Musical Cows

September 30, 2009

I was moving cows today, and as I pushed down fences, opened gates, and slammed stall doors in breathless haste I remembered the panicky feeling I had as a child playing musical chairs at birthday parties. Hurry, hurry!

In this case my thumping heart was due to the fact that two of the cows (the visiting beefer Roxanne and my bull George Clooney) do not lead and I had no idea if I could entice them where I wanted them to go. Moreover, Georgie the bull has felt dangerous to me now for weeks.

Naturally, the moment I’d made a date to hire the excavator for a month, the weather turned vile. Monday night, after leading my cow Katika down to the barn to feed the new foster calf Charlie, I stepped back outside, holding Katika’s lead rope. Wham! The wind hit like a blow, banging the barn doors and throwing rain and hail. Katika pulled back and looked at me, clearly wishing I would turn back and leave her in her dear warm stall. I could not, as the other two cows would bellow for her all night, upsetting the neighbors. We trudged up the winding driveway to the far pasture in the downpour, both getting soaked.

Yesterday morning there was a skim of ice in the water troughs. When I walked Katika down to the barn, I looked up and saw a large coyote standing just beyond the paddock fence. It was broad daylight and I could see him clearly, right down to the stiff hairs furring the inside of his ears. He was tawny gold and brown, as big as a small German Shepherd. Katika and I stopped and stared. The coyote stared boldly back. “Shoo!” I said. He just looked at me. I took Katika into the barn and locked her in her stanchion. When I came back out, the coyote had melted into the poplar brush.

But between the predators and the cold wet weather I knew it was time to return the animals from summer pastures to the barn for winter. The sheep were no problem: the moment I opened their fencing the flock galloped down the hillside in search of the grain they knew would find in the stuffed hay racks in their stall. The cows were tougher. I don’t have enough stalls to accommodate three big cows. I decided to bring the cattle down to the barn paddock so at least they could huddle in the lee of the barn out of the wind. But how? I hadn’t yet dug the postholes for gates between the pastures. I’d have to pull down the electric lines in both fences and hope for the best.

Katika, as usual, was perfect. She stepped over the electric lines, walked purposefully through the underbrush, stepped into the barn paddock, and walked straight into the barn and into her stanchion. Georgie, my bull, hesitated and then galloped after her. I nipped around in front of him and closed the barn door. Thwarted, he bellowed a few times in irritation and then put his head down and began eating his grain.

However our visiting Hereford, Roxanne, bellowed piteously from the upper pasture. She was stuck alone. The white electric rope on the ground terrified her. She paced back and forth in front of it, bellowing her distress.

I ran up the driveway and tried to coax her over the downed fence. Stout Roxanne blinked her red-rimmed eyes in fright and refused. I ran back to the barn and got more grain. Ah, food! She curled out her long tongue to taste the sweet corn. I got her close to the fence and then let her bury her head in the bucket. With her eyes covered, she stepped unknowingly over the scary rope. Then I pulled the bucket away and we started through the brush toward the barn. The ground shook as she trotted after me.

Georgie, however, had finished his snack and heard me shaking the grain can for Roxanne. He stalked across the barn paddock, bellowing. I picked up a switch. When he met me and Roxanne at the fenceline, he growled deep in his throat. Meanwhile Roxanne was eyeing the second fence rope to cross and having her doubts. She turned her half ton on the hoof and started in the other direction.

The moment hung in the balance. I began to shout. (Cows hate shouting.) “No! No! Go! Go!” I slashed Georgie across the face with my switch, to back him away from the fence. I whipped Roxie on the bottom. Georgie pulled back in confusion. Roxanne scooted over the fence. I dumped the remaining grain on the ground as a distraction for them and hurried with shaking hands to pull the fence back up. Home free!

But it was clearly time for Roxanne’s visit to end. She was bred twice last week in my sight, and undoubtedly more often when I wasn’t watching. (If she’s not pregnant it will be due to her obesity — fat cows don’t always conceive.) The school farmers were overwhelmed with chores and had told me they couldn’t come for her for another week. The forecast has been for snow; I was determined to be able to bring my cows in at night. Roxanne had to go. I offered to trailer her back myself.

