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Monday, June 29, 2009

Would Ewe Like a Haircut?

The Farmer had been shearing sheep for a couple of weeks. Every couple of days, he would lure a few more customers into the sheep-salon, where he would pen them in and give them a close-but-not-too-close shave. His record was ten sheep in one day. He was on a roll. But the dumber sheep were quickly being weeded out. Soon only the smart ones were left. These ones kept escaping from the sheep salon. The Farmer needed a new place to secure his customers. So he put them in the aisle of the lambing room, between the pens.
Last summer was the Farmer’s first season shearing his own sheep. Always the practical-minded one (with a healthy dose of Scottish blood helping him to mind his pennies), he decided that rather than pay the usual fee to have a shearer come in, he would learn to do it himself. Those first few shearing sessions were quite comical (for the observer, anyway; maybe not so much for the sheep). The professional sheep shearer made it look so easy. And have you ever seen how they do it in Australia? Flip the sheep, straddle it, shave a few clean strips down, flip ‘er over, repeat, and….release. Sheep gives itself a shake, lets out a baaa, waddles away, twenty pounds lighter, air conditioned and very grateful.
The first few customers of the Farmer put up such a fight – they must have sensed his uncertainty – that they ended up with more than a few nicks around the knickers. After wrestling, tackling and shearing just two or three of the woolly beasties, he was exhausted and called it a day. It took him over a month to shear them all.
This year was different. The Farmer got his shears sharpened. He has a system now. He is in the groove. He may not be up to the two-minute mark yet but he can shear a sheep a lot quicker than he used to.
So back to the sheep in the lambing pen. The Farmer put them in there, because the holding pen outside the shearing room just wasn’t holding anymore. Donkey kept knocking the door down so that he could pick at the sweet hay that is just over the wall in the storage area. And when he barged in, the sheep all ran out.
They couldn’t escape from the lambing room; the door is bolted shut. This seemed like a good idea to my husband at the time, I’m sure.
The next morning, I went out to feed the sheepdog and turn the horses out. As soon as I stepped off the back porch I could hear the lambs in the distance, just bawling away. I put the dog food down and took off at a trot in my pink rubber boots toward the lambing room.
When I opened the door, a little rush of water ran over my boot. Clearly I had been too anxious to get back to the latest episode of “So You Think You Can Dance” the night before, and had inadvertently left the water running all night. I waded into the ankle-deep flood, turned the tap off and discovered a motley crue of soggy sheep in the corner, standing on the only piece of high ground they could find. Suddenly I realized there was sheep poop floating on the flood. Disgusting. I opened the back door of the lambing room and let the water run out over the back ramp. Next, I convinced the sheep to wade through the flood and out the front door into the pasture. When I returned to the lambing room, I discovered Mocha the calf standing in the aisle. She was looking for the sweet feed.
“Hey. You don’t belong in here!” I had just uttered these words when Mocha suddenly turned and emptied her bowels into the flood. Oh. What fresh HELL is this? I groaned.
I grabbed the shepherd’s crook and poked her in the flank until she reluctantly trudged out the door. The din of the lambs bawling (I don’t know what they were so upset about; the flood couldn’t reach them on their elevated plateaus of hay and manure) was deafening. I ran back out to the shed, returned with a wide snow shovel, and proceeded to plough the flood of water and poop out the back door of the lambing pen. When the mess was gone, I flooded fresh water over the floor. Finally, I refilled the lamb feeders with hay, sweet feed and water. Suddenly the bawling stopped. All I could hear was grunting, snuffling and snorting. Occasionally a lamb would let out a strange garbled “baa”, almost in appreciation. They sound so strange, I half expect Jim Carrey to stand up in the middle of the crowd sometimes.
Within an hour I had the mess cleaned, the feeding done, the lambs settled.
When I returned to the house, I brought the Farmer a coffee and told him the story of my hellish feeding session. This was his reply:
“You mean you let my sheep go?”

