and moved the dracaena upstairs. Apparently the tropical corn plant appreciated the change of scenery, and decided to flower. For the first time ever.
It was the scent that first drew me to the den. It attracted the cats, too. Sheila was sitting under the plant, on a mini vacation, when I walked in and noticed the stalks of spiky little snowball blooms up near the ceiling. They were dripping a sticky sap, so I moved Sheila. I didn’t want it to get in her fur; it may be toxic.
The first few weeks of flowering were pleasant enough, but when the blooms started to decay, the aroma was quite pungent. I had to cut the stalks off the plant and throw them outside. I hope the tree will forgive me.
Change seems to be good for houseplants. It may be good for other creatures too. The cows, for example, could use a change in location for their feeding troughs. The winter has been so mild; their troughs are now perched precariously on hills of hay surrounded by moats of muck and manure. The two little heifer calves have chosen their favourite napping spots and, after an afternoon of chasing each other around the barnyard, they take a rest. One prefers to nap right in the muck, beside her mother. I don’t know if it’s like elephants and pigs – their hide just feels soothed and moisturized in that mudpack. In the summer the mud is cool and refreshing. I don’t imagine it’s all that comfortable in the winter, but they do have other options. The second calf likes to nap in the bed of hay that has formed between the two hay feeders. She whittles her way in there and fairly disappears from view.
Every afternoon I venture out just before dusk to count cows and see if we have any new ones to put in the barn. Every afternoon I have to move handfuls of hay to find the little one napping there. When the ground freezes and dries up a bit we will move the feeders (and by ‘we’ I mean the Farmer) to higher ground, out of the muck moat.
The coyotes seem to have returned to our property. They left for a time after we stopped raising sheep, but they have recently reappeared. The deer returned when the coyotes left, so maybe that is what is bringing them back. They are hoping to share a meal of venison. We can hear them at night, yip yipping in the back pasture. Their call reminds us to keep a close watch on our herd. We don’t want a calf to be born in the back field and set upon by a coyote before we can move it to safety. Most of our cows are smart enough to head for the barn when labour begins, but not all of them. We’ve never had a calf attacked by a coyote before, thank God, but we have had one freeze to death, because we didn’t know its mother was in labour. It’s a guessing game every year, because the big bovines are not really good at communicating.
This mild winter has been really good to us so far. You don’t realize how much you appreciate running water in the barn until the day it freezes. We will see what February has in store for us.