My baby girl skied the 25K Loppet yesterday, and had a great race. Her stamina and technique improve every year. It used to be her goal simply to finish.
My dear friend Julia died of cancer yesterday at only 54. I was going to drive the six hours to Connecticut to see her today. The past two weeks have been a relentless race against time while our car has been marooned in the shop and I’ve battled the cold and frozen pipes. My heart is so heavy.
I find I have few pictures to document almost three decades of friendship. Above we are on the church steps at Jon’s christening in 1988; she was his godmother. At the time we shared an equal devotion to Laura Ashley. As someone cracked of this photo, “You look like Sister Wives!”
How Julia would have loved that.
I will write more when I can find words.
My ten ewes are getting rounder by the day. Late last summer, when life was extremely sad and chaotic, I decided (as I would probably not be keeping any lambs this year) that for simplicity’s sake I would simply breed the girls to the Clun Forest ram lamb that I was selling later in the season.
Fine. Not a bad plan, and the teenaged ram was thrilled to oblige. Unfortunately, however, I was so very stressed, I did not get a marking harness on this enthusiastic boy.
Thus I have no idea who is bred and who is not, and when lambs will start arriving. This is a problem. It is -20° F today and the past two days have seen -25° and -32°. A lamb born wet and helpless in these bitter temperatures would not last long.
Moreover there is a good chance that one of the novice ewes will be first to lamb; as these young girls did not have nursing lambs at foot last fall, they would have been in prime shape to be the first ovulating. A maiden ewe is occasionally so traumatized by the pain of birth that her mothering instincts don’t kick in and in fright she abandons the crying baby instead of caring for it.
My nerves are shot.
Just managing the cold to keep the animals safe has been challenge enough. I have turned everyone out only for a couple of hours at a time. The teenaged calves have been particularly restless in their stalls and eager to get out. However when I open the back barn door again all the animals burst from the run-in shelter and head for me at full speed, led by Lucy’s horse Birch at a gallop.
Yesterday a mean wind blew up, making the trip to manure pile dragging my muck bucket a tortuous experience. With each foray my glasses froze and then fogged on re-entering the barn. Wind-whipped tears froze on my cheeks. Finally I took the glasses off altogether and mucked blind, just piling the dirty litter in the barn aisle. When it warms up enough to tackle it I will have a big job.
And then there is mucking the deep bedding out of the sheep stall, a monster, four-day task that had been on the schedule for this frigid week and had to be scuttled. I hope to start it tomorrow when it hits a balmy 10° above zero.
In the meantime: please, God, no lambs quite yet!
The past few days have seen our temperatures see-sawing up and down. Below zero, then warming above freezing with rain, then plunging to zero again. The winds accompanying these colliding weather fronts have been brutal. We’ve had snowfall with white-out conditions, where you could barely see ten feet in front of you. Meanwhile the scouring winds have scraped the ground bare in many places, only to dump drifts in others.
DH had old college buddies up for a weekend of skiing, so apart from barn chores I spent most of my time cooking and cleaning. Neither is my favorite task but it was reminiscent to me of the peacefulness I felt when I was tied down by small children. My life was circumscribed and my goals were limited. Picking up toys. Making beds. Reading aloud. Folding small shirts and pants, matching tiny socks.
This weekend as I grated potatoes for breakfast hash browns or skimmed cream for ice cream or polished the table, I felt a similar rush of pleasure in domesticity.
Perhaps I enjoyed it even more acutely because it is due to stay below zero all this week — it is -10° F now — and I know I must spend four days mucking the deep bedding out of the sheep stall.
Yesterday it was snowing at morning chores. My skiers DH and Lucy were doing a happy dance. (Actually, as by nature they are both far more reserved than I am, it should be noted more accurately that they were smiling with relief. DH exclaimed, “All right!” and Lucy said in a pleased tone, “Yay!”)
The animals ate their hay on a fresh white tablecloth.
We received two inches of powder before the sky cleared in the afternoon and the temperature began to drop.
This morning it is -19° F. The house timbers are creaking and thudding in the cold. Winter is back!
Because they had no genuine Cotran weaners immediately on hand, Jeffers Livestock kindly sent me some QuietWean calf weaners to try. Jeffers is considering stocking the brand, and said they would be happy to hear my opinion.
The results are in. So far, so good!
The main hassle of all weaning rings is the handling required to put them in and out. Getting halters on 300-pound calves that are not hand-tame is not a job for the faint of heart. However all my calves are accustomed to coming into their stalls at night, and in the confines of the small space it can be done with a reasonably limited amount of panic (on their part) and trampling (of me). Once the calves are haltered and tied, the job is quick and painless.
