Katika Update

May 31, 2012

blue stitches circling teat base at right

Katika seems remarkably unfazed after the near-severing of her teat and the ordeal of sewing it back on. Cooler temperatures, rain, and a spurt of fresh green grass have surely helped.

Katika turned ten years old on May 12. Though rare cattle may live to be twenty years old, ten is much older than the average dairy cow. Because cattle become more prone to metabolic and other issues as they age, most dairies move them on (generally for hamburger) at five or six. Katika with her box stall and a lifetime of calves at her side is a lucky girl.

However we’ve been through a lot together. Katika has been my “learner” cow. She taught me to milk. And though she’s basically a healthy and hardy cow, with Katika I’ve learned about most potentially fatal cattle disorders: ketosis (my fault), and milk fever (a problem of age).

Meanwhile, though she’s been remarkably free of mastitis, this teat crisis is the fourth serious injury to her udder in three years.

a cow with a nice, perky udder

Twice she has been hurt by a hoof to the bag — once kicked by a greedy pony, once struck by an over-enthusiastic teenaged bull. Two years ago at calving time she tore open her swollen udder with the dew claw on a back hoof. Now one teat has had to be sewn back on and is poking out at an odd angle (an ideal teat hangs straight down when full, and points inward when empty).

Though Katika has bounced back from all of these injuries, and I pray will rebound similarly from this one, her udder is definitely losing its youthful appearance.

The cow below right has lost all her udder suspension. Katika is not quite this bad, but she’s on her way.

When I look at dear old Katika, I remember the great line from Ralph Moody’s childhood memoir, The Fields of Home, in which he describes an old cow circa 1915:

“Her udder looked like a half peck of potatoes in an old cotton bag.”

Now we are in a race to see if the teat can fully heal before Katika calves again in July.

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An Accident to Katika

May 29, 2012

OR: ANOTHER DAY DERAILED

My plan yesterday was to spend the morning building new sheep shelters and the afternoon working on neglected paperwork, including thank-you notes to all the people who have helped me over the last two months. The day’s list was carefully written and clamped to my clipboard.

However once again I might as well have tossed it out the window.

My cow Katika is due to calve in early July. Opie, her five-month-old foster calf, should have been weaned and dried off in early May. However, with my life hectic and friends covering my chores, I could not stage-manage the process from afar. Since my return, I’ve been working on it, letting him nurse only every other day, then every two days, and so on. However the flush of spring grass has made it a challenge, increasing Katika’s milk supply even as I’ve tried to cut it down.

Yesterday morning her udder was huge. I am very aware that she is now also “making bag” for her next calf, but I worried that with the pressure on her udder she might develop mastitis. I decided to let Opie nurse one last time.

I brought the cows in and locked Katika in her stanchion. I was feeding the pigs when I heard her kicking at the calf. I didn’t think anything of it. Katika always kicks at foster calves. They become adroit at ducking and weaving to avoid the hammer blows from her hooves.

Then Katika moo-ed to me, her entreating moo.

“No, you can’t have more grain,” I said good-naturedly, walking down the aisle to her. “I’m trying to dry you off —”

I stopped, aghast. Opie’s muzzle was drenched in bright red foam. For a moment I thought he had been kicked in the mouth. Then I saw the blood and milk pooled on the floor under Katika, and the blood running from her udder in steady stream.

I ducked to look underneath her. Her left front teat was hanging half-severed at the root.

Obviously when she kicked at him, Opie had jerked his head and his sharp incisors had sliced through her flesh like a razor.

Heart pounding, I dragged Opie away. I ran to the tack room for supplies. I poured hydrogen peroxide into the wound to clean it, then made a compress of a clean milking cloth and pressed it to the wound to try to stanch the bleeding. The cloth soaked red. I fished out my cell phone and dialed the vet. Of course it was a holiday.

However David called me back within minutes. Was the milk canal cut? I didn’t think so, but the teat appeared sliced almost in half. He couldn’t get to the farm for a couple of hours. I should keep her calm and quiet until then. Oh, really.

I worked like an automaton and refrained from bashing poor Opie, whose face, like my t-shirt, was covered with blood.

