Dark and Dreary

January 27, 2012

We were supposed to get four inches of snow and ice last night. Schools closed in anticipation. Instead we got more rain. This morning our snow is reduced to tattered rags.

In the barnyard what isn’t ice is mud. What isn’t mud is disgusting thawing manure. The sky is dark. The mood is depressing.

I was driving home from the farm, thinking, “Could anything be more dreary?” when the clouds suddenly parted and a rainbow arched down to emblazon a birch in front of my windshield.

I remembered the poem Rainy Day by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the moldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the moldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

A minute later my light and rainbow were gone, but it was lovely to be reminded that behind the grim and gloomy clouds the sun still shines.

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Feeling Frisky Again

January 26, 2012

Yesterday I gave Opie his third and final shot of Baytril. Though he still coughs occasionally, his fever is gone and his energy is returning. Last night at chores I opened all the stall doors and let him scamper around the barn while I was mucking and cleaning.

Ooh! Chase the geese out of Birch’s stall!

Gallop up and down the aisle!

I heard a crackle and saw Opie pause to bash the half-full bag of shavings with his head. There is something about bags of shavings that demands attention from healthy bull calves — they must be faced and killed.

Knock wood, the boy is back!


Weaning Phoenix

January 25, 2012

I have weaned Katika’s six-month-old heifer calf. Phoenix is a big sturdy girl, does not need the milk, and was gulping down the supply with such enthusiasm that by the end of each day there was little left for Opie, the three-week-old bull calf, and nothing for the house.

I had been wanting to wean Fee for over a week but with the temperatures lurching far below zero, I’d hesitated to put the plastic weaning ring in her nose. I have seen the weaners crusted over with ice from the calves’ breathing and the sight is alarming.

But with Monday’s warmer temperatures, it was time. I tied Fee in her stall, slipped the weaner’s rounded prongs into her nostrils, and tightened it gently.

I have never seen a calf have Fee’s reaction. When I turned her out, she tossed her head almost upside down to stare at the sky, staggered, and nearly fell down.

I began to worry. I had done exactly what I always did. The weaner works like a screw-on earring; though it must feel odd, it does not hurt. What could be the problem? No steer had ever behaved like this. Fee continued to stagger and swivel her head drunkenly like a collapsing calf marionette. I watched in concern for quite a few minutes before I realized that this was just teen girl drama.

When I turned out Katika, Fee rushed to her and shoved her head under her mother’s bag. Katika stood patiently, barely wincing as the sharp points pricked her udder. However the weaner’s design prevented Fee from grasping a teat in her mouth. Though drooling with eagerness, she could not nurse.

Whenever I looked outside that day, I saw Fee mutinously shoving at Katika’s bag. Her hind legs were coated with diarrhea. (Cattle respond to any distress by immediately evacuating their bowels.)  Her body language telegraphed her outrage.  I protest!

Yesterday, when I turned them out in the cold rain, the storyline was exactly the same, but the tale was much shorter.

I’m sure everything will be back to normal today.

Oh no! Still can’t grab it!

Ah ha! A brilliant idea!

This side of Mama will surely work.


Ugh!  Still… can’t… reach it!

* Sigh. *

In less than ten minutes, Fee was eating hay. In a few days, she should give up and stop pestering her mother.


Calf with a Cough

January 24, 2012

I was mucking out Katika’s stall when I heard it. Cough, cough. I froze, listening. There it was again. Cough. It was my three-week-old bull calf, Opie, coughing in the lamb stall.

Calves are very fragile. It’s hard to imagine because they are so big and bouncy, and when they feel well they gambol down the barn aisle, kicking and bucking and scattering chickens. However if they catch pneumonia or start scouring with diarrhea they can go from lively to dead within hours.

I have never dealt with a seriously sick calf, nor do I wish to.

It has been a challenge to keep Opie warm and dry in our crazily swinging temperatures. I have dressed him in a homemade calf jacket. I have deliberately held off burning his horns or making a decision about castration because I did not want to stress his body further. Nevertheless he has developed a cough.

I tied Opie and took his temperature. 102.6°. Normal in calves ranges from 101° – 102.2°. My copy of Heather Smith Thomas’s wonderful Essential Guide to Calving says that anything over 102.5° indicates a sick calf.

There are two kinds of pneumonia, viral and bacterial. In calves, apparently they often first develop the viral form, which depletes them so thoroughly that the bacterial version moves in and finishes them off.

It seems possible that Opie is brewing a virus, but I decided to give him antibiotics just in case. There are a few different meds I could use. LA-200 is the veterinary equivalent of amoxycillin for children: the first line of defense but often inadequate. Baytril and Draxxin are stronger. And then there is Micotil, the strongest of all — but with the worrying side effect of being fatal to humans if accidently finger-stuck. Gosh, I think I’ll avoid that one.

