Ironman Today

July 28, 2013

Today is the Ironman triathlon in town. My farm is on the main highway, which will be closed from 6:30 AM until 5 PM, so I leave soon for the day.

Most locals complain about the Ironman. Driving is certainly dangerous in the weeks leading up to the race, as our narrow, twisty mountain roads are clogged with bikers who veer out in front of cars without warning. It is frustrating and scary, but the roads are in such poor repair, especially on the skinny, cracked, and frost-heaved shoulders, that one can hardly blame them. (Still, somehow, as one jams on the brakes at 55 mph, heart banging, one does blame them.)

But I will be marooned peacefully at the farm, with no ability to go anywhere, solve anyone’s problems, or do any chores except my own. I always secretly enjoy it.

The day is looking thunderstorm-y (poor racers who paid $650 apiece for the privilege of thrashing themselves in bad weather). I’ll work at whatever tasks I can and this afternoon might even stretch out on the apartment bed and take a nap.

I’m already smiling!

Jon’s New Roommate

July 27, 2013


Yesterday Lucy and I drove downstate to do some school shopping and to see Jon. We also helped Jon find his new roommate at the SPCA.  (Double-click on mosaic to enlarge.)

Meet Max, a nine-week-old orange tabby kitten. Jon is very happy, and incidentally pleased that they are matching gingers.

Jon has always loved cats. His last kitten, Tam, is now seventeen years old and frail. Though she still adores him, it would be unkind to uproot her to an apartment.

I did barn chores at 6 AM and 8:30 PM.  A very long day, but worth it.


July 25, 2013

I am famous in my family for my absentmindedness. “Have we said grace?” I will inquire, moments after we finish saying grace before dinner. My kids know that if they want me to remember to accomplish any promised task, they have to write me a note. I will make a comment during a movie and will be informed I said exactly the same thing the last time we watched it (I won’t even recall having seen the film before). For any details of my childhood, I count on my sisters to remember.

I’ve learned to live with this weakness, and aside from having some concern how I will function as age makes its inroads, I generally shrug it off. But last night I was slightly taken aback.

I am rereading a terrific book of history that decades ago won the Pulitzer Prize. As is my habit, I looked it up on Amazon to find other readers’ opinions. (I love sharing books and films this way.)

All the reviews were full of praise — “Wonderful!” “Masterly,” “History comes alive!” “Awesome,” “A masterpiece” — except one, which was sneering and dismissive. What?!

To that review, there was one in response. It was cool, civil, and in a few short sentences demolished the sneerer’s argument.

Gosh, I agree with that, I thought to myself.

I went to click on the voting buttons to register my approval, only to find:

Why no voting buttons? We don’t let customers vote on their own reviews.

I myself had written the response in 2007.

Cheek Abscess Update

July 21, 2013


On Tuesday a vet stopped by to address Stewart’s cheek abscess disaster from five days before. This was not David but one of his junior assistants, passing the farm on her return from another call.

I have officially reached the age when most young professionals appear to me to be about sixteen years old. In this case the impression was heightened because the poor girl had been given no information about the case.

She walked into the barn carrying a bucket with Betadine (suspected to have caused all Stewart’s problems) and looked alarmed when I almost screeched, “No, he’s allergic, he can’t have Betadine!” The spooked look became even more pronounced when she saw the abscess, now reduced to the size of a baseball but just as hard as one.

“I thought I was re-opening a simple abscess.”

I couldn’t believe it.  The other assistant vet had told me they would be bringing a portable ultrasound machine to try to ascertain what was going on!

When I mentioned this, this new assistant seemed overwhelmed. “No one told me anything about any of this.”

With difficulty I controlled myself. I told the current assistant I wanted to have Stewart’s cheek anesthetized before any further work was done. She agreed to do it, but even with the stanchion it was hard to hold him still for the shots of lidocaine. I double-wrapped the lead around his nose and pushed him into the wall with my weight to try to hold him quiet (above).


It was not very successful. Stewart still jumped and struggled with every prick of the needle.

“We’d be fine if we had nose tongs,” she said finally. “There should be some in the truck.” She went out, rummaged for ten minutes, and then came back in empty-handed.

“I don’t really know my way around the truck very well,” she confessed.

At this point I knew we were in a mess. I was very angry but understood it was not the fault of this poor girl, or even maybe anyone. Maybe it was just the Bad Luck Fairy that has been following me around lately.

