-27 This Morning

March 6, 2015

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Reading the weather report my mind goes to the things that will be frozen and immobile: the truck, the paddock water hydrant, possibly the apartment pipes. However so far I’ve brought all the animals safely through this cold. Knock wood.

Every morning I heat a bottle of milk replacer and put it in my pocket. As my records have run out, I have no idea when (or even if) any more lambs will be born. With the sheep still in full fleece, their udders are invisible. Nothing will be clear until shearing. I saw more breedings, but I saw Georgie bred to be due two weeks ago, and that was a bust. So at this point I simply try to be prepared for anything when I get to the barn.

After I check everyone and find no new developments, I still have the bottle under my jacket. I bring it out and offer it to the newest babies. These youngest lambs remember the red-nippled bottle and they rush for a warm snack.

Powdered lamb milk replacer tastes terrible — nothing like real milk. (Yes, of course I’ve tasted it. If a nipple becomes plugged and a newborn is nursing to no avail, without a thought I pop the teat in my mouth and suck to clear it, then pop it back in the mouth of the lamb. There are a lot of things I worry about in life, but not lamb germs.) The lambs love the replacer just as back in the 1970s I loved TAB. Who cares what it tastes like!

There is a lot of jostling and sucking on my fingers. All I have to do is rotate the bottle among the greedy mouths.

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Everyone gets a couple of ounces and then treats are over for another day.


Good Mothers Are Patient

March 5, 2015

I took this short video after watching Cranberry’s twin girls bouncing off her back like naughty children jumping on a double bed.

I am impressed that this sheep mama simply keeps chewing her cud and ignoring the lamb’s prodding.

Surely there’s a lesson here.


Who Will Bell the Cat?

March 4, 2015

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This is an entry from six weeks ago that I neglected to finish and post.

Now that his mother, Dorrie, is dried off, I have needed to get the weaning ring out of the nose of my steer Harvey. Weaning rings prevent a calf from nursing and work like clip-on earrings; they ride painlessly inside the nostrils. The only hassle about weaning rings is putting them in and taking them out, as it requires haltering the steer and snubbing him tight to a post in order to fiddle with his nose.

At five months last fall Harvey had been one of the prettiest steers I’d ever raised. Potential buyers of June Bug, my Jersey heifer, exclaimed over her and then invariably remarked of Harvey nearby, “What a handsome boy.” Though his mother, Dorrie, is black, Harvey was pure buttermilk all over. He also had a lovely broad brow and a muscled crest to his neck.

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Harvey, left, and Marty, right

Uh-oh. A glance between his legs confirmed my suspicion. When I had banded Harvey at a week old I had missed one testicle. The other was still there. My vet once referred to this accidental scenario as “short-sacking.”  With most of the scrotum gone, the remaining testicle is held close to the belly; body heat kills the sperm and renders the bull infertile — but he is still (mostly) a bull.

Day by day Harvey’s prettiness coarsened. His head broadened and his eyes began to look piggy and small. Getting a halter on and inserting the weaning ring had been a rodeo at five months, when Harvey was about 300 pounds of muscle. Now he was nine months and more like 500 pounds. And a bull, to boot. How was I going to get the weaning ring out of his nose?

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At times like these I always wish for a helper. Preferably someone bigger, smarter, younger, and braver than I.

Usually I take the calves into my smallest stall, put plenty of sweet feed in the corner manger, and in the enclosed 6’x8′ space with the distraction of a snack I manage to get a halter over their heads. My toes may get trampled but it’s all done in about ninety seconds. I started to try this with Harvey. Wheeling to get away from me, Harvey almost mashed me into a wall. I quickly realized that it was not safe to be enclosed in a small space with a panicky bull.

OK, scratch the halter. Now what?

My only option was the cows’ stanchion. I put hay and a generous helping of sweet feed in the stanchion manger. Then I let Harvey out of his stall.

Cattle do not like changes in routine. Being allowed to wander aimlessly in the barn aisle is not normal for my cattle. Harvey was nervous and spooky as he made his way down the aisle. His “twin,” Mike, bellowed at being left behind. I followed Harvey, trying to be unobtrusive.

