Pushing

July 7, 2019

I have been working hard the last few weeks, with no down-time. I had thought that maybe while the family was away I would have some quieter, slower-paced days, and had looked forward to it with yearning, but the list rapidly multiplied. I’m trying to ride the log jam and not panic.

I spent yesterday fencing in the back field between downpours and thunderstorms. The cows have eaten all the available grass in the fenced sections and I had to get them onto new ground. (My plan is to mow the weeds left behind them but there has been no time. The field is 85% inedible matter, mostly goldenrod, that must be knocked down before it goes to seed. Perhaps next weekend.)

In the heat and humidity the black flies and deer flies swarmed so badly I could barely breathe without inhaling them. Time for the bug shirt! This item looks so ridiculous that I had to try to take a selfie with my camera.

 

However, being draped in bug netting was effective and I was able to work peacefully for hours, soaked to the skin from the intermittent rain and from walking through the thigh-high wet weeds — but not losing my mind to the whine of biting flies.

Despite the time pressure I appreciated the beauty. Small birds flitted through the weeds, and hopped up to watch me from the top of posts I had just erected. Once I heard a downpour approaching, a loud rushing sound like wind in the trees, blowing in from the north for minutes before it actually drenched me.

By 7:30 PM the skies had cleared and I had half the fence up.

I got it finished and the cows turned out just as the sun set around 9 PM.

I walked and fed the dogs at 9:15, peeled off my wet jeans, kicked off my squelching boots, and sat down to my supper at 9:30.

Now it is morning and I’m heading to chores. Our fabulous friend Gary arrives at 8 AM.


Fog

July 1, 2019

It was raining hard yesterday morning. I hadn’t slept; I felt old and blue. Therefore I decided to drive to the big city to do a round of errands. I might as well accomplish something. I know from experience that I am almost always calmed by action.

As it happened, half my errands were not productive. Items were out of stock and a prize I’d found on Craigslist would not work for me. Nevertheless, driving home at the end of the day with a new pressure washer on sale (for the inevitable house-painting project) plus enormous packages of toilet paper and paper towels, I was indeed calmer. The rain had stopped. Onward!

Every night I move the temporary fence down the back field to give the cows access to new grass. (I should be mowing behind them, to knock down the weeds before they go to seed, but I haven’t yet had time to start this.) Usually as I drag the fence to its new position, black flies are swarming me, singing in my ears and biting my neck, face, and hands. No matter how hot it is, I wear a sweatshirt with the hood up.

Last night as I was moving fence through the wet grass and weeds, fog rolled in. It was cool and damp and very pretty.

There were no bugs. Watching the fog creep over the field as the birds flew home at dusk, my heart lifted with joy. I know this is irrational. (“Yes, doctor, earlier I had been rather depressed but then a fog appeared!”)

I turned out the cows. I’m aware I haven’t told you yet about Flora’s 2019 calving. I’ll try to soon. That’s her little heifer calf beside her.

As I cooked dinner I tried to explain to Lucy my happiness over the fog. She took this photo from the living room with her zoom lens.

Happy cows, happy me.


Brightening

June 17, 2019

 

I took these photos while walking the dogs in the cool of 6 AM. Today the sun is shining, the skies are blue, I slept seven hours for the first time in a week, and my mood is much brighter. Yes, things are shabby and shaggy and need repair, mowing, painting, or building — but today I can simply tell myself, “I’ll write it down!” and keep moving.

Now the barn is mucked and the cows have been brought into the dark to escape the flies, a load of laundry is in the washer, I’m going to drive to town to fill gas cans and buy groceries, I’ll move the sheep to fresh grass and mow off the weeds they’ve left behind, and then I’ll look at my list.

In answer to Allen’s perennial question, I’m “done whinin’.”

 

 

 


Cow Weather

June 16, 2019

Many days over the past week have been cool and rainy, often with wind. The dark skies have been gloomy, reflecting my mood as I seek estimates for the remaining work on the house.

