Getting Ready for Sandy

October 29, 2012

L to R: Opie, Birch, Henry, Dorrie, Katika, Fee, Stewart, and Moxie

I spent the weekend preparing for the hurricane, getting in a hay delivery, filling water troughs, collecting and battening down loose items in the barnyard. I don’t expect major flooding issues here on the farm but am bracing for winds. My biggest concern is keeping all the animals safe, of course, and within fencing if the power goes out.

My problem is that I currently have too many animals to fit comfortably in the barn in a storm. I have two cows, a bull, a yearling heifer, three calves, a horse, seven chickens, two geese, sixteen sheep, and a cat.

In the photo above, I am feeding the large livestock hay on the stony crest of the cabin knoll paddock, to fertilize it. [Doubleclick to enlarge.]

I have sold six sheep, taken nine lambs and five pigs to the butcher, and made arrangements for ten more animals to leave in the next ten days. But that doesn’t help me now. So I am trying to be creative. The horse and cattle, poultry, and cat all fit in the barn. The sheep are now in the barn paddock, which I can power with a battery charger if I have to — but which I am not 100% confident is coyote-proof. I may use cattle panels to pen them at night under the run-in shed. If worst comes to worst, I will bring them into the barn aisle and lock the doors.

Like everyone else on the East coast, I’ll be glad when this storm is over.


Long Day, With Surprise Arrivals

May 27, 2012

Last Sunday I left for morning chores at 6 AM and didn’t get in until 9 PM. A long, very hot day. Whoever heard of 85° F in May in the Adirondacks? However by time I peeled off my coveralls, half the cabin knoll was fenced.

I had been pushing to get this done because the day before, D and I had spread the three giant manure piles: my own winter supply, the many truckloads from Larry’s barn, and a load from Allen’s. The north pasture (shown here) and the south were both frosted with dung and no longer available for grazing.

Jon came out and pounded fence posts for me. Here he is in the midst of checking one for plumb with a level at the base.

You may notice that I absentmindedly instructed him to set the posts in this section backwards, facing into the woods. This is the sort of spatial “blindness” to detail that trips me up all the time. So often I have to go back and fix my work. I’ll probably pull and reset these ten posts sometime in the fall. No time now.

Between moving the sheep at Betty’s and struggling to finish the knoll field fencing, I worked outside all day long, racing the clock and sweating. Monday I would be out of town, driving downstate. I had to finish. It made me crazy to see the horse and cows stuck in the barn paddock, eating dry hay and gazing sadly at the green grass over the wire.

The day before I had made a plan with D to drop off my truck in town with his son-in-law to fix its non-functioning window. Given the time pressure, I figured that in the same trip I’d pick up something simple at the grocery store to serve the family for supper so I didn’t have to spend an hour cooking.

Naturally I was running late. At 5 PM I was watering the sheep again at Betty’s, sunburned, grimy, worn out, and dehydrated. I texted to D to let him know I was delayed. Since this is a common occurrence with me he didn’t even bother to reply. I bounced the truck over the ruts out of Betty’s field and drove hell for leather to town.

I was drooping in the grocery store checkout line when my phone rang. It was Rick, my hay man. My heart sank. Oh no! A hay delivery!?

“Hi, Rick!” I said, trying to muster enthusiasm. I asked politely how he was. “Are you at my farm?”


I wilted further. I was so tired, so hot, so flattened, the last thing I wanted to do was throw hay bales. “Really.” I tried to sound cheerful. “How many bales did you bring?”

“Ain’t brung no hay! I got piglets!”

“Piglets!” It was almost a yelp. I could feel the eyes of other customers in the checkout line turning in my direction.

“Sure! Seven!”

Seven! It’s true I had discussed the vague possibility of piglets with Rick a couple of months ago, but since then life had become so hectic I had tentatively decided that  this summer I would skip raising pigs altogether.

“Piglets,” I repeated weakly. Nothing was set up for the arrival of pigs. I had no pig food on hand. The Pig Palace had not been repaired at the end of last season. My new season fence batteries had not yet arrived. Oh my.

“Rick, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know you were coming. I’m in town, at the grocery store. I’m dropping off my truck and a friend is giving me a ride home. I won’t be able to get to the farm for at least twenty minutes.”

“No problem!” cried Rick, with his usual jovial friendliness. “It’s a beautiful day, I got a cold twelve-pack of beer, and me and the pigs will just sit and wait ’til you get here!”

There were only a couple of crushed cans on the ground by the time D and I arrived at the farm. The jostling three-month-old piglets in the back of Rick’s truck looked healthy but hot.

I explained to Rick that I couldn’t raise seven pigs. That was OK, he assured me, because he wanted to keep the single gilt (young female). I knew I had a built-in market for four pigs. D decided to buy one for me to raise. So while I slid the gate open and shut, Rick carried five stout piglets into the sheep stall. This worked out perfectly, as it left one castrated male to keep Rick’s gilt company. Like most creatures, pigs are happiest when not alone.

D busied himself carrying buckets of water.

Rick is a kind person of considerable feckless charm. I’ve never seen him not smiling. He extends me credit and puts up with time payments. I always enjoy our conversations about animal husbandry. However the only thing predictable about Rick is his good intentions. He is invariably juggling a great many jobs and and deals, working night and day, which can make his follow-through slightly erratic. More than once I’ve aged considerably when Rick has not shown up at an agreed time.

Still I am always touched by his essential generosity. Rick had seen the piglets on Craigslist and knew they would be perfect for me. After paying for his gas (he lives an hour away), he made no profit on the transaction.

“I’ve got you a Jersey bull, too!” he confided happily as he was leaving.

I quickly served my family dinner, borrowed a bag of pellets to feed the pigs, and went back to fencing in the long twilight.

It was very peaceful snapping insulators onto the T-posts and stringing lines as the shadows lengthened and tree frogs began trilling. Freddie, my dear barn cat who thinks he’s a dog, followed me from post to post to roll on his back for belly rubs.

It was pitch dark when I finished the fence and drove home.

The next morning I had to drive downstate, so I fed the livestock hay at 6 AM, to take the edge off their hunger, and then turned them into the new field at 8, on my way out of town.

Birch was excited to explore the new space.

Soon everyone was grazing. The grass is very poor, thin, and weedy —  but it’s another step toward the dream.

Twenty-Six Below Zero

January 16, 2012

It’ 4 AM and -26° F. The apartment electric heaters are roaring non-stop. I think of my friends who heat with wood and hope they didn’t have to get up too often last night to cram logs in their stoves.

Today I am driving a former colleague down to Albany for a medical treatment. I don’t have a lot of skills but over the years I have learned how to find my way around on the road. Driving to new places does not intimidate me (unless it’s in New York City, and then I prefer to give up and take a cab). The family is stressed and tired, and driving is something easy and practical I can do to help.

I have printed out directions and packed a lunch. I will do my barn chores at 5:15 AM in the dark and then come home to shower and change.

I haven’t yet decided if I will leave the animals in the barn for the day. It is supposed to warm up into the low 20s.  Yesterday it was -16° F and windy; the temperature only rose to 5°. I left the animals in until noon, when it hit 0°. However, today I will not be back until 3 PM. In winter that is almost dusk.

My concerns are for Opie, my bull calf, and Birch, Lucy’s aged gelding. Babies and geriatrics don’t do well in severe cold.

With the trapped body heat from all the livestock, the temperature in the barn will probably hover around -10° this morning. That’s still very chilly for an infant. I will let Opie have a big feed of milk this morning and then will probably leave everyone inside. They will be bored but safe, munching hay.

An Ugly Customer

October 3, 2011

My Jersey bull John Wayne turns a year old next week, and slowly but surely he is becoming an ugly customer. (I love old English slang. An “ugly customer” is an uncouth, potentially threatening person.)

Duke is not yet actively dangerous. He is rude and pushy. He up-ends water troughs, bashes buckets, and tests his strength against trees. He is also the cockiest young bull I’ve ever had.

Two weeks ago I heard Duke growl low in his throat; I looked up and saw that he was warning Birch, a horse much larger than himself, away from a pile of hay. Horses have raking teeth and battering hooves that normally keep cattle… ahem… cowed. It’s not clear to me if Birch at 27 has simply become too old to cope with confrontations, but for whatever reason Duke obviously now has the upper hand.

In the past when my bulls have become mannerless teenagers, loitering in the barn aisle at turn-out time, I’ve opened Birch’s stall door and used his implied threat to sweep the bull out of the barn. However last week when I turned Birch into the aisle to nudge Duke in the right direction, instead of wheeling and scampering out, Duke braced his shoulders and stood his ground.