David arrived shortly after lunch. He labored an hour and a half on Katika. Just tying her so he could shoot her udder full of lidocaine took quite some time. Her stanchion was useless because the injury was on the far side, inaccessible next to the wall. Instead we tied her head up short to a 6×6 in her stall, then pushed her against the far wall of the calf pen and, using climbing ropes, lashed her in place.

Poor Katika was trussed up like Gulliver. Sadly, we had no camera.

Katika was very anxious and evacuated her bowels over and over. Eventually there was nothing left but a liquid gush. As I was holding her tail — a cow can’t kick if you hold her tail up — I was progressively coated with cow manure, from my hands and arms down to my boots sliding on the floor. David’s female friend held Katika’s head. Later she would advise me to simply throw away my bloody, manure-crusted clothes.

Finally the teat was numb. David was attempting to sew a black udder on a black cow in the deep darkness of a barn. The beam from his headlamp was weak. He is a bit older than I am. I mentioned that my own near-vision these days was terrible. David remarked casually, “Oh, I can’t see a thing.”

The weight of the dangling teat itself made closing the gaping wound difficult. The sutures pulled through the soft rubbery skin of the udder. David was crouching half underneath Katika, his sterile white-gloved hands swooping, needle in one hand and tweezers in the other. Finally he got a half dozen stitches in and said it was the best he could do. She could have used many more but he couldn’t get them to hold. With luck these six will bring the wound edges close enough together for healing.

As he snapped off his gloves and packed his truck, David said he thought Katika had a good chance of healing before she calves. The big dangers are swelling (and she’s due in five weeks!) and infection. Poor old girl.

The whole day, plus $225 for emergency veterinary care, was spent on a problem I hadn’t had at the start of the morning. Sigh. I guess that’s why they call them accidents.


Long Day, With Surprise Arrivals

May 27, 2012

Last Sunday I left for morning chores at 6 AM and didn’t get in until 9 PM. A long, very hot day. Whoever heard of 85° F in May in the Adirondacks? However by time I peeled off my coveralls, half the cabin knoll was fenced.

I had been pushing to get this done because the day before, D and I had spread the three giant manure piles: my own winter supply, the many truckloads from Larry’s barn, and a load from Allen’s. The north pasture (shown here) and the south were both frosted with dung and no longer available for grazing.

Jon came out and pounded fence posts for me. Here he is in the midst of checking one for plumb with a level at the base.

You may notice that I absentmindedly instructed him to set the posts in this section backwards, facing into the woods. This is the sort of spatial “blindness” to detail that trips me up all the time. So often I have to go back and fix my work. I’ll probably pull and reset these ten posts sometime in the fall. No time now.

Between moving the sheep at Betty’s and struggling to finish the knoll field fencing, I worked outside all day long, racing the clock and sweating. Monday I would be out of town, driving downstate. I had to finish. It made me crazy to see the horse and cows stuck in the barn paddock, eating dry hay and gazing sadly at the green grass over the wire.

The day before I had made a plan with D to drop off my truck in town with his son-in-law to fix its non-functioning window. Given the time pressure, I figured that in the same trip I’d pick up something simple at the grocery store to serve the family for supper so I didn’t have to spend an hour cooking.

Naturally I was running late. At 5 PM I was watering the sheep again at Betty’s, sunburned, grimy, worn out, and dehydrated. I texted to D to let him know I was delayed. Since this is a common occurrence with me he didn’t even bother to reply. I bounced the truck over the ruts out of Betty’s field and drove hell for leather to town.

I was drooping in the grocery store checkout line when my phone rang. It was Rick, my hay man. My heart sank. Oh no! A hay delivery!?

“Hi, Rick!” I said, trying to muster enthusiasm. I asked politely how he was. “Are you at my farm?”

“Yep!”

I wilted further. I was so tired, so hot, so flattened, the last thing I wanted to do was throw hay bales. “Really.” I tried to sound cheerful. “How many bales did you bring?”

“Ain’t brung no hay! I got piglets!”

“Piglets!” It was almost a yelp. I could feel the eyes of other customers in the checkout line turning in my direction.

