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.

11 April 2014

Spring is Officially Here

This morning, it got sunny and warm enough to actually hang laundry out to dry. There were times this winter when I wondered if this day would ever come again.

Hanging laundry is not only cheaper, but there's nothing quite like the fresh smell and feel of line-dried clothes. I've missed it. Hanging and bringing in laundry is usually the job of our 11 year old, but today I wanted to do it myself. Funny how little things like hanging the first load of laundry of the year can bring such joy.

When we bought the house, there was no clothesline set up. That kind of surprised us, as most places out in the country have clothesline structures --- even if they may need some of the actual lines replaced. A few years ago, we invested in a Breezecatcher rotary clothesline and have been extremely happy with it. It has tons of drying space, and I can usually get two sizable loads on it. Even fully loaded in a strong wind, the structure has stayed secure (it helps that I set the receiver for the vertical pole in concrete). The pole itself can pull out of that receiver, and the arms neatly folded down like an umbrella, when winter comes and it's time to pack everything up. Sets back up in just a couple of minutes. I like the rotary design because you can stand in one spot to hang or take down the laundry, and just rotate the whole structure as you work. There's no moving up and down the line, as you would with a traditional setup. It also has a much smaller footprint than a traditional clothesline.

Anyway, I'm just happy that spring is here at last!

09 April 2014

One Plucky Lamb

The "lame lamb" described in the previous post has made a remarkable turnaround from yesterday afternoon. It seems spending several hours in a basket next to a fire, combined with a stomach full of warm milk, has done wonders for his health. By this morning, he was bleating like any other lamb --- and climbing out of the laundry basket. He reared up, put his front feet on the top of the basket, and then toppled the thing over.

I gave him about 3oz of goat milk first thing this morning, with a bit more cod liver oil, and then moved him outside to a portable dog cage within the sheep area. (These dog cages are incredibly handy as "holding pens" for confining various small livestock, including birds on butchering day.)

A few minutes ago, I went back out to check on him. I'm not sure he likes being demoted back to "sheep", but we're glad to have him out of the house. He sucked down another 3oz of milk, and definitely has the whole bottle thing figured out. Looks like our 11 year old will be able to take it from here.

I'm still not sure what this lamb's long term prospects will be. Note how bad his right front leg looks:

He's getting around surprisingly well, despite that bum leg. And I'm hoping that vitamin and mineral supplements will help improve it. But at least we know we're doing everything in our means to get him off to the best possible start.

08 April 2014

Lambing Hits a Speed Bump

We'd been having such a smooth lambing season. Going into Saturday, we had five lambs from three ewes, plus a tiny stillborn triplet. We'll call it five. Saturday evening, we got twins (one male, one female) from one of our seasoned ewes, Licorice.

Then, Sunday night, one of other other ewes delivered twin males. Both are doing great. But note that one of them has a white tuft on the top of his head; it indicates he is descended from one of our truly terrible rams ("Buddy"). By far the meanest, most dangerous animal we've owned. Though Buddy was culled and butchered many years ago, his "mark" still manifests itself from time to time. To be safe, we make sure we butcher any males which are clearly descended from him. So...this little guy may be cute now, but we know his ultimate destination will be the freezer.

This morning was when we hit a speed bump. A yearling ewe, Cleobelle (so named because she's of the "Belle" line and because her eyes look painted like Cleopatra's) delivered a cute little male lamb --- but then promptly ignored him. Didn't even bother licking him off all the way.

As you can see, the rooster appears more interested in him than his own mother does.

He did manage to get up --- sort of. His front legs aren't working well, and the trouble appears to be with the tendons. His back legs are fine, but up front his knees buckle outward when he tries to stand erect. He can scoot around pretty well on his knees. Problem is, Cleobelle is completely ignoring him. We tried putting him on a teat, but it didn't work. We could barely get Mom to stand still, and the lamb had a lot of trouble latching on.

