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Thursday, June 28, 2012

A bull-shaped hole in the barn wall.

Well the animals managed to stay out of trouble the week the Farmer was away, but they made up for it this week.

Dennis the drover found a new home for Young Angus, our bull, on a farm in Quebec. We made a date for the delivery, and the night before Dennis was due to pick him up, we locked Angus in the barn. Angus still doesn’t like to be alone, so the Farmer left a calf in there with him. I guess the presence of the calf wasn’t enough to make Angus feel secure. When the Farmer went out to check on Angus in the morning the bull was gone and there was a bull-shaped hole in the back wall of the barn.

Dennis arrived and the Farmer had to tell him that the bull was gone. “Well I have the guy waiting for him so let’s try to find him,” Dennis said. First they decided to set up some gates so they could corral the bull when and if they managed to get him back up to the barn. All of the movement and noise caught the curiosity of the cows, who came back up the pasture to see what was going on in the barn. The Farmer threw some grain in and they all followed, Young Angus among them. It’s a good thing he is a gentle bull. He wasn’t very difficult to get into the truck. Now he is on to his next big adventure. And now the Farmer knows what he will be doing on his summer holidays: fixing the bull-shaped hole in the barn.

Sunday I was setting up for my daughter’s bridal shower when we got a call from the neighbours. Our sheep were on their front lawn. All of them. Normally when you confront the sheep they turn around and go right back through the fence the way they came in, so you know what hole to repair. This time they just took off down the road and headed right into our front yard. They weren’t giving up any secrets. My husband had to hop on his ATV and follow the fence all the way to the back of the property until he finally found the spot where the brush had been trampled and straight through to the other side. With corn growing all around us now, we have to make sure our fences are secure or we will lose our sheep—and someone might lose their crop.

The horse has also been a bit of a problem lately; she stepped on one of our lambs and broke its leg. We waited until all the sheep went into the barn at high noon, to escape the sun. The lame one lay in a corner, where he was easy to catch. The Farmer gave me a blanket to line a feeder with, for an operating table. “If you cover his eyes he will lie still,” the Farmer told me. Sure enough, the lamb let out a sigh and stopped struggling. We took a paint roller, sliced it down the middle and fit it over the broken leg. Next we used plastic ties to secure the roller splint, and electric tape to hold it in place. A few hours later when the sun cooled down we could see the lamb following the rest of the herd down to pasture. With the new splint his broken bones will get the chance to fuse.

I know I’m not supposed to name them but for reference purposes I will call him Sandy, due to his caramel colouring. He isn’t pure white and he isn’t marked with black. He’s just Sandy.

Misty has been doing a lot of whinnying lately. She stands in the middle of the field, looking out to pasture and crying. Then she turns around, faces the barn and repeats her actions. I think she is in heat. After a few sessions of this she turns back to Donkey, who seems to be looking at her saying, “are you quite finished?” and then they head down to pasture. Poor Misty. She has to settle for Donkey. He’s as close as she is going to get to a boyfriend. But he is the loyal type. And he doesn’t seem to be at all insulted by the fact that she wants to meet someone else.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

While the Farmer is Away

Can you carry a 40kg bag of chicken feed? While getting pecked about the ankles? I can. But first I have to get the darned bag of feed open. That requires pulling on the right string - and I rarely get it on the first try. So while I'm struggling, there is always at least one feathered beast who impatiently jabs at my legs with his beak. Chickens can be so rude. Once I get the bag open, I have to carry it over to the cylinder tube feeders and pour it in, without spilling feed all over the pen. I am getting better at this.

The turkeys are much better behaved, and easier to care for. They politely sit in the corner of their pen, watching and commenting on the situation as I tend to the frantic, overly-dramatic chickens. When I pour a bowl of feed into the turkeys' feeder (for that is all these dignified creatures require during the day: just one bowlful), they gobble appreciatively in unison. One of our turkeys escaped the other day and went next door to visit the neighbours. I forgive him this one indiscretion. He was fairly easy to catch and wouldn't think of pecking me as I carried him home and plugged up the hole that had provided an escape hatch.

