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Thursday, March 30, 2017

So I suffered a bout of PFSD

This was a hard week for the Farmer and me. We had a calf born to one of our original cows, Ginger the Difficult. Over the years, Ginger has become considerably easier to approach and deal with, even letting me feed her apples from my hand. She has come a long way since she arrived here in 2008. Unfortunately, when she has a new calf, all bets are off. If you try to approach the calf, you will get a strong head butt to your side that has the potential to break ribs. If you need to get some colostrum from her to feed a weak calf, you might as well look elsewhere. Hopefully you have some from another cow in the freezer. Because you aren’t getting within a foot of Ginger’s udder. Her foot. In your face.

And so, when for the third year in a row Ginger had a calf with no urge to suckle and very little will to thrive, we had to say goodbye. As we awaited Dennis the drover, I tried to feed the calf one last time. I wanted him to at least have a belly full of warm milk because I didn’t know what the next few days would hold for him. When Dennis saw me struggling to feed the calf a bottle of milk replacer, he decided he wouldn’t take it to market after all. “I’m going to drop it off at Neil’s,” he announced. “Maybe he can do something with it.” I wiped the tears and snot off my face (might have been mine; could have been the calf’s) and breathed a big sigh of relief and hope.

Ginger went to market and the calf went to a farm around the corner from us, where I am told the farmer has had a great deal of luck nursing weak calves back to health. I called Neil a day later and got a report on the calf. He had given the calf electrolytes and let it rest covered in hay in the warm sun before intubating and filling its stomach with milk replacer. He agreed that it was having trouble suckling but he said it was getting the hang of it. He said he had a few other mama cows that might even adopt it.

Well that made me feel better. I like to think we do everything we can for our animals to provide a comfortable and safe existence. I hate to see any of them not doing well. During the first week of that calf’s life, I fed it during the day and lay awake worrying about it at night. Each morning I realized I was nervous that another weak calf would be born and we would have to go through the whole process again. Carry it to the barn, give it a shot, test the mother’s udder to make sure the milk flows, try to get the calf to stand and suckle. Feed it by bottle if necessary. If you can get it to take a bottle. It’s so much easier when you just go out to the barn and find a new mother standing there with her calf that is already dried off and suckling.

So when the Farmer came in this morning from his rounds and announced a new calf was born and he needed my help, I had a sinking feeling. I dragged my heels and said I was going out and didn’t want my hair to smell like barn. “What do you need my help for? I don’t think I can handle another calf like the last one. I get too emotional. Maybe we are getting too old for this farming business. Let’s stick to chickens. Maybe you should take up building furniture as a hobby instead…”
“Oh just forget it then, I can do it myself…”he said, refilling his coffee mug before stepping back into his boots. Ugh. I hate it when he is disappointed.

We went to the barn and he climbed into the pen with the calf and the new mother. I held the shepherd’s crook in front of her leg so that she would hit it before she hit my husband’s head if she decided to kick. The milk flowed from the udder. The calf stood. He latched on to his mother and found the milk. All is well. I breathed a sigh of relief, and apologized for all that I had said while suffering from Post Farming Stress Disorder. 


Friday, March 24, 2017

Ginger the original difficult cow

I’ve been doing this ten years now and I still freak out a little when I see blood on freshly fallen snow. When I did the cattle count the other morning, Ginger was missing. I found her in the barn, tucked into a sunny corner. She had just given birth. The calf was still wet. 

Now, Ginger is one of our original two cows. She and Betty were the pair that taught us all our lessons. A decade later, she is only slightly less ornery than she was when she hopped off the truck and strutted into the barnyard.

Ginger is very difficult to deal with but I had to get her and her calf into the pen so that they could bond. The past two years, Ginger has had trouble with her calves. I don’t know if she is getting old or if it’s just her meanness coming out. Two years ago I gave up on her feeding the calf, let her out of the pen and kept the calf in the barn to feed him every day. When he was old enough to eat hay and grass on the meadow we let him out to join the herd. Ginger seemed to recognize him, and looked after him all day, but he never nursed. He stayed about half as big as the other calves, but he survived to market time.