I had both LA-200 and Baytril in my vet box. After reading the pluses and minuses I looked up the dose on the internet and gave Opie an injection of 2 ccs of Baytril. I’ll repeat it for three days and hope for the best.

The wind howled around the barn as the temperature rose to 40°. I mucked 1/4 of the deep bedding out of the sheep stall, favoring my bad shoulder. Opie watched me sleepily as I went to and fro, pushing the loaded wheelbarrow. By evening rain was falling in sheets.

I took the opportunity to fill the paddock water trough.


“The Water’s Froze”

January 23, 2012

Yesterday morning I put out hay and then tried the newly-repaired water hydrant in the barn paddock. The handle, neatly wrapped in heat tape, would not move. At 14° below zero it was frozen again.

I could feel a pulse start to tap in my temple.

Winter water issues have been a problem since I first got my own livestock back in 2004. Frozen pipes, frozen troughs, cracked buckets. In the years that I rented barn space, I had to fill my water tank with a 25-foot hose. Though I set up a pulley system to hoist the hose into a tree to allow it to drain after each use, my family still stumbled regularly over coils of hose thawing in dirty puddles on our kitchen floor.

When I was finally able to build my own barn and install not one, but two frost-free water hydrants, I was sure my water troubles were over.  Nope.

One of the reasons I love old rural memoirs is that my day-to-day experience often seems to have more in common with a bygone era. It’s comforting to read about someone else’s trials with escaping pigs or balky heifers — even if that someone has been lying in the churchyard for decades. Recently I’ve been re-reading one of my favorite of these memoirs, Green Mountain Farm by Elliott Merrick.

Merrick moved to northern Vermont in 1934. A few years later, in winter, his water line froze.

“Zack lent me his team, pung, and eight milk cans. I spent a couple of bitter days in January filling the cistern from a spring-fed water trough about a quarter mile away. The water slopped and sheathed me in ice, but it didn’t seem so bad, because most everyone was having trouble with water that year, and many farmers’ water lines were frozen.”

a pung loaded with milk cans

The “sheathed in ice” description reminded me of November 2008, when my elderly friend Allen and I were trenching for the water line to my barn. Having no water source on the farm, I had been ferrying it from our apartment by filling a 100-gallon trough in the back of my pickup truck, and then dipping it out by the bucket for the animals. Over the short distance between school and farm, every day the water sloshed and spilled — and froze. Allen glanced in at the foot-thick cake of ice lining my truck bed and observed, “Carryin’ a little weight back there.”

Reading about shared experiences can give you a cozy fellow-feeling. And sometimes it’s helpful to be reminded that you really don’t have it so bad. Merrick also wrote about his neighbors. Lyman was a dairy farmer whose buried water line froze in January and didn’t thaw until mid-May.

During all those months Lyman had had to drive his cows and horses down the hill to the spring-fed water trough, in blizzards, snow to the thigh, ice, cold, rain. His cows’ milk production fell off because the water was so cold the cows didn’t drink enough, and they drank too infrequently also. During those four months he had had to carry every drop that was used in the house. The problem of the house is a small matter, but for a dairy farmer with forty head of stock the loss of barn water is something else again. He has to toil like a galley slave till spring, and his milk check will be diminished.

The same thing happened to our neighbor Sibley, on Chimney Ridge. He is one man alone to work a 250-acre farm, hard pressed by a mortgage, milking thirty-five cows, raising fifteen head of young stock, a team of horses to tend, and his children all small.

[Let us pause to consider the work of one man hand-milking thirty-five cows twice a day, every day.]

A neighbor boy told me about it. Sibley walked into the kitchen one morning with a look on his face like a thunder cloud full of lightning.

“What’s the matter, Sibley?” asked his wife.

“The God-damned water’s froze,” said Sibley. He picked up a heavy iron poker and hit the cookstove a clip with it that bent the poker. “The God-damned water’s froze,” he repeated, beating the stove with all the strength of his knotty arms.

“We got to use that stove,” said his wife. So he went to work on a bent hickory chair instead. He smashed it to kindling wood in the twinkling of an eye, cursing and screaming.

Quietly his wife took the poker from his hand. “We need the chair, too,” she said.

He went outside. It was then morning. He did not come back to the house till long after dark, and even after he returned did not speak to anyone for three days. After that he was all right again.

Water gets you.

It does get you. Even on a very small scale, in which frozen water only means carrying twenty or thirty buckets a day, you do long to beat something very hard with a poker. But thankfully for me, though not my skiers, temperatures today are forecast to soar by almost sixty degrees. We are due to have rain and 50 mph winds this afternoon.