Birch looked confused. He raised his head. Duke raised his head. Birch lowered his head. Duke lowered his head. It was a Mexican stand-off.

In the end I let Katika into the aisle behind Birch. Now, Katika is always submissive to horses. How would I get her to shoulder past Birch in the narrow aisle in order to take on Duke?

Hmm. Here’s a potential powder keg! Three thousand pounds of nervous, churning livestock in a four-foot-wide space! I guess the only thing to do is do it quickly.

Standing at Katika’s tail I slapped her rump hard and began to yell. “Go! Go! Go! Out of the barn! Go!”

Katika hates shouting. She jumped away from my voice and found herself alongside Birch. Oh dear, those teeth, better keep moving!  She barreled on by, slammed into Duke, spinning him on his haunches, and after a brief jam at the door all three animals were outside.

Katika is not afraid of young bulls but I notice that when she can, she too avoids confrontations with Duke. Though she outweighs him by about four hundred pounds, and would always win in a shoving match, I think she is feeling middle-aged and less inclined to engage. Meanwhile, Rocky, my eighteen-month-old steer, is too mellow to bother with any of it. (I think Ferdinand, the flower-loving bull who liked to snooze under a cork tree, must really have been a steer.)

Due to a clerical error, Duke and Rocky are not due to go to slaughter until December 27. Three more months. I’m less and less enthusiastic about the prospect and will make calls this week to see if I have any more immediate options.

These days whenever I am moving Duke I carry a pitchfork in my hand.


August 30, 2011

Getting out and about yesterday I learned of the devastation that Hurricane Irene had visited on our small upstate towns. It turns out we got nine inches of rain in six to eight hours on Sunday, causing flash flooding. While I was dealing with loose sheep in the pounding rain, water in the valleys rose five feet in minutes.

Above is the bridge at the foot of the mountain in Keene. Up the road the Keene Fire Department building was swept away, leaving only the front frame and doors, like a false front for a movie set.

Almost all our local bridges were or are closed, making travel to some towns nearly impossible. The highway bridge at the Olympic ski jumps is one-lane only, with traffic backed up for long waits. Crossing one vehicle at a time, one can understand why. Uprooted trees are pressing on the high-water side of bridge in a tangled mat towering twenty feet high and fifty feet across.

Descriptions of trees and boulders shooting down the rivers in thundering walls of water sound terrifying.

My friend Larry’s farm on the River Road lost thirty feet of pasture and fencing to the roaring Ausable. A neighbor’s horses had to be evacuated to Larry’s barn on higher ground and were led a quarter mile down the road through rushing water up to their bellies.

Crops were drowned and the topsoil carried away. Roads have washed into fields and some highways are a foot deep in mud. The familiar face of Cascade Mountain above us has been ripped by a new landslide.

Just to add to the anxiety, last night at evening chores I turned out the animals and then realized something was wrong with Lucy’s horse Birch.

He was colicking and trying to roll against the pain. I got him up and called both Larry (my horse mentor) and the vet. The vet said she could try but thought there was no way to reach me over the blocked roads. Instead Larry kindly drove out and gave Birch some prescription meds he had on hand. Lucy walked Birch up and down the driveway for an hour.

I was back at the farm checking him at 9 PM when the vet called back. She thought that as an old horse Birch might have colicked due to anxiety over the storm, the banging doors, and the change in routine (staying inside for 24 hours) and that keeping him in his stall overnight, without the cows, might make him worse. He certainly was not happy alone, neighing and anxiously biting chips out of the stall walls. On the vet’s recommendation, I turned him out.

He was a white ghost in the darkness at the pasture gate, his head lifted high and his nostrils flared, frantically bugling, “Where are you?” to the herd high in the pasture. Then he galloped up the hill, tail streaming, and was gone.

This morning he is fine, thank goodness, and I’m heading to Larry’s to help him try to salvage some fencing in his back pasture.

The Storm Has Passed

August 29, 2011

Irene has passed over. This morning is dark and dreary but the rain has stopped and the wind has died. All the main highways through the mountain notches and valleys were closed yesterday due to flooding. The power was out for several hours. By evening electricity had been restored but it may take a day or two for the rivers to retreat back to their banks.

