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Monday, May 31, 2010

Misty goes to summer camp, with a twist.

Poor Donkey. His best friend Misty is nowhere to be found. Yesterday Donkey stood with his chin resting on the fence, watching Misty being led up onto a big, silver trailer. There was quite a fuss, because not only is Misty not accustomed to being told where to go and what to do, but there was also a step to deal with on this trailer. She is used to a ramp. It took a few minutes to figure out just how high she had to lift her huge dinner plate of a hoof to get it on the trailer, so that she could climb aboard and approach me with my bucket full of sweet grain. She eventually figured it out. Donkey watched the whole thing from his side of the fence.
Soon we had Misty secured in the trailer and I was following in my truck. I’m sure I heard Donkey hee-haw as we drove away.
Half an hour later we were at our destination: Maple Ridge Belgians on Hwy 43. The clatter of the trailer summoned the resident horses to the fence. They know that sound. It means another horse is coming. Before the truck stopped in front of the barn, Misty was whinnying. She could smell the other horses. From inside the barn, the mighty stud Prince whinnied back. He was excited to meet the new girl.
Misty was led into her new pen, which is twice the size of her pen at home. The walls are so strong and high, she can wander around inside without being tied. She did a few circles and stopped at the wall to the next pen. She touched noses through the bars with three-year-old Bambi on the other side. I was happy for her. It has been a few months since she lost her beloved sister Ashley, and despite the companionship of her good friend Donkey, I’m sure she misses the company of horses.
The farmer entered Misty’s pen with a pitchfork load of hay, and pulled her by the halter over to the corner. “I want to show you something,” he said, gently. “Look. Here. Water.”
He pushed a button and water filled a bowl. He wet his hand and touched Misty’s nose. I’m sure once she figures that gadget out it will be her favourite toy and she will play for hours. We don’t have any toys for her at the farm.
Once she had settled in somewhat, we decided to properly introduce her to Prince. He had been watching with interest from the closest corner of his stall. As we approached, he excitedly kicked the stall with his great hoof. It sounded like a gunshot.
The two horses touched noses through the bars. Prince snorted excitedly and perked up from ears to tail, like a dog meeting a newcomer. Misty responded by sniffing once and then turning to her side, away from him.
“I guess she isn’t interested in him today,” I said.
As we walked Misty back to her stall, I explained that one day soon she would be very interested in Prince, so she should probably be nicer to him.
Misty went to the corner to examine her automatic water trough. I turned to go.
I’m glad I came along to settle Misty in to her special summer camp. I think it will be good for her to be with other horses for a few weeks. And with any luck, we’ll have a baby Belgian to welcome onto the Fisher farm in about 11 months.
As for Donkey, he seems to be lost without his playmate. Today he tried to make friends with a plastic deer decoy during target practice.


Friday, May 21, 2010

Skinny love and the Farmer's birthday

“Come on skinny love just last a year… “
Imagine you have a tummy ache. You are doubled over, and it hurts to move. About a week after the lambs were let out to the pasture, I noticed one little lamb that was hunched over like this. She couldn’t seem to find her mother, and just spent the day following one honorary mama after another, stealing milk. This was exhausting and she wasn’t taking in the calories to support her activities. In the evening, she would drag herself back up to the barn and collapse in the corner.
One morning, I found this lamb in the barn by herself, after everyone else had headed out to the field. She didn’t have the energy to move.
“Stay right there, Skinny Love,” I told her, and went back to the house to mix up a bottle of milk replacer.
When I returned, she was right where I had left her. “Ba-aah” she sang, as if to say, “I’m still here.” But as I approached, she jumped up, bolted out the door and took off toward the pasture. I had to chase and tackle her. That first time, I think I got about 75 mls into her.
I got in the habit of sneaking out early in the morning to catch her before she left the barn. In the evenings I waited till the sheep all came in for shelter, and snuck up behind her.
Day by day she became stronger. After about the third day and sixth supplementary feeding, her back straightened out. She was no longer hunched over with hunger.
“Come on skinny love, just last a year,” I sang, and she turned to look at me. And took a tentative step toward me. Reeeached out her neck and sniffed the end of the bottle. And then bolted. I leaped and tackled her. She took 300 mls.
I suppose I could grab her, lock her up in a stall and train her on the self-feeding bottle. But I want her to be out on the field like all the others, eating the fresh grass shoots and lying in the warm spring sun.
The hobbledy-horse still comes running over to me whenever she sees the bottle, so I usually let her finish it off.
This is the time of year when the smell of blossoms is hanging in the air, even if you can’t see the flowers. I was on walkabout around the pasture the other day, collecting balls of fluff, wool tags and discarded lamb tails, and the scent of honeysuckle, apple blossom and lilac was heavy on the breeze. Unlike most farmsteads, we don’t have many flowering trees. I think we should plant some.
This is also the time of year when I am trying to come up with an original way to celebrate the Farmer’s birthday.
One year I took him to see kd lang at the NAC. She was amazing. Last year I think I took him to Blue Rodeo. This year, I’m stumped. I have a few ideas but nothing concrete yet. The only thing I know for sure is that he needs a new manure pitchfork. That would make him happy. So I’ll get one of those at TSC (The Sexy Cowboy store) and put a bow on it.

