Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Amazing Snakes

It was the latest possible shade of dusk when I went out to gather eggs this evening. The light was off in the hens' shed...I figured the timer just hadn't come on yet. But the manual override didn't produce any light, either. I'll check out the extension cord, bulb, outlet, GFI breaker, etc., tomorrow by daylight.

I almost gathered eggs in the dark. I've done that many a time in the past. Once I actually brushed against a skunk who had beaten me to the nest...we were both too surprised to do more than bakc away from one another. But I thought about the times I've seen the black rat snake recently, and decided against it. Walked back to the house for the headlamp.

The headlamp is an indespensible farm tool. It's battery-powered, which isn't too sustainable because I go through a lot of batteries. But I'm using rechargeable ones now, so that helps. It lets both hands be free to open gates, carry buckets, catch sheep, deliver lambs, etc. It shines exactly where I'm looking, most of the time.

I looked in the top row of nests, and sure enough there was the black rat snake. I looked in the second row of nests--wait a minute, there's that snake again! Was he that fast? I backed up a bit to shed some light on the whole picture--all three rows of nests at once. How many snakes WERE there? They were looping among one another and sliding between the wall, the open back of the sheet metal nests, and under the nest dividers. With loops of snake everywhere, it was hard to count them. Eventually I saw 3 heads at the same time...one of them stretched around an egg. Stretched under the nest dividers, they are nearly as long as the 6' long nest structure.

No wonder I am not gathering very many eggs from that pen these days. I am supporting not one but THREE 5-foot snakes...quite possibly more. I am not sure quite what to do about the situation....

...But I AM learning to listen to that small, still voice that says, "go get the flashlight."

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Planting a Rainbow

It's Sunday, my day off from bus driving, my day for farm work (I do reserve Sunday evening for social and spiritual companionship). I had about 5 people interested in coming out to volunteer at the farm today. But it rained this morning, and only one woman showed up.

J. is nearing retirement, a self-employed teacher and musician. Though she's energetic in her varied interests and activities, and enjoys walking for exercise, she's not someone I think of as a physical laborer. I met her through intellectual and spiritual pursuits, not through my agricultural endeavors. She's always been a part of my "time off from the farm" life.

But she showed up, clad in a light hoodless windbreaker, just as it began to rain. I offered to excuse her on account of the rain...we could have made a cup of tea and sat in the house and had a fine chat, I'm sure, as we have many times. But she was insistent that she didn't mind the drizzle, so out we went to see what we could do.

Most styles of gardening come to a standstill when it starts raining, and then don't resume until the soil has dried out for a few days. But planting potatoes here can go on no matter what. So together, in the rain, we forked "shingles"of compacted waste hay out of the spot where I'd fed big round bales mid-winter. Sheep haven't been on it since then, so it's well-aged and sprouting the most interesting array of fungi. We put a modest load on the big garden cart, since it was quite wet and heavy from several days' rain, and like a team of horses pulled it to the potato bed. Then we carefully laid the"shingles" in overlapping rows along the last 3' x 23' planting bed in that half-block...the East Half of the Southeast Block of the Southeast Quadrant of the garden complex.

Two cart loads covered that bed and about a quarter of another. Then we went to the garage, where the seed potatoes are pre-sprouting, neatly labelled, in plastic mesh "bulb crates". The bed map indicated Desiree was the variety to go in that bed--a dependable "standby" new potato variety, yellow flesh with pink skin, that does extremely well in my system. Of course it was in the bottom crate--a simple matter to restack the crates, since they're modular. One of those little investments that pays off time and again in little efficiencies.

I demonstrated cutting the seed pieces. Searching out any sprouting potatoes that were starting to get soft, or had bad spots, that wouldn't keep. Starting with the smaller ones that will dehydrate quicker. Cutting each so that there is one big sprout and at least one smaller sprout or eye on each chunk. Counting carefully in order to cut just 45 pieces, the number needed to zig-zag down the center of the bed at 12" intervals.

We carried the seed pieces out to the garden in a small bucket. Then we set up a string line down the center of the bed: two metal stakes with exactly 23' of baling twine between them, just touching the surface of the mulch. I aligned the planting board--a sheet of scrap Lexan Twinwall, about 5' long and 8" wide, marked with triangles staggered along each edge to show where to locate plants--under the string line.

I showed J. the planting steps: pull back the mulch near the board next to a triangle, use a trowel to dig a hole about 6" deep in the soil under the mulch, keeping the dug soil within the "well" of pulled-back mulch, drop a seed piece with the sprout on top into the bottom of the hole, push the soil back over the seed piece, and finally pull the blanket of mulch back over the planted spot. Since we only had one trowel, we worked together: First I pulled back the mulch, then she dug the hole and finished planting the seed piece. When I had pulled back mulch for all the planting spots in the bed, we shifted the routine: One of us dug the hole, the other put the seed piece in and covered it.

From beginning to end, we spent not more than 1 1/2 hour mulching and planting the bed. The heavy mulch will prevent most weeds from growing, so there will be little maintenance until harvest time. It will also help keep the soil cool, and prevent moisture from evaporating.

Potatoes will be harvested by an uncommon method, as well. After the plants bloom, I know it's time to look for new potatoes. Going down one side of the row, I push the mulch back from the base of a plant and rummage in the soil with my fingers, being careful not to upset any more roots than necessary. Usually the light soil and the subterranean tunneling of busy worms and ants makes this easy...if not the first time, then the second time. When I find eating-size potatoes, I gently break them off the plant. Then I scoop the soil back over the remaining little tubers, carefully replace the mulch, and leave the plant alone for a couple weeks to grow more potatoes.

This method means that I can tell my market customers that the potatoes were just "dug yesterday"...the freshest at market. The skins are new and brightly colored and often so fragile that a hard spray from the garden hose peels them if I'm not careful. I only harvest what I think I'll sell, so I don't have to worry about storage.

It's a good way to really learn the "personality" of each variety. Some hold their tubers close to the stem, some send out long runners. Some wait a long time after blooming to start start producing tubers, some set tubers right away.

Since I grow many varieties, the flowers are a wide range of colors: white, pink, purple, blue. There's a real pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of potatoes in my garden: Yukon Gold, German Butterball, Yellow Finn...not to mention Desiree, Huckleberry, Pink Wink, All Blue, Red Thumb, Purple Peruvian, Rose Finn Apple, Ozette.

Just In Time

Just in time management: One of the concepts I learned in the Friend's University Dregee Completion Program by which I earned my Bachelors in Human Resource Management about 10 years ago.

That means waiting until I'm out of hay to order the next bale, waiting until I'm out of grain to call the feed mill, waiting until the night before market to gather needed items.

But then the hay supplier has sold my reserved hay "out from under me"; it's pouring rain and the feed truck can't get into the barnyard without making horrendous ruts; I forget to throw a new container of recycled plastic grocery sacks into the truck for market.

I have learned that conventional "JIT" is a recipe for disaster on the farm. With living things depending on the outcome for their daily food and health care, I have a responsibility to have the necessities in reserve. Failure to do so can be the difference between crisis and routine. For example, in previous seasons I've always hoped that I wouldn't need to raise any orphan lambs. Therefore I haven't bought lamb milk replacer until I had an orphan. And that was, too often, a few hours after the feed store closed for the weekend. So then I would call around to shepherding friends to see where I could borrow some, and end up driving miles to pick up a few days' supply. Stressful for everyone.

This year I purchased a bag right at the beginning, so that I'd have it on hand. So far, I haven't needed it (though newest lambs are less than a month old). But if I do, it's there.

