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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Freezing Lambs, Cody the Wonder Dog and FWNO

Ok, I love winter in Canada. I really do. But I have truly had enough with this bitter, cold wind. This morning I woke up to find that twin lambs (born in the night to a mother who was more concerned with cleaning out the hay feeder than cleaning off her newborns) had frozen feet from being wet and neglected all night. Now they are lying in a blanket over the heating vent in the bathroom, warming up. When Paulina is finished writing her English exam this morning, she will be on lamb duty with bottles and heating lamps.
I feel like I spent the majority of the weekend in the barn. We had a dozen new lambs born since Friday, and our water pipe to the barn froze. So now we are running a hose from the house, draining it over a barn rafter (that in itself can be quite a feat – I have whacked myself in the head more than once with the end of the hose) and laying it out in the TV room to thaw. With the rolled-up hose and manure-encrusted boots on rubber mats, the décor in that part of the house has taken quite a nosedive lately.
Our Sunday dinner guests didn’t seem to mind. The rest of the house was clean anyway. And we did manage to find them something to eat that the dog hadn’t stolen.
I think I have finally learned my lesson about leaving food on the kitchen counter when Cody, our Gordon Setter, appears to be snoozing on his rug in the living room. His eyes may be closed but rest assured, his nose is not.
The other day Paulina and I were in the den, watching a video that I had made of the lambs in the barn. After just a few minutes, we heard something go crashing to the floor in the kitchen. Suddenly I remembered the thawing prime-rib roast that I had left on a cutting board on the counter.
“The meat!” I screamed, running into the kitchen, just in time to see Cody’s black tail disappearing around the corner. The cutting board was on the floor. It had been licked clean. I looked under the table for the meat. Nothing. Then I ran around the corner to see if Cody had taken the hunk of raw beef to his rug, to eat in peace. But he just lay there, looking at me. Licking his lips. Then he burped.
“I don’t believe it! He ate the entire thing! In about three minutes that dog consumed our entire dinner! In complete silence!”
Paulina scolded the dog and put him outside in his doghouse, where he spent the rest of the day digesting his feast.
Cody the Wonder Dog has an amazing nose. Very subtle food odours will wake him from the deepest sleep, and whet his appetite. He is a kind and gentle, beautiful dog, but he has no manners in the kitchen. I think we should lend him to airport security for their canine unit. He may not be able to sniff out drugs but if anyone is trying to smuggle a salami into the country, he’ll get them.
A friend suggested I take a break from life on the farm for a “Farmer / Farmwife Night Out” (FWNO) on Saturday, so the husband, Mom and I piled into the truck and headed to the Osgoode Legion to hear “Roxzilla” play classic rock. Phil Morotti, Andre Courtemanche, Ken Johns and Piero Presutti combine natural talent with an enthusiasm that is contagious. They had the crowd clapping and singing along during their very first song (David Wilcox’ “Layin’ Pipe”) and by the end of the first set, the dance floor was full.
At least two of these fine musicians claim to be self-taught. But if they are playing by ear instead of by the book, in my opinion they shouldn’t change a thing. It sounded great.
It was a nice surprise to see some of the band members’ teenaged sons and their friends wandering in to hear their fathers play. Most of these young ‘uns are talented musicians themselves – so it was endearing to see them spending their Saturday night cheering on “the old guys”.
The Farmer often finds himself coerced into one special event or another that is of interest to me but not necessarily to him. He never fails to make the best of the situation, however, whether he has been taken to an art show, a rock opera or a book launch. Occasionally he is on the receiving end of an added benefit to attending these events, like the time he thought he was going with me to the raceway to meet the mayor and wound up riding in the pace car beside Miss Ottawa. That was not a bad way to spend a Saturday evening, he figured.
I was pretty sure my husband would enjoy Roxzilla, as the band members are all around his age and were probably raised on the same kind of music. But as the night went on, I realized I knew more of the words to the songs than he did. I guess he wasn’t kidding when he said he had had a pretty strict, sheltered upbringing. His father wasn’t much of a fan of that “long-hair music”. But he really gave it away when he turned to me and whispered, after a very popular song by the Who, “hey – what’s a squeezebox?”
My feet were swearing at me the next morning (maybe those high-heeled boots aren’t so good for dancing in after all) but it was all worth it.
I’ll be humming to the lambs during their next midnight feeding.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Living among the lambs

