Happy 15, Lucy!

October 31, 2012

My girl turned fifteen yesterday. In the photo above she is having her traditional birthday breakfast treat (a chocolate-covered doughnut) by candlelight because the power had been out in the hurricane.

Lucy has shot up so much in the last year — to 5’8″ — only a couple more inches until she catches up to me. The planes of her face have shifted and one can see the young woman she is on her way to becoming.

When she was born in 1997 the doctors in California had told me she might have a small corrective surgery when she was older, say, fifteen. I had reported this to my mother in Connecticut on the phone. My mother observed philosophically, “I won’t be here then.” Holding my baby in my arms, my eyes had filled with tears.

Last night, watching Lucy exclaim kindly over her birthday presents — “Ski poles! Perfect!” — I remembered this exchange and had to wink back tears again. Lucy has grown up without either of her grandmothers, both of whom adored her and would have enjoyed her so much.

Sometimes the turning wheel of life can feel more like the track of a tank. I make new resolutions to find the joyful treasure in every passing moment.

Yesterday Lucy herself was bubbly. All day long, at school, at ski practice, on the phone and by email, friends and relatives had wished her a happy day. “I feel so . . . loved!” she exclaimed.

Of course that is the treasure.


Let the Hurricane Roar

October 30, 2012

In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s famous Little House series, her father, Charles “Pa” Ingalls, has a favorite hymn which he always sings during storms:

Let the hurricane roar

It will the sooner be o’er

We’ll weather the blast

And land at last

On Canaan’s happy shore!

I have never heard this hymn but I’ve read Laura’s books so many times over the years, I think I have. Yesterday before the storm hit I was hauling sixteen-foot wire panels through the mud as the wind whipped at me and I found myself smiling. OK, Pa. We’ll weather the blast!

I wasn’t absolutely sure my barn paddock fencing was coyote-tight so I had decided to pen the sheep inside the run-in shelter, which is, in turn, inside the fence. Cattle panels, steel t-posts, and baling twine did the trick. The sheep mostly cared about the hay.

By 5 PM it was raining hard. The cattle and Lucy’s horse Birch were happy to come in from the wet to eat their supper in box stalls bedded with dry shavings.

Katika gobbled her grain with her usual gusto and then sighed and settled down to munch hay as rain drummed on the metal roof and the heavy doors banged in the wind. There is nothing so calming as the sound of contented animals chewing hay.

Her calf Dorrie watched from her spot curled up in the calf stall.

The geese came in, fussing and gabbling. I counted my chickens. I checked on the cat. Everyone was safe and, though streaming with water, soon would be dry. I felt unaccountably cheerful. I turned out the lights and pulled the big doors tight.

Let the hurricane roar!

*    *   *

Later: We were lucky. Though we lost power nearly a dozen times over 36 hours, each black-out only lasted about a half hour. The storm brought rain and high winds, broken branches and cartwheeling loose belongings, but here in upstate New York we are safe. My thoughts are with friends and family in the city and the surrounding counties who have been devastated by Hurricane Sandy.


Getting Ready for Sandy

October 29, 2012

L to R: Opie, Birch, Henry, Dorrie, Katika, Fee, Stewart, and Moxie

I spent the weekend preparing for the hurricane, getting in a hay delivery, filling water troughs, collecting and battening down loose items in the barnyard. I don’t expect major flooding issues here on the farm but am bracing for winds. My biggest concern is keeping all the animals safe, of course, and within fencing if the power goes out.

My problem is that I currently have too many animals to fit comfortably in the barn in a storm. I have two cows, a bull, a yearling heifer, three calves, a horse, seven chickens, two geese, sixteen sheep, and a cat.

In the photo above, I am feeding the large livestock hay on the stony crest of the cabin knoll paddock, to fertilize it. [Doubleclick to enlarge.]

