Monday, March 13, 2006

An evening in the life...

Stephen took the kids and our visiting company to Austin this afternoon, leaving me to enjoy a rare period of solitude. It was lovely... I read, I napped, I ate ice cream. :-)

Then I went out to do chores. The logistics of the chores this afternoon, for varying reasons, were so complicated, that I actually sat down and wrote out a plan before I started. Here's what ended up happening:

1) filled water bowl currently being shared by goats, dogs and chickens; fed laying hens
2) finished cleaning outside brooder from last batch of chicks so that the batch in our laundry room can finally move outside
3) pulled rubber glove out of goat's mouth
4) noticed red calf on lawn; looked for hole in fence; couldn't find one
5) put dogs in the house because they were scaring the red calf instead of helping me
6) got wheelbarrow (with chicken manure in it from cleaning brooder), took it through sheep pen, and into horse/cow pasture
7) herded cows away
8) put horses in corrals (so they wouldn't eat cattle feed)
9) climbed fence to sheep pen then back to lawn; put goats in trailer (so they wouldn't push into the workshop and eat out of the bins)
10) got cattle cubes (grain) and alfalfa from workshop (saw rat, mental note to tell Stephen)
11) gave goats in trailer alfalfa
12) enticed cattle up to where I wanted them with cubes, threw the grain over fence, saved some to lure red calf to gate, failed because she wanted to be with the other cattle, even if they were separated by a fence (because I was alone I couldn't herd AND open a gate, so I had to really finagle this)
13) got more cubes, tried at a different location, ALMOST got her in, but failed again.
14) got more cubes, tried putting the cubes on the other side of the sheep pen and herding the red calf into the sheep pen (had to open that gate, so now the sheep were on the lawn). Failed.
15) second attempt to get her into the sheep pen... I scared her so badly she revealed the hole in the fence (hooray!). She was through and back with her mom, and I quickly twisted the wire in a lame attempt at a makeshift fix (no time for anything else, to which the gorgeous sunset attested)
16) raced through sheep pen, closing gate so that the black calf wouldn't go out, climbed into horse pasture
17) dumped manure out of wheelbarrow
18) fed horses (I am moving like lightning now because the cattle are going to be done with that grain soon and they are loose in the same area as the horse corrals, and are soon to come begging for grain from the now open barn)
19) threw half a bale of hay into the wheelbarrow, along with the barn broom
20) closed up barn and got through the gate to the sheep pen just as cows started coming around the corner
21) pushed the wheelbarrow through the sheep pen to the yard
22) went back to the workshop, got a bucket of goat grain and a bucket of sheep grain
23) lured the sheep back to their pen, closed them in
24) set up feeders for the goats on the outside of the trailer, filled them and let the goats out.
25) got into the trailer with the barn broom, and cleaned out all the old hay
26) put fresh hay in trailer from the wheelbarrow
27) ran to house, made up 2 quarts of calf milk replacer in huge bottle
28) grabbed flashlight on the way out the door (sun is very set now)
29) went into the sheep pen, and lured black calf with bottle
30) she started sucking and I led her to the gate, then out onto the lawn and to the entrance to the trailer (her current night time shelter)
31) big challenge: she couldn't, or was afraid to, get up into the trailer. I am 5 1/2 months pregnant. I can't lift her. So I finagled it by lying the bottle down on the trailer floor and getting one leg at a time up and in, slowly sliding the bottle back into the trailer. The last leg was the hardest, but we did it.
32) closed trailer door, and went to the end of the trailer so I could brace the bottle against the wall (she is really rough, and I want to protect my own baby)
33) she finished, and really wanted more, but there was none, so she tried to nurse on various parts of me; no time for calf massage tonight (although I did some while she nursed)
34) out of the trailer, back through sheep pen, climbed over gate to horse corrals, bringing broom
35) let horses out
36) climbed back over and turned on water in sheep pen
37) back to yard; fished hose through fence and cleaned out the black calf's water bucket, slid it into the trailer and filled it up through the side of the trailer. I am happy that she has clean hay and fresh water tonight
38) turned off water in sheep pen; moon is full
39) went to shop to turn off light and close up; had to quickly dump some grain on the ground to distract the goats from racing in with me
40) with flashlight walked to check on 90+ broilers (meat chickens) in our newly made portable hoop-coop; all is well.
41) got mail
42) let dogs out and took last look for today's eggs
43) flashlight died, exchanged it for a working one when I put eggs in house
44) moved two roosting chickens off the back porch and into the chicken house; closed it up for the night
45) fed the dogs
46) checked on baby chicks in laundry room
47) washed my hands and ate the last chocolate chip cookie. :-) I think I earned that one.