We’ve only been lambing full-on for a week and I’m exhausted already.
It’s a very different scene from last year. Now I understand why farmers are so obsessed with the weather. It seems as though “nature” is telling the ewes that the hay they have been eating (a bit moldy from the damp summer we had) for over a month is not nutritious enough to support more than one lamb each. So our multiple births (twins, triplets) are all pretty weak. We’ve lost a few lambs, and some of the mothers have insufficient milk. It can be pretty upsetting.
In order to boost the recovery of some of our lambs who were failing during that last brutal cold snap, I brought them into the farmhouse. They were dehydrated and in need of electrolytes. I mixed their medicine with a recipe for a corn-syrup solution that I found online.
Our small bathroom seemed an ideal place for the newborns to recuperate, as it is extremely warm in there. Of course, they made quite a mess after just one day in there, so we moved them to the basement. I knew when one of my infirmary patients had escaped the makeshift lambing pen when I heard the tap-tap of little hooves running across the concrete floor. We made the pen walls higher, put an old sheepskin rug over the edge of the boards, and they were content. We have a self-feeding milk bottle but they aren’t impressed with it. I’ve moved their feedings from every 4 to every 6 hours. Hopefully we can move them back into the barn soon.
Lambing is a lot of work – you have to feed and water the ewes twice a day, and do periodic checks for new births. When that happens, you have to try to find the new family a quiet corner to recover in. That can be a challenge, in an area that is already cramped. Our other biggest challenge is the freezing water hose. I’ve taken to bringing the hose in at night. Doesn’t do much for the décor but it saves valuable time at feedings.
I will walk around with big bags under my eyes for the next few weeks, but it’s all worth it. And it isn’t just the reward of holding a new lamb that brings me such joy. When the ewes are in their annual confinement, they are far different creatures from when they are wandering free in the pasture. It’s as though they know they need to depend on you, and that endears you to them.
Just as in the human population, we have various characters among the sheep. We have bullies. I tried to put an old Granny ewe (she’s probably about 75 in lamb years) in with a younger ewe who had ample room to share in her pen. Except she didn’t feel like sharing. There was more body-checking going on in that pen than at an Ottawa 67s game. I moved Granny to another pen, where the cellmate was significantly more accommodating.
We have teenaged moms, who were newborns themselves last year. These ewe-lambs often give birth and then pretend they didn’t do it. You have to supplement the feedings for those new lambs, as their mothers tend to be very non-maternal (they are more concerned about “when is the next corn snack coming?” than feeding their own babies).
Often the lambs will learn to steal milk from another ewe if their own mother has insufficient milk or maternal instincts. They learn very quickly that if they sneak under the ewe while she has her head in the hay feeder, she is much less likely to reel around and head-butt them. And they learn to dodge the kicks from the hind hooves. These are the lambs with street-sense, ala Oliver Twist and friends.
Then we have the earth mother who thinks all lambs are hers. They respond to every bleat, and try to lick the new babies in the next pen through the fencing. I hope we end up with a few more of this kind of ewe this year, so that we can group them with the mothers who are lacking in both milk and sense.
My favourite kind of ewe is the trusting (usually older and more experienced), placid ewe who allows you to climb into the pen and check her baby over while she calmly watches you from the corner. If you walk over to her pen and bring your face down to hers, she will come over and sniff you, nose-to-nose. This would never happen in the barnyard. It’s the security of the lambing room that changes them.
I learned lessons in my first lambing season in 2008 that have come in very handy so far this year, particularly when I have to climb into the pen of a nervous ewe. These are the mothers who freak out every time you come near them, putting their own lambs in danger of being trampled.
Last year, I was crouched in the corner of a pen with one of these lambs on my lap. I was feeding a bottle, as the lamb was a triplet and not getting enough milk. Soon I felt the warm breath of the ewe on my ear, and I turned to look at her (thinking I would tell her what a good mama she was). I was promptly head-butted, right between the eyes. That ewe nearly knocked me out. From now on, I never look a ewe in the eye when I’m in her pen. They have heads like concrete.