Last year once again Ginger’s calf didn’t seem to understand how to nurse. He wouldn’t take the bottle, either. But after some coaxing and coddling, by some miracle one night, he latched on to mama and didn’t let go until his belly was full. Once he had that figured out it was off to the races.
Now I feel like we are in exactly the same spot again, trying to get a calf to do what is supposed to come naturally. We’ve given him extra selenium and vitamins. We’ve fed him colostrums and we just forced him to swallow a few ounces of milk replacer. Ginger grunted at him and tried to reach me with her big head as I stood in the aisle, straddling her calf. I had a rope around his neck and one leg, to hold him steady and backed him into a corner so he couldn’t escape. I put the bottle in his mouth and he just lolled his tongue around it without sucking. He clamped down with his teeth once in a while and I was squeezing the nipple of the bottle so he did get some milk. I heard him swallow a few times. If we are going to keep him alive, this is going to be quite a battle.

When this happened to lambs from time to time we would intubate them to fill their stomachs. I hate doing that – it looks so darned uncomfortable. Even after you’ve gone to that extreme, you have to hope they are going to get a burst of appetite and snap out of their slump, because you can’t keep sticking a tube down their throats. Mom does all she can to lead the calf to her udder, and we’ve got them in a small pen so they are constantly together. Now we just have to sit back and let nature take its course. Probably one of my least favourite references to farming.

The other calf that arrived last Sunday seems to have a bit of a gimpy leg. She’s kind of cute, dancing around her mother in the pen. Her belly is clearly fat and full of milk. We have never witnessed her feeding but she obviously does. She and her mom seem quite interested in Ginger’s predicament. They seemed to be listening carefully when the Farmer was speaking to her.

We have had quite a few female calves born this year. We have five left to come. With our pasture able to sustain about a dozen cattle, it may be time to say goodbye to some of the older ones who are no longer able to produce healthy calves. It’s a reality of farming: not a very nice one, but there it is.
Despite her nasty countenance and the way she keeps trying to kick my husband, however, I like Ginger. She is warming up to me, too. She eats apples out of my hand and lets me touch her nose. I still have hope her calf will start to suckle, and this chapter will have a happy ending.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The 'cat' came back

Some readers of this column will recall we hosted two boys from Suzhou, China at the farm a few years ago. When applying to be international students, both young men requested rooms on a farm. They wanted a taste of Canadian farm living. 

The problem with having two boys visiting from the same country is that they are more apt to revert to their mother tongue when conversing with each other. This makes learning English a whole lot more difficult. John and Jerry had friends at school who would help them with their conversational English, but it was just too easy and too tempting to switch back to Mandarin when they got home. Their progress was very slow during the year they stayed with us.

Farm life, as well, turned out to be not such a good fit. Perhaps the boys thought they could play with the animals, tractor and ATV, but maybe we had farm hands to do the dirty work? Wrong. I don’t even have help cleaning this huge house. That first season, the Farmer took the boys out to the stable and gave them a lesson in mucking out the horse stall. The first time they did it, the boys declared it was a fine form of exercise. The second time, they said they needed a shower right away, followed by a nap. The third time, in late spring, they said they had never smelled anything so awful in all their lives. I told them they were lucky we didn’t have chickens at the time.

After a few months of settling in, the boys declared they couldn’t even fill the wood bin. It was too much work. (It takes me about ten minutes to carry wood in from the back porch, by the way.) They spent their time in their rooms using the Internet, or in the kitchen, eating everything in sight. I worried they wouldn’t earn the required credits to pass their year.

The next fall, John did not return to Canada. His father decided to put him to work to pay off the money he ‘wasted’ sitting in his room on our farm, learning nothing. Jerry, on the other hand, had spent the summer being tutored in English by a college graduate. He was ready for year two of his international experience, and this time it showed. He lived with a family in town (having realized the farming life was not for him) and worked hard on his studies. At the end of the year I was able to watch him graduate with his friends. He was pretty proud of himself. He enrolled in college and was accepted, although he would once again have to work on his English over the summer. I hoped he hadn’t bitten off more than he could chew.

