A Providential Thaw

January 12, 2018

Yesterday morning before work I spent an hour digging out the deep snowbank around the barn paddock fence. Over the day the temperature rose into the low 40s. The snow everywhere ebbed quickly.

Somehow a couple of dozen robins appeared and were hopping around the new bare patches in the fields. Robins? In January? Normally I first spot them March 30, plus or minus a few days. I found the sight of them at this season frightening, but when I inquired of a local naturalist he told me a few male robins often overwinter in town, surviving on crabapples. Though I saw closer to 20 than “a few,” I was comforted to hear that they were not necessarily harbingers of the apocalypse. (Note to self: buy some crabapple whips in the spring from the county Soil and Water Conservation service, which sells landscaping trees for about $5 each).

By evening the driveway was plate ice, running with water. Today it is raining and the high wind in the trees sounds like a passing train. The temperature is due to climb to 55°. Tonight it is supposed to switch to snow, and tomorrow’s storm is predicted to bring 4-6″ of powder and overnight a return to 15° below zero, with a windchill of -27°F.

Today is my short day at work so I should have three hours of daylight (grey, rainy, and gloomy, but still light) to work outside. Yesterday afternoon, an unexpected meeting in town bumped my “Things to Get Done in the Thaw” list, so today I have a double load. I need to:

  1. pump up the truck’s flat tire and pick up some mulch hay*
  2. rearrange materials on the front porch before it is snow-covered again
  3. fix the barn paddock hydrant
  4. straighten and hammer down snow fence posts leaning in the thaw
  5. muck the deep bedding out of the barn addition while it is not frozen.

The deep bedding in the addition should have been mucked out last June when the sheep went out on pasture, but I was moving us then. The addition is 10′ x 32′. The foot-thick bedding is now dried and petrified to something like adobe. For the past month it has been frozen adobe and in passing I’ve glanced in at it from the main barn, mentally wringing my hands. I could have lambs in as little as two weeks and will need the stall to be clean and fresh. (Ewes go from the main stall to the lambing jugs, and then from the jugs with their lambs to the addition.) Today’s thaw is a gift from God.

I think cleaning the addition will take about eight hours. (Why do I have to have a real job?) Normally I spread these hours over a week. We’ll see what I can finish in ninety minutes . . . in the rain and wind.

It’s good to have goals.


* Of course, Rick the hay man still hasn’t appeared with the mulch hay he promised to bring in early December and several times since!



January 10, 2018

I’ve separated my ewe Pixie into the lamb stall for her safety. Pixie is five and a half years old, from a well-known breeder; she’s pretty, well-bred, and undersized. (Someday I’ll write about her background.)

In the late winter of 2015 Pixie came down with a mysterious illness that was never diagnosed, though mentally I’ve filed it under meningeal worm (a brain parasite shed by deer). At the time I was on the phone and computer to vets and to my sheep group. At their advice I treated her for, successively: milk fever, toxemia, selenium deficiency, and barber pole worm; and I investigated both polio and listeriosis. Nothing I did or any of the shots I gave her over the two weeks I labored made any apparent difference, except to preserve her life. She was left with wasted muscles in her hind legs that have kept her wobbly on her feet.

A real farmer would have sent Pixie to slaughter. I didn’t. Once she recovered, she ate eagerly and seemed happy to wobble along behind the flock. She gave me strong sets of twins in both 2016 and 2017.

This year she appears to be pregnant with twins again. However the weakness in her hindquarters has dramatically increased. Her forelegs slide forward and she collapses to the floor with any sudden movement. In the big stall the younger ewes (and the two unsold rams) shove her aside and then trample over her. Twice I’ve found her knocked onto her back, four legs in the air. A sheep will soon die of bloat in this position. Both times I rushed in and yanked her upright.

Once again the problem is mysterious. Her hooves are trimmed and fine. She has been wormed; she has access to a mineral supplement. My tentative guess is that the lambs she is carrying are somehow exerting pressure on her weakened muscles… but it’s only a guess.

For now I have pulled her into the lamb stall to keep her from being knocked around. Flock or herd animals can panic on their own so I put Geranium in with her for company. Geranium, who is six, injured a back leg years ago and has her own, less-serious mobility issues. The two are in the small lamb stall at night and, while the rest of the flock goes outside, in the big stall during the day. They don’t seem unhappy. I remind myself to be careful not to overfeed them in compensation; neither will be helped by oversized lambs.

I hope:

  1. Pixie can carry these lambs to term
  2. Pixie can deliver the lambs, despite her vastly increased hind-end weakness
  3. Pixie’s normal 70% strength will return once the lambs are born.

