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Monday, February 27, 2012

Hidin' on the big bad wolf

In my half-asleep state the other night I thought I heard Chelsea the sheepdog barking in the barnyard but I wasn't completely lucid so I just went back to sleep. Some time later, at about 3 in the morning, Cody started barking, this time directly under my window. That got me up.


I lifted the blind and looked out the window. Cody's nose was pointing north, toward the back field. I quickly tiptoed to the other room to get a better look.

A full moon glowed down on the pasture. And there were three huge coyotes, truckin' across the field on a diagonal, toward the barnyard - and my sheep.

I pushed the window open, clapped my hands loudly and shouted at the coyotes. They turned and shot out of sight. In my panic I had scared them back into hiding - and probably woke everyone in the house.

Actually the Farmer was still asleep, on his good ear. My sneaking back into bed woke him. I told him about Wile E. Coyote and friends. "Why didn't you wake me?!" He said, as he swung his legs out of bed and pulled on his jeans.

I decided to accompany him, to be his lookout. We dressed warmly, almost too warmly for the night.

We didn't turn any lights on as we collected what we needed for the hunt.

The light would tip the coyotes off but we didn't need it anyway, the moon was so bright.

The Farmer had seen coyote tracks in the barnyard recently, so we had been leaving the horse and donkey out all night to scare them away.

On this night, however, the sheep were all sleeping around the feeders on their bed of hay and the bigger animals were nowhere in sight.

Just then we heard the clop clop of hooves on ice. The horse and donkey emerged from the barn, where they had no doubt bullied the sheep for the best sheltered sleeping spots. This is how my sheep get broken ankles, the horse crowds into their space and steps on them by accident. I brought this to the Farmer's attention. "Some watchdogs they are," he commented.

We did see the pack of coyotes again that night, but they were moving too quickly behind the trees for a good shot. The Farmer swears that in that light, if I had only woken him when I first saw the pack, he would have hit at least one.

We decided to open up the interior room of the barn, most recently vacated by the calf and cow, for the sheep to use.

They could go in there for shelter and safety, and the short door meant the horse and donkey could not follow.

The next night, sheep were safely and happily holed up in the barn, and the horse and donkey were guarding the door. In the morning, one of the fattest of the sheep was firmly stuck in the hay feeder.

They get stuck often, and don't have the strength, energy or coordination to get themselves back out.

The Farmer tried tying a rope around her and pulling, but she just lay there like a lump, firmly stuck.

I climbed into the feeder, wiggled under her hind end and pushed up until he could pull her out.

This, I thought, is how farmers have heart attacks.

On the way back to the house the Farmer told me that he had seen a sheep with blood around her neck.

She had obviously gone a few rounds with the coyote before he was interrupted by the donkey and she wriggled loose.

Those coyotes are four-legged, mangy vampires. They always go for the neck.

We can't be out there all the time, keeping our animals from harm.

Hopefully they will have the sense to head for shelter when night falls or when the horse and donkey spot a coyote. I've seen them standing stock still, my two sentries, staring off into the distance. The sheep were staring in the same direction, so they must have been communicating danger to each other.

I followed their gaze, without moving a muscle, and watched the quiet field for more than a minute before I suddenly saw what they were watching.

A lone coyote stepped down from his perch on the stone fence and loped back across the field to his den.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Baby's Day Out

Ginger and her baby were making a right mess of the lambing area. We had already moved them twice - from the smaller to the bigger pen and then out into the open section of the barn - each time they completed the muckification of their living area.

When no amount of coarse hay thrown down would better the situation it was time to move them again.

Ginger made it obvious that it was time for her to receive an eviction notice when she heaved her chest onto the sheep feeder to reach the hay bale on the other side, busting the feeder to smithereens.

We waited 'til morning, when the sun rose on a clear, mild winter day. The Farmer opened the door to the barn and I tried to lure the calf out. No way.

He had never been out before and wasn't about to go now without a little coaxing. My husband wasn't all that thrilled about going into the confined area with Ginger (who had recently tried to kill him) but it was the only way to get them out so in he went. Ginger quickly stepped out the door and her lamb was pretty quick to follow.