At the stanchion, Harvey hesitated. He saw the sweet feed and was greedy for it, but did not want to put his head between the 2×4 bars. I waited.

Finally Harvey stuck his head in. I leaped forward and threw my weight against the pivoting 2×4 bar to close it. Oh, no! Harvey braced his legs and flexed his bull neck in fright. His hooves scrabbled on the floor. My 140 pounds pushing on the 2×4 was no match for his strength. The bar flew back — whack! — and Harvey was out of the stanchion and galloping down the aisle.

Well, that’s enough for one day.

It took me three nights but I finally perfected my leap to close the stanchion bar and insert the bolt before Harvey could pull his neck out. When he realized he was locked in, he fought even harder. The wooden stanchion creaked alarmingly but the steel bolt held. I reached under his face and tweaked the weaning ring out of his nose.

Here he is, back in his stall after all the commotion. No more weaning ring. A five-second job that took me half a week to accomplish.

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I regret Harvey’s missed testicle, as it’s likely to mean I will not keep him on the place until fall. Though he has not been aggressive, it’s a possibility I’m always alert for. I definitely don’t need two bulls on the farm — even if one is low-test and shooting blanks.

In the photo below Harvey is between Moxie on the left and his mother, Dorrie, on the right. He is ten months old.

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What, me a steer?

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I don’t think so.


Heartbreak Hill

March 3, 2015

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The notorious Heartbreak Hill comes at the 21-mile mark in the Boston Marathon. It’s not that the hill itself is so terribly steep, it’s that runners come upon it when they are exhausted and have no reserves. There are only five miles to go in the race but forcing oneself up that last hill feels impossible.

March is Heartbreak Hill time in the Adirondacks. I drove home from chores last night in a white-out, unable to see more than fifteen feet ahead in the highway. It’s a balmy -16° F this morning. My computer is chirping to tell me that starting at 4:00 this afternoon there will be 3-5 inches of new snow and 39 mph winds. None of this is very alarming but I’m tired.

I’m tired of winter. I’m tired of jump-starting the truck every day. I’m tired of fighting frozen water hydrants. I’m tired of breaking ice out of buckets, chopping out gates, needing a hammer to open frozen barn doors and baling twine to tie them shut. I’m tired of pushing a heavy wheelbarrow across slick ice and struggling not to fall. I’m tired of wearing five layers of clothes. I’m tired of wading through snowdrifts to dig out the fences again. I am tired.

However, I know from my records that the first robins will arrive (too early, to look fluffed and miserable) exactly four weeks from today. The end is in sight.

I also know that this snow and ice and burnout are all normal. If they were not happening, if we were experiencing a warm and snowless winter like the Sierras have been this year, I would feel sick and anxious. The scary drought of 2012 is seared in my brain forever. Even while I grouse about the trials of winter, I know I must be grateful.

I just have to keep climbing the hill.

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Sweet Cider

March 2, 2015

Or: The Full Story of Mulberry’s Lambing in 2014

March 6 of last year was a day of faculty meetings. The boarding students had just left for spring vacation. At chores that morning I noticed some of the pregnant ewes looking “thoughtful,” so at the 10:30 coffee break I figured I should check my girls. I raced home and jumped in my truck.

At the barn I found that a few minutes earlier, my ewe Lily had given birth to a handsome set of twins at the exact moment that Mulberry had given birth to an enormous ram lamb. All the lambs were wet and wailing, the ewes nickering anxiously, and the flock milling.  I grabbed a towel and waded in. I spent fifteen minutes pulling both ewes into jugs, toweling lambs, and plugging in a heat lamp. It was 4° F.

I was very aware that due to her bout with mastitis in 2012, Lily had only one functioning teat. I decided to play God. I made an executive decision and switched the lambs, giving the twins to Mulberry and the big single to Lily. Neither ewe seemed to notice anything. Once everyone was dry and fed I had to race back to work.

