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Archive for February, 2012

Tuesday, February 28:

Some weeks are just busier than others.

We can find no website anywhere to address the question of whether a cow might be allergic to kelp.  People may be allergic to kelp, and people may be allergic to cows, but no one seems to have wondered whether a cow may be allergic to kelp.

We are wondering.

Dried Icelandic kelp mixed with diatomaceous earth is a mineral supplement we provide our cattle, offering it free choice in a box attatched to the wall in the lounging stall.  Thursday about three oclock we refilled that box.

Thursday night Isabel’s face was so swollen her eyes were almost shut, and her udder was too swollen to let the milk come down the teats.  Her temperature was normal, her breathing slow but not rasping, and she was steady on her feet, but clearly she had encountered something her body was telling her to reject.

It is too early for stinging insects, and anyway, how many bees would have to sting her face to get it to swell to such proportions?  There are no young nettles in the patch at the bottom of the field where in spring we will cut them for nettle soup; anyway, they mostly grow on the other side of the barbed wire.  Speculation surged this way and that, but always it ended with the kelp.

Because she was just fine before we filled that box.

Whatever might be the cause, the cure would just be time.  She wasn’t in respiratory distress, she didn’t seem to have a gastric trouble, she just couldn’t see, and couldn’t let down her milk.  That should right itself in time, so we shut her in the barn and we expected her to be much better in the morning.  Which she was.

And at noon she was down in the field and couldn’t get up again.

This is a long story.

Do you have time?

Picture a cow on a magic carpet made of a truck tarp, two logging chains, and three comealongs, being inched into the barn where we can throw a sling over one of the beams in the loft and winch her bony behind up off the ground.  Picture getting a little careless loading the logging chains into the car – okay, we weren’t going far but those chains weigh about seventy-five pounds – and tapping the rear windshield with an iron hook, at which point the rear windshield shatters in to about six million pieces.  Picture driving an hour through gale force winds and pelleted snow to fetch a hip lift – a clamp for cow backsides – from the vet, with trees crashing down on the road in front of us (this part is only a slight exaggeration).

Picture getting the cow in the lift and cranking her off the ground, only to have her hang there like a bag of bones and fermented grass, determined not to carry her own weight.  Picture doing this more than once.  Up at the house S-4 is dying on the sofa after a quadrilateral tooth extraction, while the D’s, ages ten and seven, watch with their fingers in their mouths.  No one has eaten lunch, and pretty soon no one will have eaten dinner (that’s only a slight exaggeration too).

Abandoning her on a thick bed of straw with feed, hay, and water in easy reach, we return to the house, dispense narcotics to the dying son, eat potato soup, and seek counsel.  Isabel is not about to, and has not recently, calved, making it very unlikely that she has milk fever, but the sovereign remedy for a cow down with milk fever – which Isabel almost certainly has not got – is an IV of calcium gluconate right in the jugular vein, and we happen to have a 500 mil bottle of calcium gluconate.  We turn to the internet for a tutorial.

Did you ever run a jugular IV on a cow?  You take a long horse needle and jab it straight into the turgid bulging vein which you are pinching to bring it up, and you know you’re in because blood goes squirting everywhere.  You attach to it a long, flexible tube connected to your bottle of calcium and then you stand there for ten minutes trying to watch the little bubbles going into the air intake and make sure you don’t slay your cow by giving her intravenous calcium too fast.

It’s very empowering.

Then you go away thinking what a joke that all was, because it didn’t do any good last time she was down – oh, yes, she’s done this before – and you go to bed and dream all night of cows and magic carpets.

But in the morning the cow was up.

It’s insane, but randomness is one of the things that makes this job so fullfiling.

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Monday, February 20:

   The moon is nearly dark, and day after tomorrow is Ash Wednesday.

