Tricia Was Right!

June 28, 2012

Only a week ago, the udder of my cow Katika was slack and wrinkled. I was mystified and alarmed; Katika is supposed to calve in early July — was she not pregnant after all? My unmet internet friend Tricia, a farmer in Western New York, reassured me that old cows might not bag up until very shortly before their due date.

Obviously Tricia was reading Katika’s tea leaves. Over the past week Katika’s udder has suddenly swollen to gigantic, almost pneumatic, proportions.

The udder is so wide that it pushes her hocks out. Her hind legs have developed a swaying side-to-side swing to lift them around the unwieldy bag as she walks. I have taped her rear fetlocks with Vetwrap to keep her dew claws from tearing it as she grunts to her feet after lying down.

The enormous, bulgy udder puts me in mind of Mary Poppins’s carpet bag. At any moment, I might pull a hat rack out of it.

The udder is stiff with edema, teats jutting. The teat that was almost severed in an accident a month ago has almost healed, but clearly the pressure is not helping.

I am going to call my vet today to see if I can pick up some Lasix, a diuretic, to reduce the swelling. I will also gather raspberry leaves, a natural remedy. Katika’s due date is July 3. Last year she calved ten days late. I can’t imagine the state of her udder or healing teat if this swelling increases for two more weeks.

Meanwhile my pastures are green but a close inspection shows they are mostly weeds and wildflowers — very pretty but of little nutritive value. Katika had been looking positively sleek for a dairy cow, but in the past week she has dropped weight and her ribs have reappeared. The other stock are looking a little ribby, too. I have put out hay but to my frustration they will not touch it.

I have more grazing but it is not fenced. Both my children head off to summer programs in the next week. Then comes the holiday and house guests. My hope is that by July 8 I will be able to spend some long days pounding fence posts.

And maybe I’ll have a calf by then!

How to Unroll Round Bales

June 27, 2012


Thirty of the more than 100 round bales of mulch hay that will feed my starved back acres have been delivered. The rest are awaiting the arrival of a new trailer — but as the farmer, Todd, said with a smile, “These should keep you busy.” Indeed.

The first thing to do was mow the weeds where I planned to spread the mulch. Very little wants to grow on my sour soil except weeds, briars, and black cherry and poplar saplings. “Popple,” as it is known here, can shoot up six feet in one season, and the rest aren’t far behind. So mowing is essential and meanwhile adds to the mulch litter. Towing a cart behind the lawn mower into which I toss all rocks, broken logs, sticks, and stumps, between other chores I can mow about an acre a day.

(Though from a distance the field looks green, up close one sees the large lunar patches of bare soil. As I mow, I am enveloped in a boiling cloud. Dirt settles in my hair, powders the surface of my clothes, and turns the wrinkles in my face into black seams. It clogs my nostrils and even forms a thin ridge of mud across my teeth. But I don’t much mind. Mowing is always satisfying. It brings the same pleasure as ironing — creating order out of rumples.)

So now I have two acres cut, with 20 sagging, half-rotted 4’x4′ round bales dotted around. Each weighs hundreds of pounds. How to unroll them alone, without help or a tractor?

I figured my old pickup truck could provide the horsepower. I just needed something to use as an axle.

I first thought of a length of reinforcing rod, but quickly realized that rebar would be too whippy and light. Next I considered iron pipe — stronger, but still too prone to bending, and the blunt hollow end would be tough to force through a bale. After browsing at the local lumberyard I came home with a six-foot iron pry bar/post hole tamper for $35.

One end of the bar is a sharp shovel point. The other, tamping end, offers a wide surface for hammering.

Using my sledgehammer, with considerable puffing I can drive the bar through the center of a bale and out the other side. If my bales were fresh and tight, I would get a friend with a metal grinder to trim the shovel point to a needlenose, but with the rotting mulch bales the tool works fine as it is.

Hearing of my project, the salesman at the lumberyard told me I had to build a wooden frame to hold my axle. I always tend to heed such authoritative male pronouncements. It was only when my wooden frame instantly tore to bits that I realized nothing made of light spruce was going to shift a bale weighing 400 lbs. The towing stress had to remain on the iron bar, not on lag bolts.

