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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Life of a retired sheepdog

What to do with a retired sheepdog. We’re trying to let Chelsea off her lead a bit more often because she doesn’t have any sheep to herd anymore and we don’t want her to go crazy with boredom. Not that she isn’t a little crazy already. She is a purebred Border Collie, after all. Who knows what’s going on in her twisted little mind.
One minute she’s all wagging tail and smiles and the next, SNAP. More than once we have been fooled by her calm, friendly demeanour, only to have our hands or ankles bitten as she flips out on us. She never bites the Farmer but she has bitten just about everyone else who approaches her, at least once. I’ve been bitten twice. It’s never a big bite – it’s more like a nip but she does have sharp enough teeth to put holes in your jeans and it’s more the shock factor that she’s going for. I could do without the adrenalin rush.
Chelsea has a very strong work ethic and boundless energy.  This is what led us to think we might re-home her after we got rid of her sheep. So that she could live on another sheep farm and work at what she does best. But then someone asked me how old she was. And I realized, at ten years old, Chelsea doesn’t have many years left. Is it really fair to her to put her through the stress of getting accustomed to a new owner at this stage of her life? Probably not. So we are trying to give her the best life possible, right here on the Fisher farm.
Today the Farmer decided to let Chelsea follow him around as he worked in the barn. For the first few minutes she followed him from room to room, at his heels. She curled up in the straw and had a nap, checked out every corner for cats or mice, and stood up on her hind feet to peek into abandoned pens. Then at some point the Farmer realized he wasn’t being followed anymore. He assumed she was sleeping in one of the pens until he heard whimpering. He followed the sound and there she was, all tangled in some baler twine. She had to be cut out of it.
The next thing on Chelsea’s agenda was to check out the cows. She went into the back room where they nap in the cool shade and drink their water from the refillable water fountain. Again up on her hind legs she checked out this device, had a sniff and a drink of the cool, fresh water. Then she peeked around the corner and found half a dozen napping calves. That’s when the trouble started.
Chelsea assumed her herding position, belly to the ground, and crawled over to the closest calf, who was sound asleep. She put her nose right to the calf’s nose and suddenly the eyes blinked open. Like a Mexican jumping bean, that calf bolted straight up in the air and out of the room, escaping to the open barnyard, bawling for her mother. The other calves followed pretty quickly, Chelsea nipping at their heels, in her herding glory.
The mother cows were not exactly appreciative. If you’ve never been between a cow and her calf, just don’t. It isn’t advisable. Even Mocha, our tame, apple-munching and people-loving cow, doesn’t like anyone near her babies.
The Farmer caught his dog just in time and moved her to safety. They went to check the chicks together. Chelsea up on her hind legs, peering under the heat lamp at the fluffy peeping lumps as the Farmer counted, adjusted, refilled feed and water and straw.
It was somewhere between the water filling and the straw refurbishing when Chelsea disappeared. Silent as a phantom, she went back to confront the cows. The Farmer arrived just as she was being tossed against the fence on the snout of a furious cow. He intervened and saved her from being kicked and trampled by the herd. I think the next time he says ‘stay away from the cows’, she will listen. She is a very smart dog. The Farmer says she’s a wonderful dog. I am jealous. She never bites him. I would like her to stop biting me, so that we can enjoy our life here together on this beautiful farm.

For now, I’ll wear leather gloves and jeans with boots and take my chances.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Let me call you sweetheart

