04 December 2014

Not Such a Bummer

Raise sheep or goats long enough, and you're sure to get the occasional "bummer" --- a newborn which, for whatever reason, doesn't get nursed by his or her own mother. Any time we have lambs or goat kids, we pay close attention to the bond the newborn is developing with Mom. The overwhelming majority of the time, things work out great. But when they don't, it's important to have the bottles and nipples ready.

The Sunday before Thanksgiving (November 23), we came home from a day with relatives to discover a newborn goat kid in the barn. His mother goat had licked him off, and he was perfectly dry. That's usually a good sign. He was up and moving around nicely - another good sign. He was quite large, and beautiful. We didn't actually see him nurse, but he seemed content. For her part, the mother seemed to be doing fine as well. It was her first kidding, and she seemed to have taken it in stride. Other than what appeared to be a little bit of afterbirth protruding from her rear end, she looked no different than she had that morning.

Monday morning, however, it was clear something wasn't right. The goat kid was bleating like he was hungry, and yet we couldn't get him fastened on to a nipple. His mother's udder was very full, another sign that he hadn't been nursing. Plus, Mom's "afterbirth" hadn't come out the rest of the way, so we gave it a closer look. It appeared that her birth canal had actually prolapsed somewhat during the delivery. We'd never had this happen before, to any of our sheep or goats, so it came as quite a surprise.

Concerned about infection, we immediately called the vet. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer arranged for the goat to be seen, and in the meantime Homeschooled Farm Girl milked all the colostrum out that she could. We took the goat kid to my office, and used a small syringe to squirt colostrum into his mouth. He was definitely hungry, and lapped the stuff up eagerly.

Given how nasty cold the weather was getting, we decided it would be best to leave the goat kid in my office for the time being.

The box proved a little small, but was a good try

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer took the mother goat to the vet, who diagnosed a prolapsed vagina. Fortunately, it was a fairly straightforward fix, and he said it shouldn't recur in future kiddings. He got everything put back in place, stitched it securely, and MYF drove the goat home.

We tried again to get the kid to nurse, but it clearly wasn't going to happen. Despite his obvious hunger, he wouldn't go on the teat. And Mom, for her part, didn't want to stand still for him anyway. With all the stress of birthing complications, and the trip to the vet, it appeared that their bond was permanently broken. Bummer.

Homeschooled Farm Girl again milked out all the colostrum she could; we put it in a bottle, and fed it to the kid in my office. He got the hang of the nipple right away, and sucked the stuff down with gusto. Our kids named him "Francesco," in honor of St. Francis, the patron saint of animals.

With the weather not looking any better, I didn't have the heart to leave Francesco out in the barn. My office building has an old vinyl floor, which has seen more pet accidents than I can count, and cleans up well enough. Besides, with two farm dogs and a cat already living out here...what difference would another little animal make? I decided to let him stay until he gets big enough to go all "mountain goat" on my furniture and/or starts leaving goat pellets all over the place. Then, he will get transitioned to the barn. We're hoping that being bottle-fed will make him more docile and manageable, and therefore a safer adult breeding buck to keep on the property long-term.

Three days old. Decided the collie was more comfortable than his box.


On Thanksgiving Day, he was only five days old. We were planning to be gone all day visiting family, which created a problem: Francesco would need to eat, and no one would be home to feed him. We decided to put him in a large box, and take him (and a quart of goat milk) with us.

Francesco proved to be a big hit at the family gathering, and one of our kids' cousins in particular really enjoyed holding him and getting a turn bottle feeding him. The rest of the time, he stood or slept securely in his box.

Back at home, he continued working to fit in with the the other denizens of my office building.

Floyd, the border collie, was the most welcoming


Tiger, the cat...not so much

By December 1st, at just over a week old, Francesco figured out how to climb onto the couch like the other pets do. He's not stupid. It's a lot more comfortable than the floor.


Tiger remained unimpressed

Floyd continues to treat him as just another member of the gang, and seems happy to keep serving as Francesco's pillow.


The Homeschooled Farm Children think it's great fun having a new pet. I designated the 12 year old as primary bottle-feeder; he needs to be reminded to take care of it, but he gets the job done. In the meantime, five-year-old Little Brother is eager to fill in any time we let him.


On a farm, it seems there's no shortage of opportunities for learning responsibility...even while having fun the whole time you're learning it.