At the lunch break an hour later I drove down to the farm to double-check the new mamas. To my horror I saw a tiny limp form flat in the straw in Mulberry’s jug. Mulberry was trampling the body as she licked her new “twins.” Mulberry had given birth to a second, minuscule lamb.

The tiny ribs barely moved. The lamb was wet and cold and stuck with hay. I immediately unzipped my jacket, pulled up my shirt, and laid the slimy, frigid body against my warm skin, the one place in the barn that was almost 100° F. I drove straight home, praying for the lamb to live.

She was an ewe lamb, barely five pounds. At home I dried her and wrapped her in a towel. I heated a bottle of Jersey milk.

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Then I returned to the meetings, with a bottle in my hand and the lamb under my shirt. The lamb was still too cold to feed. If a baby is too chilled, milk pools undigested in the stomach and causes more problems. I kept the lamb against my skin and waited. As I listened to the faculty conversations I felt the icy body slowly thaw and begin to shiver convulsively. Shivering is a positive start.

In less than an hour I was able to feed the lamb some of Dorrie’s milk, topped up with extra cream. Her sucking reflex was weak but I was patient. Gradually the shivering slowed and stopped.

At the next break I wanted to deal with the huge, bloody, engorged umbilicus. I’d never seen a cord like this. It looked like a fire hose against her belly.

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They make umbilical clips for shepherds but I’d never needed one. As a substitute I dug up a bull clip and soaked it in rubbing alcohol. It worked fine.

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(In a few days the bloody cord dried up and fell off.)

I slipped the lamb into my smallest jacket. It was gigantic on her.

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Then we went back to the faculty meeting. By the end of the work day, the lamb no longer had to be against my skin but could sit up in my arms.

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That afternoon and evening, and at various times over the next twenty-four hours, I would try to reintroduce the lamb to the barn, to her twin brother, and to Lily, her foster-mother.

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The sight of the tiny lamb alongside her twin brother, almost three times her weight, was comical. (I had begun calling the lamb Cider, after Pa Ingalls’ childhood nickname for his daughter Laura Ingalls Wilder: a “little half-pint of sweet cider half drunk up.”)

But the real problem was not so much Cider’s size as her feeding. I tried and tried but could not get her to nurse from a teat. Lily had plenty of milk and was willing to be distracted by a snack, but Cider would not latch on. In the end, I milked colostrum into my bottle for the necessary antibodies and took Cider home. She spent her first few days on a heating pad and towel in a recycling bin on the kitchen counter.

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Within three days she was scrambling to jump out of the bin, so I set up our old oak playpen in a corner of the kitchen.

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Bottle lambs are always popular with children. My friend Damon brought his granddaughter Emma, just turned 5, to meet Cider.

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By now it was obvious that Cider’s legs had problems. Cramped for space in utero with her enormous twin, Cider’s bones were twisted.

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One fetlock knuckled over completely and the other leg was so bowed she was walking on the outside edge of the hoof.
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In the early days Cider did a lot of resting.

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However, I splinted both legs with padded aluminum finger splints and Vet Wrap. At first Cider collapsed in a heap of stiff sticks but she soon learned to maneuver.

Lucy took this very short video of Cider prancing and screaming impatiently for her bottle.

She was an adorable tyrant. She would scream for me as soon as she heard me stir at 4 AM. To keep her quiet while we watched TV in the evening, I held her sleeping in my lap.

My husband sighed.

Bottle babies are always a temptation to poor decisions. They are so cute and their devotion so flattering. When I was eighteen years old I walked around with a raccoon on my shoulder. But I learned long ago that to raise an animal to be imprinted on humans is to warp its psyche. It is unfair to the animal and can be dangerous to both. I knew Cider should not be watching The Good Wife. She needed to learn she was a sheep.

As soon as possible, I began taking her to chores with me. I put her in with the flock while I mucked stalls.

Cider was not happy.

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It was hard to watch the ewes knocking her aside and the lambs playing with her roughly. She quickly learned that the lamb creep was her safest haven. Here she is curled up with her twin brother. I always wondered if they recognized each other somehow.