Then, of course, when Allen stopped by for his milk I asked for his help.

I am great at trailering animals as long as I’m driving forward. However, backing anything that pivots on a hitch is, for me, a nightmare. Inevitably I pinch the axles. On long hauling trips I’ve been known to drive out of my way to find bank parking lots to turn around in, rather than back. Moving Roxanne would require backing tightly to barn doors on both ends, and in one place, backing up a narrow curving driveway with a drop-off.

Allen knows from personal experience that I’m challenged by machinery and hopeless at backing, but he continues to find it incomprehensible. “It’s easy!” he protested automatically.

I snorted. “Yes, Allen, I know, easy for you. But spell supernatural!

We both laughed. He agreed affably to help me.

This morning it was alternately raining and spitting snow. I picked up Allen in town, we drove to get the school truck and trailer, and, as I knew he would, in one smooth reverse of the truck he backed the trailer snug to my barn. Then I went to bring the cows in.

Allen grew up working on farms and has forgotten more about farming than I’ll ever know — I call him “Farm Boy” — but he is older and in fragile health. When not at the controls of a giant vehicle, he seems almost as small and vulnerable to me as Lucy. I had a sudden image of him trampled by big hairy cattle rampaging through the barn. “Allen, why don’t you wait in the grain room?”

Once he was safe I opened the door to the barn paddock.

Katika calmly walked down the aisle and into her stall. I darted over and slid the bolt closed on her gate. Georgie, however, had not been in the barn in months; in his excitement he galumphed down the aisle knocking into rakes and muck buckets. His instinct was to go to his baby stall behind Katika. Not only would he not fit in it any more, but Charlie was there and the door was shut. Instead Georgie had to go into the big horse stall, where grain awaited him — but he’d never been in that stall. He lowered his head and shook it at me, blowing. He is much bigger now, almost full-grown. My heart hammered. I had a heavy chunk of wood in my back pocket, and prodded him with it. “Go on, Georgie.” He was annoyed and confused, but at last he turned into the horse stall and I slammed the gate shut and threw the bolt home.

“Seem kinda scared,” Allen observed from the grain room.

“I am scared of bulls,” I admitted.

After that, Roxanne was easy. We just shook a grain can and opened and closed doors. She was more afraid of entering the unknown barn than of following me onto the familiar trailer. She was loaded in minutes. At the school Allen effortlessly backed the trailer up the narrow driveway to the school barn, and Roxanne was soon decanted to her own stall.

Not long afterward I dropped Allen at his son’s work in town. I gave him a hug and some fresh chocolate chip cookies. “Thanks, Farm Boy!”

Snow is stinging in the air tonight. I am glad to be battening down the hatches for winter.

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The Next Big Project

September 29, 2009
starting the barn foundation, July '06

starting the barn foundation, July '06

I have hesitated to say anything, in case I would jinx it. But I am whispering now: Allen and the excavator are coming! Starting Monday! For a month (four work weeks)! I’m really, really excited.

I’ve always said that if I won the lottery I’d hire the CAT 312 for a month and Allen to run it. Well, I haven’t won the lottery. However, the last time I paid the bill at the rental place I had asked casually, “So, just what does it cost when the big guys rent these machines for a month at a time?” Imagine my surprise when I learned that the price for a month is the same price as for 10 days. Over the last few years I have rented this machine, a day at a time, many more than ten days. It is obviously much, much cheaper to rent by the month.

My first reaction of chagrin (how could I have been so stupid?) was followed by irritation (why hadn’t I been told?) and then came acceptance. The only person to operate the excavator is Allen, and he has always had a full-time job in town. Moreover, at the moment the machine was benched for repairs, and of course (details, details) I had no money. It obviously wasn’t meant to be.

But then . . .

Picking up milk one day, Allen mentioned that his job was slowing down. He was probably going to be laid off early this fall.

My ears pricked. Oh my goodness.

Of course it could never work. Nevertheless that night I called his wife (who manages their finances, just as I do in our family). If I could pull this project together, could I pay Allen’s four-week salary over four months? “That would be fine.”

Wow! Tentatively I phoned the rental place. I knew it was unusual, but I’d always paid my bills on time. Would it be possible to pay for the excavator in installments? They had to think about it. But a few days later I got the word: “Okay.”

