Grass At Last

May 18, 2017

Yesterday evening after work, before cooking dinner, I took down snow fences, pulled T-posts, and fixed perimeter lines for 90 minutes — and finally got the cattle out on pasture. It is always heartwarming to see their gamboling and excitement.

Grass at last. Not great grass, but grass.

Thirteen years ago, a state biologist came to the property. He said my soil was so thin and sour that I would never be able to grow grass. He underestimated the transformative power of manure.

Also a dreamer’s maniacal effort. Every year, in addition to spreading manure, I have pulled rocks and stumps, picked up broken logs and branches, burned brush, pounded fence posts, strung electric line, cut back saplings and choking weeds, and mowed for countless hours. (I’ve also saved up for truckloads of lime, only to need the money for school tuition and other real-life demands. Someday liming will happen.)

Still, the land is slowly improving. Last summer I was frustrated not to have time to dig out rocks in the south pasture that forced me to dodge and feint while mowing. Every two weeks I would add them to my list and two weeks later they would still be there. When school started again I looked at the rocks and told them mentally, “I’ll get you next year.”

I’ve realized this is the secret of progress when one doesn’t have enough time or money. Even the tiniest gains eventually accumulate.

The Blizzard of 2017

March 15, 2017

We knew snow was coming, but after a couple of years of promised storms passing us by, everyone in town had doubts we would really get the 10-12 inches they were predicting. Still, just in case, Nick spent all Monday putting up new ice and water shield on the back roof.

The snow started Tuesday morning. The flakes were so dry and tiny, it was easy to pay no attention. Mindful of the forecast, however, I mucked the barn and filled the water buckets so everything would be ready if I decided to bring the cows in early. Then I sat at the dining room table with my mug of chicken broth and my box of Kleenex, and got lost in accounts of prisoners of war starving to death in Manhattan in 1776.

When I looked up it was 1:30 PM and snow was blowing past the porch, a fog of white. Only a few inches covered the ground, but the tiny snowflakes were so light they were hanging in the air. Deciding the cows would probably like to come in out of the wind, I climbed into my coveralls and headed out in my truck.

I pulled onto the highway and I was shocked. It was a white-out — blowing snow so impenetrable I could barely see the icy road directly in front of my truck.

I was even more appalled when I reached the farm and discovered that Nick and Mike were working at the house. I knew immediately that they’d made the same mistake I had. Looking out the windows at a few inches of snow, they’d dismissed it as a concern. I drove down to the barn, hurriedly let the cows in, and tossed everyone hay. Then I texted to Nick that he and his father needed to leave as soon as possible. Nick knows I am a worrier, but I insisted. He texted me later that it had taken his father more than two hours to get home. “Dad said it was a wild ride!” Soon afterward the county highway department closed the roads.

But the farm animals were snug in the barn and I was safely at home with the dogs and my books. As Charles Ingalls would sing, “Let the hurricane roar!”

It did. The tiny flakes were now adding up at an unbelievable rate. Walking the dogs before bedtime, Toby was swimming underneath the powder like a snow mole, and even Stash was floundering in snow up to his ears.

It appears we got a bit over three feet overnight. This is our Honda. I’d swept it clean just before dark.

The plows were out all night long. This morning Stash kept me company while I dug out the truck.

I was worried when I drove down to the farm that I might have to hike in on snowshoes from the highway, but Mike had already plowed.

Of course, the barn paddock electric fences were buried and useless.

The water trough was below the level of the snow.

I decided I’d keep the cows in. After their breakfast grain I began mucking stalls. Moxie looked at me and indicated she’d like to go out.

“You really don’t want to, Mox, but I won’t stop you.”

Moxie plowed through the snow with the resolution of a tank. Then she seemed to have second thoughts.

“Hmm. Maybe I should reconsider.”

However, once the Boss Cow was out, Elsa and Mel Gibson were bellowing that they too wanted to come out to play. Wading in, they bucked and snorted and explored.

