Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Garden in late June

The garden exploded overnight. Two and a half inches will do that. The sunflowers are four feet high now, and some of the tomato plants are three and a half feet. Some have blooms. Others have tiny green orbs. Tomato season is still weeks away. The wet summer has made weed season constant. Luckily, the soft ground makes hoeing easy. After tackling the weeds, I turn my attention to the lettuce. Nature is telling it to go to seed. I pull the plants and pluck the leaves. I won't have lettuce again until the fall crop comes on toward the end of August. But I'll have cucumbers. I lift the leaves and find dozens of three-inch cucumbers. Let the season of cucumber salads begin.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Barn Help

I decide to take advantage of the cooler weather and clean up the manure from the paddock area.
Lily offers to help.
As I'm scooping manure, I hear the rake fall. Then I hear crunching noises. Lily is chewing on the plastic tines. Not satisfied, she plops her front foot on the rake and paws it. I shoo her away.
She walks over to the muck bucket and mouths the rope handles. Soon she's swinging the bucket around. Again, I shoo her away.
She steps over to the area I've just cleaned and makes a deposit.
And I wonder about my animals, past and present, and their sense of curiosity and how they can't leave things alone.
Have I inadvertently trained them to do these things? Or, have I selected them and loved them for these traits?

Friday, June 25, 2010

...And the Farm Sighed

We've been experiencing the rains of April and the heat of July for most of June. That means everything and everyone is hot and sticky, and the bug population is quite robust. But finally a cold front moved through, dropping the humidity and the daytime temperature to 80 degrees. And I sighed and slept soundly. The lambs remembered how to romp. Lily, the pony, grazed without stomping and swishing at flies. And the Border collies proved they could be even more energetic. Caeli herded rabbits. She circled brush piles, went through brush piles, and did it all over again. After returning from her walk, she focused on herding the rooster. "Didn't we work sheep this morning?" I asked her. Her tongue hung out the side of her mouth, and I could hear her panting. She plopped in the grass, rolled on her back, and smiled.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Wet Feet

I look at the shoes lined up in the mudroom and think Imelda Marcos.
Except my shoes aren't pretty, pink and polished. No, mine are decorated with dirt and decay. I hate wet feet.
When living on a farm, this becomes a problem, especially on summer mornings when the dew doesn't leave until 9 or 10 o'clock. By that time, I've often gone through two, sometimes three, pairs of tennis shoes.
Don't suggest rubber boots. They're uncomfortable, especially for long hikes through the hay fields. And they make my feet sweat. So then my feet are hot and wet.
So, over the years, I've developed the tennis shoe hierachy. I have my gym shoes -- those are the clean ones that go to the gym. Then I have the tennis shoes to wear out and about. Then come the just-retired gym shoes that are suitable for going to the dusty fairs and festivals.
Finally, I have the barn tennis shoes -- four pairs -- that are stained with grass and dirt from farm chores, grass mowing and gardening. The inside heal lining has worn away, and the laces are frayed. When the soles on the barn shoes separate and flap, they are thrown away.
It's not a perfect system. My feet still get wet. But I most always have a dry pair to change into.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Weaning the Husband

When the husband returns from feeding Lindsey the Bottle Lamb, I notice he is cupping the bottle and holding it on his far side, away from me. Lindsey is in the final stages of weaning. In the evenings, she is now receiving four ounces of water. In the morning, she receives six ounces of diluted formula. In a few days, she'll receive water only morning and night. Then, it'll be nothing. The husband is taking it hard. On his return trip from the evening feeding, I can tell he doesn't want to linger and talk with me. Suspicious, I ask to see the bottle. He holds it, cupping the bottom. But I can see the white liquid in the bottom.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Country Grapevine

While walking the dogs in the hayfields this morning, I stop to pluck ripe raspberries from plants growing in the fencerows. Rolling the purple berries over my tongue, I savor their juicy, wild flavor. Once home, I go to the garden and pluck cabbage worms from my two brussel sprout and two broccoli plants. How did those cabbage worms find my four plants? I've never planted brussel sprouts, cabbage, or broccoli in the garden. These must be the only four plants in a half-mile radius -- maybe more. Do these pests have some type of network? Radar? I place the worms in a cup and offer them to the hens who show only mild interest in the worms. It is the time of plenty, and the worms are small. I imagine they are waiting for the arrival of the tomato worms, which have no trouble finding my plants.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Country Drive-Thru

