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Friday, November 27, 2009

Turn me loose; I gotta do it my way...

We had planned to keep the boys in the pen-itentiary ‘til Christmas but it was such a nice, mild, fresh-air weekend that the Farmer took pity on them.
“I’m going to turn one of the rams out. Which one do you want me to release?” he asked, as we cruised down Pattersons’ Corners Road in the F150.
“Why don’t we give Rambi a chance?” I suggested.
“Rambi doesn’t know what the hell he’s doin’. I’m letting Rambo out,” he said.
“Hon...why did you even ask me?”
“I’m sittin’ here wonderin’ the same thing, darlin’.”
The Farmer likes to make me feel involved in the farming decisions. But the fact that he had adopted my habit of calling the animals by name was not lost on me.
When we returned to the farm we went our separate ways, doing our favourite weekend things. I took Cody the noble farm dog on a quick hike, and the Farmer sent smoke signals with his burn barrel.
Later I caught up with him in the lambing pen where the rams had been happily ensconced for close to four months. He had just released the senior ram, Rambo, minutes earlier. The ram was already on the job, his nose crinkled in a perma-sniff. The females circled around him, awaiting their turn. Even the ewe lambs seemed to catch on to the routine. Ram sniffs ewe’s tail, ram sidles up and licks ewe behind the ear, and if she stands stock still, he mounts her for about ten seconds. The red chalk box he has strapped to his chest leaves a telltale marking on her rump. If the ewe refuses to stand still, however, the ram stamps his foot in disapproval, grunts at her and moves on to the next candidate.
Watching Rambo in action, I thought, “is that it?” I mean, the women had been waiting for months to see him. I’m sure some feared the worst. They thought he had been given a ticket for the eternal holiday. When he finally emerged from his jail cell / man cave, there must have been rejoicing among the ewes.
After they have been mated, the marked ewes follow closely behind Rambo like his own personal fan club. He sneaks up on unsuspecting females now, growing ever more wily at his game. The ewes stand in a row as they feed on the pasture. Rambo moves along behind them, silently going about his work. After one of the ewes is mounted, she turns to her neighbour and says, “That’s odd. Louise, did you feel something? My goodness. Mosquitoes at this time of year.” Looking behind her, she sees nothing. So she returns to eating, the red mark of truth emblazoned on her backside.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Rambi is panicking. If there is one thing sheep hate, it’s being alone. As the Farmer approaches, the junior ram tries to launch himself out of the window.
“Tell me again the reason behind separating them?” I ask my husband.
“If I don’t, they just might kill each other,” the Farmer explained.
“Well he doesn’t like being alone.”
“I know. That’s why you’re going to bring your ewe lambs in here to keep him company.”
“Ok. But only if he promises to be gentle. It’s their first time.”
That’s when the Farmer gave me his look. The look that lets me know he is growing tired of indulging me.
“I don’t know how you’re going to get them in here,” he said.
I looked at him, amazed at how he underestimates my shepherding abilities. I opened the gate and looked at my 12 lambs, who were gathered around the door in the hopes of getting some hay or corn tossed to them. No matter how “dumb” people say sheep are, they do have a memory.
I knickered and clucked, made kissing noises, and called, “here Chicken, here, chick, chick, chick.” I heard something like a snort behind me. I wheeled around to face my husband as the 12 sheep nervously scuttled into the aisle. We put 5 in with Rambi, and the other 7 were put in a neighbouring pen, with instructions to watch and learn.
Poor Rambi. I think the only way he is going to get lucky is if one of his Sheilas gets her head stuck in the feeder. He spent the rest of the afternoon chasing the girls in circles, I’m sure. We’ll have to watch he doesn’t lose too much weight from all of this exercise.
We let Rambo out on November 22nd, so the lambs are due the 22nd of April. This is my first winter as a farmwife where I will be able to stay inside, curled up by the fire reading a book instead of trudging out in the snow to bottle-feed newborn lambs.
I’m sure I’ll find plenty of other things to keep me busy over the next few months. I’m supposed to be putting a book together from all of these columns, for one thing. It keeps getting pushed aside but in the dead of winter there won’t be many excuses.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Hey ladies - is it getting HOT in here?