We debated whether we should try to rescue him, or if we should simply euthanize him. After all, it's quite possible the ewe "knows something" about the lamb that we don't; we've found that the mother animals' instincts about which offspring to reject/abandon often turn out to be based on a fundamental defect. In the end, though, we decided to at least give him a shot. Every little creature here deserves that. Our 11 year old even offered to make this his "project." If nothing else, it'll give him a sense of responsibility.

We cleaned the little lamb up with warm water, then patted him down with towels and worked him over a bit with the blow drier. I gave him some colostrum replacer, but he didn't swallow it very well. We also "drenched" him with 5cc of cod liver oil, by slowly squeezing it out of a syringe at the back of his tongue. Mrs Yeoman Farmer found that remedy in one of her books; it's supposed to help with tendon problems. I then fed him some goat milk, again by dribbling it out of a syringe, because his suck didn't seem very strong. By now he was pretty worn out, so we made him comfortable in a basket by the fire.

It's been a few hours, and he doesn't seem to be responding very well. I have my doubts that he'll make it through the night. But at least we'll know we did all we could to help him, and that we at least made his short time with us as pleasant an experience as possible.

Crazy Ducks

Ducks are a wonderful addition to any small farm, especially one with an area that's perpetually wet or swampy (which seems to describe about 90% of Michigan farms). It never ceases to amaze me the way the ducks go rushing out into any kind of nasty weather; in fact, the wetter it gets, the more they seem to enjoy themselves. They even enjoy flopping around and soaking themselves in snow drifts.

A couple of other things to keep in mind about ducks: they are easily excitable, and virtually impossible to keep contained.

We've had several different breeds of duck over the years, and all of them (with the exception of Muscovies, which are genetically distinct from the Mallard-descended ducks which predominate in the USA) have been "hyper." They see a person (or dog, or anything else) coming, and they all start running in a pack, flapping their wings, and making lots of noise. This does make them fairly easy to herd, once you figure out where to position yourself. The key is to get behind them, and start them moving away from you. If the flock begins moving too much toward one side or the other, they can often be "nudged" back into line just by holding one's arm out toward the "wrong" side and/or moving that way slightly.

But if you get ducks, expect them to get loose. They're narrow and very flexible. I've never seen birds that can squeeze themselves through such tight spaces. Leave a door or gate ajar just a bit, or put up a woven-wire fence with squares larger than 4x4, and they're going to find a way through. Or if there's any kind of gap at the bottom of any portion of a fence or gate, they will find a way to squeeze under it. It's just what they do. They love to roam over a wide range, exploring and foraging --- but if you don't want them in your garden (and, trust me, if you have anything of value growing in there...you don't), you'd better put a very tight fence around it. And be zealous about keeping the gate closed. Ditto any area with fruiting brambles or grape vines that are close to the ground --- they will wipe out the fruit in the blink of an eye. Lately we've been fighting a losing battle keeping them out of the kids' play area in our back yard; the photos I posted today are of the dozen ducks that I chased out of there this morning.

The last few years, we've been raising a breed called Anconas and like them a lot. For starters, they're just plain beautiful to look at. But more importantly, they're outstanding foragers, excellent egg layers, quite cold-hardy (we didn't lose a single one this epic winter), pretty good at setting and mothering, and a reasonable size for eating. (We can squeeze a meal out of one of them for our family, but for Sunday dinner with even one other person, we usually put two of them in the Crock Pot and make soup with the leftovers.)

We like to get a straight run (unsexed) of 30 from Cackle Hatchery. The cost is about $4 per duckling, plus shipping, and that yields 15 adult females. In the laying season, that gives us plenty of large delicious eggs. We butcher most of the males when they're a few months old, but leave a few so we can have fertilized eggs (and ducklings, if a duck decides to make a nest and go broody). As with all Mallard-derived ducks, mature drakes (males) are easily identified by a curly little feather sticking up on their tail.

Anconas stay pretty productive for a few years; after that, it's best to butcher and brine them, before doing a slow roast in the crock pot. The process is similar to what I described recently for our old turkeys, but we usually brine and roast the ducks whole. Your plan should be to butcher the mature, burned-out layers while your juvenile replacements are growing in the brooder and confined pasture pens. Once they feather out, you'll have a really tough time distinguishing them from the older birds. And if the two groups mix...good luck sorting them again.