In the end, we persevered with the lidocaine and, using a scalpel, she cut the cheek open, a slice 2-3″ wide.


The walls of the abscess still did not collapse, nor did it drain.

Instead, the assistant removed lumps of hardened material she said was pus. Lucy took pictures.


Meanwhile it was over 100° in the barn, I was on heavy meds for a bad tooth, and though I’m never squeamish, I suddenly felt I was going to faint. I stumbled outside and sat down, my stomach heaving and a cold sweat breaking out across my face.

Recovering at home with a glass of water after the vet left, I was deeply upset for poor Stewart. I suspected this assistant should not have cut open the abscess. I knew I should never have decided to be a responsible cattle owner and address what turned out to be a benign abscess at all. However when David called me that night to apologize for the situation, I was able to get a grip. It isn’t David’s fault that Stewart is evidently allergic to Betadine, which David has used successfully to flush abscesses for thirty years.

Two days later I tricked Stewart back into the stanchion and inspected the wound. Still as big and hard as a baseball.  (I am becoming resigned to the idea that his face has probably been permanently scarred by this procedure.)


More chunks of hardened pus, looking like dirty tofu, were crowding the lips of the cut. [Double-click to enlarge.]


I flushed the wound with water mixed with a little hydrogen peroxide, to clear out the pus, and then smeared all around it with SWAT fly ointment. The one thing worse than dealing with this awful wound would be dealing with this awful wound crawling with maggots.

Clean again.


Stewart is certainly not eager to go into the stanchion these days, but so far, greed for sweet feed has always won out.

Dealing with this situation day by day has been the backdrop of the stressful, steamy, over-scheduled last two weeks. I pray it will heal soon, for Stewart’s sake and my own.

Party’s Over!

July 20, 2013

I hosted a party for 65 people last night. I host this party every year at this season for my husband’s work, but as I am not a natural hostess, even with the main food catered I find it a stressful experience. Combined with pressing issues at the farm and with the family, four times a day carpooling, plus a dental emergency that required driving to Vermont, I have been scheduled minute by minute for the past fortnight.

But this morning I wake up a free (almost) woman. Just the usual full-page list of chores. Hooray!

I will start catching up in these pages tomorrow.


July 17, 2013

Last night at 9:30 PM my husband and I were out gathering twenty-one terrified sheep scattered over acres of pasture in the dark. Apparently someone who doesn’t live in the neighborhood thought it would be fun to set off fireworks nearby. My sheep panicked and tore through their netting.

I don’t often lose my temper but it’s a good thing that I didn’t meet Mr. Firework last night.

As my mother would have said: “KATIE, BAR THE DOOR.”

All Mowed

July 16, 2013


Allen finished the mowing yesterday. The entire seventeen open acres on the farm are mowed, save for the many ragged, rocky edges that I must clip with my lawn tractor, weedwhacker, and push mower.

I am very pleased. I am sure this marks the first time these acres have all been mowed since the 1920s or ’30s. Actually, judging from the litter of broken iron I turn up among the rocks, I’m not even convinced this land has ever all been mowed at one time.

Though I mowed almost all of it last year with my lawn tractor, this process is so slow that by the time I got any one field cleared the previous one would be overgrown with weeds and briars again.

Weeds are choking the fencelines and shorting my electric fences once more, but with the big mowing off my shoulders I should be able to clean these up in a week. I might even be able to start driving posts to fence in the back acres in the next fortnight.



Steer with a Cheek Abscess

July 14, 2013


My yearling steer, Stewart, has an abscess.

Back in April I had bought a load of coarse, stemmy hay. I wasn’t very happy with it, especially since it cost top dollar, but there wasn’t much to choose from. Farms everywhere around here were out of hay, due to last summer’s drought. My older hay supplier had emptied his barn down to the sweepings. My erratic younger hay supplier hadn’t even bothered to return my calls or emails. So when I was able to purchase this load of hay from a new man, I’d been relieved and grateful.

The problem with coarse hay (apart from lower nutrition and palatability) is that when it’s put into feeders and mangers the animals have to plunge their faces and necks into food that’s stiff and poky. Little slivers of hay can pierce the skin and become infected.

My ewe Blackberry developed an abscess on the front of her shoulder where she leaned into the hay feeder. I watched it, and after a few weeks it subsided and went away.

