Fetching the Stove

March 31, 2012

Today I’m on the road back to Burlington to pick up my new antique wood cookstove.

My friend D has kindly agreed to ride over to the city with me, for which I am grateful. Not only will it be helpful to have extra muscle on hand when trying to pass heavy pieces of cast iron through a basement window, but my twelve-year-old truck is rusting at a suddenly accelerated rate — the muffler rusted through two weeks ago; the tailgate hinge fell off two days ago — and it will be reassuring to be traveling with a mechanic on board.

Though D heats his house with wood, he has never used a cookstove. However his father, my dear friend Allen, grew up with them.

D told me the story of Allen’s grandmother sweeping her kitchen and lifting a stove lid to empty the dustpan into the firebox. Apparently she did not notice that among the wood shavings and dust were a number of bullets. Breakfast was punctuated by a fusillade of gunfire.

As I often reflect, my life has been so dull compared to many.

Found My Cookstove!

March 29, 2012

Yesterday while in Burlington with my children for appointments, we stopped to see an antique kitchen cookstove I’d found on Craigslist. It is a Glenwood 508E, a stove model manufactured between 1880 and 1930. I’ll have to get to know it better before I can guess more closely at its date. Last night I made arrangements to buy it.

In many respects I have no business buying a cookstove at this time. Not only is money very tight, but I haven’t yet built the kitchen to put it in!

However the stove is just what I was looking for, and the price was reasonable. The stove has not been restored but has been in use for most of the last forty years. It is currently stored in a dry basement and has little rust. If it had been professionally restored it would have cost me two to three times as much.

Moreover I’d just learned that a cracked crown on one of my back molars has to be replaced. It seemed significant to me that the 600-pound stove would cost me much less than a tiny piece of metal and porcelain. Surely a cookstove would bring me much more lasting satisfaction and joy.

Fetching the stove home will require some creative planning to line up the required muscles on both ends of the trip. But somehow it brings the prospect of a home of our own a little closer.

Almost like buying a fancy front door — now I have to build the house!

Cold Again

March 27, 2012

This morning it is 13° F. The weather turned cold again over the weekend and now is more typical of the season: snow, rain, wind, mud, ice. I think my blood thinned over the unexpected week of summer temperatures — or all my hats and gloves and extra jackets fell to the back of my locker and I’ve been slow to remember to dig them out. I’ve shivered at chores for the last few days. With numb hands I broke the thick ice on the paddock trough and reconnected the water heater.

I believe the return to sugaring weather (very cold nights, days just above freezing) is too late for the local maple sugarers. Last week the forest poplars all exploded into pale yellow torches of early leaves. The sap will surely run in the maple trees but I suspect the taste will be off due to the swelling buds.

I am doing a lot of driving this week, fetching school children returning from vacation from the Albany airport and train station (and taking my own children to Burlington tomorrow for the dentist). I am not sorry to miss the blustery weather and I’m glad to make a few extra dollars to put toward my projects.

I left the sheep and lambs inside yesterday in the sleet. I’m not afraid of cold for the lambs, but wet cold and wind seems too big a risk when I’m gone for the day. Today there will be no snow or rain so they will bounce outside again.

Though I don’t enjoy the accompanying dark skies, we need snow or rain. This area is actually experiencing a drought. There is a burn ban in effect across these northern New York counties. This is unheard of in spring in the soggy, boggy Adirondacks. Watching the continuing strange weather, I can’t help but feel uneasy.

Growing Nest

March 26, 2012

My Pilgrim goose, Kay, has laid eight eggs so far. Her mate, Andy, is bursting with pride and marches around with his head lowered, hissing.

The nest is in the corner of the box stall belonging to Lucy’s aged horse, Birch. I’ve always thought of Birch as being like Mr. Wilson, Dennis the Menace’s elderly neighbor — grumpy but never mean with the calves and lambs and chickens constantly underfoot. However now as he eats his supper against the wall, avoiding with weary resignation the posturing and screaming of a small, belligerent goose, I’m starting to think of him as the butler Mr. Carter in Downton Abbey. It’s war time, the footmen have departed, and we are reduced to maids serving in the dining room!

It will be interesting to discover if any of the goose eggs are viable, and how many Kay’s brain deems the proper number before she sits down to incubate them. I have seen Andy’s rough attempts to copulate, generally in a half-inch mud puddle, usually ending up with both geese falling over in a helpless tangle, and have not been optimistic.