In the end my answer was simple. I used two scrap 2x4s sandwiched together as a spacer bar, and a 35-foot length of old climbing rope. Voilà — a cheap and easy towing harness.

The rope is threaded through holes drilled in the spacer bar, and knotted on the far side of the holes to hold it square. A loop is knotted in each rope end, to pass over the ends of the iron axle.

Another knot, in the middle, loops over the tow hitch on the truck.

Hit the gas, and watch the hay unspool in the rear view mirror.

Each bale makes a long, lovely windrow.

In less than two minutes your axle and towing harness are bare.

The hardest part of the entire operation is driving the bar through each round bale. Worst is when the bale has fallen off the hay wagon to land on end; in that case, simply to tip it into rolling position I have to stand on a milk crate in the back of my truck and swing the heavy sledgehammer over my head.

Any way you slice it, it’s a workout. After four bales, I’m no longer holding the heavy axle in one hand and the heavy sledgehammer in the other, but propping the bar on anything I can find in the back of my truck.

As I swing the sledgehammer to connect with the end of the bar — bang! — I think of my mother and how she taught me to always keep my eye on a baseball. Also how she taught me to choke up on a heavy bat. By the end of a day, I’m so tired I’ve practically got my hands on the neck of the sledge.

The unrolled hay is about six inches thick. Though it would break down eventually, I’d rather have the hay spread more thinly, with no bare spots. My plan is to walk each windrow and spread the hay from side to side with a pitchfork.

“That’s a lot of work,” said a friend, frowning. He thinks I’m nuts.

I smiled. “I may have no skills, but I can work.”

How Much Wood…?

June 25, 2012

… would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

D has a 5-foot-high, 20-foot-wide pile of firewood drying down by my barn, waiting for him to have time to split it (he has no room for this operation at his house). For the last month I have frequently seen a woodchuck scurrying awkwardly across the driveway between Allen’s peninsula rock wall and D’s wood pile. The woodchuck has obviously found passageways through the piled logs; whenever I meander over for a closer look at him, he vanishes.

It isn’t clear to me if this is the same woodchuck that has a den up the hill beyond the garage, or a down-driveway relative. I don’t notice a lot of identifying marks. I mostly see a brown and black lump gallumphing at top speed or freezing in hopes that I can’t spot him.

No Goslings, Maybe Chicks

June 24, 2012

Last week I finally broke up the nest of my Pilgrim goose, K, and smashed the last eggs. As I suspected, they were all rotting. A close examination of the contents showed that embryos had started to develop but had died — a sure result of her on-again, off-again sitting at the beginning of their incubation. Next year I will carry the nest to the chicken house where K won’t be as easily diverted.

It took a day of repeated visits to the lamb stall, now bare of nest, and thoughtful gabbling to herself, before K gave up and accepted the situation. Now she is back to strolling and grazing the pastures with Andy, her mate.

Meanwhile one of my Buff Orpington hens has decided to sit on eggs in the calf stall. I have taken the precaution of numbering the original eggs in pencil (pencil will not bleed through the porous shell as ink will).  Quite often other hens will muscle a broody hen off a nest — it must be a desirable location! — and lay another egg. Before you know it, the poor hen will be trying to cover an overwhelming pile.

Seven seems quite enough eggs to incubate. I love to watch the cycle of life but don’t really need more chickens; if I get two or three live chicks I will be pleased. So I lift my Orpington, who is so deeply broody that her legs barely uncurl when I move her aside, and take any new eggs that appear.

This hen’s brooding, too, would profit from the peace and privacy of the little chicken house. Unfortunately the chicken house door blew off in a wind storm last winter and was smashed to kindling.

I have added CHICKEN HOUSE DOOR to my long list.

A Bit of Pig Progress

June 23, 2012

So often on a farm things are falling apart and breaking down. All you can do is keep a running tally of needed repairs.

A broken latch. A popped bolt. A split in the hose that sprays you every time you water the animals. Katika gets annoyed with the three-hundred-pound foster calf and throws him with a toss of her head across the barn aisle — and you hear the timbers splinter. Fix Katika’s stall gate, you add to the To-Do list. (My list for the next two weeks is already two pages long.)

So it’s heartening when an annoying problem is solved for you effortlessly by someone else.

My pigs have always loved to tip over their water bucket. Their affection for mud and their compulsion to root means that a brimming rubber bucket doesn’t last long. They’ll all crowd around thirstily to drink and then someone puts his head down and begins to push and prod at the base. Soon the bucket is overturned. The pigs play happily in the mud but inevitably thereafter notice they are thirsty again.

I had mentioned this problem once to D when he brought his granddaughter out to see the pigs. I told him the traditional solution was to put the bucket inside a tire, but that I had never been able to find a tire of the right size for my water bucket.

Two days ago D, who is a truck driver and mechanic, brought me a small, very heavy tire. It fits the bucket exactly.

Now the pigs can’t tip over the water. Of course I still have to wash the bucket morning and evening because the pigs like to stand in the water while drinking.

And sometimes take a shower.

Still, the water supply now lasts for hours instead of minutes.

It’s great to make progress that I did not engineer. Thank you, D!


June 22, 2012

My cow Katika was bred by my young bull Duke Wayne September 24, 2011. She was confirmed pregnant last Thanksgiving via a blood test sent to Biotracking. She should be two weeks away from calving, with a due date of July 3. Her udder should be enormous, tight, and shiny.

Katika’s udder is large but slack. In the past month it even has developed wrinkles. She is obviously completely dried off and not about to calve within the fortnight. I am mystified.

Of course if she has a later due date — if she did not fall pregnant until her next cycle three weeks later in mid-October — that is good news for Katika’s udder. Her serious injury, when her foster calf accidentally almost sliced off her teat with his teeth, will have that much longer to heal. After only a few days the immediate swelling popped all the stitches laboriously sewn in by my vet. At the time I was playing Musical Crises and trying to stage-manage her care from my cell phone between trips downstate.

I have been treating the gaping wound with Furazone once a day and the open hinge has almost closed with granulation. The teat feels stiff with scarring. Still, the milk canal had not been cut so my hope is that the teat remains functional. However I will not know until she calves. Whenever, or if ever, that may be.

For there is also the possibility that at some point in the last nine months Katika aborted — slipped her calf, in cattleman lingo — and she is no longer pregnant at all.

I could find out by having the vet give her an internal exam. However that would cost $75 for the vet call, and money is very tight. My alternatives are to Biotrack her once more  (only $5, but I’d need to ask my friend Alison to draw blood again) or simply to wait and see.

Life has been such a tiring rollercoaster lately, I think I may just watch and wait.

Pigs in Mud Blankets

June 21, 2012

It has been very hot. 90° F yesterday and due to be 90° again today. This is unseasonable for June in the Adirondacks. Two or three times a day I’ve stopped working outside to change my socks, underwear, t-shirt, and baseball cap because they are wet with sweat.

I have been very concerned for my sheep in their heavy wool coats, and have brought the cows and horse into the dark of the barn during the day. It is not much cooler inside but at least they are out of the direct blaze of the furnace and safe from the worst of the biting flies.

For the pigs I have created wallows. Pigs can’t sweat so they lower their temperature by covering themselves in cool mud.

As the pig pen is in the back acres, I truck the water out to the pigs twice a day and gravity-feed it from a hose off my tailgate.

They love this. As the water seeps into the ground, the boys all begin to squirm for the best places. Usually they think their brother has it. They will pile on top of each other until someone moves, grunting and squealing.

Ahhhh! Cool water! Luscious mud!

There is nothing like it.

Five boys in a mud bath.

On a hot day, happiness is a pig in mud.

The Flock

June 20, 2012

The sheep have grazed their way down Betty’s field all the way to the bottom, the first time in three years they have made it this far. [Double-click on photo to enlarge.]

The speed with which they have moved down the field has startled me, and is due to my different management.

Knowing that I would be laid up with my knee surgery, and that I could not ask anyone else to move the sheep daily, in May I’d bought two more electrified nets from Premier Supplies.  This brought me to seven, and with seven nets I could make my paddocks not from two nets in a narrow rectangle but from four in a large square. Not being a math whiz, or even math competent, I was astonished to realize how this change more than doubled the amount of enclosed grazing.

When I mentioned this to Mike, the school farmer, he looked at me in surprise. “Well, of course!” (I could hear the unspoken Duh!)