I have sold six sheep, taken nine lambs and five pigs to the butcher, and made arrangements for ten more animals to leave in the next ten days. But that doesn’t help me now. So I am trying to be creative. The horse and cattle, poultry, and cat all fit in the barn. The sheep are now in the barn paddock, which I can power with a battery charger if I have to — but which I am not 100% confident is coyote-proof. I may use cattle panels to pen them at night under the run-in shed. If worst comes to worst, I will bring them into the barn aisle and lock the doors.

Like everyone else on the East coast, I’ll be glad when this storm is over.


Ram Lambs

October 26, 2012

Though I usually castrate all my male lambs, I raised two rams this summer. One, eartag Yellow 04, a purebred but unregistrable Clun Forest, I agreed in March to sell to a local breeder. I am going to deliver him to his new home at the end of the month, after he has bred all my ewes. The other, Yellow 05, a much smaller ram, I had traded to the school this summer in exchange for hay, when I was desperate and all sources came up empty.

When he made arrangements to pick up his ram lamb last Tuesday, I explained to Mike, the school farmer, that 05 was smaller than my usual lambs, but that he definitely seemed interested in breeding.

It has been amusing over the past six weeks to watch 05 attempt to outsmart his older, much taller, much burlier half-brother 04 and get to a ewe in heat. I would spot little 05 on the far side of the flock, lip curled appreciatively as he scented the available ewe. Then he would slink through the flock, slipping unnoticed between the larger sheep, until finally he reached his inamorata. At this point fate generally intervened. He could rarely resist giving a low throaty nicker of love into the ewe’s ear. At the sound, 04 would lift his head in outrage, charge through the flock, and — pow! — knock his little brother flying. Thereafter 04 would position himself between 05 and the ewe, hovering jealously at her hindquarters.

The ewe herself usually seemed unconcerned by all this flapdoodle, stolidly chewing hay.

On Tuesday 05 was distressed when I caught him by the hind leg with my crook, pulled him out of the flock, and shut him up in a stall by himself. He bleated his loneliness.

“I know it’s hard,” I told him. “But you are going to be very, very happy by tonight. A flock of twenty ewes — all for you!”

Mike arrived with his trailer after lunch. 05 was so small Mike could carry him onto the trailer in his arms. I apologized for the ram’s size but reiterated my impression that 05 would be enthusiastic for the task ahead.

Indeed he was. Two days later Mike reported that they’d put a marking harness on little 05 (the straps wrapped around his body twice), and therefore knew that 05 had bred four big ewes in his first 24 hours.

Mike smiled. “We named him Randy!


Coyote Pressure

October 23, 2012

Yesterday morning I arrived at the farm to find all the sheep out of their fencing and bunched together, their heads high and nervous. As I drove down the dirt driveway the entire flock ran to my truck, bleating. My sheep are not very tame but they were obviously frightened — and any port in a storm.

For the past few weeks I have fenced them at night on Allen’s peninsula and my future backyard behind the garage. As I have had to feed hay anyway, I thought I might as well clear this gravelly area of weeds and simultaneously fertilize it. Every morning I turned the flock into the south pasture; every evening I brought them in to this near paddock. The system had worked perfectly.

But now the electric netting for the night enclosure was down, major sections in two places at opposite ends of the large paddock lying on the ground. Something had run right through the fence. Twice.

My first thought was a bear. People in the area have reported them.

Then I found the above canine paw print in the mud.

So: it was either a large coyote or the neighbor’s dog, half Siberian Husky, half wolf. I chased that dog away from the end of the farm driveway only a week ago, and telephoned the neighbors. But they had apologized and promised they had now repaired the dog’s shock collar.

I’ve seen several coyotes in recent months. Two have been small. One was at the far end of the back pasture, trotting into the field from state land and then melting back into the woods when he saw me. The other was in the north pasture, repeatedly scavenging for drops under my apple tree. My major concern both times was that the sightings were in broad daylight. In the case of the apple tree, I watched the coyote over the heads of my oblivious geese, who were grazing and gabbling in the grass only a couple hundred yards closer to the barn. Again, however, when I was spotted, the coyote ran away.