Now that I think about it, we have several excess mature drakes out there that need to be culled. I think I know what we're going to be enjoying for Sunday dinner this week...

04 April 2014

Heaven is For Real: Movie Review


I recently had a chance to watch a preview screening of the new movie, Heaven is For Real, which will be released on April 16th. I read the book earlier this year, and was very pleased when I'd heard it would be made into a movie.

Here is the trailer:

The basic premise of both the book (which is a straightforward, non-fiction, documentary) and the movie (which is a fictionalized, dramatic re-telling) is this: Todd Burpo is a minister in a small town in Nebraska. His young son, Colton, nearly dies during emergency surgery; Colton visits Heaven during this near-death experience, and some time after his return begins explaining what he saw in matter-of-fact terms. Over time, it becomes increasingly clear that Colton's reports cannot be a function of his imagination --- there are simply too many details (especially about people he met there who died before he was born) that Colton couldn't have possibly known any other way.

The movie is extremely well-produced, with excellent acting and breathtaking visuals of prairie farmlands. It's a compelling story of one family's experiences coping with some really difficult times, and it's told without profanity, innuendo, or sex. There are some hospital scenes that may be a bit intense for some younger viewers, but it's otherwise safe to take your kids to. Our four-year-old, who is about the same age as Colton was, enjoyed it as much as the rest of us did and told me nothing in it scared him. Speaking of Colton: he's portrayed by six-year-old Connor Corum, and the boy did an outstanding job. This appears to be his first acting gig, and I hope it's not his last. Likewise, Greg Kinnear is excellent as Todd.

For me, the most unrealistic part of the story is the existential crisis of faith that Todd descends into after Colton begins describing what he saw in Heaven. It seemed almost like the kind of reaction a father would've had if his son had instead described Jesus rejecting him, or slamming the gates of Heaven in his face, or anything else that flies in the face of his own long-held beliefs about God and the afterlife. Todd's frustrations with God before this point made total sense, and seemed very natural; he was dealing with his own physical injuries, serious financial setbacks, and a son who'd been sick to the verge of death. But for the stories about Heaven to trigger a new "dark night of the soul"? That seemed contrived to me, as did the reactions of certain of the church's Board members. At a minimum, the reasons for his questioning and doubts didn't seem clear.

The book does describe Todd "yelling at God" during Colton's surgery. But the internal struggles and doubts he goes through after hearing about Colton's trip to Heaven? And the external conflicts with other members of the church? If any of those things did happen in real life (and they sure didn't "feel" real to me, given everything else the film shows us about the Burpo family and their faith), they didn't make it into the book.

But my biggest disappointment stems from the expectations I'd had going in: I'd thought the story would be told more from Colton's perspective, and we'd get to see more of what he experienced in Heaven. Certainly, there are some scenes portraying what he saw and did --- but they are relatively brief, and not terribly detailed. Screenwriting 101 says to "show, not tell," and it seemed that there was a lot more "telling" here than "showing." Also, several of the things Colton did see and experience, which were detailed in the book and shown to be consistent with scripture passages Colton had never before heard, are simply left out of the movie.

Furthermore, certain things that are described extensively in the book are treated so briefly in the movie, the average viewer might be left scratching his head. A good example: in the book, Colton told his father that Jesus has "markers" on his wrists and ankles. When pressed for details, Colton explained that it looked like someone had marked up those parts of Jesus' body with a red felt-tip pen. Todd then realized that Colton was describing the Wounds of the crucifixion --- which, importantly, Colton had never before seen depictions of or been aware of. Being Protestants, the Burpos didn't have a crucifix in their house or church. In the movie, Colton makes only the quickest mention of these "markers," almost as an afterthought, in remarks to a newspaper reporter. There is no further explanation as to what he's describing, or why this is an additional indication that his visions of Jesus weren't the product of an overactive imagination.

