News and Blog
May 26, 2016
Sometimes moving animals and temporary fences seems like a pretty cushy farmer job; and then there are other times. Last evening we challenged the cow/calf pairs more than usual by moving them across a small stream into a whole new pasture. For some of the calves it meant leaving the pasture they were born on and moving into the great unknown across the creek. Calves are always the wild card in moves like this.
I didn't get home from market till 8 pm, the girls were at a sleepover celebrating the end of their 8th grade year and this move is not a one person job. By the time I got extra meat back in the freezer it was nearly dark and the cows were more than ready to move.
Roy walked through the pasture to make sure all the calves were up and with the herd, (a mistake you only need to make once!) and I discretely blocked the path to the road. We opened the gates and mama cows made a beeline for the lush grass across the way and the calves stood at the open gate, looked into the expanse their mamas had disappeared into and turned around and ran joyfully back from whence they came. First time Roy was patient, circling behind them, egging them on while I called to them from the other side.
By the fourth time there were a few colorful adjectives coming from Roy’s mouth. We were down to only a few calves when the cows suddenly realized their babies were not there and they started bawling and running back through the gate. They scolded and gathered their fearful calves and herded them across the creek; all except one ornery little heifer calf. It was full dark when a few of her little buddies wandered back to the gate to look for her and she made her way across and into the herd.
We had to move the water tank, mineral block, and add a few extra hoses to the waterline before we done for the night. It was after ten when got into the kitchen for snack in lieu of dinner.
Working among contented, grazing cows at night when it is cool, and the frogs are peeping and chirping, is very peaceful. Disagreements and stresses are put into perspective as the stars begin to appear in the sky. So miniscule we are in this vast universe, so silly many of thoughts that clutter our days. Sleep comes quickly after a quiet night’s work.
It appears I only get around to blogging when I have to say goodbye or express some mild frustration we experience with farming. All autumn I meant to write about the resurrection of our trusty blue Subaru. On the recommendation of a friend, we found a used, low-mileage engine, and viola, our old, familiar Subaru is back in business.
I wish there was a way to resurrect the friend we say goodbye to this week.
Yesterday our dear Mac was hit by a van and killed. It was not as you might expect since we live along a rural highway; this accident took place at our neighbor's farm, where Mac was visiting his friend. (Not to worry, his friend is spade. And they were friends; it was obvious when they played together that they were having fun.) Anyway, while there, the dogs ran to greet a van pulling in the long driveway. The driver slowed... perhaps too slow, maybe Mac thought it was stopping. I don't know. He was hit. It appeared to be a very quick end. For that we are grateful.
Mac.... Mac was intense from the time we brought him home as a puppy in the back of our old Volvo wagon. He was bred and bought to work sheep. The first time we took him to the barn, he crouched low and focused in on our feral chickens roaming around. Clearly he had a lot of work to do on this farm. It wasn't long till he was using that same powerful eye on the sheep, willing them to do his bidding.
Roy and Mac became quite a team. Roy the novice trainer; Mac the responsive puppy. The two of them never achieved the serene command of the flock we've all seen in the movie Babe, but Mac and Roy working together changed the way we operate the farm. Over time we depended on Mac to move the flock anywhere on the farm, even a mile down the power line to pastures we rented from a neighbor.
Mac was far more than a working dog though. He communicated with us; sometimes more clearly than we communicate with each other! Look at his eyes; they could read your expression, tone, and intent and communicate right back to you.
When he felt he was not getting the respect he deserved, as was sometimes the case with young people, he'd bite them. After all, it worked with sheep. No, Mac was not perfect. He was a complex soul. Neurotically shifting from fawning for our attention to a throaty growl to get his way. We seemed to confuse him at times. He would sulk off to his pen in the shed when we would not allow him in the laundry after he'd been rolling in a found carcass or knee deep in muddy manure.
But what will we remember most of Mac was his eager willingness to work and play. Hide and seek, Frisbee, working sheep; he was all in, all the time.
The vet told us at his last check that he was considered a senior dog. Sometimes he limped on his hind leg and he seemed content to lay about if there wasn't work or play to be had. We tell ourselves perhaps his early out saved him suffering down the road, but it's a small comfort.
We miss you buddy. We'd have liked to have you grow old and cranky with us; you certainly earned the right. Thanks for the many fond memories.
Thursday, November 12
This has been a week of pig escapes. Monday evening I went to do evening chores and about a dozen feeder pigs were rooting around with the sows and wandering around the pasture near the barn. I put the dogs away (they are absolutely no help when it comes to rounding up pigs!) and called for the girls, who had just come home from school minutes before. The three of us opened and closed gates, chased and led, shouted and cajoled, till finally all the pigs were in the right spot.
The girls were a huge help. I should not be surprised, but there is time when kids are young when they need to be told what to do in those situations instead of thinking for themselves. We are beyond that time. While I become stuck in frustration about why gates are not hung properly, they calmly go about sorting pigs, opening and closing access and addressing potential problems before they arise.
The next evening, the sows were out.
Our lovely, old, blue Subaru wagon had to be put down last week. When you spend as much depending on a car as we do, it is difficult to not become somewhat attached and see it as more than a hunk of magical metal that did out bidding at the turn of a key. No, it never looked me in the eye like Mac and Pip, but it did work hard for us. It hauled more beef, lamb, and pork around than it was ever fair of us to ask and it did so efficiently and with good energy... until it didn't. We knew this day was coming, just didn't expect it yet. We recently replaced our old farm pick up with a used Tacoma that can serve both farm and family needs, but it still isn't as efficient as the Subaru was.
No doubt my feeling blue is both the loss and also the knowledge that soon we will have to embark once again on that most-hated of all forms of shopping, vehicle purchase. Maybe the old railway line that had a station just three miles over the ridge from our house will open again one day; it's nice to dream about anyway.
Farming is hard work. Marriage is hard work. Running a small business is hard work. Doing all three together is just insane.
On good days we go about the various tasks for which we have each taken responsibility. Advising customers on how to prepare a particular cut or how to have their purchase processed. No problem. I love that part of my job. For Roy, researching and analyzing myriads of genetic data – perfect. We play to our strengths and hope to cover well enough for our weaknesses, some of which we share, like daily record keeping.
“Do you remember when that last litter of pigs was born?”
“I think it was on or around my birthday…”
“Did you get the ear tag number on that beef yesterday?”
“Are you kidding? I was just glad it loaded so easily!”
…And there are the bad days. When what seems like a normal conversation suddenly veers into familiar dark territory; that worn and rutted path that seem impossible to turn off of even though we know exactly where it ends. It escalates fast. The voices get tense. Volume goes up. In each other’s eyes we become something far from our best selves. I’m Irrational. He’s Delusional. Stomp. Curse. Walk away.
Then it is over and after a wall of silence and some space, our other selves find it is safe to return and on we go. Back to being farmers. Back to being partners. Back to being friends and lovers. It is an odd cycle and I suspect that given a little more time and maturity, that path our brains take to such a volatile place may be avoided all together. Maybe not. For now, it is what it is, familiar; a word that shares a root with family. That’s us; irrational, delusional, mostly normal, usually happy, occasionally hateful.
We generally like snakes here at Blue Rooster Farm. We were thrilled to have a black snake lay eggs in a mulch pile several years ago and enjoyed watching the baby snakes poking their heads out on warm days and sunning on the top of the pile. We have a garter snake we frequently find hanging out on our rudbeckia patch behind the house and several adult black snakes lazing around the barn.
This week when Roy was cleaning out the pig pen with the skid steer he disturbed a black snake burrowed into the manure pack. He didn't realize it was there till its head poked up above the bucket as he was exiting the barn. The poor snake was looking for way off the crazy ride it found itself on and apparently thought the skid steer cab, with Roy in it, seemed a safe place to relocate. To Roy's surprise, he suddenly had a black snake extending itself in his direction and even for someone who likes snakes, handles rattlers regularly as part of his job, it was alarming. I wasn't around to see the flailing or hear whatever shocked sound came out of his mouth, but to Roy's credit, he stayed composed enough to simply lower the bucket creating an angle that made heading towards the ground the best option for Ms. snake. Roy and the snake were unharmed. We found she had already laid a clutch of eggs in the barn and we don't know if they will survive being moved to a new nest, but we are hopeful.