Friday, June 19, 2009

To fix or not to fix: that is the question

I had been mulling over what I would write about this week. The horseflies are bothering the horses. I have moved the cat food from the back porch to the horse stable, to reduce the fly count around the pool. The potato bugs have proven themselves to be non-discriminating, as they devour my tomato plants. As you can see, not much has happened around here lately.
And then I read the letter to the editor, regarding my barn cats. This is not the first time I have heard from this concerned citizen regarding that particular group of residents of the Fisher Farm. Once again, she is upset to read my stories about my multitude of barn cats, because she believes that all feral cats should be spayed or neutered. She is not alone in her opinion.
The thought is that we should “fix” all stray cats so that they are less likely to spread diseases like feline leukemia.
Quite honestly, I don’t think the life span of a barn cat is long enough to spread feline leukemia. Call me ignorant, because I very well may be, but I don’t think our cats live longer than one or two years. They resist all of our attempts to tame them, they want to live outside, and so their lives are short.
That being said, I have never seen a “sick” cat on our farm. I’ve seen one kitten with an eye infection. I caught it, gave it antibiotic eye drops, and the infection went away. Kitty Mama had an open sore on her neck. I caught her, treated her with antibiotic ointment, the wound healed. When the cats are gathered around the food bowls, I sprinkle flea powder over them. Other than that, they need very little care. They are healthy. Their coats are shiny and their eyes are clear.
But the cats serve a purpose on the farm. We have six tons of grain stored in bins in the loft for the sheep. The cats keep the rodents to a minimum. In my nearly two years of climbing over hay bales and lowering myself down into the corn bin, I have never seen a rodent – not counting the half dozen moles that have been placed in my shoes on the back porch as gentle offerings from the cats that I feed every day.
I love these cats. I talk to them and they talk back. Some of them allow me to pet them. Most of them climb to an unattainable spot where they can safely watch me when I approach. But when their kittens are weaning, they bring them too to the back porch to be fed. I feed the inferior male on the front porch because the alpha male beats him up. There is only room for one male cat on the farm. The symbiotic relationship between the various species is a delicate one.
We don’t spay and neuter our barn cats because a fixed cat is a lazy cat, in my experience. I can just imagine, half a dozen cats lazing about recovering post-op, and later growing so fat that they cannot muster the energy to chase their favourite prey. When a mouse runs up and sniffs the cat’s food bowl, the cat snarls in Garfield fashion and says, “move along. That’s my dinner. The corn bin is over that-a-way.”
I’m not saying my way is right. I’m pretty sure there are members of my own family who would side with the letter writer and suggest that I have all the barn cats spayed and neutered. But would it prolong their lives?
The farming life is a practical one. You don’t spend more than you have to, and you try not to fight nature. That doesn’t mean we don’t scoop up abandoned newborn kittens and try to feed them. That doesn’t mean I don’t get up every four hours throughout the night to bottle feed orphaned lambs. We medicate the animals with viruses and we perform first aid on the injured. We do what we can.
And we are open to suggestion. When I first read the opinion that I should spay and neuter my barn cats, I gave it serious thought, I have to be honest. But it just doesn’t make sense to me. I’m not stubborn – I just see it a different way. She has a valid point, and I understand exactly where she is coming from. With love for the animals that share our lives. But I won’t be trapping and fixing my barn cats this year.
Thank you for reading, and I welcome your comments.

You can reach The Accidental Farmwife at

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Criticism for cat articles

From a Letter to the Editor, Kemptville Advance:
Normally, I quite enjoy Diana Fisher's The Accidental Farmwife, but this week I was very distressed by the column about her "multitude of barn cats". Apparently Fisher and her family think it is quite acceptable for the female cats to have litters of kittens twice a year-some of whom make it and ... some
who don't.
As a fellow animal lover and one who has provided shelter to homeless and orphaned cats over the years, I would like to advise her that the responsible thing for anyone who has barn cats or ferals is to trap them and have them spayed or neutered. Only this way can we stop the epidemic of homeless and stray cats and the spread of diseases like feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency syndrome (FIV).
There are plenty of agencies available to help. The notion of barn cats living uncared for and unattended like that is both old fashioned and cruel.