That's not to say this is a bad movie. It's just not the movie I thought it was going to be. You may be familiar with other big-screen feature films about extraordinary supernatural visions that certain children have had; The Song of Bernadette immediately comes to mind, as does The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima. Both of these films were told from the children's perspective. The parents' reactions, and the difficulties the parents went through as a result of the publicity, were part of the story --- but these films were ultimately about the kids and what the kids experienced. Now, imagine The Song of Bernadette re-told from the perspective of Francois Soubirous, Bernadette's father. The Song of Francois might still be a good movie --- but if you'd been thinking you were going to see a lot of what Bernadette herself saw, you might be disappointed.

My bottom-line recommendation: Whether you've read Heaven is For Real or not, do go see this movie --- and enjoy it on its own terms. And if you haven't yet read the book, make sure you do read it after you watch the movie.

02 April 2014

Mrs. Fletcher Delivers!

Remember FletcherBelle, the massively pregnant ewe who'd "fallen, and couldn't get up" the other night?

This morning, she delivered two beautiful little ewe lambs:

For those of you keeping score at home, that's five lambs total --- all of them female. And all are doing great so far.

Spring is wonderful. Especially after a winter like the one we just had.

Salvaging Turkey Lurkey

Generally speaking, turkeys --- and other birds --- are best eaten in the same year they're hatched. We like to start a batch in April or May, and put them in the freezer that October or November. That ensures the birds are young and tender; an older bird can get tough.

We've also preferred to raise heritage breed turkeys. They're significantly smaller than the broad breasted "Butterball" turkeys you see at the grocery store, but much more interesting to have on the farm. They tend to have higher survival rates in the brooder. They can fly and roost much like wild turkeys. They're colorful. And, most importantly, they can reproduce naturally. (Broad breasted turkeys are so huge, they can't actually mate. They need to be artificially inseminated. And that's something I just don't want to have to help them with.)

Most years, we try to get a mix of heritage turkeys and broad breasted birds. A heritage turkey is excellent for a dinner and a night or two of leftovers. The BB turkeys are really too big to be practical, unless we're hosting a really large gathering, so we cut them up into pieces and freeze separate portions in gallon-sized ziploc bags. Each bag is just right for a meal or two.

Since we're not particular about breeds, we tend to get a "hatchery special" or "surplus turkey assortment". They send basically whatever is left over after filling orders for specific heritage turkey breeds. At a place like Cackle Hatchery, a batch of 15 surplus heritage turkeys will run $114, or about $7.60 per bird, plus shipping. Not bad when you consider that specific breed poults, such as Bourbon Reds, cost more than $9 per bird. (For comparison, 15 broad breasted white turkeys cost $87.75, or $5.85 per bird.)

Still...any way you look at it, turkey poults are expensive. And heritage breed turkeys can theoretically reproduce on their own. Why not keep a few hens, and a tom, over the winter and see what they manage to produce the next spring? Could save a small fortune, right?

Could. But never has - at least not for us. We've tried letting the turkey hens brood a clutch of eggs. A couple of them actually hatched, but the hen proved to be a better setter than mother; the poults were killed by something or other within days. We tried hatching the eggs ourselves in an incubator, but were never able to get the temperature and humidity settings correct. With more time and patience, and perhaps an investment in a really good incubator, we may have gotten better results. But at the end of the day, I concluded it made more sense to invest in a fresh set of hatchery poults each spring.

That left us with several mature heritage turkeys. They were fun to have in the barn, and we enjoyed watching them do their turkey antics out in the pasture. And the females did give us some eggs - at least for a few months out of the year, and for a couple of years. Then the eggs slowed to a trickle, and I realized we simply had a bunch of glorified, grain-consuming pets. And we don't do "pets" with the livestock. Time to make a meal out of them.

Given the age of these birds, I was concerned that they would be tough. So, I did a little experimenting and hit upon a solution: brine.

The middle of last week, I butchered a very old Blue Slate turkey hen. After plucking and eviscerating her, I figured we had about six or seven pounds of bird. I then "disassembled" it by removing both leg quarters, both wings, and the breast meat. All of these prime pieces went into a big bowl, and everything else (the carcass, neck, and scrubbed-up feet) went into a large soup pot.