It's good to have a little jolt now and then; be reminded that nature is full of surprises. It keeps us alert. No doubt our slithering friend and her offspring will continue to keep us on our toes.
We get a lot of questions about our farm name. Understandable since we do not raise chickens for sale, nor do we raise roosters for their feathers, or god forbid, fighting. The real reason for our farm name is both mundane and mysterious. We needed a name and for some odd reason when this one drifted into my mind it stuck there like a burr on a sock, irritating just enough to be given full attention. All the other names we considered came and went but that darn rooster held its own. So under pressure of time, we went with the bothersome, beautiful, noisy bird. I like him; always have. Now that our windows are open at night to cool the house and light breaks early, I am reminded why these early risers are good symbols for those of us working and living closely with the natural world. This time of year, the whole world comes alive with the rooster's crow, farmer's included, grateful for the opportunity to live and work another day.
Our lamb count is 53 and still arriving! As most of you probably know, meat, like fruits and veggies, is seasonal, especially lamb. Lambs generally arrive in winter and spring. Winter lambs are frequently sold for the Easter/Passover market, and spring lambs raised through the summer for the fall/winter market. Lambs grow at different rates based on genetics, forage quality, susceptibility to parasites etc., so there is usually a large part of the year when local lamb is available.
On Blue Rooster Farm, we lamb in March and April. Our spring ram lambs are weaned in August, about the time they become sexually mature. To reduced weaning stress and keep them growing, the ram lambs are given the best pasture. Our first lambs finish in September and we keep pulling them off lambs all fall and winter as they get to size. Right now our barnyard is full of lambs, but our freezers are getting empty! We will continue to have lamb available, however the selection may be limited. If we find a fellow farmer with similar standards who has lambs to sell, we will purchase them for our market, however, many farmers who are growing ruminants on grass are on the same lambing schedule as us.
In the fall and winter we will have plenty of lamb again. Consider purchasing a whole lamb in the winter and stocking up for the summer!:) Maybe it's time we eat meat in-season as well.
I feel we need to say more about Mac’s three-day rendezvous with the neighbor’s dog, in part because a customer has expressed concern about an intact male dog being allowed to run loose and because we know all of our customers and friends care about animal well-being. You have a right to know how and why this to happened. It is not lost on us that many unwanted dogs are euthanized every day due to irresponsible dog ownership. We don’t want to contribute to those problems.
Mac is a registered Border collie out of good herding lines. We bought him to raise as a working dog and potentially, a stud dog. Since Mac quickly demonstrated the quality of his breeding, he has been somewhat in demand as a sire of working dogs since he was two years old and he has sired a few litters for other responsible Border collie owners. His services were not cheap and we know many of the farms or country homes where his progeny now live. Of course he has become a pet as well, but our intention has always been to have him sire a litter when we found a female whose bloodlines and working characteristics were a good match for Mac. We found that dog in Pip, a young female Border collie we bought from a breeding program in North Carolina. Unfortunately, even though she has cycled a few times, they have not produced a litter. When they do, we will likely neuter Mac and retire him from stud dog service.
We do not as a matter of habit allow our dogs to run free all the time. They are only out of their pens off-leash when we are with them. We try to organize our days so that they get as much time as possible accompanying us while we work on the farm, but when we are away (which is more than we would like given Roy’s job and the amount of time Julie spends on the road making deliveries) they are kenneled or leashed. That said, Mac can evade us when he wants too in the blink of an eye when he is loose. He is also a masterful escape artist. We have had to reinforce his pen because he learned to scale 6.5 feet of wire, open the door to the outside by biting and turning a round door knob, and even chewing off the bottom of the exterior, aluminum-clad door. He is athletic, intelligent, and clearly has a lot of mojo. However, he’s well known in the neighborhood and we’ve quickly learned his pattern and either we or neighbors who care for him frequently intercept him along his escape routes quite early in his efforts to go walkabout.
In this recent case, which was a far longer disappearance than ever before, we are in contact with the family whose female dog Mac was with during his escape and have offered to help them find good homes for the puppies if she is bred. (Past attempts to have her bred have been unsuccessful, so who knows what will come of it.)
