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Friday, April 29, 2016

"Will you remember me...Donkey?"

I think it’s been over a year since I last visited Donkey in his new home. I went and saw him last weekend and I’m wondering if he remembers me.
He was excited to see me, of course, but he is excited to see everyone who takes the time to walk back to the barnyard for a visit. He has learned that they almost always have carrots in their pockets. The Triple B Ranch is running some kind of petting zoo over there. They get all kinds of adoring visitors packing treats.
I brought Donkey an apple, in the hope that he would remember me. His sense of smell is not faltering in his old age. He recognized that scent instantly and started craning his neck over the fence in an attempt to reach my pockets. When I held out half the apple for him he carefully took it between his teeth and I told him what a nice gentle boy he was. Then I fed the other half of the apple to the little burro Jack. Suddenly Donkey’s ears went back and his evil side came out. He tried to bite the little beast but Jack was too quick for him. I guess Donkey hasn’t really found manners and chivalry in his new home after all.
Donkey is king of the castle in his new barnyard. There is a cow in there with him, a calf, Jack the burro, and a couple of sheep, including Gracie, his best friend from our farm. So Donk is really the biggest animal on that side of the farm. I’m glad he isn’t in with the big, beautiful  horses. That would just make him feel inadequate. I think he is very happy in his new home, and his farmers sure take good care of him. He even got his hooves trimmed – a feat we never attempted.
When he lived with us, Donkey used to sand off his extra hoof length on the rocky pasture. In his current setting there are no rocks so his hooves grow long and curl up at the ends. When I heard they got him trimmed I thought that must have been a very brave farrier indeed. Actually, I was told, it was a brave farrier, a squeeze stockade, and a vet with three doses of tranquilizer. Haha! But after that pedicure he was stepping high and pretty. I hope he appreciated the efforts they went to, to make him comfortable.
Gracie is still her adorable, fluffy, vacuous self. Never have I seen a sheep stand so still to be petted and scratched, like a dog. She is so trusting and loving and I’m so happy we were able to find her such a fantastic home where she is safe and well cared for. Gracie isn’t pregnant this year but most of the others aren’t either, so it’s obviously the ram slacking off on the job and not her fault. Or maybe there is something lacking in the soil or water this season that isn’t making for fertile conditions.
Back on the Fisher farm, we have had eight calves born over the past two months. I think we still have two or three to go. It’s always the ones who don’t look pregnant at all who surprise us by just multiplying overnight all on their own.
We gave up trying to get the labouring cows into the barn before they give birth. We aren’t very good at determining who should go into confinement. Once they are in they make quite a mess of the place. They hate being locked up, and it’s so warm out now we aren’t really worried about the calves freezing to death. So that’s a good thing.
We have a good set of calves this year. The Farmer catches them and gives them a dose of selenium and vitamins just to ensure all their reflexes are in order. Then we spy to ensure they are nursing properly. So far, so good. They don’t want my bottles of powdered milk and their mothers are looking after them. Julie hides her calf on us every day and it’s a game of hide and seek to find him, but he is perfectly healthy. She is just being creative in protecting him.