I then used a mason jar to measure out enough water to just cover all the pieces in the bowl; it took three quarts. A standard brine solution requires one cup of salt per gallon of water, so I pulled a bunch of the meat out, added 3/4 of a cup of salt to my bowl, and stirred until all the salt was dissolved, and put the meat back in. I covered the bowl, and put it in the refrigerator for a few days. (Theoretically, I suppose we could have left the bowl out at room temperature; the salt acts as a preservative. But we had room in the fridge, and I preferred to keep things cold.)

Sunday morning, I discarded the brine solution and put most of the turkey pieces into a Crock Pot. (The remaining piece I wrapped up and returned to the refrigerator, because my daughter wanted to make turkey curry out of it later.) I added a little apple cider vinegar, a little water, a chopped onion, and seasonings --- and then set the Crock Pot on high and let it go. From time to time, I stirred the pieces around. Otherwise, it was the world's easiest meal. By 5pm, the meat was tender and practically falling off the bone. And was the perfect centerpiece for Sunday Dinner.

So, out of one smallish turkey hen that was otherwise useless, our family got (1) an excellent Sunday dinner; (2) a dinner of turkey curry; and (3) enough soup for one dinner for all of us, with enough left over for me to have for lunches for the rest of the week.

Not bad. Now, to get started on the four other turkeys still taking up space in the barn...

30 March 2014

Sunday Evening Surprise

Lambing season is definitely upon us, and every trip to the barn now brings with it a sense of expectation. Which ewe will be in labor? Which might have even delivered?

This evening, we discovered that our pure white ewe had given us a beautiful pure white female lamb:

While mom dove into the hay with the rest of the flock, the happy new arrival stayed close by and observed the action.

Here's hoping that the rest of the lambing season goes this smoothly. Tomorrow is supposed to be 62F and clear, easily the warmest day of the year so far. Would sure be nice if a big bunch of ewes decided to deliver then.

29 March 2014

The Last Check

One really important thing to remember, on a farm with livestock, in the spring: making that last check of the barn each night. It may be past midnight. You may be tired. You may just want to go to bed. But if you skip that last check, something very small might just develop into a very big problem.

That was certainly true a couple of nights ago, when the "last check" revealed two newborn lambs. I didn't mention it in the post, but the outside door to the sheep area had been left slightly open. One of the lambs had tottered through it, and the mother was urgently trying to call the little one back inside. The other lamb looked ready to totter outside as well. Of course, it was dark and cold, and neither newborn had any idea what she was doing or where she was supposed to be. I retrieved the lost lamb, set her inside, closed the door as far as it would go, and used a snow shovel to bar the remaining opening. Had I not come to the barn, both lambs may have frozen to death outside.

Another example was a cold night early last spring, when we had baby chicks brooding under a heat lamp. One of the cats had accidentally knocked the cord out of the socket. I noticed it during my "last check," and got the lamp plugged back in before the chicks froze.

Last night, the issue was again in the sheep pen. One of the ewes has been looking extremely pregnant, and ready to deliver at any time. She's crazy big. Swallowed-a-washbasin big. And when I peeked into the barn last night, she was laying down and thrashing her leg in a strange manner. Thinking she may be in active labor, I hustled to take a closer look.

And discovered that she wasn't in labor at all - but in a more dangerous situation. She was flat on her back, panting and grunting, trying to roll over so she could get up. Because of her enormous size, she simply couldn't do it. I wasn't sure how long she'd been stuck like that, but if she spent the night that way she'd likely have been dead in the morning. I grabbed her, rolled her over, and she scrambled to her feet as she joined the rest of the flock. I caught her again, confirmed she was fine (and not in labor), and then wished all the animals a good night.

That particular ewe is from a long line with a tradition of having "-belle" as a suffix to their name. One of our very first ewes was named Maybelle, and all of the "belles" are descended from her. Maybelle died last year, in lambing, at an advanced age, and we still miss her - but with the naming tradition, she still lives in a sense. Anyhow, we'd had trouble coming up with a name for this ewe...so we'd just been calling her plain old "Belle." Last night, I finally decided on a name that would fit: