30 June 2008

The Not So Good Shepherd

Managing sheep, particularly when out watching them graze, is wonderful fodder for prayer about the "Good Shepherd." Just a couple of weeks ago, after bringing the sheep in to the fold from the pasture, we seemed a few lambs short. I took Homeschooled Farm Girl and Scooter the Amazing Wonderdog back out in the high weeds for a second look --- and located the lambs which had become disoriented and left behind.

But every shepherding story doesn't have such a happy ending. Regular blog readers know we had a bumper crop of lambs born this year; the eight ewes had 16 live births. Tabasco, our occasionally hyperactive Red Healer, killed one of those lambs when it was a week old, but we hadn't had any other deaths.

Alas, that record was not to stand. With this many lambs, we were due for some kind of disappointment. A few days ago, I noticed that the youngest and smallest lamb was beginning to act a bit lethargic and to hang back from the rest of the flock. I immediately administered an apple cider vinegar drench, which is a nice overall tonic. He would still get up and walk just fine, but I quickly discovered the root of his lethargy problem: he was getting crowded out at the hay feeders. And he was a little too small to reach the drinking water in the stock tank once the level had gone down --- and ditto for the mineral in the mineral bucket.

Over the next couple of days, I kept close tabs on him and tried to make sure he got better nutrition...but the damage had apparently been done. Once a lamb gets beyond a certain point, it's sometimes difficult to get their health built back up again to where they can hold their own with the flock. Saturday afternoon, he was still making an effort to eat --- but by Saturday night it was clear he wasn't going to make it. He'd crawled into a corner, put his head down, and begun breathing heavily.

As the rest of the flock enjoyed a late evening snack of hay, I took the little lamb in my arms and sat down to comfort him. I'd seen this more times than I care to count, and knew he was now in the death spiral. I talked soothingly to him, rubbed his back and stomach, and tried to find a position that would let him breathe a little easier. Most of all, I told him I was sorry I couldn't have done more for him.

But I couldn't bear to put a bullet in his head. I save that action for the most severely injured livestock. For a sick lamb, I hold out hope to the very end that he might get a good night's sleep, or that his immune system will kick in, or that he'll find a hidden reserve. So I made him comfortable in his corner of the barn, locked everything up, and called it a night.

Not surprisingly, Sunday morning, he was exactly where I'd left him. As the rest of the flock got busy eating, I found an old paper feed bag and managed to slide his stiffened body into it for disposal. (With the heat this week, I didn't want to just throw the body into the trash can without something around it to help contain the smell. And I certainly didn't want to leave his body in the hedgerow, where it might attract predators like the fox I'd just spooked off.)

In a thoroughly melancholy frame of mind, I went about the rest of my morning chores. It always bothers me when I can't save one of our animals, especially one as innocent as a little lamb. I suppose I ought to be used to it by now, but it still gets to me. And that gave me an awful lot to think about for the whole rest of the day.

26 June 2008

Don't Mess with the Goose

We're down to two geese, and both of them are a few years old. We got some eggs from them this spring, but they've stopped laying for the year. For various reasons (especially that we still have several geese in the freezer), we decided not to raise any this year. Older geese are tough as shoe leather, so I've been thinking about butchering them and boiling them for 24 hours to make soup.

One thing I love about geese: they can be tough as shoe leather even when they're still alive. Last night, both of them remained outside the barn when I locked up and secured all the other animals. "Suit yourselves," I muttered, looking at the two of them sitting stubbornly in the chicken/sheep enclosure behind the barn. I went in the house and went to bed.

Not three minutes after my head hit the pillow, I heard one of the geese making a terrific racket. It was definitely a fighting noise, and so loud it traveled all the way across our property. I thought for a moment, and then threw on some clothes, grabbed a high powered flashlight, and ran to the barn.