As for me...it's kind of weird having a goat kid rummaging around in my trash can, pulling out pieces of paper, and nibbling them down. And I do need to keep a pile of old towels handy, for his inevitable piddle puddles.

The goat is more likely to eat your homework than the dog ever will be

But I have to admit, it's also a lot of fun having him around. He spends quite a bit of time at my feet, under the desk, on an old piece of carpet.

Technically speaking, I guess he'll always be a "bummer." But he definitely hasn't been one for our family.

14 October 2014

Needle in a Haystack

Has anything in your life, that seemed almost inconsequential at the time, come back 20+ years later as something with potentially enormous significance?

In 1992, I was less than a year out of college and settling in at my first real job. I was enjoying living on my own, and getting to know my way around Metro Detroit. Sometime early that year, our office building had the Red Cross in for a blood drive. I'd given blood on occasion in high school and college, and was comfortable with the process, so signed up for a slot and donated.

As I munched on the post-donation juice and cookies, I flipped through some brochures that had been put out from a related organization. This other group was building a registry of potential bone marrow donors; for a cancer patient with no compatible blood relatives --- especially full siblings --- available to donate, getting a hit through the registry could be their only hope. I honestly can't remember what in particular compelled me to fill out the form and apply to join the registry, but I did. I was most likely moved by the realization that I, having been adopted as an infant, almost certainly have no full blood siblings --- and certainly none that I knew of or could ever locate. I think that made it easy for me to empathize with the plight of someone in a similar situation. And, heck, let's face it: I was young and probably idealistic about potentially saving someone's life.

The registry deemed me healthy enough to join, and collected a small blood sample (they now use a cheek swab) to "type" me for the database. Human DNA has proteins called “Human Leukocyte Antigens,” or HLAs, attached to it. These HLAs serve as markers, to determine how good a match a potential donor is for a particular patient. There are a great many HLA markers --- but ten in particular that are especially important and that doctors examine to assess the degree of match. As I understand it, six (or three sets of two) of these are relatively easy and inexpensive to identify; these six are what go into each potential donor's registry record. When a patient needs a transplant, these basic six are used to greatly narrow the search. Anyone who makes the "short list" then submits a second blood sample and the expensive additional testing is done to identify his remaining four HLA markers. A donor and patient don't have to match on ten out of ten, but the more common markers they share, the more compatible their bodies are. And therefore the greater chance the patient's body will react well to the donor's tissue.

Two analogies, besides the obvious "needle in a haystack," come to mind: 

10 October 2014

Surprise Bonus!

Living on a farm, you never know when a curve ball will throw your whole day onto an unexpected trajectory. It could be the surprise arrival of a goat kid or lamb, especially one that needs human attention because the mother isn't doing her job. It could be the stupid goat that snaps a leg going over a fence. Or any number of other things.

Tuesday of this week, it was an early-morning collision on the road in front of our property. I was out in my office when I heard the sound of crunching metal. The dogs began barking, and I went to the window for a look. A car had stopped toward the western edge of our land, and two whitetail deer where headed across our hay field. The lead animal was bounding at full tilt, but the second one was hobbling badly. It wasn't hard to deduce what had happened.

Another vehicle stopped to assist the one that'd hit the deer, so I returned my attention to the hay field. It appeared that both animals were now long gone, but then I took a closer look. In fact, the trailing deer --- a doe --- had collapsed in the middle of the field. Her head would be visible for a few seconds at a time, struggling, before dropping below the tall grass. It was likely that the collision had broken some ribs, which had punctured a lung; it was how more than one of our beloved farm dogs had died over the years. I figured the humane thing to do would be to put her out of her misery.

I holstered a handgun, then pulled on my jacket and jogged out to the hay field. As I made my way toward the struggling animal, I noticed an older woman walking in from the road as she talked on a cell phone. She greeted me, and introduced herself as the driver of the car that'd hit the deer. She said she'd called the sheriff's department, and that a deputy would be coming to take the accident report and euthanize the deer. "They asked if I want the deer, and I don't," she added. "Do you?"

"Sure," I replied.

After trying to describe our location to the person on the other end of the line, the woman handed me the phone, and I told the dispatcher exactly what our address was. "I have a pistol and can put the deer down right now," I added.