The quail chicks are the most ridiculous endeavour we have ever embarked on, as far as I'm concerned. They are very tiny, and can fit into any crack or crevice available. As a result, many of them manage to squeeze themselves between the logs in the chicken coop wall and under the chicken wire. I have to try to wriggle my fingers in there to scoop them back out. The biggest problem with these chicks, however, is their habit of burrowing under the layers of hay covering the chicken coop floor. I am afraid to set foot in there, because I might flatten one of them. I wish we had just kept them under the heat lamp in the basement pen for now, until they grew large enough for the coop.

Why am I feeding the fowl, you ask? Well, actually you didn't ask but I'm feeding the fowl because the Farmer is away. If you hadn't already gathered, I don't enjoy the chickens so I normally let the Farmer feed them himself. We only lost a handful of chicks this year so I figure that is a good sign that I should stay out of the coop. But when the Farmer got called away on a business trip, I had to step in. These birds don't feed themselves.

So far, everything is going well. It has only been one day as I write this. However, two skunk cages sit waiting strategically placed near the pens. I shudder to think what I will have to do if I go outside one morning and find one of the cages has a customer. It would be just my luck. Every time the Farmer goes away somewhere without me, it's as though the farm animals and wildlife alike know that he is not around.

I notice he barricaded the gate to the barnyard, instead of just latching it. That is because the last time he left, the donkey and horse flipped the latch and let themselves out on walkabout, visiting the neighbours. The cows have also misbehaved in the Farmer's absence in the past, crushing fences in pursuit of fragrant apple trees. They leave large, steaming presents in the neighbour's yard on their way back to the pasture.

The coyotes have been eerily quiet this season, and I am just waiting for the first hit. Every year we lose a few lambs to the coyotes, and I don't want it to happen while the Farmer is away. Normally he gets a few shots at the coyotes and I believe this is what scares them on their way, even if he misses. What am I going to do if a coyote takes my sheep? Run at him screaming and flailing a golf club? I'm sure that will have him heading into the bushes, his tail between his legs.

I can hold down the fort myself. I'm a competent Farmwife when it comes to chores and minor bits of troubleshooting and problem solving. It's the big problems that worry me, and have me counting the days 'til my Farmer returns.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Bull in need of a good home.

I know it’s silly to worry about my bull but I do. When Young Angus came to us he was so small – he looked like a black lab. Well, not exactly but he was small. Dennis the drover told the Farmer that the bull didn’t like to be alone. We found that to be very true on that first night when we spent a few minutes searching in the dark for the little bull, only to find him tucked in the midst of a row of fat cows, instead of in the nice sturdy pen that the Farmer had built him.

Despite his diminutive stature, he knew his role and played it well. The females danced with him, and they even let him lead. When his babies were born that first spring, Young Angus stood at the half-wall and watched. He sniffed the air and craned his neck so he could lick the newborn calf. He mooed and the calf staggered over to meet him, just minutes after birth.

That first summer, Young Angus was rented out to three other farms, with new dance partners at each location. We asked his caregivers to be gentle with our bull, because he didn’t know anything else. He is like Ferdinand. He loves to stand under the apple tree smelling the blossoms, daydreaming about the fruit that will soon be there. He has a sweet tooth, and can be trained to follow instructions if molasses-laced sweet feed is involved.

When he was returned to us at the end of the summer, the sound of the cattle truck rattling around the bend got all the beasts in a tizzy. The sheep started baa-ing like crazy and Donkey and Misty came running up the field, hooves like thunder. Farm animals know that sound. It either means someone is coming or someone is going. The cows crowded around the gate, sniffing the air. Before Dennis had even stopped the truck, a conversation was struck up between Angus and his women. When Dennis opened the back of the cattle truck Angus stepped carefully down the ramp, pawed and sniffed the ground. He seemed happy to be home. I couldn’t believe how he had grown. His shoulders had rounded out into those of a full-grown bull and his head was massive.