At the same time, my steer Stewart developed an abscess on his right cheek. His abscess did not go away, but swelled to the size of a golf ball. (See photo above.)

At least I thought it was an abscess. There is also a condition in cattle known as Lumpy Jaw (how’s that for a name). Lumpy Jaw too is caused by eating rough forage but in this version the hay pokes into the inside of the mouth, often in a recently emptied baby tooth socket, and the infection pervades the bone. Eventually the animal’s jaw is so distorted it cannot eat and may have difficulty breathing.

I did not think Stewart’s infection was in the bone. However the lump — I believed, from my limited ability to touch it, as he is not hand-tame — was not soft like the usual abscess but hard. Though I’ve dealt with simple abscesses before, in dogs and sheep, I had a flash vision of myself lancing this one and finding a strange bony overgrowth.

I called my vet, David, to ask him if I could cope with the lump myself. He did not think so. In fact he strongly doubted it was an abscess, because abscesses usually don’t stick around for several months, but burst and go away. Like Blackberry’s.

Oh, dear. Even though money is very, very tight, I decided I needed to have David come to the farm for a look.

Before David arrived on Thursday afternoon, I tricked Stewart into Moxie’s stanchion with a half-can of grain. Once he was safely locked in, I put on a halter. He was slightly perturbed to be confined, but not unduly. He licked up his grain.


David arrived, felt the lump, and to my relief said immediately, “Well, it’s not Lumpy Jaw.”

But what was it? It still felt too hard for a normal abscess. He decided to try to aspirate some of the contents with a needle.

He shaved the lump and washed the site.


Then he stuck the lump with a large-gauge needle. Yellow pus! Hooray! It was indeed an abscess, just one with an unusually rigid capsule.

Now with a quick plunge David pierced the lump with a scalpel. Stewart jumped in protest but then stood quietly as David drained the contents into a jam jar.


“Want something for soup?” he said, passing me the jar half-filled with serum, blood, and bright yellow curds.

Unfortunately the hard walls of the abscess did not seem to allow it to drain properly. Stewart did not like David’s squeezing.


Nor was he happy when, with some difficulty, David flushed the hole with a solution of Betadine, hydrogen peroxide, and sterile saline.


However, David proceeded and at last it was done. I let Stewart out of the stanchion and he scampered back to his stall in relief. I went outside to mow, equally relieved. I’d done the right thing. All was taken care of.

Or maybe not. When I returned to the barn for evening chores, Stewart’s face was so swollen that his halter prevented him from opening his mouth to eat his supper. I removed the halter and called the vet’s office to report that the original golf ball of swelling had turned into half a cantaloupe. The secretary promised to pass along the message.

Within the hour David called me back. The swelling was mysterious (I always worry when medical professionals are mystified) but it should resolve by morning. If not, I might have to re-open the drainage hole in the abscess. Oh, dear.

By Friday morning, the cantaloupe had swelled to become a football.


Stewart did not seem to be in pain. In fact, he was chewing his cud. But clearly nothing was draining.


I’d have to open it. David had mentioned that I simply needed something to insert into the hole to break the scab and allow it to drain. I could even boil a nail. (“A nail?” Lucy said to me, horrified.) I called the office Friday morning to double-check. The assistant vet confirmed this, and added that another option was to use a sterilized Exacto knife, if the hole had to be enlarged. I prepared both, my stomach shrinking.

Naturally, Stewart was not eager to be trapped again in the stanchion. However, I did not rush him and eventually his greed for sweet feed overcame his concern. I bolted the headlock.

I felt the huge swelling on his cheek. It was hard. Very little give under my fingers.

I gritted my teeth and with a quick motion (and trying not to close my eyes) forced the sterilized nail into the abscess hole. Stewart jumped but once the point was past the scab and in the abscess pocket, he stood quietly. I pulled the nail out. Unfortunately, nothing drained. He’d had a 16-penny nail an inch deep in his face and… nothing.

Oh, God.

I took up the Exacto knife with trembling hands. The next few minutes were terrible. I tried to do exactly as I’d seen David do, and plunge the blade into the abscess with a swift stab. In my case I was trying to enlarge David’s original hole, so aim was important. The abscess walls were so hard and thick it was like trying to cut open a tennis ball — the blade wanted to bounce off the hard surface — so a quick puncture was the only way.