Sunday, April 24, 2016

Goose season

It’s the sound of spring on the farm. Geese honk as they organize their formation and announce their return to the one-mile stretch of Kemptville Creek that runs along the edge of our property. It’s a goose paradise over there. Too shallow for watercraft other than a canoe. Alive with frogs, beetles, fish and other tiny water creatures. The goose hunters love it too.
A few years ago I was working on a documentary film with the James Bay Cree of Northern Quebec. The setting for many of the interviews was their hunting and fishing communities. I spent a couple of hours in a smokehouse, watching one of the elder women slowly turning a goose on a string over an open fire. Life goes slowly there, in the hunt camp outside Waskaganish. You have lots of time to talk. You learn the almost musical cadence of story-telling. I told stories about my life on the farm. When I mentioned the creek and the influx of geese in spring, I had their attention. When goose season rolled around again, a Cree hunting party arrived at the Fisher farm, ready to harvest.
In Eeyou Istchee, where my Cree friends are from, goose season is a two-week-long holiday from work and school. Multiple generations of families return to their hunt camps near the water. The successful hunters return to the villages with their coolers full of geese and they share it among their neighbours. They have community feasts and practice their traditional way of life. They cook the meat slowly, and use the time to reconnect. It is a time of year that many First Nations People cherish – rich with culture and customs.
The communities of Eeyou Istchee are the most affluent First Nations towns and villages in Canada, because of the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA). In the 1970s the first Grand Council of the Crees, led by Grand Chief Billy Diamond, packed very non-traditional clothing in their suitcases and said goodbye to their families. In Montreal, they created quite a vision walking shoulder-to-shoulder down the city street to the courthouse in their new business suits. Tall, dark and strikingly handsome men, their long shining hair flapping in the wind. They were there to make an agreement with the Canadian government that would allow the damming of seven of their rivers in order to produce hydro-electric power. This agreement would be sustainable, to lay the foundation for a successful future for the people of Eeyou Istchee.
As a result, when you go to Nemaska, Mistissini and Waskaganish – a historic spot in Canada’s history where the first Hudson’s Bay fur trading post is clearly marked – you see for the most part tidy little modern homes, expensive trucks and well-dressed people. They have the money to travel ‘down south’ to shop for the things the rest of us take for granted. They are well-connected with high-speed Internet, and cable TV.
The remoteness of the communities, however, is stark. Especially in winter, when the bitter wind makes it too cold to spend a lot of time outside. If you spend a few days you will inevitably encounter a hint of what happens in the truly desperate First Nations communities in Canada.
In places like Attawapiskat this year, many will not have the heart to go on their traditional spring goose hunt. They won’t be able to pack up their things and take their families to their hunt camps for two weeks, as they have every year since time immemorial. Because an illness has descended upon their village, and it is insidious. Pervasive. They don’t know where it will strike next. Children and young people are making suicide pacts, in an attempt to draw the country’s attention to their desperate need.
The people of Attawapiskat need far more than a month’s worth of intensive medical attention by a few psychologists and nurses. Clean running water, warm, adequate housing and functional toilets would be a good start. Yes, I know the problems in our native communities run deep and will take more than simple infrastructure investment to fix. But we have to start somewhere. It just isn’t right that this is happening in our country. I imagine how the people in our remote communities feel when they hear we are bringing in tens of thousands of refugees and giving them a new life. It is the Canadian way, to help others in need.  Every human being deserves the necessities of life.  Once they have those basic things, we can look at the bigger picture.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