At chores yesterday morning it was raining as I emptied the manure spreader, mucked stalls, and brought the animals in for breakfast. Though the temperature was in the 50s, Lucy’s horse Birch was shivering. He is an old man of 27 and delicate. All the cattle seemed happy to lie down and chew cud in dry stalls out of the weather.

My dear barn cat Freddie always accompanies me on the long walk out to the pig pen after milking. He walked out loyally yesterday as usual, despite the rain, meowing his complaints all the way. I adore Freddie.

“Can’t you dump that milk already?”

I carried him back to the barn under my damp coveralls. I could feel his purr rumbling against my ribs. What a very satisfactory cat.

His sister Flossie and the chickens all huddled in the barn. Only the geese were pleased. “Water everywhere!”

At Betty’s I tried to move the sheep down the slope into the emergency sheepfold I had built this spring. I knew with the high winds their shade shelters would become airborne and take out the electric fences.

Unfortunately after a summer of no grain, my lambs are not trained to follow a shaken can. Moreover the rain was now coming down so hard that the pellets in the can immediately turned to mush, no longer rattling enticingly. All the sheep raced down the hill after me but only seventeen ran into the sheep fold. That left six still milling around out of reach.

I don’t own foul weather gear (it’s on the list) so I was soaked, dripping and squelching in the high grass as I tried to lure those last six. Nothing worked. The wind was picking up and my sheep were loose in the field.

Problem-solve, problem-solve.

In the end I took one section of electric fence and made a ring around a spruce tree. The grass was low there, eaten off two weeks ago, so the fence would not be shorted. The spruce would give a tiny bit of shelter and a visual anchor for the anxious sheep. It was all I could think of.

Luckily it worked perfectly. I let the seventeen out of the sheep fold, the six lambs re-joined the flock, and we all swept back up the hill to the small new enclosure.

The sheep were not happy. The tree gave little shelter from the rain and the grass was short. However I had few options. I told myself they would not suffer from cold while wearing three-inch-thick wool coats. At least I knew they were safe. I will move them to fresh grass first thing today.

This experience has taught me that my sheep fold is a great idea that needs tweaking. In the next two weeks I will take the current one down and rebuild it at the bottom of the hill around a giant spruce with long, thick branches that sweep almost to the ground. Any weather bad enough to need the sheep moved out of their usual fencing is weather from which they will want protection.

It would be perfect if I could afford to build a run-in shed, but I can’t, and in the meantime a thick spruce will be better than nothing.

An Equine Interlude

June 25, 2011

Things are hectic here as I have been busy helping to get Lucy ready to go to sleep-away camp. Camp is a wonderful perk of my husband’s job that both our children have enjoyed. Though it will be hard to have Lucy gone for seven weeks, I know she will have a great time. However in all the preparations I haven’t had time to finish writing about Katika. Perhaps tonight.

Yesterday, between rain showers and yeoman stints of packing, I took Lucy and her friend Anabell riding. This was by way of a goodbye treat. Her horse Birch has not been out under saddle all spring. First Lucy was busy at school, then I was busy with heavy equipment, and finally we were waiting for the farrier to come trim Birch’s hooves.

Now at last she could ride. Unfortunately all the animals are so herd-bound after the long winter together that even though cows might be pesky, Birch hated to leave them. The steer Rocky watched our departure with his head low, bellowing like a mournful foghorn.

On his own for the first time in months, Birch was on his tiptoes, startling and jumping nervously at everything he saw. This made Lucy and Anabell equally nervous.

We thought it might be easier outside the round pen and started to walk him out to the back acres. Birch’s hindquarters bunched underneath him. He blew out his nose, looking around wildly, appearing ready to take flight. I took hold of his bridle, and had second thoughts about a trail ride.

“Maybe we should ride closer to the barn —” I began.

“Great idea!” Anabell said in relief.

As we turned around we noticed that the geese, Andy and K, had been hurrying to follow us out to the back. Pilgrim geese cannot fly, so this was a serious trek.

“C’mon kids, we’re turning back,” I said to the geese. Obediently they turned and stumped after us, waddling as fast as they could go.

“They are so cute,” Lucy cried, snapping photos.

At the barn I decided to take the girls riding in the bottom of the south pasture, where it is flat (and where recently I’d spread manure).

At this point the barn cats Freddie and Flossie chose to join the parade.

At Fairhope Farm, you’ll never walk alone!