Last Thursday the mild weather – forties – gave us an opportunity to clean out the chicken house.  Three inches of sawdust on the floor had frozen in the cold nights so that the hens could no longer stir the litter, and manure had caked on the surface.  Hens perching on top of the broody boxes left an inch of manure up there, too, and the nesting boxes needed new straw.  Pushing a wheelbarrow was a beastly chore, especially in four inches of thawed mud and uphill, but we hauled out the shovels and forks.  In the bottom nesting box a small hen was couched down in a circle of straw; her beady eye and quivering wattles reminded me of Mrs. Wallace, my fourth grade homeroom teacher, reprimanding whisperers around the SRA box.  Established in due course in one of the broody boxes, she immediately began making a nest, and accepted ten eggs without hesitation.  Today is day five of what appears to be consistent brooding of the eggs.

Eleven hours of daylight mean more eggs in the nests the last week or two.  From a tantalizing three or four a day in December, we are now achieving a not-to-be-despised twenty or so average per day.  Once we raised only Rhode Island Reds, heavy layers of large brown eggs; at the moment our flock has representatives of at least five breeds of chicken, including one Brown Leghorn, one Comet, maybe nine Speckled Sussex, and about a dozen Black Australorps, in addition to the Reds – and I may have missed one or two odd ones.  That’s what happens when you take in the orphaned and the homeless.  Livestock breeders frown upon such cavalier cross-breeding, but if the Sussex hen who is setting — now on eleven eggs — will hatch out some of them, I will feel one step closer to success, cross-breeds or no.  We would like to declare our independence from the hatcheries and their incubators.

This could be a success.

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Tuesday, February 7:

Saturday’s snow lingers only on the shady side of rail fences and fallen trees, or as a soft slump carpeting the north-facing slope of the south hill pasture.  Just by raising our eyes from the dishes we can trace the contour lines, black wanderings across a white ground, laid down across the face of the hill by the cows’ unerring instinct for the level path; like the lines on a topographical map these trails, by their close proximity one to the other, show the extreme steepness of our pasture.  No one except the farmer who had nowhere else would have attempted to use this place for animals; yet, having nowhere else, we find that it will indeed pasture our livestock, and they, and the grass species, are thriving.  We want it to be known that if we can do it here, it can be done almost anywhere.

Another trip to the mill to purchase feed for the pigs up at the neighbors’; by March, when we are planning to butcher, those pigs may be absolutely enormous.  By contrast the home pigs, which receive cooked slops, dairy waste, and bakery scraps, continue to grow at a steady, moderate pace.  The baby bull is again the subject of discussion:  the girls want to keep him in the bottom of the white barn, where they have been giving him a half-gallon of milk a day and making a pet of him, while Papa thinks he is ready to go out with the other animals and rustle grub for himself.  Baby Belle, the young cow who is supposed to replace Isabel this year, is an aggressive pasture mate, and the boys, in a move unusual to them, are backing up the girls. They will probably win this one.

As the days grow longer the chickens lay a few more eggs every day, and wander farther from their chicken house to scratch.

The fan on the furnace is finally working, and the house is now almost too warm.

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Saturday, February 4:

After little back-and-forthing at the breakfast table over the question of whether or not the mud in the barnyard was too deep for pushing a wheelbarrow full of manure and straw through it to the compost bins, some of the men donned insulated overalls and muck boots and cleaned out the pig pens.  By Mom’s – head gardener’s – request, they forked the soiled bedding into the furthest north of the compost bins, layering it in with the dryer waste hay from the little bull’s stall.  That stall had not been cleaned for some weeks, and the baby bull had been gazing phlegmatically at passers-by from an increasingly elevated position, until his cud-chewing was about at the level of a tall man’s ear.  Father finally insisted that his bed – which was dry and clean, just for the record, or we’d have changed it sooner – be lowered a couple of feet.  The pigs at Barry’s had to be tidied up as well, and, analogously, indoors the weekly cleaning of bathrooms and bedrooms occupied the morning.  After lunch we spent several hours in the woodshed, docking the long pieces of firewood so they will fit in the short firebox of the new wood furnace, and out in the garage cajoling the small tractor to run.

