Preparing for Lambing

January 30, 2011

I vaccinated all the ewes with CD/T yesterday. I always shrink from this unpleasant task and am glad to have it over. Though I use 20-gauge, 1/2 inch needles (quite small as needles go) and the shot, which protects against clostridium infections and tetanus, can be lifesaving, I do not like to pinch my girls. Even worse is having to catch them and hold them down. The catching is more frightening to the sheep than the sting of the needle.

I use a crook, snag each ewe by a hind leg, pull her out of the flock, and put her down on the stall floor. Since the biggest ewes weigh almost as much as I do, this can be quite an athletic event — all while I’m holding a loaded syringe in my teeth! Someday I will have a handling system or homemade chute to make this easier. Vaccinating only eleven ewes took me an hour, and by the end I was sweating freely and had badly pulled my back.

However, I got a glimpse of all the girls’ udders. Counting from the date I put the ram in with the ewes, my first lambs can start arriving any time after February 5. From the look of her bag, Blossom will be first to lamb. When I set her on her bottom she let out an audible “Oof!”

Blossom is a big, white, woolly Lincoln/Romney cross and given her spherical appearance it looks as if she’s carrying twins again. I tried to crutch around her bag, trimming the worst of the wool tags with scissors to make her teats more accessible, but without another hand to steady her I wasn’t able to saw away as much as I wished. I foresee having to try again later — undoubtedly when the wool is soaked with blood and amniotic fluid. One of the many things I love about Clun Forest sheep is that their udders are wool-free.

The temperature was due to return to -25° F this week but a storm front is moving in rapidly and instead they’re predicting -15° and a blizzard dumping 8 to 16 inches of snow.

It doesn’t sound like lambing time, does it?

*   *   *


glint of sun through falling snow

It has snowed an inch or two almost every day for the past ten days. I hadn’t really paid attention to the gradual accumulation and yesterday afternoon, when DH asked me to drive my truck out to his cabin to break a trail for him, I agreed. My back was seizing up and clearly my brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders either.

I drove blithely into the snow. Powder creamed back from both sides of the hood as if I were waterskiing… and then the truck stopped, fifty feet into the snowpack, buried up to its floorboards. I could barely open the truck door against the weight to climb out.

Luckily I had my cell phone. I called DH. DH called Mike, my trusty rescuer. Just the day before Mike had replaced a dead battery in the van. I was mucking the barn slowly and painfully when he drove in.

“Hey, Sis!” he called cheerfully. “Long time no see!”

He looked thoughtfully at my truck marooned far off in the snow. He smiled slightly and shook his head but said nothing. Like my friend Allen, Mike never seems surprised by the very stupid things I do.

Using my two chains, Mike’s chain, and his come-along, we made a fifty-foot length and pulled the truck out. As I bundled up the snowy chains, Mike put away his come-along neatly and waved goodbye.

“You tell your husband to put on his snowshoes, next time!”

Moxie’s First Heat

January 29, 2011

Moxie was in heat yesterday for the first time since I’ve owned her and probably the first time ever.

Moxie is seventeen months old, but due to her nutritionally deprived upbringing, she is only slightly bigger than Duke, my three-month bull calf. She’s broader, with a deeper heart girth, but stunted for her age. (When I weight-taped them this morning, Duke was 350 pounds, Moxie, 425 pounds, and Rocky, 640 pounds. By the growth charts, Moxie should be 650 pounds.) However, as I hoped, given good food she is slowly growing. When she first came to me she wore a calf halter. Now I have her in a yearling halter run up to its smallest hole. And yesterday she officially became a teen.

Every morning after milking Katika’s back teats, I release baby Duke from his stall to nurse the front ones while I set out hay in the snowy paddock. Then I turn out the sheep and the adolescents Rocky and Moxie. [All photos on this post were taken today, simply for size comparisons, when the excitement was over.]

Yesterday I was outside refilling the water trough when I noticed that instead of putting her head down to eat, Moxie had turned back to the barn. She stood in the doorway, calling down the aisle to Katika.


It was the first time I’d heard her make a sound. I can tell all the cattle apart by voice without looking up (though as Duke grows bigger, his impatient “I’m starving to death!” bellow has deepened to become almost indistinguishable from Rocky’s.) Moxie’s voice was higher and lighter but just as urgent.

Urgent? Hmmm. After her first flush of interest back in November, Katika had reverted to her usual reserve and never paid Moxie any further attention. So why was Moxie calling to her so longingly?