Be still my heart. Now it was just the state of the excavator itself. When I called back to check, the wife of the owner started to laugh. “The CAT repairman is here right now. I think you may have a triple score!”

The excavator will be delivered Sunday night. I am doing a happy dance — and dreaming of a transformed landscape. I have lists everywhere. Yahoo!

Allen finding a few rocks when digging the foundation of the barn, July '06

Allen finding a few rocks while digging the foundation of the barn, July '06


Homegrown Sunday

September 28, 2009

photo(29)A lazy, rainy Sunday ending with homemade pie and ice cream. What could be better?

I always think of my mother and father in church. It’s very restful, singing the hymns and thinking of my parents. I’ve even almost stopped being upset that I was not able to give my children what I was given, that is, the weekly habit of church throughout their childhoods. I took both when they were small — and then when they got old enough for soccer games and sleepovers, about nine or ten, I let it slide. It is hard to buck a national trend on your own. When I was a child in Connecticut in the ’60s, my Sunday School classes were almost as large as my elementary school classes. Forty years later, my children were often the only kids in the pews. So now it’s just me, in my church lady clothes, sitting and listening to the organ and thinking of Mom and Dad.

Rain fell on and off all afternoon. I built a fire in the living room fireplace and Lucy sprawled on the sofa, doing her homework. I curled up in a chair, reading, nearby. Though Lucy is very independent, she is in 6th grade now and the load is much heavier. It helps to have Mom in the room for company during the long slog.

At 4:30 Lucy went to school barn chores, to take care of her horse, and I drove down to the farm to feed our animals. I picked her up in the truck on my way back. She had gathered more apples from the school apple trees and we stopped and dug several heads of lettuce from the garden. And then we started cooking!

It should be clear that I am not a cook. I am basically not terribly interested, and thus tend to be so slapdash and unfocused that I’ve learned to make a list of all the tasks I need to accomplish for the various parts of a meal before I start, as otherwise I’ll forget something crucial. However, Lucy was so eager that I overcame inertia and we rolled up our sleeves.

We made a dinner of chicken Caesar salad, with pie and ice cream for dessert. For an hour and a half we were washing, peeling, coring, slicing, chopping, sifting, beating, hovering over The Joy of Cooking and The Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Book, and creating a towering pile of dirty dishes.

It would be an almost entirely homegrown meal. The romaine in the salad was fresh from the garden, the chicken fresh from our farm, the croutons toasted out of homemade bread, the vanilla ice cream made from our own cream and eggs, the apples in the pie freshly picked by Lucy. (As she can’t reach the branches, her “picking” method is to throw windfalls up at the trees to knock clean ripe apples down.)

The chicken salad was delicious. Lucy took her shower while the hot apple pie cooled on the counter and the ice cream hardened in the freezer. And then she served it.

photo(28)

The boys gave her many compliments. A great meal and a wonderful dessert.

As I washed dishes I reflected, it’s not quite like taking your children to church, but it’s something.


A Quiet Saturday

September 27, 2009

The school has had Type A flu here and both DH and Jon are feeling sub-par, so yesterday was a quiet day, mostly house chores apart from milking and feeding down at the farm.

The only task I accomplished on my farm work list was ripping some lumber on a table saw. These are 12′ rough-cut boards I bought for a song off Craiglist last weekend, brought home precariously tied to my truck, and will use as nailers for the roof of a run-in shed in the barn paddock. I have had most of the materials for this shed on hand for more than a year — the school demolished an old pole garage and I was able to snag six big wall panels. If I can get posts in the ground soon, I ought to have at least the windbreak up this month and the roof on by winter. It would be so nice not to always have one eye anxiously watching the weather, to know the animals could get under cover if I were late or out of town on a mean, blustery afternoon.

This reminds me that I will need a building permit for this run-in project — though our local inspector is far from a stickler. I had emailed Jim a month ago to remind him that he needed to stop by and inspect the garage. I never heard from him. Finally I called his office on Friday.

“Oh, I carry your note with me!” he said guiltily.

“Close to your heart, I hope,” I teased.