From the Farmwife Archives
“Will you have a tea with your meal, sweetheart?” the voice of the elderly gentleman sitting beside us in the diner caught my ear.
“Yes, I believe I will have a tea. To take the chill off,” answered the diminutive blue-haired woman.
I smiled at the Farmer, tipped my head and rolled my eyes in the direction of the couple beside us.
“What?” my partially deaf husband asked.
The woman spread the Ottawa Sun on the table between them.
“Is there anything in the newspaper, sweetheart?” he asked his wife.
“Nothing,” she answered.
I smiled, catching the Farmer’s eye.
“Stop,” he hissed. “You aren’t supposed to be listening to them. They think they’re having a private conversation.”
I knew it. But they spoke loudly and I couldn’t help tuning in.
“Are there no headlines, sweetheart?”
“They say B.C. is still the best Canadian city in which to live.”
“I once wanted to live in B.C.” (pause) “I suppose it’s too late now.”
“Yes. We’re too old to pick up our lives and move to B.C.”
“We would have to tell everyone where we moved to. We would have to change all our identification, health cards, cheques.”
“And as soon as we got there we would have to find ourselves a doctor.”
“Well, sweetheart, I suppose we’re okay right where we are.”
“Yes, we’re okay.”
Their meal came and it was quiet for a while. The Farmer and I had our own conversation, centred around plans to wean lambs, and to train our children to take care of things while we are gone on our long-awaited honeymoon. It’s been three years since we married. I’m pretty sure the honeymoon never would have happened if I hadn’t taken the lead and bought the package as a Christmas gift to my husband.
When we were married, we were far too busy merging families and moving me into the farm to go away on a trip. But this year we have the lambs coming in April and the foal coming in May. Our calves have all been born and they are thriving. It’s the perfect time for me to kidnap my husband and take him somewhere warm. And I think he’s getting excited about it. He’s already sporting a tan, as I convinced him to visit the Silver Bullet at Du Soleil once a week before we hit the beach.
The couple beside us had finished their meal, and their conversation started up again.
“Will you have some dessert, sweetheart?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
She started leafing through the paper again as she sipped her tea. “Here’s the Sunshine Girl.”
“Well now. She certainly has long hair. Look. It goes all the way down to there. That can’t be right.”
“It’s probably not her hair.”
“Well, sweetheart, I do believe we are finished.”
“Yes, we’d best be goin’.”
I watched as they slowly got to their feet and he helped her on with her coat. He led her down the restaurant aisle with one hand on the small of her back.
I looked at the Farmer. “When we’re that age, will you call me sweetheart six times in one meal?”
He winked at me. “Come on darlin’. Let’s get back to work.”
“Thanks for lunch, sweetheart,” I smiled, as I felt the pressure of his big hand on the small of my back.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Calving season on the farm.

Just tryin' to stay warm on a chilly spring morning. Smoked beef. 

Lola the escape artist

We’re gettin’ older, that is for sure. My doctor put me on B12 shots once a month because my body isn’t absorbing vitamins properly. I guess I could have been eating French fries for lunch every day instead of trying to eat healthy, for all the effect it had. The Farmer follows the male tradition of not consuming anything but coffee until noon. If he is working outside, he doesn’t eat lunch on time either. And he seems to think if you drink water you will only get thirstier. I would like him to live to a ripe old age, so I normally whisk down to the kitchen and whip him up a breakfast sandwich before he heads out to the barn on weekends. Weekdays, however, are a different story. I couldn’t get him to eat anything before leaving for the office.
Then we started watching Downton Abbey. “I wouldn’t mind breakfast in bed,” he announced one day. So I toasted him some special sourdough raisin bread that a friend found for us and instead of spreading it with English marmalade, slathered it with crunchy peanut butter, for protein. The first day, he ate two slices. The second, just one. By the third day our bed was so full of toast crumbs I put a kybosh on the whole campaign. What was I thinking?
The final three cows finally had their babes, one right after the other. The Farmer put one set in the barn and then took off on a real estate journey to Peterborough, without informing me.
I went out to the barnyard in the morning and counted twelve head of cattle. That’s what we have. Eleven cows and one bull. I thought it a bit strange that the Farmer had decided to let the most recent mother out with the general population so soon after giving birth. Normally we lock them up in the stable for close to a week while they bond with their young. I counted the babies and only found seven. We had seven the week before. Where was the new number eight? I gave up and waited a few hours. Went back out in the afternoon. Again, only seven calves could be found. They napped together in a puddle of fur beside the stone fence, a cow kindergarten watched over by one mother while the rest of the cattle grazed.  I started to worry about the missing calf. As the sun went down I walked the perimeter of the pasture, looking for a newborn calf tucked into the thorn bushes. Nothing.
Finally the Farmer came home. “The new calf is in the barn, of course,” he said calmly. “Well its mother is outside!” I announced. The poor baby had been locked up all day without anything to eat or drink. Lola, an apparent escape artist, was new at this whole child-rearing thing and decided she would rather be out in the meadow with her crew than locked up with her young.
The Farmer opened the door to the barn and the new mama walked back in, defeated. The next day, she broke out again. Again, the door swung shut behind her, locking her calf in. On the third day, the Farmer put an iron gate across the door for additional reinforcement. By sunset she had it shoved to the side and had escaped once again.
Then another cow gave birth. At last Lola had company in the barn and for the last few days of her lock-up, she stayed put.
The bull has proven his mettle. Earned his bull badge. He impregnated all eleven cows. Not his fault that one calf was too big and died in childbirth. We have ten beautiful, healthy calves, most of them male. Only one or two of them needed selenium to help them with the suckling instinct. None of them needed to be bottle fed. It’s been quite a success.

