Looking Ahead

August 24, 2018

It is dark at 5 AM now. Most of our song birds have left. The fields are turning brown. The summer is nearly over. Meanwhile with DH’s looming retirement next June, there is a lot of looking back. I am feeling nostalgic… and old. It is also becoming clear that my job will likely end when his does. I know endings make way for new beginnings, but as I look ahead I am uncertain and a bit wobbly. I applied for a part-time job this week (to supplement my teaching this year) and did not get it.

How lucky I am to have so much physical, tiring work to keep my hands busy and brain occupied!

While I was away in Connecticut the cows indeed turned up their noses at the poor hay I had bought with such struggle, and went through the fences in search of grass. Lucy was a resourceful cattle wrangler and kept them contained in the south field until I returned. On Monday I enticed them back to the barn, and then weedwhacked the blackberries that had shorted the barn paddock fence. Halfway through the job, the shaft of the weedwhacker snapped. “This weedwhacker is not meant for blackberries,” said the man at the Stihl dealership as he replaced the shaft. To get the cows out on the back field again I have about five more hours of weedwhacking ahead —mostly raspberries. I’m crossing my fingers.

The sheep must be moved every day.

I have to finish sheetrocking the basement for the plumber; I’ve put up nailers on the concrete wall but each sheet of drywall must be cut to fit and coaxed into place.

I have to finish repairs for my tenant.

I have to clean out one bay of our garage and set up a freezer.

I have to arrange a hay delivery.

Monday I drive Lucy to college and pick up beef at the slaughterhouse.

Tuesday I go to Vermont for a cardiology appointment.

Wednesday I start my school year.

I haven’t had time to mow for a fortnight, and not only is the place shaggy with weeds but I miss the peaceful hours. Maybe in another week. This one is already full.

Ready, set, go!



August 7, 2018

I wrote most of this post three and a half weeks ago.

I’ve been busy. I’ve sold three geese to a young man on the New Hampshire border. I sold four lambs to a couple who run a bed and breakfast farm in western New York. I sold a ram to a farmer near Albany who wanted new genetics in his flock. I have the remaining four ram lambs listed. And on Tuesday I drove my bull, Red, and steer, Ikey, to the slaughterhouse.

I’m not sure if Red bred my Angus, Flora, or not. I did not see a definite heat. But at twelve and a half months Red was a big bull, as a Shorthorn cross much taller than my usual Jerseys, and I felt for safety I should not risk waiting another month. Moreover, he and Ikey were both still nursing Moxie, and as my granddaughter’s surgery had been fixed for August, I knew I had to dry off Moxie before then. Lucy will be doing my barn chores for the five days I am in Connecticut, and between her work and her training, she would not have time to manage a new foster calf.

I am now in a situation with two fragile, older animals (my cow Moxie, and my half-paralyzed ewe Pixie) and two compromised ones (my cow Flora, with her gene for bottle teats, and my ewe Magnolia, who has not lambed in two years). Any farmer worth his salt would get rid of them all and start fresh. I know this. But my heart is heavy.

In the construction nightmare of last summer, I never posted about my struggles with Moxie’s udder.

Moxie has always had tiny nubs of back teats that when she freshens are impossible to milk out by hand. I have always had to get a foster calf for the job. Last summer, I bought Red. Unfortunately, like Moxie’s calf, Ikey, Red only wanted to nurse the front teats. This did not help me.

Moxie’s udder had swollen terribly with edema and then split open. Had she been mounted by Mel, the young bull, and cut by his hooves? Did she snag her bag on something? Did she somehow step on it herself? It was impossible to know. However not only was it mysteriously split and bloody, the cuts requiring cleaning and disinfecting every day, but the udder was completely misshapen. The bad right rear quarter (lumpy from a bout with severe e. coli mastitis two years earlier, and only half-functioning) was six inches higher than the “good” left rear quarter, which hung so close to the floor that a calf could not get his head low enough to reach up for the teat.

To force the calf Red to nurse those two impossible back teats, I threaded a stirrup leather through an old saddle girth and cinched Moxie’s whole udder higher and within range. Moxie gave a startled grunt the first time she felt the push-up bra effect but she ate her hay agreeably. I kept the padded girth over her front teats to block his access.

It took a week of fighting to haul Red into position and being bashed in the face when he threw up his head in frustration, but at last he got the idea and suckled the back teats.