Building Bluebird Boxes

March 24, 2012

The past week has been incredibly warm, a stretch of hot, sunny days with temperatures approaching 80° F. My joke has been, “We couldn’t go to Florida this year, so Florida came to us!” As we are usually dark, dismal, cold and sleeting at this time of year, everyone in town has been smiling — except the ski resorts (closed early after a scant, poor season) and the maple sugar operators (ditto). It is frightening to think what this bizarre weather may portend in terms of global warming. Despite my uneasiness, however, it is hard to stay gloomy when the sun is shining, the wood frogs are calling, and the woods are alive with the sound of returning songbirds.


Songbirds! I have a list as long as my arm but I had a sudden brainwave and asked the lumberyard, when their truck next passed by, to drop a dozen six-foot 1×6 boards. I have been meaning to build some bluebird nest boxes. I have had a pair of bluebirds nesting at the farm for the last three years, but I’d like to have more. I’d also like to have swallows.

barn swallow

Two years ago I had my first barn swallows. I was lyrically happy to see them swooping over the fields. I was a little less excited when I discovered their nesting spot: in the rafters of the unfinished garage apartment. They had flown in through a tear in the plastic over the garage doors and zoomed upstairs through the stairwell. I was careful not to disturb them and after the nestlings fledged, Lucy and I spent an hour removing the mud nest and scraping the floor underneath it. That winter the garage doors went up.

Last spring I was in the barn hayloft when the swallows returned, searching for new accommodations. I had the hayloft door open for heat ventilation as well as the back window. It would have been perfect to have barn swallows in a barn. However I could not risk leaving the loft door open all summer in storms and wind; it would bang on its hinges and be destroyed. When the reconnoitering scout flew out again, I closed the door. There were no swallows on the farm last year. The fly population exploded.

tree swallow

This year I am trying to boost my natural defenses. I have a plan for barn swallows, which I will report if it works. In the meantime I am determined to attract more bluebirds, plus tree swallows.

Bluebirds and tree swallows often live side by side in harmony. They prefer the same sort of nest box but their diet is different. The bluebirds eat grasshoppers, spiders, and other bugs; the swallows patrol ceaselessly for flies.

The lumberyard dropped off my dozen pine boards. I’d looked up plans for bluebird boxes on the internet and taken ideas from several to make a plan. I borrowed the use of the school’s compound miter saw for an hour and cut each board into six pieces. As I had to cook our supper, I laid out the piles for each box on the kitchen counter, to form a production line. (This is the sort of project I like to finish quickly before DH gets home and reels at the disarray.)

The various plans called for either screws or finishing nails to fasten the boxes together. I tried both and decided on screws. I am the sort of ham-fisted carpenter who likes the option to back up, take things apart easily, and start over when I make mistakes. I have never had a carpentry class so I tend to figure things out by trial and error, leaning heavily on error.

At first each box took about half an hour to put together. Most of that time was spent drilling the 1.5″ entry hole, the two 1/4″ ventilation holes in each wall, and the four 1/4″ ventilation holes in the base.

I sweated for quite a while before I realized that pre-drilling a tiny pilot hole reducing the drilling time of all the larger holes by 75%. It also took me much longer than it should have to realize that because I’d bought rough-cut boards, only planed on one face, to save money, the random widths meant I had to work a little harder to make my pieces fit together, and they would rarely be perfectly tight.

“The birds won’t care,” Lucy reassured me.

Yesterday I hung the first six boxes. I’ll hang the rest today.

Duncraft's bluebird box

I notice online that Duncraft Wild Bird Supplies sells almost the same bluebird box. To clean out the Duncraft boxes at the end of the season, you have to unscrew one wall. Mine have one wall hinged on nails. The Duncraft box sells for $49.95. I built twelve boxes for $23.98 — $2 a box, not including the screws.

This pleases me greatly.

Now I just have to wait and hope for the birds!

Quick-changing Calves

March 20, 2012

Opie two weeks ago

Jersey bull calves often change color as they mature. They are almost always born a soft chestnut brown, looking like big-eyed fawns. (Katika’s own calves are usually dark chocolate, given her mixed heritage.) Gradually most darken with black points. Many purebred Jerseys end up with black faces; some even appear, from a distance, almost entirely black.

In  my experience, the color change most often starts along the topline. The longer hair along the spine grows in black and over time the rest of the coat darkens to match.

A few years ago, my bull calf Charlie, named for the movie star Charles Bronson, was an exception. One day black circles appeared around his eyes. For a brief moment of worry, I thought the calf was unwell. Over the next week the circles deepened and darkened, giving him a louche and dissipated air, as if he were suffering from a monster hangover.

My elderly friend Allen exclaimed, “He’s even startin’ to look like Charles Bronson!”

