Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Drove of Daves

We took the plunge last weekend. And a serious plunge it was at that. On Saturday, Dan and I took a rare-- very rare-- kidless morning and drove our minivan up to Vermont to pick up three piglets. We'd thought long and hard about the "pig thing", more than we usually manage for all the impromptu livestock and plantings around here. We understand that this particular "pig thing" is irrevocable. These piglets are barrows (castrated males) and there is no other end point here. They are to feed us, and our extended family and friends. I'm sure I will write a lot more about this-- the hard parts, the better-than-factory-farm parts, but today, I'm going for light, a sort of "I went to Vermont and all I got was these lousy pigs" sort of thing.

So.... it was a beautiful spring day. We took off (kidless!) with high hopes and dog crate full of old hay and not much else. We were giddy and expectant. Our children were elsewhere. We'd had a lot of coffee and not much sleep. It was like a skewed farmy version of a date.

We found and picked up the piglets, warned by the woman who raised them that the "pig stink" will stay in our van for a really long time and on our hands and clothes too, no matter how often or well we wash. We saw several humongous pigs at the pig place. (Dan hadn't really had a chance to see a full grown pig before. He was pretty astounded. And not in an entirely good way. They are, after all, really REALLY big animals...and the pigs, I should note, were my crazy idea.)

Anyway, the little guys fit in the dog crate. They were quiet on the drive back. So quiet, we had lots of time to think about the new animals we'd taken into in our lives and all the complications that might go with them. By the time we unloaded the crate in our newly created "pig area", we were feeling a bit of trepidation. The piglets were too. They stayed in the crate.
By then we were late for our kid pick up and took off for an evening little league baseball game.

Not an auspicious start to the Maggie's Farm pig enterprise.
But it was like Christmas morning around here on Sunday. We all got up and tiptoed out to the barn in our pajamas to check out the piglets in the cool clear (rainy) light of day. They were out, and terrified of us... for about two seconds! Once the little guys figured out we came with offerings of yogurt, french toast and banana, they were all over us, nuzzling boots and sampling flannel pajama sleeves. Then they romped a bit (Yes, pigs romp!) and chowed down some more and then romped and the kids (and Dan and I too) fell in love with them.

Pigs (So far....) are awesome. They are a lot more easygoing than sheep, that's for sure, with simple, predictable needs (pretty much just food and sleep) and it is truly a joy to watch them eat. (I can't explain this. You'll just have to get a couple of pigs and see for yourself.)

Beforehand, we'd talked a lot about NOT naming the piglets. We'd been told-- several times-- that this makes the slaughter part easier and planned on a simple "Pig 1", "Pig 2" and "Pig 3" system. That was chucked pretty much immediately. Joe, a certain Dr. Suess story about Mrs. McGraves who named all her sons Dave" fresh in his mind, suggested Dave, and we all thought that could work. We'd name the piglets all "Dave"! Of course, they quickly distinguished themselves. And now we have "Scratchy Dave", "Pointy Dave" and "Stubby Dave". A drove (The term for a group of pigs) of Daves, as it were.

For all you readers who want a little farming information with your effusive piglet descriptions, the Daves are all Tamworth/Glouchester Old Spot crosses. We are feeding them a mix of grain, cafeteria leavings, vegetables and dairy products from a local store. They are not as hard to keep in as we'd been led to believe (So far) and they are very, very cool.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Cast and Call

I learned about trusting my instincts this week. Unfortunately, it took a near-tragedy to do it.

It all started the night before last, about 20 minutes after midnight. I'd woken up suddenly with "check-the-sheep-check-the sheep" circling in my brain. We have a baby-monitor out in the barn in case the three lagging (huge) ewes left to lamb finally decide to get it over with. But there were no lambing sounds. It was cold. I had to wake up in 3 1/2 hours to go to work and I didn't want to trudge out there, find the sheep fine and dandy, and lie awake for my last three hours of precious-before-an-extra-hectic-day sleep. So I ignored my gut feeling, rolled over and went to back to sleep.

I got up at 4 (My usual workday routine) and went down to check on the sheep (Not part of the usual routine). At first it seemed things were fine. I easily spotted all three pregnant ewes grazing in the new pasture we'd just opened for them. And there were the lambs, as usual, clustered in their little "gang of four". I was about to head back up to the house when I heard this awful, continuous wheezing.

It was then that I found Acorn (Our lovely, friendly, favorite ewe Acorn) about 50 yards away. Upside down with all four feet and a full udder in the air. This, in sheep lingo, is called "cast". Acorn was a "cast ewe", which means she somehow got stuck that way. Now, it may seem silly (and certainly non adaptive!) that a sheep could lie down for a nap, roll the wrong direction and due to a dip in the Earth beneath her, or a fence beside her or whatever, find herself stuck like a turtle. But it is not a laughing matter. Acorn's lungs were being squashed by the weight of her prodigious belly for however long she'd been like this and, perhaps even worse, she'd eaten a meal of fresh grass, the digestion of which was stopped by the sudden "turn" of events and had gagged green foam and aspirated it into her squashed lungs.

I did one of those "Mother lifts Volkswagen to save baby" maneuvers, jumped through the fence and hauled her right side up before I thought about it. Poor Acorn was wheezing and choking, shaky and bloated. I thought for sure she was a goner.

I ran back to the house to wake Dan and then did some quick research on what to do. (It is an unfortunate aspect of shepherding that however much you read beforehand, you only truly "know" what to do when you've been through the wringer on one emergency or another. I'd read about "cast sheep" before, but I needed to review. On the bright side-- I will know what to do for cast ewes from here on out. The information is IN there for good now-- indelibly so.)

Anyway, we rubbed her rumen to get it working again-- she had bloat from being cast (Our first bout of bloat in 3 1/2 years of sheep!) and that was about all we could do. After a few hours, Acorn was back out with her woolly brethren. Today, she seems fine.

We are not out of the woods yet. There is a chance that she will get secondary pneumonia from all that extra fluid in her lungs, or some sort of infection due to her weakened state. But if I had gone to work without the barn check the way I usually do, she'd likely have been dead by the time Dan made it out at 7.

Then again, If I had honored the call of my subconscious, that little "check the sheep" nudge, we might all have been spared a horrific morning and a lot of wait-and-see worry. I have to trust myself a little more, I guess.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Rainy Day. Armful of eggs. Dog underfoot. Muddy slope.

Sad but predictable....

Friday, May 1, 2009

Sheep's Eye View

We are experiencing a welcome lull in lambing. Three girls done, three to go, but none planning to go anytime soon by the looks of it. So I'm taking a teeny break from cute lamb pictures (They ARE so cute, now, aren't they? I go down to feed and water and spend a half hour just gazing at them.... Okay, okay, enough with the lambs!)

Anyway, we've moved the three boys (Charlie, Clowny Boy, and Rahm) out to an inconvienient spot. It's just far enough into the pasture for me to have to climb over the ewe's fence and truck water buckets across and and over another fence. It's no big deal really, but the dogs-- both intense little herding beasties-- go NUTS when I walk off into the pasture without them. They are positive that I am going to need them out there.

I thought I'd try to capture a sheep's eye view of this twice daily drama.

I should also mention that Maggie (Our 12 year old farm namesake and one of the most sheep-obsessive border collies on the planet) does this sort of laser beam stare thing pretty much all day long whether I am in the pasture or not.

Luka (Our cheeky little Icelandic sheepdog) is satisfied to lick the sheep's faces and nibble gently at their horns when I am not walking off to "work" without her. I think she secretly likes them.

The Maggie's farm flock are a tolerant bunch, and-- being Icelandic sheep-- even the lambs are not in the least intimidated. Here two week old Dodge gives Luka the hairy eyeball.