28 February 2007

Where Do Eggs Come From?

Ever wondered where those sixty-nine cent per dozen eggs at the supermarket come from? Or the eggs that restaurants buy wholesale for fifty cents a dozen or less?

Factories like this one:

I've never been inside it (more on that in a moment), but locals who've worked there have described the hens as living in "concentration camp" conditions. Those enormous buildings reportedly house row after row of cages, stacked in batteries high into the air, several hens to a cage. No one is quite sure just how many birds are in there, but our guess is that the total is somewhere in the low six figures. And this factory is small potatoes compared to one in a neighboring state; according to an acquaintance who worked there, that complex covers acres, and has upwards of a million birds. This, by the way, is what economists refer to as "economies of scale." A single complex with 100,000 or 1,000,000 is more efficient than ten complexes with 10,000 birds. That enables eggs to retail for under a dollar at most supermarkets.

Are there, uh, unintended consequences from crowding so many birds into such a small space? That brings us back to the reason why I've never been inside that local egg factory. Try to drive up and take a look, and you're greeted by the sign to the right. Imagine the disease problems you'd struggle with if you spent 24 hours a day in a small, confined space with three of your closest friends. Imagine what your immune system would be like after two years of never seeing the light of day, or getting a breath of fresh air. No wonder the people who run this place are so concerned about introducing germs to their factory.

And speaking of diseases, I had a fascinating conversation awhile back with a USDA inspector. He works full time at a pork processing plant, ensuring that each hog carcass is healthy. As part of his training, he spent time at a chicken processing plant --- as it turns out, the plant that slaughters the laying hens from that million-plus egg factory in the neighboring state. He said it was an excellent education in identifying "problem birds," because there were so many that exhibited so many different conditions.

I asked him, "What do you think that says about the quality of the eggs from that plant?"

He looked at me like I had cabbages growing out of my head. "Egg inspection is a different USDA team," he replied. In other words, as long as an egg is candled and graded and passes its inspection...the health of the hen that egg came out of is of little concern. Eggs are graded from AAA down to B, based on the size of the air sac inside it. But how do you grade the wholesomeness and health of an individual egg, separately from the health of the hen that laid it?

It's impossible to measure in a factory. But I can guarantee one thing: once you begin eating eggs laid by free range hens, raised on a local farm, you will be able to taste the difference. And you'll find it increasingly difficult to stomach (for a whole host of reasons) the under-a-dollar eggs at the supermarket. And you'll probably start asking yourself what the true "cost" of those supermarket eggs really is.

27 February 2007

Problems with Industrializing Livestock

Seems that a quiet revolution has been taking place in the raising of a type of livestock most of us never think about: bees. Many of our friends raise and keep bees, and we buy as much of our honey from them as possible. Once our orchard matures, we plan to begin keeping our own hives.

Today's New York Times describes the unexpected consequences that have arisen from the dramatic commercialization and consolodation in the beekeeping industry.

The sudden mysterious losses are highlighting the critical link that honeybees play in the long chain that gets fruit and vegetables to supermarkets and dinner tables across the country.

Beekeepers have fought regional bee crises before, but this is the first national affliction. Now, in a mystery worthy of Agatha Christie, bees are flying off in search of pollen and nectar and simply never returning to their colonies. And nobody knows why.

Researchers say the bees are presumably dying in the fields, perhaps becoming exhausted or simply disoriented and eventually falling victim to the cold.


Once the domain of hobbyists with a handful of backyard hives, beekeeping has become increasingly commercial and consolidated. Over the last two decades, the number of beehives, now estimated by the Agriculture Department to be 2.4 million, has dropped by a quarter and the number of beekeepers by half.

Pressure has been building on the bee industry. The costs to maintain hives, also known as colonies, are rising along with the strain on bees of being bred to pollinate rather than just make honey. And beekeepers are losing out to suburban sprawl in their quest for spots where bees can forage for nectar to stay healthy and strong during the pollination season.

“There are less beekeepers, less bees, yet more crops to pollinate,” Mr. Browning said. “While this sounds sweet for the bee business, with so much added loss and expense due to disease, pests and higher equipment costs, profitability is actually falling.”