Naturally, with the stab Stewart jumped in fright and pain. I was deeply upset. And still nothing drained.

Allen was just putting away the tractor. I went out and pulled him into the barn. He inspected Stewart’s face.

“You’re gonna to need to make a bigger cut,” he observed. “Slice it across.” He made a swift cutting motion with his index finger.

I tried to explain how hard this abscess was. “It’s not like slitting the surface skin. This thing is very deep and thick. Like a grapefruit rind. You’d practically have to stick the knife in and saw it. I just can’t cut him like that.” I tried to hand him the knife, but he backed away.

I ain’t gonna do it! You gotta. You gotta get that thing open.”

I felt sick but decided to try one more time. Again, a stab. Again, poor Stewart jumped. I rubbed his back and crooned to him. A little bit of serum and blood now drained from the abscess, but not much.

However, I was done.

I washed Stewart’s face, gave him another treat of sweet feed, and let him out of the stanchion. Then I called the vet’s office and asked them to return on their next trip through my town. I think they will need to anesthetize the cheek and make a two inch slice through the walls of the abscess to get it to collapse and drain reliably. I had emailed photos; on seeing them, the young vet exclaimed but reiterated that Stewart’s swelling was an unprecedented reaction to opening an abscess — she speculates that perhaps he is allergic to Betadine.

At this point of course I am sorry I decided to treat the abscess at all. It had posed no health problem, just a cosmetic one. However I hadn’t been sure of  my diagnosis (even David had thought I was wrong) and I’d wanted to be a responsible caregiver.

In the meantime Stewart is still eating and chewing his cud and the swelling, though no better, is no worse.


Lucy and I have to drive downstate today. I am weary.

More Comfort

July 13, 2013


Yesterday, feeling tired, discouraged, and overwhelmed (too much going on right now, too busy and torn in different directions), I pulled into the farm and from the top of the driveway saw the above. It’s my friend Allen mowing the back acres.

Instant tonic.

Maybe someday this rocky, sour piece of land will be a real farm.

As Allen says, “We’re gainin’ on ‘er.”

A Portable Sheep Mineral Feeder

July 12, 2013


A few days ago I forced myself to take twenty minutes and build a portable mineral feeder for my Clun Forest sheep out on pasture.

In the barn the flock has a mineral feeder permanently fixed to the wall. Down at Betty’s pasture, I move them to fresh grass every day, or at most, every other day. I’ve needed a portable “mineral delivery system” for several years, but I couldn’t quite picture how to make one and never had the time. Instead I simply refilled an open rubber pan as often as possible. This was wasteful — the sheep regularly tipped over the pan and the minerals were lost in the grass, or rain drowned the minerals and washed them away.

This portable mineral feeder works perfectly. Best of all, it was made entirely of scraps and cost me nothing.

  • The basic box is one of three plywood drawers (9″x16″x20″) I rescued off a burn pile five years ago. If you don’t have a similarly-sized box, it would be easy to make one using 3/4″ plywood.
  • The drawer is fastened on edge to skids made from two scraps of treated 4×4, left over from building the garage deck. The skids are 28″ long, their ends cut to 45° angles so it can ride easily over bumps when it is towed around the pasture. (If I’d had longer scraps, I would have made the skids 36″ long, for added stability.)
  • The front rim board is a scrap of treated 1×6 decking, cut to fit. The inside of the box is braced at each corner with scraps of 2×2, for strength and a larger fastening surface.
  • The roof is a scrap of 1/2″ plywood in front and a scrap of 5/4″ window trim in back. The roof pitch is supported by three 45° scraps of treated 4×4 left over from cutting the skids.
  • Behind the box and beneath the rim board are scraps of 2×4, cut to fit. They brace the skids. The 2×4 under the rim board has an eye bolt with a rope for towing.
  • Everything is fastened together with coated deck screws.


The rim board keeps the minerals from spilling. The roof keeps them dry.

I would like to think I would take another ten minutes and stain the feeder for a nicer look, but my list is long and I know it’s unlikely it will happen soon, if ever.


This mineral feeder is inelegant, but sturdy and light and can easily be pulled to a new location by hand.

Best of all, even when newly-filled and mobbed by the jostling flock, it rocks but does not tip over. (If the skids were a full 36″, I believe it would not even rock.)


It’s always very satisfying to make a little concrete progress.