"No, you can't!" the dispatcher replied. "You need to wait for the deputy." I was more than a bit taken aback by the dispatcher's emphatic tone, but on later reflection understood the policy better. Without an officer to confirm the circumstances of the situation, it would be easy for a poacher to shoot a deer and then later claim he was euthanizing an injured animal. He could even break one of the animal's legs, and/or a few ribs, to make the story more convincing.

I assured the dispatcher that I would wait for authorities to arrive, then handed the phone back to the driver. But as she gave her name and other information, euthanizing the deer became moot. The poor doe went into death throes, and flopped flat onto the hay field. The driver's voice broke with emotion, and could barely spell her own name for the dispatcher. I knelt and stroked the doe's neck and head as the animal expired --- even more as a gesture of comfort for the driver than for the deer.

Once she finished with the dispatcher, the woman returned to her car and I went back to the house. I got a large wheelbarrow, took it to the hayfield, and after quite a struggle managed to get the heavy doe into the wheelbarrow. I considered bleeding the animal out, but didn't want to risk having to explain a large knife wound to the officer. Instead, I simply wheeled the body up next to the woman's car, told her I'd return once the police arrived, and then went back to my office to wait.

I didn't realize the police had arrived until I looked up and saw the driver bringing the wheelbarrow down our driveway to back porch. I looked out to the road, and saw the patrol car now behind hers. Apparently, the officer had been satisfied with what he'd seen and no longer needed the deer's body. I grabbed my identification, and followed the woman back to her car. Her husband had also arrived, and the three of us stood around making small talk while the officer sat in his cruiser and worked on a computer. It was an unfortunate way to meet the neighbors (they lived just a couple of miles up the road from us), but I enjoyed getting to know them.

While we were talking, our oldest son came out to the road to see what was going on. He told me he'd seen the carcass in the wheelbarrow, and had thought one of our own goats --- one that indeed has coloration very similar to a deer's --- had died. I explained what'd happened, and assured him that all of our animals were fine. But it was still an amusing misunderstanding that injected some much-needed levity into an otherwise sad situation.

Eventually, the officer finished his work and gave me an official "Permit to Posses Deer or Bear." I thanked him, then said my good-byes to the woman and her husband. (Her car had substantial front end damage, but was fortunately still operational.)

Back at the house, I had a decision to make. Take the carcass to our butcher, and spend $60 or more having him process it? Or try my hand at carving it up myself? Although I butcher all of our poultry, and am not the least bit squeamish, I'd never attempted to butcher a mammal larger than a scrawny goat kid or lamb. In my mind, I guess large mammals had become something "I Can't Do," and that "Someone Else Has to Do For Me."

I was tired of thinking that way, and decided to treat this deer as a learning experience. Yeah, I would probably make some mistakes. But so what? It had cost us absolutely nothing. The whole thing was a pure bonus.

I left a message for a friend who has a lot more experience butchering deer, and who'd told me some time back that he'd be happy to teach me how to process a deer or goat. And then my oldest son and I got started as best we could. First, I got some heavy-duty baling twine, then cut holes near the each of the deer's rear ankles to string it through. While I hugged and hoisted the deer as high as I could, my son pulled the twine over a large beam in the downstairs part of our barn.

Problem is, though, that beam is only about seven feet off the ground. Even with the deer as high as I could string her, the head was still almost on the ground. Since I didn't have any other options at the moment, we got to work as best we could. First, I cut the head off to allow as much blood to drain. Then, in the time before our friend arrived, I managed to disembowel the animal and get all the guts / organs removed. There was a lot more material, but the process was similar enough to eviscerating a turkey or goose. The twelve-year-old joined us somewhere in the middle of this process, and the two boys thoroughly enjoyed identifying each of the body parts as they came out. We saved the heart and liver (which were HUGE compared to their poultry counterparts!), fed the lungs to the chickens and barn cats, and dumped everything else into an old feed bag for disposal.

Our friend got there soon after I cut the hide and began peeling it off the deer's hind legs and back like a sock. He'd brought a real block and tackle, which would work well using the rafters of our garage. He helped me cut the carcass down and move it, then he set up his hoist in the garage. A moment later, we lifted the remains of the deer into place. It still was a little lower than ideal, but a much better work space than the barn.

It took us about 45 minutes or so to finish skinning the deer and cut off the neck. We then flipped the carcass around the other way, so it was now hanging from the front legs. This let us remove large chunks of meat, and the hind quarters, and he showed me how to remove the tenderloins and back straps. We also got a good look inside the chest cavity, which confirmed my suspicions about how the deer died: several ribs on her right side were badly broken, which had most likely punctured her lung.

We put the meat in large food grade plastic bags, and stored them in a spare refrigerator. We made the mistake, however, of thinking the garage would remain cool enough to allow the fore quarters to hang and age for a couple of days. It was certainly cool enough at night (we even had our first frost early today), but the garage got warmer than expected during the daytime hours. When my neighbor returned this morning to help cut up the large pieces in the refrigerator, and to finish carving up the hanging carcass, we decided that the room-temperature meat would be more safely fed to the dogs. It just didn't smell or look quite right. He apologized, explaining that he'd never butchered a deer this early in the fall. I shrugged and assured him that what we had in the refrigerator (easily 25-30+ pounds) would be plenty. This was a learning experience, and I'd learned something important. Besides, with all the lambs and goat kids we're expecting to butcher this fall, I'm not sure how much spare freezer space we'll have anyway.

We spread the meat out on top of an old (dead) chest freezer that I've kept precisely for use as a butchering table. (We sanitized it with bleach water first, of course). We then cut up the large pieces of meat, filling gallon-sized Ziploc freezer bags about halfway each --- about the right amount of meat for a meal for our family. Since we'll end up simply throwing most of these in the Crock Pot, and then adding carrots and potatoes, I wasn't very particular about neatly slicing and packaging anything. Hunks of meat were fine. Finally, I took what was left on a rear shank and submerged it in a saltwater brine. I figure it'll make a really nice venison stew for our Sunday dinner this week. The Ziploc bags all went in the refrigerator to age for a few more days; I'll transfer them to the freezer this weekend.

And, in the meantime, I know the dogs will enjoy finishing up the fore quarters.

I can honestly say ... this is the first roadkill I've ever butchered. And the first that I'll be eating. I wouldn't have touched it had I not known its origins, and known personally how it died. But why let perfectly good and delicious venison go to waste?

Best part is: I was able to use this "bonus" carcass as a learning experience, without fear of ruining one of our perfect farm-raised animals. And, you know what the best thing is I've learned? Butchering a large mammal is now Something I Can Do.

27 June 2014

National 24-Hour Challenge 2014: Ride Report

Way off this blog's typical subject matter, but ultramarathon cycling has been a longtime passion of mine --- and in recent years has helped forge an important connection with my kids. Although it has nothing to do with farming, I wanted to share my "ride of a lifetime" experience participating in the National 24-Hour Challenge earlier this month.

The event is billed as a "personal best" challenge, not a race, and it's been held for over thirty years now. Riders come from all over the country, and from overseas, but most of the 300 or so participants live in Michigan or other Great Lakes states. The idea is to ride as many miles as you can in 24 hours, from 8am Saturday to 8am Sunday. Take as many breaks as you want, but the clock never stops ticking. Does that sounds intriguing? Crazy? Actually, it was an absolute blast.

And this is what I looked like at the end:

After every major cycling event, I try to write up a personal "ride report" while my thoughts are fresh. Years later, when I'm preparing to participate in that event (or a similar event) again, those notes often prove invaluable. My hope is that some other aspiring 24-Hour participant will find this report, and find my experiences useful. Be forewarned that I have deliberately included much more detail than a typical published ride report would include, and it is significantly longer than any other post I've put up, but I wanted to share everything that I wished I could have known before going off to participate in my own first N24HC.

Here we go:

24 June 2014

Wildlife

When a person begins raising livestock, it's remarkable how swiftly one's attitude toward wildlife --- especially potential predators --- changes. Overnight, "cute" becomes "Quick! Don't let it get away!" Especially after a time or two of witnessing the mayhem that those "cute" little critters are capable of inflicting. I'll never forget the mornings I've followed a trail of blood and feathers into a field, trying to locate the spot where a predator finished off his victim.

Several years back, when we were living in Illinois, our farm was separated from a small housing development by about a mile of open fields. One morning, while driving along the road running in front of that development, I noticed a new homemade sign. It read, "SLOW! BABY FOXES", and had an arrow pointing down to a culvert where a mother fox had made a den. My first thought was: Whoever made this sign so doesn't have livestock. My second thought was: I wonder how many of my chickens the mother fox will make off with to feed these babies. My third thought was: I wonder how many of my chickens these babies will make off with once they grow up.

Fortunately, we haven't been hit with predator strikes any time recently. But I did spot a raccoon in a large tree across the street a couple of nights ago, peering across at our farm, so I suppose it's just a matter of time. (I didn't have a clean shot at him, and he wasn't on our property anyway.) And while Homeschooled Farm Girl and I were out on a long bicycle ride this weekend, we saw a mother raccoon with six little ones run across the road in front of us. I made a mental note to re-bait and re-set our traps once I got home.

Needless to say, I got a smile out of this article that I recently stumbled across:

A man was biking to work one day when by the side of the road he noticed a poor fox that lay dying. Here is his account of what transpired:


I'm sure the person who posted it thought it was heartwarming. The overwhelming majority of people who commented on it certainly did. I'm also confident that few -- if any -- of them raise livestock.

And I suppose on one level this is a heartwarming story --- but don't blame me for being conflicted. I'm just hoping the fox in question gets to live out the rest of his days being cared for in a very secure zoo or other wildlife facility. Far from my farm.

17 June 2014

Chickens: Ten Weeks Later

Been awhile since I've posted, but spring is a crazy busy time on the farm. Butchering the meat chickens has been my biggest job lately, and we're finally down to the last handful. I find it's best to butcher no fewer than four and no more than six meat chickens per day. Fewer than that, and it's hardly worth the time it takes to set everything up, clean / sterilize the eviscerating table, etc. More than that, the scalding water begins to get too cold, my shoulders begin aching, and the flies really start to swarm.

I butcher the biggest chickens first, starting at about eight weeks of age. Most of them are males. After clearing them out, the pens become more spacious for the remaining birds --- and the females in particular have the chance to reach more of their growth potential. I don't weigh the fully-butchered birds, but each one gives us plenty of meat. Enough for our family and two guests, or enough for our family plus leftovers.

In case you're wondering why virtually everyone raises some version of Cornish Cross chickens for meat, and uses other breeds pretty much exclusively for eggs, here's a good picture of the size difference after ten weeks between a meat chicken and an egg chicken. I don't need to tell you which is which:


Here's another look inside the pen:


In the past, I would simply leave each butchered bird whole and freeze it that way. That's fine if you intend to roast each bird whole, which we used to do. But as time went on, we found we much preferred cooking the chickens in pieces (whether on the grill, or in some other way). Also, a cut-up chicken takes up a lot less room in the freezer than a whole chicken. Bottom line is, I'm now cutting each bird up into pieces as I butcher it. All the pieces go in a big pile as I work, and then I sort them at the end. In each gallon-sized freezer bag, I put: two drumsticks, two thighs, two wings, and two breasts. I tend to skin the breasts, but leave the skin on the other pieces. All the remaining carcases (and necks, and feet) go into a really large turkey-sized freezer bag, to be used later for soup (one big bag of carcass scraps makes one pot of soup). Then I take all the hearts and livers and put them in their own small package. It's taken years to settle on this approach, and for all I know I may refine it further next year, but for now it's perfect.

And freshly-butchered-and-grilled chicken sure tastes perfect. This was our Memorial Day dinner:


So, I should finish up butchering the last of the chickens in the next couple of days. Then we'll turn the egg pullets loose in the barn (they should begin laying this fall). And it'll be "mission accomplished" for the chicken tractors in the garden. (Fortunately, we didn't lose a single bird to predators.) Mrs. Yeoman Farmer will be able to plant her squashes very soon.

Note in the pictures above just how thick the grass is inside the pen. That's what it looks like when the pen is first moved to a new patch of ground. Now see what the ground looks like that they've already gone over (this view is looking north; our hay field is the long grass just beyond the garden fence):

No wonder it's called a "tractor" system. Here's another shot, looking the other direction, showing the other pen:

Just imagine how great those squashes will grow in this nice rich soil. Squash soup and roast chicken...now there's a combo for this fall.

07 May 2014

Gosling Adoption 2014

Last Thursday morning, we got a shipment of ten White Embden goslings from Murray McMurray Hatchery. There are cheaper sources, but we've been impressed with McMurray's service and quality. Above all, their website makes it very easy to know which birds are available on which days, and exactly when to expect those birds to arrive; other hatcheries are decidedly behind the curve on this. Given that we were raising a series of different types of birds, and planning their arrival around a couple of out-of-town trips, having a firm grip on the timing was worth a few extra dollars to me.

One gosling did die in the brooder over the weekend, but we had nine strong survivors as of this morning. The brooder, with its heat lamp, is an important way to get young birds off to a good start. It also gives a chance to get several days worth of high protein feed into the birds.

During colder times of the year, baby birds can spend up to two weeks in there as they develop feathers. We had a pretty chilly weekend, but things are now warming up, so today looked like a good opportunity to move the goslings outside.

They're still not feathered, of course, but we've found that the adult geese do such a good job mothering them...if the temperature outside is reasonable, the goslings will generally be fine. The mother geese "know" when it's too cold, and lead their little brood into the barn. At night, they draw the goslings into a tight bundle and keep them warm.

For the actual gosling turn-over, I first drove all the mature geese into the pasture. (We have more mature geese than usual, because I didn't get them all butchered last year. Thank the early, nasty winter for that.) I then brought the goslings out in a cardboard box, tipped the box over, and let the goslings stream out.

What happens next is always so much fun to watch, words don't really do it justice. The mature geese go into an absolute frenzy, surrounding the goslings, honking and shaking their feathers, as if conducting a fraternity hazing. This year, I managed to catch the event on video. (Apologies for the shakiness and rapid zooming in Part 1; I was still trying to figure out the controls on my new phone. I was also trying to follow them into the pasture.)

In Part 1, the goslings have just streamed toward the mature flock, and the flock goes crazy welcoming them:



Part 2 shows the middle and end of the welcoming ceremony. After this, the whole gaggle heads deep into the pasture to continue bonding:


As of right now, they're all still at the far end of the pasture. Almost all of the mature geese are busy grazing on fresh green swamp grass. The best, most reliable, most dedicated mother goose (a Gray Toulouse) has again volunteered for primary gosling duty: she has gone up on the sunny ridge with her little pack of yellow fuzz, where she can no doubt keep a watchful eye on everything.

Including me. I can't get anywhere near close enough for a picture now. Here's what I managed to snap when they were closer to the barn:
Why so blurry? Because these guys are in constant motion. Especially when they see me coming.

01 May 2014

How Did You Dispose of Your Christmas Tree?

Put it out for municipal trash pick-up? Burn it? Compost it?

We bought ours a couple days before Christmas, and got a terrific deal. 

Then, when the Christmas season ended, we fed that tree to the goats.
They loved it. And recycled it into milk.

25 April 2014

Fortified

Every spring, the most frustrating battle we fight is with raccoons. They're coming out after a long winter, many have litters of young to feed, and they're all hungry. And our young birds make the perfect prey: small, utterly helpless, and delicious.

For the last two weeks, we've had 56 baby birds in a secure brooder in the barn. It's a 4x4 foot plywood box, two feet tall, with half the roof also of solid plywood. The other half is chicken wire, to allow fresh air, but even that wire is securely tied down most of the time to keep it cat-proof. (Think Sylvester and Tweety Bird; the barn cats love to hover on top of the brooder and gaze longingly at the young chicks inside.) Inside the brooder is a heat lamp, high protein (21%) poultry starter feed, and a two gallon watering fount.

Most of the birds themselves (40) are cornish cross chickens, the most common commercial meat breed. They'll be ready to butcher at 8 weeks. The other 16 are a light-colored egg laying breed; with the light-colored feathers, they'll be easy to distinguish from the black-and-white Barred Rocks we raised last year. If we didn't alternate colors, and always raised the same egg-laying breed, we'd never be able to tell how old the mature hens are. After two years, their productivity drops dramatically and they need to go in the soup pot. By staggering the breeds, we always know which batch of hens is due for butchering.

Anyway, we tend to move the chicks out to pasture pens at 10-14 days of age, when they're feathered well enough to do without the the supplemental heat. We make the call as to the exact day based on the weather. If it's sunny and warm, and no rain is forecast, they can go out as early as 9 or 10 days. (Birds we raise in the summer go out very early.) But if it's in the mid 40s or 50s and dreary, as it is this week, we give them a few extra days to feather up.

Yesterday was moving day. Our pasture pens are 4-foot by 8-foot, two feet high, with solid plywood running the length of each long side. The frames are 2x2s or 2x4s, but we tend to use the former a lot more than the latter; 2x4s are overkill, and make the pens too heavy. I used to cover the short ends of the pens with chicken wire, but the raccoons (remember the raccoons?) would simply rip the wire open. I've since covered all those short ends with an additional layer of small-mesh wire material. The smaller holes do unfortunately keep more insects out, but that's a tradeoff we're willing to make for raccoon protection. The tops of the pens consist of a full sheet of plywood, ripped in half. One half is screwed down to the frame; the other half just lays in place, weighed down by a couple of large rocks and/or by a bucket of chicken feed, until I need to open the pen to tend to the birds.

Note also the raccoon trap, baited with ground corn, set just in front of the pens. (We used to bait the traps with chicken or other meat, but we ended up catching barn cats every time. Corn is ideal because raccoons like it, but cats don't.)

The Yeoman Farm Children helped me haul two pens from one garden area, where the birds had been last year, to the area where Mrs. Yeoman Farmer wants them this year. She identified a substantial swath of ground, currently covered in weeds, that won't be needed for planting until late in spring. That will give the chicks several weeks to clear the weeds, all the while getting fresh greens in their diet as a supplement to their high-protein grain --- and dropping lots of nice fertilizer onto the garden beds. It's the perfect "tractor" system. We let the chicks mow down everything growing under the pen, then move the pen one length onto a new patch. And so forth. When they're really little, it takes the birds several days to clear everything; later, they'll easily clear the 4x8 area to bare ground in a single day. We would ideally let the chicken manure break down for a longer time, but MYF intends to use this area for squashes this year; squash goes in late, and isn't as sensitive to "hot" manure as --- say --- tomatoes are.

Last year, with MYF pregnant and largely out of commission, we reduced our garden planting substantially. We had a large, 24 foot-by-50 foot patch where pens could be moved all spring and summer. The pens with various batches of birds went around and around that area, wiping out every new little clump of weeds almost as soon as it appeared.

When MYF was finally able to inspect the area last fall, she was blown away by how completely the birds had devastated it. And by how much manure the birds had provided. After a winter of sitting and breaking down, it's going to be an excellent garden bed this year --- once we clear out the weeds that are already coming up thickly in that nice, fertile soil.

Back to this year's birds. Each pen is twice the size of the brooder, so all 56 chicks could have easily fit in a single pen with plenty of room left over. However, they grow so fast, that pen would've become crowded quite quickly. Instead of catching half the birds and moving them in a couple of weeks, it was much easier to simply divide the birds while I already had them caught now. We put 20 Cornish cross and 8 layer pullets into each pen, and they should have plenty of space for the next eight weeks. (Once we butcher the meat chickens, we'll turn the pullets loose in the barn with the other layers, and then move these pens to some other vacant garden plot and use them for turkeys.)
But then, learning from experience, I added some additional fortifications against raccoons. Last year, we lost more than two full pens worth of baby birds to multiple raccoon strikes; the most frustrating was the night when a raccoon wiped out a pen of very expensive baby turkeys --- and only THEN turned to the grain in the trap and got caught. After the first couple of strikes, I'd added the steel mesh. So, the next raccoon simply dug his way UNDER the side of the pen, came in, and massacred everything he could find. What to do about soft garden soil? Feeling like I was back in a Cold War arms race, I hit upon the ultimate defense: a foot-wide strip of plywood, laid flat along every edge of every pen, and weighed down with large rocks. (One sheet of plywood, ripped into four equal strips, sufficed for each pen.) At last, success! Moving each pen was now a bigger production, but we didn't lose a single bird to predators the whole rest of the year.

I was tired yesterday, and thought about saving some of the plywood strips for today. Especially since all the big rocks also needed to be moved. But as evening approached, I thought better of it. I'd simply seen way too many dead birds, and had invested way too much time and effort into the current batch. So, I put in the extra 15 minutes of toil and made sure every pen was fully fortified against the enemy. (Yes, this really does feel like war sometimes.)

Over the course of the evening, all the way up to midnight, I made a number of trips out to the garden to check on the birds. All were fine. No sign of any predators. But still, this morning, I held my breath as I went out to make my first inspection. To my great relief, everything was exactly as I'd left it the night before. Every bird was alive and active. And while it would've been nice to have caught a raccoon, even the trap was undisturbed.

And so it goes. I'm just happy that another season of poultry production is off and running, and that we're just six weeks away from our first backyard barbeque feast.

14 April 2014

Thank God for Good Vets

It can be hard to find a good large-animal veterinarian. We were fortunate to have one just around the corner from us in Illinois, and who didn't charge a fortune to come see us at the farm. Here, it took us awhile to locate a good vet who can see the livestock, but we did at last find one; most of his practice is dogs and cats, but he has good experience with farm animals. He will come out on farm calls, but it's a fairly steep charge. Since every one of our animals is small enough to fit in a vehicle, we find it makes most sense to drive the 14 miles to his office.

A year or two ago, one of our excellent dairy goats, Thistle (or, as our four-year-old called her when he was learning to talk, "Fissle"), developed a cancer of her eye. A sizable tumor began consuming the eyeball, and it was one of the most unsettling things we'd ever seen. We were really afraid we might have to put her down. The vet said not to worry; he'd seen this numerous times before in various types of livestock, and knew just what to do. He put her under anesthesia, and in very short order (1) removed the entire eyeball and (2) sewed her eyelid shut. The next day, Thistle was home on the farm and feeling fine. She's certainly one of the more bizarre-looking animals, and has only half her original sight, but is otherwise none the worse for the experience. She remains a gentle doe who takes good care of her kids and gives us lots of milk. With the added bonus that she's now much easier to catch --- you just need to sneak up on her from the "blind side."

Which brings us to Button, the mother of Thistle. She had twin kids about a month ago, and has been producing an outrageous amount of milk. We're talking basketball-sized udder, with teats like great big sausages. Plenty for the twins and us.

Anyway, late last week, Button got some sort of scrape on her right teat. It wasn't too big a deal, and the Yeoman Farm Children worked around it when they milked. We treated it with salve, and it was scabbing over. Problem was, the scab began growing and blocking the milk hole. This meant it had to be opened up a bit for each milking. Which was fine...but on Sunday morning we found the hole simply would not open. We tried everything we could, but didn't want to hurt her; we were concerned that scar tissue might be forming.

Mrs Yeoman Farmer called the vet, who was willing to see Button on a Sunday --- but there would be a substantial "emergency fee." We were grateful for the option, but knew Button would be fine (if a little full) until Monday morning.

The plan was to get Button packed up and to the vet as close as possible to his 8am opening time; he sees walk-ins from 8-10 on most mornings, so we wanted to be first in line. Unfortunately, as Homeschooled Farm Girl and I were moving Button out of the barn to our van, the goat's engorged teat caught on a piece of fence and tore the skin. Great. One thing after another. Now quite worried, and somewhat delayed, we sped off to the vet.

We turned out to be second in line, and got in to see him after just a short wait. Must be interesting being a country vet; the person ahead of us was an elderly lady getting her pet dog's toenails trimmed. Then us, with a dairy goat with a torn teat! Anyway, the vet was a bit taken aback at first by the wound, but then got right to work computing how much anesthesia Button would need. He gave her a little shot, she collapsed in a heap, and then I helped the vet lift Button onto a work table.

First order of business was to clean the teat and bathe the cut with some sort of antibiotic cream. He then needed to drain the teat, which he did by inserting a catheter and then putting a bowl under it to catch the milk. After all the work we usually have to do, expressing milk, it was amazing to see the stuff all come running out like through a faucet. I even joked that we'd better not let our children see this process, or they'll ask if they can start catheterizing the goats every time they go out to milk.

With the teat going flaccid, and with me holding Button's leg so she wouldn't interfere with his work if she twiched, he began suturing the cut closed. He explained that he was leaving plenty of loose skin, so the teat would be able to expand with milk. It took him just a few minutes to get everything done.
Then, since the anesthetic still had Button nearly entirely knocked out, he took advantage of the opportunity to give her hooves a good trimming. "It's a lot easier when they can't kick!" he joked.

This whole time, my daughter had been sitting in the quiet waiting room, doing school work. Once Button awakened, the vet and I called Homeschooled Farm Girl back and explained the situation. Button would need to be milked several times per day, to make sure the re-opened teat remained open and didn't scar over. This would need to be done gently, taking care not to stress the sutures. And we would obviously need to keep Button totally separated from her kids for the next ten days or so.

HFG happily volunteered to take on the management of the situation, all the way from milking Button to bottle-feeding that milk to the twins. Needless to say, it's very gratifying whenever one of your children takes that kind of initiative, without any kind of "bargaining" or questioning what might be in it for her. It just needs doing, and she wants to take charge of it.

So, after a wild morning, we're all back home on the farm. Just another crazy day in our life.