Fragile environs of the chicken coop

We have some really dumb chicks on this farm. The yellow, fluffy, chirpy kind.
The Farmer picked them up the other day at Rooney’s. They came in cardboard boxes, where they sat on a bed of straw and chirped at the scene they spied through airholes.
It took a good day to prepare the chicken coop. First, leave-behinds from the previous tenants had to be cleared away. Next, clean straw was laid out on the floor of the coop. Over this, a circular enclosure that closely resembles a bottomless kiddy pool was installed. This chick pen is divided into three sections with boards. Each third has its own heat lamp, strategically hung over the compartment at exactly the right height so as not to set fire to the hay or scorch the chicks.
Aside – as I’m writing this column, on a Saturday afternoon, my attention is occasionally drawn out the window. I am easily distracted. I can hear the ewes calling to their lambs in the front field. They don’t always “baa”, you know. Sometimes, as though they are drinking water, they gargle. Many times they sound human. I often think I’m going to look out there and see Jim Carrey sitting amongst them, mimicking their call. Misty, the Belgian, is nose-to-nose with a new lamb through the fence. Precious. A convoy of kittens is making its way out of the stable for the first time.
One of the ewes – one that had to be shorn after birth in order to facilitate feeding – has discovered she is skinny enough to shimmy her way under the fence to the next pasture, where I am hoping the cows will protect her and the lamb that followed her from coyotes. She is calling as if to say she can’t remember how to get back through to the other side of the fence, where everyone is heading for shelter and it’s getting dark...I can see I’m going to have to go out there and shove her back through again.
Back to my chicks.
Blankets are stretched across the chicken coop windows, cracks in the wall, and over the door. The slightest draft will prompt the chicks to pile on top of each other under the heat lamp, smothering the ones on the bottom of the heap.
The water feeders are placed up on a brick so that the chicks have to reach for a drink. If the water is left on the ground, the chicks will fall asleep in it while they are drinking, and drown. I swear they all have narcolepsy. I keep finding them face down in the feed, sound asleep.
We go in twice a day, opening the door carefully and closing it softly behind us, so as not to startle our feathered friends, who are prone to heart attacks. We stir up the chicks with our fingers, uncovering the ones being smothered by their siblings. So far; so good. The Farmer has attained the optimum balance of heat, air, water, food, space. The chicks are happy. But man, are they high maintenance.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Clubber and the hobbledy-horse

