Trying to keep track of everyone’s love life around here — and arrange for it — keeps me busy. I’m the cruise director of the Love Boat.
I don’t yet know if my cow Katika is pregnant. Charles Bronson, my bull, was trying to breed her for months, right up until he went to slaughter (the date had been selected almost a year earlier, and could not be changed).
If she settled the last time she was bred, she would be due to calve June 25, 2010. Of course I hope she is pregnant — but as it happens, this freshening date is also when I am scheduled to be away for a week to visit family. Katika almost died of milk fever, a metabolic disorder, with her last delivery. The odds of milk fever increase with age. Katika will be nine next spring, twice the age of the average dairy cow. How can I leave her? I bite my lip and tell myself not to worry until I know for sure that she is in calf.
In the meantime I have to look ahead to next year’s breeding. The day after Charlie went to slaughter I put a call in to my local small dairy, an hour away. For the first time ever, they didn’t have any Jersey bull calves. “But we have some heifers coming in,” the farm wife said. (“Coming in” — about to give birth. Heifers are maiden cattle, and even big Holsteins are often bred to Jersey bulls for a smaller first calf.) “We also have a couple of cows who’ll freshen soon.” She promised to call if a bull calf arrives.
In late August I weaned my lambs, to give my ewes a few weeks to loaf and gain weight before the new breeding year. Most varieties of sheep are seasonal breeders: the females only come into heat in the fall, from about mid-September to January. God has neatly arranged this so lambs arrive with fresh spring grass. (Not in the ice-locked Adirondacks, where we have snow through May, but clearly He was trying.)
In September I borrowed a trailer to put the ewe lambs and ram back with the ewes on pasture. With Luke’s help, moving twenty sheep to my barn for sorting had been an almost seamless operation. Trying to move the ram and five ewe lambs back by myself was nearly a debacle. Ioan, my ram, would not load. He is 200 pounds and I couldn’t push him, either. As I struggled with him, the lambs scattered in panic. I was ready to beat Ioan over the head with a shovel.
Finally I had a brainwave. I buckled a calf collar around his neck, snapped on a lead rope, snubbed the rope around a bar in the trailer, and dragged him to the trailer, step by step. I had to stop every few seconds to rest and tighten the rope, then to lift each foot in turn up onto the floor. It was ridiculous! All of this trouble, and I was taking him to Sex City! Wine, women, and song!
“Believe me —” I puffed, sweating, “you — want — to — get — in this trailer!”
Before loading I had wormed all the sheep and fitted Ioan with a marking harness. This is a simple contraption, not unlike a Cross Your Heart bra, made of cordura nylon. It holds a crayon which marks the rump of any ewe he breeds. I have wanted a marking harness for years, to eliminate guesswork as to when my ewes are due to lamb. They’re inexpensive but I had never been organized enough to purchase one before the beginning of breeding season. This year I’d managed it.
I’d had a few difficult moments trying to figure out how the harness went on. There were no instructions or graphics in the package. So I used my deductive reasoning. Of course the maker’s logo would not be sewn on upside down. Therefore it must go on this way. I wrestled Ioan — 200 lbs, remember — into the cordura bra. Hmm. It was on him but looked very uncomfortable and there seemed to be excess strapping in all directions. He looked like a badly tied package. Hmm.
I drove home and called the company. A nice representative walked me through it.
“So your logo is sewn on upside down?”
“Well, I guess you’re right.”
“I bet you did that so it was right side up for the ram, looking down at his chest,” I said wisely.
I returned to the farm and wrestled Ioan out of the bra and back into it. A hassle, but it would all be worth it, knowing when the lambs were due.
Once I had Ioan tied in the trailer, all his daughters jumped in with no problem. At Betty’s pasture, he was very happy to see his harem again. He ran around sniffing bottoms, licking his lips suggestively, and all but twirling his Snidely Whiplash mustache. Success! A long day but seeing my ram in his marking harness I knew I had embarked on a new, more professional stage of shepherding.
Two days later I found the marking crayon lying in the grass. In the pasture there was no way to trap Ioan, remove the harness, and reload the crayon.
Not a single ewe had been, or would be, marked. Tra-la!
Two weeks ago I got two new hens. One looks just like a hen in an English children’s storybook. She is, I believe, a Speckled Sussex. Her glossy feathers, tipped with black and white, gleam mohogany in the sunshine. I call her Henny Penny.
I often pick up a hen or two when the school is butchering their year-old layers. Hens will lay, fewer eggs each year, for at least four years. Serious farms watching the bottom line put older layers in the stew pot after a year and replace them with rising pullets. I am not running a serious farm. I keep chickens partly for eggs and partly out of affection.
To me chickens improve the farm landscape. My tiny flock ranges over a couple of acres. They rake through cow pies in the pasture. They pace the top of Allen’s stone walls, looking for bugs. They peck at drops under the apple tree. They stop in at the garage to check on the workmen. “Don’t shit on the floor, now!” O.B. warns them.
I had lost my four-year-old hens, both of my broody girls, last spring. Of the two chicks hatched in October, one was a cockerel. Being down to two hens and two roosters was definitely a problem.
The leader of my flock is my rooster Nelson Eddy. (I always name my stud males for movie stars — since they lead lives of unnatural female attention and generally come to a bad end — but I was stumped trying to think of a redhead. I know it’s hard to envision Nelson Eddy, the singing Mounty of chaste 1930s musicals, as a randy rooster, but use your imagination.)
The son kept out of the way of the father, but between them they chased both hens unmercifully. The workmen were constantly putting tools down to watch the feathers fly. The little Wyandotte began to look the worse for wear.
So when the school gathered all its year-old hens for harvest, I took the young cockerel over to trade in exchange for a new girl. Mike the farmer reached into the back of the loaded truck and pulled out a chicken. “Want an Americauna?”
I gulped. The hen was in deep moult, the scrawniest and most pathetic-looking thing you can imagine. However I knew Mike was in a hurry and only doing me a favor.
Mike thrust his hand in the truck again and pulled out the Speckled Sussex. “A spotted hen. Two for one, there you go!”
I took both hens home to the farm.
Nelson was immediately interested. He danced a happy tap step and dragged his wing in circles. More women! Yahoo! However, his old two hens would have none of it. They flew at the newcomers viciously. When Nelson continued to pursue the new girls, they flew at him and all but hit him with their handbags.
What is a singing Mounty to do? Nelson was completely chastened. Literally, hen-pecked. He ignored the new hens.
I now have two miniscule flocks existing side by side. Nelson and his two mean girls, and the new hens who are outcasts together.
This Love Boat work is harder than you think.