Friday, July 31, 2009

How Sheep View the World

Sheep recognize faces. Mine see me as a flake of hay. They bleat pitifully when I step into the barn. If they could, I'm sure they'd cup empty bowls in their hooves and stretch them toward me. When I walk by, they follow, hoping I’ll morph into a pile of hay.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

My Bottle Lamb

My trips to the barn often include stopping and picking up some loose hay. I offer it to the pink nose that pokes between the sheep pen’s slats. Ewe Lamb 05 was a triplet, rejected by her mother. For 45 days, I gave her bottle after bottle of formula. The last bottle was weeks ago. Yet she still likes the hand feeding, still appreciates the human giving her some leaves of alfalfa hay.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Weaning Time

The ram lambs’ cries settle like a somber fog over the farm. They aren’t frantic, joyous, or demanding. They’re just sad. We separated them from their mothers. They are four months old and almost as tall as their mothers. They’re quite capable of surviving on their own. Yet they still like to get on their knees and contort their heads to nurse. They still want to lie next to their mothers and chew their cuds. They still run to their moms for comfort. They still cry when they can't be near them.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Planting the Fall Garden

Today I planted seeds of optimism. It is July, the sun is hot. I am sowing lettuce, spinach and beet seeds into the warm ground. I am hopeful the plants will survive the bugs and hot weather of August, and that by mid-September they will thrive in the cooler weather of fall.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

J.G.: Part 9 -- Farewell

J.G. eventually moved back to the hen house. Apparently hens respect their elders and welcomed her into the flock. Her ventures over the fence and around the farm became less frequent. Earlier this summer, I noticed she was moving slower. A few weeks later, she died in her nest. Compared to her life, her death was uneventful. I imagine that someday we'll have a rogue hen that sets up house in our barn, and I'll find her antics amusing, and I may even band her and save her from slaughter. But she'll never be a J.G. The critters on the farm have changed. I, too, have changed. I've come to accept that some things, like rogue hens, I can't control.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

J.G.: Part 8-Establishing a Home

Once her chicks grew feathers, J.G. was done with motherhood. She wasn’t done living in the goat stall, nor entertaining me. During the winter months, she flew onto Jake’s back and perched. When we bought sheep and moved them to the barn, she did the same with them. The seven-pound hen pecked the cat who once made the mistake of trying to pounce her. She squawked at the Border collies to remind them that she was not to be herded. I only smiled and shook my head at the hen who ruled the farm.

Friday, July 24, 2009

J.G.: Part 7 -- Mother on a Mission

Move to a farm and your sense of order relaxes. Just like I couldn’t keep J.G. confined to the chicken yard, I couldn’t keep J.G. and her chicks in the goat paddock. Once hatched, the chicks were ready to explore the world. J.G. tagged after them, showing how to scratch for bits of grain, how to catch bugs, how to drink. J.G. and her chicks showed up everywhere – in the horse stalls, under the pine trees in the front yard, in the adjacent bean field, on the back yard. I gave up trying to corral them back to the goat paddock and learned to delight in the surprise sightings.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

J.G.: Part 6 -- Chicks

I make feeding J.G. part of the morning routine. While mammals gain weight during pregnancy, hens lose weight when sitting on eggs. A broody hen only gets up from the nest for a few minutes daily. In that time, she must find food and water. I make her job easier by placing water nearby and spreading bits of grain. By Day 18, J.G. refuses to leave the nest. Does she hear chicks cheeping inside the eggs? On Day 20, I see a yellow head peek out from her feathers. She still sits. On Day 22, she gets up from her nest. Five chicks follow her.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

J.G.: Part 5-Starting a Family

While Jake the Goat was thinking friendship, J.G. the Hen was thinking motherhood. After moving into the goat stall, she built a nest underneath the goat’s hay feeder in the stall corner and sat on a clutch of eggs. So intent was she on her nest that she ignored the hay that fell from the feeder. Twice a day, I went into the stall and removed the hay that covered her. Every day, I looked at the calendar to see how many more days it would be before the eggs hatched.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

J.G.: Part 4 -- The Lonely Hearts

It seemed fitting that J.G. chose the goat’s stall. After his buddy, Tanner the Goat, died, I moved Jake to the horses' pasture and stalls. My mare didn't care for his antics and bit and chased him. So Jake moved back to the goat area to live alone. J.G. didn't fare much better with the hens. When they picked on her, she flew from the chicken yard and ventured around the farm. Though they seemed an odd couple -- one had feathers, the other fur; one weighed seven pounds, the other 170 -- they seemed to like each other.