“Sure! Seven!”

Seven! It’s true I had discussed the vague possibility of piglets with Rick a couple of months ago, but since then life had become so hectic I had tentatively decided that  this summer I would skip raising pigs altogether.

“Piglets,” I repeated weakly. Nothing was set up for the arrival of pigs. I had no pig food on hand. The Pig Palace had not been repaired at the end of last season. My new season fence batteries had not yet arrived. Oh my.

“Rick, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know you were coming. I’m in town, at the grocery store. I’m dropping off my truck and a friend is giving me a ride home. I won’t be able to get to the farm for at least twenty minutes.”

“No problem!” cried Rick, with his usual jovial friendliness. “It’s a beautiful day, I got a cold twelve-pack of beer, and me and the pigs will just sit and wait ’til you get here!”

There were only a couple of crushed cans on the ground by the time D and I arrived at the farm. The jostling three-month-old piglets in the back of Rick’s truck looked healthy but hot.

I explained to Rick that I couldn’t raise seven pigs. That was OK, he assured me, because he wanted to keep the single gilt (young female). I knew I had a built-in market for four pigs. D decided to buy one for me to raise. So while I slid the gate open and shut, Rick carried five stout piglets into the sheep stall. This worked out perfectly, as it left one castrated male to keep Rick’s gilt company. Like most creatures, pigs are happiest when not alone.

D busied himself carrying buckets of water.

Rick is a kind person of considerable feckless charm. I’ve never seen him not smiling. He extends me credit and puts up with time payments. I always enjoy our conversations about animal husbandry. However the only thing predictable about Rick is his good intentions. He is invariably juggling a great many jobs and and deals, working night and day, which can make his follow-through slightly erratic. More than once I’ve aged considerably when Rick has not shown up at an agreed time.

Still I am always touched by his essential generosity. Rick had seen the piglets on Craigslist and knew they would be perfect for me. After paying for his gas (he lives an hour away), he made no profit on the transaction.

“I’ve got you a Jersey bull, too!” he confided happily as he was leaving.

I quickly served my family dinner, borrowed a bag of pellets to feed the pigs, and went back to fencing in the long twilight.

It was very peaceful snapping insulators onto the T-posts and stringing lines as the shadows lengthened and tree frogs began trilling. Freddie, my dear barn cat who thinks he’s a dog, followed me from post to post to roll on his back for belly rubs.

It was pitch dark when I finished the fence and drove home.

The next morning I had to drive downstate, so I fed the livestock hay at 6 AM, to take the edge off their hunger, and then turned them into the new field at 8, on my way out of town.

Birch was excited to explore the new space.

Soon everyone was grazing. The grass is very poor, thin, and weedy —  but it’s another step toward the dream.


The Bucket Debacle

May 25, 2012

I am scheduled to have knee surgery for a torn meniscus in ten days. In preparation I have been hustling, not only to catch up on the work I’ve missed over the past month of being away, but to put systems in place so my chores will be manageable when I’m on crutches. However today was one of those days when I might as well have thrown my To-Do list out the window. Nothing went as planned.

Several days ago I taught Jon to use the lawn tractor. He obligingly mowed for me at Betty’s for two hours, only quitting when the mower ran out of gas. Unfortunately, in abandoning the machine he left the key switched on, so this morning when I went to mow for the next round of sheep fence, the battery was dead as a doornail.

I decided to just set the fence up anyway. The tall grass would short the netting but I didn’t have much choice. With luck, the sheep would be so busy grazing they would never test the weak fence.

While I erected the new paddock I enticed the sheep into a small area to wait, with a bucket of grain. I spread the grain in a long thread across the grass, and set down the bucket. The sheep gobbled happily.

I limped down the field, setting fence posts and pulling netting tight.

Next thing I know, there is a tremendous clatter and uproar. My ewe Bean, licking greedily for last specks of grain, has somehow managed to flip the bail of the grain bucket over her head. She now has the bucket slung around her neck and is running around in a panic. Her front legs are banging noisily against the hard plastic with every terrified bound. She is mindless with fright.