Redemption for Kitty Mama

Last summer, we had a bit of a traumatic experience on the farm, when Kitty Mama (one of our multitude of barn cats) suffered an extreme lapse in judgment and opted to give birth in the flower bed beside the pool. I still don’t know whether she actually thought it was an ideal location or whether the birth just took her by surprise and she was not given the opportunity to find a more secluded spot.
In any case, when we discovered the three new wet bundles shivering beside the pool – and the mama nowhere to be found – we just had to tuck a blanket in around their little bodies. Now, we were careful not to leave human scent on them – we wore gloves and handled them as little as possible. But we didn’t fool Kitty Mama. She knew human interference when she smelled it.
The next morning, the mother cat had moved all of the babies. To a safer place, we assumed and hoped. Unfortunately, this story didn’t have a happy ending. I found the kittens abandoned beyond the stone fence a few days later.
Our cats tended to have kittens in the spring and sometimes (but not always) again in the fall. Kitty Mama had to wait until April of this year for another chance at motherhood.
I watched her as she came up each morning to eat from the communal bowls on the back porch. I spoke to her as her belly grew a little more every week. I encouraged her to find a safe spot for her young.
Eventually the cat disappeared for a couple of days. When she returned to the back porch, she was skinny again.
I asked her where she had hidden her babies. She just looked at me. Then trotted off to the barn.
As the days went on, I noticed Kitty Mama traveling to and from the barn. One day, about five weeks after the birthing, I followed her to the abandoned silo. Some old doors were leaning against it, and Mama disappeared underneath. I could see white paws, a tail or two and a couple of pink noses peeking out from under the boards. When I looked behind the lean-to there was Mama, nursing four little kittens. She looked up at me and winked. I told her she was a very good mama, and her babies were beautiful.
It amazes me that the kittens do not emerge from their hiding place for the first month or so, no matter how long their mother leaves them to go foraging for food.
Last week, I was walking through the stable when I heard a distinct “prrrrt” from the direction of the hay bale. There was Kitty Mama, standing with bowed legs, her four fat kittens sprawled beneath her, each one attached to a nipple. She looked quite proud of herself and in control of the situation.
The kitty family (I have named them The Grays) were next spotted in the woodpile beside the shed. They use the maze of tunnels as their shelter from humans and the elements. Mama lies on top of the pile, where the wood is toasted warm by the sun. If she lies too close to the edge, a kitten will often be seen dangling off the edge, its mouth still firmly clamped on its mother.
If one of the rather feral kittens spots an approaching human, it will attempt to scoot into the woodpile between the logs. It’s quite a funny sight when the kitten suddenly realizes it has increased in size since the last time it wedged itself into one of the wooden tunnels.
The litter is getting closer and closer to the house. Some of the braver kittens are bounding up the stairs to the back porch behind their mother, peering through the screen door into the house and disappearing behind the recycling bins when we approach. Soon it will be apparent which ones are tame enough to pet, and which ones will remain wild barn cats. As soon as I am able, I start catching and cuddling the cats. Getting them used to being handled makes it easier to administer first aid in the event of an emergency, or regular preventative care (i.e. flea powder).
So far, the kittens look good. It amazes me that our barn cats rarely have eye infections or skin disorders, like the cats on other farms. Something about the sheep population seems to create the perfect conditions for cats in the barn.
The cats have taken over the abandoned playhouse that the Farmer built for his girls years ago. They can sleep in a sunbeam on hay in the horse stable, or hide among antique farm equipment in the loft. They are fed each day, on demand. But I don’t give them too much, because I don’t want them to be too lazy to hunt the next time they spot a mouse – or rat, Heaven forbid – on its way to the grain bin.
They are earning their keep, and the farm is plenty big enough for all of them. The horses and cows accept and share their space with them, and even the dogs don’t seem to mind them hanging around.
We are hoping 2009 will be a better year on the Fisher Farm, in terms of hay and healthy livestock. It’s already a better year for Kitty Mama. She has found redemption in a litter of fat and fluffy kittens.


Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Proverbs 31 Farmwife

I often ask myself why the Farmer married me. I mean, I was virtually penniless when he met me, living in my parents’ basement. Having recently returned from a 3-year stint in Taiwan, I was suffering from a severe case of reverse culture shock. I burst into tears the first time he asked me out, because I was failing miserably at re-assimilation to life in Canada. The poor guy must have thought “oh, that’s too bad. She’s cute but she’s crazy...”
I can’t cook. Well, I can, but when I do take the time to put a meal together, I usually wander off while it’s cooking and go check emails or weed the garden or something. I know it’s done when the smoke alarm goes off.
To reassure myself that I am doing a good job here, I thought I would refer to the Bible, Proverbs 31, where the epitome of a good wife is described in detail. Let’s see: “A good wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain.” (Well, the Farmer isn’t the jealous type anyway, but I think he knows I only have eyes for him and he can trust me implicitly. Check one.) “She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.” (oops – I have narrowly missed his head with a pitchfork on more than one occasion – but I’m pretty sure he knows it was unintentional...) “She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands.” (Check, check. My hands are always full of wool, and I can’t wait to get out in the barn to work with the sheep.) “She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from afar.” (Well, actually, it’s from the B&H grocery in the middle of town but it is a twelve-minute drive.) “She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and tasks for her maidens.” (Yes, I do get up before dawn but everyone pretty much feeds themselves around here – refer to paragraph 1 – and the maidens are none too pleased with the task list either.) Let’s skip a few points here and see what else applies... “She girds her loins with strength and makes her arms strong.” (It’s all that hay-pitching I’ve been doing. Builds a good set of pipes.) “She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night.” (Well, freelance writing doesn’t pay much...and my lamp is still on at midnight because I’m trying to meet a deadline.) “She is not afraid of snow for her household, for all her household are clothed in scarlet.” (Have you ever tried to get a teenager to wear a winter coat? Let alone a scarlet one?) “She makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple.” (Well, purple isn’t my colour and I can sew about as well as I can cook. Subtract 10 points.) “Her husband is known in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land.” (Actually, I don’t think they were elders; they were pub patrons. But he is pretty well known by readers of this column, much to his chagrin ;) “Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.” (If you can’t laugh, what can you do? That’s my motto...) “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” (Actually, sometimes I find keeping my mouth shut is both the wisest and kindest decision...) “She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.” (Well, I’m not lazy. But writing a story or walking with the horses trumps cleaning the house any day.) “Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” (Actually, I don’t wish to hear about the many women in this particular survey, but I certainly do feel blessed when I look at my life today.) “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.” (Well, He is impressive. Life on the farm proves that point to me every season.) “Give her the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.”
Well, a woman’s work is never done, they say, but the rewards, if oft unspoken, are boundless. I think I’m doing ok after all, based on these guidelines. But I can’t help hearing my late father’s favourite description of the perfect wife, reverberating in my head: “She is strong like bull, beautiful like tractor, smart like school bus.” Haha. That one fits even better.