He laughed. “Yes, and I take it out and reread it every day!”

I love small towns.

The fall leaves are approaching their peak and look lovely against the blue sky. Lucy has been collecting windfalls from the school apple trees. I took her out for a riding lesson in the gorgeous afternoon.

DSCN0002


Dressing Off Chickens

September 26, 2009
Jumbo Cornish X

Jumbo Cornish X

This week seems to have a death theme. But then that’s farming in the fall — harvests and endings. I always have a heavy heart at this time of year.

On Thursday I butchered my five meat chickens. Actually, I brought them over to school and added them to the community chicken harvest. The school keeps a flock of 75-100 hens for eggs. Every fall students and staff butcher the old hens to clear out the chicken house for next year’s layers. DH and I have now done it for half our lives.

Old laying hens are thin and bony, used mostly for soup stock and chicken and biscuits. Meat chickens hardly look like the same species. The number one meat chicken in the world — the chicken that you buy in the supermarket or eat in a restaurant — is the Jumbo Cornish Cross. The Jumbo Cornish X, as it is known in the trade, is a hybrid miracle of genetic manipulation.

Really, it is a Frankenstein bird. The hatchery picture above shows a chicken that is probably only four weeks old. Soon afterward it would be almost too heavy to walk. These chickens are bred to do only two things: eat and grow. They go from cute yellow balls of fluff to giant Perdue roasters in less than eight weeks. Though engineered to have legs like tree trunks, usually by harvest time the birds can barely waddle from their food dish to the water. They hardly move all day. To anyone who loves animals, or even just respects them, it is slightly disturbing.

Though one works as hard as possible to make their lives pleasant, there is definitely something off-kilter about the birds themselves. Normal cockerels (young male chickens) start crowing at about five or six months old. One of my Cornish X birds was crowing at seven weeks. This is like a seven-year-old boy needing to shave. I am always gentle with chickens but with meat chickens my gentleness is partly due to pity. They have been bred by humans to be freaks of nature.

Cornish Xs cannot reproduce. The older they get, the larger they grow, and generally after twelve weeks their legs or their internal organs give out. I once tried to overwinter a Cornish X as an experiment. She died, hugely fat, of an apparent heart attack at only four months old. Meanwhile the brain seems to have been entirely eliminated from the breed. Working with these big, placid, sitting, endlessly eating birds, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they are very stupid indeed. The elderly mother of a farmer I knew called Cornish Xs “dodes,” short for “dodoes.”

But they do make wonderful meat in a miraculously short time. That becomes the sticking point. If you eat chicken, as I do, do you raise old-fashioned birds like Buff Orpingtons (normal and athletic) and butcher after feeding them for six months — or do you raise the Frankenstein birds and get twice as much chicken after feeding for seven or eight weeks?

My uneasy compromise is to keep the traditional chickens as laying hens and the Cornish Xs for meat.

I had picked up these five Cornish Xs on Craigslist a couple of weeks ago. A woman half an hour away had raised them to seven weeks and then realized she couldn’t face butchering. I hate killing, but I can face it. I got the five birds and 20 lbs of organic feed for $25. With only two weeks’ time invested, we have several months’ worth of organic chicken in the freezer.

DH took this 20-second video of two students holding up a pair of chickens that had been dressed off. (I have always wondered about that expression — obviously these chickens have been undressed?!) The chicken on the left is one of my meat birds, nine weeks old and nine pounds. The chicken on the right is a school laying hen, eighteen months old and between three and four pounds.

A few minutes later the chickens were washed and bagged. Which would you prefer in your roasting pan?

Despite my mixed feelings, I think I will raise more meat birds next summer.


Red in tooth and claw

September 25, 2009

Wednesday night I spent over an hour burying my dead sheep Ermie. Damon had offered to help, but I hated to burn more of his time, so assured him I had everything under control. I fed all the animals and walked my cow Katika (blowing nervously at the smell of blood) back up to the pasture in the falling dusk. Then, hitching Ermie’s body to the bumper of my old truck, I slowly dragged it into the low field near the giant dirt piles by the driveway. The truck lurched alarmingly, its underbody grinding on boulders that I couldn’t see in the dark. I pictured Allen’s expression if he could hear the sound. I hoped I wouldn’t get stuck.

Though Ermie had been desperately thin, her corpse — literally a dead weight — still weighed almost as much as I do. I untied it and, sweating, grunted it heave by heave under the shadow of the closest dirt pile. Then I picked up my shovel and began pitching. An hour later the body was covered eight inches deep with dirt followed by a layer of rocks. I knew it wasn’t a proper burial, but on this cloudy evening there were no stars or moon and I could barely see. I figured when Allen next came with the excavator he could re-bury her with two scoops of the big bucket.

Lucy was at a school function, DH was in New York City. I’d missed eating dinner with Jon and was late for the monthly meeting of our book group. I cleaned up around the barn quickly, shoveling sand over the small pool of blood where Ermie had fallen, and raking away the thin trickle along the drag path. I drove home, too tired to be hungry, and showered the smell of death off me before going out to discuss light fiction.

Yesterday morning when I drove in to milk, I glanced over at the big burial mound. It was gone.

The mound was gone. The ewe was gone. The entire area looked as if it had been neatly excavated.

Coyote prints were everywhere.

I’d known we have a large coyote pack working the neighborhood. Three weeks ago the school lost 56 pastured laying hens overnight. Nevertheless I was surprised at the efficiency of the job.

The single sign left of Ermie at the burial site was an enormous heap of half-digested grass, enough to fill a 5-gallon pail. For a moment I thought it might be bear scat, but of course bears don’t graze to that extent. Then I realized it was the contents of Ermie’s rumen, or first stomach. (A cow’s rumen holds 40-50 gallons.) The coyotes weren’t interested in fermented grass, and had cleverly dumped the weight before removing the body.

As I followed the trail of broken weeds and small tufts of wool, I could picture the coyotes bracing their legs, bunching their necks, and working together to drag the heavy corpse with their teeth. The trail led under a single strand of electric fence at 4,000 volts. “Watch it, boys,” I imagined one coyote growling to another. “This part is tricky.”

Fifty feet away I found the remains. The skeleton had been picked clean. There was nothing left but the skull and ears, the white spine and rib cage, the front hooves, and the white wool pelt, now resembling a dirty grey rag. Both haunches were completely missing.

Now, as I’ve noted before, I am not sentimental. Suffering is terrible but after death, dealing with a body is, in my opinion, basically housekeeping. Except that I don’t want predators to think of my barnyard as a snack bar, I have no real objection to feeding coyotes above ground rather than microbes below. In fact I like the idea of recycling. When the bears and coyotes dug up the rotted corpse of my donkey Job last spring, I’d been disturbed by the stench and mess, but not much more. At the time I had mentioned to Jon that the coyotes had unearthed Job’s skull.

“Oh, how sad!” he exclaimed.

I had tried to explain to him my feeling that Job was past knowing or suffering, that all life was circular, and that I wouldn’t mind being composted myself… it made more sense to me than soaking my body uselessly in formeldahyde to poison the ground in a cemetery.

However Jon is upset by talk of death.

“Oh, great, Mom!” he said furiously. “Mom’s dead, let’s let the dogs gnaw on her bones!”

But that is how I feel. Over the summer, weedwhacking and mowing, I’d uncover bits and pieces of Job’s bones, bleached and clean in the underbrush. I would pick them up, look them over carefully, and marvel at the intricacy of creation. What hath God wrought! And then I’d put them back, imagining the happiness of a field mouse, coming upon this mother-lode of calcium.

I know other people find this detachment odd. Giving a tour of Allen’s stonework at my birthday party back in June, we had stumbled over a bone in the driveway. I recognized it as a piece of Job’s pelvic girdle. Alison, who knows me very well, just laughed: “Yes, pragmatic is the only word!” But recently she made the suggestion that the next time Allen comes with the excavator, I should have him dig a burying hole, and then cover it with boards, to have ready just in case.

It’s a very good idea. Not having these occasional “treats” around to be discovered would keep my living animals safer. (I can imagine the cows standing at the fenceline in the dark, listening to the coyote pack snap and snarl as they ripped at the meat.)