So I was unprepared for the boldness of the coyote I saw in late August. It was just after lunch. I was at the south edge of the back field, sweating to unload a pile of rocks from my stone boat. I was slightly hidden behind a spit of land and the wind was blowing in my direction. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a large brown shape cantering across the pasture above me. “A deer in the daylight!” I thought, and took a step out from behind the spit for a better look.

It was not a deer. It was a very, very large coyote — the largest I had ever seen — cantering lazily across the open field. At my movement the big coyote swiveled his head to gaze in my direction, dark ears pricked, but did not hesitate or change his course. In a moment he had passed me and vanished into the forest on the far side.

I was so startled I immediately fished out my phone and texted to DH, “Just saw a giant coyote in the back field!”

“Get a picture?” he texted back.

No — but that was the day my dear barn cat Freddie disappeared.

In talking to neighbors and friends over the following week I learned that several had seen this huge, wolf-sized coyote. Dave, a teacher at school, had been hiking with his Labrador Retriever when he met the coyote on the trail. The animal was so bold and fearless — so completely unfazed by either human or dog — that it suddenly occurred to Dave that the big coyote might be trailing him. He stooped and picked up two chunky rocks, with the vague idea of clapping them into the coyote’s skull in the case of an attack.

Yesterday I could find no prints on the dry gravel to read the story of what had happened to scare the flock — but the large lengths of downed fence told their own tale. The sheep themselves must have run through the electric netting. First in one direction, then the other.

The enclosure was large enough that to panic them to such an extent the coyote must have been inside the fencing — perhaps he had leapt down from Allen’s high stone retaining wall, which (very foolishly, I now realized) I had run a section of the netting alongside. I was very lucky that none of the sheep were hurt.

I try not to resent predators; they’re just animals trying to make a living. I always remind myself that I’m the one with the college education — I ought to be able to figure out a way to outsmart a coyote. Still, I am aware that with the long drought all our predators are more desperate for food. In early summer we had at least half a dozen woodchucks living on the farm. By September they had all been picked off. Last week, for the first time ever, a raccoon raided my barn. In nearby Old Forge, NY, this summer, a hungry bear ripped through a wall of a candy store — not a door or window, but straight through a sidewall — in search of a meal.

From now through the winter my sheep will be locked safe in the barn at night.


Goodbye, Piggies

October 21, 2012

Pigs grow quickly. The cute little 40-pounders of mid-May…

… are ten times that size by mid-October. Now they are not so cute.

I always dread loading pigs for the slaughterhouse, but this year I had help. One of the smartest moves I made this summer was completely accidental. My friend D happened to be repairing my truck when Rick, my hay man, showed up at the farm with a load of piglets. D thought they were cute and I agreed to raise one for him. Talk about a decision that paid dividends!

As his contribution to feeding costs, D arranged with our local sandwich shop to pick up their day-old sub rolls every night. He regularly appeared with his granddaughter “to feed the piggies,” carrying a Santa-sized bag of bread slung on his back. These visits resulted in some great improvements to my pig operation.

I once mentioned that it would be nice to have a heavy trough that the pigs could not lift, so that I would not have to chase the trough all over the pig pen to feed them. In his travels D found a free homemade steel trough that was fourteen feet long.

He offered to cut it in half and weld new end caps, but I thought the long length was perfect. Once set in place, that trough did not wander. This meant I could feed the pigs without once going inside the pen. Anyone who has ever approached a group of hungry 350-pound hogs with a pail of food knows that under those circumstances you are ripe for a mugging.

Now I could stand outside the pen, pour a bit of pellets mixed with milk in one end of the trough, and while the pigs crowded and fought there, pour the rest of the pail safely in the trough without the pigs muscling in for a milk shower and wasting most of the meal in the dirt.

D’s involvement also meant that I had back-up when I got into a fix.