One goose was still in the enclosure, looking as indignant as a goose can look, and the other one had flown over the fence into the pasture. Whipping the light around a bit more, I found the perp: a fox was slipping through the fence and slinking out into the hay field. Kicking myself for not having taken the shotgun from our bedroom closet on my way down, I ran to my office for the backup 12-gauge I keep there.

By the time I loaded the shotgun and circled the barn, the fox was about halfway across the hay field. He turned and looked at me, his eyes lighting up in the night and making him an easy target --- if only I had a way to keep the huge spotlight on him while handling a shotgun. [Note to self: Next shotgun must be one with a mount for a tactical light.] Necessity being the mother of invention, I wedged the spotlight between my legs and managed to get it trained on the fox --- who was now beginning to trot across the hay field again.

I figured he was about out of range, especially in the questionable lighting conditions, but it was still worth teaching him a lesson. I drew the 12 gauge to my shoulder, pointed in his direction, and squeezed the trigger. The ROAR it made was very satisfying, and I loved the way the blast echoed off the stands of trees and bushes ringing our field. A moment later, I heard something (presumably the fox) crashing through that brush at high speed.

I made my way back to the barn, and discovered a trail of feathers where the goose had made her stand and fought off the attacker. I managed to get both geese in to the barn and the door re-secured, and put the shotgun away. At the very worst, I (and the goose) hopefully gave the fox a scare he won't forget. At best, I hopefully managed to pepper his tail. Either way, I doubt he'll be coming back again any time soon.

25 June 2008

Goat Updates

Time has been flying here, with the new farm keeping us busy. Fortunately, as the children are getting older they're becoming much more helpful in the garden and with the animals.

Hard to believe that Queen Anne's Lace (QAL) the Goat's kids are now three weeks old. The twin boys are doing very well, and we've recently moved them and QAL back in with the rest of the herd. She's endowed with incredibly large teats, which are a mixed blessing. She's extremely easy to milk, as the things are like sausages --- unlike the tiny little things on some other goats that you can barely get two fingers around. But that convenience comes at a price; the teats are so big around, and hang down so low, newborn kids simply cannot get down low enough to reach them --- or even get one into their mouth without assistance.

Homeschooled Farm Girl to the rescue! Several times a day, she went to the kidding pen and made sure both little kids got latched on and nursed out plenty of milk. Then, after a couple of weeks, I noticed that the kids were figuring it out on their own. HFG continued to double-check the kids, but they're now at the point where they don't need any help.

Meanwhile, I wish we could say the same about Biscuits the Goat Kid. As you recall, he'd been rejected by his mother --- and then developed pneumonia, which occupied us for the better part of a weekend and ran up a vet bill basically equal to what he's worth in meat. He did survive the pneumonia, but we've been paying closer attention to him --- and drawing some unsettling conclusions.

The bottom line is this: Biscuits is S-T-U-P-I-D.

How stupid? He cannot learn how to drink water from a bucket. Oh, we've tried. HFG has tried. You put his face near the water, lift some water up to his lips to demonstrate what's in the bucket...and then he shakes his head and pulls away. You put his mouth down into the water, and he just stands there like a statue. You put more of his mouth into the water, and then he snorts like crazy and shakes his way free so he can breathe. The only way he will drink is out of a bottle with a nipple. As a result, HFG has had to go out a few times a day and give him several bottles full of water. Couldn't we simply let him get really thirsty, so he'd have to learn how to drink? Unfortunately, that's how he got pneumonia. He's so stupid (or his mouth is so malformed), he never figured it out; the pneumonia came, we think, from his getting dehydrated and weakened.

A local farmer who raises dairy goats mentioned that mother goats often reject kids that have some inherent defect. Even if that defect may not be obvious to human eyes, the mother goat just seems to "know" that a particular kid ought to be weeded from the gene pool. The more MYF and I observe Biscuits, the smarter his mother appears. And we're starting to wonder if perhaps Bianca the sheep (AKA "BianKKKa") knew what she was doing in rejecting one of her lambs two years in a row --- the one we saved and bottle-fed last year has yet to really develop fully, has a lousy set of horns, and did not even bear a lamb this year; we're going to cull and butcher that one when we take this year's lambs in.

