Getting Tired

June 30, 2011

The anticipation of Katika’s calving, the worry, and the broken nights are wearing me down.

Yesterday I managed to lose both my cell phone and my camera. I always carry them. The weather was cold and wet so I was wearing two pairs of coveralls, and my guess is that the camera and phone fell out of my pockets unnoticed while I was working in the rain somewhere on the combined thirty acres belonging to me and to Betty. I’ve looked everywhere with no luck. I hate losing things.

*   *   *

Still no birthing action from Katika. I keep thinking, “This is it!” and it never is. Last night at 10 PM her ears were icy. In fright I gave her a tube of CMPK to ward off milk fever. This morning her ears are warm but — no calf. I have only one tube left and the store to buy more is an hour away. I hope I haven’t made a bad mistake.

It has been less than a week but feels like forever that I’ve been staring at Katika’s black sides, counting out her breathing. I’ve been up in the night so many times I have stopped climbing all the way into my coveralls and just slip my arms in, leaving the legs to fall behind me like the tails of a frock coat. I started to laugh at midnight, driving to yet another cow check, thinking of being stopped by police: GROUCHO MARX IMPERSONATOR ARRESTED IN PAJAMAS.

*   *   *

My heifer Moxie was in heat yesterday. I had been so sure she was already pregnant that I hadn’t even bothered to separate her from my teenaged bull, Duke. They cavorted romantically all day long. I checked my gestation calendar and if Moxie was bred successfully this time, she will be due April 10, safely after we return from Florida. So that’s one worry off my plate.

*   *   *

Yesterday I found one of my Cornish Rock chickens dead. It had been fine only an hour before. The meat birds are six weeks old — almost at the end of their unnatural lifespan — and I’m sure it died of a heart attack. Cornish Rocks are so fragile it is eerie. Knowing this, and hoping to raise 25 to maturity, I had bought 35. Three died within hours of bringing them home. Now I’m down to 27.

This bird was plump and still warm. My brain was a little sluggish but it seemed a waste to put it out for the coyotes. I brought it home, plucked it, gutted it, and popped it in a stew pot. I’m sure it is fine — and if I were marching with Rogers’ Rangers in the French and Indian War, I’d be thrilled to have it — but because it didn’t bleed out, the flesh is dark. I am boiling it for stock and will feed the meat to the dogs. They watched me eagerly as I gutted it yesterday and have already snapped up the heart and kidneys.

*   *   *

In the midst of the tiredness, there are still delights. I’d told Allen that I’d spotted a mallard and her ducklings on his new pond, which was exciting enough.  But last evening at dusk I saw the birds again and got out my binoculars. It is not a mallard hen, but a hooded merganser, with six chicks.

(The above is not “my” hooded merganser — no camera — but looks just like it.) I was thrilled.

a male hooded merganser

Hooded mergansers nest in hollow tree trunks, like wood ducks. They are diving ducks that eat small fish. I’m guessing this mama is feeding her babies my tadpoles. Having a hooded merganser raising a family at Fairhope Farm makes me happy.

*   *   *

DH leaves at 4 AM tomorrow for a week. I believe this will be the first time I have been alone without children for more than 24 hours since before Lucy was born. I will have to buy another $19 Tracfone today.

Waiting, Waiting … and Fixing the Water

June 29, 2011

Katika continues to play to the gallery. Prolong the wait! Intensify the drama! It is a challenge to keep my sense of humor when I’m so tired.

It helped that Allen came out to the farm yesterday. This was his second trip out, after kindly agreeing to fix the water hydrant in my barn.

My “frost-free” hydrant leaked from the head all winter. I’d ignored it because I’d wrapped the pipe with heat tape, which kept it from freezing even though it wasn’t working properly. But with warm weather I had attached a hose — and now the leak was spraying water six feet in all directions the moment I lifted the handle. Being soaked with cold water every time I filled a bucket had become tedious.

Neither of my water hydrants has worked well since they were installed in 2008 by the water company. Over the years Allen has adjusted them, taken them apart, and even dug one out of the ground with a backhoe to fix it. I now know to bring a kitchen stool for him to sit on as he works. He has perched on the stool, tinkering with wrenches, in high wind, in snow, and yesterday in mud.