Now Opie is following the same path. The hung-over look has passed and he’s turning darker by the day.

The Lambs Go Out

March 19, 2012

It is unseasonably warm. Yesterday it was over 70° and the flock of ewes and lambs went outside all day for the first time.

It is always the same story. The ewes scatter to eat hay in the sunshine. The lambs stand bunched at the barn door, wailing in fright. Because the ewes know there is nothing to worry about, they don’t bother to return to the lambs or even nicker back in reassurance. For a few hours, the crying is ear-splitting. Eventually the little families are reunited and quiet again reigns.

Meanwhile I worked on fencing. I like to turn off the electric paddock fence when the babies first go out, so as not to add a painful shock to their anxiety and confusion.

Over the last few days I had replaced worn fence lines and cut 24 fresh heavy-duty connector cables to wire the lines together. Each end of the cables had to be stripped. There is a tool for this, but as I don’t own it, I had used the kitchen knife, pliers, and boot heel method.

Now I walked around the paddock with a bucket bristling with connector cables, wiring together all the lines on each side of the three gates. In the background of the lambs’ bleating I could hear robins squabbling and the dropping notes of the first red-wing blackbirds of the season. A few brave bugs zoomed in the breeze. It was peaceful work in the warm sunshine.

Shortly before lunch D brought his granddaughter out to the farm. Emma has just turned three and loves to see the animals. I have explained to her that most are afraid of her. She stumped around the paddock, calling loudly and cheerfully, “It’s OK, baby sheep!”

I always hover over young children in the barnyard. Because they are small, close to the ground, and move quickly, livestock can mistake them for predators. The possibility of a defensive attack by a rooster, gander, or cow is ever-present in my mind.

Without a ram in their midst, however, my sheep can generally be trusted to run away. I explained to a disappointed Emma that the mama sheep thought she might be a coyote.

I not a coyote,” she told me seriously, climbing up the rock. “I a puma!”

By the end of the day the flock was resting in the shade of the barn and the fence had a comfortable 6000 volts in all its lines. I’m not sure why I can’t get the voltage higher. I’ll tinker with it but it’s safe for now.

Treating a Case of Sheep Mastitis, Part III

March 18, 2012


When Roger the shearer was here and had my ewe Lily tipped on her bottom, I snapped these quick shots of her mastitic udder. As I was leaning out precariously over the wall of the sheep stall and the light was low, the focus is poor. However they’ll give the general idea.

On the left you can see the healthy right side of her udder. On the right is the mastitic left. [Double-click to enlarge.]

Notice how shrunken the udder is on her left side? See how grossly enlarged is the teat? This is not how the udder looked three weeks ago, when Lily first lambed.

Originally the mastitic half of the udder was as large, or larger, than the healthy half, and tight as a drum. The teat was normal-sized but stiff and hard. It felt exactly like a valve stem on an over-inflated tire.

After ten days of udder massage, injections of the antibiotic LA-200, and daily teat infusions of TODAY mastitis medication, I had worked the cheesy pus out of the abscessed udder half. That side of her udder shrank away. My concern was that I never got to the bottom of the pus. It always re-filled, ever so slightly. Every morning I could massage out a bit more material. What to do? Though I had become even fonder of Lily in all this 1:1, I could not risk infecting the rest of my flock. Nor in my small set-up could I keep her separate much longer.

I had read on my cow board of “killing a teat” — introducing a caustic agent that would cause scarring to seal the teat forever — and I sent out a query to my sheep list. ( I have written about this.) In reply, the owner of a large flock, whose husband is a vet, outlined the procedure they followed. They infused the teat with the chemical chlorhexidine mixed 1:4 with sterile water, for three days, then every other day for another three.

From my research on the internet I have some doubts about the effectiveness of chlorhexidine for this purpose when used full strength. In a diluted mixture it seems even less likely to work. I joked with the flock owner that perhaps instead of “killing” the teat, this procedure chemically “dry-cleaned” it.

However the full-strength option, whether using chlorhexidine, 7% iodine, or formeldahyde (listed in ascending order of apparent effectiveness) is extremely painful. With my horseman friend Larry away on vacation, I don’t have access to banamine, the painkiller that might make it tolerable. I decided to go ahead with the painless, less than perfect solution.

veterinary teat cannula

I drove to the city an hour away and bought chlorhexine (the disinfectant Nolvasan) and sterile water. Not having a sheep-sized teat cannula (a blunt-tipped device for delivering infusions, which looks a bit like a bicycle needle) I washed out and sterilized an empty TODAY syringe. I mixed up the blue Nolvasan solution in a clean jam jar. I filled an empty film canister with rubbing alcohol to soak the teat, per instructions, for 30 seconds before each treatment.

