Easy As Pie

December 10, 2013


Everything to do with bringing in the new bull calf, Jason Aldean, has been easy as pie. In fact it’s been so simple I am subconsciously tensing and waiting for the other shoe to drop.

He is alert and vigorous and extremely quick to get the hang of nursing. (In comparison, my last baby bull, Neal Calf-frey, seemed to have few brains to recognize a teat, a low sucking reflex, and to be so limp altogether that for the first couple of days he would collapse to the floor beneath Moxie unless I held him in position on his feet.) Jason Aldean immediately grasped that there are four teats and he gobbles happily and hungrily until he’s tried them all.

Meanwhile I got weaning rings into the noses of the older calves. Weaning rings hang from the nostrils like a clip-on earring to prevent a calf from nursing. Last year, due to problems with a supplier, I ended up testing several different brands of calf weaners. QuietWean, a smooth crescent disk, is the very simplest and least cumbersome for the calf, so I decided to start with them. If the calves manage to suck around them or get them off, I will move up to the tougher weaners covered with spikes.

The adolescent calves barely noticed the abrupt weaning because yesterday Junie was coming into heat for the second time. When I arrived at the barn I found their stall floor churned into a damp mess, as in their excitement they’d knocked over their water bucket. When I let them out in the paddock, they paid no attention to Moxie and breakfast but instead pursued their burgeoning passion. Junie, drunk with longing, was trying to mount Dorrie at the same time that Neal was trying to mount Junie. For one brief moment the three youngsters were staggering upright in a conga line.

Moxie paid no attention but stolidly munched hay.

I’m soon going to have to figure out how to separate Junie from Neal. There is little danger that he will impregnate her at five months, but as time goes on the odds will rise. For healthy growth and safety, she should not be bred until she is fifteen months old. I would like to sell her to another family cow owner, to be spoiled and petted through a long, happy life. Unfortunately, in winter few people are interested in buying large livestock and in this area Jersey cows are a drug on the market. It is a puzzle I will want to solve before March.

By evening the teenaged calves had settled down and noticed that they’d missed their milk, but apart from a few sad moos they came in to their hay and sweet feed with only a sigh.


Weaning Time… and A New Baby

December 9, 2013


It is time for June Bug and Neal Calf-frey to be weaned. They are five months old, strong and vigorous. When they are both butting at Moxie’s udder they can lift her off her feet.


Last week I alerted Melissa at the dairy forty minutes away and she promised to let me know when they had a newborn bull calf. Yesterday the call came.

The first step in weaning is put halters on the calves. I often used to leave halters on my animals, but no more. In October I had been visiting Lucy’s school in New Hampshire when I received a call from my dear friend Alison, who was covering my barn chores. Did I mean for my heifer Dorrie to be dragging a three-foot iron pipe?


It turned out that Dorrie’s halter had in some crazy fashion become tangled in the short end of an iron pipe that years ago I had sunk in the ground near the paddock gate as a doorstop. In her panic, Dorrie had heaved the pipe right out of the ground and was now trailing it from her head. Alison’s husband, Tom, took a photo.


Alison and Tom were able to bring all the animals in and disentangle Dorrie from the pipe, but since then, I do not leave halters on my cattle.

Now I was not looking forward to putting halters on the five-month calves. Junie and Neal are not at all hand-tame. They know my routine and obediently go in and out of the barn to their stall, but they have never been handled. I knew it would be a rodeo, and it was. However, I stayed calm and was only mildly trampled and banged in their plunging away from me around the small stall.

Junie is now wearing a calf halter let out to its last hole and Neal is wearing a yearling halter run up as far as it can go. However they will only wear them a few days. My next task will be to put weaning rings on their noses, but after getting the halters on, I thought we’d all had enough excitement for one morning.

In the afternoon I volunteered to work with a boy who was in disciplinary straits in the school program. This boy (let’s call him Roger) fits my favorite profile of a problem child: a smart, unhappy trouble-maker with a heart of gold. Roger is one of my strongest history students and very dear and funny, but he’s had some tough knocks in life and when his time is unstructured he just… can’t… resist… stirring up chaos.

So I brought him down to the farm and we mucked the barn companionably. Then we rode over to the dairy and picked up my new day-old bull calf. I will be raising this calf for my friends D and Allen, and D’s four-year-old granddaughter had already chosen the name: “Jason Aldean,” apparently a country singer whose song is her favorite on the truck radio.