In the meantime, HFG is clearly getting frustrated with Biscuits, because we've told her she must keep giving him water so we don't lose all that meat. Last night at dinner, out of the blue, sweet and innocent HFG asked, "When are we going to take Biscuits to have his brains bashed in?" As MYF and I reprimanded HFG for the inappropriate language and tone, it was all I could do to keep from doubling over and laughing at these completely unexpected words.

Answer: Soon, Honey. Hopefully real soon.

22 June 2008

Stopped Clock

No doubt you've heard the expression, "A stopped clock is right twice a day."

Watching the baseball game tonight, I was thinking about that --- because I at last discovered an area of congruence between myself and Barack Obama: we are both fans of the Chicago White Sox.

But don't worry. Still not going to vote for the guy.

20 June 2008

Slipping Away

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer (MYF) had quite an eye-opening adventure yesterday: trying to locate an adjustable slip that nine-year-old Homeschooled Farm Girl (HFG) could wear under her new dresses. We're not talking anything fancy here. Most of HFG's dresses are of the "everyday" variety, but we consider them a bit too thin to wear modestly without a slip.

MYF had never seen slips at the "superstores" she shops at most: Wal-Mart, Meijer, etc. Those are great places to get Junior Slut In Training outfits, but we rarely get any clothing there other than underwear, socks, and jeans for the boys. So, MYF called her aunt (BTW, in the black community it's pronounced "ONT," something I will never get used to saying) and asked for advice. Aunt Rita suggested Sears or J.C. Penney's; as MYF recalled her own mother buying slips at Sears when she was a girl, she decided to try that one first.

Uh, uh...sorry. Bad move. The children's department had zip, zero, nada --- but the clerk was kind enough to suggest MYF try a ballet studio. Using her cell phone and the store's phone book, MYF called J.C. Penney's, and both ballet studios in town. Nobody had anything. Just as MYF was snapping her phone shut, a nice older woman emerged from the bathroom. "I overheard you earlier. What you're looking for is a dinosaur," she said, sadly.

Undaunted, MYF decided to pursue another line of attack: based on the advice of a ballet studio clerk, she phoned the two bridal shops in town. Surely a bridal shop would have a slip that a Flower Girl could wear at a wedding, right? Nope. But the woman at one of the shops was kind enough to flip through all of her catalogues, seeing what could be ordered. But nothing sounded like it would work.

Frustrated but not defeated, MYF and the kids finally left Jackson and made their way to Ann Arbor to visit Grandma in the nursing home. Surely the big, upscale department stores like Macy's would have something, right? Not a chance. One of them said they could order something, but it wasn't the right size and the straps didn't adjust. At least MYF was doing this by phone, from the nursing home, and not driving all over town.

When she arrived home (quite late) yesterday evening and shared this sad tale of woe, I suggested she turn to the Internet. Her first move was to Google the words "Girls Slip" or "girls slip lingerie" or some such thing. Uhm...bad move. Most of the sites that came up were pretty unmentionable, and reminded me of the time I Googled the term "Vietnamese girls" while researching my novel. I suggested she refine her search, and then she finally got some usable results. With a bit of comparison shopping, she found the best source: an outlet/closeout place called Boscovs. But given that these are closeouts, MYF thought it would be wise to order three slips: one in HFG's current size, and one each in the next two larger sizes.

But you know what? It shouldn't be this difficult to find modest clothing for little homeschooled farm girls. And it's a crying shame that you can't find anything modest in retail stores.

17 June 2008

Latest Review

Catholic writer and editor Regina Doman, author of several novels and other books (including the bestselling Angel in the Waters), has posted an excellent review of my novel, Passport. In part:

It's a great read whose message doesn't obscure the page-turning romance, a story that will have a special resonance with Catholic men, especially dads.