Still, you can see that if your weaners are prone to falling out, or otherwise fail and require replacing, you will quickly develop a deep rage and hatred for that particular brand as you grapple repeatedly with big, anxious, jostling calves. The Jeffers knock-offs did that for me.
The first thing you notice about the QuietWean weaner is that it is light and very smooth. Unlike the Cotran weaner, handling the QuietWean is not like grasping a pricker-bush. Moreover there is no tightening bolt to lose or parts to break. This is a very, very simple design. If it works, that seems a plus.
I removed the trash weaners and put one QuietWean in the nose of my steer calf, Stewart, and one in the nose of my heifer calf, Dorrie.
Hooray! Neither calf could nurse. Stewart stood by his mother looking sheepish. Foiled!
Watching the two calves eat their breakfast hay, it seemed to me that the QuietWean might be slightly easier for calves to live with, as there are no spikes to catch on anything inadvertently.
One the other hand, the same lack of spikes made me wonder how useful the QuietWean would be with a really hungry, determined, persevering, clever calf.
On their website the folks at QuietWean state that in their own trials, fewer than 10% of calves learn to nurse with the QuietWean on — and then (quite honestly) go on to admit that other trials show a 5-30% rate of calves still able to nurse. I greatly admire their frankness. Especially as, from casual reports I’ve had from friends, roughly the same statistics seem to hold true using almost any weaning device … except:
- The knock-off weaners currently sold by Jeffers, which in my small “trial” had a 100% failure rate.
- The weaning halter designed by the same woman who originally designed cow fly masks. This weaning halter has a 100% success rate. However, it is not available commercially and if it were, would be at least three times the price and thus not feasible for large producers.
The answer with weaning rings seems to be that if you find something that works, don’t mess with success.
It did not occur to me for one minute to trade out the Cotran weaner in clever Henry’s nose.
In the future I will keep both Cotran and QuietWean weaning rings on hand. The knock-offs, meanwhile, have gone straight to the trash.
On Monday morning, while putting out hay, I found black feathers strewn across the snow in the barn paddock. A few steps further I found large pieces of wing, with bone attached. Then a fan of tail feathers. Uh-oh. Something was eaten here.
Thank goodness, the feathers were too long to be from one of my Black Australorp hens. It must have been a crow. But how would a coyote have caught a crow? Maybe it was sickly and on the ground, I thought.
(Because they are a predator and also eat carrion, crows often suffer from heavy worm infestations. Back in the ’70s when I had state and federal licenses for handling wildlife, I was often presented with crows that were too thin and debilitated to fly; I wormed them, kept them for a week to feed them back to fighting weight, and then released them.)
But as I scanned the snow I realized there were no footprints. No coyote had trotted through my paddock. The attack on the crow must have come in the dark from the sky.
Owls are a major predator of crows. Owls can see in the dark, which crows cannot; an owl can swoop into a flock of sleeping crows and snatch a bird from a branch with barely a whisper of wings. For this reason crows fear and detest owls, and when crows find an owl sleeping in the daytime they will mob it and scream warnings for hours.
Yesterday morning I was mucking the barn when I heard crows beginning to congregate, yelling, in the tops of the yellow birch and balsams at the edge of the barn paddock. I immediately dropped my pitchfork. Had they spotted the owl? I went outside to see.
I found all the cattle and Lucy’s horse Birch standing motionless, not eating, staring at the woods with heads lifted and ears pricked, listening to the alarm calls of the crows (could the livestock understand a specific message, or just a scream of danger? Such speculation fascinates me). Unfortunately for any claims of sheep intelligence, the ewes seemed not to notice the raucous commotion at all. They kept their heads down, eating stolidly.
There were about eight crows, screaming and hopping from branch to branch. I could not see any focal point for their attention in the woods; in fact, several times a crow swooped over the paddock, wheeling and cawing. Finally I realized that they were not excited over an owl in the trees — they had spotted and were exclaiming over the dismembered remains of their fallen compatriot on the ground.
(I think I was thirteen or so when I first read Konrad Lorenz’s wonderful book, King Solomon’s Ring, with his explanations of jackdaw behavior. Ever since I have been inordinately fond of crows, ravens, and jays — all the clever “nuisance” birds.)
After ten minutes of unceasing din, I watched as one crow, braver than the rest, finally lighted on the ground near the scattered black feathers and bones. Crows often walk, rather than hop like other birds; this gives their gait an endearing swagger. While his pals in the trees continued to yell warnings, the brave crow strutted across the snow, cocking his head to inspect the various meager remains. Only the constant twitching and rearranging of his wings revealed his nerves.