Imagine my surprise when, the other day, a brand new silver BMW pulled carefully into the yard. I thought it strange that the driver pulled up to the barn instead of the house. Then the door opened and Jerry stepped out. He had hoped to catch the Farmer at home. He wanted to show my husband his new car. He had also brought someone he wanted us to meet.

Richie is graduating from Algonquin this year, a practical nurse. She comes from the same part of China as Jerry. He met her in his first year of International Marketing. He has one year left to go.

I watched as the six-foot Chinese man led the young woman around the farm. He showed her the cows and pointed up at his old bedroom window, telling her it had a great view of the sunset. He asked about the dogs, the donkey, the horse and the sheep. I told him we had moved into the retirement phase of farming, with just a dozen cattle. Then I handed him a copy of my book for his memories, and told him I was very proud of him. He said he would read it, to practice his English (which, by the way, was absolutely perfect). Then he promised to return one day soon, when the Farmer was home.

Just as they were leaving, one of the barn cats emerged from her hiding spot under the couch and darted past Jerry. He leapt a foot in the air. So not everything has changed about the big guy from China. He’s still terrified of cats.

To Grandma Mabel on her 94th birthday

What do you get a 94-year-old woman who already has everything she needs and wants? I wracked my brain trying to imagine what might surprise her as a mark of celebration of her years on the earth.
Grandma has lived in the same home as long as I have been around, and much longer. It is devoid of clutter. She doesn’t have knick knacks; she has valuable figurines. Dogs, birds, horses, three Siamese cats sitting on the floor where real cats might rest. Ladies in poufy ballroom gowns and gentlemen characters that bear the Royal Doulton crest. I would have to take out a loan to get her another one to add to her collection. I could get her another book – but like her son (my father) she would have that gift devoured in a few days. I imagined what I would like to receive as a gift if I were her age.
Lately I’ve been making photo books as gifts for my loved ones. I thought I would make one for Grandma, with photographic contributions from all of her family. Well, that turned out to be quite a feat. First of all, getting all my cousins to respond to my request for photos took a bit of time. Then, when the images started to filter in through email, many of them were not suitable for what I had in mind. I wanted pictures of them alone or with Grandma, but in a way that you could actually see their happy, smiling faces. I got some interesting submissions, let me tell ya. In the end, I only had room for a few photos from each part of the family, because I decided to do something a little different.
One night I went to my mother’s house and we tore into her treasure trove of old photographs. Which reminds me – my mother needs a new method of photo storage. Some nice big collector’s boxes would be good, because she has hundreds of old pictures stuffed into plastic bags and albums would be too expensive. We sat on the couch, holding up one photo at a time and she told me the story behind it or I produced a memory. It’s amazing how many of our memories are tied to photographs. It makes you wonder whether you would remember that house, that car or even that person if you didn’t have a photograph of them to help you.
Some of the oldest photographs were in frames, and we didn’t want to disturb them so I turned the flash off on my phone and snapped a picture. It’s amazing the quality of photographs a smart phone can take these days. After about an hour I had over two dozen photographs dating back to when my grandmother from South Porcupine, Ontario married a man working in the Timmins mine when she was just 17. There is a picture of Grandma and Grandpa – Mabel and Garnet – standing outside our first house in Kemptville in 1966. A beautiful red sports car (my dad’s) is gleaming in the driveway behind them.
There are photos of the cottage they used to own, where we spent many summers. Some of those pictures have taken on a sepia tone but you can still make out the sense of frivolity and play in the subjects. Through the ‘80s there are pictures of trips through Arizona and Hawaii. Grandpa was gone by then but Grandma travelled with her two sons and their wives. She also loved to go on cruises with her best friend, Addie.
Travelling up through the ‘90s and 2000’s we have photos of grandchildren and great grandchildren galore. These are divided up into mini-collages on each page because of their number. Mabel and Garnet did well in their cultivation of the Leeson family tree.
My USB stick of submitted photos and smart phone in hand, I headed to the Walmart photo booth to lay out a photo book. It took me approximately four hours to edit the photos and lay them out on the pages because the app kept disconnecting me and starting over. Talk about an exercise in frustration! I was exhausted and ready for a glass of wine at the end of it – and the end result is not perfect but I think Grandma will like it.