The Farmer is celebrating the good season by spending hours every day on his tractor, pulling his new red manure spreader over his fields. By the end of each day his clothing is so rank he has to peel it off and leave it on the porch because I won’t allow it in the house unless it’s going straight into the washer. Come to think of it, maybe those weren’t all toast crumbs in the bed. I am going to look into installing an outdoor shower. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Long weekend in May

In memory of springtimes past

I drive by the sheep farm on County Road 43 and slow down to watch the lambs chasing each other across the barnyard. That’s the part I miss. I don’t miss having to help a ewe with a difficult birth, or trying to convince her to mother her young or allow them to suckle. I don’t miss sick lambs and lambs that die in your arms. But even though it kept me very, very busy at times, I do miss bottle feeding the baby lambs. Having them recognize me and follow me around the barnyard, bleating for a bottle.
I also miss my horse. She and I didn’t do a whole lot together, because I really don’t know my way around a horse. I grew up just down the road from the Williams’ farm on Johnston so I occasionally got up on a horse and never had a bad experience. In that way I don’t have a fear of horses, so that’s good. But I don’t really know what to do with them and I have no idea how to train them. So Misty had a rather relaxed existence here on the farm. She spent her days hanging out with Donkey, who took the place of her sister Ashley when she died suddenly of a fever, or from eating toxic tree bark, or from an allergic reaction to penicillin – we still don’t know which.
Having Ashley die on us after just a year in our care really shook our confidence as horse owners. It’s quite a responsibility, this extremely intelligent, strong, 1800 lbs of muscle waiting to be given something to do, depending on you for its care and feeding. When Ashley left us – left Misty, really – we decided to send our remaining horse away to be bred.
That didn’t work. The first sleep-away visit was to a Belgian horse farm where the breeding is very controlled. The mare and the stud (my apologies if I’ve got the terms all wrong – what do I know?) are kept in neighbouring stalls, where they can smell, hear and communicate with each other.
When the stud first introduced himself to Misty through the wall, she gave it a sharp kick and snorted her disgust. The farmer kept a close eye on the pair until Misty seemed to be softening up a bit in her response to the male horse. Eventually they were brought out into the main room of the barn, securely tied, and the male was assisted in jumping up on our female horse. This farm does controlled breeding, they explain, so that there are less injuries, the breeding is monitored, and the other horses on the farm don’t get in the way.
Again, it didn’t work. Misty came home with her hide worn off her hips from the stud’s hooves, and she also sported a new bad attitude for a few days. The breeding didn’t take. The second attempt didn’t either.
Now Misty lives at Shermount Farms. I miss her but I am so happy we made the decision to let her go. She is now with someone who knows horses. Roy Sherrer has her hitched and pulling a wagon and even sent us photos and video so we can see our old horse in her new digs.
Springtime is pretty quiet on the farm, now that most of our cows have given birth. We have three cows yet to go but we don’t even know if they are pregnant. They aren’t talking. At least it’s warm enough now that if they decide to give birth beyond the barnyard, as the last one did, the calf won’t freeze to death. I don’t think we have any coyotes around to terrorize the new calves either. They left when they realized the sheep were gone.
No sheep to shear, no lambs to feed, no horse to brush. I guess I’ll have no excuses about looking for time to weed my vegetable garden this summer.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Operation Calf Rescue

“We’re havin’ a heatwave; a tropical heatwave…”~Irving Berlin

The heat this past week was just what we needed to finally open our water to the barn. It’s been frozen since Christmas. Hallelujah. We have worn out and snapped two water hoses in the past few months of filling troughs of water for the cows twice a day.
Now I look outside and the cows are nowhere in sight. I know I will find them in the heat of the day, resting in the dark cool of the barn, right beside their automatic water fountain. Oh the bliss. Cool, fresh water that refills itself.
We have three cows left to give birth. Last week one got away on us and gave birth in the second field. After the end-of-day head count the Farmer realized he was missing one cow-in-waiting. He hitched the trailer to the back of the ATV and away we went: Operation Calf Rescue.
I was the hood ornament on the front of the ATV for the first stage of the rescue. I shot a short video on my cell phone as we rode past and startled the rest of the herd. The calves started following us, looking at their mothers first who moo’ed their approval. In fact it was the calves who alerted the Farmer to the missing cow’s location in the first place. They were lined up, six little butts in a row, peeking over the stone fence.
That’s where we found her and her new calf, a healthy heifer, already nursing. We slowed down and pulled up alongside the pair. The Farmer jumped out and managed to lasso the calf on his first try. The mother stepped aside, alarmed, and went back to the spot where she had given birth. Her instincts told her that although her calf had suddenly vanished into thin air, she would find it there. The Farmer brought the calf to me and after one quick ‘baa’ for its mother it was quiet in my lap. As the Farmer kicked the ATV into gear the gangly calf started flailing its legs and trying to escape its blanket strait jacket. I kept my arm around its neck and one of its legs firmly gripped in my hand as we made our slow and bumpy descent back up over rocky pasture to the barnyard.
Mama Cow remained at the place of birth, bawling for her young. The other cows, seeing what was happening, came to the stone fence to advise and encourage her. After a short argument, some of them came around to her side as if to usher her back up to the barn. I’ve seen this kind of thing before, with the horse, donkey and sheep. It’s kind of amazing to watch.
Up at the barnyard, the Farmer slid the stable door open and placed the little calf on some hay, leashed to the doorway. The cows, breathing heavily from trotting up the field, came to sniff her over.
“Which one is the mama?” I asked. All the black ones look alike to me. I tried naming them at first: Gina (curls on her head remind me of Gina Lollobrigida); Carly; Suzie…but depending on the weather and what kind of night they’ve had, their hair can go straight and flat as well. And then they look exactly the same. So I gave up trying to identify them from each other.
“Stand back and you’ll see which one is the mother,” the Farmer said.
Sure enough, mama recognized her babe and resumed her task of combing its coat with her rough tongue. Getting the pair into the stable was a bit of a rodeo, as the mother cow’s nerves were shot and she didn’t trust anyone. When her calf tried to nurse, she danced in circles to get away from it. I filled her feeders with the best hay, loaded up three water buckets that she didn’t have to share with anyone, presented her a bowl of sweet feed and welcomed her to the cow hotel. That seemed to calm her down a bit, but we kept a close eye on her for the next few days to make sure she was feeding her calf because every time I checked on them they were both lying down, asleep in the unseasonal heat. After a week it was safe to slide open the door and release the pair to join the rest of the herd. Operation Calf Rescue: Success.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Nearer to God in a garden