I know that’s a lot of hoping.

The Cold Has Broken

January 9, 2018

The two-week stretch of temperatures far below zero (-47° windchill on Saturday!) is over. Above is a photo of Moxie and her steer calf, Ike, after ten minutes outside over the weekend while I mucked stalls.

I had known on Thursday, when I chose to muck the damp sheep stall instead of putting up the snow fence in the cabin field, that the electric fence in the barn paddock would be buried in snow. It was. Yesterday before work, I spent an hour post-holing through the thigh-deep drifts to dig out the fence. Not only was the fence shorted, but if that snow melted and then refroze into a solid bank, the calves could scamper over the now six-inch barrier. Thus I had to address it immediately.

The temperature rose steadily all day. By afternoon, the temperature had see-sawed almost sixty degrees: from 28° below zero to 28° above. The wind rose equally steadily. When I got home after work, the fence I had dug out in the morning was nearly buried again.

Carrying rolls of plastic, I waded out to the cabin field and began putting up the snow fence. The plastic flapped wildly in the wind and repeatedly was torn from my gloves. Clutching it with both hands, I had to tighten the zip-tie fasteners with my teeth. I comforted myself (“it could be worse” is my mantra): at least I’m not trying to put up metal roofing! Isn’t it great that I’m not ducking wind-born slicers?

At last the fence was up. Only two months late, but… up.

Here are some of the snow-covered sheep waiting patiently to come in for the night.

Today the wind is even higher, whining at the windows. It will be 25° F today with snow, rising to almost 50° with rain by Friday, before falling back below zero over the weekend.

I will need to dig out the fence again, but after that I should be safe. At least from drifted snow. Today I woke up with some sort of virus, so digging will have to wait.

Too Cold

January 6, 2018

My neighbor Sue took this photo. It’s cold this morning. Not so much the air temperature but the wind chill. -47° F!

Yesterday I kept the animals in the barn, mucking the stalls twice, feeding lots of hay to keep their rumens bubbling for warmth, and allowing the calves in to Moxie to nurse. This morning, since I am not rushing to drive Lucy to her ride back to college and then rushing to work, I may turn the cows out for ten minutes while I muck, so the calves can bounce around and shake their sillies out. I think they will be happy to race back inside. I always worry for Moxie’s teats, wet with calf slobber. Water I throw from a bucket is flash freezing.

The great thing about this deep cold is that it prunes my to-do list. Though I sank the posts five weeks ago, I still have not put up one of my snow fences. During my four free hours in the storm on Thursday afternoon I had to choose between mucking the wet sheep stall or putting up the fence. I chose to take care of the sheep, so the fence is still in a roll in the mudroom and the barn paddock electric lines are slowly being buried in blowing snow. I’ll have to dig them out next week. I’m not going to wade through the drifts to put up the fence at -47° F.

Apart from barn chores and shoveling paths, I don’t plan to do any work outside at all.

DH has a bad cold. I went grocery shopping last night. I am going to bake bread, make a pot of soup, and have a quiet weekend puttering around the house, cleaning, organizing, and catching up on paperwork. I have written a to-do list of only ten items. It’s been a long time since I felt so free. It’s a mini-vacation!

The Big Freeze

January 5, 2018

It is -10° F this morning but the wind is gusting at 40 mph, leading to windchills as low as -45°. We’ve been in a prolonged cold snap for ten days (-29° on Monday), but this combination of wind and severe cold has loomed threateningly all week. Though I don’t watch television, even online I have seen multiple warnings that in these conditions frostbite will occur within ten minutes.

This has been a busy time, with a happy trip to meet our granddaughter in Connecticut plus a return to teaching; I hope to catch up the blog this weekend. However between other commitments I have been working feverishly to ensure the safety of my animals in the cold. The frost-free hydrant in the barn paddock is predictably frozen. I have carried (and thawed) hoses. And yesterday, I mucked out the sheep stall.

The deep bedding in the stall has been wet. I ran out of coarse bedding hay three weeks ago. Rick, my hay man, had promised long ago to bring me some. When I emailed him a reminder at the beginning of December, he did not reply. Thus I was forced to use brown (and thus unappetizing for eating) second-cut bales that he brought in his last delivery. Second-cut hay is very soft and juicy, with few stalks. The animals adore it. Unfortunately, underfoot it immediately collapses into what it is: grass clippings. Every night I would top-dress the stall with waste hay but by morning it would be churned into the damp mess.

