Wednesday, July 30, 2008

On on a More Cheery Note....

We had a great mini-vacation. Not a "stay-cation" exactly but a "stay-nearby-cation". We went camping and exploring and hunting for Herkimer diamonds, and we had a great time. (Little did we know things were going to hell in a worm-basket back home.)
Thought I'd put a couple non-sheep-related pictures up after that last miserable post.

Six Sick Sheep

Well, really there are just three. But when you come back from a teeny tiny four-day camping vacation to a flock that-- yet again!-- chose that very same span to do something unexpected... and this is your first real go round with the dreaded barber pole worm it might as well be six sick sheep. Hell, it might as well be the whole flock.

I cannot fully describe how rotten it feels to find a couple of lambies dull, slow and saggy with bottle jaw. (Bottle jaw is a swelling (edema) caused by a heavy parasite load. Basically, the barber pole worms nestled in the poor little guys' stomachs are sucking them dry.

And just this weekend, while toasting a marshmallow to perfection around our campfire, I remarked to Dan that we were "really lucky" that we hadn't had any serious parasite issues and that some "other" shepherds were losing lambs left and right due to the miserable weather pattern. (Well I didn't say "left and right" exactly, but I was a bit too smug. That's for sure.)

Now, we've been very conservative with our worming regimen. We don't want to dose the sheep so fervently that we evolve strains of super-resistant parasites. We use the FAMACHA method to determine which sheep to worm and when. We rotate pastures as much as is possible on our little spread, and we worry. (Well, I worry. Dan says "Worrying is just praying for something you don't want to happen." Of course, he's right. And of course, I worry anyway...)

Until now, we've gotten away with a few doses of Ivermectin at the height of the season. (Ivermectin, one of the weaker dewormers, is the "first defense".) But a year ago, I stocked up on 10 doses of the more powerful Levamisole to keep in reserve. You hear enough barber pole worm horror stories and you start to wonder...

So anyway.... we returned home late Monday night, the kids all asleep in the back of the van after a busy, Adirondack day, and I ran down to the barn to check on the sheep. Everything seemed fine at first, oh they were LOUD (Never a good sign...) but nothing seemed amiss.

Then I noticed "Clowny Boy" hanging back. Not terribly unusual. Lambs will do that in a crowd. I was just about to head inside when he turned and I caught sight of the wobbly "jowls" that had sprouted under his chin. Although I had never seen bottle jaw in person, I knew it immediately, and my heart sunk. I trudged up to the house for my Levamisole reserves.

Dan had already tucked the kids in, so the two of us headed back to worm Clowny Boy. It wasn't hard to catch him, and being the sweet-natured little guy he is, he took his dose of Levamisole, his selenium/e gel and his quadruple squirt of Nutridrench in stride. It was all-but-the-kitchen-sink time at Maggie's Farm.

It was also about eleven-thirty by then. But we thought we better have a look at the other lambs, and sure enough, Champ had the tell tale jowls as well. And his sister Carlotta had a budding lump that could have developed into the condition as well..... Ugh!

Shepherding is all about taking care and when-- for whatever reason-- your shepherding leads to this kind of thing, it is heartbreaking. Truly. I believe we have a good program here, a careful worming regimen that includes minerals and supplements and the types of things that help sheep fight off this sort of horror. But lambs are most vulnerable, not having developed the tolerance of adult sheep and requiring more protein for growth. And this season has been a miserable combo of heat and rain-- perfect conditions for a storm of parasites.

I slept on and off that night, dreaming sick and dead lambs. At one point, I phased into logy half-sleep, convinced we should give up the flock entirely. At another, I imagined converting into "Maggie's Poultry Farm" because, my dozing mind believed, "Turkeys don't get sick and die". When six o'clock rolled around and I climbed out of bed, I fully expected to find a couple of dead lambs in the barn.

Clowny was noticeably better though, and Carlotta seemed fine. And Champ? Well, he still looked a mess. But in the bright-shiny sheep-not-dead morning, I didn't feel as inclined to give up the farm thing. But I did feel clueless.