It will be a mess. But it seems likely my water will thaw.


Slick Ice and Sauna Time

January 22, 2012

It is -14° F this morning. The farm is coated with heavy plate ice with a few inches of powder on top. Walking is difficult. The horse and cows constantly slip and catch themselves. The water hydrant in the barn paddock froze solid. However a school group of cross-country skiers came over yesterday after their ski to have a sauna. In the photo above, they are screaming happily and rolling in the snow.

The sauna is one I built for DH for our 25th wedding anniversary, out of my old toolshed. Though insulated and panelled, it is not elegant; I haven’t yet gotten around to building cedar benches, so users sit on my mother’s old kitchen chairs clustered close to the wood stove. Nevertheless a bucket of cold water poured over the hot sauna rocks produces a satisfying steam. I could hear the children squealing all the way from the barn.

D came out after work yesterday to help me with my frozen water. He had lent me his heat gun to try to defrost the hydrant, but after five minutes struggling to keep on my feet on the ice while wielding a plug-in metal gun next to an electric fence and over a giant tub of water, I’d given up on the job, sure I would be electrocuted and die. I called D and told him that I’d tried to tighten the set-screw, but that hadn’t worked either.

“Don’t even touch it, you’ll only fuck it up,” he said shortly. (The boys who know me have a clear idea of my skill level.) “I’ll bring my torch.”

A few hours later I watched him sitting on a wooden stool in the snow, heating the pipe with a flame. Years ago I brought that stool down to the farm for his father, Allen, who sat similarly in the snow, wielding a torch, many, many times. This “frost-free” hydrant has never worked properly since it was installed. His father has dug up the hydrant with a backhoe to try to fix it, not once but twice. I have wrapped the pipe in electric heat tape. Still it freezes below ground.

D is as silent as his father is, but where Allen is usually whistling under his breath, D is usually scowling. Over five months of making diabetic lunches for him, however, I have learned that his gruff rudeness is mostly an act. He has been very kind to me.

After an hour of silent, patient work with the propane torch, steam began boiling out of the hydrant faucet, and finally the water flowed. D readjusted the set screw. I re-wrapped the pipe in heat tape. I’ll hope for the best.

“Let’s look at that door,” D said, as he stowed the torch in his car. I had told him that one of my big front barn doors had fallen off its bolt in the recent windstorm.

I have had the big door propped up on blocks. I’d thought vaguely that once the wind stopped banging and it was warm enough to have my hands out of gloves, I could lift the door to the proper position, fit my hand inside the sliding mechanism, and restore the crucial nut to the end of the bolt.

D looked at the mechanism with narrowed eyes. “You ain’t never gonna get that nut in there.”

He decided the only thing to do was take the door off the barn. To get that door off, we had to remove both. Each door is 6×8 and weighs over 100 pounds. In the fall I had sunk a row of steel t-posts at the edge of the barn to keep Mike from plowing snow into my pile of stored materials. Now those t-posts were exactly where we needed to move the doors, 4-foot tall sharp spikes set in a sloping, slippery sheet of ice. The stool we were to stand on skittered and slid over the surface.

“Workin’ in a fuckin’ deathtrap,” D observed mildly. It has always interested me that petty annoyances ignite his hot temper but with real problems he is calm. He took his leather work gloves off and fitted them over the top of the dangerous metal spikes. It was 10°.

In less than an hour (including a break to thaw out in my truck with the heater blowing full blast) we had the doors down, the sliding mechanism fixed, the doors rehung, and the wooden stopper screwed back into the end of the metal track. D did it all while I lifted or pushed at his direction.

He was just getting into his car to leave when the children pelted down the driveway, slipping and falling, on their way to the sauna. D would not take any money. I shall have to find some delicious low-carb treat to cook for him next week.

At dusk, when the school van tried to leave, it slid on the ice completely off the driveway. I paused in my barn chores to try to pull it out with my truck, lying in the snow and grunting to hook up the chains. However even in four-wheel drive my truck could not get enough purchase on the slippery hill. In the end another vehicle came to pick up the students, and the big van was left beached on the ice, to be dealt with today.

Winter has barely arrived and already I’m sick of it.


Hoar Frost

January 20, 2012

A reader once asked me what hoar frost was. Here is an example, on the inside bolt and latch of the barn’s dutch door. It is the exhalations of my patient cows and sheep, crystallized at -20° F on narrow surfaces just like sugar crystals on cotton string in sixth grade science experiments.

When I roll open the barn doors in the morning at those temperatures, every loose stalk of hay is frosted into a sparkler. The cows’ whiskers, normally invisible, look like white stars radiating from their muzzles. It’s all very pretty, and very cold.

Neato frito, eh?