I’ll admit, I feel both confessional and a little defensive in writing this. A farm is an open ecological system in which we are participants in the types of forces and energies that make the natural environment work. Over the past seven years of having Border collies, what has amazed us is how much beauty, energy, and efficiency they bring to this place in spite of the fact that we are not totally in control of them. In that respect, they mirror all of life.
We endeavor to be transparent and we have never claimed perfection in any aspect of our lives. But we are continually trying to improve what we do.
Last evening Charlie called asking for Roy. They needed help to roll a cow who's uterus had rotated preventing the calf inside from birthing. Roy wasn't home from work so I volunteered to help. I'm not as strong as Roy but I was intrigued about the process and certainly willing to pull as hard as I can to help a distressed cow. Frances, who has been devouring the James Herriot books this summer, was positively giddy about watching a country vet perform a trick she had read about, and Riley was happy to bike along to play with the kittens who are always wandering around the dairy barn.
We found Charlie, Stephanie, Charlie's brother-in-law Chris, and Allie, a young woman vet, all standing in the barnyard around a large Holstein cow who was harnessed with ropes to the fence. As we entered, Allie took a long rope and fashioned a harness around the cows belly. It looked simple enough, just a rope going around the cows middle at specific locations, but it is not the sort of harness one just slings around a cow without any knowledge, that was clear. The loops and intersections of the rope were spaced just right so that the end of the rope extended out towards the rear of the cow. Amazing really. Forty-pound kids on climbing walls wear more of a harness than Sherrie, the poor cow with a twisted uterus, was wearing for this event. While Stephanie held on to the harness rope at the back, Charlie held on to the rope halter at her head, while Allie looped ropes around one of Sherrie's front and back ankles.
When all the ropes were secured, Chris, Stephanie, and I were instructed take hold of the rope coming towards Sherrie's rear end and pull as hard as we could to force the cow to lay down. I'll admit, I was skeptical, but like the Empire's At-At Walkers circled by Rebel ingenuity in The Empire Strikes Back, Shelly crumpled gently onto her belly when the three of us pulled with all our might.
Then it got really weird. Allie picked up a large plank, laid it across Sherrie's belly, just above the hip. She instructed us to pick up the ropes looped around the cows ankles, Charlie and Chris at the front, Stephanie and I at the back, and slowly pull on the cow to flip her onto her back. Meanwhile, Allie kneeled on all fours on the plank, squishing it hard into Sherrie's belly. Charlie and Stephanie were obviously familiar with this process and seemed comfortable with it. Knowing that they take very good care of their dairy herd and seeing cows tolerate even crazier treatments, like surgery in their stomachs while they stand placidly in their stall, I figured I'd just go with it and do what I was asked.
"Pull gently and slowly till she is on her back then pause there for a few seconds. Then very slowly lower her onto her other side and then she'll stand up" Ally instructed. We pulled, Allie rode on her plank perch, and Sherrie slowly rolled onto her back. We tried to keep her there but momentum was against us and she pretty quickly continued her roll and very shortly after, was up on her feet.
Allie got out her long, plastic gloves and performed an examination to see if we had been successful. With her arm deep into the cow’s vagina, brow’s furrowed in thought, she declared there was little or no change. The twist in the uterus was still there and we would have to try again.
The second time was more successful and but a third attempt was needed. By that time, Sherrie’s knees and hips were beginning to bruise and Roy had arrived to replace me while I took Frances to piano lessons. Leaving midway through the ordeal was not easy; especially when there was a lot of uncertainty about the outcome.
When we returned later that evening, Roy said it appeared the third time was the charm, but really the jury was still out. The uterus seemed to be in the correct position and Sherrie and the calf were alive. Now it was a waiting game.
Late last night when Charlie and Tammy checked on Sherrie, the calf’s head was about to exit so they helped their exhausted cow by pulling it out. It is alive and doing well. A little heifer calf, just what dairy farmers want from one of their best cows. Sherrie too seems to be doing well. A little bruised and banged up but eating and chewing her cud again. Charlie is optimistic that she’ll be okay.
Every country kid hears stories of crazy uncles or cousins who go cow tipping,(in case your not a country kid, "cow tipping" usually refers to pushing over cows while they stand sleeping on pasture) but I never really believed them. Now I can honestly say I witnessed, even helped a little bit, with a very successful cow tipping.