We took my baby to school yesterday. Here she is at barn chores with me the evening before.
My heart is so full.
It has rained on and off for the last four days, and this morning it was snowing when I moved the sheep at Betty’s field (above).
Many people here are upset by snow on Memorial Day Weekend but I am so grateful for the moisture from the sky I give thanks for it all.
Last night it was 37°F and freezing rain and wind, so I brought Lucy’s horse Birch and the cattle into the barn at evening chores, the first night they have spent indoors in several weeks. Birch is an old man and sighed with contentment to be out of the weather, listening to the rain drum on the roof.
It is due to be even colder and windier tonight.
After the dark somnolence of winter, the hours of daylight are gradually lengthening and my poultry have started to ovulate again. The hens are laying, the roosters are crowing, and my goose Kay is preening and flashing her tail feathers. This signals the annual mental breakdown of my Pilgrim gander, Andy White.
Once again he is trumpeting and flapping his wings and seeing enemies in all corners.
One reason I like Pilgrim geese is that they are mild-mannered and unaggressive. Normally my gander Andy is Clark Kent, polite and devoted to duty. Neither snow nor sleet can keep him from his appointed rounds…
… supervising the sheep.
All winter long I see him out there lecturing the girls, sharing their hay, and giving them nibbly massages.
His wife Kay is less enthusiastic about spending hours outside in the below-zero cold, talking to sheep, but if the weather is not too fierce she will follow him out, at least for a little while.
Still, she spends quite a few winter days in loneliness at the barn, while Andy communes with the girls.
However, all this changes once ovulation starts. Suddenly Andy is transformed. Forget passing casual hours with the sheep! He’s a man with a mission: to serve and protect his fragile bride from danger.
In pursuit of this, he hisses and screams, flaps his wings, and runs at all perceived threats with his head snaking along the ground. His orange-rimmed blue eyes — normally quite pretty — develop a mad gleam.
The other day I came in the barn to find poor Birch running around his stall in frantic circles, chased by a flapping, honking, hysterical Andy. I have no idea what Birch did to arouse the gander’s ire — perhaps stepped on him accidentally? The geese have slept in a back corner of Birch’s stall for years. But no more. Andy is now fixated on Birch as The Enemy, and the minute he spots him, the gander races to attack.
On one level it is rather amusing to see a fifteen-pound bird in pursuit of an 800-pound horse. However poor Birch is a nervous wreck, and I can’t let an old man be terrorized. I cut a scrap of 2×4 to make a Goose Excluder Bar beneath Birch’s stall gate.
Today I am going to build a gate in the calf stall, to pen the geese up at night and during chores when I am away.
Though I pay little attention to Andy’s chest-beating histrionics, I think a holding pen will make it easier for others to cover the barn without worrying about Mad Gander attacks.
My ten ewes are getting rounder by the day. Late last summer, when life was extremely sad and chaotic, I decided (as I would probably not be keeping any lambs this year) that for simplicity’s sake I would simply breed the girls to the Clun Forest ram lamb that I was selling later in the season.
Fine. Not a bad plan, and the teenaged ram was thrilled to oblige. Unfortunately, however, I was so very stressed, I did not get a marking harness on this enthusiastic boy.
Thus I have no idea who is bred and who is not, and when lambs will start arriving. This is a problem. It is -20° F today and the past two days have seen -25° and -32°. A lamb born wet and helpless in these bitter temperatures would not last long.
Moreover there is a good chance that one of the novice ewes will be first to lamb; as these young girls did not have nursing lambs at foot last fall, they would have been in prime shape to be the first ovulating. A maiden ewe is occasionally so traumatized by the pain of birth that her mothering instincts don’t kick in and in fright she abandons the crying baby instead of caring for it.
My nerves are shot.
Just managing the cold to keep the animals safe has been challenge enough. I have turned everyone out only for a couple of hours at a time. The teenaged calves have been particularly restless in their stalls and eager to get out. However when I open the back barn door again all the animals burst from the run-in shelter and head for me at full speed, led by Lucy’s horse Birch at a gallop.
Yesterday a mean wind blew up, making the trip to manure pile dragging my muck bucket a tortuous experience. With each foray my glasses froze and then fogged on re-entering the barn. Wind-whipped tears froze on my cheeks. Finally I took the glasses off altogether and mucked blind, just piling the dirty litter in the barn aisle. When it warms up enough to tackle it I will have a big job.
And then there is mucking the deep bedding out of the sheep stall, a monster, four-day task that had been on the schedule for this frigid week and had to be scuttled. I hope to start it tomorrow when it hits a balmy 10° above zero.
In the meantime: please, God, no lambs quite yet!
Yesterday it was snowing at morning chores. My skiers DH and Lucy were doing a happy dance. (Actually, as by nature they are both far more reserved than I am, it should be noted more accurately that they were smiling with relief. DH exclaimed, “All right!” and Lucy said in a pleased tone, “Yay!”)
The animals ate their hay on a fresh white tablecloth.
We received two inches of powder before the sky cleared in the afternoon and the temperature began to drop.
This morning it is -19° F. The house timbers are creaking and thudding in the cold. Winter is back!
On Monday morning, while putting out hay, I found black feathers strewn across the snow in the barn paddock. A few steps further I found large pieces of wing, with bone attached. Then a fan of tail feathers. Uh-oh. Something was eaten here.