Every morning I go out to the barn to feed the rams-in-waiting. On my way to their pen, I stop to watch the cows in the front pasture.
The animals are often still lounging on a pile of hay in the first rays of sun when I arrive. Sometimes they are already out in the pasture, munching on the last tufts of green grass. Julie the 1st – our Black Angus who was born on Canada Day - is sometimes suckling on her mother. It may be time to wean her. Perhaps then Ginger will go into heat.
I don’t know why Ginger won’t come into season. Last year, she and Betty were alternating taking the lead in a convoluted mating dance even though they were both still nursing their young.
Betty and Mocha were artificially inseminated earlier in the year. Maybe that is why Ginger isn’t going into heat. Her friends are already pregnant. There is no one to dance with.
The Farmer and I have discussed infinite possibilities as to why our nice, fat Hereford is not showing any signs that she is once again ready to bred.
I think I have the reason. Ginger is holding out. She wants a real man. She is tired of these mail-order males that arrive in the form of a test tube administered by a technician wearing latex gloves. Ginger wants to be courted the old fashioned way. She wants a bull.
We may have missed our window of opportunity this season, now that it is getting colder and snow is just around the corner. But in the spring, Ginger just might get her wish. If we bring a bull in here, he will let us know when our cow is in heat. And that’s a good thing, because we obviously don’t have a clue.
Our skills at determining the seasons of our animals are equally weak when it comes to our horses. Ashley and Misty have had days throughout the summer when they appeared to be acting quite strangely – agitated and bitchy, nipping at each other - but I am not convinced I can determine when they are actually in heat. In any case, my hunch is not confident enough to merit loading the girls onto a trailer and hauling them over to a neighbouring stud farm to be bred. With my luck we would go to all that trouble only to discover, after introductions are made, that our horsey-girls are absolutely not in the mood.
Perhaps springtime will be our lucky season. The animals will get caught up in spring fever, and we will be that much more accustomed to reading their signs.
On another note, Christmas is coming. I noticed a few lights going up this week, so I think it’s finally time to pitch the dried out chrysanthemums and shriveled pumpkins that are scattered around the front porch. It’s a beautiful, mild autumn Sunday so I might take the dog for a walk around the back 40, wave at the Farmer ploughing his field, and collect some decorative grapevines and cedar boughs for the urn planters.
The Christmas decoration situation is always a challenge at the Fisher farm. As a bachelor for several years before I arrived on the scene, the Farmer thought that tossing a single string of lights up a spindly birch tree was decoration enough. It wasn’t until our August wedding day that I realized he left those lights up all year. I don’t know how many years that string has been up there, but I think it has probably lost light in at least one bulb each year. Now they are all dead. Perhaps he will agree it is time to pull it down and begin anew.
Today would be a perfect day to pull lights out from the attic, test them, and string them along the edge of the roof. It’s mild, sunny, and only a gentle breeze is blowing. I might even hang some of my comforters and bed spreads on the line – I am still digging my way out of the laundry resulting from our dozen house guests last week. It’s odd to have such balmy weather in the middle of November – but we’ll take it. Hopefully this doesn’t mean we will pay for it later in the form of too much ice and snow.
It snowed briefly one morning last week, but winter is still only a distant threat. Having been brought up to dress warmly, grin and bear it and hop on a snowmobile when the roads are blocked, I love the winter. To me the snowy months are an excuse for curling up in front of the fire with a good book, a cup of tea and a bowl of popcorn. And if you’re dressed properly, there’s nothing like a winter morning to remind you of how beautiful and cleansing a new blanket of snow can be.
It’s time to put heaters in the water troughs, stuff the cracks around the barn doors with blankets and pour an extra scoopful of corn in the horse feeders. Winter is coming. Bring it on.
The Farmwife would like to publicly thank City of Ottawa paramedic Hilton Radfern for returning her wallet to her after she left it in a Food Basics shopping cart. Bless you.