It could just be that the bees are stressed out. Bees are being raised to survive a shorter offseason, to be ready to pollinate once the almond bloom begins in February. That has most likely lowered their immunity to viruses.

Mites have also damaged bee colonies, and the insecticides used to try to kill mites are harming the ability of queen bees to spawn as many worker bees. The queens are living half as long as they did just a few years ago.

Researchers are also concerned that the willingness of beekeepers to truck their colonies from coast to coast could be adding to bees’ stress, helping to spread viruses and mites and otherwise accelerating whatever is afflicting them.

Dennis van Engelsdorp, a bee specialist with the state of Pennsylvania who is part of the team studying the bee colony collapses, said the “strong immune suppression” investigators have observed “could be the AIDS of the bee industry,” making bees more susceptible to other diseases that eventually kill them off.

It never ceases to amaze me when industrial farm operations seem to think they can scale their operations up indefinitely, without consequence. And, from the story, it sounds like the problem isn't just the beekeepers: it's the massive size of the consolodated orchards, which require these large numbers of bees. I wonder how much of a collapse it will take before small, local beekeepers re-emerge with heritage bees and beekeeping techniques to pick up the pieces --- and the growers scale back to a more managable size.

26 February 2007

But Does It Work?

That's one of the questions I'm most frequently asked about Natural Family Planning (NFP).

Now, a scientific journal has published a major study agreeing that the answer is YES.

Researchers have found that a method of natural family planning that uses two indicators to identify the fertile phase in a woman’s menstrual cycle is as effective as the contraceptive pill for avoiding unplanned pregnancies if used correctly, according to a report published online in Europe’s leading reproductive medicine journal Human Reproduction today (21 February).

The symptothermal method (STM) is a form of natural family planning (NFP) that enables couples to identify accurately the time of the woman’s fertile phase by measuring her temperature and observing cervical secretions. In the largest, prospective study of STM, the researchers found that if the couples then either abstained from sex or used a barrier method during the fertile period, the rate of unplanned pregnancies per year was 0.4% and 0.6% respectively. Out of all the 900 women who took part in the study, including those who had unprotected sex during their fertile period, 1.8 per 100 became unintentionally pregnant.

This shouldn't come as a surprise for those who have used NFP faithfully; in our own experience, the method is extremely reliable for identifying fertile and infertile periods of a woman's cycle --- even when the cycles themselves are irregular or disrupted. In years of using NFP, we've never had a "method surprise" pregnancy (the .4% referred to in the study), and we know of only one couple which has. As the full study details, the key to achieving this level of effectiveness is following all the rules and not cutting corners around the edges of the fertile times. But even for those who do not have the most serious reasons for avoiding pregnancy, and can therefore cut some of those corners, the study confirms that the pregnancy rate is still quite low.

But when people ask if NFP "works," I think they're wondering about more than the pregnancy rate. There are usually other, unspoken, concerns embedded in that question. Chief among these is often "What impact will it have on our marriage if we can't have sex any time we want to?" That's a real concern, because particularly for those with the most serious health reasons for postponing pregnancy, NFP can mean long stretches of abstaining. For most couples, the average seems to be between seven and fourteen days; at the extreme, for a small number of couples, it can stretch to 21 days or more.

Can that be difficult? Absolutely. Can it sometimes put a strain on a relationship? Sure. But I keep coming back to the rhetorical question that a childbirth instructor asked us many years ago, in a different context: "Should life's most significant events be free from pain?" For many of us, we don't really learn what we're made of and how much love we have until we voluntarily embrace some kind of sacrifice for our beloved. And when that sacrifice is a shared one, that both spouses cheerfully embrace out of love for each other, and experience together, it can help elevate a husband and wife's relationship to a much higher level.

The key is that the husband and wife have to decide, together, that the other's fertility is not a disease to be medicated away or "barriered" away, but rather a gift and a healthy, integral, organic part of the whole person. Husband and wife must tell each other, I love and want to be united with all of you, the way you are, not just a portion of you. And I want to give you all of myself, the way I am, not just a portion of myself. And if this isn't the right time for a pregnancy, we can wait. I can wait for you.