Roger was delighted with Jason Aldean.


Moxie, who had been lying in her stall shavings chewing her cud, agreed to get up and go into her stanchion for a grain snack while we introduced Jason Aldean to her udder. Though never having seen a teat, Jason Aldean was a quick study.

Roger was happy to supervise the wobbly, staggering baby and help him latch on. “He is so smart! Look at his little tail wag!”


I tied a calf jacket on Jason Aldean, and last night at 9 PM I drove down to the farm to supervise another feed to keep him warm through the 15° F night.

This morning before work I hope to tackle the weaning rings.

Finished the Siding!

December 8, 2013

I got most of the rest of the siding up on the barn addition yesterday in the blowing snow. Once I have determined the exact dimensions of my dutch doors at each end, I can frame them in and side above them.

Though it was about 20°F, it felt much colder due to the wind. I was wearing my jeans, long-sleeved t-shirt, turtleneck, two fleece sweaters, my lined coveralls, Jon’s big puffy down vest from high school, my barn jacket, two hats, plus wool socks, winter boots and gloves. I waddled to and fro. But I got her done.

The first board had a complicated top to cut. I knew I ought to be able to figure it out with measurements and math. But instead I cheated and climbed up a ladder on the ice to cut a paper pattern.


The truck tailgate was my workbench. I am going to ask for some clamps for Christmas. In the meantime I used a cinder block to hold each board steady on the icy surface for sawing.


When I had to rip a board to fit, I used two blocks.


My siding is shiplap, a rougher, 12″-wide version of this stock photo.

Cutting angles on shiplap is challenging for me because you have to remember which face (rough or smooth) goes out, whether the lap is over or under, and in which direction to cut the angle. Then there is the issue of damaged boards and working around knots or cracks.

Over the past five years I have come to realize that my spatial intelligence is very, very low. I goofed a couple of times as I was getting started. Luckily the roof slopes so I could re-cut and use those goofed boards further down the slope.

Over the course of the day I also realized, to my surprise and pleasure, that despite my lack of aptitude, my own slow cutting and nailing was more careful and accurate than that of the professional carpenter I’d hired to help me put up the siding on the main barn back in 2007. Back then I’d been the gofer who held the boards as he cut and nailed. Now I was doing it all, and since there was no rush, and no hourly wage, I could be as slow as I wanted to be. I could even walk back and stare at the wall to remind myself, “Lap in or lap out?”

It was almost dark by the time I ripped the last board. The back corner of the wall is slightly out of plumb so I knew I had to rip the board 1/8″ shorter at the top and 1/8″ longer at the bottom. Naturally, in marking the board for cutting on my tailgate, I accidentally flipped it. When I lifted the ripped board into place I found it was 1/4″ short at the bottom.

It was cold and dark was falling fast. I nailed the board up anyway. It would be fine, I told myself. In the immortal words of my elderly friend Allen:

We ain’t buildin’ a church.


Next weekend I hope to build the first of the three doors.

Because I Can’t Resist

December 7, 2013

Jon and Amanda_0001

Amanda’s mother, Judy, found these pictures of my son Jon and his fiancée Amanda at age six.

They make me smile, especially the one above!

Jon and Amanda

White Night

December 6, 2013

Couldn’t sleep last night. DH is in Boston for work and I eventually sat up, turned the light back on, and read about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. (This is what history teachers do for relaxation.)

I finally dozed fitfully from midnight to 4 AM.

My mental list is too long. Though my hours actually spent teaching are part-time (25 hours per week), the paperwork and preparation are full-time and I’m facing a log-jam of reports, advisor letters, test corrections, required curriculum maps, and other written work that must be finished in the next week. At home, a leaning stack of bills and insurance forms clamor for my attention; I have to pull together family Christmas lists. At the farm my projects languish again for lack of time.

I have not nailed up a single board on the barn addition since last weekend. Merely setting up all the tools and firing up the compressor would require half of my one hour before dark. I have also realized I need to dig in another 4×4 treated post for my interior doorway. I bought the 4×4. Maybe I can get to the pick-axe this afternoon before the temperature plunges again.

Or maybe I’ll be too tired.