I think everyone recognized each other. It had been a few months but Angus was home.

Dennis told us that Angus’ last keeper had him trained on apples. And the one before had him trained on sweet feed. So my bull was becoming quite tame. But he was the size of a small truck.

The next spring when the young heifer wandered down the fence row in search of a place to give birth in the snow, I ran ahead of her with a blanket. The other cows, the bull and the Farmer came out of the barn to watch. Every time I got near the heifer with the blanket, she would turn and run in the other direction. I don’t know what I thought I was doing. As if a cow is going to agree to give birth on a blanket just because I spread one out for her.

The Farmer was holding his arms out as if to say, “What are you doing??” and his lips were moving but I couldn’t hear him over the mooing from my end of the field. Finally the heifer decided to return to the barn, where we locked her in so she could give birth in safety and comfort, under our watch. The Farmer turned to me. “Did you think it was a good idea to run in front of a bull, out in the middle of a field with no protection, waving a red blanket??”

I smiled. “Young Angus wouldn’t charge me. He’s a gentle bull.” But then I glanced over and saw Angus had his beefy nose pressed against the crack in the barred door. He bellowed, as if to say, “Let me in. I want to watch!” I hoped he wouldn’t try too hard because he could certainly bust that bar if he tried.

Angus’ babies are old enough to have babies of their own now. It’s time for us to bring in a new bull, and it’s time for Angus to go, I’m told. That makes me sad. I hope his new owner appreciates our gentle giant and treats him well.

Gracie plays hard to get.

Gracie is my favourite sheep. Since the day she was born a couple years ago, she has always been calm and agreeable and she loves to be petted like a dog. Her pleasant nature has earned her preferential treatment at times, I must admit. Along with the occasional handful of smuggled sweetfeed.

When all of the fat ewes were shuffled into the lambing area in early April, Gracie went too. She was among the most plump of the ladies-in-waiting, after all. But when she failed to grow an udder, we put her outside to make room for the new mothers with lambs.

She never did grow an udder. Gracie just kept waddling around the barnyard until I began to think maybe she was just fat because of all the sweetfeed I have been giving her. Even a shearing didn’t diminish her girth by much. “This is one fat sheep,” the Farmer reported, bewildered. Gracie just got up and strutted away, not at all offended by his remark. In her world, fat is beautiful.

Soon all of the new lambs were outside with their moms, and some of them were close to eight weeks old. Still no lamb for Gracie.

Then that thunderstorm / mini-twister thing happened. Scared the lamb right outta Gracie. The Farmer was out in the barnyard surveying the wreckage of twisted branches and snapped tree trunks and there he discovered a very large single male lamb, curled up beside a very protective mama Gracie. The lamb was pure white, making him one of Rambo the Rideau ram’s offspring, as opposed to the black-faced lambs that Philip the Suffolk throws. (I like that I got to use that odd expression here. ;) I went out to see mother and child as soon as I got home from work.

“Gracie!” I exclaimed, and she turned to look at me, then back at her lamb, then back at me. She baaed proudly, and the lamb echoed her call. “Yes, I see you have a nice fat lamb there. Good work, Gracie girl.” And I put a handful of sweetfeed under her soft snout.

Later that evening the Farmer and I sat on our porch swing, a glass of wine in my hand and a cigar in his, and we tried to figure out why Gracie was at least six weeks behind the other sheep in her gestation. “It is a really big lamb. Maybe she just kept him in longer,” I said, without thinking. I do this a lot—especially on the farm. Bless the Farmer for not making me feel stupid. He just smiled and said, “No, 147 days. That’s it. So I guess she just ran faster than the rams for a little while longer than most.” I thought about that for a moment. “I knew it would be Rambo’s lamb, and not Philip’s.” The Farmer looked at me. “Gracie likes older men.”

We just assume that everything is going to run according to plan on the farm and most of the time it does. Breeding sheep pretty much takes care of itself if your ram is healthy.