But when I think about the phrase "Just in time management", I can see it in a new way. The first analysis is, WHAT KIND of time? There is the clock/calendar time that the phrase assumes. But there is another kind of time, God's time, the time of being in the present...of being just (only) in (present) time (here and now). This is the realm where God is present in my life, guiding me in accord with His will, not mine.

Amazing things unfold effortlessly with this style of JIT management.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Speed of Light

There is an old fence along the west property line of the farm (both the house grounds and the farm ground proper), constructed of woven "hog wire" on the bottom, two-ish strands of barbed wire on top. The hog wire had been badly "walked down" in some areas long before we bought the farm; the patched barbed wire has never been securely attached to all of the rusty T-posts in my memory. Eight feet inside that tenuous fence, in the main farm area north of the house grounds and south of the Willow Row, I've constructed a more sheep-proof fence that forms the west and south sides of sheep pens, part of a grazed "moat" around the garden area.

The area between the old fence and the new one is called the West Margin Lane. It leads from just south of the barn, near the back yard, to the southeast corner of the Corner Paddock, just west of the Willow Row. From the north end of the West Margin Lane, one can walk along the south fence of the Corner Paddock to the gate to the Old Grove...the few trees (hackberry, mulberry, American & Siberian elm, cottonwood) that existed when the farm ground was purchased. North of the Old Grove, along the bank of the Maple Grove Tributary (a channelized stream that drains hundreds of acres north of the farm), lies the Wilderness Area and the Baby Forest (which is looking rather teen-aged now...trees up to a foot in diameter, and I can't guess how high).

It was only about a month ago that I installed an electric "top wire" on the old tumble-down west boundary fence: I let the perinatal ewes in to graze down the spring grass, and they were reaching far over the fence to strip leaves from the feral lilac bushes on the other side. It was only a matter of time before Lucy the Troublemaker would realize that the grass was significantly greener in the neighbor's horse pasture beyond the lilacs, and that she could squeeze between the hog fencing and the slack barbed wire.

The top wire would also serve as a "feed wire" for portable electric fencing in the Old Grove and on the rented pasture west of the Old Grove (the Old Spencer Place which I'm renting again this year). The top wire is set up so that when sheep are not against that fence, the fence is easily disconnected from the energizer...allowing safer use of the West Margin Lane by visitors.

At that time, the wild grape vines along the fence were still dormant. Nevertheless, I pulled most of them off the old fence, knowing that they would soon sprout fresh green tendrils ready to wrap around and short out the electric wire. Grape vines contain lots of liquid, and are well connected to the ground.

Today, I began running portable electric fencing out on Spencer's Pasture. In doing so, I walked out the West Margin Lane for the first time in...oh, about 5 days. The day of the annual Potluck and jam session, I trimmed off the tree branches that were hanging low over the lane, and threw them over the fence for the sheep.

I THINK I would have noticed then if the wild grape vines had dozens of tendrils wrapping around the top wire, completely obscuring it from view in places.

Today, they were unmistakeable, all along the fence. In some places, they were festooning the top wire for a distance of 6-8 feet. I spent at least an hour in a drizzly rain cutting them as far back as I could reach through or over the fence, risking my Goretex jacket on the barbed wire. One 2" diameter vine had exceeded the capacity of my loppers during my initial attack on the vines; I had settled for lopping off the main branches and leaving several feet of the thick "trunk". This trunk was now parent to several dozen fresh long branches, some of them nearly 1/2" in diameter.

I am under no illusion that I have subdued these vines. This will be a regular chore until frost. If I am diligent, and cut the vines at the roots, and allow no green leaf to thrive, eventually I may kill a few of the smaller ones. I must also be constantly alert for new vine seedlings sprouting among the grass or in the leafy mulch under the trees, especially right along the fence.

Light travels at some incomprehensible speed throughout the universe--through space, through the air around us.

Upon being converted through photosynthesis to the starches and sugars that make up these rampant vines, light still moves at an incomprehensible speed.

Someone will surely wonder, don't these vines make fruit? Of course they do--beloved of the birds, who have sat on the barbed wire excreting seeds in little fertilizer pellets. This is why the fence, in particular, is lined with wild grape vines. From a human view, the grapes are typically extremely seedy and very astringent, to the point of inedibility. I do harvest some of the leaves now and then to make stuffed grape leaves...the wild grape leaves are much more tender and succulent than the leaves from the domestic Concord-type grape in the back yard. It does not take much of a vine to provide a year's supply of grape leaves for stuffing. I've twisted a number of wreaths out of the vines, just for fun--mostly as a by-product of the trimming attack I made today. It keeps me and the dog and the sheep and everyone from tripping over the trimmings.

There is just one wild grape vine that I've found, north of the Old Grove near the Baby Forest, that seems to be a cross of the native Fox Grape with the domestic Concord...small grapes, but with little astringency and lots of that wonderful Concord flavor. That vine I'll leave, eventually training it in a more accessible direction that its current attempt to strangle out the top of a tall, slender Siberian elm. Today I discovered another vine along the north edge of the Corner Paddock that exhibits a similar character of growth, and is covered with tiny green grapes already; that one, too, has amnesty until its usefulness is determined. Otherwise, wild grapes (and their close cousins, the racoon grapes with their odd, poisonous-looking blue-green and violet berries) are considered "Pinwheel Farm Noxious Weeds" and are kept controlled to the extent possible...

...considering the speed of light.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Snake in the Grass

This morning I used one of my favorite tools, the Austrian scythe, to mow grass and weeds that have grown tall in unmulched fallow areas of the garden where we will soon mulch and plant tomato plants. The real purpose of this was to provide some fresh green feed to the sheep--a feeding method once called "soiling" the animals. In a wonderful little book from century-before-last called "Ten Acres Enough", this is put forth as a method for making the most of weeds while at the same time concentrating the production of manure for the garden. I think of it as a good motivation for mowing...the sheep say THANK YOU!

It was interesting that some of the sheep stayed at the big round bale of alfalfa and didn't come for the fresh feed. It appeared that the ones that stuck with the dry stuff were all the "open" ewes...ewes that never had lambs this spring. Another hint that they know WAY more than most people give them credit for...though exactly WHAT they know, I can only guess.

One of my volunteers expressed some frustration the other day that I was having her work on potato planting rather than working with the sheep, which is her main interest. Part of her interest is in pasture management. At the time of her comment, I could only reply that we need the potato crop to help with the cash flow to raise the sheep to market size. This morning, as I was pulling various types of grass out of the garden beds, I realized I had totally forgotten the obvious point that the pasture and garden are the same. Not just the same species, but often the same place thanks to portable electric fencing. She can learn more, actually, about smooth brome, brome and tall fescue and orchardgrass (good in the pasture, bad in the garden) and cheat grass, little barley and foxtail (generally unwelcome) by pulling them out of the future potato beds, than by strolling through the pasture. She can see the wandering, creeping rhizomes of smooth brome compared to the stationary dense clump of orchardgrass. She can see the shallow roots of downy brome compared to the huge root mass of tall fescue. She can see how each creates a different ecosystem underneath itself.

Something moved in the fringe of tall grass--mostly seeding tall fescue--along the edge of the neatly mown lane, and I realized my scythe had just missed a box turtle. This one had a small white patch of skinned, healed-over, shell in the middle of its back. I suddenly realized that it would be good to actually measure the height of our usual box turtles, and set the power mower just higher than that dimension, for the sake of the turtles.

A little later, something moved in a different way, and a huge black rat snake appeared. This is a couple hundred feet from the back yard where I've been seeing him, or one just like him, quite frequently.