It had to be heat.

When a cow is ovulating and available to be successfully bred, her system is flooded with hormones. Especially if she’s a young heifer, these hormones can make her slightly unhinged. “I’m in love! I’m in love!” she wails, without any real idea of the object of her pressing desire. She’ll mount anything that stands still. “Is it you? Is it you?” As a milkmaid at these times you have to be quick on your feet. More than one person I know has turned her back only to find a giant shadow rearing over her.

Meanwhile the heifer gives off pheromones that unhinge all the cattle around her. Sometimes you come across such indiscriminate humping that it’s hard to tell which cow is actually in heat and at the root of the frenzy. However, in this case, with a herd consisting of a bull calf, a castrated steer, and a pregnant cow, I could have no doubt. Little Moxie was rampant with unfocused lust.

Katika walked out of the barn with her usual deliberate tread, swinging bag, and mild expression. She stood for a moment at the water trough. Moxie was swishing her hindquarters under her nose, Charlie was trying to steal a few more gobbles from her udder, and Rocky was shouldering Charlie aside in his own attempts to nurse. Katika looked like a matron half-buried in demanding children. She lowered her head impatiently and swept them all away. And then… she must have gotten a pheromone whiff. She stopped, transfixed.

Moxie stood eagerly. Even as I said, “Oh, dear,” 1200-pound Katika lifted her front legs, reared, and threw herself on top of the tiny heifer. Moxie instantly collapsed in the snow as if her legs had telescoped, and Katika was back on all fours looking puzzled.

This went on all morning. Moxie never seemed to get discouraged, but picked herself up from her accordion-flat position in the snow and sashayed back for more. Once she even tried to mount Katika — which essentially meant flinging herself at Katika’s hocks. When I stopped at the garage to speak to O.B., he said Randy the painter, watching in horror through the window, had been worried about the “big black cow attacking the little one!” O.B. thought perhaps it was hunger and they were fighting over food.

“It’s hunger, all right,” I said. “But not for hay!” Moxie was so beside herself she couldn’t eat.

Hours later when I came back to the farm for evening chores, the men told me they thought Moxie must be very tired. Rocky the steer had finally heard the siren call and mounted her non-stop all afternoon.

By the time I had finished mucking the barn, even baby Duke had been led astray and was enthusiastically attempting to have his way with her.

When I let the animals in for the night, Moxie was damp and bedraggled from her constant contact with the snow but still bouncy and eyeing the boys with interest. Ever the killjoy, I separated her into the lamb stall for the night for a little enforced rest.

This morning the mad gleam had faded from Moxie’s eyes. She ate her breakfast sedately as if she’d never moaned with desire in her life. The boys came barreling out of the barn to start those fun games again and she was shocked! shocked! by their attitude, kicking them smartly in the head.

As Eliza Doolittle said virtuously in My Fair Lady, “I’m a good girl, I am!”

I wonder if this scene will be replayed every 21 days until Duke is old enough to breed her in the fall?

Joke Gift

January 28, 2011

A friend stopped by yesterday. I have been buried in paperwork all week, spending hours every day on the computer or on the telephone. Our dining room table is covered in receipts, bills, and stacks of accounts. When the knock came at the apartment door, I barely glanced up.

“Come on in!” I called, frowning at something in my hand. I heard someone open the door, but there was no other sound. “Hello?”

No response. Finally I got up and walked around the corner — and there was my friend Larry, with a broad smile and a big hug.

I’ve written about Larry before. He’s short and Irish, very kind and very, very warm. Anyone’s day would be instantly improved by Larry walking in the door and wrapping them in a hug. And in this case, “I brought you a present!” he said to me, grinning and holding out a package.

It was a t-shirt, picked out “especially” for me. Here is the message on the front of the shirt:

Larry worked alongside DH for many years and they are good friends, with great respect for each other’s very different talents. However Larry is a tease and can rarely resist an opportunity to needle him.

I do dream of a tractor, and I love Larry, but I think this t-shirt will only be worn under my summer coveralls.

Milking Off Her Back

January 27, 2011

It’s much warmer (18° F today — practically a heat wave!), dark, and lightly snowing at 7 AM.  I am glad for the sake of DH and Lucy, my skiers, to have the snow and for the animals to have the warmer temperatures. Particularly for Katika, my cow. She is too thin and in the cold winter days she burns too many calories simply to stay warm.

I have had Katika for almost eight years now and I’m still struggling to get her feed right. Part of the issue is that her requirements change depending on the season, where she is in her lactation, if she is pregnant, if there is fresh grass… and on and on. The other part is that I don’t live in dairy country and so most of the specialty feeds that others may buy in cheaply (for example, rice bran that others purchase for $8/50-lb bag would cost me $28/40-lb bag) are financially out of my reach.

However this fall I decided to bite the bullet and spend a bit more to get a 16% protein sweet feed instead of the usual 14%. I figured this boost would help her keep weight on. Wrong. Katika simply made more milk and stayed skinny. This conundrum is known as milking off her back, when a cow converts all her groceries into greater milk production instead of putting on flesh.

I was baffled until my cow friends pointed out that higher protein does not equal better nutrition. In some respects I had inadvertently put Katika on something approaching the high-protein Atkins Diet.

Dairy cows are naturally bony and it takes a good eye to judge condition. I’ve had to work hard to develop that eye. While I always notice subtle changes in animal behavior, I rarely notice changes in appearance. (This is true for me with people, too. Once a teacher friend returned from summer vacation. I said, “Wow, you look great! Did you get a new haircut?” She looked at me in disbelief: “Selden, I lost fifty pounds.”)

With Katika I’ve learned to always check her short ribs, the bony shelf in front of her hip and behind her rib cage. If I can see those ribs clearly, or, worse still, see the the ridges of her spine, she is too thin.

I’ve been pouring feed into Katika for months, and still those short ribs mock me. It doesn’t help that she has two calves on her: Rocky at nine months and Duke at three months. Rocky is more than old enough to be weaned but I’m afraid to keep the necessary plastic weaning ring in his nose in the freezing temperatures.

Two weeks ago I purchased some low-protein sweet feed, hoping that for Katika it will be the cow equivalent of cinnamon buns. Delicious and fattening. I am also giving her a pound of black oil sunflower seeds every day as a high-fat garnish. We shall see.

Katika is lapping it all up happily, but I’m guessing those pesky short ribs won’t really start to pad out until I wean Rocky in early March, Duke in late April, and then dry her off for a two-month rest cure before she calves at the end of June.

Washing my coveralls

January 25, 2011

One of the nice things about working with workmen is that you never worry about clothes, except to think, “Will I be warm enough?” or maybe, “Will thorns rip my arms if I wear short sleeves while weedwhacking?” But the whole “how do I look?” question is gone from the equation.

This is very restful, particularly for me, the plain sister among two pretty ones who always understood and enjoyed the mysteries of dressing attractively. I myself enjoy being on a sartorial playing field where knowing to carry an extra pair of dry wool socks or to put on long underwear is key.

In winter I wear my quilted Carhartt coveralls and in summer I wear blue Dickies. Day after day after day. All the men do this too, though in my experience it’s only the older generation who still wear Dickies. The young men wear jeans or shorts with ripped sweatshirts. I assume, though I’ve never inquired, that everyone changes their undergarments daily, but the outermost layers remain constant — and steadily grow more stained with grease, mud, paint, spilled coffee, and in my case, manure.

Randy, who is painting the apartment and siding, has worn the same pants and sweatshirt for six weeks; they’re so splattered with white that he is beginning to look crusty.

When my elderly friend Allen and I used to eat lunch in my truck, the heater would bring out waves of aroma. I stank powerfully of cows. “I’ve got to wash these coveralls,” I once said apologetically. He shrugged: “What d’ya want to do a thing like that for?” Allen’s layers of Dickies jackets carried the strong scent of diesel fuel mixed with Vicks Vapo-Rub.

Nobody pays attention to these details when you’re working. That’s the point of work clothes. Now I only think about it when I go out among “civilians.” Sitting in an enclosed, pristine, carpeted bank office I suddenly realize Something Smells Like Barn. Though I’ve left the coveralls and boots at home, they are generally so overripe that a faint redolence clings to me until my next shower, like the cloud of dirt following the character Pig-Pen in Peanuts. I simply pretend not to notice as the bank manager retreats to the far side of a conference table.

Still, there are times when you do have to wash your coveralls, and for me this week was one of those times.

After a long hiatus, the hens have started laying again. Hens will lay much more steadily through the dark months if you extend the day with artificial lighting. However, because in winter my chickens are in the barn with the rest of the livestock, I haven’t put my lights on a timer. I don’t want my steer awake and thinking up mischief at 4 AM. I just do without fresh eggs for a couple of months. But now the days have lengthened and once again the girls are back on the job.