I threw them some hay to munch while I freshened their beds.

I’m an old mom. I know toddlers get tired of playing in cold snow faster than you think. Sure enough, in just a few minutes they were mooing at the door.

“Can we come in yet?”

When I opened the gate, they rushed down the aisle to their box stalls with dry straw and lay down with sighs of contentment.

Even cows know that’s the best way to enjoy a blizzard. From inside.

Yahoo for Moxie!

January 9, 2017



Good news. The email arrived. Moxie is in calf! Way to go, Pee-Wee!


I could have sent a blood test in for Elsa but that would have required wrestling a halter onto her and calling my friend Alison (a nurse) to draw blood. I’ll just watch Elsa’s figure.

Moxie is older and more fragile and now that I am sure she is pregnant, I know when to wean the calf, Mel Gibson.

Since I didn’t see any breeding, all I can guess is that calving will fall between mid-June and mid-July. I will be glad of the warm weather, especially as it is likely that Moxie will come down with milk fever again. (Always easier to fight a deadly metabolic imbalance when you’re not also fighting sub-zero temperatures!)

Moxie, Elsa, Pee-Wee, and Mel

January 8, 2017

Or: A Cattle Update

My cow Moxie did not get bred back after calving in the summer of 2015. I had a bull, Leo, at the time, but Leo was small and was kept from her by two much larger steers (both drunk with power). I didn’t realize Moxie hadn’t been bred until long after Leo and the steers went to slaughter — and also after her 2015 bull calf and foster calf had been castrated. Thus, there was no calf born on Fairhope Farm in 2016, and no way to ensure one for 2017, either. The dairy where I had always bought bull calves had gone out of business. I figured I was stuck.

I mentioned this one day last August while throwing hay bales with Rick, my hay man.

“I can bring you a bull,” Rick said. “I got a yearling. No problem.”

I was immediately nervous. Bulls are dangerous. Jersey bulls are particularly dangerous. I raise my Jersey bulls from day-olds; by the time they are big, they know me and my routines — and I know them. The thought of bringing a strange, full-grown Jersey bull to the farm was frightening. However, I could see no other way to get Moxie bred, so I agreed. Nervously.

There were delays. The yearling was sold. No, the buyer backed out. Rick would bring him this day. No, it would be that day.

I fretted — I knew I would be out of town the weekend of October 15 for Jon and Amanda’s wedding. Damon, who is not experienced with cattle, would be caring for my animals. For safety’s sake, the bull had to be off the farm by then. A cow’s heat cycle is roughly 21 days. It would be best if the bull were on the farm at least six weeks, so there were two potential opportunities for breeding.

Rick finally pulled in to the farm with a trailer the afternoon of September 5. I stepped up on the bumper to peek in at the scary bull.

Big dark eyes looked up at me out of a worried baby face. The bull was small and scrawny, so thin he looked like a hound dog. When I turned him out with my girls, even Elsa (who is a petite heifer; below right) was larger.


Neither Elsa nor Moxie was impressed with their new suitor. I began calling him “Pee-Wee.”


Pee-Wee had unfortunate conformation. Despite his boniness (I could count all of his short ribs), he had the usual bull neck — but zero hind end. No muscles at all.


He had been locked in a stall indoors most of his life. I told myself all he needed was groceries and exercise.

However, for now even Elsa felt free to push him around impatiently. Pee-Wee was so anxious and deferential I worried if he would ever get up the gumption to do more than stand apologetically with his hat in his hands.

In the meantime I was thinking about future breeding. I needed a calf now, to keep Moxie milked out and breed her in the fall of 2017. After a lot of advertising on Craigslist, I finally found a Jersey bull calf ninety minutes away. It was another sad reflection on farming today. The calf was three weeks old. He had been earmarked as a future herd bull — but after looking at their milk check, the dairy had decided to fold instead. They were happy to sell him to me for $75.