And then a funny thing happens. While the two of you are waiting, together, you rediscover and renew your relationship. You spend time together in other ways. You talk, every month, about why the two of you are doing this and whether this might be the time to add another person to the community of love which is your family. That's when your relationship begins to reach a depth and level of maturity you couldn't have imagined before. And that's when you can't imagine ever going back.

23 February 2007

Best Places in Rural America

Progressive Farmer magazine has published a new list of best places to relocate to in rural America. This isn't a magazine I'm familiar with, but their list is worth a read.

The full article is here.


One consequence of having kids with food allergies is that you end up reading food labels more closely, and decyphering what various words really mean. For example, "natural flavors" usually means "MSG".

We were surprised that it was so difficult to find tuna that doesn't include additives. But we have found exactly one brand of tuna that has nothing but tuna, water, and salt. It's made by Polar, and is the only brand that doesn't make our children sick. It's usually about twenty-nine cents more expensive than the sale price of other brands, and harder to find, so when I make tuna for myself I've tended to use cheaper store brands.

And then something interesting happened. When our dog, Tabasco, emerged from being trapped in the station wagon for four days, we opened a can of cheap store brand tuna for her. She sniffed at it, but wouldn't eat. "But she loves the Polar tuna," my wife observed.

I took a closer look at the store brand. The ingredient list included "soy," which all of our dogs dislike intensely. Soy? In Tuna? How many phytoestrogens had I been ingesting with this tuna? And who knows what the other additives really are. I also buy major brand tuna when it goes on sale (Polar tuna never seems to go on sale), and have some of those on the shelf. I browsed a couple of different major tuna brand websites, and had a lot of trouble getting details about what's added to them. They list nutrition information (calories, protein, etc), but not ingredients. Kind of makes you wonder why it's so hard to find an ingredient list. Polar is very up front about what is --- and what is not --- in their product.

Anyway, when I opened a can of tuna for lunch on Ash Wednesday, I reached for the Polar tuna. "Daddy is eating our tuna!" the kids exclaimed. "Yeah," I replied, "I figure that if the dog won't eat the other tuna, maybe Daddy shouldn't be eating it, either."

I didn't intend it as a joke, but the kids thought my comment was very funny. So did my wife.

I think we'll be giving all that other tuna away to the local food bank. Twenty-nine extra cents is suddenly seeming like a bargain.

What season is this, anyway?

I'm not a big fan of Wal-Mart, and prefer to shop at small retailers closer to home. Someday, I'll post more on that.

For now, suffice it to say that we do some shopping at Wal-Mart. I was at the big Super Wal-Mart in Champaign last night, looking for a variety of items. As I searched for distilled white vinegar, I had to traverse the grocery section. And there I discovered...an entire long aisle dedicated to EASTER CANDY. Yes, you read that right. Easter Candy.

I realize that there isn't a lot of money to be made in Lenten Retail. I wasn't expecting an aisle of fresh fish and tomato soup or anything. But give me a break! This was the day after Ash Wednesday. Easter is still over six weeks away. Are they really expecting us to stock up on chocolate bunnies and jelly beans and keep them on the pantry shelf for six weeks?

And it's not just Wal-Mart. The Meijer across the street was already putting the Easter candy up on Monday of this week, before Lent had even begun. I thought it was a clearence rack with leftover Valentines candy. But closer inspection revealed full priced chocolate bunnies. Sheesh.

Maybe I just don't understand retail, but it seems that something is seriously out of whack with the way this system is set up.

The kids are alright

The newborn goat kids had a great first night, thanks in part to the heat lamp borrowed from the chicken brooder. They were still a little damp with amniotic fluid at bedtime, but cuddled up together under the heat lamp they looked very comfortable. Wish I'd had my camera with me, because the sight was priceless.

This morning, when we came out to do the chores, both of them were fluffy and totally dry --- and, best of all, both were up and nursing. I turned off the heat lamp, but left it out there in case we get another sub-zero snap before the end of winter.