This, in turn, panics the rest of the flock (what is this blue, clanking monster chasing us?!) and they all surge bleating against the electric fence, knocking it down and scattering. They run (away from the ewe with the bucket) down the huge seven-acre field. Naturally, poor Bean with the bucket around her neck is just as frightened and runs as fast as she can to keep up with them.

The flock races up and down the hill. I stand at the top wringing my hands and silently praying, Please don’t go over the stone wall onto the highway!

My scalp is cold with sweat. I have no more grain in the truck. I have no way to catch thirty-two loose, terrified sheep. Oh, God.

I decide all I can do is set up my netting enclosure and attempt to trick the sheep back up to me. With shaking hands I set fence as fast as I can.

Finally it’s set. I dig out another bucket from the mess in the back of my truck and hold it aloft, calling, “Sheep! Sheep!”

The sheep milling 1500 feet down the hillside pay no attention. I clank the bail of the bucket. There is of course no grain in the bucket, but I’m hoping the sheep won’t realize that. “Sheep! C’mon, sheep! Sheep!”

Finally Lily lifts her head. Lily developed quite a taste for sweet feed over the course of months in which I treated her twice daily for mastitis. She stares at me and then makes her decision and starts to trot up the slope.

The flocking instinct is powerful in sheep, especially in the wilder hill breeds like Clun Forests. A couple of lambs scamper baa-ing after Lily. Lily’s mother, Blackberry, joins the trickle heading toward me.

I keep clanking the bail and callling. “Sheep! Sheep!”

Finally the trickle becomes a torrent. In ten minutes I have all the sheep safely back inside fencing.

Unfortunately, Bean still has a bucket over her head.

I try everything. I drive back to the farm and get more grain and my shepherd’s crook. The sheep crowd close for the sweet feed. However the minute I move within fifteen feet of Bean she darts nervously away, bucket clanking, frightening the flock all over again. Obviously that’s not going to work.

I drive into town and borrow a jump start box. I get my lawn tractor started and I mow for an hour, hoping that the drone of the mower in the hot sunshine will lull the flock, including Bean, into somnolence. It seems to work. Bean is sleeping in a pile of sheep under one of the shade shelters. I step over the fence, hiding my crook. But as I inch carefully around the corner of the shelter Bean sees me and jumps to her feet. This scenario is enacted at least half a dozen times.

I ask other people if they have any ideas. Mike, the school farmer, who is battling his own overwhelming list of spring chores, kindly offers to leave his work and come over to try to tackle her. D says flatly, “I think this should be the last year you raise sheep.” By late afternoon I’ve decided that all I can do is build a hard-wire catch-pen out of heavy-gauge cattle panels. It will take me at least an hour but I’ve already wasted most of the day. I grab my T-post pounder and head back to the field.

And there is the bucket, lying loose in the grass. Bean is chewing her cud. She looks at me with a bored expression. It’s all over.

Maybe tomorrow I can work on my To-Do list.


Johnny Chuck

May 22, 2012

I was flat out over the weekend, working on the farm, and then spent Monday driving downstate and closing up a temporary rental house. So I have not had time to write. With luck, tomorrow.

However, as I was driving out of the farm tonight after chores I glimpsed a small face peering out at me from a new hole excavated under the boulder wall D created in 2005.

A woodchuck!

My friend Alison is not a fan of woodchucks, but I don’t think she grew up on Thornton Burgess’s Adventures of Johnny Chuck (with the charming 1913 illustrations by Harrison Cady, including this one of a woodchuck hibernating in a nightcap and overalls) and Robert Lawson’s grumpy old Porky in Rabbit Hill.

Alison is practical. She worries about holes, and horses and cows snapping their legs.

I think about this, too. But to me no field is a field without a woodchuck. I never saw one as a child in the suburbs, but my reading and rereading of the Green Meadow stories trained my expectations.

The first time I saw a woodchuck on the farm, in the far corner of the north field, it was 2009, I was standing on the unfinished garage ceiling, and I pointed it out to Luke, hugging him with glee.

It was a long time before I caught another glimpse. Then I realized that the boulder walls built by Tommy, D, and Allen over the years at the edges of my pastures had created a woodchuck paradise. There are excavations along the foot of them all.