I drove upstate one afternoon after work to get him. I named the calf Mel Gibson, and prayed he would have a nicer temperament than his namesake.


Being older than the usual newborns, Mel caught the hang of nursing very quickly and soon was thriving.


Fall moved in. The view at the lake house was spectacular.


However my big focus (apart from planning for the upcoming wedding) was to get everything at the farm mowed one last time before winter.


The cattle were eating hay. It was gratifying to see Pee-Wee becoming rounder, sleek, and snorty. He was not yet threatening, but I now could sense that I had a bull in the barn.


Rick returned to pick him up October 11, just before the wedding. Pee-Wee had been on the farm five weeks; I was sure they had been the best five weeks of his life. Rick said he was going directly to the sale barn.

It is always hard for me that I can’t control the world.

Fast forward to January. In the months since Pee-Wee’s departure, one or the other of the cows has come into heat several times. I’m not sure which girl didn’t settle. Maybe both. Elsa has been the one flinging herself around in a frenzy, but hysteria when pheromones are in the air is normal heifer behavior. Moxie is more sedate at nearly eight years old.

Last week I sent off a milk sample from Moxie to the lab in Oregon. They received it Friday.


I should know tomorrow night if she is bred. Fingers crossed.

Fencing the Cabin Field (Again)

July 28, 2016


Last evening at dusk, I turned the cattle into the cabin field. I had worked for several hours yesterday to fence it (and put temporary fencing around the cabin, to keep them off the porch).

I actually had this tiny field fenced last summer. Unfortunately, only a few days after I finished sweating to get the fencing up, Kyle misunderstood an instruction and ripped it all down in fifteen efficient minutes. When I walked out of the barn and saw all the steel fence posts lying on the ground, I’d thought I might faint.

It is always hard for me to be patient with mistakes, harder still to be patient with mistakes I am paying for. However I have learned over many years to (mostly) control my temper. Besides, I make so many mistakes myself that I have become slightly philosophical.

Still, it’s encouraging to regain this bit of lost progress.



July 20, 2016

Yesterday I took my daughter Lucy to have four impacted wisdom teeth removed. I brought her home by lunchtime and then spent the afternoon making cold milkshakes, bringing her meds on schedule, supplying ice packs, and cooking a big pot of chicken soup.

It was the strangest thing. Once the surgery was safely over, I was suddenly so tired I thought I might fall asleep sitting up. I think I’ve been under such stress for the last couple of weeks that the minute I relaxed my guard, the exhaustion hit me like a tsunami.

Though last night I’d hoped to get good sleep to catch up, a neighbor texted at 10 PM to say that nine gun shots had been heard from the direction of my farm, following a loud clapping noise. (I’d heard nothing; the farm is a half mile from the house where we’re living.) In addition, a large black bear has been roaming the neighborhood for several days.

Bears and/or shooters?! I immediately climbed back into clothes and drove down to the farm to investigate.

I could find nothing amiss but the sheep were anxious and standing alert at their fence line in the dark. I let them out and walked them down the property to the barn (they were afraid and for once kept close at my heels). “Bears won’t hurt us,” I told them loudly. “We’re fine!” I hoped the bear, if he were listening, agreed. Ditto any possible drunk shooter.

After I closed the barn door I walked out to the back field to check on the cattle. They were standing in the moonlight, chewing their cuds.

All was well, but the resulting adrenalin kept me up past midnight. I’m groggy today.


July 4, 2016


I hadn’t realized how much pressure I had been feeling about the back pasture — until it was lifted. Yesterday felt like a vacation day. I still worked from 8-5, ran errands in town, hiked with the dogs, broke machines (this time an essential rubber gasket fell off Allen’s mower), and doctored sick animals (more another day), but my heart was light. Birds swooped after bugs in my wake as I mowed in the south field.

I looked around and felt pure contentment. Here are the sheep, from the hayloft door.


The list is still very long but for this one day, I mowed and sang hymns and felt peace like a river.