Monday, June 1, 2009

This field isn't big enough for the 5 of us...

We saw it coming. When the snow melts, the cows start to wander. Betty and Ginger made it as far as the neighbouring cornfield a few weeks ago when they were spotted by a turkey hunter who snitched on them. This escape promptly landed them in the front field with the horses, surrounded by an electric fence.
The horses were not too happy with the situation.
The first morning we led them out to their previously vacant field, they stopped just short of the gate and snorted. The new tenants had been spotted.
At first they didn’t want to venture in at all. And then, they thought, to heck with that! This is our field! We won’t give it up quietly!
As soon as we took the leads off their halters, they gave chase. Ginger and Betty, the two pregnant Herefords, exchanged a look of disbelief, then turned and hoofed it to the opposite end of the field. Ashley and Misty, the proud Belgian mares, stomped and snorted loudly, declaring ownership status over the field. The cows would be permitted to trim the weeds along the perimeter.
The next morning, we put the horses out in the field but we couldn’t find the cows. After a quick search Betty and Ginger were discovered in the rather small log barn while Mocha the calf lay in the chicken coop. I think they were hiding on the horses.
A few days later, Ashley and Misty made the very simple but very firm decision that they would not be going into the front field again. Not if those cows were still in there. They made it halfway across the barnyard, put it in park and refused to move. (It amazes me that they seem to make these decisions simultaneously. I never witness any preliminary discussions and neither horse appears to be taking the lead. They communicate by some sort of horse telepathy).
With all the silage eaten up, it is now safe to allow the horses to wander the barnyard and have free reign of all the pasture fields.
When they realized they were free to roam, the girls turned and faced the glacial moraine, which provides an obstacle course for a heavy horse. They gingerly stepped around the rocks, sniffing each one as they approached, to ensure it wasn’t a turtle in disguise. They snorted reports to each other as they slowly made their way across the field.
When Donkey discovered the two Belgian blondes were on his side of the fence, he must have thought he had died and gone to horse heaven. But when he started lurking around behind Ashley, she turned and gave him a quick nip on the side. His pride wounded, he decided to pass on the hurt to one of the sheep.
Poor little Louise the ewe-lamb (yes, I know, I named her), who had just recovered from a nasty case of bottle-jaw requiring an injection was the slowest and smallest of the herd. Donkey chased her up and down the field, nipping at her heels. It only took the horses about 30 seconds to decipher the rules of this game. They chased Donkey, who chased the sheep, right into the bramble beside the stone fence.
I saw Donkey pulling at the sheep’s fleece with his teeth, in an attempt to lift her back up so that the game could continue. I’ve seen this play before, and it makes my blood boil. I marched outside, screaming at Donkey. I slammed the gate, ripped a golf flag out of the ground, and ran up to him, swinging the stick. I must have looked absolutely ridiculous. I hope the Farmer enjoyed the live entertainment with his morning coffee.
Donkey stepped aside and I bent down to scoop up Louise. She was just an awkward bundle of sharp hooves and sweaty lanolin. Suddenly a huge hoof stamped down right beside my foot. Misty bent her big head down and nibbled on the lamb’s ear with her lips. My heart was pounding like crazy. I hoped she wouldn’t hurt the sheep. Or break my leg.
Once back on her feet, Louise took off toward the open pasture. Again, the horses and Donkey gave chase. Great. I’m getting too old for this. I eventually caught up to them where they had cornered Louise, her head stuck in the fence. I scolded the horses, who watched closely as I walked the lamb back up to the barn through the bramble.
Hopefully the novelty of this game has worn off and the animals will give each other space over the 50 acres of pasture. I can’t take much more excitement.
The cows watched the action from the safety of their restricted area on the other side of the electric fence. They seem much calmer now that they don’t have to worry about being chased by a seven-foot Belgian with big teeth. And that is a good thing, because they are supposed to be having babies in a few weeks. At least, Ginger is. We aren’t sure about Betty. She got the same visit from the EBI technician (1-800-BULL) but we aren’t convinced she looks pregnant. Perhaps she just carries it well. In a few more weeks we will know for sure.
And then it will be Ashley and Misty’s turn. We need to find a nice Belgian boy to help these girls become mamas for the first time.