Tonight, I went out to gather eggs and found the snake (same one?) moving along the edge of the floor. There were mice everywhere! Was the snake hunting the mice, or ignoring them to seek eggs, when my light disturbed them all? I am still trying to understand the dynamics here so that I can hopefully tweak them in favor of harvesting some eggs one of these days. I'm taking a clue from the fact that some of the hens have been laying in the yard. Outdoor nest boxes? Then how to protect them when it rains, so the hay bedding in the nests doesn't stain the eggshells?

I suddenly realized tonight that in coyote-proofing the chicken pen, I've also cat-proofed it. So other than the snake, the mice are quite safe inside the hen house. Maybe I could lock that cat in there at night? Or figure out a cat door that wouldn't let the coyote in? Oh, it all takes so much cleverness and planning and TIME, time that I never, ever have enough of.

Writing this reminds me that I was so occupied about the snake and the mice that I forgot to shut the poultry in their coyote-proof inner sanctum, so I'll go do that.

Monday, May 21, 2007


Today was the annual potluck and old-time music jam session at the farm.

I spent the early part of the day preparing. One of the purposes of the occasion is to induce spring cleaning. When I am expecting a large number of folks to visit, I walk around looking at things through their eyes, imagining how it looks to them. I see the clutter that I'm blind to in daily life. I decide to DEAL with the sluggish bathroom sink drain. Which is now a) totally clogged and b) mostly dismantled.

Or perhaps I should call it post-lambing cleaning. The final putting away of things that won't be needed until next year, making mental notes about how things could be better next year.

It's also an incentive to take small steps forward that I've been wanting to take, but haven't gotten around to. The small step I took today was to take the scythe and loppers down to the wilderness area, and clear the path I usually follow when I walk there. I hope to walk there more. Beginning as plowed ground with a sloping fringe of neatly mowed bromegrass, it is now amazingly wooded and secluded from the surrounding world. You can hear the traffic and trains, but you can't see them. Instead, all around you is green, green with a flawless blue sky overarching today. And a hundred birds shouting from within the greenness of it all.

There are certain times when one feels a change happening, but can't know what it is yet. Tonight, I feel a strange shift in my relationship with the farm and with this "community". A letting go--but of what? An ending--but of what? In hindsight I'm sure it will all be clear.

I have more questions than I have answers tonight. And they are questions I can't even begin to put into words. The question asked by the black rat snake as he moved under the floor of the washhouse, to the delight of some guests and consternation of others. The question asked by the sheep, baaahing insistently though I've provided them with every sheep need I can think imagine. The question asked by a yellow tendril of dodder curling around a plant stem.

Today I found the first resprouting of dodder in the garden where I was preparing to run sheep for weed control. At first just one colony, then as I looked closer, more and more. I carefully pulled up the dodder and host plants, so that the sheep wouldn't drag fragments around on their feet and spread it. This dodder is in an area that we seriously toasted with the weed flamer last year, before it even set seed. So this must be seed from the previous year. The implications are sobering, hard to even wrap my mind around.

I did not see any ticks today.

After the other children had gone, my grandchildren and nephew made an effort to climb most of the trees in the front yard, none of which I'd ever seen as especially climbable. I looked out the window to see the English oak, with its branches tightly parallel to the trunk, swaying and quaking under the invisible load. My nephew laters aid they went clear to the top. I can't imagine how they got through the closely-spaced branches.

The only tree I've climbed is the huge pin oak along the driveway. It has the wandering, spreading form of a "wolf tree" rather than the Christmas-tree structure of many pin oaks. From up there, there is a fine view. Its branches are large and solid, sloping gently upwards away from the main trunk. It is light and airy.

Some climb a tree just because it's there. I'm inclined to climb a tree to cut limbs, or for the view, or a new perspective on life. Something practical, a purpose beyond the immediate action. This is my natural approach to most things.

When I lose sight of the purpose, I can become confused, as I am now about the future of the farm.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

A Place in the Choir

Updates on the main hen house (actually written yesterday, but not published due to operator error):

Apparently the coyote-proofing I did is working (Praise be to God! With fingers crossed, knocking on wood). The count remains at 20 hens and 1 rooster--about half the number I had a couple months ago.

What I did first was tie a big snarl of mesh fencing on top of the post the coyote perched on, so that it wouldn't be a nice easy platform from which to leap into the pen. Not to cause injury to the coyote, but to cause discomfort and just plain make it difficult for him. I also made a small pen of 6' tall chain link panels around the door of the hen house, and lock everyone in there at night. When I have a bit more time, I'm hoping to extend it a bit and move their water tank into it.

I should mention the water tank. It's a hog watering tank, holding perhaps 60 gallons of water, with a low "drink cup" cut into the side that is supplied by the water in the main tank. The water in the drink cup can't get back into the main tank, so the ducks and geese can get the drink cup muddy and the main water supply is still clear. It sits outside the pen fence, so the poultry reach through the fence to drink...no swimming! The main tank can be used by sheep outside the poultry pen. In winter, a tank heater and some insulation on top and over the drink cup at night keep it thawed. All in all, a worthwhile investment...an innovation I learned from a neighbor who raises sheep and chickens. When I hauled all the rusted-out traditional chicken waterers to the metal recycler the other day, I realized that the expensive hog tank has actually cost less than the total of all the chicken waterers that would have been worn out...and there's a lot of life left in the hog tank if I'm careful to keep it from freezing in the winter. Plus, it has saved me untold hours of work, wet feet, and strained back carrying small waterers.

A real bonus is I never have to worry about the poultry running out of water on a hot day. I just top up the tank weekly or so. A further refinement will be when I move it next to the hen house, and can rig a gutter along the roof to feed rainwater directly into the tank (instead of the rainwater filtering down through the ground and being pumped up again by my household pump and fed through a pressure tank and filters and valves and pipes.) It will also be in a location where it can be shared by 2 separate groups of sheep then, doing triple duty. Unless demand from the sheep is high, or we have a bad drought, I'll rarely have to drag the hose over there. Dragging hoses is one of the few things I really dislike doing around here.

Out of 20 hens, I really expect more than 2 eggs a day! But that was today's gather from the hen house (the pullets in the brooder house are yielding much more). When I checked everyone between Farmer's Market this morning and driving the bus this afternoon, I picked up what eggs were there in the top row of nests. Then visually checked the row lower. Sections of snakeback festooned several of the open-back nests...Perhaps the same snake as before, but it looked significantly thicker. I saw the snake a few days ago coiled in a corner of the hen house.

I feel frustrated because customers want all the eggs my hens can produce, and that's what pays the feed bills (and will pay for replacement hens eventually). But I admire and respect the snakes and coyotes, too. They have a natural beauty, grace, and self-confidence that fascinates me. And I know they are eating mice as well as eggs. So I guess I am just a part of the ecosystem here, feeding the chickens so the snake and the coyote can eat, too, and so we're not overrun with mice.

There is something humbling and at the same time comforting about realizing I'm just another critter at the "predator" level of the food chain. A sense of belonging, I suppose. I could shoot the coyote, I could kill the snake, but then I would not belong to this farm--the community of life here--in the same intimate fashion. I would be an outsider, a conquistador imposing my values on the natives and plundering their gold.

Instead, I feel like a peer--a colleague--of these elegant hunters. We work together, in an odd sense, to keep a subtle, ever-shifting balance in the poultry and rodent populations of the farm...a balance far more important than the checking account's.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Too Late....

It's too late to be writing.

How many of my journal entries begin that way, all the way back to 9th grade when I started journalling. Old habits die hard. And yes, I'm a night owl.