My builder, Nick, broke his contract and never completed the work he was paid for in June 2017.  When he left in the fall of 2017, he promised to return in May, 2018. In May he wrote angrily that he “had to make money” and would return in August. In August he returned for a few days, had me order $800 worth of brick for the chimney, and then never came back. He wrote in October that he would re-pay the money he owed (in reality, less than half the real total). He made a first payment but then… silence. Finally in January 2019 I sent him a registered letter, asking him politely to send the promised payments so we could end his contract on a reasonable note. He responded with an emailed bill to me for $7500, claiming we should pay for all the time he “wasted” having to work around us (because he missed his finish date by many months, a responsibility he has never acknowledged). He sent a post-script: “Non-payment of invoice after 30 days will result in 5% interest charge for unpaid balance.”

I was shocked at a deep, deep level. This dishonesty came on the heels of multiple other blows falling last winter until it seemed there was not an honorable person left in the world. I fell sick with bronchitis and didn’t shake it for eight weeks. My friend Tom died, another disorienting shock. There was a beautiful goodbye party for my husband’s retirement. It felt like everything was ending.

A few weeks ago I finally consulted a lawyer. She told me that I could take Nick to court, and I would win. “But all you would win would be a judgment, a piece of paper saying he cheated you and owes you money. You already know that.” It wasn’t fair, she agreed, but she advised me to move on.

I have been trying. A first job is to make a list of all the unfinished work. My distress is so great, I have told myself I will make the punch list room by room, only trying to write out details for one room a day. I hired a plumber to install the long-promised hose spigots in the basement. This week I have had a team here to measure the exterior for a painting estimate. Yesterday I toured an interior painter. (It is likely that I will have to do the latter myself.) I am calling to find someone to install the cookstove insulated pipe through the chimney stack. I have made inquiries to masons for the chimney brickwork. I am looking for a roofer to fix the leaking porch flashing. I have investigated how to build porch stairs and will build them. I am going to research the screen porch materials Nick left in a heap last August and I will build that, too.

It’s all manageable, and I will manage. But it has been gloomy as the various contractors shake their heads and talk about big dollars. I have not been sleeping. Tired and blue, it’s been hard to stay motivated.

The dark skies have not been helping my mood but it has been a happy time for the cows. Cold and drizzle! Wind and rain! No bugs — how nice!

I am trying to think like a cow.


She’s Here!

June 9, 2019

I wrote most of this post December 16, 2018. I’m not sure what else happened that day, but then life rolled over me. Now I can finish it.

When I walked back to the barn yesterday morning after posting here, I discovered the calf had just been born. Wonderful Moxie, choosing our single warm (15°) day! (You can see my black wool hat resting on the rail behind Moxie’s head. I had taken it off when I broke a sweat as I toweled the calf, dipped her navel, and tried to get her to nurse.)

The calf is a heifer. Though 3/4 Jersey and 1/4 milking shorthorn, she is red like her father. As she is a Christmas calf, and red, I called her Holly Berry, Holly for short. (I posted her picture on Facebook and got many congratulations on the “clever” name. I finally realized people thought I was playing on the name Halle Berry. It had not occurred to me. I am far more knowledgeable about Ilex than about modern actresses.)

Once dry, Holly needed some milk. I have started many a calf nursing. Newborn calves are as clueless as any babies — the only difference is that they are bigger. I have been bashed in the face more times than I can count by a confused calf throwing up his head in protest. So I was sweating, squirting milk on my fingers to make them enticing, letting Holly suck on my fingers as I drew her toward the teat… but nothing. Moxie’s udder has dropped so low that Holly did not recognize the teat below knee level as a potential food source.

I ate a quick breakfast and returned to the barn with a calf bottle. I milked Moxie into it and fed Holly a pint. In the photo I’m holding the bottle between my knees to give her neck the proper angle so the milk drops in the correct one of four stomachs.

(Notice the spikes on my boots. DH bought us mini-crampons for the driveway late last winter, after both of us had wiped out in bad falls. I keep mine on my barn boots for the entire winter and feel much safer.)

While I fed Holly, Moxie munched doggedly on the afterbirth. I let her have a bit but then took the rest and put it on the compost pile.

I tried last year’s trick of using a girth and stirrup leather as a sling around Moxie’s midsection to hoist her udder higher. This year it had zero effect. it was like trying to hoist a boulder. Milking her would not work, either. Moxie’s rear teats are very short. With edema they become like buttons on a hot beach ball.