On the first page of the book, Stan Eigenbauer, vintage car specialist and comfortable Catholic, meets the girl of his dreams -- or so he hopes. Trinh Le is a gifted photographer, an immigrant from Vietnam, luminous and fragile -- and already married and separated from her
sinister husband. The tangling of their lives and a fateful choice throws Stan into a heart-wrenching moral dilemma with tragic consequences. But Stan decides to make a heroic choice and shoulder a burden most men would want to leave behind.

Stan's saga is one my husband and I thoroughly enjoyed, and we're happy to recommend this book. For those of you on the lookout for emerging Catholic genre fiction, you will want to check out this book.
I owe a deep debt of gratitude to Regina and her husband, Andrew. In the months before Passport was published, I sent them an Advance Reading Copy of the book. The two of them finished it in a matter of days, and liked it very much, but had several excellent suggestions for improving it. We stayed up late one night in mid-March, talking through what they liked and what could be enhanced. Although the basic story and conflict of the novel remained the same, their suggestions helped significantly improve the execution.

15 June 2008

Catholic Media Review

Catholic Media Review is up with a review of my novel. It's a cross-post of an earlier review that Ellen Gable Hrkach originally had up on the Catholic Fire blog. For those who missed it the first time around, here are the relevant exerpts:

Passport illustrates the growth of a man who strives to do the right thing, and shows that the struggle to live chastity does not end with marriage; it is simply lived out in a different way. Stan eventually comes to the realization that only in dying to ourselves can we truly love others and find meaningful happiness. It was a joy to read such an uplifting story in this day and age where self-centeredness is the norm.

I most strongly recommend Passport to Catholics in their twenties and thirties, although all people would find the story interesting. There are some romantic elements in the book but this is decidedly not a romance novel in any traditional sense. As a woman, I enjoyed reading a story from a man’s perspective, especially the inner workings of a man’s mind regarding chastity and natural family planning.

I would highly recommend Passport as it is easy to read, well-written and the characters are rich and well-developed. Blunt’s portrayal of family life is especially real, down to earth and believable.

12 June 2008

Turkeys Take Two

We still have four turkeys alive from our original batch; they've been moved out to a pasture pen in Mrs Yeoman Farmer's garden. My folks were in town last week, and my father helped me build the pen (we had to leave our old pens behind in Illinois).

The pen is 4' wide and 8' long, and is designed to run up and down MYF's garden beds that are not in use this year. The turkeys will keep the weeds down and drop fertilizer, all the while getting nice supplemental green stuff in their diet. The pen, which is made of 2x4 studs and plywood, cost a total of $55; it could've been a lot less if we'd had scrap lumber available.

Meanwhile, back in the brooder in the barn, the twenty new little turkey poults are settling in well. We got the call from the post office this morning at 7:30am, and Homeschooled Farm Boy drove in to town with me to get them. He had a grand time holding the box of peeping poults on his lap as we drove home, and helping me unload them into the brooder.

These little guys look like they had a much smoother trip than the previous batch did, and they're much more active in getting around for feed and water. Hopefully we'll end up with lots of nice big turkeys this Thanksgiving.

10 June 2008

Another Review

Thanks very much to Jim over at the Ars Catholica blog for posting a review of my novel.

In part:

The well-paced book describes the life of Stan Eigenbauer, a young Catholic in the city of Chicago, who discovers the true meaning of the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and most of all, love.

When we first meet Stan, he leads a comfortable life unaccustomed to challenge, change, or controversy. He’s a by-the-book Catholic who hasn’t really had the opportunity in life to understand why following the book is important. But early on in the novel, he falters, and this begins the extraordinary story of his trials to care for the woman he loves at great sacrifice to himself.

Stan’s daily commitment to carrying his cross challenges the reader to consider their own commitments. The novel is in many ways an instruction on Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body told through the lives of Stan and the woman he loves. The narrative flows well, the story keeps the reader turning the page, and while there were some instances when I could predict what turn the plot would take, the end caught me very much by surprise.

In short, we need more novels like this. Stan’s life presents the Catholic view of marriage in a divorce-ridden world, where love is often reduced to lust, whether on the page or on the television screen.

And a reminder to those who haven't yet been able to pick up a copy: Amazon is still offering the the book at a substantial discount.

The Rain Keeps Falling

We've been getting an unbelievable amount of rain here, as has much of the middle of the country. As detailed in a recent post, we barely got the first cutting of hay into the barn before the rains started. In the time since, we haven't had another rain-free stretch that would have been long enough to have gotten the hay in. In other words: it's very fortunate we got the hay in when we got it in.

With all the moisture, the hay field has jumped right back into production. According to locals, last summer was so dry, the second cutting yielded only 25 bales (from a six-acre field). This year's second cutting should be a bumper crop.

But the rain also has a downside: Mrs Yeoman Farmer has been unable to plant her garden. We got the sod busted earlier in the spring, and the ground tilled up, but potatoes are the only thing she managed to put in. Those plants are doing great. But all her other seedlings are still sitting in peat pots, waiting to go in the ground.

The NY Times has a story today about the broader effects of all this rain; there are a lot of commercial grain farmers who have been unable to get crops planted. While things could turn around later, the prospects for this year's corn and soybean harvest is looking bleak:

Bob Biehl, whose farm is near St. Louis, has managed to plant only 140 of the 650 acres he wanted to devote to corn. Some farmers in his area “haven’t even been able to take the tractor out of the shed,” he said.

United States soybean plantings are running 16 percent behind last year. Rice is tardy in Arkansas, which produces nearly half the country’s crop. “We’re certainly not going to have as good a crop as we had hoped,” said Harvey Howington of the Arkansas Rice Growers Association. “I don’t think this is good news for anybody.”

Harvests ebb and flow, of course. But with supplies of most of the key commodities at their lowest levels in decades, there is little room for error this year. American farmers are among the world’s top producers, supplying 60 percent of the corn that moves across international borders in a typical year, as well as a third of the soybeans, a quarter of the wheat and a tenth of the rice.

“If we have bad crops, it’s going to be a wild ride,” said the Agriculture Department’s chief economist, Joseph Glauber. “There’s just no cushion.”

No cushion. That, it seems to me, is one of the biggest problems with ethanol subsidies and mandates --- and the wildlife conservation programs that pay farmers to take land out of production. They may seem like good ideas when harvests are bountiful, but it's hard to tell when a year like this current one may be coming. And by the time we're in the midst of a year like this one, it's far too late to reverse course.

Few of us can do anything about soaring gas prices; backyard oil wells are impractical, and backyard oil refineries are even less so. But food is different: nearly everyone with a bit of sunny yard can plant a garden. My hope is that this year of soaring food prices will lead more Americans to rediscover gardening and other ways of producing their own food.

Assuming, of course, that the rain ever lets up enough for even us backyard gardeners to get our plots planted...

06 June 2008

I Smell Like a Goat

Queen Anne's Lace The Goat kidded tonight --- our final delivery of the year. Homeschooled Farm Girl (HFG) came in with the big news, right around dinner time. We went out to get them situated in the kidding pen; they were filthy, having been born in a part of the regular goat pen that was fairly dirty. The kids were so young, the couldn't even stand up yet. Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I carried the kids, and HFG made sure Queen Anne's Lace followed us. We got fresh straw spread around, and made sure they were comfortable.

After dinner, we came out to check on them. The kids (both males) had gotten up and were staggering around, which was good. But they were having a tough time figuring out how to nurse --- and QAL was extremely engorged. I got down on my hands and knees under her, trying to get one kid on each teet. One figured it out a lot quicker than the other, but I still ended up under there for quite awhile, holding their heads steady and the teats in their mouths.

Meanwhile, I feel grubby with milk and goat afterbirth. And goat kid spit. But the kids did get a good first meal, and hopefully that'll give them the energy they need to have a good first night.

02 June 2008

Making Hay

One of the key features of our new property is a 6-acre, established hay field. With a flock of ten breeding sheep, and four goats, we go through a lot of hay each winter. And at $5 per bale (or higher), the total bill can get pretty steep pretty fast.

A local farmer had been renting that field for $275 per year and taking all the hay to sell. Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I were astonished at that deal --- particularly since the rent had not increased in ten years. Given that he was probably reaping in excess of 700 bales per year, he was making a fortune. We introduced ourselves to this farmer, and proposed a new arrangement: we charge no rent, you cut and bale the hay, and we split the hay. His offer? Okay, but he keeps 75% of the hay. That was so laughable, I didn't even respond. A moment later, he hedged a bit and said he could go "no lower" than two-thirds / one-third. I told him we'd think about it, but it didn't take me and MYF long to decide this was a lousy deal.

We began making inquiries, and discovered a nice family that was the friend of one our friends. They do custom haying, and came over to look at our field. We agreed to have them do all the cutting and bailing, and to haul all the hay into our barn, for $2 per bale. Although the field will produce far more hay than our animals can eat in one year, we decided we'd rather not part with any. Rather, given the enormous capacity of our barn, it made sense to stockpile as much as possible. In a drought year, hay could become scarce --- particularly since so many farmers have been plowing their hay fields under so they can plant more corn. (Hay is already fetching upwards of $6-$7 per bale at local auctions.) Besides, in the next year or two, our field will need to be replanted with alfalfa (a planting of alfalfa is good for only 7 years or so, and ours is nearing the end of its run), and our yield might be quite low that year. We figured it would be prudent to have a good stash of hay. Heck, it doesn't spoil as long as it's kept dry.

Ah, yes. Keeping dry. The family came over to cut our hay a week ago. Then they came back a couple of days later to flip it over to continue the drying process. The plan was to bale it on Friday...but as the week progressed, the weather forecast for Friday became increasingly bleak. Thunderstorms were a near-certainty; if the hay got soaked as it lay on the ground, it wouldn't be clear how much could be salvaged. But Thursday was too soon to bale it, so we had to watch the hay as it lay in the field, raked neatly into windrows, and wonder if our animals would ever get to feast on it.

So we prayed. And prayed. And prayed. And got up Friday morning to discover a gray, unsettled-looking sky. So we prayed some more.

The farm family arrived just after lunch, with two strong young local boys in tow. They worked quickly, with one eye on the sky and the other on the field ahead. The tractor and its baler were a fascinating combination to watch: it sucked the hay up, fed it through a device, and nice square bales emerged from a chute. One of the boys would then stack these bales neatly on the hay wagon that was in tow.

They had two hay wagons. Once one wagon was full, they would tow it around to the barn, back it up the slope into the second story, detach the wagon, and go back out in the field with the fresh wagon. As they filled it with more bales, the wife and one of the boys (and, when available, MYF), stacked those bales in the barn. Then the husband would pull up with another load, they'd trade wagons, and keep the cycle going.

We got the final load stacked in the barn just after 7pm. We looked at the counting device on the baler, and found we had harvested 451 bales! Looking at the amount of work and equipment involved, and considering that we now had basically a full year's worth of hay in the barn, the $900 price tag seemed very reasonable. They will be back in 28 days to do the second cutting, and we will get a third cutting later in the summer. Even though second and third cuttings yield fewer bales, we still should get at least 600 more bales this year. Am I ever glad we have such a big barn!

And there's one other big thing to be glad about: the weather held. We didn't get a drop of rain the whole time they were working, despite skies that never got sunny. And then, five minutes after their truck pulled off our property, all those clouds opened up. Rain came down in buckets, soaking everything in sight.

We ran for the house, and raised prayers of thanksgiving --- not only that the hay had remained dry, but for the wonderful rain that will immediately help our field to begin growing again.