Monday, July 20, 2009

J.G.: Part 3 -- A New Name

The #53 Hen grew tired of the garden after a few days. On her ventures around the farm, she discovered a better place: the goat paddock and stall. It provided bits of spilled grain, shelter, plenty of manure to scratch, and, best of all, a goat friend named Jake. Within weeks, she’d made a nest underneath the goat’s hay feeder. “Jake has a girlfriend,” my husband announced one night when he returned from evening chores. The name Jake’s Girlfriend was shortened to J.G., and the hen was no longer called #53.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

J.G.: Part 2 -- Wing Clipping

After buying more vegetable plants and sticking them into the ground, I looked for ways to keep the #53 Hen out of my garden. I had three options: build a taller fence, keep #53 Hen in a secure building, or clip the hen's wings. I opted for wing clipping. Cutting the wing feathers on one side makes the hen unbalanced when she attempts to fly. Armed with an illustrated guide to clipping wings, a pair of scissors, and a patient husband who agreed to hold the bird, I went about cutting the wing feathers on the hen's left side. A few hours later, I watched as she attempted to fly over the fence. After several attempts, she lifted herself a few feet in the air, grabbed the fence with her feet, and proceeded to climb over the fence and into the garden.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

J.G.: Part I -- Eating the Garden

J.G. distinguished herself by flying over the chicken yard fence and into my recently planted garden. Once there, the Buckeye hen uprooted the tags identifying my plants and munched the leaves on the young squash, melon and cucumber plants. I squawked, scooped up the young hen and threw her back into the chicken yard. She squawked, ruffled her feathers, and flew back into the garden. The year was 2006, and she hadn’t earned the name J.G. She was just That Damn #53 Hen, identifiable only by her green, numbered leg band.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Farmhouse: The Dogs

Some locals look with wonder as one Border Collie, then another and another bounce from the house. “You allow dogs in the house?” they ask. “I don’t have white carpet and lace curtains,” I respond.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Farmhouse: White Carpet

The white carpet pictured in that photo is gone. While a mother with five children may have kept it clean, a couple with a couple of dogs and cats could not. I tried to shampoo the soiled spots left by pets. My husband realized the futility. He pulled out his utility knife and cut the soiled spots out of the carpet. When more floorboard than carpet showed, we knew it was time to look at other flooring options.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Farmhouse: The Photo

In between the wall and baseboard, I find a photo of the home’s former occupants. Surrounding the five smiling children are lace curtains and white carpet. Was their mother optimistic or hopeful? Were the white rooms her refuge from the mud, manure, hay chaff, and grime waiting outside her door?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Farmhouse: Part 2

I sometimes marvel at our house’s adaptability. Over its lifetime, it’s expanded twice to accommodate its occupants; and shrunk once, to suit us. It’s stoically stood as humans injected ductwork and electrical wires into its walls, added and removed flooring, papered and painted its walls. It never protested when its occupants added and closed in doors, removed and expanded porches, changed walls and added closets, given its rooms ever-changing purposes.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A Farmhouse Looks at 100

Our farmhouse turned 100 years old recently. Like any centurion, it’s had repairs and surgeries to its plumbing and electrical systems, its leaks and creaks. It's seen many people come and go. It holds so many stories of those who have sought its shelter.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Summer Mornings: Rhythms

Live on a farm long enough and you’ll discover the rhythms of the day. Early mornings are for eating. In the early dawn hours, the animals and fowl scavenge and graze, filling their bellies before returning to the barns and henhouse where they bask in the rising sun. The sheep chew cuds, while the horses lie, stretching, their bellies protruding into the air. And the people rush from meeting to meeting, answer phones and emails, and make sure not a minute is wasted.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Summer Mornings: The Rooster Crow