Welcome to your 95th year on the Earth, Grandma. Here’s to making more memories. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Communicating without words

My fifteen-month-old granddaughter doesn’t say much, but she communicates quite effectively. She has just discovered that everything has a name, so she spends much of her waking hours walking around, pointing at various items and emitting that little sing-song noise that sounds like, “huh?” That’s our cue to supply the name for the item. Pointing, “huh?” Answer: “horse.” Switching to another item. “Huh?” Answer: “TV.” And so on. This can go on for hours if you let it.
She must be spending a fair amount of time with Daddy in the stable because she is currently obsessed with horses. She points them out in books, paintings and photographs and carries a toy horse in her tiny fist, prancing it across tabletops and sofas. When a horse gallops into the scene of a Western that Grandpa is watching on TV, baby drops what she is doing and shuffles as quickly as she can into the living room to see where that noise is coming from. Then she stands there with a dazed look on her face, staring at the TV. Everything is sorting itself out in her tiny brain.
Despite not having the use of words in her toolbox, baby is very good at making her feelings known. Mama has taught her a few bits of sign language. As soon as you put her in her high chair she starts tapping her little fingers together, in the “more” sign. This continues throughout the meal, to show she is enjoying her food and still hungry. She’s also pretty good at expressing when she doesn’t like something. When I wear my glasses she looks at me and then turns her head away quickly, as in a snub of disapproval. She prefers faces without accoutrements.
This tiny person has discovered that almost every wish can be conveyed by pointing and humming or grunting. We are looking forward to hearing her actual thoughts – the occasional discernible word comes out once in a while but so far she is just practicing sounds. It’s actually pretty entertaining. Her mother made it to age two and a half before she started using words so we may be waiting a while yet.
The farm animals are also pretty good at communicating without words. When their feeders are empty, they just come and stand at the fence closest to the house. After a while, Betty will start mooing and others will join in. Eventually we will hear the cow concert and the Farmer will go out to start the tractor. They are going through a five-foot bale of hay a day now, as ten of them are pregnant and hungry.
The housecats communicate that their bowl is empty by attempting to trip me as I move around the kitchen. It has backfired on them once or twice, as I have trod on tails. But usually when they sit at my feet and meow loudly, I catch their drift and head down to the basement to refill the feeder. If no amount of meowing and maneuvering can get my attention, Sheila is not above giving me a quick bite on my calf. I have marks to prove it.
I visited my grandmother today. She turns 102 next week. Although she doesn’t hear much of what I say, we have long, in-depth conversations together. If Grandma can’t decipher what I am saying by reading my lips, she rarely admits it. Instead she giggles and changes the subject to one of her own choosing. Our favourite thing to do on visits is to review recent photographs and video of family that I have on my phone. She will comment on baby’s walking skills, and tell a story about one of her sons at that age. Apparently he left a banana peel on the floor and, just like in the cartoons, she slipped on it. And went into labour with her next son. This is how we communicate. We aren’t really responding to each other, but we are talking.
It’s difficult to catch up with Grandma on the phone, because she doesn’t like to turn the volume up on the speaker and she doesn’t always have her hearing aids in. The only way to communicate with her is to show up at her door, hold her hand, and give her a smile. All she really wants is someone to talk to. A response isn’t really required. Today I was her niece, then her daughter-in-law, and finally her granddaughter. I don’t think she has forgotten who I am. She just occasionally misplaces her words.