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Saturday, February 14, 2015

To the farm-sitter

Hi there; thanks for the generous offer to look after things while the Farmer and I escape to the beach. What follows here is a guidebook of instructions on how to look after the menagerie of animals on the farm.
  1. CODY. Our geriatric (estimated at 15 years old) Gordon Setter is an outdoor dog. He has a heavy winter coat, a hay-lined doghouse and a nice back porch to sit on in the sunshine. He does, however, like to come into the house in the morning for his water and a nap on the blanket in front of the fire. Feed him outside first, then bring him in. Don’t forget to put him back outside, on his leash, before you leave for the day. He won’t remind you. At night, Cody might like another serving of food (if you didn’t give him the full 4 cups in the morning) and another indoor visit before bed. If you have trouble getting him back outside, you can lure him outside with a cookie or cracker or crust of bread. Just don’t give him anything containing chocolate or onions. You might have trouble waking him as he is completely deaf.
  2. CHELSEA. Our middle-aged (estimated at 10 years old) Border Collie is a frustrated, unemployed sheepdog. She doesn’t trust anyone except the Farmer so speak to her in a firm voice, put her food down, refill her water bowl and then move away swiftly. If she threatens you, I would recommend you retrieve and return both bowls to her with the shepherd’s crook. Wear gloves in her presence and don’t linger.
  3. CATS. There are two housecats, Sheila and Sammy. They are the white ones of considerable girth and laziness. The other two tabbies are barn cats that have come in from the cold. The grey one is Junior. He cannot be trusted as he likes to launch himself onto the kitchen table and counters to see if anyone has left the butter unattended. The brown one is Nosey. You won’t see her unless you catch her by surprise. She is a phantom. The cats will likely spend most of their time in the basement when you are home. That is their safe place. Just make sure they have food and water and they will be fine. The litter box is well equipped but if it becomes offensive you can skim some of the lumps out of it and bring outside to the compost heap via the covered bucket I have left next to it. I would recommend you keep the couches covered unless you yourself don’t mind being covered in white cat hair.
  4. MISTY. Since the departure of Donkey, this horse has spent a considerable amount of time asserting her dominance over the rest of the barnyard. When you are attempting to fill the water buckets, she will likely lord it over the rest of the herd, bullying them out of the way. This can be a good thing, as she will keep the cows from fighting over the water and spilling the buckets before you have had a chance to fill them. You can give Misty a small scoop of sweet feed (in freezer in stable) once a day if you are trying to win her over. Otherwise, don’t worry too much about her. She takes care of herself quite effectively.
  5. ASSORTMENT OF CATTLE. Unfortunately, we have timed our vacation to coincide with calving season. And the little bull we thought would have trouble mating with our cows seems to be throwing rather large calves. One got stuck in the birth canal earlier this week and didn’t survive. So if you see a cow going into labour (balloon protruding from hind end), call Anastasia and/or Andrew and ask them to come and help you. Try to lure the pregnant cow into shelter from the wind and cold, and provide hay and water. We don’t pull them out unless they are seriously stuck but if a cow lies down and gives up, she will need your assistance. There are ropes in various places in the barn and stable to assist you. Watch out for any mama cow as she will not want you around after the calf is born, and she will kick. Also, Andrew has been instructed to give the calf a 1ml intra-muscular shot of selenium at birth because we seem to be mineral-deficient in the area and at times our livestock are born without the will to suck, as a result. And a calf that doesn’t suck, really sucks.

Thanks again for your help, and we hope you enjoy your farm-sitting experience!
Cheers, the Farmer and Farmwife.