December 3, 2013

Last week over the holidays we had students’ parents and extended families visiting. Most of my classes swelled by more than twenty guests.

In my presentations I explained that my history teaching is based on the concept of perspective. On the very first day of school I had taught the children the meaning of “the Rashomon Effect,” the idea that one story can be told from multiple points of view, each one a version of the truth. As all my classes move forward through time and historical events, I constantly remind the students, “Whose point of view are we reading? Who is telling this story?

I do my best to present many opposing perspectives, through skits, read-alouds, and films, and it is interesting to watch the children’s allegiances switch back and forth. (One minute they are rooting for the cavalry, the next for the Sioux.) Though I have a number of concrete goals for my classes, my secret goal is that learning to consider different perspectives will broaden the children’s thinking and increase their tolerance.

The Southern grandfather of one of my eighth graders spoke to me after my presentation. He was pleased and relieved to hear about my curriculum. As a native of Alabama, he had been very concerned when his grandson had told him he was studying the Civil War at his boarding school up north.

“I figured I’d have to straighten out of his thinking when he came home on vacation.” But, he went on, thankfully that would not be necessary.

I smiled. “Yes, I’m a Yankee, but hopefully not a damned Yankee.”

We both laughed.

Still Gainin’

December 2, 2013


Yesterday by chore time and darkness at 4 PM, I had finished framing windows and nailing up siding on the long west wall of the barn addition. I was very pleased.

Also sore.

The west wall sits on a three-foot slope of gravel that is covered with ice. I slipped and fell many times, once spectacularly, when in my automatic effort to protect the nail gun I landed in such a way that I thought I might have torn out the muscles in my left shoulder.


I lay on the ice breathing heavily for a minute. It is times like these that I realize that tears are mostly a communication device. I rarely cry when I hurt myself when I’m alone. I just sprawled there, catching my breath and hoping the damage to my shoulder wasn’t too terrible. It wasn’t. Merely badly wrenched. (I’m very stiff today.) I picked myself up and went on.

When the falling wet snow grew thick, I moved the sawing operation from my truck tailgate to under the roof. The day before, when Luke and I had put up the first wall of siding, we’d clutched ourselves in glee. “We have a building with a wall!

Now I felt the same giddy delight. “I have an indoors!


With darkness falling so early, I have approximately 45 minutes of daylight after work each day. My hope is that I can cut a board or two every day and finish the last, north wall by next weekend. That north wall boasts not only angles and a slope but a 6000-volt electric fence 18″ below, so it will be a little trickier, even with the fence turned off. Still, I ought to be able to cut and nail up a couple of boards a day.


Over Christmas vacation I hope to pick up the windows and install them, and frame, build, and hang the three dutch doors.

It’s hard to express the relief and even joy I feel, slowly getting this project accomplished after all this time.

Gainin’ On Her

December 1, 2013

My elderly friend Allen has an expression he has always used to encourage me, when I am attempting some long and overwhelming task. “Good girl! You’re gainin’ on her!”

I picture myself in an elementary school foot race, closing the gap between myself and Heidi Grossman, who was faster — pumping my arms, straining to draw breath, pulling up to her shoulder, gainin’ on her.

Last night I thought with satisfaction, I am gaining on this barn addition.


Yesterday Luke and I got a little less than half the siding up. (There will be a four-foot-wide dutch door at each end of the space, and as soon as I have a minute to look at the plans I will frame them in and side above them.)


I was disappointed not to finish it, but the reality of working in deep cold is that everything is slower and takes more time. For most of our working hours the temperature was below 10° F, and for part of the morning it was below zero. Though I was swathed in many layers, my hands and feet ached with cold.

I was too cold to remember to take pictures until we were ready to leave. My phone’s battery went dead.

The footing was an ice sheet where we were sawing boards on the truck tailgate. After many slips and near-falls I brought out a few flakes of hay and scattered it on the ice. “Really should have some manure, though, to make it tacky,” I remarked seriously to Luke. He started to laugh. We kept working, slowly, watching our step.

This morning it is already forty degrees warmer than yesterday. Later today it will be a balmy 30°. Luke is on his way back to college and I had planned to take a day off, quietly cleaning house, folding laundry, and writing my 48 student reports.

But looking at the weather forecast I’m going to see if, working alone with the Skilsaw and nail gun, I can gain on her a little more.