Thank goodness, the feathers were too long to be from one of my Black Australorp hens. It must have been a crow. But how would a coyote have caught a crow? Maybe it was sickly and on the ground, I thought.
(Because they are a predator and also eat carrion, crows often suffer from heavy worm infestations. Back in the ’70s when I had state and federal licenses for handling wildlife, I was often presented with crows that were too thin and debilitated to fly; I wormed them, kept them for a week to feed them back to fighting weight, and then released them.)
But as I scanned the snow I realized there were no footprints. No coyote had trotted through my paddock. The attack on the crow must have come in the dark from the sky.
Owls are a major predator of crows. Owls can see in the dark, which crows cannot; an owl can swoop into a flock of sleeping crows and snatch a bird from a branch with barely a whisper of wings. For this reason crows fear and detest owls, and when crows find an owl sleeping in the daytime they will mob it and scream warnings for hours.
Yesterday morning I was mucking the barn when I heard crows beginning to congregate, yelling, in the tops of the yellow birch and balsams at the edge of the barn paddock. I immediately dropped my pitchfork. Had they spotted the owl? I went outside to see.
I found all the cattle and Lucy’s horse Birch standing motionless, not eating, staring at the woods with heads lifted and ears pricked, listening to the alarm calls of the crows (could the livestock understand a specific message, or just a scream of danger? Such speculation fascinates me). Unfortunately for any claims of sheep intelligence, the ewes seemed not to notice the raucous commotion at all. They kept their heads down, eating stolidly.
There were about eight crows, screaming and hopping from branch to branch. I could not see any focal point for their attention in the woods; in fact, several times a crow swooped over the paddock, wheeling and cawing. Finally I realized that they were not excited over an owl in the trees — they had spotted and were exclaiming over the dismembered remains of their fallen compatriot on the ground.
(I think I was thirteen or so when I first read Konrad Lorenz’s wonderful book, King Solomon’s Ring, with his explanations of jackdaw behavior. Ever since I have been inordinately fond of crows, ravens, and jays — all the clever “nuisance” birds.)
After ten minutes of unceasing din, I watched as one crow, braver than the rest, finally lighted on the ground near the scattered black feathers and bones. Crows often walk, rather than hop like other birds; this gives their gait an endearing swagger. While his pals in the trees continued to yell warnings, the brave crow strutted across the snow, cocking his head to inspect the various meager remains. Only the constant twitching and rearranging of his wings revealed his nerves.
At last the brave crow jumped into the air and flew away, cawing. I imagined him reporting, “This fella’s too far gone for rescue!” The whole flock followed and in a minute they were gone.
The barnyard was quiet again. The cows and horse returned to their hay. The sheep never looked up.
I love watching animals.
Yesterday morning I put a weaning ring in the nose of my bull calf, Henry (heart-shaped facial blaze, above), and my steer calf, Stewart (lightning-bolt facial blaze, below).
A weaning ring works on the principle of a clip-on earring. The snub ends fit into the indentations of the calf’s nostrils and the weaner simply hangs from the nose. It does not hurt the calf. After a few minutes of snorting at the unfamiliarity and flipping the weaner up and down with a toss of the head, most calves ignore it.
However, see the wicked spikes? Those are designed to poke the cow’s tender udder and cause her to jump away from the calf, not allowing him to nurse. The design of the weaner, falling over the nose, is also intended to prevent the calf from sucking a teat into his mouth.
That was the plan.
Unfortunately, it turns out that Moxie is even more of a Martyr Mother than my cow Katika.
She stood like St. Sebastian (shot full of arrows) as the boys poked her with the sharp weaning spikes, merely shifting her feet a little and wincing. She was so obviously in a trance of patience that Dorrie, Katika’s heifer calf, ran in for a quick snack, too.
I do not know how the boys were able to suckle with the weaners on. I do know that in five months of nursing “twins,” Moxie’s teats have lengthened, while her bag remains high and tight. Still, I was baffled and frustrated to see both Henry and Stewart raise their heads to reveal muzzles (and weaning rings!) dripping with white milk slobber.
This is a problem on two counts. One, I’m trying to wean the twins because they are cutting Moxie’s teats with their teeth. Two, on Thursday I had picked up a two-week-old bull calf from the local dairy to foster onto Moxie in the twins’ stead. Following the theme of tall, skinny leading men (Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart), I named him Gary Cooper.
Moxie seems perplexed by and unsure of this development, but as long as she is eating her grain in the stanchion, she pays little attention to nursing activity at her hind end. Cooper had happily filled his belly while she ate her breakfast before being turned out.
But if the twins continue to work around the weaning rings, I am going to have to think hard to come up with a way to protect Moxie’s teats and manage an evening feed for Cooper. Keeping the older calves away from Moxie in the daytime is impossible in the winter snow.
Most things around the barn are tougher in winter. Yesterday my morning chores took two and a half hours. While I cleaned stalls and broke ice out of water buckets, the wind came up, pounding the western side of the barn and tearing the temporary Tyvek covering from the window holes in the addition. I fought my way through the thigh-deep drifts with a staple gun and re-fastened the whipping plastic.
By that point only Moxie was braving the wind and stinging snow.
One by one the big calves ventured out to re-join her.
But Birch, the sheep, and the geese remained prudently under cover in the run-in shelter.
As I tramped back and forth to empty my muck bucket, I was happy to find the little Horned Lark still safe at my manure pile.