Since I couldn’t lift her udder, I decided to build a platform to lift Moxie herself. Luckily I had a couple of extra 6x6s left over from the house. I dug them out of the snow and brought them to the barn. I also collected all the cut-off ends that I had lying around (one always finds a use for a chunk of 6×6), and an old piece of plywood from the garage.

Back in 2009, Allen had helped me trim a rubber mat to cover the dirt floor in front of the stanchion. I peeled it back, talking to him in my mind.

6x6s are too thick for most saws so I used my Sawz-all.

I laid out all the 6x6s and leftover chunks.

The dirt floor had a slope but I did not worry about it. I scraped the frozen ground outside for a bit of dirt to build up the worst spots, and then called it good. Next I laid out my scrap of 5/8″ plywood and cut it to width. I measured nothing. I screwed the plywood to all the 6x6s.

Next I took the cut off piece and cut a small panel to fit around the post at the doorway. I realized at this point that my platform was not square, but — “custom cutting will take care of it,” I told myself.

Huffing and blowing, I rolled the very heavy, awkward stall mat back on top of the platform. The cuts Allen and I had made in 2009 still fit around the post. Using a jigsaw, I cut off the extra foot of width.

I threw some bedding hay on top, to make it look less unusual. Using a long line, I coaxed a suspicious Moxie toward the grain in the stanchion. After her head was in the catch, I leaned my back against her hindquarters and pushed. “Over, Mox. Over and up!”

She obligingly stepped up. Holly staggered over. Mama’s udder was now seven inches higher. This is more like it! Holly latched on. Success!

I love when problem-solving leads to a happy ending.

My only worries now were milk fever and ketosis. I checked Moxie carefully through the night for three days. She was fine; when I rolled open the barn door and snapped on the lights, she would lift her big dark eyes to look at me calmly. Yay!


(Oh) Dear Moxie

December 15, 2018

I had planned to put Moxie down this fall. She is nearly ten years old. Her udder suspension is almost completely gone; in 2017 I had to sling up a pulley system to lift her bag high enough for calves to nurse her back teats. She has had milk fever and ketosis, twice, and the likelihood of another traumatic, exhausting birthing seemed high. The decision to put her down made perfect sense. Unfortunately the fall with all its builder stress got away from me, and when I looked up I realized Moxie was pregnant.

Although I’d assumed that my teenaged bull Red had probably bred her before he was shipped in July, it became apparent that in fact he bred her much earlier. I know there are tough people out there who could put down a heavily pregnant cow, but I am not one of them. Sometimes I wish I were, but I am not. Thus my old friend Moxie is due any day now.

Any minute, in fact. I have been checking her through the night for the last three nights, at 8 PM, 10 PM, 2 AM, and 6 AM. I taught my daily classes in a slightly altered state.

The first two nights were particularly nerve-racking because I could not find the IV set I will need if she falls into a coma from milk fever.

I last had it at the time of her last calving — July 1, 2017, moving day, when I moved us into the farm, which unbeknownst to me would be a construction zone (and briefly a flood zone) for the next five months. Clearly in all the stress I had stashed the IV set in an open box. Though I now ransacked the remaining 50 boxes in the garage and basement, I could not find it. I tried to purchase an IV set locally. None. Finally I ordered a set from two different places.

In the meantime I nervously laid out a fistful of 20 cc syringes and 16 gauge needles on the cookstove, ready to hand. It would certainly be unpleasant to deliver 500 ccs of calcium gluconate in 20 cc doses — twenty-five needle sticks per bottle! — but it would save her life and I was ready to do it if needed.

(Apparently there is a new supplement, X-Zelit, which can be fed to cows to prevent milk fever. I had written to the inventor in Canada to see if I could buy some. He told me there was a dealer two hours away, and I was ready to hop in my car. Unfortunately he also told me it was too late. To work, the cow has to have the supplement for two weeks before calving.)

So, no easy answer and I’ll just have to deal with whatever happens. The IV sets both arrived. I have set up one, and will keep the other in reserve in my medicine cabinet. I’ve got a stack of clean towels. I’ve got four bottles of calcium gluconate. I’ve got strong iodine for the navel.  I’ve got molasses for her water. I’ve got propylene glycol for ketosis, and will pick up some corn syrup just in case.

The only thing I don’t have is energy, but I always find that.

Wish us luck.


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!


Downsizing

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.


Sucker-Punched

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.