On being an April baby

I was born in early April, forty-eight years ago, so these things are true about me: I suffer perennially from spring fever; I am stubborn like the ram on my zodiac sign; I am an eternal optimist and, I love the rain. This year, however, April is a bit drunk. It’s been snowing, then sunny with a balmy breeze, then torrential downpour, then snowing again. Ah well. We can trust Mother Nature is just having a bit of fun with us and spring will be here soon. The robins and tulips are not impressed.
Our six new calves, aged three days to two months, don’t seem to mind the snow. The two oldest calves chase the barn cats in circles around the feeder while the little ones watch from a safe spot behind the nanny-cow. The nanny (self-appointed guardian of the kindergarten) had her own calf last week and Mocha seems to have given hers up for adoption so the most maternal of the bunch is actually feeding two babies. We aren’t sure yet whether she is aware of that fact and just exceedingly generous, or if the calf is smart enough to steal the milk from her when she isn’t looking. She spends the day with all six calves curled up around her so she probably can’t remember which one smells like hers.
I’m not sure what Mocha is up to. She seems to have lost interest in her calf soon after leaving the barn, but they are both thriving. She does allow the calf to cuddle up to her. I will have to stalk them to see if she is still feeding. The Farmer thinks she has gone back into season already, based on a recent slow dance he witnessed between Mocha and the bull.
We have six calves born, and we are still waiting on the other six.
The two barn cats that came in for the winter left the house for a few weeks in early March when all the snow melted but now they are baaaaaack. Junior, the grey tabby, bolted into the house when he saw an opportunity one morning, and he has refused to go back outside. He seems to have been in some sort of a fight during the few weeks he was returned to the barn. Likely he found a Tom who had been over-wintering there, and now he has to re-assert his dominance and claim his territory. By the looks of him, the battle isn’t going his way.
At first I thought he had mange or something. The back of his hind leg is totally bald, and he has a tiny hole in the top of his head. When I pet him, a patch of hair also fell off his hind flank. I asked the vet about it and they said he is likely over-grooming his wounds after a fight. He’s basically cleaning his own injuries so much that he has licked his fur right off. He isn’t itchy, so I know it isn’t mange. And he got the flea drops in March along with everyone else. So I guess he is welcome to stay in the house for his convalescence.
A weird thing happened when Junior returned – the other two fulltime housecats, Sheila and Sammy, ostracized him. After that initial sniff for identification they decided he was either a threat to their health or their territory and they hissed at him every time he approached for a neck rub. Poor little dude. He still doesn’t like to be petted by humans but will allow me to stroke his fur if he is distracted by food. Even scruffy barn cats need love. He has been back in for just over a week now and Sam has finally decided he is worthy of a snuggle. Sheila still boxes his ears if he gets too close.
It’s supposed to be twenty-one degrees this weekend so hopefully all of the cats will go outside for a few days and give me a chance to give their winter lair in the basement a thorough spring cleaning. And if the warm weather continues, as it has in previous years, it will be tempting to start gardening. But I won’t get caught planting veggies too early because you can be sure Mother Nature has a few more surprises in store before the frost season is over. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

Sometimes the farmers fail

It started out as a fairly large challenge – when it was all said and done it was a weekend-long event, moving calf #5 and her mom into the barn.
The Farmer had morphed into real estate agent mode Saturday morning and gone off to Carleton Place to host an open house. I was left with the house to myself and I planned to turn on the music and do some creating in the kitchen – something I rarely have time for. Also, the Farmer cannot resist peeking over my shoulder and adding his own comments and ingredients on the rare times that he finds me in ‘his kitchen.’ I set out the deli meats, condiments, buns and toppings and got ready to make mini sandwiches for my daughter’s “Mad Hatter’s Tea Party” and then I got distracted. I found some leftovers and decided it would be a nice treat for the sheepdog. So I pulled on a toque, my boots and a farm coat and headed outside.
I realized I was overdressed within about ten minutes. Here’s what happened. I circled the barnyard and feeders, doing the daily headcount of the herd. Twelve cows, one bull, and four calves. Wait a minute. Make that five. A brand-new chocolate brown calf lay curled under her mother’s nose. She was shivering in that stupid polar vortex wind.
This is where, if the Farmer were home, we would put a halter around the calf and hop-step her into the barn, her mother on her trail. We like to keep them inside for the first week or so, until we are sure the calf is suckling well and gaining strength. But the Farmer wasn’t home. And for some reason I got it in my head to attempt a different mode of calf transport. I lined the gardening wheelbarrow with an old horse blanket, and made my way over tractor ruts and mud to the calf. I lifted her up – she was extremely heavy – and my knees buckled as I placed her in the wheelbarrow. She elegantly curled her legs beneath her and snuggled into the warm cloth. And that is as far as we got. The moment I tried to move the wheelbarrow, the wheel bent sideways and snapped off the bolt. Fantastic.
I realized I didn’t have the strength to hop-step the calf to the barn by myself. We were way over on the opposite side of the barn, through the gate and into the next field. It was too far. So I put the calf back down on the grass, tucked in out of the wind at the foot of a large tree. Mama snorted at me and demanded I get out of her way. I trudged back to the house, a failed farmwife.
When the Farmer returned, I informed him of our predicament. He headed out to the shed and hitched the trailer on the back of the ATV. I grabbed the halter and hopped up for the ride. When we reached mom and babe, it was fairly easy to get the calf up onto the trailer and into my lap. But the mom was so stressed she lost the plot. She kept circling the area where she had given birth, trying to find her calf. She heard his cry in answer to hers, and followed us for a moment, but it’s like she just didn’t see and recognize him if he was out of scent range. She took off and headed down the field toward the bush.
“Where the heck is she going??” I asked. The Farmer drove the ATV to the shed and let us out. He tied the calf like bait to the open shed door. Then he tried to chase the mama cow with the ATV. She kept circling the birthing spot, and head butting any other cow who tried to investigate. She must have been exhausted.
When we realized our plan was a failure, we decided to put the calf right back where we started. Where she had started. Her mom came bounding over, bawling for her calf. We left them to bond, and a few hours later the calf was happily feeding under her mom, pressed up against her warm side.
The next morning we checked the new family and discovered the mom had tucked the calf into the farthest corner of the barn, out of the wind, all by herself.  Sometimes you just have to trust the animals with the strongest instincts. They know what they are doing. Besides, this calf-hauling stuff is wearing me out.