Never enough hours in a day. I WANT to stop and smell the roses, watch the lambs play, listen to the complex chatterings of the purple martins checking out the freshly-cleaned martin house, admire the nest the barn swallows are building in the galvanized shed where I store feed, tools, and fencing supplies. I NEED to plant potatoes, scrub market totes, deal with the last few things in the freezer that went into terminal melt-down last week. So, what do you think got done today?

In addition to smelling the roses, and picking some petals to add to a salad of fresh garden lettuce and spinach, green onions, and the three radishes that actually survived the freeze, for a potluck in the city park this evening, I:

--Mowed the front yard with the power mower and fed the clippings to the chickens and sheep.
--Mowed part of the garden lane with the scythe and fed the mowings to Cleo, who's in isolation with her lamb. The lamb has erysipelas (joint ill), a disease that can enter through the navel if the umbilical cord isn't treated promptly at birth. This lamb was born on an utterly miserable mucky rainy night when I was out of iodine to dip the navel. He's responding very well to injections of long-acting tetracycline, under the vet's instructions since it's an off-label use. The 40-day withdrawal will be long over before it's fime for him to be lamb chops.
--Strung a wire for the front yard grape vine, a seedless reddish-pink grape (Reliance?) I started that project about 6 years ago. The benefit of the delay is that during its years of lounging around the ground the vine has rooted in several places and I can transplant them to other locations.
--Visited with a friend and her 4-year-old grandson who came to gather eggs and see the lambs.
--Went to the cell phone store after not being able to make (or receive, I later realized) phone calls all day. The clerk opened the phone, dumped a small pile of hay and gravel onto the counter, dusted off the SIM card, and the phone worked fine.
--Listened to and returned calls to all the folks who'd been trying to get a hold of me on my day off.
--Had a friend come help put the big industrial 3-hole stainless steel sink that I use for washing vegetables back up on its concrete blocks in the washhouse, after a sheep got into the washhouse by crawling in the back and under the sink, then of course not figuring out how to get out by the same route. So he sat there awhile, pooping and eating green onions. At least seeing the sheep in the washhouse clued me in that there was a BIG cleanup job ahead before picking for market....

That doesn't seem like much for one day. But I guess I need to add a few things, like:

--Blew my nose copiously a couple dozen times, still recovering from the cold I had last week.
--Walked several miles, just back and forth to the shed for tools and parts and supplies as I worked on various things.
--Answered half a dozen e-mails and read many more than that.
--Punched the "retry" button on the cell phone a hundred times before figuring out that the phone wasn't working.
--Randomly pulled up tree seedlings everywhere I saw them, which is to say everywhere I went. Ash, oak, redbud, and elm are the dominant self-seeders. My worst weeds really are trees, closely followed by wild grapes.

Sometimes it's amazing that I make any progress at all!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

What a Funny Bird

I'm awake and writing at a rare hour for me--7 a.m. Anyone who knows me, knows I am NOT by nature a morning person. Though probably I need to start acting like one, as the weather warms up. I also am generally reluctant to go out to do farm work early in the morning this time of year because I don't like having cold wet feet from dewy grass, nor then ending up out in the garden in hot rubber boots a couple hours later.

It was barely after 6 a.m., still misty dawn, when Luna (spending the night in the entryway) woke me with ferocious barking. When I stumbled to the back door to let her out into the dog pen, I saw the source of her fury: the coyote, diligently trotting after a chicken in the chicken coop. I yelled, and he stopped in his tracks and looked at me. I yelled again, and he loped to the far end of the pen and sort of wafted to the top of the corner post in a a single, effortless bounce--5' high and about 10" in diameter. He stood there for a minute, watching me, perfectly balanced on 4 paws on that small circle of post-top, as motionless as a red-tail hawk along the roadside. Then he sprang down the other side and ran off across the neighbor's corn field.

A little later, a second time, drawn by more barking, I went to the window in the other bedroom (perhaps I should move into that room, and sleep with the windows open? A day of painting stands in the way). He was in the back yard this time, between the brooder house and the main coop, silhouetted against sunlit dew-drenched grass. I am suddenly very conscious of how tiny and defenseless are the lambs in the yard flock (all less than a month old). Pure grace, long-legged and slender, with a huge bushy tail angling down at a 45 degree angle from his back, and pointy ears and face at full alert, he stood facing me. When I yelled, he loped to the fence between the back yard and the east paddock where the rams are grazing. Without breaking stride he passed THROUGH one of the 6" x 8" openings in the middle of cattle panel, as if it weren't there. (Pam, my Border Collie mentor, has mentioned some BCs have this uncanny ability to shape-shift and penetrate cattle panels. This animal is leggier than a BC, but probably more selnder of body, so I do believe my eyes.)

A little while later, more furious barking. I went and yelled out the window again. The coyote was in the chicken pen again; as I yelled he stopped and stared me down again, then bounded out by way of the corner post, perching there for some time with bird-like grace.

Yet a little later, as I'm typing, the sheep all turned to watch a rabbit running non-stop (rare for a rabbit, for such a distance) the full length of the back yard. I'm hoping the coyote opted for a rabbit breakfast, after being denied his rooster three times.

In addition to arranging the chicken pen so that they can be secure without being shut in their tiny house (prone to ammonia buildup in wet weather when I don't have time to clean it--and their water isn't in there because the ducks and geese would keep the house constantly wet if it were), I think it's time to merge the two ewe flocks (early lambing and late lambing) together, so they can share the llama as a protector against the coyote. I've never lost a lamb to a coyote before, but it's something I don't want to start. A hen can be bought or sold for about $5-7. A lamb, reaching slaughter size, represents a cash flow of several hundred dollars...with a significant part of the expenses being the maintenance of the ewe during pregnancy, so these little ones are already a sizeable investment.

A Hard Road

NOW we are having 90 degree weather...days in a row (at least it's still getting down to the 70s at night...won't be for long). Leaf lettuce and arugula that survived the freeze is now bolting WAY prematurely--probably from the stress of the extreme temperatures both directions. ALL cole crops (those that survived the hard freeze at least) have been eaten to the ground by rabbits (or possibly woodchucks, though I haven't seen signs of their digging yet this year).

As weeks and months go by with no housemate in sight--one promise after the next, one disappointment after the next--I'm realizing I may simply not be able to DO this...aside from everything else, just because of not being able to leave any windows in the house open while I'm at work, for fear of sudden thunderstorms (frequent & never predictable this time of year, often with substantial horizontal rain). Can't afford to install or operate AC without a housemate sharing the cost.

Being sick with no one to do chores or otherwise help keep things going is another "brick wall" issue. I picked for market Fri. morning, then was too sick to go to market this morning. Dropped everything by the homeless shelter on my way to work today, then stopped at the grocery store to pick up a bad deli lunch to eat en route. So the homeless wander around at leisure and eat fresh organic salad, and I work two jobs and eat crap. It's all so upside down and backwards.

I've developed a real appreciation for traditional division of labor. I don't care how the work is assigned (gender, inclination, drawing straws)--it's a simple fact of physics that one person can't be two places at once. I can cook while cleaning the kitchen or talking on the phone, but I can't cook while working off the farm or weeding the garden. The farm needs someone to be home, as well as someone to pay the bills; it needs someone doing the inside work, at the same time someone is doing the outside work. I don't care whether it's a "relationship", housemate(s), friends, "intentional community"--just more warm bodies with opposable thumbs sharing work towards the same goal: a satisfying, wholesome, sustainable life in community with this piece of land and its non-human inhabitants--the coyote, the chickens, the blue roly-poly, the snake, the indigo bunting, the rose-breasted grosbeak, the lambs, the Border Collies, the trees, the grass ever in need of mowing, the Blaze climbing rose that sprang forth miraculously from mowed grass the summer after we bought the house, and has survived ever since.