I believe I climbed over the wooden fence from the sheep pen to the horse pasture at least four times. If you had told me when I was 20 that I when I was 36 years old I'd be pregnant, homeschooling my kids, managing horses, cattle, donkeys, goats, sheep, dogs, chickens, and climbing five foot fences, I probably would have laughed in your face.

What a long, strange (but magical) trip it's been!

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Calf developments

This morning we awoke to The Princess crying from a nightmare. While Stephen was rocking her, the weather alert went off with a tornado warning for our county.

Things were still outside, no rain or wind even, so I just went back to sleep. At 5:30 we awoke to pouring rain and gusting winds. The calf! She was still in the round pen with no shelter.

Stephen and I got dressed, pulled on our boots and headed out. We were concerned about the Mama, who has been easing up a bit in her vigilance, but who is still worried about her baby. From the safety of the horse corral I shone the light all around. We could see the horses and donkey, but no cows (although it was pretty difficult to tell for sure since it was pitch black and raining... mostly we gauged by the height of the eyes shining back at us).

Stephen entered the round pen and ran the calf until he cornered her, while I shone the flashlight from the safety of a horse corral. He picked her up, I raced out of the corral and opened the round pen gate, and we stumbled through the mud and rain praying fervently that the mother wasn't about to kill us (where to shine the flashlight? Into the night to find a cow? On the ground to keep from falling?). We made it to the sheep pen, while the dogs brought way to much attention to us (and made us furious) by barking wildly. We made it through the last gate and let the calf go.

After we caught our breath (even a 1 week old calf is pretty heavy; my excuse was purely adrenaline related), Stephen caught her again, and put her into the cattle trailer so she could have a roof (we don't yet have a good place to hold her that is water tight). After checking to make sure the broilers weren't drowning in their coop, Stephen went back and dried the calf off with some towels.

After the sun came up, he took the kids to feed her for their first time. She is finally in a place that I feel is safe for them to approach her (they don't have to go through the mother). She did great! Farmer Boy did much of the feeding, and Stephen wants him to take on this responsibility now (don't tell: I'm a little jealous).

Later in the morning, I was standing in the kitchen cutting fruit, and I heard the mama cow mooing for her baby. I looked up, and through the window could see her standing forlornly at the now empty round pen. At the time we had a Henry Purcell CD on (our composer of the term), and there was the saddest song playing. Between my pregnancy hormones, the music, and the plaintive mooing of this mama whose baby was now not only out of reach, but out of sight, it was hard to keep my own tears in check. The sad music continued as she finally turned away and walked to the other side of the field to rejoin her "sister" cows.

This afternoon the calf was acting weird and listless, and Farmer Boy and I were worried. Stephen wasn't, though, and sure enough, she was fine in the evening. Guess she was just tired (although part of me wondered if she wasn't a bit depresssed as a result of being separated from her mother... maybe anthropomorphising here a bit). We had visitors from MI arrive with their two young boys, so they got to watch the evening feeding, done mostly by Farmer Boy.

The calf is unbelievably soft and silky, and really seems to thrive with a lot of physical affection. This makes sense... her mama licked her a lot. She is one week and 3 days old today. We're going to have to find a better place for her soon; the trailer really isn't a nice place to live.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Adventures in cattle raising

Last week our final cow gave birth to a calf... the first from our new bull! Here they are (at a distance, hence the blurriness) on the baby's first day:

Can you see how full the mother's udder is? Well, it stayed like that, and got worse. As much as we watched, we never saw the calf nursing. Instead she would suck on the mother's dewlap (chest/neck skin flap). The only other place we ever actually saw her sucking was the fold of skin beside the cow's thigh. After a few days we were concerned, but she was still alive and still able to walk around normally, so we figured she must be getting something.

However, as the days wore on, she seemed skinnier and weaker and we began to really worry, and finally, this morning, Stephen managed to separate out the calf from the rest of the herd, into the round pen.

Once again, we are dealing with far less than ideal facilities. The round pen is a) too big a pen for a calf, b) has no roof or shade, c) right in the middle of the field where the calf's mother is. The mother was NOT AMUSED. General wisdom is that it is usually more dangerous to get between a mother cow and her calf than to deal with a bull.

Stephen went out and bought calf milk replacer and BIG baby bottle. He had a rough time of it with her the first time. It took 20 minutes for her to even figure out what to do. The night feeding went a little better, only taking her about 5 minutes to figure it out. Here he is, succesfully feeding his girl:

Mama is having a rough time; she wants her baby! She hovers around the pen, and stays even when the other cows leave. Getting in and out of the pen is scary because in her distress (especially after she's watched the baby being tackled and fed) she wants to charge anything, just to get her frustration out. The dogs have taken the brunt of the chasing.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


Last week we enjoyed a wonderful visit from our friends from Virginia; in the midst of which was not-so-welcome visit from the cows on the front lawn!

Remember way back at the beginning of our adventure here, when I had to find that place inside myself to be all that I could be and jump into the fire of farm life? You know, the time when all the cows were on the lawn and the fence was broken and I was the only adult in town? Well, they did it again.

Things are tough if you're an herbivore in Texas right now. We had almost no rain this fall, so there is almost nothing growing. Because of that, the demand for hay has been so intense that the prices have skyrocketed, and now, most of our suppliers are completely out. They long ago sold their own hay, and have been bringing it in from other areas, but even that supply has dwindled. So everyone is hungry.

We had one uneaten round bale left, and it was in the field next to our house. I thought the cattle still had a bale up on the hill, but I was wrong. There I was, squatting on the floor in front of my health books trying to figure out if I should worry that my son's temperature was 104.5 for the second day, when our friend Ben, who had been sitting in the front yard writing, popped his head in to say "Patti, there's a cow in the yard." Sure enough. {{sigh}}

Did I mention we moved the driveway and no longer have a gate between the road and the yard?

I went in the house to find the tractor key and call Stephen to ask him a question and discovered the phone was dead. By the time I got back out, there were 4 cows in the yard. To my chagrin, they had broken through the area I had "fixed" a year and a half ago.

I got the hay loaded onto the tractor, and drove it into the goat pen. The cows started to follow but then realized there was hay aplenty left on the ground where the bale had been. So after parking the tractor, I walked back, bringing the dogs, and after two passes, we managed to get two of the cows to go back through the spot they had broken, and two into the goat pen. I'm so glad Ben was there to help me with the gates! Since Farmer Boy was stuck in bed with that fever, The Princess would have been my only assistant, and while she is a great farm girl, she is only 4, and it's a lot to ask when there's a 1500 pound animal bearing down on you.

Anyway, we moved the hay over to the cow pasture and the two cows in the goat pen followed. Ben got to drive the tractor back, and his daughter even had a little ride. Then we had to fix the fence. Thankfully, I know a LOT more about fencing now than I did 18 months ago, so we were actually able to fix it in a way that should hold. The whole thing is going to be replaced in the not-so-distant future, thankfully.

So the cows were returned to their rightful place. Later Ben fixed the phone line (have I mentioned how THANKFUL I was to have him here?). Farmer Boy ended up running a fever for five days; the entire time our friends were here, poor thing.

We had other misadventures... horses trying to eat old disgusting hay from the chicken coop, goats and sheep in an infinite loop in the shop (I'd get one out and another would come in), a major temper tantrum and meltdown by yours truly in said shop (at least the only ones who heard were the goats and sheep). Pretty much the usual ups and downs of farm life around here.

I was totally spoiled by Ben's wife, Esther, who kept the kitchen gorgeous the whole time they were here (no mean feat, as I am not a tidy cook). Because the boy was sick, things weren't really normal (whatever that means), but he was able to do some school a few of the days, and The Princess especially enjoyed having another little girl around with whom to play and share her school activities.

All in all it was a great week, not just despite, but maybe even because of the unexpected.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Cat Chicken?

Can a chicken have nine lives like a cat? We have an Aracauna who seems to.