Once outside, Ginger turned and looked back at the barn. I think she was realizing she had given up easy access to food and water. The calf stood blinking at the blinding sun.

Then he took one step onto the ice and did a big Bambi slide onto his bum.

For the next two hours, he wandered around the barn, poking in corners and skittering across the ice.

I hooked up his milk bottle but he just sniffed at it. I think his nerves got the better of his appetite.

Young Angus, our bull, wandered over to examine the bottle where I had hooked it to the side of the outdoor pen. He rubbed his skull against it, up and down, until it fell into a pile of muck on the ground. "Thanks, Angus," I said, picking the bottle up and rinsing it in a clean puddle of water. I moved the hook over to the other side of the pen.

Angus slowly wandered around the half-wall and repeated his head-rubbing routine to knock the bottle down again.

At this rate, the calf was never going to get his milk.

I went back into the house and reported to the Farmer, who agreed that the calf would have to have access to his bottle or he just wouldn't survive.

Later that afternoon we cornered the calf, the Farmer lassoed him and we wrestled him back into the lambing room where he was born.

I opened the door to the one remaining clean pen and gently shoved him in.

He let out one long, plaintive wail when he realized his mother wasn't with him.

Ginger, who hadn't been all that interested in her calf when she realized he wasn't going to suckle, suddenly wanted to get into the lambing room with him.

She pushed on the barred door and pawed at the ramp outside.

She bellowed and wailed and stood staring me right in the eye when I went out to fill the water trough.

"He doesn't need you, Ginger. And you just make a mess," I told her.

She went back to stand outside the door of the barn, confused. Her mooing got a little softer. I could hear the calf in the barn, rustling around, but he didn't return her call.

Once happily ensconced in his own plush pen, the calf (whom I have been calling Baby), got back into this bottle-drinking routine.

He only likes the milk when it's warm, however, so you have to get him when he's hungry.

We also gave him some sweet hay, a bucket of water and a handful of sweet feed, to awaken his senses.

He likes the water, and nibbles on the hay.

When I go in to refill his bottle, he is lying in the corner, chewing his cud. "Oh look at you, all grown up, chewing your cud," I told him.

He got up, did a big cat stretch and wandered over to the corner to drink his warm bottle of milk.

We have about two more weeks of solid bottle feeding before he can start relying on hay and grain as his main food sources.

I'm amazed he has lasted this long. And I'm getting way too attached to this animal.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The true romantic life of the farmwife




My calf is doing quite well, all things (damp cold and a mama who won't feed him) considered.

He gets just over seven litres of milk replacer a day, which is what the latest research calculates is the optimum amount for growth. I hook two 2-litre bottles of formula to the side of his pen in the morning and another one and a half bottles at night. When he reaches about six weeks of age (I think he is three weeks now), he should have developed his rumen (so he can chew his cud). At that point we can start him on some solid food.

I'm thinking we need to close off half the cattle area in the barn so that only the calves can get in one side, through the little sheep door.

They can go in there for shelter and we will put grain in the feeder to fatten them up. We can't give the mama cows or the bull access to the grain or they will eat it all.

If the Farmer goes for this plan, I get the credit. Ten points for me for coming up with a calf-feeding plan all on my own. Hopefully the bull doesn't take it upon himself to remove the barriers that we build. He certainly is strong enough.

Someone told me the other day that they thought the life of a farmwife was 'romantic'. I looked up romantic in the dictionary and this is what I found. Something is 'romantic' when it is 'impractical or fantastic in conception or plan'.

Well, farming is not for the pessimistic or easily disappointed, that's for sure. You have to be a dreamer and you have to practice looking on the bright side of things.

Because nature has a sense of humour and it doesn't always work in your favour. But I wouldn't say that farming was based on fantasy.

You can also say that something is 'romantic' when it 'has no basis in real life'. That just makes me laugh. Because there aren't too many things that are more 'real' than farming. So I guess I would say that I disagree with that particular definition.

If romance is 'a narrative dealing with characters involved in heroic, adventurous or mysterious events', however, I would have to agree that farming is indeed romantic.

As farmers we are adventurous, because we invest in nature and all its unpredictability.

We take risks, plant seeds, encourage animals to mate, and optimistically prepare for the fruits of our (or their) labour.

The growth and development of everything on the farm, from lamb to lettuce, is a mysterious event, indeed. And finally, the Farmer is definitely my hero, when he does everything he can to save the life of a weak lamb and it slowly comes around to the land of the living.

I too feel heroic when I rescue a sheep from its strangling web of baler twine, or find a newborn calf in the snow and carry it to the barn in my arms, or feed a bottle of milk replacer to a baby farm animal that cannot live without it.

I think also because we live off the land and we operate in tune with the elements of wind, rain, snow, sun...this makes the farm life romantic. There is a primal, meaningful, and very real sense of what is important. If you don't do your farm chores, something dramatically negative will happen. Something will be spoiled, or broken, or harmed. There is purpose to our daily life.

This is what I was looking for when I lived in the city.

When I woke up on Saturdays, with the long weekend stretching ahead of me, and thought, "Now what?"

I wanted my activities to mean something. I didn't want time to be wasted. I wanted the romantic life of a farmwife. I just didn't know it yet.

Now, I have to point out that a synonym to 'romantic' is 'glamorous'. I find this truly hilarious. Because when I'm up to my knees in sheep manure, covered in sour milk or sweating under the weight of a bale of hay, I do not look or feel glamorous. When I'm trudging through snow, no makeup on, hair pulled back in a ponytail under a toque, in milk-stained barn coat and manure-caked snow pants, glamorous I am not. But I clean up good.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Friday, February 3, 2012


I can't believe he ate the whole thing.

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Friday morning dawned on a very sad-looking dog named Cody. Our noble watch dog just stood in the middle of the yard in the freezing rain, head hanging down. I brought him in and toweled him off. He slowly made his way over to his sleeping rug and lay down.

I brought him water throughout the day but he wouldn’t touch it. He seemed to be uncomfortable, continually and toweled him off. He slowly made his way over to his sleeping rug and lay down. changing his position, flopping back and forth. He never left the rug. Finally, he drank the water…and promptly brought it back up. We moved him to the basement, where accidents are more easily forgiven. I made him a nest of towels at the bottom of the stairs.

Friday was a rotten day anyway with the weather, so I didn’t take Cody for his walk. He went out a couple of times for fresh air, but wasn’t moving too quickly. I started to worry that our 13-year-old dog, who normally bounds around like a pup, was starting to feel his age in a serious way. He resisted food and continued to vomit throughout the night.

On Saturday morning I took Cody for a slow walk. Normally he pulls me on the end of his leash, anxious to get out and examine every track and paw print on the road. This time he walked like an old man, right beside me. Every once in a while he would stop in his tracks, and stare up at the sky or a tree or straight into my eyes. He was just taking a break. If I tried to turn him around in the direction of home, he would gently resist. He wanted his walk. I think he follows the Cree way of thinking that if you are sick, you can’t let it rest on you. You have to get up and shake it off, get some fresh air, keep moving.

As we walked, it suddenly dawned on me. The last time I saw him eat was Thursday evening, when I returned from shopping. The last thing he had in his mouth was a rawhide chew bone from the Dollar Store. I wondered how many pieces he tore that rawhide bone into before attempting to swallow it.

Back in the house, I called the vet. She informed me that if the clump of rawhide did not work its way through on its own, Cody would require surgery. And at 13 years old, I wouldn’t want to put him through that. The Farmer and I gave Cody a dose of ‘bute’ painkiller that was half the size of the dose the calf got. It seemed to work. He settled down and the vomiting stopped.

I was out with girlfriends Saturday night but I couldn’t stop thinking about my dog. I felt terrible for giving him a treat that caused an intestinal obstruction. Sunday morning I checked him again and he just seemed so weak—I worried that he was dehydrated and dying. He rolled over as if to ask me to rub his tummy. The look in his eyes brought tears to mine. He seemed to be trying to communicate ‘I’m sorry that I ate the whole thing. But can’t you help me?’ I very gently ran my hands over his belly, in the direction of digestion. I repeated this several times, while he lay still and closed his eyes. When I took my hands away, his eyes remained closed. I quietly got up and went upstairs.

Just then I heard his footsteps behind me on the stairs. Carefully, tripping once, he lifted his weak legs and followed. I brought him outside, where he took another drink of water and urinated. Suddenly he had a new look in his eyes. He wagged his tail, and sniffed at his empty dog dish. I ran back into the house and got a hot dog. Ripping it into small pieces, I fed them to him, one by one. I didn’t want to worsen the blockage. His appetite had returned! We fed him a bit of grease from a roast duck to aid in the unblocking. He gobbled it up. I left him half an hour and then peeked outside again. He was sitting on his doghouse like Snoopy, waiting for me to take him on his walk. By the end of the day all bodily functions were back to normal and he was on the road to recovery. Please don’t feed your four-legged friends rawhide chew bones. They can be lethal.



the as-yet-to-be-named calf



How to keep a calf alive


Ginger had a little bull calf last week. It’s her fifth calf. She has successfully had healthy babies every year since we got her. Betty hasn’t always been so lucky. She had a calf the first year, then she didn’t take to the artificial insemination the second year (even though I let her choose the bull out of the magazine). Last year Betty’s calf was born without the suckling reflex. We managed to turn that situation around by doing what we do when the sheep have that problem. We milked the mother of her valuable first milk colostrum, and fed that liquid gold to the baby. Then we gave the baby a shot of selenium. Within a few hours it was up and nursing. Amazing.
Ginger’s calf appeared big and healthy but it soon became apparent that it too was lacking a suckling reflex—in fact he didn’t even seem to know what his mother was there for. The Farmer almost got trampled trying to steal colostrum for the calf. We really have to install a proper head gate and chute one of these days, so that we can work with the cows that aren’t as friendly (so far only Ginger-the-suspicious falls into that category).
The selenium shot didn’t work. The calf was up and walking around, but getting weaker by the hour. I went and made a bottle of milk replacer and taught him how to drink from it. That saved his life. Now he has a 4-pint bottle in the morning and another in the late afternoon. He’s living on that. How, I don’t know. I’m sure it doesn’t have enough in it to satisfy his hunger and I worry that his growth will be stunted.
The Farmer wants to try to put the calf on another mother to see if he will take a hint. Mocha would probably let him. She’s a nice girl.
The calf nibbles on the hay and sips at the water, mimicking his mother, but until his rumen develops, he won’t be on solid food. Milk is his main meal.
When I open the big door to the barn and it scrapes across the snow, the calf wakes up. He gets to his feet, does a big cat stretch, and starts honking for me. He actually sounds like a goose. When I come into the room and walk over to strap his bottle into the holder on the side of the pen, he comes bounding over. Sometimes Ginger sticks her big fat head in the way and tries to knock him away from the bottle. I think she’s jealous. Luckily, she still combs and grooms her little one with her big, scratchy tongue. He needs this physical contact to thrive. Many farm animals will lose their interest in their babies if they don’t nurse. Some will even try to harm their young. Ginger seems to enjoy her calf, although she has given up on coaxing him back toward her udder. I take every opportunity to pet and scratch the calf, behind his ears and under his chin, so he gets used to me.
I would like to move mother and child into a larger pen, because when Ginger lies down to sleep she doesn’t always confirm her calf’s location. She squashed his leg the other day so he had pain as well as hunger and cold to deal with. I gave him some of the pink liquid painkiller that we bought for the horse. The medicine makes him sneeze and cough. He makes a big fuss and doesn’t want to take it anymore but it seems to be doing the trick. He can walk around on that leg now. Thankfully it wasn’t broken.
At about six weeks of age we can start the calf on grain and hay. We only keep the female calves. When the bulls get to be about nine months old they become too big and bull-headed to handle so we call Dennis the drover to come and take them away to market. Hopefully this little calf, whom I have yet to name, will get to live that long.