Our children have named the goat kids "Button" and "Marigold". Not sure which is which at this point, but that'll all get sorted out. These goat kids are cross-breeds, so it's not like we'll be registering them. (We couldn't find a Saanen buck in time for breeding season, and we figured Saanen-Toggenburg kids were better than no kids at all.) Some neighbors raise Toggenburgs, and sold us "Eight Bits," the kid buck we ended up using for breeding.

On our farm, only animals that we intend to keep get names. That includes all the female sheep, the breeding rams, the female goats, the breeding buck, and the roosters. (There are too many laying hens to name, and they all look alike anyway, but each of the roosters is quite distinctive.) All the animals that will be butchered get named "Hamburger," "Lamb Chop," or the like. If we get a male goat kid, I'm lobbying for naming him "Chev," short for "Chevon," which is what the French call goat meat.

22 February 2007

We're Kidding!

Went out to the barn about an hour ago to do the evening chores, and discovered a newborn kid at the feet of Queen Anne's Lace The Goat!

The other goat (Double Play) was bleating, and was clearly trying to take over some of the motherly duties (licking it off, etc.) as if it was her own.

I called my wife, and she and our children quickly came out to the barn to see. Soon after everyone assembled in the barn, the second kid dropped out.

Together, we moved Double Play out of the kidding stall and into the area where the sheep had been during/after the blizzard. She's been protesting loudly, and has jumped the stall a couple of times already; she clearly wants in on the kidding action.

We spread a deep layer of fresh straw into the kidding stall, and helped the first kid begin nursing. As it's fairly cold out (though not nearly as bad as last week), I set up one of the 250 watt infrared heat lamps we use for brooding chicks and parked both kids under it.

Right now, we've decided to clear everyone out of the barn so Queen Anne's Lace The Goat can finish licking off the kids and get them nursing. At least with the sheep, we've found that leaving a new animal family alone is the best thing we can do. God has given these mother animals very powerful instincts, and the less we interfere in the process the better. I'll check back in a little bit, just to make sure all is progressing and they're not shivering too much.

The best news is that both kids appear to be females. Given what a wonderful dairy animal QAL has been, we're hoping that at least one of these two will grow up to be an excellent milk producer.

21 February 2007

Memento homo quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris

Remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.

With those words, we began the season of Lent this morning. Today, Ash Wednesday, is a day of fasting and abstaining from meat. Over the next forty days, we will try to increase our spirit of penance not only by giving up things that are bad for us (alcohol, candy), but also things that are good (for me, it's switching from whole bean coffee to the stuff that comes in a can). We also try to do more spiritual and corporal works of mercy, increase our almsgiving (a good use for the beer, candy, and coffee money saved), and, above all, take better care of our spiritual life and family relationships.

It's kind of strange, but I've grown to appreciate Lent a lot more since moving to the farm. Agriculture is all about following the cycles of nature and the seasons; there is a time for planting, a time for harvesting, a time for new life to be born or to hatch, a time for livestock to be butchered---and a time for everything to slow down, regroup, and take a long rest. The goats don't give milk all year. The chickens and ducks don't lay eggs all year. The grape vines go dormant. The vegetable garden goes barren and is covered with snow. All of these things happen so the animals and plants and soil can take a break from "growing on the outside" and rededicate themselves to "growing on the inside."

We humans are no different. We need a season where we step back, put aside some of the things we enjoy, and take some time to "grow on the inside." That's what we'll be doing, starting today, and starting by remembering that we are dust---no different from the dust outside in our vegetable garden, covered with snow. By putting aside the things that aren't so important, we'll hopefully get a better grasp on the things that are important---and in the process learn to rededicate ourselves all the better to those more important things.

For those who are interested in going deeper into a life of prayer this Lent, a book I've found to be extremely helpful is Volume II of In Conversation with God. There is a short chapter, divided into three sub-sections, for each day of Lent and Eastertide. The three sub-sections revolve around the day's central theme, usually drawn from that day's Mass readings. It is written with the lay person in mind, with a practical focus on how we can better live out the faith in the middle of the world. That's why I've found that the books in this series (and there are seven of them, covering the entire year) provide such excellent material for prayer: they're not written for eighteenth century cloistered nuns---they're written for us.