How does one find that person/people, in this day and age? In this culture? When one isn't in college any more? Everyone who dreams of this lifestyle seems to want their OWN 5 acres, not land with someone else's name on the title. The implication to me is that people aren't willing to commit to the way of life. They want the "safety net" of selling the real estate as investment property when they change their minds...when they find out for real that it's hard work. Lack of willingness to commit is so dominant in relationships, too. There is no such thing as "till death do us part" these days. My own life, broken time and again, is a testament to that.

There isn't even much "until the job is done" around. One day several years ago a friend and I commited to rebuild a pasture fence. We locked the sheep in the holding pen, and tore out the old (badly failing) fence. When we were half done putting the new fence up, the person looked at their watch and said "Oh, I need to go now." And walked off, leaving me to finish the fence alone. By flashlight, in the end, because it took so much longer as one person. Because as one person I spent most my time walking from one end to the other--trying to be two people in two different places. I had no choice. The job HAD to be finished THEN so the sheep could eat without escaping to the neighbor's soybean field.

So, basically, I'm wondering if these years of effort are all for naught (other than the amazing life I've had here). Maybe it's time to sell the livestock, rent the house to some total stranger, and fallow the land until the energy situation/economy/environment get so bad that people are INVOLUNTARILY committed to this way of life. Then the skills/knowledge/tools that I have accumulated will be worth something, and people will need what I have.

So often the people who say they want this lifestyle have active addictions--nicotine being the most prominent, followed closely by alcohol. Drugs, too. How can we call our living "sustainable" when we are killing our bodies and short-circuiting our minds? Let alone work hard enough to pay for such expensive destructive substances through farming by hand! And of course there are myriad serious safety issues inherent in the practice of these addictions...fire, physical incoordination, lack of judgement, altered perception, etc.... Or people consider television to be a God-given right and necessity. How can we hear the animals screaming for help during a predator attack if we are listening to virtual people uttering scripted screams on TV? People tell me, "You are being too controlling...loosen up! Don't tell people how to live their lives, if you want them to live/work with you!" Yet one careless cigarette butt (and I've yet to meet a smoker who is TOTALLY mindfull of their butts at all times) could destroy everything I've worked so hard (and paid) for.

There are words of Jesus' (I can't find the exact scripture right now) that say it is a narrow & hard road that leads to eternal life, and few will follow it. This seems also true of the temporal life of living and farming sustainably within our ambient culture.

Perhaps there's a connection there....

Friday, May 11, 2007

In Sickness and In Health

I'm happy to report that Luna (the nearly-three-year-old Border Collie, daughter of my beloved soul-dog Toss) did well through her in-patient treatment for heartworms. She had a very mild case of them, so long-term damage is unlikely. She is nearly 1/2 way through her time of confinement--out of her 10' x 10' dog pen only on a leash, or to sleep in the entry-way of the house at night. Thankfully, her coming into heat (another occasion for confinement) coincided with the heartworm diagnosis, so at least she doesn't have to do two back-to-back confinements.

I'm pleased with how well she is taking it. Some accomodations I've made: I began her confinement as soon as I found she would be needing the treatment, so it was just a change in daily routine for her, and not some sort of "punishment" for spending three days at the vet's. Of course part of that was because I knew I'd need time to change habits, too--so there was a bit of a transition time before the full-time confinement. And when the full-time confinement started, she was just so glad to be home and see me again, she didn't seem to mind being confined. I've not had time for controlled walks, but have encouraged the people who garden at the farm when I'm not here to take her out and let her lay on the leash near where they are working. No one is allowed to throw sticks or balls for Toss where Luna can see! And, I transitioned her to a high-quality "weight control" dog food, and slightly less quantity, to prevent her gaining too much weight without all that exercise. We'll have to work into off-leash privileges--coyote chasing and herding--gradually beginning in early June.

The big down side of her confinement is that the coyote (probably with a den full of young ones) has grown bolder. Egg production has dwindled, partly from stress and partly from a declining number of hens in the main flock. This morning I awoke at dawn to her urgent barking, and went out to see a coyote dragging a large hen across the neighbors' corn field. The pen was littered with feathers from the kill. When I went out later, the pen was clean of feathers, and I realized that I never saw any trace of the kills was that the hens have been eating the evidence. Need to supplement more with calcium and protein sources to reduce feather and egg eating somewhat...although keeping the feathers cleaned up is not really a bad thing. This weekend I will reconfigure the main flock's pen to have an "inner sanctum" where I feed the birds outside their house. It will be 6' chain link dog kennel panels on all sides...the coyote has not seemed to go after the pullets, though, unlike the hens, they are unprotected by geese.

I resent losing the hens and eggs a bit, but really am quite philosophical about Mom Coyote wanting to feed her young ones. It's more a sense of challenge to try to outwit a Worthy Opponent, than rage at the coyote. Acceptance of what IS.

What IS, for me, tonight, is ill. Achy joints and muscles (more than seems reasonable for the work I did yesterday, though surely that's some of it), weakness, and a temperature pushing 100 (mine usually runs just over 97). A gradual decline since last night, when I'd hoped that I'd sleep in today, wake up a bit rough, and then improve over the day. NOT. I've warned both Farmer's Market and work that I may not be there, and will just surrender to the sickness now. I did only the very most esential chores after work...feeding the dogs and cats. Everyone else had food and water this morning, and will hopefully be fine if something has befallen during the day.

This is one of the times I most miss having a housemate, close friend, or partner. Someone to say, "Go to bed, take care of yourself, I'll take care of everything else."

But, there is no sense fighting something I can't control, and I haven't the strength or presence of mind, anyhow. So surrendering it all to God is really my only option. Little by little it becomeseasier, through times like these, to rely on Him the way I always used to want to rely on the people and institutions around me.

This, too, shall pass.

More Life and Death (Vegan)

I didn't stop to think until late today that it has been a week of killing. Yesterday, sheep; today, trees.

Today, a crew of tree-trimmers came at my invitation (and expense!) and slaughtered a couple dozen "helpless" trees in the front yard, and pruned a few others. I guess I'm officially NOT a "tree-hugger", though really, I DO love trees! Larger branches and trunks were stacked for firewood, probably totalling close to a cord...a significant portion of my heat for next winter. The pile of wood chips would probably more than fill my full-size pickup truck...but it's on the ground under the apple trees, so I don't have to move all of it.

When I moved here, there were only about 9 trees in the yard (front and back). But trees are one of the biggest weed problems here...if I didn't constantly control them, you would not be able to get from the street to the house, or in the front door. The trees that were cut today were all less than 10 years old--and some of them 30 feet tall and a foot in diameter. Some have been cut before, and resprouted. Mostly elms (Siberian or "piss-elm" as well as a few American/slippery elms) and mulberries. Also a few maples, ashes, black walnuts, and redbuds.

While the chain saws worked to liberate my tiny 12-year-old orchard (8 trees--apricot, apple, pear, cherry) from the stranglehold of these intruders, I pulled up dozens of seedlings and saplings from the rain-soaked soil, and carefully (wearing disposable plastic veterinary obstetrical gloves for protection) rooted out two small patches of poison ivy. The sheep in the front yard sheep pen (ewes with the youngest lambs) had a feast of seedlings and pulled weeds and clippings from the black walnut tree (a natural internal parasite inhibitor).