I will have to do some research and figure out the size of a woodchuck’s territory. I would be interested to know if I have one peripatetic woodchuck or the equivalent of a prairie dog village.


Tons of Manure

May 20, 2012

Yesterday my friend D and I spread all three of my giant manure piles. D had trucked out his mini-excavator the night before, and I did my barn chores at 6:30 AM. We started work at 8:30, paused briefly for lunch, and didn’t finish until 4:30 PM.

Eight hours is a long day when it is 80° F and you are stuck in the blazing sunshine in an uninsulated steel cab (D) or a truck with inoperable windows (me).  However, the job is done.

I’m guessing we spread about sixty tons of semi-composted manure and bedding on the north and south pastures. By the time we finished, both fields were completely coated. There was no green grass left visible at all.

There were also only two out of twelve blades left on the spreader’s beater bar. My poor manure spreader is really almost a toy, an “estate” item meant for the daily output of one or two horses: light and friable shavings and neat “horse apples” of manure. Cow manure is heavy and dense. The cleanings from the sheep stall are woven mats of hay and manure broken into stiff clods with a pickaxe and pitchfork. And let us not forget the canteloupe-sized rocks that despite all my vigilance, mysteriously find their way into a pile. Faced with these burdens, the steel beater blades gradually folded and snapped off, one by one.

I will keep a lookout for them when I rake the fields with a chain drag to smooth the surface. Jim, the friendly local iron worker, had to cut two new blades for me last summer when he straightened and re-welded the mangled beater after last year’s spreading day. I guess I’ll have to explain to Jim that until I can afford a tractor and real manure spreader, this will be an annual repair.

D is the son of my friend Allen, and, like him, very talented with heavy equipment. Unlike his father, D is impatient and has a hot temper. I used to dread his cutting remarks. However as we have become friends I think I have moved into a category of Nutty Old Lady, for whom tolerance is required. Throughout the very long day he was kindness itself, limiting himself to expressive eye rolls when my attempts at backing the spreader into position were more ludicrous than usual.

It is a relief to have this enormous task finished and behind me. Thank you, D.

Of course with both north and south pastures buried under manure, I now have no grazing for the horse and cows.  I start the long process of fencing the back field today.


Sheep To Pasture

May 19, 2012

Yesterday Jon and I moved the sheep a mile down the highway to Betty’s field for the summer. My flock consists of 11 ewes, 4 yearling ewes, and 17 lambs. Thirty-two sheep on the hoof. We made two trips with the school’s loaded stock trailer.

I had spent the morning setting up for the move. Tightening the frames of the old shelters, lashing back on tarps after winter, assembling stored rolls of fencing, battery charger, ground rod, and water trough, and ferrying everything to the field. The preparations were time-consuming but pleasant work in the warm sunshine.

It was exciting to see the condition of the pasture. After only two summers of managed grazing from my sheep (and mowing behind them), in this third summer the field is almost entirely clear of goldenrod.

Here is the field in early June, 2010. [Click to enlarge.] See all that bunchy stuff? That’s goldenrod.

Goldenrod is a pernicious weed. Livestock and whitetail deer will occasionally nibble the leaves, but the florets are mildly poisonous, causing gastric distress. I have devoted many, many hours to getting rid of it.

Here is the field yesterday. No goldenrod, just luscious spring grass so tender that you can see Jon’s footprints. *

I’m extremely pleased. I have worked and hoped and mowed for hours for this outcome. However I realize not everyone shares my fixation with productive grass pasture.

Last fall I allowed myself to brag, telling Betty happily, “I think I may have eradicated almost all the goldenrod!”

Betty’s brows contracted. “But I like goldenrod!” (The fields crammed with yellow flowers are lovely in August.)

Luckily, just over the stone wall she has another field in which the goldenrod remains knee-deep.

*    *    *

* Apologies for the smudge in the center of the current photos. It appears that damp got into our old camera and mold has grown inside the lens. The camera has had such a hard life in the back pocket of my coveralls for the last three years, it barely operates at all. I’ll have to do something about it soon.