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Friday, April 30, 2010

Spring lambing has sprung!

Twenty-six and counting. That’s how many lambs have been born in the last two weeks on the Fisher farm. Most have been born in the lambing area, where we had the obviously expectant ewes segregated from the rest of the herd. Some were born out in the pasture, however. Apparently we aren’t very good at telling who is pregnant and who is not. Upon discovering the new lambs in the field, I had to wrap them in a blanket and walk slowly backward to the barn, occasionally unwrapping them so they would bleat and the ewe would follow. I’m getting pretty good at this. It’s in the ewe’s best interest to follow me; if she doesn’t I might have to get the Farmer to strap her to the ATV and bring her in from the pasture. I tell the ewes this and they seem to understand me.
We lost a few lambs in the beginning - strange how the complications and fatalities always seem to happen at the beginning of lambing season. With multiple births you usually end up with at least one lamb with no instinct to thrive and no sense of where the milk is at. Then you have the idiot mother who lies down on her own lamb. That is frustrating. I go through stages of wanting to quit the whole sheep business altogether when that happens. I wake in the middle of the night, anxious to go and check on my lambs.
I’m so glad we decided to lock up the rams until December this year, because spring lambing on the whole is far easier than winter lambing. Next step: keep the rams away from my lambs next winter, so we don’t end up with teen mothers with no maternal instinct next spring.
Our second group of Cree houseguests included a few young boys who were on their spring goose break with their grandparents. The farm was like summer camp to them. The Farmer took the youngest one, Deshawn, out to the barn to help clean up a new lamb. The little guy was taking in all the mess and noise of the farm scene like a trooper until the horse quietly snuck up on him and peeked over his shoulder to see what was going on. From then on Deshawn eyed all the farm animals with suspicion, but it didn’t stop him from enjoying his visit.
We were hoping that our guests would fare better on their hunt this spring than they did last fall. When they were here in November, the sun was shining and the geese were flying high. They got just two geese to bring home with them to Waskaganish.
This year, the first group of hunters bagged 79 geese over a week’s time. The second group got close to 60 in three days of hunting. 40 of those geese were shot in one day. It took close to six hours to pluck all of them. I did not partake in the plucking festivities. The Farmer did, however. He said I missed all of the good storytelling by not joining in.
When the plucking was done, the tired and hungry group staggered into the kitchen, covered in clouds of fluff. I am still finding little tufts of feathers in corners and under furniture. I did my part – I cooked and cleaned and I tended the sheep. Apparently I would not pass muster as a Cree woman, however, because I do not know how to pluck a goose – and I do not wish to be taught.
If you are a farmer with an overabundance of troublesome geese on your property, let me know and I will send some of my Cree friends your way. But I will not be plucking them.

Monday, April 19, 2010

How to entertain houseguests on the farm

I was just leaving the house for work when I heard the patio door slide open. The Farmer stuck his head in and quietly said, “You’ve got two lambs on the ground. But no mother.”
The Farmer was due to hit the road for a business trip. I quickly mixed up a bottle of milk replacer, grabbed my Farmwife hat and headed out to the barn.
I glanced at the sheep grazing in the field. Most of them were ewe lambs, just a year old themselves. One of them had just given birth to twins. And apparently she had wandered out to pasture shortly thereafter, leaving her babies to fend for themselves. How rude.
I found the lambs in the barn, where their mother – or someone – had licked them clean and left them.
I shared the bottle between the two lambs, and put them back where I had found them in case their mother decided to reunite with her new little family. Then I had to go to work.
All day I worried about those lambs. We had had houseguests - Cree clients from James Bay – staying with us all week, and I worried that one of them would try to find the runaway ewe herself. I wondered if I had warned Sarah sufficiently about the Donkey, the sheepdog and the electric fence. By 2pm, I was ready to go home.
Bob, my boss, decided to stop in on his way out of town, so that he could spend some time with our guests before they left for home. He was in for an unexpected evening.
At the farm, I quickly changed into barn clothes. Sarah followed me out to the barn to see what was going on. The lambs were right where I had left them. The sheep were still out in the field. I scooped the twins up into my arms and headed out to pasture. Bob caught up with us, wearing the clothes he had worn to the office and a pair of muddy rubber boots. I figured he might as well get the full effect of the farm experience. I handed him a lamb.
“Will you find the mother?” Sarah asked, worriedly.
“I hope so,” I responded.
I had seen young ewes disown their newborns before. But they are normally in lambing pens when this happens so it is easier to make the identification.
We tried placing the lambs in the middle of the herd, in the hope that their cries would attract their mother. All they attracted was the horse. I was afraid she would try to stomp the noisy little creatures, as she had last year. But she just sniffed them so hard, one little lamb ear went right up her nose and made her sneeze. I guess the novelty has worn off.
Never one to trust a horse, Bob scooped up his lamb and turned back toward the barn.
I decided to give the lambs another bottle of milk and put them in a lambing pen with the door open. Hopefully their bleating would eventually attract their mother.
As the sun began to slip down below the tree line, the herd wandered back to shelter. The lambs bleated and just one ewe replied with her own knickering. I snuck up behind her, straddled her fluffly little body and checked under her tail. Sure enough, she was a mess. Reaching below, I found her tiny udder in the midst of muddy wool tags. Milk flowed easily from the teats. I had found her.
The little ewe lamb was so small, I could easily lift her up and over the gate. I put her in the pen with her lambs. I also put a self-feeding bottle in there, just in case.
By then all 5 of our Cree guests were in the barn, watching the proceedings. I finished feeding the other ewes-in-waiting, and noticed that one of them had her head stuck in the feeder. We tried to pull her out but eventually Bob had to get the hacksaw and cut the feeder wire. A few minutes later, another sheep got stuck and Bob had to turn her over and pull her out. It was quite an eventful evening.
I was kind of proud of myself, but I was especially proud of Bob. When I had asked him to come and help me entertain our Cree houseguests, I didn’t expect him to pitch in and play farmer.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