Fisher farm turns into Cree hunt camp

Our documentary team travelled to James Bay to capture the spring goose hunt activities on film last April. While we were there, I mentioned to our hosts that the goose hunt took place in the fall in Eastern Ontario. The next thing I knew, a contingent of Cree was planning a November trip to Grenville County.
In the last weeks of summer, I attempted to organize this cross-cultural hunting expedition as I would any project, by researching, scheduling, planning and communicating. But I received very little communication from the Cree in return.
They plan their daily activities around hunting and fishing. Their work schedules are normally very accommodating for this purpose. Continuous emails from some woman in Ontario (me) attempting to coordinate a hunting trip, therefore, were going to remain unanswered until the last possible minute.
After receiving no reply to my emails from one potential guest, I decided to try his cell phone. Wireless services arrived in northern Quebec about three years ago and they have been extremely well connected ever since. It took him a while to answer, he explained, because he was busy pulling a moose out of the bush. Well, that’s an excuse you don’t hear every day.
I had suggested the second week of November for the hunt, because there are normally a fair number of geese at that time, as well as an abundance of wild turkey and deer. A letter of permission was acquired from the local Algonquin and Mohawk Indian Chiefs – more of a courtesy than a regulation – and the Ministry of Natural Resources was informed that we would have a visiting delegation of Cree coming to harvest on our property. The Cree informed me that they were only interested in hunting geese. So we planned to take them to the St. Lawrence River. They could comfortably stay at the McIntosh Inn, in Morrisburg.
As the first of November approached, I began to worry. I hadn’t received final confirmation on the number of hunters. Finally, I received an email explaining that the men of the Salt family in Waskaganish, whom I had met last April, were indeed coming to hunt. In addition, they would be bringing their wives, their elderly parents and some children. And, oh yeah – they had decided that they would like to stay at our farm instead of at the Inn.
Well, I had extended the invitation. Back when I thought it would be four or five hunters coming to join my hunter-gatherer’s party. I had been planning this event for weeks, if not months. I could hardly turn back now.
I cancelled the seven rooms I had booked at the Inn, and began hauling boat and camper mattresses out of our basement storage. I farmed all the girls out to relatives for the weekend, and set up our very own hunt camp at the farm. Who would have guessed we can sleep 15??
When I broke the news to my hunter-gatherer, he was more than accommodating. After all, he had signed up to spend the weekend hunting with people who had it in their blood. He was pretty excited.
I rushed home from work on Thursday evening, anxious to arrive home before my guests landed after their 12-hour journey. I finished up making beds and waited. And waited. Finally, by 8 pm, the extended Salt family had successfully GPS-ed their way to the Fisher farm. And they were hungry. After introductions were made I dished out some of the Farmer’s homemade mac-and-cheese and settled down to get acquainted.
Within minutes our guests were conversing enthusiastically in Cree, interspersed with the occasional English word and peals of giggles.
At 3:30 the next morning, the Farmer and I rose to prepare breakfast for the hunters. We went through 5 dozen eggs, 5 pounds of bacon, four loaves of bread and a kilo of coffee this weekend. The bannock that I made myself remained uneaten. I believe the dog is sniffing at it now, and wondering what sin he committed to receive that surprise in his bowl.
The men, including 70-something-year-old Johnny Weistche and 12-year-old Riley Salt, headed out to the St. Lawrence at 5 am. There they met up with my hunter-gatherer’s party, who were very excited to learn goose hunting from the pros.
Unfortunately, with our unseasonably warm fall thus far, the geese were not exactly abundant. The men followed tradition and allowed young Riley to take the first goose, which he did with ease. He performed a perfect goose call with his mouth that was so realistic the local men thought he was using a calling device. The elder Johnny took the second goose, and that was it for the day. The second day was even worse. As the temperature rose to a nice Cree summer day, the geese went elsewhere. But despite driving 12 hours to hunt and then coming up empty handed, we didn’t hear one word of complaint or discouragement from this group. Always positive, often giggling, they just took the day as it came. The men swapped hunting stories and compared notes. They bonded over a shore lunch cooked on an open fire.
On Saturday evening, we stood outside the barn watching the horses as a flock of geese began to approach. Riley did his call a few times, and I watched amazed as the geese made a slight change in direction to fly right over our heads. Again Sunday morning he called geese in from all directions. He is the Vienna Choir boy of goose callers; hopefully he will be able to keep that high pitch when his voice changes.
By the end of the weekend, I got over my insecurity about being a non-conventional wife who rarely cooks, doesn’t know how pluck her own goose and didn’t personally create the wood carvings that decorate my home. I got to know the Cree women fairly well during our short time together, and I admire so many things about their culture. They were very good at taking care of their elders. The families are all very close, and the men take their women, children and parents along with them to hunt camp. Everyone plays a role in the smooth operations of the hunt.
Back in April, I met the grandmother Clymie while she was stitching together a pair of moosehide and beaver fur slippers. This weekend I was presented with my own pair. They are so beautiful I almost don’t want to wear them.
I am looking forward to the spring, when the Salt family promises to return, and the Fisher farm turns into a hunt camp again. The introduction to this fascinating Canadian culture is worth every bit of effort.