No bull

Our traditional New Year’s Eve gathering involves inviting some neighbours and friends over for a hearty dinner and a rousing game of Cranium. Two of our friends who attended this year happen to be beef farmers. According to them, it’s time we weaned our bull calf.
Tyson is not going to be happy about this.
The Farmer and I discussed the situation. Obviously, the calves (we have one male and one female) have to be weaned at some point. We had thought we would ship the bull calf off to the sale barn by November, but when the time came to send him out, I just couldn’t do it. He looked so happy there with his mother, and he was developing such a personality.
Of course, his rapidly increasing girth will be a problem when his attitude becomes less calf-like and more “bullish”. No, I’m not sure if that’s a word. Already he runs through the barn, in the front door and out the back, kicking his heels up behind him when he’s excited. This is going to cause a fair amount of damage to the barn – and the sheep – when and if he ever comes in contact with them.
Then there’s the matter of his mother. Big Betty is supposed to be pregnant again. The technician from EBI was fairly certain she was fertile when he paid us a visit in late summer. If Betty is nursing a calf, fighting the cold and eating moldy hay (it rained a lot this summer – our hay sucks) while pregnant, she may not be getting all the nutrients she needs to produce a healthy calf in the spring.
But what to do with the calf? Are we supposed to put him in his own pen for a few days, until his mother’s milk dries up? Based on past experience with our lambs, that can be a very noisy venture. And I doubt we have a pen strong enough to contain him. We are used to dealing with soft, fluffy lambs here. And before the sheep, pigs inhabited this barn. No bull calves.
Last spring, in order to reduce the spread of parasites, we attempted to wean the lambs by keeping them in a separate field from the ewes. All 77 newborns huddled around the door to the lambing pen (because that was the last place they saw their mothers), bleating and bauling into the night for 72 hours straight. It’s a good thing our neighbours sleep with earplugs and possess a good sense of humour.
When one wise little lamb chose to venture around the corner of the barn, however, she discovered that the ewes were actually in the front field, peacefully eating in the pasture. They seemed to be enjoying their new freedom in their lambless lifestyle.
This little lamb soon found out that he could wriggle under the fence, to once again be united with his mother. All 76 followed, and the rest is history. The lambs weaned themselves on their own, several weeks later.
I am told this will not happen with the bull calf. “He will continue to nurse. He will never stop. And it’s really gross,” our farmwife friend warned. I told her that I was pretty sure the calves had stopped nursing already. I hadn’t seem them under their mothers lately, anyway.
The very next morning I went out to the barn and there was Tyson, practically lifting his mother off the ground so that he could nurse. It is truly disgusting. The sound of the slurping gives me the shivers. Betty just looked at me, with a “God, help me” look on her face.
Something must be done. Even if we manage to wean our little bull, he will continue to grow and become a raging mass of uncontrollable muscle by springtime. I will miss Tyson’s little white face around the farm, but his time has come. We have no room for bulls on this farm. It’s time to call the drover - because I doubt Tyson will fit in the back of our truck.
Of course, that leaves the matter of Mocha, our female calf. She has to be weaned also. She should be considerably less trouble than the male, but she still needs a good strong pen. If anyone knows where we can get some steel fencing secondhand, let me know.
I just hope she isn’t a jumper.

Diana Fisher grew up on the country, but she knew nothing about farming until she married her Farmer a year ago. And some may say she still knows nothing! These are her weekly stories about life on the farm as “The Accidental Farmwife”.

They say the first year is the hardest...

One year ago, I lost a very special person in my life. Many of you know him as a teacher, truck driver and friend. To me, he was just Dad.
Dad started experiencing back pain in August 2007, in the middle of his beloved boating season. We knew it was bad when he revealed he was taking up to 21 Advil a day. That red flag got him into the hospital, where the specialists discovered an abdominal aneurysm. They scheduled him for surgery.
“If they open me up, they won’t like what they find!” Dad had said in the past. A smoker since the age of twelve, I think Dad never expected to live to 100. Maybe that’s why he lived his life so fully. He was here for a good time, not a long time.
Once they opened him up, the doctors found a tumor on the pancreas. They told Mom, and then they took off for the long weekend. She was left to tell him on her own. I remember sitting there beside the hospital bed, thinking that I was so grateful to be back in Canada, instead of in Taiwan or Australia or God knows where.
In the following weeks, more tests were done. When Dad found out it was pancreatic cancer, he seemed all too ready to accept that he was dying. He had watched a friend pass away from cancer just a few years earlier, and as a science teacher (almost a doctor, someone once said), he knew just how aggressive pancreatic cancer was.
The doctors informed us that instead of removing the abdominal aneurysm, they were going to have to leave it alone and take the tumor from the pancreas instead. Over the next few weeks, Mom became very well educated in the myriad methods of pain management available. It became her illness too.
One day I stopped in to find Mom in tears, because Dad wouldn’t eat. He was in too much pain. We joked with him, cajoled him, and tried to bribe him into eating. Nothing worked. I think that was probably one of the lowest points for all of us. And it was the only time I saw him in tears throughout his entire illness. Even then, I believe his tears were a simple reaction to ours, rather than his own emotions.
We went to the kitchen to discuss the problem. Mom suspected that the pharmacy had given her the wrong dosage, as the medicine just didn’t seem to be working. Moments later, Dad emerged from the bedroom. “That stuff? I stopped taking it. It’s addictive, you know.” Apparently he had read something on the Internet that made him think he was better off sticking to 200 mgs of Advil at a time. Mom had her hands full with this patient.
September 11th was a dark day for our family. But Dad was determined that it wouldn’t be. He called all of us to the house for a “family meeting”, and we went, half expecting what we would hear.
Dad delivered the message to us that his cancer was terminal by way of a joke. I was horrified, but I knew that was the way he wanted to handle it. For the next few minutes, we were all in some kind of shock. Dad said that he had just joined an exclusive club where addictive pain medications, harmful cigarette smoke, fattening foods, etc. no longer mattered. He even joked to one of his nurses that he was planning a big bank robbery as a finale.
We were told we had 6 months with him. But we were also reminded that the aneurysm could take him at any moment. We made him promise not to lift anything heavy, or to over exert himself. And then we set about the business of making the very best of every moment we had with him.
My husband planned elaborate Sunday dinners at the farm, for anyone and everyone who wished to attend. It was a wonderful idea, a chance for the whole family to see Dad, for Mom to relax and be a guest, and for all of us to just be together.
Many days, particularly after his chemo treatments, Dad had difficulty eating. But at Sunday dinner at the farm, he had second helpings. Perhaps the distraction of a roomful of giggling teenaged girls helped him to eat and feel better. He loved to make them laugh, and to sit there watching as they interacted with each other in their high-energy, oblivious-to-the-rest-of-the-world way. We continue to have a family dinner every Sunday, in memory of Dad and in awareness of the value that such a gathering has in today’s busy life.
Dad loved to snowmobile, and even as he grew weaker we knew that he was anxious to get out in that wonderful snow we had last winter. So he and Mom suited up and drove their two-up snowmobile to the farm one weekend. We all had tears in our eyes as we took pictures, knowing full well it would be his last trip. In typical Larry fashion, he revved his motor and took off down the laneway flying, before Mom even had a chance to get her gloves and hang on. He wanted to make us laugh. And he did. Every chance he got.
When teaching colleagues dropped by to pay a visit during Dad’s final months, they often displayed uncharacteristically uncomfortable behaviour, sitting together on the couch, not knowing what to say to their ailing friend. Until Dad put them at ease with a funny memory: “remember the time we filled Frank’s shoes with water, put them in the freezer, and then put them back so he would try to get them on?” Soon everyone would be roaring with laughter, and it was just as it always was.
Dad’s home nurse, Joanne Thibert, was a Godsend. A former student, she was the perfect match for Dad, scolding him when he didn’t follow instructions (“with the medication you’re on, if you don’t drink enough water you’ll give yourself the biggest hangover ever!”) and following his lead, using laughter to cover the pain.
From the first discovery of his illness to the very end, Dad possessed an almost childlike wonder about what was waiting for him when he died. He never felt sorry for himself and never expressed fear, because I honestly don’t think he felt it. And he had no regrets. He had had a good life. Too short, yes. But good.
In the end, we didn’t have to watch Dad go through the final stages of pancreatic cancer. The aneurysm took him instead. We are very thankful that we had the opportunity to be with him in the final two hours of his life, holding him and telling him we loved him. We gave him the best possible send-off from this world.
We miss you, Dad. Every single day. And we trust that the second year without you will be easier. We celebrate your memory through laughter, not tears. And yes, we know you are there. We can feel you.