However yesterday I enjoyed watching the flying ravens and the crows tell each other of their find. Cronk! Cronk! Good news! Scavengers’ delight! Blue jays hopped from branch to branch nearby, calling in lower tones. The foxes will get the word… the chipmunks… the mice…

Within a week I’m sure there won’t be a trace.

Edited after morning chores: I severely underestimated our wildlife. Overnight there is no trace. In that great old rural idiom, neither hide nor hair — I would add: nor hoof, nor bone. Everything! Vanished!


Goodbye, Ermintrude

September 24, 2009

I had to put a sheep down yesterday. It was sad but necessary. Those who are squeamish should not read this post.

I’m odd about death — or at least, I have often been told I am. I have a strong pragmatic streak. My mother had it, too. I will knock myself out for a hurting animal (or person, for that matter) as a matter of course. Stay up all night, drive great distances, essentially turn myself inside out. But at the end of a life I am tough and clear-eyed, even if those eyes are full of tears. It’s suffering that I can’t tolerate, not death itself.

Ermintrude was one of three Romney/Corriedale sheep given to me by a Vermont family in 2005. Four years earlier they had been cute little lambs for their five-year-old daughter to gambol with on the lawn. Now they were enormous 175-lb ewes; the farmer’s wife and I could barely boost them into my truck. These pets — Ermintrude, Mary, and Clover — became the foundation of my flock. Ermintrude had been named by the little girl for a character in Dr. Doolittle. I called her Ermie.

Eighteen months ago Ermie mysteriously began to go downhill. After lambing in the spring of 2008 she had developed a giant abscess, the size of a tennis ball, in her neck. I called the vet, who came out, drew a sample, and cultured it. The word came back that it was “nothing to worry about.” Eventually the abscess burst, messy and stinking, and went away — but Ermie’s health continued to slide. She lost weight. I suspected her teeth were gone. (Old ewes are often referred to as “gummers.”) I tried to supplement her feed, but on shearing last spring I could see she was nothing but a rack of bones under her wool. To my shock, and against all odds, she was also pregnant. I redoubled my efforts to get food into her.

Ermie gave birth to a healthy single ram lamb in April 2009. But as a nursing ewe she burned through calories even faster and despite her daily extra grain and summer grass, she grew even thinner. Just to look at her was a reproach.

A month ago the abscess returned, this time higher up, on her face. Her cheek swelled out as if she had a lacrosse ball shoved under the skin below her right eye. I had a sinking feeling that we were nearing the end.

Two days ago this abscess burst. The dead skin flapped away, laying open her skull to the bone. Ermie seemed unconcerned by the 2″ hole in her head, but as the flies buzzed around her skeletal frame, she was a ghoulish sight. It was time.

To have the vet drive out to put her down would cost $200. The end would be the same, and probably more frightening (all my animals are afraid of the vet, bearer of needles). I have often wished I had a gun for such circumstances, but I don’t know guns. Instead I know friends with guns. I called Allen’s son Damon, who is a hunter. He drove down after work.

It was raining when I brought the sheep into the barn last night. In her usual insatiable quest for food, Ermie stopped on her way in to gobble the chickens’ bucket of clabbered milk. (How many adult sheep will drink a pail of milk?) I shut the rest of the flock in the sheep stall and returned outside with a pan of grain for Ermie. She was delighted.

The scraggy, moth-eaten old ewe had her head down, eating happily, when Damon raised his rifle and shot her square in the forehead.

Ermie looked up, surprised. She tilted her head back and looked me in the eye, as if to say, “Did I hear something? Was I stung by a bee?”

I clutched Damon’s arm. One would have thought he must have missed, except that the shot was from an inch away, point-blank above and between the eyes, and blood was trickling from one of Ermie’s nostrils. She took a few steps, shook her bony old head as if to shrug off the puzzling situation, and then returned to the grain pan and started eating again. I know there must be an explanation involving the impenetrability of sheep skulls, but it was nonetheless deeply disturbing to watch.

Damon stepped forward, put the .22 back to her forehead, and fired. This time she dropped instantly and did not even kick.

My breath let out in a great whoosh of relief. Dear old, poor old Ermie was off on her journey, safe from suffering. Goodbye, Ermintrude. Thank you, Damon.