When you work side-by-side with the Farmer, you have to learn to speak his language. He has been farming solo for so long that he isn’t used to giving verbal instructions about what it is that he needs done. As a university professor and writer of research papers, he is quite capable of high-level communication. As am I. But on the farm, you often find yourself taking time off from perfect grammar and syntax. “Go see the seven sisters and get that thing out of their pen, then come through the big door and bring it to me. But be sure to hook the door when you close it or that jackass will be in there lickety-split.” I paused. I was a little unsure of the exact meaning behind his request, but we had gone out to the barn to put a naughty ewe in a head gate, and I had seen one in the area with the last batch of ewe-lambs, whom the Farmer referred to as the seven sisters. So I was pretty confident that was what he wanted. I wasn’t sure which big door I was supposed to go through either, but I knew that Donkey (often referred to as the jackass due to his mischievous nature) enjoyed the sweetfeed that was stored in the centre of the main barn. So I deduced that I was to go through the big door there to bring the head gate around to the lambing pen. I fed this clever deduction back to the Farmer for confirmation: “You want me to go into the ewe-lamb area, get the head gate, bring it through the main barn door to the lambing pen and be sure to latch the door behind me so Donkey doesn’t get the sweet feed. Yes?” The Farmer just looked at me. “Well, we haven’t got all day, darlin’.” He’s so cute when he smiles. His eyes crinkle up and with that big moustache he looks like Magnum P.I. When the Farmer came in one day and said “you’ve got a couple out there all hobbled up,” I wasn’t sure if he was talking about the lambs or the ewes and whether they had themselves tangled in baler twine again or something else and why was he telling me instead of rescuing them himself, anyway? I figured it would be simpler to go out and look. The Farmer had already disappeared into the basement to get something. I heard the feeble cry of newborns as I approached the barn. The Farmer had put the two new moms and their babes in neighbouring pens. I called and watched as two little creatures hobbled out from under their year-old mothers on club feet. Oh. Now what do we do? Just then the Farmer reappeared. “They will probably straighten out on their own. Or we could splint them. We’ll just have to watch to make sure they are getting enough milk.” They seemed to be doing fine. Although one had a sunken tummy. The Farmer milked colostrum from the mothers, fed the babies by mouth syringe and I went back to the house to research club feet on the Internet. Apparently club feet are often a result of a condition called oligo-hydramnios in the mother, which is characterized by a deficiency of amniotic fluid. The lamb can be given corrective “footwear”, just as with human club-foot babies. I worried that splints would hurt the lambs’ little legs, and make it difficult for them to lie down, stand up and tuck under their mothers to nurse. I prayed their legs would straighten out on their own. Within the first week, the bigger of the two lambs had straightened out his legs. I had already named him Clubber, but it has taken on a new meaning now. He is strong and bullish, stealing milk from all the unsuspecting mothers in the pasture. My little hobbledy-horse, on the other hand, is taking a bit longer. In her third week of life now, she is out in the pasture with her mother and thriving, but she still walks with one hoof turned under. When she sees me coming with the bottle, she cries and hobbles over to me as fast as she can. I hold the bottle up high so that she is forced to stand on straight legs and tippy-hoof to reach it. I think she will be just fine.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Mass confusion

We are getting an average of four new lambs a day at the high point of our lambing season. We must have over forty newborns by now. I think we are more than halfway through. I’ll be happy when we’re finished; it’s mass confusion in that lambing pen.
The order of the day now is shuffling sheep. We move the older lambs and their mothers out to the big kindergarten pen, and then finally out to pasture. The newest lambs get put in individual pens where they don’t have to compete and they can easily find their mother.
I haven’t had to bottle-feed much this year. I think that is largely due to the warmer weather. The lambs aren’t fighting the cold so they have more energy to get up and look for milk. Spring lambing is definitely the way to go. It beats winter lambing any day. Translation: sorry Rambo and Rambi – you are getting locked up from September to December again this year.
The other day I came home from work to find the Farmer on the new roof of my porch, where he was laying shingles.
“Hey – two of your lambs escaped,” he remarked, rather nonchalantly I thought.
Funny how the animals are always “mine” when they misbehave. I donned farm boots and ran out to the barnyard, in the direction of the bleating. Sure enough, two little lambs were being chased around the water trough and hay feeders by Donkey and Misty. Several ewes were in hot pursuit.
I got in between the chasers and the chasees and herded the sheep into the barn. I pushed open the door to the lambing pen and watched as two lambs and four ewes jostled their way in. Then I let myself in and surveyed the group, which was now quiet. The lambs that had been running sniffed one hind end after another until they found mothers who would let them nurse. The other two ewes went straight for the feeders to nibble on green hay laced with molasses sweet feed.
“Hey – you don’t belong in here!” I declared, tapping their fat sides with my shepherdess hook. I opened the door and pushed them out. They bleated obscenities at me in passing.
I shored up the door so that no one else could escape, and let myself back out into the main barn. Just then, a snuffling and knickering in the corner caught my attention.
One of the more mature ewes had retreated to the darkest corner of the barn before giving birth to triplets. She was busily cleaning two of the babies with her tongue, darting from one to the other. Sadly, I noticed a third baby still in its birth sack on the ground. With gloved hands I pulled at the sack to free it but it had likely been born dead. The mother had already cleared its breathing passages. She had probably sensed that it was a still birth, and moved on to the live ones. But she kept returning to her third lamb, and licked and knickered at it in an attempt to rouse it back to life. I decided to barricade the little family in the corner with a fence for privacy. I put hay and water in there, and left them for an hour.
Eventually she followed me as I moved her two live lambs into the lambing pen. You can’t tell me that sheep don’t understand loss. The ewe knickered a farewell to her stillborn lamb and looked me right in the eye as I led her away from the birth site and into the pen with her two healthy babies.
Tomorrow we will leave the door to the large pen open, to allow the biggest lambs and their mothers to graze in the front field. The Farmer has already moved the cows out to the second field. They had to duck under the electric fence to get in there. How he convinced Big Betty to do that, I’ll never know. The man has secret powers.
All in all, things are looking pretty good by May 1 on the Fisher Farm.