I called Barb Webb (always amazingly helpful) and she gave me a (small) list of additional supplies. We were to build a creep so that the lambs could be supplemented with grain while their mamas remained outside. We were to try a little soybean meal. We were to keep on keepin' on.

That night (Once it was cool enough to work the sheep) we re-checked the flock and wormed a little more aggressively than we had in the past. Some didn't need it and some did, and we will continue to be vigilant and wait out the dog days of summer, hoping that this will be the last barber pole emergency we see for a while. In times like this, I recall some more experienced farmer once telling me "Where there's LIVEstock, there's DEADstock." Shepherding, as I said, is all about taking care. But it is also about living a bit closer to this very type of hard reality, about knowing death as well as birth, about risks and careful minimization of risks.

Sheep get sick. Perhaps we'll get used to it. But then again, do we want to?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


We "processed" our eleven "meat birds" last weekend. Processing, being a bloodless euphemism for a rather bloody and primordial deed. A fairer description would go something like "We killed, plucked and gutted" our bunch of meat birds last weekend. ("Meat birds" being something of a euphemism as well. By "meat birds" I mean disgusting barely-avian bundles of flesh lying about in their food troughs.)

Oy. The whole business is an unpleasant one. ("Unpleasant" being a euphemism for...)

I thought I ought to write something of a description of this activity -- one of the most basic and least familiar of farm tasks because it is another one of those steps in a certain direction. If you don't care for the semi-gory details, you may want to skip this post.

We humans have grown very good at avoiding this stuff. It scares us (It IS scary) and saddens us (It IS sad) and so, we leave the slaughter to someone else (Often a large, corporate someone else). This seems to work pretty well. How many people take a moment to contemplate the steer who made their McDonald's burger possible or the factory-raised "C" in their bucket of KFC? There is a serious, and wholly unnatural disconnect. You can see this when people get all squeamish about the process; who really wants to know?

But here's my feeling: If you can't bear to think about it, don't contribute to it.

That's where the meat birds come in. I do have a problem with corporate meat. I don't want my eating habits to contribute to suffering and mistreatment and greed. But this is a meat eating family (I WAS a vegetarian for ten years but then I met Dan etc, etc...) and so, meat birds.

If we eat meat, we reasoned, we should be connected to the process, involved with the process at a literal gut level, elbow deep in the process.

In nine weeks, the meat birds had gone from cute fuzzy to obscenely, unnaturally obese. They flopped about and ate and ate and had, as I mentioned in a previous post, no quality of life whatsoever. I thought this would make it easier to kill them, and it probably did.

As is often the case on Maggie's-farm-for-sheer-and-often-clueless-novices, we read up before we started. Dan has a great big "Storeys Basic Country Skills" book and he kept it close as he built a little chicken gallows (No, we didn't hang the chickens in the classic sense) and set a pot on the fire (for scalding) and set up a wax paper covered "work area".

The book said to use a traffic cone. We were to place each chicken in the upside-down traffic cone and then poke them in the brains with a sharp knife. We debated stealing the traffic cone from up the road (The town road crew had added some fill when a section had sort of collapsed in the heavy rains). But however much our college-aged selves had delighted in such hijinks, our middle aged chicken slaughtering selves thought it didn't seem ethical, with the town is such financial troubles. So we settled for a feed bag with a hole cut in one corner.

My sister, brother-in-law and two young nephews came over to help. (Lisa also thought it might be a good idea to get a "sense of the process" too... Yup. Same crazy family, what can I say?) So, while 5 children milled around, we grabbed our first chicken... Well, Dan did. The rest of us could have continued chatting, er, um, "getting ready" for another hour or two.

He carried it upside-down, which seemed to relax it (Chickens sort of immobilize upside-down) and then into the sack it went. I tell you that chicken was a great deal calmer than we were. And so he poked the brain and slit the throat to bleed it out.
The legs kicked a little -- a lot.

"That's nerves, right? Just nerves?" was about all I could manage then. And yes it was.

And then "IT" was over.

We dipped the chicken in the hot water, plucked and cooled and Lisa, brave soul that she is, did some gutting. And "it" went on like that eleven times over.