At last the brave crow jumped into the air and flew away, cawing. I imagined him reporting, “This fella’s too far gone for rescue!” The whole flock followed and in a minute they were gone.
The barnyard was quiet again. The cows and horse returned to their hay. The sheep never looked up.
I love watching animals.
Over the last three days the temperatures soared, we had rain, and our snowpack dwindled alarmingly. More than two feet of snow ebbed away and now we have mud and great patches of ugly, dead-looking fields. What snow remains is dirty ice.
My skiers are disconsolate.
Now it is cold again. However DH has friends coming to ski for the holiday weekend, the big local cross-country ski race is the following weekend, and there is no snow. DH and Lucy are watching the forecast and the windows anxiously. Last winter was so terrible in terms of snow that most skiing events were cancelled. It is a bitter pill for them to think we might have had such promising conditions and yet end up with the same result.
I myself am mostly concerned on their behalf. As long as we have precipitation — our snowless winter last year was the start of a serious drought — it is less important to me if it is snow or rain. . . save, of course, the deeply worrying specter of global warming.
Historically we almost always have a brief January thaw. Hopefully we will soon be safely lapped in snow again.
Barn chores are more difficult in winter but my mood these days is brightened by the pleasure of watching my newest foster calf, Gary Cooper. I often find myself leaning on my pitchfork, smiling.
At the dairy, all calves are removed from their mothers immediately at birth and fed on a bottle. A collar is made out of a doubled length of baling twine, and another length of twine ties each calf to a side wall of the barn. When I picked up Cooper there were at least a dozen calves tied and waiting for the next round of milk.
Like all my dairy calves, therefore, although Cooper was almost two weeks old when I brought him home, he had no experience with walking. He was tottery and tentative.
Such calves might as well be newborns. They have to learn how to steer those gangly legs in the right direction, and the new freedom and space are always a little bewildering.
But the biggest thrill for foster calves is always the introduction to warm milk straight from the udder.
That first morning, when I brought Moxie into the barn and showed her the strange calf in her stall, she was a bit wild-eyed at the prospect.
However, a snack of sweet feed distracted her and after that her patient nature asserted itself.
Again like all newborn calves and most bottle babies, Cooper was delighted to learn about the milk bar but not entirely sure of its location. If a teat slipped out of his mouth, he blundered blindly in search, sucking in a frenzy on Moxie’s brisket, her elbow, or any other convenient body part.
It is helpful at such times to be present to re-direct.
By evening chores on his first day at the farm, Cooper had a full belly, a warm fleece jacket, and was ready to start exploring the barn. Here he is, having tottered into the sheep stall.
Soon, every day sees the calf blossoming, growing in confidence and coordination. At first he is scattering poultry at a prancing walk on shaky legs…
… but a week later it’s at a gallop. Squawking, honking, mayhem — what fun!
Because I don’t put winter calves out in the cold and snow in their first eight weeks, I always let them have free run of the barn during the two-plus hours a day I’m busy mucking stalls and hauling hay and water. This is their play time.
Bull calves are drawn to potential sparring partners in the same way toddler boys are drawn to toy guns. Here is Cooper, on his second day, still barely on his feet — but pushing gingerly and hopefully at the muck bucket to see if it will fight back.
A few days later, between canters up and down the barn aisle, he stops to bash a bag of shavings.
All of my bull calves have had a particular fondness for bags of shavings. The bags crackle satisfyingly in response to a ramming. Then a calf can dance backwards and forward and hit ’em again.
Sometimes the bags can even be knocked over, and they spill their guts!
(More than once I have had full-grown bulls spy a bale of shavings in the barn aisle and suddenly remember this baby game. Bang! The bull drops to his knees on the bale, lowering his head to grind for the kill — and the bag explodes, with shavings everywhere.)
But for now, little Cooper is frisking and bucking up and down the aisles, coming to me for petting between adventures, his small corrugated ribs heaving, wanting a warm hand to rub his neck.
It is a great and familiar pleasure.
Lucy heads to Vermont today for a weekend of nordic ski racing. These are New England Junior National qualifying races. This is her first year of team racing so she is excited even to be invited onto the bus. Most of the other girls and boys have been racing with the team for years.
I have enjoyed watching Lucy gain skills and confidence. So much has been new for her, but she has a great coach and her perseverance has paid off. She is also making new friends, as the small team draws from all the local high schools. I am not at all a sports person, but even I can see that this experience has been a win-win.