The test of Dono the bull

When Dono jumped down out of the truck in the fall of 2013 he was closer in resemblance to a black Lab than a bull calf. We watched as he strutted confidently among the much larger females and thought, that boy is going to need a stepladder.
The following spring, it was time for him to prove his mettle. We didn’t witness the act; he appears to prefer discretion over mating in plain view. In any case, he was the only bull on the farm in early 2014 and some of our cows are clearly pregnant now so it would appear he has found a way to do his job.
Strangely enough, it looks like the bigger cows are the pregnant ones. The young heifers don’t appear to have gained anything in girth over the last few seasons. Dono must have aimed high and started with the most difficult job first. And he might have lost interest or quit before he finished the job.
Big Betty never looks pregnant. She carries her babies like a big-boned European woman. When she is going into labour she tends to be quite vocal. And then one day she just stops in mid-sentence, closes her eyes and…gives birth. We’ve never had any trouble with her. Ginger is absolutely massive, like a bulbous tug boat pulling in and out of harbour every time she enters or exits the barn. It will be difficult to get her into a pen for the birth so hopefully she is old and wise enough now to choose a sensible birthing place so we don’t have to.
Last year we brought some nice dry hay into the barn for a birthing area but it got extremely cold and one calf that was born just in the doorway to the barn froze within hours of birth. That affected the Farmer and I very deeply; we felt so bad that we weren’t prepared for that birth. The mama stood outside the door to the barn, the last place she saw her calf, and bawled for three days. Calving season can be a dramatic time.
We have been very lucky. We’ve never had to pull a calf. I guess we have chosen bulls that throw small enough calves that they don’t get stuck on the way out. Thank goodness. The idea of hooking chains up to the hooves and pulling a calf out of its mother with a tractor is enough to make me faint. We do have some sort of gentle pulling apparatus for sheep but I doubt it would work on a calf. I truly appreciate that our mamas seem to know what they are doing, for the most part.
We will be keeping a close eye on that mama who lost her calf in the snow last year, to ensure she is given access to shelter from the wind in the barn. Sometimes Betty and Ginger can take up all the good spots and everyone else is shut out but without the sheep we have a lot more room to spare this year.
I’m hoping we have better luck with the selenium deficiency this year. Last season we had one calf born who just didn’t know how to suck. He liked his mom and she liked him. That wasn’t the problem. He just didn’t seem to realize that she was also meant to be his source of food. He just cuddled up to her and she would look back at him and try to position herself so he would find the milk but he never clued in. Right away we realized we had a problem. Thankfully, the mama allowed the Farmer to steal some of the colostrum to feed the calf. Because without the liquid gold in that first mama’s milk, no newborn animal will thrive. Then I went to the house to mix up some milk replacer. I started with two large bottles a day and increased it gradually until I was feeding him up to four litres of milk replacer a day. I was his only source of nutrition. It was quite a responsibility. That little bull calf never did reach the size of his barnyard siblings but he did just fine. After a couple months the snow melted and he was on the new spring grass, growing every day.
You never know what drama is ahead with calving season. Here’s hoping it goes easy on us.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Taming the wild beast

Sheila is a self-proclaimed house cat. We didn’t plan to have a house cat. She just waltzed in one day her first winter, jumped on the couch, curled up in a sunbeam and went to sleep. She didn’t go back out until spring.
The diminutive little white cat with grey spots was born in a feed storage bin in the shed. Her mama had her kittens and fed them there every day for a couple months. When they were old enough to wean, the mama took off, back to the barn. Some of the kittens followed, and they were taught mouse hunting as their main source of food. Sheila headed to the house. She finds mouse-hunting distasteful.
In the warm months, Sheila darts out the door to spend the day in the garden. She also enjoys a sunny day outside in winter, but she doesn’t last too long before she starts crying outside the door, because she hasn’t grown any kind of winter coat. She has a bad attitude most of the time but for some reason I find that endearing. I pick her up and give her a kiss, mostly because she hates it. She scowls, squawks at me and kicks ‘til I put her on the ground.
A few years ago, Sammy arrived. The tenants next door moved out and left their cat behind. Every day I saw him darting across the yard to the shed where he could share the food that I put out for the barn cats. Every night he would return to the house, waiting for his humans to return. They never did.
A man once told me that you can communicate with feral cats or cats that were once tame but have gone feral due to trauma by blinking at them. Each time I met eyes with Sammy as he crossed the yard he would freeze, not knowing whether I was friend or foe. Then I would blink. He stayed frozen. And blinked back.
Every day we shared this communication, and one day Sammy decided he would brave coming up on the back porch to eat some of the food I put there. I slid the patio door open slightly and Sheila appeared to confront the new cat. There was a short exchange and Sheila stepped back into the house, with one last remark at Sammy. He followed her, into the house, and straight down the stairs into the basement. The cat lair. Where the furry felines come in from the cold to find food, water and myriad hiding places.
I thought of the three-foot-tall dollhouses the Farmer made for his girls when they were little. Many times I have had feral cats in the house, being treated for one ailment or another, and when I open the cage to let them out, they dart into the far reaches of the dollhouse, where I cannot retrieve them. I hoped Sammy wouldn’t try to stuff himself in there. He was three times the size of the other cats.
Now, two years later, Sammy still startles easily, bolting off the couch and disappearing like a flash down the basement stairs every time he hears a strange noise. But he’s becoming bolder. Last night I saw him contemplating jumping up on the couch beside the Farmer. He’s never done that before.
So we have two house cats now. The Farmer doesn’t seem to mind. Except for when they use the carpeted stairs as a scratching post. Little tufts of carpet are strewn all over the floor in the morning. I came up with an idea to deter that particular activity. I covered their favourite section of the stairs with tin foil. They bat at it with their paws and check their reflection in it but it’s still there, protecting my stairs. It’s not exactly a d├ęcor improvement but it works.
This winter, the twin tabbies from the barn have also decided to be house cats, at least part time. They dart inside when someone opens the patio door, and scoot downstairs to eat. But instead of rushing back outside again when their bellies are full, now they stay inside for days. The brown tabby, who is adept at letting me get just within reach and then disappearing in a puff of fur, can now be found lounging on the couch by the window, watching the birds at the feeder.
The grey tabby, her brother, climbs the screen on the living room window and screams at us until we let him in.
At last count, we have four house cats now.