What many people do is spend five minutes slowly reading the first subsection, five minutes turning that material over in their heads, five minutes reading the next subsection, and so on for a half hour.

But there are no hard and fast rules. The important thing is, whatever you do this Lent, I hope you find something that helps you grow on the inside.

17 February 2007

Never Comprehending the Race had Long Gone By

I've had that line, from a song by the group Modern English, going through my head for awhile now. It's something I think about whenever I read some kind of rant about contemporary American race relations that implies the country is still stuck in the 1950s. This is something we seem to hear a lot during February, which is Black History Month. It amazes me that so many think that in terms of race relations, 2007 America is essentially indistinguishable from 1957 America.

And speaking of prejudices and preconceptions, a widely-accepted one that I seldom hear questioned is that rural people are filled with racial bigotry. This is something I've been wanting to address for some time.

Although I am white, my wife is black. I admit that when we were first contemplating moving to the country, the notion of "rural bigotry" was an important concern and something we discussed at some length. In the end, we determined that we would rather deal with whatever racial hostility we may encounter in rural Illinois than continue putting up with the urbanization of Los Angeles. Besides, Los Angeles had plenty of racial tension of its own.

So, what happened when we moved here? The community welcomed us with open arms...and that includes the guy around the corner who has an enormous Confederate flag decal filling the rear window of his pickup truck. The first month or so we were here, we got exactly one hostile look (from a woman in the crowd at a farm auction we were attending). But other than that? Absolutely nothing, unless you count curious looks from small children.

What got me thinking and stewing about this was a recent (uncritical) book review in our diocesan newspaper. The book in question is self-published, by a priest from Nigeria doing graduate studies in St. Louis. The review is reproduced verbatim on the book's Amazon page, in case you're curious.

The book claims that racial bigotry and prejudice are widespread in America, including within the Catholic Church. The author details all kinds of slights that he has endured, and derides this country (which, I would point out, he chose to come to and chooses to stay in) for its intolerance toward people with his skin color. And he singles out American Catholics as being no less bigoted than anyone else in this country.

I found myself asking "what country is this guy living in?" and "what decade is this guy living in?" The country he describes is entirely different from the one our family has experienced. We and our children have lived in rural communities, suburbs, and large cities, in a variety of regions, including the old Confederacy. Our first child, much to my wife's chagrin, was born south of Mason-Dixon. Our parishes have ranged from traditional to contemporary. In more than eleven years of marriage, we can count on one hand the number of prejudiced reactions we have experienced—and one of these was from another black. Only one of these incidents occurred in a Catholic church.

I suppose this is ultimately a question of perspective; I don't doubt that the author has encountered hostility in this country, and I don't doubt that he chalks that up to American bigotry. But I suspect (and this is purely supposition - I haven't read his book) that much of that hostility is based as much on cultural differences and misunderstandings as it is on race per se. For example, apparently he once tried to give a dying person the Anointing of the Sick, and the person asked for some other priest to give it instead. Could racism have caused the person's reaction? Sure. But might it also have been based on the priest's heavy accent and manner of interacting with with the dying person? Might the dying person have felt more comfortable with a priest of his own culture? And might the same thing have happened if the priest was from, say, Poland or Romania? I don't know, but I think it's worth considering.

I don't mean to single out one particular book, or to bash one particular author. I'm hoping to make a more general point about the evolution of race relations in this country. As you hear others, in this month of February, deride the USA for its faults of racial justice, please keep our family and our experiences in mind as a counterpoint.

And for those who might be thinking about moving to the country, but have been hesitant because you've been told that rural people are intolerant: it's not necessarily true. Different regions and different communities might have different kinds of people. But at least here in Ford County, Illinois, race has "long gone by" as an issue. The future is open wide, and getting better all the time.

16 February 2007


Tabasco lives!

The crazy dog dissappeared Monday night, as the blizzard was moving in. We hadn't seen her since, and had long ago given her up for dead.