In the photo above, one of the piglets had rooted under the Pig Palace and become stuck like a cork, squealing with fright. I spent a couple of hours attempting to pull him out by the hind legs, first with my hands and then with a climbing rope and my truck, with no luck. (Pigs have the essential shape of a torpedo and it’s tough to get any purchase.)

In the end I called D and he came out with his son-in-law. The two men tipped the heavy Palace on edge and freed the pig. This happened twice in one week to the same pig: a commentary on both my flawed Palace design and claims of porcine intelligence. Luckily, pigs grow so quickly that soon he was too big to squeeze under the floor.

This fall, two weeks before the pigs were slated to go to slaughter, our long drought broke. It rained and rained. Someday I will have the ability to move pigs every few days around grassy pasture, but that day is not yet. The pen that had been a dusty crater by mid-summer now turned into a cold swamp.

On loading day, D came once again to help.

He had arranged with a friend to borrow her horse trailer. My original plan had been to drop the horse trailer near the pig pen, surround it with electric sheep fencing, and let the pigs load themselves peaceably when they burrowed into the hay for the night.

Unfortunately, shortly after I fed the pigs their breakfast on their Last Day, I had a phone call from the slaughterhouse. They were overbooked; could I get my pigs there the next morning by 7:30 AM?

The slaughterhouse is a two-hour drive. I would have to leave the farm by 5:30 AM. The pigs would have to be reliably loaded that night. But the only time D could help me was that morning. Oh dear.

D arrived and we drove to pick up the trailer. Back at the farm I set up my sheep fencing around the truck and trailer…


… but having just finished breakfast, the pigs had zero interest in the pail of enticing food waiting inside. It was much more fun to root in the water-puddled grass!

I propped the tailgate up on rocks to make the incline into the trailer less steep, to no avail.

D made many remarks about “dumb farmers” who feed pigs breakfast, while he smashed a bucketful of over-ripe apples one by one and tossed the aromatic pieces into the trailer as bait.

A pig or two would venture in, snack idly on apples, and then wander out. At one point D tried to stand on the ramp and hold the snacking pigs in the trailer with his body.

“I wouldn’t do that,” I began. “Pigs are all muscle and you will end up riding—”

Just then a pig forced himself between D’s legs and D, his mouth a perfect O of shock, came galloping down the ramp on its back, arms flailing. I managed to grab him by the shoulders just before he fell off onto the electric fence. I was laughing uncontrollably as D kept repeating, “There ain’t nothin’ on a pig to hold onto!”

After an hour we had three pigs in the trailer. At least momentarily. It was raining but not hard enough to prompt the last two inside — just hard enough to make D and me cold and wet.

We pulled the electric fencing closer and closer to the trailer. The fourth pig slowly climbed the ramp. Now there was just one pig to go. Unfortunately this pig was deeply suspicious. He kept his head down in the corner where the electric fence met the trailer and made low angry chuff sounds.

The only strength in electric fence is in the fear it induces. The fence itself is only plastic and wire. A determined animal can almost always go through it — and that is exactly what the last pig did. As I came up behind him to urge him gently up onto the ramp, he braved the shock and pushed around the electric fence instead, squeezing between the trailer and the nearest post.

Now he was enclosed in the fencing around the truck. I yelled to D on the far side of the trailer to disconnect the battery charger — I am afraid of electric fence! — and moved the plastic post to make a clear alley-way back to the ramp. Then I circled behind the pig and yelled to D again. “Turn the fence back on!” The last thing I wanted was for the pig to push over the fence entirely and be loose in the ten-acre field.

The pig planted his feet. I stood behind him with my knees against him and pushed him. It was like pushing a boulder. Half a step. Half a step. Now we were in the narrow isthmus of fencing leading back to the trailer ramp. I needed to pull on something for leverage. I reached for the wet fender of the trailer.

Snap! Yeeooooowwwwww! I screamed and the pig lurched ahead, his own shoulder blundering into the fender, and then he too screamed like a train whistle.

“D! The whole trailer is electrified!” I screeched. My pig shot forward. One of the pigs in the trailer started down the ramp to investigate all the commotion; he stepped off the rubber matting onto the wet metal ramp. Snap! He shrieked at 90 decibels and jumped back into the trailer. In a panic my pig bounded up the rubber strip into the safety of the hay. The pigs were all loaded!

“Turn off the charger!” I screamed at D. In a moment it was off and we had lifted the heavy ramp and slapped the trailer closed. D was laughing so hard that it took us some time to figure out what had happened.

In the end it was clear. D had dropped his apple pail on the ground between the electric fence and the trailer. The metal bail on the bucket had touched both the fence and the wet edge of the steel trailer, completing a very hot circuit.

“Well, they’re loaded, ain’t they?” D said with a grin.

The pre-dawn drive to the slaughterhouse the following morning was quiet and anticlimactic. I was very grateful to have that major chore off my list, however. The next day we woke to our first snow.


Aestas Horribilis

October 13, 2012

Here is the school building earlier this week, with snow on the mountain. Since then we have had rain, more snow, and wind, and half the leaves are gone from the trees. When I walk the dogs in the sugarbush my footsteps rustle in drifts of papery maple and beech leaves.

This morning it is 17° F and the first day of hunting season. Fall is here. Back in 1992 Queen Elizabeth famously referred to her “annus horribilis,” literally year of horrors, most often translated as horrible year. This has been my aestas horribilis, horrible summer, and I’m grateful to finally see it in my rear-view mirror.

For me the summer was a perfect storm of problems.

  • An ongoing family emergency that sapped my fortitude.
  • Crippling pain in my knee, soon augmented by crippling pain in my right arm — severe tendonitis that is called tennis elbow, but in my case is probably pitchfork elbow.
  • The drought which burned up all my grazing, forcing me to bring my sheep home from Betty’s pasture after only six weeks rather than the usual six months, and feed expensive hay. My hay man did not come. I tried another hay dealer and was faced with ninety bales of over-mature stalks that the animals would not touch. The sheep bawled at me piteously; I could feel the ewes’ backbones beneath their wool and the lambs remained undersized.
  • My old cow Katika who calved and went down in a coma with milk fever. I gave her bottles of sub-cutaneous calcium gluconate and saved her, only to have her fall ill with ketosis, another potentially deadly illness, due to the lack of grass. I poured maple syrup down her throat (all I had in the house), then daily bottles of corn syrup, got in a new load of hay, and beat the ketosis — only to have her develop mastitis in her compromised udder. I treated the mastitis.
  • My little rescue cow Moxie who calved, only for me to discover that her hind teats were so short I could barely grasp one between forefinger and thumb. For a few frantic days I attempted to massage the milk out of her udder, and then I put a foster bull calf on her. Luckily, or unluckily, Moxie is a very low producer and two newborn calves kept her completely milked out.

When I look back on this summer I will remember the heat, the burned land, the empty crater of the pond, milking Katika’s impossible udder at 9 PM with hot needles from biting flies piercing the sweaty shirt plastered to my back.

I will remember fencing frantically to create new rough pasture, with my barn cat Freddie keeping me company.

I’ll remember my friend D giving up his one day off to help me catch and trailer the sheep to bring them home. My friend Gary who visited to go climbing, saw my exhaustion and the bull getting out, and spent six hours weedwhacking my fence lines to restore the charge. My friend Larry who found me a great deal on half-priced pine shavings, and teenaged Alex who helped me get the two hundred bags up into the hayloft. My internet friend Kirby who sent me boxes of fly masks for the cows, rescuing them from rampant pink-eye.

Mostly I will remember being tired and sad. Near the end of August, my dear cat Freddie disappeared, the probable victim of a coyote. This was such a blow I refused to believe it for a long time.

The events of my aestas horribilis are forcing changes on my farm. With the drought, the skyrocketing cost of hay and grain, and ongoing medical bills, I need to downsize in all directions.

Most of these decisions are sad, too. But I am facing them one day at a time.