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Springtime is for babies on the farm

So the good news is the calf that was born just over a week ago is still with us. She actually does eat. She is very delicate and discreet and she just doesn’t like to eat while humans are watching.
For the first three days of her life we worried she wasn’t eating, because we never witnessed it. That feisty little calf fought us every time we tried to feed her a bottle. She drooled out most of what the Farmer pushed into her mouth with a syringe and kicked her little hooves at us before rushing over to hide under her mother.
The calf was still kicking at nine days old, so her secret feedings were sustaining her. Thank goodness.
The Farmer let the cow and her calf out on Saturday because it was beautifully warm in the sun. The cow couldn’t wait to get out of the horse stall where she had been in holding for the past week and a half. She could smell spring through the door. Every time I went in to see her, she would press her nose up against the bars on the window as if to say she wanted to be set free. Of course we couldn’t let her go, until we were sure her calf was feeding.
Finally, she was released. Last year’s heifer calf was waiting for her outside the stable. She was still nursing occasionally from her pregnant mother, right up to the birth. It’s something that I’m sure was a real drain on her resources. And I know exactly what that feels like because I went through the same thing when I was pregnant and still nursing a toddler.
Lucy shoved her yearling calf out of the way but there was no real need. The young heifer seemed to understand that she had lost her place at the udder.
Lucy led her little mini-me over to a dry, sunny spot and started her bath. She had a lot of work to do after a week-and-a-half in the muddy, mucky horse stall. The three other calves padded over to see what she was doing. The little bull calf tried to help wash the new baby with his tongue. Mama put her snout under his belly and lifted him off the ground, pushing him gently away. He collected his hurt pride and returned to the kindergarten gathering of calves near the fence.
I watched as Ginger, triple her usual size, waddled over to investigate the new calf. Lucy allowed her to sniff her newborn from head to toe. Then Ginger lifted her head, closed her eyes and breathed in the fresh, spring air. And turned to go back to her favourite tree. It took her a full minute to lower herself to the ground. She took a couple of different approaches before she finally opted for a full-on, ungraceful flop. Then she stretched flat out on the warm earth, and slept.
Everyone was enjoying the first warm weekend of spring. The barn cats came out of the hay loft to stretch out and simultaneously scratch their backs on the warm, dry gravel of the driveway.
A romantic pair of robins hopped across the yard to check out the bird feeder on the side of the house. The chickadees screamed a proprietary warning.
Chelsea the sheepdog hopped up onto the fence of stones that had been collecting heat from the sun all day. She slept so soundly that she didn’t hear our dinner guests’ cars pulling up. She missed her cue to identify, announce and otherwise audibly protect the house.
As we sat in the dining porch eating our dinner, another expectant mama came out to warm herself in the sun. The groundhog who lives under the playhouse is very round and heavy now. I hope she has and relocates her little family before my garden starts growing, or my veggies will be in trouble.
After dinner, the younger generation walked off their meal with a leisurely stroll over the rocky field and past the stone fence to the meadow. The cows followed them, but they stuck to a diagonal path that had been beaten into the earth with their hooves.
The geese followed the line of the creek, looking for a place to rest at sunset. Their song provided the soundtrack for another perfect spring day on the farm.

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