cartoon by my daughter, Milena Hrebacka

Misty's Perfume Drives Donkey Crazy

I had to spend my birthday driving 6 hours to Val D’Or for a business trip, so I made up for it the following night by singing karaoke with family at Lock 17. Needless to say, I was pretty pooped the following morning.
Donkey foiled my plans for a sleep-in. Apparently he felt like celebrating the beautiful sunny morning by chasing pregnant sheep all over the field, tackling them and biting their ears ‘til they bleated for mercy.
I got up to see what all the ruckus was about, and ten minutes later I was out in the pasture in my yoga pants, lumberjack shirt and rubber boots, chasing Donkey with one of the Farmer’s golf tee posts. I never caught up to the beast, but it was good exercise.
The horse decided the sheep-chasing game looked fun, and decided to join Donkey in the pursuit.
Suddenly Donkey caught a whiff of Misty’s special perfume, and stopped cold in his tracks. He sidled up beside her, and gave her a quick nip on the neck (must be where she dabs her cologne). She whipped her head around and nipped him back. Then she stood stock still, patiently waiting. Donkey looked at me. Then he looked up at Misty’s hind end. Waaay up. At 17 and a half hands, she is a bit tall for a wee animal like Donkey to mount. He tried anyway. And promptly fell off. He’s been fixed, but I highly doubt he would be successful in creating little Donkey-Belgians even if he was fertile. He just isn’t tall enough (and I’m not sure if that is even possible). But he was certainly willing to try.
I went back into the house and marked the date on the calendar. In 21 days, I will check to see if Misty is once again wearing the perfume that makes Donkey a little crazy. Well, crazier than usual. We have a tentative date booked to get Misty bred. We thought that might be a reasonable solution to filling the empty stall where Ashley used to be. And it will give Misty a new life experience.
The Farmer says it will save him having to come up with a birthday gift for me next year. I might just go out into the stable one day next spring and see a foal curled up on the hay.
Our ewes are ready to lamb any day now. Some of them are beginning to resemble barrels on stilts. Their bellies are so big; I wouldn’t be surprised to see quadruplets appear. I must stock up on self-feeding bottles and milk replacer, in case some of the moms are not able to feed for one reason or another. But our hay was pretty good this year – what little we had of it. The milk should be fairly nutritious and plentiful as a result.
The sheep were able to head down to the pasture early this year. Our unseasonably warm spring has brought fresh, irresistible shoots of green grass. They are nibbling it down faster than it can grow, and starting to crane their necks through the fence to the yard. Twice already I have woken up to find Donkey and Misty grazing on the front lawn. Houdini and friend have apparently discovered that if they push together on the sliding barn door with their noses, it will eventually slide open. Must remember to put a bungee cord on that door or I won’t have a garden this summer.
I’ll be happy when this spring fever is over and everyone is calm and reasonable again.