Processing the chickens was NOT fun. It was bloody and strange and just what it was. But we set our minds, and now we have quite a few humongo chickens in our freezer and won't have to contribute to some Tyson conglomerate somewhere. But would I do it all again next year. I don't really know.

I am still processing it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Here a Chick, Where a Chick...?

We've been talking about adding on an extra bedroom since we moved to Maggie's Farm. But did we put any of our well-talked-over plans into action? Nope. Reality is, it could be years. Really, years before our three kidsmove out of their shared bedroom. But our chickens.. our chickens don't have to wait that long; they got brand new digs this week.

The project involved a lot of backstraining labor (Dan's), a good, if disgusting, clean-out of the old coop (Dan and I) and a lot of semi-productive exploratory play (The kids.... mostly.. and Dan).

The completion of our new super cooper coop is just in the nick of time. This last month has marked the first clear case of predation... well probable predation... we've encountered on Maggie's Farm.

Truth be told our record's not a bad one. The neighbors on both sides have had their flocks wiped out by "fishercats" (This is the local term for the fisher, one of the larger members of the weasel family), and we sometimes hear "Coydogs" in the lot next door ("Coydog" is a local term for the coyote, one of the wild mambers of the canid clan). We've seen skunk, possum and least weasel and plenty of hawks. (Alas, no "local names" for these critters.) And we've heard tell of brazen Hilltown foxes that strut out into chicken yards in broad daylight. But before now, we'd been relatively blessed.

I always suspected that Maggie kept the varmints away. After all, she spends half the day pacing the perimeter of the pasture and yard, encircling the fowl in a doggy-smelling zone of safety. But our barn-dwelling adolescent chicks have been disappearing at a steady rate, one here, one there, a few more here.

It could be a hawk or a fox. It could be the night-prowling weasel or aformentioned fishercat. Perhaps little tiny hungry aliens are beaming them up.

But-- and here's the rub-- we suspect the culprit may be none other than Maggie herself! Now, Maggie, our beloved border collie and farm namesake, is not the violent type. Nor is she given to fits of canine silliness. Generally, Maggie is dead serious, as OCD as the next working dog and spot-on honest (Yes, dogs can be honest...) But, poor thing, Maggie has a weakness for the herky-jerky flutter of adolescent poultry. Last year, she did in some guineas. Also (Oh, I hate to admit this...) she enjoyed a deadly romp through my nephews' sweet little hand-raised adolescent flock. So yes-- shame!-- Maggie is indeed a suspect.

At any rate, we've taken the typical precautions: kept an eye on Maggie (Notice the chain and guilty look in the photo). We've kept a light on in the barn, an eye on the skies. But the durn chicks keep disappearing. It's quite disheartening. Yesterday, it was Amelia, the beautiful little buff Minorca... without a trace.

So... the new coop. Our greatly diminished flock is now hunkered down inside a super duper new coop. And they even have a smaller and VERY secure little pen to explore.

Whatever is happening to the little guys. It will stop here and now. Okay? Please?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Kid's Eye View

This post is not exactly farm-related, but I thought I'd put it up here anyway. Mainly because we have a "guest photographer" today, one who has opened my eyes a bit, and because I love these pictures!

Micah (our oldest) has been really interested in the blog lately, so after much pleading and promising on her part and a solemn pledge to take VERY GOOD CARE of the camera, she took off on a farm photo expedition.

She snapped some wonderful pictures, pictures of the chicks and turkeys, the garden, her brother, but the most unexpected photos were of... me.

Me, looming like a giant, hands on hips, probably in the middle of some sort of motherly rant (Okay, I don't really "rant" very often. But it's a sure bet I was reminding somebody of something...)

This moment ranks low in my memory but to my kids, obviously it is meant a little more. We are so much more powerful in our childrens' eyes than we ever feel we are. I look at these photos and I am reminded to take care, to be thoughtful in my responses and gripes and general parental nagging, to be true to my best self in this most important endeavor.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Here's the Coop

With all the POULTRY happening around Maggie's Farm this year, the old coop is looking pretty puny.