Friday, November 6, 2009

and then there were 12...

“Thirteen isn’t so lucky after all, it turns out,” the Farmer said on his way through the house to get his gun.
“Coyotes got one of your lambs.”
I moved toward the door then stopped in my tracks, and sat down on the couch. I didn’t want to go out and see which lamb it was, or whether it was dead yet, or what was going on.
My husband and defender of fat fluffy lambs stopped beside me on his way out to hunt the coyotes. He put his hand on my shoulder.
“Sorry, hon.”
A few minutes later, after firing a couple of shots he came back in and reported that he had scared the wolves away, but they would likely be back to finish their meal.
The lambs come up the field toward the barn at dusk, but they aren’t always smart enough to follow the fence down to the gate. Sometimes they just sit up in the corner, closest to the barn, and fall asleep under the tree.
That’s where the coyote got one.
The lambs that I bottle-fed are so tame, they probably thought the nice doggie was coming over to touch noses and play tag. If he was slinking toward them through the long grass they would run – I’ve seen the entire herd of sheep dash up the field away from a prowling wolf - but if he just approached them casually, they would likely keep on eating, allowing him to join their group. When the attack happened, some of them might have been startled enough to run away, but others might have just kept on grazing. I have witnessed this before. It’s very strange.
All of these thoughts went through my head as I watched the Farmer loading his gun.
“I should have been leading them up to the barn every night,” I scolded myself. But to be honest, they might have just gone back out to the field after I left them.
The ewes have Donkey to protect them. The lambs are with the cows during the day. But at night the cows are smart enough to go to the shelter of the barn.
We sell our male lambs at market, but we keep our females to build up our herd. Most of the Farmer’s original ewes are about ten years old now. The lamb that died was supposed to have her first of many babies next spring.
Sheep are pretty easy prey for a coyote – especially if the coyote brings along his friends for back up. The sheep has no defences. She will stamp her foot when provoked. Sometimes she will try to butt her head against another sheep (or shepherdess) that is annoying her. But when attacked by a wild dog, she just plays dead.
We recognize that all animals have a right to hunt and live the only way they know how. The rule on the Fisher farm is, if the coyotes stay in the back field, in the long grass, we leave them alone. We don’t go hunting them. They can eat all the mice and squirrels they want, and sleep beside a warm hay bale. But if they come up to the pasture, they are fair game. All bets are off.
After this event, now that the coyotes have taken one of my lambs that I helped to deliver, bottle feed and raise myself, I find myself wondering, “what good are coyotes anyway? What purpose do they serve?” I know we haven’t had near the amount of problems that some sheep farmers have had. And some people living in rural communities have even reported having their family pets attacked by coyotes. What’s next? An attack on a child?
I heard a few more shots. Then footsteps on the porch, and the door slid open.
“There were four. I got the big one.” After seeing how upset I was at losing my lamb, the Farmer had sat out there for the rest of the evening, waiting for his chance. Sure enough, the four coyotes came back to eat their kill. And then there were three.
The next morning I went out to see the coyote where it lay in the shed. It was a beautiful animal. Its caramel-coloured fur was lush and thick, tipped with black and white highlights. It was about half the size of the yearling lamb, but its teeth looked dangerous enough. And the stench coming off that thing would take your breath away. The Farmer made the mistake of touching the horse on the end of her nose, after carrying the coyote in his gloved hand. She pulled away and snorted at him. She was greatly offended.
I looked at the coyote and thought, it is so dog-like that I probably wouldn’t be able to shoot it myself. Unless, of course, it was attacking one of my lambs in front of me. I’m not looking forward to the day when that happens and the Farmer isn’t home.
Maybe it’s time I learned how to shoot one of those guns. Every self-respecting Farmwife knows how to handle a firearm, doesn’t she?