I did not want my sheep resting on wet bedding at -30° F. My friends Alison and Tom had some coarse waste hay in their barn but getting it required so many steps. The back of the truck was still loaded with items from storage, plus trash that had to go to the dump. The truck tires go flat every couple of days in the cold and would need pumping.

Yesterday it was snowing and the wind was picking up. Driven by fear of the cold to come, after work I made a list of ten chores to accomplish before supper and forced myself to finish them all. Pump up the tires. Deal with the trash. Drive to Alison and Tom’s barn. Load the bags of hay. Switch vehicles and drive Lucy to skiing. Then muck the deep bedding.

Though it was only the accumulation of a month, the bedding was so heavy and wet that mucking it out took me four hours. I listened to hymns as I hurried and puffed and the sweat poured off me. The contrast between my body heat and the cold meant that my glasses were constantly fogged; I took them off and worked blind. I kept checking my watch. It was almost time to cook dinner. Go, go, go!

Finally the big floor was clear. I spread a thick layer of dry shavings and then hurried in and out of the dark and the blowing snow to the truck to carry in bags of Alison and Tom’s waste hay and spread the hay on top. (Shavings are not helpful in fleeces.) I prepped all the cattle stalls. I loaded mangers with feed hay, carried water to fill buckets, and put out grain. Then at last I opened the back door.

The sheep and cattle streamed in, covered with snow, and headed to their clean, dry stalls. The next few days of subzero cold will be challenging but the worst prep work was done. I could hear the animals munching contentedly. I snapped off the lights and pulled the big barn doors closed behind me.

As I plodded up the driveway to the house I was exhausted but satisfied. It is well with my soul.

Plan B

December 11, 2017

I worked hard every minute of the weekend and made a lot of progress. Just not enough.

I still have five reports to write this morning before work, thirteen more finals to grade, and classes to prep for. Meanwhile yesterday I didn’t get a single panel up on the sheep paddock.

The panel that meets the barn runs up a slope of gravel. This gravel is frozen solid. Chips of ice and rock stung my face and ricocheted off my glasses. At one point I thought my lip was bleeding.The pickaxe was striking sparks in the cold. Why, oh why, did I not do this job in October? I spent an hour on this two-foot section and chipped away only about two inches. That small hump is holding the entire fence panel four to six inches off the ground.

There is so much more work to do for this project: eleven more panels to hang, ten more t-posts to drive. This doesn’t even count cutting two panels, straightening (how?) a fence post that one of the cows rubbed and pushed out of plumb, rerouting the fence wiring, or building the necessary barn door. It is due to snow 4-8″ tomorrow and drop below zero Wednesday night. I realized yesterday in the gathering dark at 4 PM that I would never be able to finish if I kept trying to do the job properly.

My new plan is to drive all the t-posts today after work and then tack the panels to the wood posts with a single staple in each end, not worrying that they’re not perfectly straight and level. I’ll secure them for the winter to all posts with zip ties, pile rocks along any gaps (rocks will freeze to the ground; just collecting them will require a sledgehammer to knock them free), and correct everything next spring.

Rocks and zip ties were never part of my plan for this paddock, but as the saying goes, “Needs must when the devil drives.”

Back to reports!

Goings and Comings

December 1, 2017

Early to barn chores yesterday to put out hay, turn out the cows, then sort out the four ewe lambs and turn out the rest of the flock.

My buyers from Maine arrived exactly at 7:30 AM as promised. Unfortunately they arrived in an open truck with a stake rack only two bars high. My sheep would have been loose on the highway — except that they’d never have made it to the highway; in their panic they’d have hopped out at the farm. I had a moment of inner rage. (My patience is a thin veneer, especially under the time pressure of having to shower and change and get to work on time.) However I managed to smile and move on to problem-solving. In the end I gave them half of a welded wire panel and we tied it on over the top of the stake rack with baling twine.

The couple was very pleasant and their obvious delight in the beauty of the sheep — so much bigger and prettier, they said, than their flock of Clun Forests descended from stock from another breeder — that I was mollified long before they drove out. They spoke of moving their sheep to fresh grass every day, and it always makes me happy to have my animals go to good homes. Meanwhile I am relieved to have lower numbers in my barn. (I have two handsome ram lambs still to sell. Given the lateness of the season I may be wintering them over.)

After teaching my four classes I went to town for errands. Imagine my surprise and delight when I drove in after dark to see a college van dropping off Lucy for the night! The ski team was in town to ski on the neighboring trails and will be returning today, so Lucy elected to sleep at home.

Happiness is having your baby girl showered and in p.j.s doing homework in front of the fire, even just for one night.