Several of the original trees needed pruned...as branches grew, their own weight bent them closer to the ground, so that the yard felt closed in. The maple that was badly storm damaged about 6 years ago looks much more balanced now. The front entrance patio seems airier without the lower branches of ash leaning over it. The sycamore (a seedling only about 5 or 6 years old, and more than a foot in diameter and a good 30 feet tall) has only a tuft of branches at the top of the long straight trunk, leaving plenty of room for the Douglas Fir I planted as a Christmas tree about 6 years ago to grow unobstructed.

In addition to the sycamore (on borrowed time...my dad and I have a fondness for sycamore in woodworking, and I keep thinking "sawlog"), several other "non-original" trees were chosen to "stay in the flock" as "keepers". One is an American elm, tall and straight and nicely formed, in a good location. It is probably the "child" of the two huge American elms that once lined the street in front of the house between the farm and the road--trees that were cut down a couple years ago due to insect infestations. The others are redbuds--one at the entrance of the driveway, and two by the front of the house.

The yard looks raw and broken. Grass is trampled, dame's rocket (providing a banquet for a diverse array of butterflies at present) is leaning at crazy angles. It will look even worse tomorrow, as the trampled and broken plants die. But it won't be long before new growth hides the scars, and rain settles the disturbed soil. But hopefully with some TLC my heirloom and old-fashioned roses will once again thrive and blossom now that they have more sun. I'll enrich their soil with compost from an old slaughter-waste compost pile (don't care to use that on the vegetable garden), and bed them nicely in wood chips.

Everywhere throughout creation, something must die in order that something else may live.

Singing the Blues

Sometimes you run into something that just totally bends your mind--your whole sense of reality and perception is set on its ear. You observe something that



and there is no rational explanation and yet you can't deny the reality of what you are seeing.

In this case, even the camera agrees that I'm seeing what I'm seeing. Do you see it?

Here is a photo of a BLUE--as in, the hue of a piece of lapis lazuli--sow bug/pill bug/roly-poly/land isopod/whatever you call them. The belly is a slightly lighter shadeof blue. It seems perfectly normal in all respects. There is a normal one at the 3:00 position in the jar, to compare the color. This intensely, unnaturally blue creature was under a rock in the front yard with a few hundred perfectly normal gray roly-polies today. Hopefully I'll have time to get it to the University of Kansas Entomology Department soon, and see what they have to say about it.
Every so often, when I'm feeling discouraged about the odds of me being able to keep this land safe from development, I fantasize about finding an endangered species. I'm guessing this isn't an actual different species, but it certainly is an interesting mutation or phenomenon of some sort.
You know, white would make sense to me. So would black or brown. Or even yellowish or reddish. But not this intense, artificial-looking blue!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Matter of Life and Death

I played God today. I decided who should live and who should die...at least among my sheep.

Trust me, I didn't feel very God-like at 5 a.m. when the alarm rang, a few short hours after I fell into bed last night. Groggy, yes. Godly, no.

I took 4 sheep to the meat processing plant this morning. Some will be sold as individual cuts (leg of mutton, mutton chops, etc.), and some will be blended with pork and made into a special summer sausage. This is the beginning of the process of significantly reducing the size of my sheep flock, from more than 25 to about 10 in the breeding flock. So the sheep I took to be slaughtered today were not market lambs, these were adult (or at least yearling) animals that at one time had been selected to be part of the breeding flock. Not part of the overwhelming anonymous crowd of spring lambs, but animals that I've really gotten to know as individuals, animals with distinct personalities. It doesn't upset me, but it is not something I'm flippant about. These were my friends, and I had them killed--in a manner I consider quite humane--today.

With these four, the decisions were fairly easy.

The yearling ram did not sire any twins this year, only singles, one still-born and premature: none of this necessarily his fault, but at the same time I've taken a hint from a friend's breeding records that showed a dramatic increase in twins when she changed rams after using the same ram (ironically named "Increase") for several years. I'll be keeping both his sire and dam, so perhaps I can select a better individual from that lineage another season.

The young ewe was very small to begin with, and had given birth to a still-born premature lamb a couple weeks ago. She was trying to steal lambs from other ewes, but had no significant udder development and wasn't producing any milk. It turned out, upon slaughter, that she had a cystic kidney nearly as large as the lamb she had aborted.

A middle-aged ewe, Venus, should have lambed in March. She didn't even look pregnant, and turned out not to be, despite being with a ram continuously since September. Either she never bred, for some reason, or miscarried unobserved. No loafers in my flock--I can't afford to feed them. She had an undistinguished fleece, and was one of my few remaining Suffolk cross sheep--really too tall for my handling chute. I'm breeding for slightly shorter sheep now, for ease of handling.

Bertha was chosen for age and management issues. At 10, she was a very old ewe, and she was a longtime favorite. She was born the first year I had lambs, of Lincoln parentage. She and another Lincoln ewe lamb were sold to a farm with dairy goats to start their sheep flock. A year later, the owner called me in a panic. They were moving out of state, and she thought she had found a buyer for the sheep (only Bertha and the ram were still around) but the buyer had never come for them. They were leaving TOMORROW. Would I come get them, for free? and throw in some equipment like a milking stand and a barn cat.... (I still have the stand, and used it when I was milking. The cat was Jack, who was a truly wonderful cat until he was found dead, apparently of poison.

Ordinarily, I would not take back stock that had been on another farm, for biosecurity (disease and parasite control) reasons. These, at least, had not mingled with other sheep, and the goat flock had a clean bill of health. So I went and rescued them.

It turned out that Bertha's lamb had died at birth several months earlier. For ease of chores, Bertha was kept with the dairy goats, and got along with them just fine. But she was eating the same rich diet as the heavily lactating does...while producing nothing but wool herself. Bertha was FAT! You could poke her left hip, and her right shoulder would jiggle like jello. With such a high-protein diet, her hooves grew really fast, too--they were 4 inches long and turned up at the toes.

Bertha's first lambing with me was difficult. Pregnacy is not a good time to go on a weight reduction plan, but obesity wasn't going to help her lamb, either. She ended up requiring intensive daily care for pregnancy toxemia for several weeks before lambing. But she went on to produce twins nearly every year after that.

The challenge was always to get Bertha's lambs nursing on the right set of teats. Bertha had extra teats--4 instead of 2. This is not too uncommon in sheep. Usually the "spares" are very small and non-functional, and the lambs quickly learn to seek the normal ones. Bertha's main teats were HUGE--as big as a dairy goat's--and newborn lambs couldn't really get hold of them. And her extra teats were the size of normal teats, and produced a small amount of milk. So the lambs would learn to suck the extra teats, and starve, unless I intervened. Super glue, sheep bra made from an old t-shirt, many creative ideas were tried to "hide" Bertha's extra teats from her new lambs.

This year, Eider and Bertha have been-co-mothering Bertha's lamb (born the same time as Eider's lamb, see previous post.), so I knew that removing Bertha wouldn't unduly stress the lamb.

Taking sheep to the processing plant started last night. Picked up truck from shop which had installed wiring for trailer lights. Got gas, got plastic trashbags to put the hides and guts in. Hides I clean, dry, and send off for processing into machine-washable sheepskins; guts had always had to be brought home & disposed of there (I compost them in a special pile). Drove home. Hitched trailer by myself in the dark. Backed trailer up to loading ramp. Sorted sheep, including leading Venus by the collar through the vegetable garden (a risky business as Venus outweighs me by about 50%, and has 4-foot drive). Got sheep to go up loading ramp into trailer (sometimes not an easy feat, but always easier than trying to pick them up). Readjusted all the fences and gates. Tire on trailer is flat. Of course it is. Sharpened the knife I use for cleaning hides. Put everything in the truck. We won't talk about what time it was....

Got up at 5 to leave in 15 minutes, allowing time to fill up the tire at the one gas station where the air is in a pull-through area. Uneventful trip, arrived very close to 6 on the dot, as planned. Back up to unloading pen, unload sheep, convince them to go into the building: the gate looks scary. Once they are in, they settle down almost immediately, looking calmly and curiously at their new surroundings.

Watched the kill--more details on that another post. Started cleaning fat and extra bits off of hides while they finish up.

And then a miracle occurs--The staff informs me that after decades of insisting that sheep guts couldn't go to the rendering plant, the company that picks up the guts and bones has decided to pick up sheep guts. I DON'T have to go home and dig up the special slaughter waste compost pile to add new guts! Glory hallelujah! That was a relic of the historical "war" between the sheepmen and cattlemen on the Western ranges. Perhaps there's hope for peace in the Middle East someday, after all!

Home, stopping on the way to pick up a 50 lb. bag of fine rock salt to salt the hides (salt draws moisture out of the skin, and prevents flies from laying their eggs on the hide while it's still wet) and to talk with longtime orcharding friends.

Salt the hides on a tarp in the garage--hope we have enough dry weather to have them gone before the upcoming potluck. Feed sheep, feed chickens, feed dogs, feed cat.... And finally--a hot shower, the grand finale of a slaughter day.

But, wait...now it's time to go drive the bus....

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Water, Water Everywhere....

Fitful weather these past few days...much thunder and lightening and rain. A few small branches--twigs, really--fallen on electric fences, but otherwise just inconvenience and MUD. I'm very grateful that my farm is intact...a slightly leaking roof in the entryway really doesn't seem like such a big deal compared to what happened in Western Kansas. My heart goes out to the folks in Greensburg. If it were a year ago, I would go help with the work there. But I have plenty of recovery and rebuilding to do here.

It's SO hard to get much done, farm-wise, in the rain. Potatoes are still mostly pre-sprouting in the living room...and here it is time to start planting tomatoes! I've been trying to mow the lanes and yard all week, to no avail, and now it looks like the scythe will work better than the power mower. A time to cling to pure FAITH that I'll manage to get enough done at the right times. The alternative to faith is pure panic.

Turning the sheep into the back yard is a routine way of keeping that part of the lawn sort of under control...tonight with the unintended consequence that one of the rams made himself at home in the washhouse (shed with chickenwire walls and equipment for washing vegetables). What a mess...and we had just gotten it cleaned up and functional again!

I've been trying to find time to walk out around the perimeter of the farm, in the 150' wide wildlife area on the north and west boundaries. This area is in the CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) Riparian Protection Program, to keep runoff out of the two drainage ditches that border the farm. It's planted with various native trees (pecan, black walnut, burr oak, redbud, wild plum, etc.) and tallgrass prairie plants. So amazing how big those trees are, yet friends and I planted them only about 10 years ago!

Well, I got my walk in tonight, by flashlight. The Kansas River is swollen well beyond its banks on the south side, and pressing against the levee on the north side. As I drove the bus today I've been watching streams of water running down otherwise dry streets as yesterday's torrential rains continue to move towards the river. So I figured I'd better go see what the drainage ditches looked like.

Development in the area east and north of the farm pushes more and more water (runoff from roofs, driveways, other impermeable surfaces) into these ditches. And people are (not always legally) filling in a lot of the traditional low spots that slow this water from reaching the river. Where does it go? My north pasture becomes the "default stormwater detention pond" for the area...which could eventually cause long-term devastating parasite problems for the sheep, if it gets too wet for too long. Friends once lost nearly all their sheep to liver flukes, which host in a certain species of snail that can breed on damp pastures.

The water is backing up quite a bit behind the huge culverts that carry it to the pump station that pushes it through the flood control levee about a 1/2 mile from my house. The pump station is really critical in times like this, because without it, water trapped on the inland side of the levee could not get to the river without the river flooding into the area protected by the levee...thus the water would just back up on this side until it topped the levee. With the current flow of water exceeding the pump station capacity, it is backing up anyhow, just slower. Where? As of 10pm Maple Grove tributary was still in its banks, but if it rises a few more feet it will be in my pasture.

I used survey marking flags to mark the water line. In the morning I'll walk out again and see how the level has changed, and take pictures. It's very hard to get good pictures of flood waters at night!

The frogs, at least, are rejoicing in the situation. Their endless chorus, much more intense than usual, was the background music for my walk. At one point I flushed out some small sleeping bird that fluttered around me in dazed panic before finding its way clear of the brushy trees. I could see that even though the black raspberry patch has been in sad decline (from a virus; a normal and unpreventable fate of black raspebrries in this area) for several years now, and is but a skeleton of its former bountiful magnificence, there are a few brambles beginning to bloom...so perhaps there'll be a little home-made jam this year despite the devastating freeze. There is also a much larger patch of elderberries near the northeast corner of the property than I remember, so perhaps that will be another source of sweetness on warm winter bread.

There is always something, where there is diversity.

Friday, May 4, 2007

A Stealthy Egg-napper

People often ask what predators I deal with at the farm, and I recite the roster: Stray dog, coyote, fox, raccoon, skunk, oppossum, hawks.

Tonight I was reminded of one that slips my mind. Not surprising, since it can slide through the tiniest spaces. The snake.

I went to gather eggs tonight, and found very few. This has been happening every now and then, and I always wonder who the culprit is...or did the hens just have a bad day? Are they out of oyster shell and thus inclined to eat their eggs? Has it been raining and dismal for several days?

Then I looked over in the corner where a few hens have decided to build their own nest, for some unknown reason. Summer cottage, perhaps, instead of always hanging out in their high-rise condo (metal nest boxes, 3 nests high by about 8 nests long--one of those incredible auction deals where it's the end of a long hot day in a remote area; most of the stuff was rusty or chipped, and ordinary; and as the auctioneer wearily picks up his stool to walk to the truck you point to something leaning against the shed and say, "Isn't that going to sell?" and he says, "I dunno, you want it?" and you say "Ten dollars?" knowing the smaller ones are nearly $200 in the catalog and he shrugs like someone who got up way too early and has done a day's work and then some, and he tells the clerk to write it down and then it's yours. So maybe it was worth driving all the way out there anyhow, to see the sad dilapidated house with no paint and the general wreakage of a "home place" that's mainly been home to a bunch of pack rats (four footed kind) for years.)

A couple hens are drowsily checking out something out near their summer cottage, awakened by my flashlight.

There is a large snake coiled on the clutch of eggs, and it is stretching its mouth around one of them. I'm pretty comfortable around snakes (though they startle me when I'm not expecting them), and have never yet seen a poisonous one on the farm. And if there's ever a time when it's safe to handle a snake, it's when it's got its mouth entirely full of egg. So I go grab some leather gloves (just to be prudent), and (I actually remembered!) the camera.

Now my concern is, whether to leave the snake there or relocate it. After all, it is eating my profit. But, on the other hand, it probably eats mice, too--and the mice can cost me a lot of money in chicken feed. Plus, if I moved it out to the wilderness area, it would likely find wild bird eggs and chicks to eat. Maybe I could sacrifice a few eggs for the same of the wild birds. Maybe I could relocate it to the pen with the pullets (young chickens just starting to lay, who lay small "practice" eggs that sell much cheaper than my huge hen's eggs), so it could eat eggs of lesser value.

After some thought, I decided to relocate it to the galvanized shed where garden tools, feed, fencing supplies, etc. are stored. There seem to be occasional mice there, to encourage the snake to change his diet. Don't want him hardening his arteries by eating such a high-cholesterol diet! Nice lean mice would be better.....
I believe this is a black rat snake, one of the more commonly seen species at the farm. His belly is mottled dark and light with random bits of reddish and yellowish.
Other herpish residents at the farm include garter snakes (common) and green racers (only one sighting). I'm always happy to see them...I know that in general they're on my side, helping keep rodent populations in balance.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Mother Necessity

Necessity is not just the mother of invention. She is also the mother of courage.

That's what it took, at any rate, to deal with tonight's midnight surprise.

I thought all the evening tasks except one were done: feed the cat, feed the dog, feed and water the sheep that are isolated in small pens without big round bales (3 groups right now), fill the water tank for the barn pen sheep, inject two sheep with antibiotics, soak the infected foot, check to see if there are new lambs--yes, here's a nice big white ram lamb with a confused yearling mom, so they need to be penned which means kicking Taylor and her triplets out of their pen....

Now to gather eggs.

As I step out of the back door, I hear a sound that stopped me in my tracks: the solid crackling snap of a strong electrical arc, like when the electric fence shorts out to a T-post. But this is rapid and multiple, coming from all over the back yard and chicken area...and there is no electric fence even near the back yard. I'm over 200 feet from the nearest electric fence. So--is it the AC electric that powers everything on the farm? Would it snap like that? I realize I don't know the sound of 220 volt current leaking from a mangled extension cord onto wet grass. I don't think it would snap like that, but I don't KNOW. Then again, all the farm receptacles are protected by Ground Fault Interrupters, so they SHOULD just shut down if anything shorts. But SOMETHING is shorting out SOMEWHERE, that's for sure, and with that kind of intense leak, the critical sheep-containing electric fences won't do their job.

I'm not comfortable working with electricity, although I've taken classes and helped wire several houses. But this has to be dealt with tonight, before the sheep figure out the fence is down. And calling an electrician at midnight sounds expensive. Venturing into the charged unknown with no backup observer to dial 911 sounds risky...but who DO you call to "spot" you at midnight in the rain?

I step back into the house, calling Toss in and shutting her in the kitchen. I'm wearing rubber boots. She is not. Several years ago, I found out at her expense what good insulators rubber boots are. It had rained copiously, and the sheep pens were an inch deep in water. I sloshed through it, unconcerned. Toss followed me. Suddenly she started to yelp in fear and pain, and ran frantically this way and that. I couldn't figure it out for a couple minutes, until I saw the end of a broken electric fence wire laying in the puddle. My boots had prevented me from feeling what she was feeling. Since then she's been just a tad bit distrustful of puddles, and I've been very aware of this potential hazard for her, or for me if I don't wear rubber boots.

Next step: which of the unlabeled/mislabeled breakers goes to the farm electic supply? The electrical system was significantly re-routed several times in its history, and the labels didn't get updated at the time. Silly me. "Welder" is actually the kitchen range--I think. "Air conditioner" got transmogrified into a dryer hookup that's never been used. The farm portion of the system was wired with 220, split off into 110 at each of the receptacles. So that narrows it down to four possibilities, and I guess right on the first try: the snapping stops. Breaker on, it starts again. That could be the fence charger going on and off, or something else on the circuit. How handy that the breaker box is right next to the back door!

Breaker off.

It still takes courage to step onto the rain-wet grass. I unplug everything except the electric fence charger--don't see anything unusual except some ants living in one of the receptacles.

Breaker on. The snapping picks up right where it left off, randomly from all over the back yard. If fireflies made noise, a huge rising of them would sound like this. ???? OK, I KNOW no cords are plugged in except the one in the barn, so it SHOULD be safe to walk out there. I gingerly creep out to the barn area, my heart pounding about 3 times for every snap. It's even louder out here!

I see a bright flashing light, and investigate. Yes, a wire is shorting out through or around a wet insulator to the T-post. Now that I'm close, it's clear that the sound is richocheting off of the neighbor's shed, a board fence, and my sheds...each different distances from me and from the short....hence the illusion of coming from everywhere. Now that I know what it is, it's a lovely demonstration of the relatively slow speed at which sound travels.

It is a simple matter to disconnect that branch of the electric fence system. Fortunately, that portion of the system doesn't contain any sheep at present, so I can repair by daylight.

Fortunately, I don't have early appointments tomorrow, so I should be able to sleep in.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

A Busy Day

Cleanup after the "lamb storm" included staying home from work today to have the vet come out and deal with the retained placenta, an infected foot that wasn't healing (there was still baling twine in it, that I had missed...), an odd lump evident after shearing that wasn't going away (healed broken rib), several other minor things while he was here anyhow. Tuition for today's lesson on sheep health: $93. Homework: intramuscular injections of penicillin for 5 days, twice a day, for two sheep, plus soaking the foot in epsom salts 20 minutes twice a day.

A simple foot-soak method: put a long sock over the ewe's leg, up above the knee or hock. Put a clean plastic bag over the sock. Put the other sock over the whole thing. Pour soaking agent into the plastic bag. Use duct tape on the top cuff of the socks (not on the sheep's wool) to keep it from falling below the knee. The inner sock keeps the hoof from puncturing the bag; the outer sock keeps the ground from puncturing the bag. Sheep are SO good at not picking at such "bandages" compared to other livestock and pets!

This method is quick to apply and take off, unmessy for the "nurse", and the sheep need only be restrained for a few minutes before and after. Socks can be washed and reused, bag thrown away. Compare to forcing the sheep to stand in a bucket or dish tub for 20 minutes....

The laboring ewe lamb Saturday night ended up having a premature lamb, which I found still totally enclosed in the amniotic sac with afterbirth attached. Two preemies at the same time hints at some environmental factor--moldy hay, or an infectious agent such as toxoplasmosis. The triplets are doing fine. No new lambs since then so hopefully no more preemies.

I tried to get as much done as I could around the vet call. Chores, of course. But also: Fed-Ex back the huge box of the wrong kind of egg cartons I got when I mistyped the item number on the order. Talk with someone that's interested in buying some dairy sheep. Start the paperwork to get the ownership on the van that the former tenants left here straightened out. Talk with insurance agent about the van. See neighboring landowner, and get copies from him of the lease for the pasture he is renting me for the summer (bring my own fences). Order additional Electronet fencing from Premier. Take the young Border Collie to the vet to get blood work done prior to her admission tomorrow for in-patient heartworm treatment. Have someone from the Porta-pottie rental place come look to be sure they can get their trucks into the area I want the Porta-pottie. ($75 per month, but bound to pay for itself in time saved from walking from market ($$$) garden to bathroom. Why my house is a bad farm house: to get to the bathroom, you have to go through the garage, through the large entryway with white vinyl flooring, through the large kitchen with white vinyl flooring, through the living room with hard wood floors, and through the little hall.) Take a load of scrap metal (rusty shelves, chicken waterers with holes, other debris from the tenants) to the recycler's, and come home with truck load of used corrugated galvanized roofing. See tree trimmers cutting down two prime pear trees ("We tried to talk 'em out of it, but the owners were afraid they would attract bees that would sting the children.") in a neighbor's yard; stop to talk and end up with a truck load of wood chips and logs. Unload logs so that nephew can borrow lawnmower to mow my daughter's lawn...first rearranging the pile of other logs waiting to be cut and split for firewood. Make arrangements for tree trimmers to come next week and fell a bunch of "trash trees" (volunteer elms, mulberries, black walnuts) around the yard that are firewood size and crowding out things like the fruit trees and the "bird tree" fir that we decorate with edible decorations each winter. Go out to eat with nephew who worked up an appetite (me too!)

And somehow I still feel like I didn't get much done today....
But baby steps will get me "there" in due time.