It wasn’t so easy with our horse. When Misty lost her sister Ashley, we thought we could distract her from her loss by sending her to be bred. The breeder reported that for the first little while when the stud whinnied suggestively at Misty from his pen next door, she would squeal at him threateningly and kick the wall with her massive hooves. Then one day she stopped swearing at him. That’s when they knew she was in heat and it was safe to attempt the breeding. Misty came home and we watched for signs that she had caught. After a few months we had to admit Operation Belgian Breeding was a failure.

Thinking about the Misty episode, I realized something. Maybe Gracie was slightly out of sync with the rest of the sheep because I tend to feed her better than the rest, and I go out of my way to make sure she is comfortable and gets plenty of attention. She might have gone into season a bit later than the rest.

Then again, it is entirely possible that she was just playing hard to get. That’s my Gracie.

One must be vigilant on the farm

I went into the barn to feed the cats the other day and saw something move, out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look over the top of the middle wall and sure enough, three little fluffball kittens were picking their way across the hay bales in the far loft.

I have been looking for those kittens for weeks. I wanted to catch and cuddle them, because if you don’t catch them before 5 or 6 weeks of age, they are much less likely to want to be held. And they are very difficult to tame.

These kittens are about 8 weeks old, I think. But I doubt they have ever been out of the loft. This is where I found them, two from Brandy the calico and two from Shelby the grey tabby. They were tucked in the end of a long piece of pipe. When I first discovered them, I cuddled and examined them every day. Then one day, they were gone.

I called them the mute kittens because, unlike other litters who have given away their hiding spots with their mewing, these kittens were totally silent.

I went to their side of the barn and slowly slid the barn door open. They darted toward the back of the loft. I quickly scrambled up the ladder just in time to see the last grey tabby kitten dive under a pile of wood.

I stood without moving, for several minutes. Nothing. These cats were good.

Shelby, the grey tabby mother, spent most of her time with Sheila the housecat. The two of them hunted all night and lazed all day on the mat at the back door of the house. Shelby shows signs of nursing her kittens, but I don’t know when she does it because she is always on my back porch.

Brandy, the maternal one, looks after all four kittens without complaint. She does, however, have rather crazy eyes because of the stress of trying to keep them all safe.

She is probably the one who taught the kittens to be mute.

Sigh. I guess I have four more feral kittens in my barn. The challenge is now to catch and spay the two mothers that I missed last year: Shelby and Brandy.

Oh yeah and that little orange cat that I just assumed was male, because most orange cats are male, for some reason—waddled past me the other day, hugely pregnant.

I guess six or eight kittens are better than thirty-seven, which is what I had last year.

There is always something to manage on the farm. If you aren’t paying attention, things can get a little out of control.

When a sheep wanders past you with a swollen jaw, she might have parasites. Then it’s time to catch her and give her some medicine for a cure. We typically medicate our sheep at the beginning of every month throughout the summer, to ward off these parasites. But the Farmer is wondering if he maybe inserts the needle on the wrong angle or something—because some of the sick sheep do not improve.

“God tries every disease on sheep first…” the Farmer once said. I think I know what he means by that.

I have been busy and the horse has been down the field every day but I did notice today that her hooves are looking quite unkept. Time to call the farrier. He will have to hang on to her leg while she flings her hoof back and forth, in an effort to free herself from his grip. When her hoof connects with the stall, it will sound like a gunshot. But the farrier will not let go. He will sling a rope around her leg and allow her to swing it back, and forth.

And when she is tired, he will trim her hoof. And then repeat the whole procedure on the otherside. Patience is a virtue, my friend, indeed.

I haven’t seen the cows up close lately. They happily inhabit their own side of the barnyard, away from the sheep. I wonder if they are pregnant again. I have not witnessed any dancing with the bull. My bottle-fed baby calf has successfully infiltrated the herd. He is just like the others: happy and boisterous.

Farming is about observing, paying attention, and taking action. It’s a day-to-day preoccupation that is very rewarding and very satisfying, both to the Farmer and to me.