“The kiss of the sun for pardon
The song of the birds for mirth
One is nearer God’s heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on Earth.” ~ Dorothy Frances Gurney

I’ve been dying to get my hands on that garden. Well, perennial flowerbeds, really. They are overgrown with wild grape and morning glory vines and violets. Sounds lovely but they are choking out my daylilies, hostas, sedum and chrysanthemum.
I imagined the best way to go about it would be to hack at the earth around each perennial plant, chopping it up so I can gain access to the weed roots, which I would pull out. Saturday morning dawned bright and beautiful and I set to work. The first attempt to insert a shovel failed, as the soil was so hard-packed, nothing was giving. I decided if I couldn’t dig up the weeds, I would smother them – with manure.
I took my little plastic wheelbarrow to the manure pile and filled it with rich black loam. Composted manure just turns into beautiful dark soil and makes a great mix for topsoil. If you put too much on it is quite acidic and can burn your plants, as I have discovered in the past. I figured this would be a good method of weed extermination.
When the Farmer came home and saw me struggling to move a heavy wheelbarrow that was literally buckling under the weight of all that composted poop, he said, “dump it.”
I have learned to be patient with my husband. He uses words sparingly, preferring to communicate telepathically. I have not yet learned how to receive these unspoken messages, however, so if I wait I find I get another word or two.
“I’ll bring you a bucket,” he said, and motioned for me to slide the barn door open.
Oy vay. Here I am delicately sifting composted manure around and through my beloved plants. He wants to drop a front loader bucket onto them.
In his defence, the plan was for me to stand in the garden and pull the manure off the bucket with my shovel. The problem is the bucket on that ancient one-eyed broken-down tractor keeps shaking up and down, and I was getting composted manure down my boots, the neckline of my shirt, in my hair and eyes. I stood back and let him dump it.
I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to uncover my plants.
Oh well. Last year they were so prolific they were choking each other out. This year, the little tips of each plant will have to prove their tenacity.
Next, realizing I had about one hour of gardening left before my back and hamstrings gave out, I brought out the bag of bulbs I received for my birthday. Twenty-four burgundy and white glads to line the stone wall and stand in the sun beside the playhouse. I can’t wait to see them grow, and cut them down for the Sunday dinner table. Again, we’ll see if they survive the copious amounts of acidic manure.
By 5pm my back was broken and I was done, with a feeling of real accomplishment. Contributing to my dorsal discomfort was the fact that I had washed a very filthy dog that morning as well. Cody decided he didn’t like my last column about his 100-year-old wobbly legs, and when his chain broke on Wednesday he decided to set off down the road to see just how far they would carry him. He is a pup at heart, but I’m sure he had to have a few naps along the way down the road, past the intersection and into the ditch about 2 kilometres away where he collapsed in a culvert, looking for a drink of water. That is where Mr. Neuendorff found him. Lucky for Cody, Mr. N. and his wife are big dog lovers. They took him home, fed him and loved him up until we eventually found each other again.
You’re only as old as you feel, I guess. After that day of gardening, I reckon I feel just about as old as that dog. I can’t stand up straight.
A Robaxacet for me and a dog biscuit for Cody and all is right with the world. Thank you, Mr. & Mrs. Neuendorff, for your extreme kindness.