The Best of Both Worlds

I was late for work one day last week. “I had to go pick up the Farmer’s gun at the repair shop,” was my excuse. In the past it has been, “Sorry I’m late – damn Donkey got his head stuck in the feeder,” or “My apologies – my cow’s water broke just as I was leaving for work.” My life on a 200-acre farm outside Oxford Mills is a constant source of entertainment for my colleagues at a mar-com firm in Westboro. I post my weekly stories on the bulletin board by the water cooler, and host a staff party on the farm at the end of the summer.
My coworkers find it particularly amusing that I didn’t give thoughtful consideration to the fact that my Farmer was, well, a farmer, when he was courting me. He cleans up good. I only got a whiff of farm off him once or twice, during lambing season. And I didn’t live at the farm before it became my home.
I never really considered that my life would one day revolve around lambs and hay, Donkey and manure. And the Farmer didn’t really talk about it. He didn’t ask me to become his Farmwife – just his wife. But the farm kind of sucks a person like me into its vortex.
As I settled in to life on the farm I became fascinated by the animals’ behaviour, took note of their personalities and wrote stories about them. But I wasn’t really hands-on. And then came lambing season.
Eighty lambs were born my first winter as a farmwife. We lost only one. I had bottle-fed a dozen of them myself.
Then opportunity came knocking, in the shape of a challenging and rewarding new job in the city. I discussed the decision with the Farmer, and he assured me that we could balance our life on the farm with my new job in the city.
No sooner had I accepted the position than a young ewe-lamb gave birth to twins that she had no intention of feeding. I panicked. Who would feed my lambs while I was an hour away in the city? I turned to the Farmer.
“You will just have to teach them to feed themselves,” he reasoned. I filled a large calf bottle with milk replacer, strapped it to the side of the pen and held the lambs up to it until they learned how to drink from it themselves. After three days of “training” I was able to fill the bottle, go to work in the city and return ten hours later to fill the bottle again. I was pretty proud of myself. The lambs thrived. And so did I, in my exciting new career.
If I feel I need to be close to the animals for some reason, I am able to work from home occasionally. But there is rarely a problem of emergency proportions that will not wait until we get home.
The farm has become a retreat for our city folk family and friends, who often travel out on weekends to wind down and relax. We rarely watch TV because life is entertaining enough when you have dozens of animals to look after. I think the fact that we rarely get sick is also attributed to the hours spent every day in the fresh air, pitching hay and shoveling manure. This work keeps you honest. And the mindless activity of manual labour is great for meditating on the other stresses of life.
Granted, if you live on a working farm, you don’t take many vacations. But I have lived overseas in a big, exciting city, I have been to dozens of beach resorts in my life, and I concur with the Farmer when he says, “I live where I want to spend my holidays.”
Mixing the best of rural and urban life is a pleasure, and a privilege.


Donkey: Cure for Separation Anxiety

We have an 1800-lb Belgian horse suffering from separation anxiety. I don’t think she is mourning, because she is still searching for her missing sister. She thinks Ashley might come back some day.
We’ve been worried about how Misty might react to this loss – would she jump a fence and run through the fields to the neighbouring horse farm? Would she get depressed and stop eating? Neither of these things has happened, thanks in large part, I believe, to Donkey.
Donkey, who spent his first two years on the Fisher Farm being a royal pain in the a**, chasing sheep and biting them until they played dead or crashed through a fence, has calmed significantly since the arrival of the horses. He is no longer bored. Following the two blondes from Belgian around gives him something to do all day and as a result he stays out of trouble.
The first week after the sudden loss of Ashley we watched Misty trotting up and down the field looking for her sister, stopping to listen to the wild turkeys in the forest, ear cocked at the sound. Then she would toss her mane and whinny as if to say “that Ashley sure is good at Hide and Seek. I can’t find her anywhere…”
Each night she would return to the barnyard exhausted, sweaty and muddied from running through the wet fields.
Over the last few days, however, we have noticed that Misty seems to have given up her search, for the most part. And she has become quite attached to Donkey. He is the first creature she looks for the in the morning upon her release from the stable. If he isn’t in sight, she stands in the middle of the barnyard and whinnies for him. Often he answers and she will run in the direction of his bray.
This morning we decided it was time to put our cattle in the front field, behind the electric fence. When the snow is gone and the animals begin wandering farther afield, trouble can happen. Ginger uses her portly girth to smash cedar fences and let her friends off the property. She is the ring leader. More than once we have had to collect the cows from the neighbours’ property, where they were found nibbling tree buds and leaving large plops as calling cards on the lawn.
Always the first to dart through an open gate, Donkey joined the cattle in the front field this morning. When Misty came out, she couldn’t find him anywhere. She stood on the mountainous manure pile and whinnied. She stomped up and down the field calling him. This time he wasn’t answering. He was happily exploring the front field.
I couldn’t get the lead over his head to bring him back to the front of the barn – he kept deke-ing out of my reach. Finally I took a cup of sweetfeed from the lambing room and that did the trick. He followed me right through the barn, lips curling at the sweet treat like an elephant’s trunk.
Misty was very happy to see him. She hurried over and they actually bumped noses in greeting. Then Donkey gave the horse a few nips to show who was boss. Misty didn’t seem to mind.
“I hate to say this but it looks like that damn Donkey is actually good for something,” the Farmer grumbled.
I think Donkey is good for lots of things, but the Farmer has caught him biting sheep, sneaking out of the barnyard and ripping feed bags open so many times now that he has developed a love/hate relationship with the animal.
We watched as Donkey headed down the path that he had beaten down the field. Misty followed close behind, a look of contentment on her face (if that is possible on a horse), and a happy spring in her step.