“Why is it that my hydrants are so crummy and yours have never —” I began yesterday.

“Shhhhh,” Allen said, putting his finger to his lips, obviously hoping I hadn’t alerted the evil hydrant gods.

The first challenge was to remove the head. Taking it apart was complicated by the fact that the water company had installed the indoor hydrant two inches from the wall, and then I’d lined the wall with 3/4″ plywood. There was no room for the bulky steel head to swivel to unscrew. I had visions of not only having to remove the panel but having to take down the adjacent wall of Katika’s stall to do so.

“Maybe not,” Allen said. Using two-foot pipe wrenches as clamps and braces he pulled the standpipe just clear enough of the wall to unscrew the head with a third pipe wrench.

I love to watch workmen tackle a physical problem. I think of myself as a reasonably bright person but in such circumstances I am always aware of my painful ignorance. These men are as fluent with how things fit together as I am with punctuation marks. Allen will stare silently at some balky piece of equipment, taking it apart piece by piece in his mind. I never have the faintest clue what we are doing but simply follow orders.

Finally we had the head off. Allen had surmised that the problem with my hydrant was in the packing. Packing? I wondered, but didn’t question it. We opened the box of replacement parts and Allen stirred it with his finger. At the bottom of the box were crumbs of graphite. It looked like ground-up pencil lead mixed with toothpaste.

“Packing’s broke,” he said.

It was hard for me to understand how in the midst of all the heavy steel and brass parts, crumbs would be important, but I believed him. We put the hydrant back together temporarily and I ordered two new repair kits. (One to keep on hand as a spare.) Yesterday they arrived.

Before I left the store I opened each box. There was the packing (lower left in photo above), a speckly grey, fragile cylinder as soft as cookie dough. I telephoned Allen. By the time I reached the farm, he was already there and had shut down the water.

It took three hours to fix the hydrant. Parts were rusted together and even with both of us pushing giant wrenches in opposite directions, we couldn’t budge them.

“How do you break rust?” I asked.

“Heat. Got a torch?”

No. I’ll have to buy one someday. In the meantime we drove to Allen’s house to get his. While there he also picked up some scraps of pipe to fit over the ends of our wrenches. One piece was four feet long. “That’ll give some leverage,” he said with satisfaction.

Between the propane torch and the leverage, the rusted innards were teased apart in no time. For the next two hours Allen sat on his stool operating on the hydrant, and I sat on my low milking stool, handing him tools as he called for them.

“Scalpel, doctor,” I teased once as I held out a wrench. Allen was frowning in concentration and didn’t look up.

Another time I ventured, “Did your dad teach you how to do all this?”

“No.” Allen doesn’t chatter. I shut up and watched.

Most of his speech was directed at the hydrant, in a muttered stream of swear words under his breath. “C’mon, you bastard.” Not angry, almost conversational.  Since there is never any heat to Allen’s cursing — I’ve never seen him angry — his language never bothers me.  However at one point, yesterday, he did seem a bit frustrated. We had worked straight through lunch and still the problem was unsolved.

“I’m really sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know this would be so hard.”

“What you sorry for?” he asked. “Ain’t your fault.”

He started to whistle and picked up his wrench again. Allen is always kind and patient. Finally by 2 PM it was all done. The hydrant now works perfectly. No leaks anywhere.

But still no calf. Rolling out of bed for the night checks is getting tougher.

Surely She Can’t Get Bigger

June 28, 2011

Yesterday after a long day and night of anxious watching, I turned Katika out to graze. I snapped these photos while she was still standing by the gate.

Her back legs can barely shuffle around her huge bag. Poor old girl, her udder suspension is getting worse with age.

By the time I’d finished chores and moving the sheep down in Betty’s pasture, the sun was hot and high. The flies came out in droves, so I brought the cows and Birch back into the dark of the barn.

I stuck close all day, digging out and resetting a gate post, hanging the gate, mowing (and breaking the new mower by sending a rock through the mower deck). I checked Katika every twenty minutes as the hours ticked by. Unlike the day before, she was eating, drinking, and chewing her cud placidly.

