Return of the Sun

May 31, 2011

Hooray! The sun broke through the clouds and burned them away by mid-morning. All of our spirits lifted. Though the ground is still saturated and oozy, the mud quickly began to dry out.

On Sunday my old friend in the excavator had had to move earth three or four times with the bucket in order for the bulldozer to be able to push it.  Leon on the bulldozer had sunk so deep into the mud it had looked as if his tracks were churning under brown soup. Now everything was more manageable and the work went faster. I drove into town three times to fill cans with fuel.

As you can see in the photo, the old gravel pit is almost buried. Over the years, the pit, dug in 2005, saved me thousands of dollars in gravel expenses — its gravel built my road, floored my barn, underlay my garage, and reshaped the landscape everywhere — but the vein of gravel is mostly gone and the pit had become an eyesore. In 2009 my old friend began tipping tons of boulders into it to get them out of the way. In 2010 we dumped stumps in it.

Now all the mess is disappearing, smoothed over with earth as the pond is dug. It is very satisfying. Of course I am spending the same dollars I would once have spent on gravel, but I should have a pretty little pond as a bonus.

D came for an hour with his small dump truck and hauled several loads of gravel up to the barn to use later in adjusting the grade. In the late afternoon my old friend and I dug out the barn pier Sonotubes that had dissolved in the rain and replaced them. We were able to fix my math mistake at the same time. It all seemed so simple in dry weather.

While the men are finishing the pond today I will use the laser level to mark the Sonotubes to the correct height and saw them off. I am calling to order the concrete truck.

The awful weather combined with bad luck (sickness) and error (my math oversight) cost me two days with men and machines. By being willing to come in at odd hours to work around the rain my old friend made up one of them for me. Meanwhile Leon came to my rescue to run the bulldozer.  They are both very dear. I’m very lucky.

I made the decision to keep the machines an extra day, to make up for the one lost. Today is that last day. I have deeply enjoyed having the men on the property but I am worn out and will be glad to have the project finished and the stress over.

It is supposed to rain again tomorrow.

Impossible Weather

May 30, 2011

It was pouring yesterday morning when I went out to move the sheep. I dug out an old raincoat and what I thought were an old pair of children’s rain pants. It turned out that they were wind pants, and moving through tall grass in the rain I was quickly soaked to the skin. Rain dripped off my baseball cap and smeared my glasses.

“Oh, c’mon, God — please!” I said aloud, as I squelched back to the truck and drove home to change into dry pants, socks, and boots.

Because I was ten minutes late, my old friend and Leon had already fired up the machines and were hard at work, digging out the pond.

This photo was taken later in the day, when things had dried out slightly. Yes, the rain relented for eight precious hours.

The ground was so saturated, however, that for most of the day the earth they were moving was glop. It looked as if they were scooping and pushing piles of oozing wet brownie mix. This made the work ten times harder and more time-consuming. (And thus more expensive.) I tried not to dwell on the negatives.

At mid-morning the tandem truck arrived, and promptly got stuck in the greasy mud. Luckily I had my rock chains and the truck could be pulled out by the excavator.

“My husband gave me those chains for Mother’s Day a few years ago,” I said, watching, as the excavator roared and the truck spun its tires.

“And a good thing, too!” Leon exclaimed.

As soon as the truck was free, it departed. We could not risk damaging it. All our plans that involved trucking gravel would have to be abandoned due to the wet conditions. Though I tried to appear impassive, the inside of my nose prickled with unshed tears.

But then Mike arrived to cut the stumps and brush off my cherry logs. “Hey, Sis!” he greeted me cheerfully, grabbing me in a hug. Mike is the happiest and most reliable hugger of my acquaintance. I felt myself clutching him like a teddy bear.

After Mike left, I spent the day fixing fence. The men toiled on and on. At intervals I drove out with snacks, coffee, or their lunch bags. I drove into town and filled cans with diesel and we refueled the excavator.

“Ground’s startin’ to dry out,” said my old friend in the late afternoon. “Maybe it’ll go faster tomorrow.”

Leon nodded. “That would be nice.”

“It’s supposed to rain again tonight,” I observed.

“Don’t say that!” my old friend cried in mock rage.

At 2 AM I woke to hear thunder crashing and rain drumming on the roof.

A Brand from the Burning

May 29, 2011

I love language and enjoy trying to follow its twisty turns. For example, the expression to snatch “a brand from the burning,” which is from the Bible. I understand this means to salvage something from a mess . . . but what does it mean, exactly, word by word?

Well, a brand used to be a flaming torch. (Isn’t it interesting how firebrand survives as a parallel metaphor? And if you touch something with your flaming torch you brand it?) The burning is a consuming fire, very possibly a reference to hell and damnation, the Great Conflagration.

Thus if you — or God — pluck a brand from the burning, you wrest something of value out of destruction and hopelessness.

My current foray with heavy machinery has felt fairly hopeless. We have been pounded by rain. The Sonotubes for the barn pier foundation, set and buried with great effort, appear to have been destroyed by flooding.

I have tried to stay calm and philosophical. However yesterday at 7 AM, as I was packing to go to down to the farm, the man who was going to run the bulldozer called in sick with a respiratory infection. I was in shock. Without the bulldozer behind it, the excavator could do almost nothing.

As it happened it hardly mattered because the forecast changed and thunderstorms and rain rolled back in. This weekend was supposed to be sunny — now that weather is not due to arrive until Tuesday, after the machines are gone.

I have to pay for the scarily expensive machines whether they are used or not, whether we accomplish anything or not.

It is 5 AM now, dark and raining. The eaves are dripping. The roads are flooding. Leon, 70, who worked for me last year, has kindly agreed to come in to run the bulldozer behind my old friend on the excavator. My friend Mike promises he will stop by at 11 AM with his chainsaw to cut the stumps off the pulled cherry trees so I can haul the logs out of the way with my truck and chain. D who is sick is now stuffed with antibiotics and will drive a dump truck for several hours to move gravel — if the truck can make it through the sloppy mud.

We are all going to work together to try to snatch a brand from this burning.

Happiness is…

May 27, 2011

I grew up in the late 1960s and early ’70s, which means that not only do I have fond memories of Jonathan Livingston Seagull but my mind is trained to finish the sentence “Happiness is…” with: “…a warm puppy.” Not any warm puppy, but Charles Schultz’s Snoopy, who was very big at the time.

I was thinking of this recently.

So much has gone wrong with this project. I made a quick, stupid mistake — a math mistake, naturally; probably because I am overtired. At the last minute a helpful store clerk, knowing money is tight, offered me a cheaper option on materials and I just didn’t think through the ramifications. I only realized my error when the second day of big expensive work was finished. Incorrectly. I believe it can be fixed, but it was definitely hard to cope as dusk fell and I was muddy and exhausted and looking at work done wrong. Due to me.

Meanwhile the weather has been impossible. Worse than the predicted forecast. High winds, thunder and lightning, hail, and rain. Endless rain. On the news they are talking about 100-year floods. Last night the edge of the barn where we had been working was under water. I had wrapped the tops of the buried cardboard Sonotubes in plastic bags and then covered them with tarps held down by rocks, but it’s hard to imagine they are salvageable after being overrun by a river of flooding. There is, of course, no way to check until the water goes down.

Yesterday between storms we only managed a few licks on the job. I have felt almost too weary to problem-solve.

D has told me for several weeks that he would come out to cut the fallen trees off the fences in my pastures. He also promised to cut the half-dozen tall black cherries left standing in the back acres after the logging.

(Lucy adored these spindly trees — they reminded her of the trees in the savannah in The Lion King, her favorite movie — but to me they looked more like truffula trees in Dr. Seuss. Moreover black cherry leaves are poisonous to livestock, so I wanted the trees cut down for firewood.)

However one thing after another has come up, it has rained incessantly, and D could not make it out after work with his chainsaw.

Yesterday the excavator trundled to the back acres along the south pasture line, carefully lifting each fallen balsam off my fence, smashing it, and dropping the useless litter back into the woods.

Then in an hour all the cherry trees were yanked out of the ground, one by one, and carried to the front acres in dangling bunches, where they are now stacked, waiting for a chainsaw to cut them into stove-lengths.

One problem solved!

I watched from the other end of the property. Despite my tiredness and discouragement, I felt a grin spread across my face. There is really nothing like the magic of heavy equipment in talented hands.

Happiness is… an old friend on a yellow excavator.

Bumping for a Calf

May 27, 2011

I’ve been so juggling so many details that my sleeping has been sketchier than ever. This increases my fogginess, which in turn increases my worry, which worsens my sleeping, around and around. I am fairly accustomed to this cycle and try hard to ride herd on my anxiety.

What I’ve found is that sometimes you just have to stop and confront the worry.

Recently I’ve been feeling anxious that maybe my cow, Katika, is not pregnant after all. I had her palpated in late November by my vet, who confirmed the pregnancy. However later my cow friends mentioned that palpating at only 70 days often causes a cow to abort. I tucked this information away and didn’t really think about it — until recently, when I was tired and sleepless, and it bloomed in my mind like an evil weed.

She is due in a month but she hasn’t even started to bag up. You dried off your cow and won’t have a calf. Duke won’t be able to breed her until fall for a calf in 2012 and by then you will have been feeding a dry cow for over a year!

This is not as paranoid as it may seem. Over the years I’ve read the experiences of many people whose cow slipped a calf in early pregnancy and they never realized the cow was now “open” (not pregnant) until the ostensible due date passed with weeks to spare.

I asked my cow friends for advice. They all suggested Bio-tracking her. This is a simple home test that you can do yourself and send off to a lab. The company will email you the result (pregnant or not pregnant) within a couple of days. It is 99% accurate, quick, and very inexpensive. Unfortunately the test requires a blood draw, either from the jugular or from the base of the tail.

Somehow, I found the idea of wrassling Katika, sticking her with a needle and drawing blood, all by myself, almost as anxiety-producing as the thought she might not be pregnant.

So my fall-back was to “bump” for the calf. Just as it sounds, this merely involves bumping Katika’s side and hoping I could feel the calf move away from my pressure or even bump me back. I have never had much luck with this exercise. I think others must have more sensitive hands. However it appeared to be my only manageable option.

Yesterday when I brought all the animals in for their grain I followed Katika into her stall. While she stood eating, I stood at her right side, pressing her abdomen firmly. (Lucy helped me doctor this photo from last month, to illustrate.)

I started by pressing behind her rib cage, high, where the top line is on the photo. It was like pressing against a beer keg. Hard and firm. There was no give at all. Katika turned her head back to look at me with mild inquiry.

“Sorry, sweetie,” I murmured, and she went back to her grain.

Next I pushed hard lower on her belly, along the bottom pink line in the photo. I felt a flutter under my palm. There! Was that a tiny kick? Or, I thought tiredly, was that the pulse in her milk vein? I shook my head. Stop it, you’re being nuts. I pushed again. Nothing. Again, again, again. Nothing. I pushed one more time and felt another flutter, almost a rippling motion, as something seemed to move away from my hand.

A calf!

Yay! Katika is definitely pregnant and due next month!

(At least, I’m pretty sure.)

Freddie and Flossie Do Not Approve

May 26, 2011

At last I have discovered something that my sociable barn cat, Freddie, does not want to make friends with. He finds an excavator alarming.

All day long, as the excavator roared at the edge of the barn, you would never have known I had one barn cat, much less two.

However at 4 PM when the excavator was silenced and the operator left, both Freddie and Flossie crept down the ladder from the hayloft. They sat on the back dutch door of the barn and watched me re-erect the paddock fence and re-wire the electric charge.

It’s much more relaxing when it’s just us chickens.

Hello, Heavy Equipment!

May 25, 2011

An excavator was parked in the farm driveway last night. I was thrilled.

It is here to finish the pond, which I need to have cleaned up sooner rather than later. The timing is not perfect for me — or for the weather — but I’m working around the schedules of the men who can do the work, who are available Memorial Day weekend.

Lucy helping to build the pirate ship set

We are nearing the last week of school and the pace is hectic. Lucy is involved in play rehearsals, drill team rehearsals, and music recitals. Meanwhile DH has been away in New York and Baltimore for most of last week, and Sunday I helped Jon move out of his apartment. He is looking for another but for now there are boxes and bags everywhere. I am fighting off a cold and gargling like a mad scientist at every opportunity.

So it’s a bit difficult to shoehorn a five-day blast on heavy equipment into the mix but I know it will be wonderful if I can just make it work. I have chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven as I type.

The excavator will be here three days and then will be joined by a bulldozer for two.

While the excavator is on the property we are going to install Sonotubes for piers for a future barn extension, a simple shed off the west side. I don’t have $4K to build this extension now but the finished concrete can wait for a decade if need be, and I don’t anticipate having to rent an excavator again until it’s time to put in the house basement, when we will be busy resculpting the hillside around the house. So my plan is to get the piers for the barn extension done now, almost in passing, on the way to the pond.

The men who are doing the work for me are the same two men who dug the beginning of the pond and installed the original barn piers in 2005 and 2006. In 2005 I described them as “the perfect team” and they remain so. I love them. Though they tease me constantly, their work is impeccable and they always take care of me. I noticed last night that when the excavator was brought in, there had been a pause at last winter’s giant jagged stump at the top of the driveway. The stump had been pulled and buried. That is typical.

However they’ve asked me not to write about them so I will abide by their wishes. Picture me in coveralls with a shovel in my hand, and know that I am busy and happy.

We are due to have intermittent rain and lightning storms in the coming week. In 2006, when these two men and I put in the main barn piers, the weather was the same. At the time I emailed DH, “It makes me crazy to try to schedule around rain here!” But we got everything done five years ago, and now I have my fingers crossed.

Calmer Heads Prevail

May 24, 2011

Far-flung friends on my internet “cow board” tell me that I can’t use a shot of Lutelyse to abort Moxie for another week, and it’s a potential solution up to ninety days. So I am going to schedule my annual vet appointment for three weeks out, and if Moxie doesn’t come back into heat before then, I will have the vet give her Lute at that time.

By then I will have been able to get my south pasture out from under all the trees that fell on the fencing over the winter, and restore a hot charge to the lines. To separate the randy youngsters, I will put Moxie and Katika in that pasture and leave my bull and steer with Lucy’s horse Birch in the top field.

For now, Moxie’s heat is past and all the excitement is over.  The cattle are calmer and so am I.

Sunday afternoon I hauled three truckloads of brush out of the top field from the big spruce that came down over the driveway in the fall. I picked up a permit from the forest ranger and will burn it this weekend.

Yesterday I spent two hours fixing fence in the top field, replacing broken insulators and one smashed post, and tightening lines.

My grass is pathetic compared to Betty’s but nevertheless when I turned them out the animals were happy.

I stood watching them, smiling to myself, for quite a while.

A Major Miscalculation

May 23, 2011

On Saturday morning, during a dry spell between showers, I gave myself a reward and allowed myself two hours away from my desk to weedwhack briars and raspberry canes in the driftway between pastures. The driftway is so rough with boulders and logs that it will take years (and truckloads of fill) to change it to grass and safe footing, but I knew the livestock would appreciate any green in their diet and meanwhile it could help to transition their digestions to being turned out on pasture.

Yesterday morning it was — to my disbelief — sunny!

When I drove down to the farm I found my cattle standing in the driftway in a frozen tableau. Not eating, not flicking their tails, just standing. For a frightened moment I worried someone had broken a leg among the rocks.

I was relieved to recognize that it was not injury but sexual exhaustion — a brief pause for a post-coital cigarette. Moxie was in heat.

One after another, Katika, my steer Rocky, and my bull calf Duke were all mounting her.  It would be safe to describe the scene…

as an enthusiastic melee.

Even as I watched, Duke sorted out logistics, tackled the proper end, and I suddenly realized I had made a terrible miscalculation.

Over the years none of my bull calves has been able to breed Katika before nine months old. I had figured I would separate Duke from Moxie at eight months, just to be safe. However in a blinding flash it now occurred to me that the lack of success with Katika might have been due not to their age, but to her height. Katika is a tall cow. Before the bulls were nine months old, the necessary equipment would not reach.

But Moxie, my rescue heifer, is stunted. Though she will be two years old in August she is exactly the same height as Duke, seven months.

Oh, dear. I did the calculations. A cow bred May 22 would calve February 24. Oh, dear.

While a calf born in the middle of lambing season would not be a catastrophe, our annual vacation falls in mid-March. I could not leave a newly freshened heifer without milking for two weeks. The calf would be far too small to take all the milk. It would be a cruel invitation to mastitis.

As all these thoughts raced through my mind, the group kept mounting Moxie. Moxie herself was interested only in Katika, leader of the herd, the boss cow. And, of course — ahem! — female. But when you’re in lust, who cares? Moxie sashayed under Katika’s nose, licked Katika’s coat and rubbed her head invitingly along Katika’s flanks.

Meanwhile Duke kept mounting her. There seemed to me no point in separating Duke and Moxie now, as I had no idea how long the heat had been going on. Extrapolating from the activity I witnessed, my guess is that he bred her more than a hundred times over the course of the day. (Ah, teenagers.) Of course, it only takes once.

I need to have the vet out soon for spring vaccinations. I am considering asking him to give Moxie a shot of Lutelyse. Lute, as it is called, brings on heat in cattle; it is used to synchronize cycles for artificial insemination. It will also terminate an early pregnancy.

I don’t relish the thought of interfering with nature but it appears to me that my only other option is to cancel our March vacation. This is a possibility I am also considering. My friend Joanne’s son Alex will be in high school and on a different vacation schedule; for the first time in years they may not be able to join us. It would be a long drive to Florida alone at the wheel.

If I do order the shot, I will have to arrange now to keep Moxie and Duke separated until mid-July (to ensure a calf born safely into April). Bulls are known to break down fences to get to a cow in heat.

I am trying to imagine how I could manage to take Katika and Moxie to Betty’s pastures for a visit, leaving Rocky to keep Duke company on the farm. Betty has no fences and very little shade. And of course Katika is supposed to calve at the end of June.

This is a conundrum — or a shell game — and one I should have anticipated. Sigh. It’s a bit discouraging how often I seem to need to learn through dismal experience.

As Pooh says, “Think. Think. Think.”

Shepherding Improvements

May 22, 2011

It has rained all week, and more rain and thunderstorms are predicted for ten days out. When I move the sheep my boots squelch and my wet coveralls are clammy.

Nevertheless I am cheerful. The improvements to my sheep pasture set-up that I plotted over the winter have come together beautifully. As I do my sheep chores — even in the rain, even with thunder growling — I look around and my heart lifts.

The new, improved, portable ground rod.  I found a local welder and had him cut my 8-foot galvanized ground rod into two 3’6″ rods with T’s welded six inches down from the top. It took less than twenty minutes and the result works perfectly.

Last summer I used a rusty, round 1/4″ steel fence post. I had to carry a hammer to drive it, and trying to pull it out of the ground the next day, with nothing to grab, was often a humiliating experience. Now I can push the rod deep with my hands and pull it easily. Moreover, the thicker and deeper grounding gives the fence a much better charge. Yesterday I absentmindedly started to pick up the netting before turning off the battery. The crackling shock tingled in my jaw for five minutes. (Yay!)

The new water tank. I asked my neighbor, Tony, if he knew of a source for clean 55-gallon drums that I could use to carry water to my sheep. Tony, who is a maple sugarer, replied that he had a old 125-gallon plastic sap tank that he would let me have very cheaply. I’ve seen similar used water totes on Craigslist in Vermont for more than twice the money. I was thrilled.

I washed out the tank and, feeling very clever, went to the plumbing store to buy fittings to turn the tank drain into a hose bib. (When it comes to practical skills, it takes very little to make me feel clever.)

As the young man behind the counter laid out the necessary pieces I frowned.

“When Allen and I did plumbing —” I began, then stopped. Of course this boy had no idea who Allen was. “When a friend did some plumbing with me, he used some sort of white tape on the threads?”

He smiled tolerantly. “Teflon tape.” He went to a back shelf, took down a package, opened it, and pulled off a few inches of tape. He laid the tape in all the metal threads on both plumbing pieces and carefully pressed it flat. I was aware I was being kindly patronized by this youngster but that never bothers me. In fact, I’m always grateful for the help.

At home I used my pipe wrench to install the hose bib and then attached a short length of hose. I was in business!

Now I can carry five times as much water without sloshing most of the contents all over the truck before I reach the sheep. I can fill the tank once a week. And when the tank is empty, I can lift it in and out of the truck without help. This saves a huge amount of time and exasperation.

The mower. My friend Mike trailered my elderly lawn tractor down to school and I chugged it along the highway for the last short stretch. Having the mower down at Betty’s simplifies my day because it allows me to move the shade shelters without having to bring my truck into the field. The mower is also much more maneuverable in tight spaces.

The mower has the final advantage of allowing me to shear off any weeds left by the sheep — death to goldenrod! — and trim lanes for my fences. Now that the grass is getting taller and would otherwise short the charge, I measure 37.5′ down the field, set four flags across the pasture to keep me oriented across the 300′ width, and in ten minutes can mow a checkerboard pattern for the coming week.

To keep the field from looking too Poverty-Hollowish, I cover the mower with a dark tarp and park it under a tree, where I hope that for the neighbors it resembles another boulder.

There are still many improvements to be made, but these three are the big ones and keep me smiling.

After just two weeks the sheep know the routine and wait impatiently at the fence for me to open the gate.

A new salad bar awaits! All you can eat!