It's fine right now, adequate anyway, as our original flock is out "free ranging" all day, and the new chicks are isolated in the barn and sheep pasture. But come winter and 30 some mature birds, the old coop will not cut it.

And, I don't know if it's true of all chickens, but ours don't do snow. More than a dusting, and they'll just stand in the open doorway of the coop and pace and look... and look and pace and look some more for good measure. The brave girls who do venture out inevitably become stranded in snowbanks. They'll just stand there slowly lifting one cold little foot and then the other-- all day if you let them-- unable to lurck back to the shelter of the coop on their own. Oh, we rescued more than a few stranded chickens that first winter! Then we took to locking them up.

So the expanded flock will get some expanded digs. If we get really fancy, we might make a sheltered chicken wire run for them.

Lucky for me, Dan likes building. He enjoys the puzzle of it, I suspect, the coop growing almost organically from his mulling and pacing and staring at the empty spot on which it will appear. The kids have been interested in the process this time around. And I'm glad to see it. I was afraid the girls might catch my tool-o-phobia. Yup, I'm pretty... well, VERY... clueless when it comes to building and I didn't want them to think this was some sort of feminine trait. "Yes honey, women CAN build stuff... Women DO build stuff.... well, no, not this woman.... (I know, I have to get over this. And one of these days, maybe I will.)

Anyway, here's the crew helping out.

I'll post a finished photo of the new and improved coop this weekend (With luck and good weather, of course!)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Jaguar Has two Mommies

This is "Little Jaguar", one of the four naturally-brooded chicks that appeared in our coop last month. As you may recall, Jaguar and his two siblings were brooded by our dominant and determined hen, Chicklee. Java, a second broody, hatched a fourth chick about a day later.

But Java never quite got the hang of mothering. She alternately pecked and overprotected the little guy, and in a few days, her chick disappeared. (I tried to snatch him up to raise in the house but he was so vehemently and LOUDLY distraught that I returned him.) I spent a very sad and regretful evening searching the brush around the chicken coop while Java, apparently the last to know, continued to coo and cluck and generally act as if she had her babe at her side. It took a few days for the disappearance to sink in. When the imaginary chick thing finally wore thin, Java began tailing Chicklee and her little brood.

Chicklee wasn't so keen on this at first, and the two squabbled and puffed, but then some light went on in Chicklee's dim (though charming) chicken brain, and she decided that yes, another Mommy was just what her little family needed after all.

The pair are inseparable now. They mirror each other's actions. If Chicklee preens, Java preens as well. If Java scratches in the bare patch under the raspberry bushes, Chicklee is scratching right beside her. The two fend off other hens and keep careful tabs on their brood.

Perhaps Chicklee's mothering skills rubbed off on poor Java or perhaps her own long delayed little light bulb finally blinked on. Whatever the case, I love watching the little family strut around the yard. They range far and wide, venturing together where a single mama hen would not dare to tread. It is a surprisingly beautiful happy ending, a small victory snatched from what appeared to be an utter defeat. Yup, Jaguar has two Mommies and we are all the better off for it.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Stubborn Beauty*

(*I'm channeling my inner 23 year old hipster today)

This week we've had what our weather radio terms an "unsettled weather pattern". I'm not sure what meteorologists mean by this term, but to me it means an ever-changing sky, a sky that breathes and heaves and thumps and sparks and, sometimes, practically dances across the horizon, wind gusts that are so specific you can step into them as if you are wading a stream, darkness at noon, walls of rain, sudden epiphanies of sun.

Driving back and forth the state has been a bit of a treat these days. Okay, perhaps this is just a bit of exaggeration.... But I love watching the shifting clouds and colors on the roadway before me, moving in and out of weather, searching out the storm in one distant spot on a big, big horizon.

I don't believe that this weather is native to New England. To me, it seems vaguely southern or perhaps western, even, where the sweep and spanse of the land so complements a vitality of sky and wind.

I've lived in many different parts of the country and in every place, people say "If you don't like the weather, just stick around a minute an' it'll change." Not usually true, that one. But lately, Colrain's usually stubborn and stolid weather has taken flights of fancy!