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Thursday, May 30, 2013

sheep secrets

I went out into the barn after work and there was a brand new lamb standing there looking at me. Where the heck did you come from? I asked it. Then his mother came sauntering around the corner, licking her lips from the salt in the feeder. I guess she was the one in the lambing room who didn’t give birth and we finally gave up on, thinking she mustn’t be pregnant. I guess she had a secret. The other lambs are several weeks old now; I guess Rambo just took a break before he conceived this one.

Which brings me to another question. Which lambs are Rambo’s and which are Philip’s? The Farmer put a chalk halter on each ram so they would mark the ewes they caught, but I think the results were inconclusive. Neither halter fit properly and the only things that got chalked were the rams’ kneecaps.

We should be able to look at the lambs and tell which ram was the sire by their colouring. Rambo is a pure white Rideau and Philip is a black-faced Suffolk. But all but two of my lambs have some sort of colour. I can’t imagine Rambo, our senior ram, only fathered two lambs. The majority of lambs have some sort of black markings, so they are obviously Philip’s. But what about the beige lambs? They have me confused. I read that it’s possible for some animals to be impregnated by two different studs. So I’m wondering if those little beige ones had two daddies. I told the Farmer my theory. He thinks I’m nuts. Another secret the sheep are keeping, I guess.

Then there’s the ewe lambs. I prefer to keep them away from the rams until they are a good year old because I find if they are too young the birth is too hard for them. So I tell them, “if the rams ask you to dance, just say no. Go sit in the corner and tell them you have two left feet…”

Again, the Farmer thinks I’m nuts. He says they are plenty old enough at nine months to mate with the rams. So they were in the herd with the rest of the ewes last December when the rams were taken out of lock-up. But for some reason, they didn’t go into season, and they didn’t attract the rams. It’s the first time that has happened on this farm. 148 days later, they did not have udders and they did not give birth. They are the fattest sheep on the farm now, because all they do is eat. They aren’t feeding any young. They have secrets too.

The Farmer calls the ewe lambs The Seven Sisters. They are all big, fluffy Suffolk sheep. These girls waddle around all day, eating and sleeping and chasing each other, like a bunch of irresponsible teenagers. When I go out to the barnyard and call my bottle baby over for a feeding, they crowd around me and sniff at the milk. I tell them it’s ok to dance with the rams now. They look me right in the eye as if they understand.

These sheep will be among our biggest and healthiest ewes next year. It will be a great start to our next generation. The Suffolk ram seems to throw big lambs (see; I’m learning the lingo) that are hardy and strong.

We think lambing season is over for another year. But we could be wrong. Sometimes the animals know things we don’t know.

Chicken Milkface is still thriving, on his two daily bottles of milk replacer, but I think he is also eating grass now because I saw a few blades sticking out his mouth. That’s a good sign, because he can’t just live on formula the rest of his life.

We’ve been lucky; so far I haven’t seen one coyote on the property and we haven’t lost a lamb, as far as I can tell. It has been a good season. Next on the agenda: give everyone their shots and haircuts. And then we’re pretty much ‘on holiday’ until the winter again.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Chicken grows up and Mocha dreams of apples

The daffodils at the end of the driveway are done or, as the English say, spent. The Farmer can continue his lawn mowing there now without getting yelled at. The apple tree up by the road is in full bloom. Mocha the red cow can smell its perfume from her side of the electric fence, nose raised in the air. I wonder if she associates that scent with the fruit that will come later. Apples are her favourite food.

Last year Mocha went down to the bottom of the pasture and found an apple tree, just outside the fence. She stretched her neck out as far as she could, leaning on the fence, until the cedar rails snapped beneath her weight. Then she delicately hopped over the broken barrier (I imagine) and ate her fill of apples. She spent most of every day there, wandering up to the barn at noon for water and a nap, then heading back down for the afternoon. This continued for close to a week until the Farmer caught on to what she was doing and repaired the fence.

The next week I found her in the front yard, under another apple tree. She had obviously broken through the fence in another weak spot and wandered through the forest and up the road, into the front field where the apple tree, heavy with fruit, was waiting. I had to lead her back into the barnyard every day until the Farmer eventually discovered her escape route and repaired it again. Feeling sorry for her, I filled a wheelbarrow with the fallen fruit and dumped it into her barnyard where she snuffled and slurped up the fruit like a vacuum. I was amazed she didn’t get a tummy ache from all that acidity. All she got was apple breath.

Through the winter, every time I had overripe apples in the house I would snap them in half and bring them to the cows. Mocha was always front of the pack, running like a dog to greet me.

Spring and fall are probably the animals’ favourite time of year, as everything is fresh and green and the sun isn’t too strong. The bugs are another matter, however. One of the new calves was in the barn making a sound that sounded more like a scream than a moo. I climbed the ladder into the loft and sat there for a moment, watching as the dozen head gathered in the barn. They were taking refuge from the swarms of blackflies and mosquitoes that come out as the sun lowers in the afternoon. The bawling calf was just complaining about the bites.

The lamb I named Chicken is still on the bottle but now he follows the rest of the herd down the meadow in the morning. I hope he is eating grass and not just waiting for his bottle twice a day. I haven’t seen any trace of green on his muzzle yet though. His back is still ridged and bony but his sides swell out like a barrel so I don’t think he’s starving. He knows my voice and comes running from the depths of the barn or the other side of the yard every time he hears me. He baas to me in response. Try not to get attached to that.

Other than checking the water and feeding the dogs and cats, there isn’t much to be done in the barn from now ‘til the fall. Our attention and energy will turn to the vegetable garden, which will get planted this week with tomatoes for sauce and salsa, potatoes, beans, beets, carrots and turnips. We usually stick to root vegetables as I can’t seem to keep on top of the lettuce bugs without pesticide.

The hostas are halfway up and the peonies are ready to bloom. They came up in about two weeks total. I’m a little worried about my Rose of Sharon though. That’s the last time I order from a catalogue. I will wait a bit to choose annuals from the nursery for the porch containers; I’m growing flowers for a friend’s wedding this year. Good excuse to surround the house with colour.

My biggest surprise this spring was the claret lilac bush that burst into bloom in a rock pile beside the driveway. The Farmer says he found it out back and transplanted it a couple years ago. It’s halfway between red and lavender and I can’t stop staring at it.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Leapin' lambs all over the place

It always amazes me to see how truly fat a sheep can get just from eating grass and hay. Rambo is the fattest of them all, because he doesn’t have to go through childbirth and lactating. That can take a lot out of a sheep. So as soon as the green grass starts to pop up, we try to get the sheep out of the barn.

First the Farmer likes to shear them. May is perfect because although the blackflies can be a little nasty, the mosquitoes aren’t too thick yet and there isn’t as much chance of sunburn. Their new fleece will come in and protect them from the bugs and sun in just a few short weeks.

So he took a week off, tackled a few sheep each day and gave them their salon treatments. Shearing, hoof trim, 18-point check stem to stern. Then out they went to the open barnyard and beyond that, the fresh green of the pasture. The lambs were released as their mothers were. Once out on the loose, many of the ewes became preoccupied and distracted and lost track of their young.

That first week, the sun beat down and the lambs became weak and tired from trying to keep up with their mothers. One lay down and might have had a touch of heat stroke. It didn’t try to get up when the Farmer approached. He picked it up and fed it a bottle of water.

The next morning, just before dawn, I went out to the barn where the sheep were sleeping and locked them back in. We decided to give them a few more days inside to remind them that they were mothers and they had little ones to feed. It also reminded the little ones where to find water to drink if they couldn’t find their mothers in a hurry. When it cooled off again outside, we let them back out.

This year I have one lamb on the bottle. He was disowned at birth for whatever reason. Maybe he never clued in that the milk is under the mama. In any case, the only reason he is alive is the bottle of milk replacer I bring him every morning and night. He has a fat belly but it is obvious he isn’t well nourished because he has a bony back. There is nothing like mother’s milk to fatten up a lamb. This little one, who I call Chicken (I call all the lambs Chicken) needs to be on the green grass more than any of them.

I found Chicken alone in the barn, nibbling on the end of his baby bottle which was strapped to its wire holder on the wall. All the other sheep had been let outside. No sheep likes to be alone. Normally very calm and cuddly, he nervously ran around the pen as I tried to catch him. He knickered and whined and when I finally caught him his little body shook with fear in my arms.

I brought him outside and he blinked in the bright daylight. I reassured him, talking calmly and soothingly. When I put him on the ground I held him for a moment, then let him go. He ran a few feet, then back into my arms. I went back into the barn to feed the cats and I could feel him following, and hear him knickering to himself, just a few feet behind me.

The rest of the herd came back to the barn just then for their midday nap. This comforted him, and as I left the barn he was tucked in the corner, curled up beside his cousins.

Later in the day I went out to see how Chicken was doing. He was out in the barnyard, curled up beside the cow gate and a big boulder. He kept licking the boulder. Must have been salty. He came over and nibbled on the bottle but wouldn’t drink any. This is the first time he hasn’t been voraciously hungry and enthusiastic about the bottle. I’m a little worried, but maybe the new grass and soil and rocks he is tasting has curbed his appetite for now. I will go back out when they are all in the barn and see if I can get him to drink again.

When I left him he was quietly moving from tiny family to tiny family, introducing himself. Hopefully he will learn to steal milk as the others do, and discover the taste of fresh green grass.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Sometimes the cows never come home...

Last week we had a bit of excitement in our neck of the woods. It all started with a phone call. My youngest, Paulina, called me from her car. “What colour are our cows?” she asked. “Do we have any white ones?”

Now, Paulina doesn’t spend much time with the animals but I’m pretty sure she knows we don’t have any white cows. But she also knows our farm animals like to make a game out of escaping and wandering down the road, so she was right to call us.

“We have some with white faces but no pure white cows, no. Why?”

“Because there’s a bunch of them here standing in the middle of Patterson Corners Road.”

I figured the hobby farmers on the road had some runaways, and I didn’t think much of it. Until the following evening, when the Farmer and I were coming home from town. There was the entire herd of runaway cows, standing in the middle of the field at the end of our road. We turned around and went to the nearest farmhouse, the Finlays’. Ray knew exactly whose cows they were.

“Those are old Doc Hicks’ cows. He keeps them in the field near the Oxford Mills transfer station. He’s been looking for them up and down the roads here for two days.” Suddenly an image flashed in my memory. A sign on that field near the transfer station, stating ‘Keep gate closed. Cows inside.’ The pasture field was often used by remote-control plane enthusiasts. Maybe one of them had forgotten to lock the gate.

In any case, the cows didn’t come home that night, or any night since. They wandered over to the next concession, and settled in a shady meadow. Unlike sheep, they aren’t afraid of the forest. They probably wandered in among the trees and became invisible in the high sun of midday. I’m not sure what they did for water; perhaps they found a drainage ditch to drink from somewhere in their travels.

Friday morning on my way to work I saw the cows again. They were lying in the early morning sun in the same spot as the night before. I took their picture, told them they were bad cows and they should go home before they get hit by a car or shot by the police. They just chewed their cud and blinked at me. I noticed they were huddled close together and thought they looked scared.

Passing by the field they escaped from, I stopped and snapped a photo of the sign. Then I called the number. Carl answered and passed the phone to Doc Hicks, who said he was getting frustrated chasing these cows, and might just shoot them. I know it’s a difficult situation when cows escape, because you don’t want them out on the roads where they might cause a collision. But I didn’t want them to get shot, either. “Well, that would be sad,” I said quietly. To which he replied, “excuse me but who are you, anyway?” I was feeling a little sheepish and less than helpful so I just added my two cents before hanging up.

“Have you tried Dennis Wilson, the drover? He got those bulls off the 416 when they escaped from Eastern Breeders, remember? He’s pretty good with cattle…” Carl assured me that Dennis had been enlisted, and they were going to attempt to lure the cattle onto a truck by baiting them with an old Jersey cow.

Now you see, I knew Dennis would have an idea. Dennis knows the way these animals think. It may take some ingenuity and patience to lure an animal but it’s much more effective than chasing it, in my experience. When our electric fence fails and my animals escape, I bring them home with sweet feed and apples. Works every time.

By Saturday afternoon, Dennis and his Jersey cow had recaptured 9 of the wanderers and sent them to the sale barn. Their owner didn’t want them back. And on Sunday morning, Carl called me to tell me the good news that the final 4 escapees had been caught and were also on their way to being sold.

So the cows have an adventure story to tell their new friends at the sale barn, and no one – human or animal – was hurt in the making of this story. Once again, Dennis the drover saves the day.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Lambing drama continues

Almost exactly 148 days after the rams were released to impregnate the herd, the first birth occurred, on April 12. As per usual, it was a difficult one, with one of the twins stuck and needing help to get out. But they did well and a week later they are springing around the pen with a dozen cousins.

Over the past week, we have had an average of two lambs born per day. That would be easy but really it was six one day, none the next. One day I came home from work and went out to the barn and no less than four ewes in one large pen of about ten were in the process of giving birth.

One had just given birth, I think to twins, and one of her little ones was bobbing around under another mom who was cleaning him off while giving birth to her own. She seemed quite agitated, raising her eyes to the ceiling, moaning, lying down and bicycling her legs then struggling to her feet, walking around, squatting. Kind of like a human in labour.

I kept myself busy trying to read ewe ear tags, matching them with lambs and logging the sex and number of lambs born beside each mother's number in the record book. The big ewe kept up her labour exercises, baa-ing in a sort of rhythmic song or chant. Every once in a while she would knicker to one of the five other newborns in the pen, and help to lick them dry and clean. I moved the other new lambs and moms to smaller pens where they could bond and imprint on each other.

Then the big ewe turned around and I saw the lamb head protruding from her bottom. I was afraid she would break its neck if she flopped down again, so I quickly pulled on the shoulder-length plastic lambing gloves and muttered to myself as I climbed into the pen. The ewe wasn't very appreciative of my help, but after a few minutes she gave up trying to get away from me.

I gently pinned her shoulder to the wall with my knee and worked at her hind end until the head and one leg was born. I worried that the second front leg was bent back into the birth canal and didn't want to pull too hard and break it. The lamb was so slippery, it was very hard to get a good grip. Then I remembered something. When a sheep has her head stuck in a feeder, you gently twist her body and the head pops out. So I gently twisted this stuck lamb and he slid out onto the hay in a wet, slithery mess. He shook, raised his head, snorted and sneezed. I wiped his nose and mouth clean and his mother immediately started drying him off, knickering to him all the while.

I told her she was a very good mama, and left them alone. He is a very strong single. I have resisted the urge to name him and I am trying to forget which one he is because I don't want to get attached.

At the moment I have one lamb who seems to have no idea who his mother is or how to steal milk. Since his birth, I have fed him two bottles of milk replacer a day: one before dawn and one when I return from work around 5. Surprisingly, he is bigger and sturdier than some of his nursing cousins. Maybe he is stealing milk when I'm not around, and that's a good thing.

In any case, he only has to make it about six more weeks on the bottle and he will be outside on fresh, green grass. He 'baaas' for me when he hears my boots on the barn floor and bites at my sleeves as if he has imprinted on me now, but once he is outside he won't recognize me at all.

We have lost a couple of weak lambs, but the season is going pretty well overall. That being said, I'm pretty sure I'm missing a lamb because we had two in the aisle pen and now there is only one. It's possible that the lamb climbed out through the wooden pen slats and simply added himself to another family.

As long as everyone has a full belly, that's all that matters.