Turns out, she'd somehow managed to climb into an old (non-functioning) station wagon that's parked on the property. I use the car to store empty chicken feed bags. On Monday night, I'd opened that car up to get some bags to burn in the woodstove during the blizzard. Aparently, Tabasco jumped into the car when I had my back turned. I never saw it happen.

Several times over the last few days, I've thought I heard her barking. But it sounded far off, and like it could've been a neighbor's dog. And this was usually at night. I chalked it up to my imagination playing tricks.

Then, this afternoon, I happened to be out in the driveway when she did it again. I couldn't believe my eyes...or ears. I let her out, and she tore all around the property like nothing had happened. She was hungry, and thirsty, and had definitely lost some weight, but was very much alive. I have no idea how she survived for four days in such bitter cold (it was ten below last night). But I've long stopped trying to figure this crazy dog out. I'm just glad she's back.

15 February 2007

Awash in Snow!

It's been a dizzying week. The whole family went down hard with the flu last Wednesday (the 7th). For several days, we did little else but eat chicken soup, sleep, and feed the wood stove. Then, early Tuesday morning, that nasty blizzard came through. All day Tuesday, we had sheets of horizontal snow. Hard to tell if the sun came out at all that day; it was like one big gray blur. It was all I could do to pick my way through the waist-high snowdrifts to go back and forth from the house to my office.

The sheep needed special attention. Their pasture shelters are usually fine and comfortable for them, even in heavy snow --- but we now had so much snow, the drifts were cutting the sheep off from those shelters. When I brought them hay in the afternoon, they tried to bound through the drifts to meet me, and most of them sank to their waists (many of the drifts were taller than the sheep.)
With snow still coming down in horizontal sheets, my wife and I decided we had to do something if we didn't want to lose the flock. We don't have a lot of space in the barn for animals, so we had to get creative. Together, we moved the two dairy goats to a small stall in the far corner of the barn. With Queen Anne's Lace The Goat about to kid, we were going to need to move her to this area within the next week anyhow.

We spread fresh straw onto the goats' usual area, opened up the gates leading from the pasture to that area, and then set about trying to move the sheep into the barn.

Unfortunately, they saw us coming out to the pasture through the snowstorm and panicked. Some ran into snowdrifts. Others ran into another part of the pasture. After considerable effort, all with horizontal snow still swirling around us, my wife and I managed to get the sheep all moving in the right direction. Through the gates they went, and into the goat area of the barn. A few minutes later, they were feasting on hay and getting their fill of fresh water. My wife and I went inside to the wood stove to thaw ourselves out.

Wednesday morning, the sun finally came out. The pasture is still full of snowdrifts, so we've left the sheep in the barn for now. It's much easier to keep their water liquid in there, and they don't seem to mind being out of the snow.

Our neighbor came over Wednesday morning with his tractor, which has a snowplow attachment. He plowed all the way to the barn, opening up a path for me to get my 4x4 truck out. I love having neighbors like these. We didn't even have to ask him for help; he was just out plowing his own driveway, and realized we could use some help. Here's a picture of how much snow he moved to open up the barn:
This is a good shot of the snow drifts by an old garage building on our property. This is NOT a pile of plowed snow. It is a drift:
The ducks have a 3-foot high shelter in the vineyard. Over the course of Tuesday, it almost completely filled with snow; I fully expected to lose all of them. Remarkably, however, there was a pocket of open space at the back of the shelter. All of them rode the storm out back there, and are now happily waddling around on top of the snow in the vineyard. Look at the drifts, though:
We don't seem to have lost any animals...except Tabasco. Monday night, when I came in from work, she ran off to romp. That's not unusual, especially after having laid around on my office couch all day. But when she didn't return after dinner, we got worried. We knew the storm was coming in, and she'd be in big trouble if she pulled another of her mysterious disappearences. We whistled and called, and kept looking out the window for her until bedtime. But she never returned. The only way she could've possibly survived is if she'd taken shelter at another farm. But here it is Thursday, and we haven't seen or heard anything. Even Tuesday evening, we were talking about her in the past tense. Very sad, particularly thinking about the poor dog freezing to death alone in the blizzard.
But all the rest of us are okay. Just trying to finish digging out.