Unfortunately, they do not have access to their nest boxes. The hen house is outside and through the snow in the harsh cold, so at this time of year the girls drop their eggs anywhere in the barn that strikes their fancy. In Katika’s manger. In the sheep hay racks. In the corner of the lamb stall. I’m always picking up a stray egg and putting it in my pocket.

Allen watched me do this last year. “You’re gonna forget that,” he’d warn. He was by nature neat, methodical, and organized; my messy slapdash ways pained him. Why would I put an egg in the bib of my overalls or balance it on the rear bumper of my truck instead of taking a moment to put it away? If I did actually remember the egg and move it to safety later, I was always triumphant, and Allen feigned shock. I did not tell him how often, exactly as he predicted, I’d swing up a bale of hay or bag of grain and feel the sickening crunch of eggshell and seep of sticky egg yolk through my shirt.

This weekend it was so cold that one day the hens’ eggs froze and cracked. I gathered them in my pockets.

Though I haven’t seen Allen in many months, I still hear his voice in my ear. You’re gonna forget those.

No I won’t. Watch me.

And indeed, I finished all of evening chores, tossing bales and carrying water buckets, without crushing a single one. However then I drove home, kicked off my boots, hung up my coveralls, washed my hands to cook dinner… and forgot all about the eggs.

Overnight the eggs thawed. They oozed out of their cracked shells to join the bits of shavings, hay chaff, assorted deck screws, and crumpled wrappers in my pockets, forming a cold unholy stew. By morning my coveralls were dripping orange glop.

Even I draw the line somewhere. I washed my coveralls.

And ever since, I have decided at last to follow Allen’s advice and keep eggs out of my pockets.

Really, really cold!

January 24, 2011

At 5:30 this morning’s weather report said it was -36° F in town so it was probably closer to -40° F here at our higher elevation. (It is often snowing here when it is raining seven miles away in town.) The electric heaters in our apartment have been roaring without pause since sundown. We have to shout to make ourselves heard. However, we are warm. Our church put out an email bulletin warning everyone to have back-up supplies and be in touch with each other immediately if their power failed.

Lucy took this photo last evening when she tried to take the dogs for a quick walk before supper. (Even in a jacket, Toby, her little cairn terrier mutt, was too cold and scampered right back into the apartment.) It is the mountain behind the school where we live.

See those shreds of clouds? They blew off and when I was up at 1 AM I could hear trees thudding and snapping at -21° F and knew it would be colder by morning.

Yesterday’s high was -5° F but there was a mean little wind, which made it feel twenty degrees colder. I drove down to the farm for evening chores early, at 3 PM, and though the sheep were chewing cud in the snow, the cows and horse were huddled out of the wind in the run-in shelter, and they stayed there prudently until I opened the barn gate and called everyone in. The cows’ eyelashes and muzzle hairs were frosted to the tips and stood out in white spikes.

I have worried about Katika’s udder and the calves’ slobber giving her frostbite in this extended cold snap. Last night before I left the barn I greased her teats with Vaseline, a tip I picked up from a book on cowboying in Montana. I have not milked her for the past two days, leaving the supply for the calves.

Little Duke, my bull calf, didn’t eat his supper last night. His eyes were bright but I always worry when any of my animals seem “off” in any way.  With ruminants, the fermentation of hay in their bellies acts like fuel in a furnace and keeps them warm. Though at three months Duke eats hay, he probably didn’t eat enough to keep himself properly stoked. I am praying the problem was only that he was slightly hypothermic and that a night in the closed-in barn will have revived him.

I do not plan to turn out the animals today until the temperature rises within spitting distance of 0°. We are due to have snow clouds roll in this afternoon, which will warm things up. The clear, most beautiful days in winter are often the coldest.

At these temperatures I waddle in many layers, my boots squeak on the snow, the hairs inside my nose freeze, I beat my numb gloved hands on my sides to warm them, and I always think, “Deadly beauty.”

Gratifying Response

January 19, 2011

I dropped off a gallon of milk today to the little homeschooling family down the road that I supply once a week for free. As the father leaned out the door to take the jar I could hear his two girls, ages four and seven, jumping up and down and screaming happily, “Milk! Milk! Milk! Yay-y-y-y!”

Now that is the kind of consumer I like to have!