This girl came with 10 other chicks, who we tried to get a broody mama to adopt. For one reason or another, only four of those chicks made it past the first few days, and only three were around at a week. Those three were carefully cared for by their adoptive mother.

They lived separately from the other chickens, down at the barn with the goats. Eventually Mama Hen decided she was done and left them to fend for themselves. They did well, roosting way up in the rafters of the loafing shed at night. But our terrible coyote problem this fall caused great chicken attrition, and the aracaunas were not exempt. One of the three disappeared and the other two decided to move their digs up to the chicken house with the rest of the girls.

They were not exactly welcomed with open wings. This is normal. Every new chicken who comes on the farm has to deal with the pecking order, and mostly the new girls learn (over and over) that they are at the bottom of it. But at least they had each other.

Then they didn't. We have to assume that yet another was a coyote breakfast, because suddenly we had only one. She is so different looking from the others that we'd check for her to make sure she was still with us. Plus we were really looking forward to those cool green eggs.

Then she disappeared. We assumed she was yet another tasty treat for the resident wildlife.

One day, Stephen and Farmer Boy were cleaning out the utility trailer to load it up for a dump run. Among the items in the trailer was an old mailbox. Inside the mailbox was the Aracauna. How she got stuck in there, we will never know. She was in rough shape. Very dirty, very weak. We didn't know if she'd make it. Not only did she have some recovering to do, but as soon as you're sick, you are the very lowest of the low on the pecking order, and chickens have been known to peck a sick bird to death. Talk about survival of the fittest!

But she recovered. She got stronger, she cleaned herself up, and pretty soon it was back to normal for Miss A.

A week ago, Farmer Boy suddenly raced past me in the house saying urgently, "I need to save a chicken". He had looked out the window and seen a chicken caught in the fence. I went out to help him. The poor bird had gotten her foot stuck on some barbed wire, and was actually hanging upside down attached by her foot. Her right eye had been pecked out by her barbaric companions. And it was, you guessed it, our poor lone Aracauna.

I was tempted to kill her then and there. I just didn't know how she could survive, and I hated seeing her like this. But when I looked in her good eye, it was clear and alert. So we put her in seclusion. She kept getting out. We kept putting her back in. She got out. We gave up. She wanted to be out, and by golly she was going to be out!

The increased handling she has had due to all her traumas has really tamed her, and she lets us pet her now. Yesterday, she was settling in for the night on the front porch (she still doesn't like sleeping with those meanies in the hen house), and I walked up to give her a little love and encouragement. She looked at me with her bright healthy eye. I peeked around to see how the scab was healing on her missing eye... and she looked at me with her OTHER bright healthy eye! I couldn't believe it! Our little miracle bird.

The children have named her Oreo. Lucky girl is here to stay... only animals we aren't planning to eat get names.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

A December to remember

As we headed into December this year, our family eagerly anticipated the traditions of Advent and, in our home school, a special month of study revolving around the Christmas story. We pulled out the Advent wreath, a new Advent story/devotional, and Sunday November 27 we welcomed Advent 2005.

Our first week of our Christmas Unit Study started out wonderfully. We had a special Advent circle time, Farmer Boy (grade 3) started a Christmas Study Journal, and both children enjoyed making angel crafts using outlines of their hands and feet. I felt like a Good Mother.

Imagine my (bleary-eyed) surprise, then, to awaken on December 1st, after just a few restless hours of sleep on a chair-bed, in my husband's hospital room. The afternoon before, a bad bout of "gas" after a lentil soup lunch had proven to be more than even my stout-hearted husband could handle, and despite much protestation, we took him to the ER. A good thing, as he had an incarcerated hernia... a potentially life-threatening situation (and definitely not caused by lentil soup). Poor Stephen endured hours of tests, uncomfortable poking and prodding, and the horrors of a naso-gastric tube that evening.

First thing on Dec. 1 he had surgery to repair the hernia. My brother and a friend helped by caring for the children so that I could be with Stephen in the hospital. We brought him home the night of Dec. 2.

The next few days were rather anxiety filled for me. It is amazing how fast patients are pushed out of hospitals these days. I am all for getting out of the hospital, but it is rather a bit of pressure on the healthy spouse to send someone home who isn't breathing properly and takes 5 minutes to bend enough to get into a car.