06 February 2007

Snowed In

The frigid temps have relented just a bit --- or at least the winds have died down. I can handle the cold air temperature; it's the prairie wind that is the real killer. As the temperature rose today, the snow started to come down.

Scooter is still trying to figure the snow out. It's the first significant accumulation he's experienced, and it's that dry fluffy stuff. He's spent the better part of the day romping around in it. Reminds me of when I was a kid.

Speaking of kids, note the blue plastic kiddie wading pool (foreground of photo above) that's basically buried in snow. In the spring/summer/fall, the ducks use that for swimming and bathing.

This is the view looking north from outside my office. Just like being back in their native Iceland for these guys:

04 February 2007

The Hardest Thing

Some time back, I blogged that deciding which animals to cull and which to keep was among the hardest things a livestock owner must do.

Actually, I'd forgotten about something that's even harder. I got a reminder of it this morning. (And, no, it's not braving sub-zero wind chills to haul water to sheep.)

One of our barn cats had been missing for over a week. This in itself was not unusual; our cats and the next farm's cats frequently "trade barns." So, I wasn't terribly surprised to find him back in our dairy goat stall when I came out this morning. Except something was wrong: the cat was wailing plaintively, and wasn't getting up.

A closer look revealed that his left hind leg was not only broken in several places, but also very badly mutilated. I picked him up, and he seemed to have lost considerable weight. When I set him back down, he managed to hop around on three legs with surprising agility. But I figured that even if the vet managed to amputate the mutilated leg, and he didn't already have some nasty infection, this cat's prognosis was very dim. There was only one thing I could do for him, and it's the thing I find most difficult about having animals.

It didn't help that he continued wailing the whole time I carried him over to my office building. And then, as I loaded my .22 rifle, he hopped a few times on his three legs. Not so much to get away, it seemed, as to show me that he could still function. But even that didn't last long. He sat down awkwardly, and turned away. I was glad I didn't have to see him looking at me. One well-placed pop, and it was over.

I didn't have a close attachment to this cat, but that didn't make it any easier. I've long gotten over my unease at dispatching chickens and ducks and turkeys; they are livestock, and we know from day one what every bird's ultimate end will be. With the companion animals, it's much harder.

But even harder than that is when the animal is one we have struggled against all odds to save, and maybe that's one reason I didn't call the vet on a Sunday morning and see if he could schedule an emergency amputation. Last summer, one of our lambs managed to contract tetanus. At first, we thought it was just pneumonia. We treated him, and bottle-fed him, and spent a lot of time caring for him. Then his symptoms got worse and worse, his jaws locked up, and he began foaming at the mouth. And then he couldn't get up on his feet. Once we realized it was tetanus, and knew there was no way to alleviate his agony, we knew he had to be dispatched...and that job, naturally, fell to me. It took me a long time to get over that one.

Bottom line of this rambling and depressing post: if you're planning to have your own livestock --- even just barn cats --- make sure you're also preparing yourself to put them down if you have to.

03 February 2007

Really, Really Cold

Temps here have dropped through the floor, but that's not the worst of it: the wind is blowing across the open prairie at 25+ MPH, sending the wind chills well below zero. The air temps aren't supposed to get back above 20 until Thursday at the earliest. At least it's bright and sunny outside, but we could sure use some global warming right about now.

Time to hunker down and throw another log on the fire. The wife and kids are out of town visiting grandparents, or they'd be bouncing off walls for sure. My plans: pull up a chair in front of the woodstove and read a J. A. Jance mystery novel I've been wanting to get to. No doubt the dogs will follow me in and sprawl out on the kitchen floor. Can't blame them; it sure beats burrowing into straw in the barn, and they've long ago figured out that I'm a softie for letting dogs in the house. Here are Tessa and Scooter, in my office on a recent cold day.

How cold is it? The weekly Saturday night Bingo game at our parish has already been cancelled. Members of our Knights of Columbus council take turns running those games, and this was my week. I've been planning to blog about Bingo, with some thoughts I've had about these events. Maybe tonight, now that I've suddenly got several more hours than I thought I was going to have, and I'll have the house to myself. But for now, I need to go throw another log on the fire.