When I began to put my tools away to go home for supper I checked her one last time. Naturally, now she was straining again as she breathed. Not eating. Not cudding. Looking intently inward. Groaning softly.

I checked her every two hours until bedtime and then again at 1 AM and 5 AM.

Still no calf.

However she is beginning to slime and her ears, which I”ve been groping anxiously at every opportunity, are cooler. (Cold ears are a sign of milk fever, the potentially deadly calving disorder.) I’ve turned her out for a bit of grass while I have breakfast and then return to muck the barn before bringing the animals in again. Towels, iodine, molasses, and milk fever meds are lined up on the grain room counter.

Surely today.

False Alarm

June 27, 2011

I’ve just come in from the 3 AM check and … still no calf.

Yesterday morning Katika waddled into the barn, cleaned up her breakfast grain, and then lay down, groaning. Her udder was impossibly huge, each teat hard and distended. She kept turning awkwardly to lick her sides. Her breathing was uneven. I was sure she was in labor.

I stayed with her all day. All day she groaned, breathed unevenly, and licked her sides. She would not touch her hay. I gave her some water mixed with molasses, which she drank.

No calf.

At 5 PM she hopped up and ate her supper grain, drank some more water, and began to pull at her hay. She turned bright eyes to me. “Well, that was restful,” she seemed to say.

I’ve been checking her every three hours since then. Still no calf.

I’ll be glad when the waiting is over. I’m a wreck.

Katika Appears to Be in Labor!

June 26, 2011

Just home for dry socks and to pack up a flask of coffee and a hunk of bread and cheese for breakfast, then heading back to the barn. Last year she might have died and I’m determined not to let her drift close to that precipice again.

With any luck we will have a calf by tonight!

An Equine Interlude

June 25, 2011

Things are hectic here as I have been busy helping to get Lucy ready to go to sleep-away camp. Camp is a wonderful perk of my husband’s job that both our children have enjoyed. Though it will be hard to have Lucy gone for seven weeks, I know she will have a great time. However in all the preparations I haven’t had time to finish writing about Katika. Perhaps tonight.

Yesterday, between rain showers and yeoman stints of packing, I took Lucy and her friend Anabell riding. This was by way of a goodbye treat. Her horse Birch has not been out under saddle all spring. First Lucy was busy at school, then I was busy with heavy equipment, and finally we were waiting for the farrier to come trim Birch’s hooves.

Now at last she could ride. Unfortunately all the animals are so herd-bound after the long winter together that even though cows might be pesky, Birch hated to leave them. The steer Rocky watched our departure with his head low, bellowing like a mournful foghorn.

On his own for the first time in months, Birch was on his tiptoes, startling and jumping nervously at everything he saw. This made Lucy and Anabell equally nervous.

We thought it might be easier outside the round pen and started to walk him out to the back acres. Birch’s hindquarters bunched underneath him. He blew out his nose, looking around wildly, appearing ready to take flight. I took hold of his bridle, and had second thoughts about a trail ride.

“Maybe we should ride closer to the barn —” I began.

“Great idea!” Anabell said in relief.

As we turned around we noticed that the geese, Andy and K, had been hurrying to follow us out to the back. Pilgrim geese cannot fly, so this was a serious trek.

“C’mon kids, we’re turning back,” I said to the geese. Obediently they turned and stumped after us, waddling as fast as they could go.

“They are so cute,” Lucy cried, snapping photos.

At the barn I decided to take the girls riding in the bottom of the south pasture, where it is flat (and where recently I’d spread manure).

At this point the barn cats Freddie and Flossie chose to join the parade.

At Fairhope Farm, you’ll never walk alone!

Waiting for a Calf

June 23, 2011

Last year, just before Katika calved in April, I started a post called Waiting for a Calf. Then a deluge of problems hit, including milk fever, a metabolic disorder that might have killed her. My cow friends on the internet walked me through saving her, but in all the flurry I never posted about the experience here on this blog. Now, once again I am waiting for a calf. I thought I would put up the old posts so readers would know what I’m on edge to guard against.

April 20, 2010. Katika’s udder is larger than I’ve ever seen it. She is waddling as if she has a beach ball between her legs. Or maybe an overstuffed carpet bag.

Since Katika was pasture bred, I don’t have a due date for her. With experience one can make guesses from the looseness of the ligaments around the tailhead, but for most people the more obvious signs are the swelling of the udder and the puffiness of the vulva.

For this reason, many on my internet cow board post close-up shots of their cow’s bags and private parts, asking others to evaluate and predict the time of calving. (Years ago DH walked by my computer as I was scanning some of these photos. He murmured, “More cow porn?”)

I haven’t posted any close-ups but I’ve been watching. Though Katika’s vulva isn’t overly puffy, she’s definitely quite hormonal. A moment after I took this picture she tried to mount the head of my young bull Charlie.

I have been worried by the serious edema (swelling due to retained fluid) in her udder. I was taking pictures today when Katika lay down and I saw a tear. At first I thought her udder had literally split under the pressure!

However, I got her into her stall and it appears to me that she must have stepped on it. In older cows, as in older women, everything sags — and for cows, udder injuries from hooves are not uncommon. Luckily, this wound is not on the teat, but it is close by.

A cut on a teat is difficult to deal with because after calving each quarter must be milked to keep the cow from painful mastitis — yet touching a wound causes so much immediate discomfort the cow naturally wants to kick you or the calf away. Katika, my dear old cow, has never purposefully kicked me. But there is always a first time.

I put some iodine on the wound, so I think it’s disinfected. To calm her down after the sting, I also greased her hot swollen bag with Bag Balm. I had terrible edema with my second child and I remember how incredibly painful the rock-hard engorgement is.

…At this point I broke off to go to barn chores. There I found a host of issues requiring immediate attention, and I never came back to finish the blog entry. Tomorrow I will post about those difficulties in Katika’s calving, 2010.

Meanwhile, in 2011, Katika’s udder is swelling slowly but surely. First to bag up was the quarter injured last summer, when she was kicked in the udder by my Haflinger pony. For almost a week earlier this month she looked as if she were carrying a bowling ball in that quarter, along with three flat, empty purses. Now the other quarters are filling to match.

Katika could calve any day now. I am trying to concentrate on the return of foamy, delicious milk and not on all the things that could go wrong. Still, I’ve gathered all the medicines and have them ready. Tomorrow I will start night checks.

A Day to Regroup

June 22, 2011

My daughter Lucy and I spent a long day in the car yesterday, driving two hours to Vermont for her orthodontic appointment and taking the opportunity while in the big city to shop for socks, underwear, boots, and other things she will need at camp.

We had planned the trip like a military campaign: our itinerary was strict and our lists were in hand. I had left for barn chores at 6 AM and by the time I got home for a quick shower at 7:30 Lucy had walked the dogs and packed the car with homemade lunches and drinks, plus a cooler full of ice so we could buy a frozen dinner to heat on our return. We were on the road at precisely 8 o’clock.

We drove back into our driveway 4 PM, I went down to the farm to do chores, D arrived at 5:15 to help me set the last fence posts with his backhoe, and I was peeling off my coveralls for supper at 6:30.

For the last week I’ve been rushing through tasks, mucking stalls at the crack of dawn, moving sheep before bedtime. Though I’ve managed it, I’ve been aware of dropping balls.

Three nights ago I sat bolt upright at midnight, realizing I had forgotten to shut up the geese; I threw back the covers, shoved my bare feet into boots, fumbled out to the truck in my pajamas, and drove down to the farm. Yesterday morning when watering the sheep I discovered that the night before I’d been in such a hurry I’d neglected to turn back on the battery charger. Only luck had kept them inside the fence and safe.

Meanwhile my house is a reproachful mess. Phone calls and emails have gone unreturned. Nametapes have not been sewn. I haven’t given a thought to planning the party for 65 I have to host in three weeks for my husband’s work. The garden is choked with weeds. I’ve had no time to mow at Betty’s or in my back acres, and the fields have gotten away from me — they look as if they could be cut for hay.