Monday, January 12, 2009

First lamb of the season

Out with the old; in with the new!

Every year, as January 1st approaches, I follow the Chinese tradition of “out with the old; in with the new”. In Taiwan, those following ancient folklore believe that you must perform a thorough housecleaning at the end of the year, including going through old notes, junk drawers, files, etc., in order to purge your life of useless junk that might be bogging you down and hindering your progress into the future. It sounded like a great custom to someone like me, who has always found great stress relief and relaxation in cleaning house.
As is my custom, however, I always manage to throw out at least one thing that was not quite ready to hit the bin. This year was no exception. Which leads me to my New Year’s Resolutions, beginning with #1: I will stay out of other people’s junk drawers. What lies within may not, in fact, be junk.
And because I am now a full member of the 40-something set, #2: I resolve to be good to the body God gave me, which has got me this far. I will eat properly, get some form of exercise every day, and indulge in moderation (I’ve read that a glass of red wine each day is actually a good thing, however).
#3: I resolve to slooooooow down and appreciate the moments that I have been hopefully anticipating, such as family celebrations, quality time with a friend or family member, or the simple beauty of a blue, starlit winter sky or flaming red summer sunset. I will also take the time to comment on these moments to those who share them with me, so that we can both remember them.
#4: I resolve to worry less about the things I cannot change (I may need some help here).
If we all try to do our bit to be more positive, happy people, won’t the world be a better place as a result? I mean, no one really enjoys being angry all the time, do they? It’s been proven to have a direct impact on health. If you are bitter and angry, you will end up with more stomach ailments and back problems, and your healing and recovery abilities will be diminished.
While I was living in Taipei amongst 4 million people in a city the size of Ottawa (yes, that’s crowded), I remember being struck with the realization that I rarely met anyone who was in a bad mood. In particular, those in the service industry (taxi drivers, Starbucks baristas, grocery store clerks) never seemed to be taking out their bad day on the customer, as we sometimes do in North America (don’t get me started!).
Even on an overcrowded commuter train, when people are standing nose-to-armpit, packed in tight to get the doors closed, the most negative facial expression I witnessed was one of mild resignation.
Perhaps it is because they are so accustomed to living in such a crowded environment that they have developed this patient, happy-go-lucky attitude. Even when they are late for work in the morning, they are more likely to be found in their usual slow-paced stroll than hustling their butts to catch a taxi.
Is it a coincidence that the Asian-American male enjoys a longer life expectancy than anyone else on the planet? I think not. Once removed from the pollution-ridden environment of his home country, and placed (with his easygoing outlook) onto rich Western soil, he thrives. Meditation, self-examination, contemplation and patience are all strong principles of Asian culture. And they are good for you.
Often, when someone has a near-death experience, they come out of it with a new outlook on life. I’ve decided I’m going to try the new outlook without the near death.
I inherited my father’s short temper, but I do have a choice. Lately I have found that, when spouting off in anger at one of my offspring, only gibberish comes out. And one of us ends up laughing (usually not me). But the words that do come out in clarity still sting. Once they have been released, they cannot be retrieved. So, last but not least, (because I think 5 New Year’s Resolutions are enough for anyone), #5: I resolve to keep my mouth shut until I have thoroughly processed the thoughts that are about to escape past my lips and into the world, where they may do irreparable harm (the same goes for hitting “send” on an email).
When someone has unwittingly ticked me off, I will not make a bigger mess out of the situation by opening my big mouth. Instead, I plan to head to the barn, where hard work and the gratitude of a maternity ward of ewes and lambs await me.
And a Healthy, Happy New Year to you and yours.

The Accidental Farmwife would like to remind her loyal readers that the incidents and characters described in this column may have been embellished slightly for literary effect. Email: