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Thursday, March 27, 2014

The mysterious cat named Smudge.

Anyone lose a cat? A few weeks ago we noticed a new cat in the barn. It was a full calico (orange, black and white in colouring), so not from our colony. We only have dilute calico (peach, grey and cream). No idea where the cat came from. She could have wandered over from someone’s house or she might have been dropped off by someone who didn’t want her anymore. I don’t like people who do that.
The cat picked its way over the frozen manure carefully, in obvious discomfort. It gave the impression that it was very disturbed by its feet getting dirty, squawking and complaining the whole way, as if it had never been out in a barn before. I called the cat over and got a few pets in, but the cat kept jumping just out of my reach so I couldn’t get a full cuddle. 
Another week and we got close enough to determine the cat was female. Every day we put a bowl of food out for her, and a bowl of water too because she didn’t seem to know how to access the water trough. Last week I was too busy with a new work schedule to get out to the barn. Finally on Friday I went out, and I made a new discovery. The cat is pregnant. 
She padded past me to get to the food bowl and I realized she was waddling to and fro, swaying side to side with a heavy load. Hmmm. This complicates things. I can’t just let a half-tame cat live in the barn and try to raise a litter safely. She is already slightly distressed by the dirt in the barn, the loud noises that the farm animals make, and the other barn cats who are pretty mean at times. I told the Farmer I want to bring her into the house. He rolled his eyes. 
A few years ago our cat colony had grown so that we had 40 kittens born at the same time. As the litters arrived, the ten mamas put all the cats into one pile and returned to the fur puddle in shifts to nurse them. Every day I tried to get my hands on the kittens to make them tame. And when they were old enough, I moved them into the house where I could wean them and put them on solid food. I adopted out 37 kittens. Three I never could catch, and those are the ones we have in the barn. 
One by one I caught the feral mamas in cages and brought them in to be spayed. Three years later and no kittens on the farm. Until now. 
My instinct is to bring this cat into the house, keep her in the spare room in the basement til she has her litter and weans them, then adopt out the kittens and get the mama spayed. 
My poor husband. He doesn’t like animals in the house. 
Several years ago Sheila, a feisty little kitten that I found abandoned in a food bin in the shed, followed me into the house and stayed. The Farmer saw the little flash of white in the basement one day and asked me, “since when do we have a house cat?” 
Then our neighbours moved out and abandoned their big male cat. He eventually decided he preferred our house to the barn as well. The Farmer saw the slightly bigger version of our white house cat one day and asked, “how many cats do we have now?” He isn’t easily duped. Some nights the two tabby cats from the barn like to come in and warm up, get some snacks, chase the other cats around the house. They stay for a night or two in extreme weather; then they dart outside to the barn again. The Farmer has stopped asking how many cats we have. 
And that’s a good thing, because in a few weeks the number is going to increase by about five. 
I’ve decided the new cat’s name is Smudge, for the mark above her mouth that looks like a smear of marmalade. 
Now I’ve got to go set up her maternity room. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Racing to save an Eastern Ontario agricultural landmark: Kemptville College

“He don’t know sheep s**t from shinola.” That expression has been around from the 1940’s but it is still used today. I know this because I heard variations of the saying a number of times at the meeting on Kemptville Campus on Saturday.
Alumni, farm families, local businesses, college staff and students are often passionate and outspoken about their love for the nearly 100-year-old agricultural school and the role it plays in the Eastern Ontario agri-food industry. Many feel that those in power at the University of Guelph are too far removed from the rural roots of Kemptville College to fully understand the impact of this decision. Nearly 400 people came to voice their opinions and to commiserate in their disappointment, but they also had some really good ideas. Now they just need some help implementing them. Enter the OFA.
The OFA summit agenda on March 15th was completely taken over by the topic of the closure of Kemptville and Alfred campuses of University of Guelph. Just three days had passed since the official announcement was made that the schools would not be accepting new students in the fall, and the classroom doors will close in May 2015. That announcement took many people by surprise, and they were still looking a little shell-shocked on Saturday.
Organizers managed to keep speakers on point and steered away from politics. Leeds Grenville MPP Steve Clark was on hand to repeat his request for a 2-year-moratorium on the closure decision, to buy the college more time to investigate other sustainable solutions. The Parliamentary Assistant to the Ministry of Agriculture was also in attendance, pointing out that “great strides have been taken since the announcement had been made,” at least in the case of Alfred Campus, which has had a partnership offering from Cite Collegiale.  
Kemptville College may eventually form a similar partnership with Algonquin or some other educational body. Step one is the formation of a group of stakeholders committed to finding solutions so that Kemptville College does not have to close its doors in 2015. OFA President Mark Wales said he wants to see new students coming in this fall, because “if we allow the lights to go out, it will be that much harder to get them back on.”
Kemptville College Foundation Mac Johnston is looking for committee members from all areas of business, fundraising, educational and research expertise. He also needs volunteers to step forward, to carry out the menial tasks that will have to be done in order to implement decisions as they are made. If you are interested in getting involved, contact
My two cents, if you want them, is that Kemptville College must remain open as an educational institution. However, I believe that change is a good thing, and the decision by Guelph to sever ties with Kemptville as a school is a sign to us that perhaps we never were accepted as a viable part of Guelph University. Funding comes from a number of sources for Kemptville Campus programs, but that funding is not sustainable. If they get an emergency cash infusion, we will just be in the same place in another few years.
It’s time to get back to basics. Before joining Guelph in 1997, Kemptville hosted a community agricultural college. Today we could definitely take advantage of the growing movement toward sustainable local food practices and provide both classroom and distance education courses on those subjects. Maybe we could be an Algonquin College South. The grounds provide ample space for practical hands-on education in organic gardening and sustainable farming while future food safety workers, manufacturers and cooks would be learning the other parts of the supply chain. Classes would be taught by people who are currently running businesses or working in the industry.
Farmers in Eastern Ontario want the opportunity for their children to learn the family business close to home. Let’s continue to provide that for them.
Kemptville Campus has a booming business right now in the skilled trades. That should be supported and allowed to thrive. KC also has a thriving International Business Development Centre. We can teach developing countries how to farm in a way that is sustainable and cost effective. We have so much to offer.
For me, Kemptville College is where my mother worked for 37 years and I climbed into trees and read a book while I waited for her to finish her day. It’s where I met my husband, the Farmer. He has taught there for 24 years. The thought of it closing just makes me cry. I can’t help thinking we live in a society where we throw things away when they aren’t working effectively, instead of coming up with solutions to help things evolve.
If you would like to be part of the discussion on the next incarnation of Kemptville College, contact Mac Johnston at the Kemptville College Foundation.

Leapin' Lambs

Lambing season usually sneaks up and takes us by surprise every year. If the first ewe to go has been through it before, she is usually smart enough to find the deepest corner of the barn, out of the wind, in which to give birth. If it’s the first lambing season for the ewe, however, sometimes the birth catches her by surprise as well, and it happens out in the snow. This can have disastrous results if we don’t discover the lamb right away.
When we find the new family, we scoop up the lamb and walk backwards away from the ewe, into the barn’s lambing area. Hopefully the lamb is a bleater; the sound attracts the mama. Sometimes the ewe panics and goes running back to the site of the birth, looking for her lamb. She cries, drowning out the cries of her lamb, and runs in circles around the hay feeder and the barn yard, like a frantic idiot. If this happens you just have to wait until she calms down. Then you have to go back to the birthing site and start again. Scoop up the lamb and hold it just in front of mama’s nose so she can smell it. Back up. All the way into the barn.
It’s much easier if you guess by the bulging udder that the ewe is about to give birth. Then you can bring her into the lambing room, hopefully with some of her sister ewes, because no ewe likes to be alone. Plus, if there are more ewes in the lambing room, it will be warmer in there. Toasty, even. The lambing can then happen in the safe, warm and dry confines of the barn.
It takes a few days for all ewes to give birth (because it took the ram a few days to get through his dance card, 148 days ago). Then you have to ensure the ewe is giving milk, and the lambs know where to find it. Some of the lambs get confused, even with just one other ewe in the pen. So you have to make sure they know the sound and smell of their mother before you move them again.
Right in the middle of the barn is this long room I call the kindergarten. When the lambs and ewes have bonded, it is safe to move them into this area. They are almost a month old.
It’s a bit of a rodeo getting everyone into the kindergarten. The cows are first ushered out of the room in-between. They press their faces up to the gap in the wall in attempt to see what activity they are being left out of. They are pretty sure there is sweet, dry hay involved. They can smell it. They start to bawl.
The Farmer and I scoop up arms-full of lambs and start leading the ewes through the barn to the kindergarten. The ewes freak out for a few seconds at the kidnapping of the lambs and then they get distracted by the hay piled in the middle of the room and totally forget about the lambs. It takes us a few minutes to round everyone up and into the kindergarten.
We spend some time stretching tarp and fixing a gate across the doorway to the outdoor part of the pen. They can use that later when it gets warm outside and all the snow melts. We staple-gun feed bags across the gaps in the barn board, closing out the peeping eyes of the cows. All of this is done to the soundtrack of a dozen cows, a dozen ewes and a dozen lambs. It is a cacophony of noise. We watch as the lambs try one ewe and then another until they finally find the mother that belongs to them. The bawling slowly subsides. Soft knickering takes over. After a feed, the lambs start springing around the pen, taking long runs and jumping straight up into the air, twisting their bodies to the side and kicking. I’m going to miss this part.
Next week we will put sweet grain into the “creep” are of the barn that the lambs can wriggle into but he ewes cannot access. This will fatten them up.
In April, we will sell this last crop of lambs and their mothers. No word yet on whether we will be keeping Gracie as a lamb-dog. I’m sure it isn’t practical, but neither is our 1800-lb untrained Belgian horse, and we’re keeping her. I say Gracie stays. Wish me luck.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

To all the little lambs: four legs or two.

I went out to the barn the other night and there was Gracie, my favourite sheep, in the midst of birthing. Her lamb’s head had been born, and she was sitting on it. She kept throwing her weight around in discomfort. Flopping from one side to another, I was afraid she would snap the little one’s neck. His head was already quite swollen. When I put a finger in his mouth, though, he sucked. The reflex was strong.
Gracie is quite tame. In fact she thinks she is a dog; not a sheep. She loves people, and she trusts us. I stroked her nose, told her I was going to help, and she baaa’ed in protest. Then very slowly, I helped the lamb bring one high-heeled shoe out alongside his neck. His tongue lolled out, and his eyes rolled back. He was exhausted. I slowly eased the shoulder out. I felt Gracie react to the change in pressure and she moaned, just as a human would. I stopped for a minute to let her catch her breath. Then, grasping the slick wet leg and wriggling fingers in to find the other foot, I pulled steady as hard as I could, careful not to dislocate the limb from the socket. There was no sliding; he was thick, sturdy and had to be pulled every inch of the way. When I finally lay the new lamb down beside his mother so she could lick him clean, he stretched out over half her length in size.
Twenty-five years ago this week I became a mother for the first time. I was an oblivious twenty-year-old, in big glasses and frizzy hair, reading fashion magazines and waiting for my IV oxytocin to kick in. I don’t go into labour: I have to be induced.
I got out of bed, paced up and down the hall, took a shower, did some squats, and waited. The woman in the next room started hollering and my doctor stuck his head in to ask her to please be quiet as she was “scaring the Hell out of the little one” (me). But she wasn’t. I was just excited. The pains started and I decided it just felt like a really hard workout at the gym. Over which I had absolutely no control.
Once things got rolling, it only took a short time for my daughter to be born. I had forgotten at home my “focal point” item to stare at during breathing exercises, so I fixated on a colourful juicebox of Hawaiian Punch instead. When the nurse tried to move it, I hissed. She put it back, where I could stare at it. And half a dozen pushes later, my baby was born. Just over 8 pounds, she had dark olive skin and hair and I thought she was the most beautiful baby I had ever seen. She didn’t cry. She just opened her eyes wide, looked around the birthing room, and yawned. The doctor didn’t make it in time to deliver her; she was caught by the nurse who was on duty at the time at the Grace Hospital – who also happened to be a seasoned midwife from Scotland with over 200 births in her experience.
“Oh, this one’s an old soul,” she cooed. “Look at her. She has been here before.”
During feedings, the nurse wheeled a large metal cart with about four shelves of babies on it, down the hall, room to room where they were distributed to their mothers. I listened carefully as the cart came down the hall. Although the crying woke me it didn’t bother me – probably because my baby wasn’t crying. The nurse brought her in to me, laughing. The hot little loaf of bread – just a face emerging from a tightly wrapped blanket roll – had her eyes open wide and she was making fish “o’s” with her mouth. She knew exactly what was coming – milk – and she was probably wondering what all the other babies were screaming about.
That first time she looked at me and really saw me, she had a little smile in her eyes. I saw that little mischevious smile many times over the years, and love seeing it now, twenty-five years later.
Milena has grown into a confident, caring young woman, comfortable in her own skin. That’s all we can hope for in our little lambs, be they four-legged or two.