Summer mornings find me on the back porch. Reading the newspaper. Listening to the birds. Watching the chickens, sheep and horses forage. Supervising the Border collies’ chase and wrestle games. When the phone rings, I think nothing of answering it. And the rooster thinks nothing of belting out his morning song. It’s a song that carries across phone lines and miles and miles away, a song that begs comment from people on the other end of the line, and a song that reminds me I’m home.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Summer Mornings: The Cockerel's Song

I do morning chores to the rooster's song. My nine-pound bird belts a tune as bold as his iridescent auburn and black feathers. But on this summer morning, the response to his crows make me smile. It's a two-syllable tune that ends with a croak. My teenage cockerels are attempting to crow. For the next month, I will hear their songs stretch from two to three syllables, until one day, they find their voice and I hear a chorus of rooster crows.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Adventuring into a Foreign Environment

Imagine dropping a group of New York City teen-agers into an Ohio cornfield. I suppose that’s how my young Buckeyes feel when I let them outdoors. They’ve never felt grass, seen a sky that’s miles away, roamed a room without walls. From their pasture they see sheep, a llama, people, hens, cats and dogs. Above them fly swallows and hawks. Instinct takes over. Buckeyes were bred to roam the pastures, foraging for seeds, grass and bugs. Their chicken brains are programmed to do this. They adapt to the outdoor life within hours. By Day 2 of pasture, they are clamoring for me to open the chicken hutch door and let them explore the world.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Teen Chicks Venture Out

Chicks hatched by hens learn to scratch and roam the world by Day 2. Chicks hatched by the incubator learn sometime in Month 3. That’s when they’re big enough to defend themselves from cats, and when the hawks no longer think they’d make an easy entrĂ©e. Until then, the young birds live inside the coop, only viewing the outside world through the chicken wire.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Summer Mornings: The Balloon

Horses and sheep are prey animals – always on the lookout for the mountain lion in the bushes, the wolf prowling the fence line. So when a white helium balloon drifts near the far pasture, all grazing stops. The animals refuse to go near the bobbing balloon. I can’t fight the generations of memory. If I want them to graze the far pastures, I must remove the helium predator.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Summer Mornings

My old mare whickers when I turn on the lights. Her call drifts across the backyard and through the window screens. The rooster joins her in song. The ewes, who learned a long time ago to associate humans with food, add their baas. A Border collie whines and dances on the wood floor, clacking a cadence that goes faster and faster. On the back porch, the barn cats yowl, demanding their breakfast. And so begins the morning routine: walk the dogs, give hay and water to the rams and sheep hay, feed the horses, move the portable rooster coop, toss the rooster scratch grain, carry fresh water and grain to two hen houses, set out food for the cats, feed the dogs – stirring in canned food for the senior Border collie.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Administering Shots: Part 2

When I was 20 and working in a horse barn, a much-wiser 20-year-old co-worker told that humans are capable of so much more than they think they are. When I was 30 and working at a newspaper, a co-worker told me his wife, who is a doctor, hated needles – but still completed med school and was now practicing. Surely, I could get over this needle phobia. The sheep vaccines are given subcutaneously – or just under the skin. The technique requires grabbing a fold of skin behind the sheep’s elbow and injecting the vaccine under the skin. Care must be taken that it goes under the skin – not between the layers – and that the needle doesn’t poke through the two folds of skin. I’d focus on the technique. I could do this, I told myself.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Administering Shots

I’m needle phobic. In four decades, I’ve never seen a needle penetrate my skin. During blood tests, shots, vaccines, I look away – and sometimes hum. I don’t like to watch when the vet vaccinates the horses and dogs. So, how then, could I possibly give shots to sheep? I certainly couldn’t close my eyes and hope the needle found its mark.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Pharmacy

Open my fridge, and there, between the yeast and horseradish, sits bottles of medications: to kill pain, to reduce fever, to induce labor, to immunize against tetanus, to fight infections. Since acquiring sheep, my animal pharmacy has grown. Profit margins on sheep are slim, and several vet visits can wipe away the small farmer’s profit. When we purchased sheep, we knew we’d have to handle routine vaccinations, deworming, basic first aid.