Donkey and Gracie are doing just fine at the Triple B Ranch

Checkin' in on Donk and Gracie

I went to see Donkey and Gracie at their new home last weekend. As soon as he spotted me coming ‘round the bend, Donk came trotting down the path to meet me at the fence. It was nice to see that. He recognized me and he was happy to see me. I pet him for a moment, and his new owner Terresa pointed out that he had had his hooves clipped.
“Wow. He’s never had that done before; at least not at our place!” I said. Our farrier (the third and only successful one to trim the hooves on our big nervous Belgian) told us it couldn’t be done without a stockade. Luckily the glacial moraine that Donkey trots over in our pasture in the summer usually keeps his hooves trimmed down fairly well.
Terresa said the farrier just offered to take care of the donkey while he was there working with the horses. Donkey gave up the front feet fairly willingly but he never trusts anything that is going on where he can’t see, behind him. So he kicked, and the farrier hung on to those back legs until Donkey got tired of swinging him back and forth. Now he has four beautifully trimmed hooves. I told Terresa that Donkey learned that trick from the horse. Our farrier has to ride her feet like he’s in the rodeo until she gets tired and lets him finish her pedicure.
While we continued to talk, Donkey lost interest and wandered away, back to the feeder. The sheep then moved in for some attention. Gracie wasn’t quite as anxious to see me, as she has acquired a new beau, Dodge (get it? He’s a ram). She was probably worried that my presence meant the end of her date. She came over for a quick pet on the nose and then took off down the meandering path with her new bff, who kept sniffing her neck and trying to jump up on her hind end. She would slow down, turn around and wait for him to catch up, then take off again. He’s going to be exhausted by the time this mating season is through.
Big Mama, the matriarch ewe of the Triple B Ranch, was quite curious about the visitor. She is probably the biggest sheep I’ve ever seen. While we fussed over her, Donkey decided he would come back for another visit. As he approached we filmed him with my phone. Terresa commented on how handsome he is. I agreed. I swear that Donkey knows our tone of voice because all that fawning made his head swell a bit and as he passed the sheep he did a little flip kick in their general direction.
“Donkey!” I gasped.
“I have not seen him do that since he’s been here,” Terresa commented.
“Maybe it’s because I’m here,” I said. I think he was trying to assert his dominance over this portion of the farm population. I’m not sure how he would do with the horses on the other side of the fence but on this side, he’s the biggest of the bunch.
Jack, the little burro, came over for a pat and Donkey tossed his head at him to frighten him away. Jack didn’t stay around to challenge him.
So far Terresa says there has been no physical contact between the two guardians of the sheep. I hope Donkey minds his manners or he’ll be getting his chain reattached to his halter very soon.
I like that he has his sheep-guarding job back again, because that will keep him occupied. And he has Jack to keep him company. Donkey and Gracie have wonderful new owners who are very involved and attentive with their animals. Terresa is full-time farming now so she will be around if Donkey tries anything sneaky, like opening the gate with his big, agile lips and letting all the animals out. 
So far Jack has been the one gently removing the water heater out of the tank, probably because he was trying to find a way to pass the time on a quiet afternoon, or because he knew it would get him some attention. I know it’s only a matter of time before Donk decides the younger and less experienced Jack should learn a thing or two about how to have fun on a sheep farm.
I don’t want to label him a bad influence but he does come with a warning label. It reads, “trouble when bored.”