It soon came to light that Stephen is one of the extremely rare people who has a reaction to steri-strips. The blisters that the steri-strips caused ended up being more problematic than the incision. When all was said and done he had a rather quick recovery, thankfully, and now we are the Bionic Couple (he has a mesh tummy and I have a titanium marker in my right breast from a breast biopsy).

I have found a silver lining to the Great Hernia Adventure. During Stephen's receovery period, when he couldn't drive, I learned how to drive the tractor and move bales of hay. This was MUCH fun!! I was nervous at first, but once I understood which buttons and levers did what, I had a blast. :-)

Stephen took a week off work, then things began to get back to normal. Farmer Boy was in the local Christmas parade with his Scout troop. Both children were in the Christmas play at our church Christmas party. And despite the hospital detour, we managed to quickly find our place again in our Christmas study, and finished out the school year just where I'd hoped.

As we headed into the days before Christmas, while I was more tired than usual, I felt that things seemed to be falling into place (except for the mess in the house which continued to plague me).

On the Thursday before Christmas, before heading into the city to do some errands, Stephen tried to remove the broiler element from our stove, which was malfunctioning. After some difficulty, he succeeded, immediately produced a blinding flash, a puff of white smoke, and little balls of molten metal bouncing on the wood floor. Miraculously, he wasn't hurt! Then ensued two days of unsuccessful searching for the part (even "finding" it, only to discover that the company changed the design but not the part number!). By Friday night (the 23rd) it was becoming clear we were not going to be cooking Christmas dinner in our kitchen.

Saturday morning (the 24th), at around 8:30am, we phoned my parents, who had already gone to Austin to visit with my brother. We all agreed to move the festivities to his house. The children had gotten over their disappointment at not being home and had begun to get excited about a sleepover at Uncle Dave's. I started packing up food and recipes, gifts and clothes. We decided that I would start the dough for our annual Christmas breakfast braid, it would rise in the car, be baked at Dave's house and be done in time for us to go to the church my mom had found in the phone book.

We were almost packed, and I had just finished the dough and started the rise. It was 15 minutes before we were to leave. The phone rang: "Don't leave yet, Dave's throwing up." Within a half hour it was clear my brother was really sick. Plan B switched to Plan C. My parents, not wanting to get sick, decided to leave, but just in case they were exposed enough, they didn't want to get US sick. Everyone was going to spend Christmas at their own houses. Round 2 of unhappy children.

The dough for the braid ended up being the chickens' special breakfast, and we humans ate store bought muffins on Christmas morning.

We all decided we would reschedule our celebration to Tuesday the 27th. Christmas night, the Princess woke up throwing up, and spent the next two hours back and forth from bed to bathroom. The next day she and I both felt terrible, and my brother's wife was sick. We rescheduled yet again. Plan D: Friday the 30th. Round 3 of unhappy children.

Wednesday, Farmer Boy had a very short bout of throwing up, but was better within a few hours. We were on track for Friday; we were hopeful! Wednesday night the Princess spiked a 102.6 fever. Aaaaarggh!

In the middle of all this, I was very worried about getting sick, becasue I am pregnant. Lots of vitamin C, water, and prayer seemed to help, because I did not throw up (danger of dehydration) nor did I run a temp (can be dangerous for the baby), despite being in constant contact with a very sick little girl. I did have two days of feeling really weird, but never with dangerous symptoms.

All day Thursday the girl ran a low grade fever. She really wanted to go her grandparents' and they decided they could live with a temp of less than 100. So Thursday night we set off. Miraculously, by the time we got there her fever was gone! She was fine on Friday (although that was one of MY low days) and we finally had our many times delayed big family gathering. It was very nice, and much more relaxing for me than it would have been at my house, thanks to the love and sacrifice of my wonderful parents. On Saturday, my dad even took care of the kids while Mom and I went to a movie!! It wasn't as relaxing for Stephen, who only stayed one day and night because of our animals. But the children and I were there for three days and three nights.

The year ended quietly for us. Stephen was home, and I was at my parents'. We were all tired, so did not do anything special. But for me it was lovely... a clean house, a quiet room, time to read. These are great joys for me, so 2006 rang in in peace, and with a loving phone call with my sweet husband at midnight.

I am looking forward to another year of adventures!