Today I have no appointments. It will be a day to recoup and regroup, start to tame the disorderliness, and make fresh lists.

Lucille Ball Behind the Counter

June 21, 2011

I’ve been helping out at the heavy equipment rental store in town while the owner is in the hospital in Boston with a broken neck and his wife is there visiting him.

It sounded so easy when I offered to stand behind the counter from 8 to 5, answer the phone, and ring up sales. But it has been an extremely humbling experience.

I am not comfortable being a beginner at anything, being visibly clueless. In this job I have felt as if I were trapped in an episode of I Love Lucy, with myself starring as the foolish redhead.

When my friend D, the long-time mechanic, was there, I was nervous but OK. The phone would ring with a question, I’d ask him for the answer, I’d relay the information, and the call would be successfully concluded. However D was usually out delivering machines to neighboring towns.

The phone rang. “I want to rent the Ditch Witch for tomorrow.”

I looked at the rental sheet. Nothing said “Ditch Witch.” Oh dear.

“I’m sorry, may I take your information and call you back in half an hour?”

Ring. “Do you rent a brace for bending sheet metal?”

Ring. “Can I pick up banker’s scaffolding this morning?”

Ring. “Where is my floor sander that was supposed to be delivered at nine?”

Ring. “There is steam coming out of the forty-five-foot man lift. What should I do?”

Ring. Question after question, and most of them I couldn’t answer. I’ve looked at snakes with more warmth than I regarded that telephone.

Meanwhile men (it was usually men) would be walking in the doors. I grew to hate the sound of another truck pulling in.

“I need a 12-inch metal cut-off blade.”

“I need some chain and bar oil.”

“I need a round file and an eight-inch storm collar.”

At first my eyes would dilate with panic. None of these things were kept up front in the shop, but in the repair area in the back — essentially a large featureless warehouse. However soon I had abandoned all pride and dignity. “I’m so sorry, but you have a fool waiting on you today. I have no idea what that is, or where it is kept. Come help me look.”

The men would laugh at me, but I’m used to men laughing at me. Together we’d rummage through the shelves.

Then I would be stuck with the problem that no prices were marked. “I’m so sorry, but I’m going to have to write up a ticket for you and have you come back in to pay when the owner is back.”

The worst was when three or four men would come in, one after another, and I would be parroting these apologies over and over in their hearing as they all stood at the counter waiting their turn. However eventually I was so accustomed to appearing like an idiot that I hardly flushed any more, or got upset when the second phone line began to ring while I was answering the first and I accidentally hung up on both calls — or even when I realized I did not know how to open the cash register.

D knew I was in over my head. Several times I called his cell phone. He was driving but would ring back eventually.

“What’cha need?”

“A man wants to rent a Ditch Witch?”


“Another guy wants banker’s scaffolding?”

“Baker’s. In the back shed.” And so on.

I did improve. D returned and showed me where the price sheets were kept and how to open the register. Chip came in and demonstrated how to run a credit card. Still, by five o’clock each day I was dead on my feet.

Retail. It’s not for sissies.

Better Pasture Through Poop

June 20, 2011

Yesterday D came at 8 AM with his backhoe and we spread my giant manure pile. Last year it took me two weeks to do this, loading the spreader by hand. With D and the backhoe loading, it took two hours.

I had decided to take a tip from Claire, a young internet friend who farms in Ohio. Claire is conducting her Better Pasture through Poop Project, dumping manure compost thickly over a small area to kick-start the rejuvenation of her pasture. Similarly I decided to spread my entire 20-ton pile over a single acre, and then fence that acre off from the animals for the rest of the summer while the manure broke down.

I had neglected to mention this plan to D. He was mystified as the grass in the very small area gradually disappeared under a thick frosting of manure.

He yelled to me crossly, “Spread it on the field, f’chrissake, don’t keep goin’ round and round in a track!

I just smiled at him.

My hope is that the heavy application of manure compost will help to sweeten the soil on this small, poor section of bottom land. Parts of it are still so sour and rocky that even winter rye — even briars! — can scarcely get a toehold in the lunar dirt.

By the end of the day I had most of the area fenced off. (Double-click to enlarge.) The experiment begins!