For three months — in the midst of all the construction and mortgage drama! — I cinched up Moxie’s udder with the girth every day, twice a day. Finally the two calves were big enough to empty all four quarters with no intervention. But it was months before that milestone.

It was clear to me that Ikey should be Moxie’s last calf. I shipped my yearling bull, Mel Gibson, last summer before she came into heat. But on my farm I have no way to keep a bull separate from a cow.

Moxie is nine and a half years old. With another calving, she would undoubtedly go down again with milk fever — and probably ketosis, too. While I would be prepared with my IV set and with luck could save her once more, she would have the same nightmare udder problems. Meanwhile she has arthritis and walks haltingly with a limp. She requires very expensive groceries, and she remains thin.

Long term, my plan is to have a small herd of two beef cows and their calves. Far less fragile than dairy cows, less work, less expense.

*   *   *

There I broke off.

I have gradually come to accept that it is time to put Moxie down. I remind myself of the financial realities that we are facing with DH’s retirement. I remind myself that Moxie has had eight happy years here. Still, it is very hard. I leave for Connecticut a week from tomorrow. I’m constantly thinking about sad timetables.


June 14, 2018

Recently I have been overwhelmed by a sense of my own stupidity. Two weeks ago my builder wrote me an angry email. He said he was too busy to meet to discuss the remaining work; he disparaged my husband; he said he had lost $15K on my job due to having to work around us after we moved in. He wrote that in a couple of days he would send a list of the work he was willing to complete.

I was so flabbergasted to be attacked when I thought I had been nobly patient and kind (we moved in on our contracted “finish date,” as we had no choice, and then lived, without complaint, in construction chaos for months) that I did not let myself respond. I figured I would be polite and professional when he sent his list. He sent nothing. After ten days I wrote him a short, kind email as a prompt. No response.

I tell myself he will complete some of the work he has been paid for, and the rest I will have to figure out. I find I am most upset by my misjudgment. Over the months the builder had come to feel like a friend. I lost sight of the reality that he was an employee. Now that he owes me labor and materials, I am apparently resented like an enemy. My heart has been sore and I have felt like a fool. A limping, tired, old fool.

Meanwhile I have realized that the farmer who sold me Flora played me for a sucker. Primed with the helpful information from Daisyhill, a reader, I googled bottle teats in Angus cattle. In my years of dairy experience I had never heard of bottle teats. It is indeed a heritable trait in beef cattle and a problem that farmers cull for. Clearly my farmer culled Flora after her first calf by selling her at full price to me.

The night I realized this I could not sleep. Of course I had inquired why he was selling. Just downsizing, he said; he had a herd of fifty. But looking back, all the clues were there. Out of this large herd of black Angus, only Flora wore a collar. I did not think to ask why. He told me she was tame and loved slices of bread. I did not ask how or why this particular heifer had learned to like bread. I simply thought, That’s sweet.

Once again, I was a fool. It is now obvious to me that Flora’s impossible bottle teats were a problem in her first calving, that the farmer enticed her into a squeeze chute with bread, got her milked out enough to allow the calf to nurse the bad teats, put a collar on her to mark her, and then put her up for sale after the calf was weaned and her udder dried off and shrunk back to normal.

The one-two punch of my unwisdom with the builder and the farmer were hard to bear.  I wailed to DH, “I feel too stupid to be allowed outside!’

I trudged through the days. I mowed and listened to hymns, trying not to hear the refrain in my head: Flora has this genetic flaw. Her cute little bull calf and all her offspring will carry this genetic flaw. My Jersey girl Moxie is old, arthritic, and fragile; the bull Red and steer Ikey have a slaughter date in July; now Flora and her bull calf… Essentially my entire herd should be culled. I was sunk in gloom.

I moved the sheep every day. I took care of Alison’s horses. I put up my chalkboard. And I tried to figure out how to get Flora into the barn. Since calving she had developed an unreasoning fear of coming inside. On June 10, five days after calving, I could see her front teats were in bad shape. The calf Riggins was nursing from the rear. He was hungry and butting her bag, not realizing that the swollen gourds in front were actually giant teats full of milk.

That day the biting flies were particularly fierce. Flora’s face was covered with them. I was determined to bring her inside with the other cattle. Carrying a pitchfork in case she charged me, I circled around and then, shaking the fork and yelling at her, I drove her step by step toward the barn door. I had a cold feeling in my stomach as she repeatedly turned to face me, protecting her calf, but I made myself yell louder. Step. Step. Suddenly, ten feet from the doorway, Flora remembered that she actually loves the barn and trotted in without a backward glance.

The bull calf Riggins had scampered off in a panic but Flora was so happy to be in the cool gloom she made no attempt to call him in.

The next morning was hot, the flies were biting, and all the cattle were eager to be let inside. Riggins trotted along behind his mother.

I was sure this was the happy start of a new routine. Unfortunately, after those crucial five days of his mother’s instruction that the barn was the lair of ogres, he reached the doorway and again bolted.

This time Flora was concerned. She walked outside again and mooed; she paced and bellowed; but Riggins paid no attention. Finally she came in alone. He was eight days old before I finally got him safely into the barn.

However I still haven’t been able to deal with Flora’s bottle teats. When her baby was not with her I tried to put my hands on her. Flora is terrified of touch and I always keep in mind that she’s about 900 pounds with a mind of her own. When I first brought her home, I had thought to have her in the smaller stall across the aisle. She attempted to jump the gate and instead just crashed through it. (Oh, you want to be in the stall next to Moxie instead? Fine.) So I have been careful not to crowd her to a point of panic.

I have been quiet and gentle and persistent. I managed to curry her back with my hands, which she nervously appeared to enjoy as I was rubbing out the remnants of her winter coat. By moving very slowly, rubbing constantly, I got my hands on the huge right teat. I have very large hands for a woman and to encircle the teat for milking required both. I even managed a few squirts before she jumped and moved away. I kept after her, slowly, slowly. Unfortunately when I touched the enormous, hot left teat, she kicked out at me and I roared reflexively, “No!” That scared her and we were done for the day.

I cannot get a halter on her. I cannot get her in the stanchion. I have no squeeze chute. With every passing hour, the swollen teats get worse. Riggins does not touch them.

Clearly, in the future I must train every heifer I own to go in the stanchion for a treat. However that won’t help Flora now.

I won’t give up on this problem, but I’m feeling overwhelmed by my many mistakes with no clear solutions.

Udder Worries

June 10, 2018

Here I thought that with a beef cow I’d have no udder concerns. Wrong. I can’t get Flora and her calf into the barn and her two front teats are each swollen as big around as my wrist. I’m sure she has a raging case of mastitis.

I’m not sure how I would handle her teats even if I could get Flora into the barn (she’s never been in a stanchion, she’s never even been haltered) but as her flight/charging distance (she definitely looks as if she might charge to protect her calf; I’ve had a pitchfork in my hand when I’ve gone into the paddock with her) is about three hundred feet, that’s not the first problem I need to solve. I can’t think what to do.

Worried, worried, worried.

Cows on the Cabin Field

June 9, 2018

Last night I got the cattle on the small cabin field. Again, the grass looks deceptively lush because the cows are standing on the exact spot where my friend Larry and I dropped tons of manure compost in 2010. The sour, acid soil doesn’t naturally want to grow anything but balsams and briars. Here’s the “cabin field” in 2011.

The summer before, Lucy and her cousin Lizzy had helped me pick up rocks, broken logs, roots and stumps.

I’m glad to have these photos to remind me of how far the farm has come. I have grubbed and cleaned every inch of this land. The grass is still not great — still mostly weeds among many bare spots — but it is there.

I have not been able to get Flora and her calf into the barn. The days have been cool enough that the cattle would rather stay out.

I have shaken a grain can but the cattle have just lifted their heads and stared at me. No dice. Flora has been particularly shy, keeping her baby far from the paparazzi.

I did follow her around the backside of the cabin field and was able to sneak close enough to ascertain that the baby is, indeed, a bull calf. DH suggested the name “Riggins,” after a character in the television show Friday Night Lights.

From the look of Flora’s udder, Riggins is nursing only the back teats. The front teats are jutting stiffly, swollen to the size of giant kielbasa. I imagine they are sore, and with Riggins avoiding their size and Flora undoubtedly increasingly reluctant to have them touched, I’m not sure of a solution. Flora has never been in a stanchion. (At this point I can’t even get her into the barn!)

Though I tell myself all beef cattle must have this problem, it worries me. 

*   *   *

Yesterday the little white hen took her brood of five chicks outside for the first time. Over the course of the day, one of the white chicks disappeared. I don’t know the culprit: a raven? a hawk? However I was glum, thinking how I proud I had been to have saved the chick from death against the odds.

I was reminded of the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Against the advice of Ali (Omar Sharif) who tells him, “It is written,” T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) risks his life to go back to rescue an Arab lost in the vast furnace of the desert. He drags the man back to camp on his camel and says in a cracked, triumphant voice, “Nothing is written.” Later, however, the same man is condemned and Lawrence must be the executioner. An Arab shrugs: “Ah, it was written, then.”

New Arrival

June 7, 2018

Flora’s calf is finally here.

I had a very long day on Tuesday, with work and then a medical appointment in Vermont (a four-hour commute). I did not get home until late, and then had to do barn chores. We ate dinner and celebrated my birthday at nearly 8 PM. By 9:30 I was headed upstairs to bed. Lucy took the dogs out for their pre-bedtime walk in the rain and came in to say, “Mom, one of your cows is bellowing.”

Of course! After all my careful watching, perfect timing! Pitch dark and raining and in the back of the pasture!

Splashing through the driveway puddles I jockeyed both the car and truck around to shine their headlights into the field. Through the sweep of the windshield wipers I could barely make out Flora’s black shape along the far fenceline.

I could not go into the pasture to check on her. Any cow might charge in that tense situation, and I don’t yet have the trusting relationship with Flora that I’ve had with Katika and Moxie. Meanwhile, not only was Flora excited and bellowing, but so was Red, my heavy-necked yearling bull, also in the pasture. So I remained outside the fence, peering through the dark and rain.

At last I saw a flash of white near the ground. Flora had been bred to a Hereford so I’ve known that her calf was bound to have a white face. The calf had arrived! Since there was nothing else I could do, I went to bed.

Yesterday morning I waited eagerly for the sun to come up. In the gray dawn Flora lay placidly chewing her cud. I could see no calf. What?

At last everyone roused themselves and the tiny black calf stood up in the grass. The teenaged boys were intensely curious and Flora warily protective, but in a short time everyone retired to their corners for a milk breakfast. (I took these photos with the zoom on my old farm camera.)

Soon afterward I called the cows into the barn. However, with a bellyful of warm milk the calf had fallen asleep again and Flora would not leave it, even to come to the fence for grain. I went off to move the sheep to fresh grass.

When I returned Flora was willing to bring her baby down to the barn…

but not inside it. Though normally herd animals are frantic when they are separated from the herd, Flora was perfectly content hanging out with her newborn in the paddock near the run-in shed.

I think the baby is a bull calf but I can’t be certain from a distance. I hope to be able to bring all the cattle into the barn today, in which case I can find out for sure. (And yes, repairs to and re-painting the run-in shelter are on my summer list.)

I’m always relieved when awaited babies are safely on the ground, and in this case my heart is particularly light. No milking chores! No udder worries! No milk fever anxiety! No horns to address! O happy day.

Yesterday was my last day of teacher meetings. Today I have a full day of work writing reports. Once I get them done I will be free for the summer. I have to be disciplined, because I can hardly wait. It’s been a long year of too many worries and too little sleep.


June 3, 2018

My heifer Flora looks ready to pop. Each day now I think this might be the day she will calve. It won’t be long.

Last night I slept at school to chaperone students before their 5:00 AM departure for the airport. The teenagers were highly excited and having been returned their electronics for vacation, they were rushing with happy screams up and down the hall, brandishing their phones and devices. Meanwhile an inexperienced adult had given them permission to sleep four to a room. Walking into the situation at 9 PM, I knew at a glance that sleep was not on my menu.

I had brought a blanket and pillow to stay in the empty bedroom downstairs, but given the pandemonium and near-hysterical energy such a distance from the action seemed unwise. At 10:30 I told the students that everyone had to stay in bedrooms, and I stretched out on the hall floor. By 11:30 the rooms were quiet but lights were still on and voices still murmured. I dozed on the floor, sitting up whenever a child ventured to the bathroom. At 4:30 I woke them and helped them carry their bags downstairs to the vans waiting to take them to their flights.

“Goodbye!” they cried cheerfully. “See you next year!”

I’m a bit creaky for a night on a hardwood floor, and this morning I’m exhausted from broken sleep. However I earned my bonus to pay for the roofing and I can cross sleepover off my list. I’m counting down the hours and chores until I’m free for summer.