I was all set. I went to the barn the next day with my coveralls sagging and clanking with veterinary accoutrements.

Unfortunately, when I checked Lily that morning I found that overnight her teat had ballooned to three times its normal size. Obviously infection had re-bloomed. Although for two weeks she had stood quietly chewing hay while I massaged her bag, now she jumped frantically away from my touch.

For the last four days I have treated her again with TODAY and stripped pus out of the teat. Thankfully, after 48 hours the swelling subsided and she was again standing quietly. The teat remains enlarged and fibrous.

Yesterday I began the Nolvasan treatments. I am not optimistic for great permanent results, but I am holding out hope that I can at least render the teat non-infectious for the current lactation, so Lily and her lamb can rejoin her mother, sisters, and the rest of the flock on grass over the summer.

For me, for the time being, that would be success enough.

Missing Florida

March 17, 2012

The kids and I did not go on our annual trek to Florida this year. It is always hard for me to get away from the farm, and in December, when I had to make a decision, it looked as if I would have to have an operation this month. So I canceled our reservation at our timeshare.

I have been missing the whole experience. The 23-hour, two-day drive, wherein my friend Joanne and I talk out every detail of each of our lives over the past year (we only see each other briefly between Florida trips). The sunshine. The lack of schedule. The sharing of cooking and grocery shopping responsibilities. The trips to Goodwill for used books. The reading by the pool. The children laughing and playing in the water. The birds. The daily walks and bike rides and the smell of flowering tropical shrubs after a rain.

I have also missed the break from barn chores. Though I love working with animals, I appreciate this annual chance to shuck the harness of the twice-a-day discipline. It is especially welcome after the pressure of lambing season. No milking, no mucking, no checking my watch, no climbing in and out of boots and coveralls, no girding my loins for the next task.

Florida is also a time to review my life, organize my thoughts and my papers, and make plans for self-improvement. (Somehow this year I seem to have accomplished almost nothing on my three-page Winter To-Do list. I don’t quite know why. Surely this requires some pondering.) Anything seems possible when Joanne and I are sitting in damp bathing suits in the sunshine, trading ideas and mutual encouragement. It is an annual spring-cleaning for my mind.

The past few days have been dark and rainy. The farm driveway is a muddy mire with foot-deep ruts. The scant snow has melted away, and a clammy mist has rolled over the brown, dead fields.  Stripping pus out of an udder and forking manure, I have felt gloomy.

I’ve tried to be stern with myself: you couldn’t have gone to Florida anyway, with a sick ewe. And: Think of all the people with real troubles, and you’re missing vacation!

I’ve also tried to look on the bright side: with this crazy weather, you can get out the manure spreader soon!  You could be weedwhacking all the briar patches two months early!

But still I have missed those lazy, sunny, happy days.

Shearing Day

March 16, 2012

Roger the shearer came yesterday. Because he had car trouble, he was almost three hours late, so shearing consumed the day. By the time I got home to cook dinner after chores, I was hobbling with a stiff back, sore knee, and aching hands. And I wasn’t even doing the shearing!

The day was unseasonably warm in the 60s, and both Roger and I soon shucked our coveralls. Very quickly we had our system.

I had separated the ewes into stalls where they were crowded enough to be easily caught without chasing. After Roger sheared each ewe, she was released into the empty “after stall.” I bagged the fleece, raked the floor around Roger’s plywood cutting base, then wrestled the ewe into my sheep chair, wormed her, and trimmed her hooves.

My sheep run the gamut of sizes. The sheep chair is adjustable but each adjustment requires ten minutes with a wrench, so the practical result is that some ewes barely squeeze their bottoms between the bars, and others fall back into the netting and submerge. In a perfect world I’d have three chairs adjusted to the different sizes, like the bears’ chairs in Goldilocks, but needless to say, my farm is not a perfect world. To trim the hooves of the ewes who did not fit, I twisted my arms and legs in various eccentric contortions to hold them steady. More than once I was straddling the poor girl backwards with my bottom in her face. For this among many other reasons, my set-up will never be featured in the “how to do it” pages of the Premier Sheep Supplies catalog.

Hooves are flinty, and arthritic hands get quite a workout. Often I had to use all ten fingers to close the hoof shears. Occasionally the shears slipped off the hard hooves and gouged my wrist instead. Nicks, scrapes, and bruises from flailing feet are my usual lot on shearing day.

It’s a long day and one I’m glad to have over.