Instead of moving the sheep every day I have moved them every four days. This is a much easier schedule for me.

Unfortunately there has been more waste. The field is exactly three small paddocks wide. Using the larger paddocks, there are ungrazed sections on each side of the pasture that have had to be mowed.

Moreover, the sheep have been able to be choosier. There is a grass in the middle section of the field that they do not like. I’m not sure what it is. At maturity it has golden seed heads.

For the sheep, this is like broccoli to George H.W. Bush. They eat all around it, and hope you don’t notice.

That is a paddock after four days of grazing. Of course, I could leave the sheep in a paddock longer, forcing them to eat this unpopular grass, but when I’m not sure, I tend to respect animal instincts. Lots of plants are mildly poisonous or unhealthy. While I’ve been out of commission with my knee, it has been simpler and safer just to move the sheep on, and mow the leavings.

Jon has been my trusty mower. I think like his mother and grandmother, he finds mowing soothing and satisfying.

This has been a dry spring after a dry winter. I am surprised that there is not more talk locally of our drought conditions. I am worried. Normally June is the time of the lushest grass; but this year the pastures are barely regrowing. Allen’s pond is now almost entirely dried up.

I can only think that all this unusual sunshine, coupled with the fact that this is not an agricultural community, has all everyone dazzled and out playing. The last thing a tourist town is hoping for — especially here in these normally sodden Adirondacks — is rain. But we need it badly.

Tomorrow I will “run” (hobble quickly, limping) the sheep back to the top of the slope and start our second pass down the field. I hope the grass holds out.

And I pray it rains soon.

Mulch Hay Thrill

June 18, 2012

I’m so excited. Through Craigslist I found a farmer over in Lewis who wanted to dump some moldy round bales of hay.

I have always yearned for mulch hay to rot into and improve my soil, which is sour rocky sand. Hay will break down into much needed organic matter and meanwhile will carry pounds and pounds of hay seed — which, if I had to buy it, would cost me $125 per bag.

However the cost, even for spoiled hay, has always been prohibitive. With the price of good hay soaring, mulch hay has been $2-$3 for small squares. Big round bales generally cost $25-$40 in this area, and mulch ones $15 to $20. And then there’s the delivery. I don’t live in a farming community. Almost everything I need has to come from an hour away.

I began dickering with this young farmer around the time of my knee surgery. He offered the round bales to me for $6 apiece, which is an excellent deal. However I only had $300 left in my farm fund and I wasn’t sure I should spend it this way. I wrote that I’d have to consult with my husband. Then I went in for surgery. During my silence he dropped the price again. Then again.

When the Vicodin haze cleared, I found he was willing to bring over a hundred round bales to me for a bit less than $3 apiece.

I feel a little bad for the farmer as I think he is barely clearing his fuel expenses for baling this hay last summer and delivering it to me now. However I remind myself that recouping his costs is a good thing, and he is also clearing his fields of an eyesore. He told me he hays 500 acres. No wonder he has bales left over at the end of the season.

The farmer, Todd, is a nice young man with a broad white smile in a sunburned face. He would like to become my regular hay supplier. He was eager to undercut Rick, my erratic but charming hay man, by fifty cents a bale. I told him I’d have to think about that. I owe some loyalty to Rick.

In the meantime I am very excited to see all this future fertility moving onto my farm. The more grazing I can create here, the less I will have to buy in from elsewhere.

Todd drove around the back acres slowly while his helpers pushed the rotting bales over the side of the hay wagon.

Todd says that since he can’t start haying his own fields until 10:30 in the morning (waiting for dew to dry), he will bring one load to me early every day until all the bales are here. I expect that by the end my entire eight-acre back field will be dotted with rotting round bales.

My plan is to mow the weeds and then figure out a way to unroll each bale so I can spread it. Todd thought this was a great idea though he understood that I would be working alone and without a tractor. His grin flashed. “That’ll keep you busy!”

So many projects, so little time! But I am deeply thrilled, and impatient for my knee to heal.

My Little Boy…

June 16, 2012

… is  now twenty-five! Lucy took this photo of us last night.

I had been rolling out pizzas for his birthday supper, and am pinching his thigh to get him to smile, which made us both crack up.

Happy birthday, Jonny!