We ventured out this afternoon in a thick, smothering snowfall to renew our stock of wheat flour, apples, chocolate chips, and vanilla extract, and to collect those items requisite for our annual post-solstice bacchanal: avocadoes — which, we give thanks, were only forty-nine cents apiece — Mexican imported beer, frozen orange juice for smoothies, and crunchy dills.  Tomorrow six-thirty pip emma Eastern Standard Time will find us lined up five on the sofa, two perching on the arms, and three on the floor, bathing our faces in the light of a lap-top screen like Neanderthals crouched around a cave fire, or characters from Dickens driven from their homes and living under a bridge, gathered around a fire of broken staves in a trash barrel, warming their cracked hands and rejoicing that cruel poverty, although it may reduce them to begging our bread in the streets, cannot tear their family bonds asunder.

In other words, we will be watching the Super Bowl.

We live astraddle two cultures, one foot on the gas pedal of our battered F-one-fifty and the other ankle-deep in oozy barnyard.  Hauling a stock trailer two hours away to purchase a new Jersey cow, we make a clandestine halt at a truck stop to buy sixty-nine cent, forty-four ounce soda pops, and revel in the rattle of crushed ice.  After working all summer long in the sun and heat, when winter comes we hibernate with our books and pencils and musical instruments , venture muffled into the mud and snow to move firewood or repair a tractor or tend to the unvarying round of  chores, and in the evening check out the local library’s hesitant copy of Patton to enjoy George C. Scott’s portrayal of that man of the hour.  We absorb the culture of Hank the Cowdog as we absorb our organic, grass-fed meats and dairy products, pastured chicken eggs, and fresh-from-the-garden vegetables.

We may occasionally feel stretched by the tension between our cheap twenty-first century extravagances and the rhythm and beat of a pattern of life essentially unchanged for some thousands of years.  After a Sunday afternoon in Heinz Hall among the fashionable folk of Pittsburgh, the heaps of muddy boots in our entry can jar upon the sensibilities for a moment; but we live in a pleasant equilibrium of blessings.  The principles by which we try to direct our lives are catholic, inclusive, welcoming good where it is to be found, but committed to the demands of our farm and the tenets of our beliefs about the eternal.  Living so may sometimes be like trying to cross a stream by leaping from stone to stone, earnestly hoping the piranhas are lunching somewhere else today, but to be human in brotherhood with humanity requires that we grope in the mud while we aspire to the divine.

It is not, at any rate, boring.

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warm days

Wednesday, February 1:

The electric company man came a week ago to hook up the barn to the power pole in the pasture; from the house S-4, confined to quarters with a case of the ‘flu, watched the bandit back his truck up to the fence, take out a large pair of cutters, and sever all five strands of our banjo-tight barbed wire fence.  This, when there was a gate only twenty-five feet away.  Steeper, less direct, but a gated way, and the criminal cuts our fence like a cattle rustler.  S-4, watching from the window, vaccillated between wondering if he was experiencing a fever-induced delirium, and fetching a shotgun.  Fever finally won; he went back to bed, and the power company man never knew how close he came to featuring as the party of the second part in a case of justifiable homicide.  Thus we got power in the big barn.

The last two days have been unseasonably warm for this unseasonably warm winter.  School books lay abandoned on the playroom floor, and the house was unusually quiet.  The Father and such sons as could avoid academic work escaped to the outdoors, got the fence charger wired into the big barn, and repaired the breaker to the root cellar.  S-6, who is four, mildly requested that someone turn the basement light on for him; a long silence ensued, and investigation finally discovered him down at the culvert on North creek with his fishing pole, wetting a line.  The girls tied baling twine to Bridget’s bridle and rode her up and down the lane and the hill until dark; Mom went down the garden to plant the Jerusalem artichokes that should have gone in the ground in October, stayed to turn the compost bins, and only returned to the house at five o’clock to cook a belated and abbreviated dinner.  It was a day out of April, and no one was willing to let it go uncelebrated.

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