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Gradually I lengthened the time Cider was at the barn and the time between bottles until I was feeding her three times a day and she was in with the flock 24/7.

Still, she was easy to spot in the crowd.

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Though she remained petite, Cider grew quickly. Here she is at 5 weeks.

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And here she is at 11 weeks. I weaned her at three months.

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Though her legs were straighter, they will never be perfect.

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She had been so tiny and fragile I had waited until she was four days old to splint them. I’d waited too long.

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But it will only mean that her hooves will wear unevenly. I can keep them trimmed.

Yes, I kept Cider in the flock. She is smaller than normal, her front legs are slightly wonky. But she is pretty, her bloodlines are excellent, and her problems are totally due to environmental factors. More experienced shepherds have told me the issue of wildly disparate twins is caused by poor nutrition at breeding time. (I’d had another pair the year before, while I was in Florida, and without my intervention both lambs had died.) I breed in September, which is often just when the ewes are coming off pasture and making the switch to hay. Both cattle and sheep will “chase green,” nibbling poor grass to nubs and ignoring the hay. Now for those first weeks I confine the flock with no grass option. They are glum but they eat their hay. So far, no more problems.

Cider is as wild and wary as any of the ewes now. Occasionally, however, I catch her looking at me … and I wonder if she’s remembering my lap and The Good Wife.

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Made It

February 28, 2015
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frosted cattle breath on the inside of the hayloft window at -23°

 

I survived this tough week of no sleep, tight deadlines, and extreme cold. There was no time to jump-start the frozen truck; every day I took the car and prayed not to get stuck. Hurry, hurry, hurry! Last night when I finished chores at 7 PM I felt as if I had battled through rough seas and finally pulled myself exhausted onto shore.

I’m tired bone-deep, beyond the reach of coffee.

I have a huge amount of work to accomplish this weekend. Mucking the barn thoroughly, mucking the sheep stall’s deep bedding, digging out snowdrifts and setting snow fence, cleaning the neglected apartment, folding a mountain of laundry, paying bills, writing 59 academic reports. However I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and I am cheered.

One more week and the term is over. The weather is due to warm into the 20s. And best of all, tonight DH brings home my baby girl.


Pulling Through

February 27, 2015

Mulberry’s lambs seemed a bit stronger yesterday morning. They no longer stood stiffly like cold toys, but were lying together in a limp heap. After bottle-feeding each a couple of ounces as a jump-start, I climbed into the jug and tried to teach them to suck at their mother’s udder.

Mulberry is not particularly tame but she has been remarkably tolerant of my fiddling and fussing with her private parts. She seemed to understand that I was trying to help. I gave her some sweet feed and while she ate her breakfast, I got to work.

I’ve done it a million times. Face in the thick damp wool, hands reaching under the ewe by feel. The trick is to hold the lamb in position with one hand, get a teat into the mouth with the other hand, and then tickle under the tail. Yes: you need three hands, which is what makes it tricky. Generally when you remove either hand to tickle, the lamb collapses or the teat slips from the mouth. However with a weak lamb the tickling is crucial. It mimics the mother’s licking under the tail and stimulates the sucking reflex.

Finally, finally, after ten minutes of sweat and fumbling, the little ram lamb got the idea. While I held him up, he latched on and began to suck. This is always an exciting moment. The life tide is turning! A friend happened to be in my barn four years ago at the exact second and captured my happy relief.

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Another ten minutes with the ewe lamb and she, too, had colostrum in her belly.

I dug out the snowdrift over the paddock fence, turned out the cattle, drove home, pulled off my coveralls, changed my clothes, and raced to a doctor’s appointment (no shower, no breakfast, brushing my teeth in the car). Then I raced back, warmed another bottle, pulled on my coveralls, and checked the lambs again before work.

This time, after their bottle jump-start, both lambs staggered to their feet and headed for their mama’s udder.

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Hooray!

I bottle-fed the lambs at 5 PM at evening chores and again at 9:30 after my last shift of teaching. By then I was a zombie of exhaustion. I looked at Mulberry and told her that it was her job, now.

It’s -21° this morning.


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