As we were driving along the almost two-lane country road, we spotted a woman on a riding mower who had paused along the ditchline. She was picking and eating wild raspberries. My friend and I laughed because we've both paused mid-step when we've spotted those dark purple berries, and plucked a quick snack.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Kitty Crack

I walked around the house last night and counted seven barn swallow nests. Most are built in those few inches between an upstairs window trim and the overhanging roof. Two are in the crook of the downspouts as they descend from rooftop.
It's no wonder the kitties are exhausted by day's end.
Swallows swoop -- when they leave their nests, return, hunt for bugs. It's arcs and swoops all day long, on all sides of the house.
The indoor cats are entranced. They sit in the windows and follow the swoops. Their tails twitch as the birds come toward the window and ascend to the nest above. Their heads move in graceful arcs as they follow the birds hunting for insects.
Exhausted, the cats fall asleep. I wonder if they swoop in their dreams.
Pictured is Dewey asleep in the window.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Power of the Pony

When scanning my inbox, one word jumps out: pony.
It is my work email, and the message subject is summer pony runs -- a topic that has everything to do with the mail schedule between buildings and nothing to do with those four-legged creatures. But of the hundreds of words on the screen, I saw pony. Apparently it's a word that captures my attention during conversations too. When I was a child, I remember my parents were discussing plans for their summer party. My dad talked of ordering a pony. I was pretty excited until I learned he meant a pony keg of beer.
Truth is, even today, and even as a beer lover, I think I'd rather have the four-legged version.
I've never outgrown my love of ponies. When working at summer camp during college, I was quite happy to work in the pony barn rather than the horse barns. Today, when most of my horsey friends ride horses, I'm riding my pony.
I like that my 14.1-hand pony fits in places horses can't, and that, in a pinch, I don't need a mounting block. Generally speaking, most ponies are hardy little souls, who can live on little food. Most don't require expensive shoes. Many are quite sociable.
And, they remind me of a time in childhood when dreams were singular and simple: I dreamt of having a pony.
Pictured is Ms. Lily in her favorite pose. That girl can live on just a few hours of pasture a day. Unfortunately, that gives her plenty of time to figure out how to rearrange the barn.

Musical Chicken Houses

We did the chicken shuffle over the weekend, and the rooster is not happy with where he ended up when the music stopped.
Our four-week old chicks were ready to move into the outdoor coop, so we had to make room for them.
As we do every year, we had most of our older hens and old rooster butchered. In the pre-dawn hours (which is about 5 in the morning these days), I plucked the hens off their perches and put them in the transport crate. Because I didn't have room in the chicken crate for all of the birds, three of the older hens stayed on the farm.
I then cleaned out the old chicken house (great fun on sweltering afternoons), and, at nightfall, moved the one-year-old hens from the new hen house to the old hen house.
That's when the rooster got himself into trouble. He saw the new hens as intruders and attacked them. So, I moved the rooster into a portable rooster condo where he'll stay for a few weeks. Then, I'll reintroduce him to the flock. Sometimes time-outs work wonders for roosters.
I locked the young hens in their new home for 36 hours before letting them out to pasture. This helps them know where to return to roost at night.
Then, I cleaned out the new chicken house, and moved the four-week old chicks into it. They will have to remain inside the chicken house for another six weeks or so until they are no longer easy targets for cats and hawks.
When the music stopped, all the fowl were in their proper places, and I was tired and sweaty and happy the chicken moving chore was over.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A New Wardrobe

This herding hobby may require a new wardrobe. When I arrived at my lesson in jeans and a t-shirt, my instructor asked if I needed a rain coat. "I think the rain's over for the day," I say as rain drops fall. I grabbed a rain jacket from the car. "You may want a long coat," my instructor says, handing me a coat that reaches to my knees. The rain continues to fall throughout the lesson. My baseball cap is soaked. My hair is wet. My jeans are wet from the knees down. Caeli, my dog, is wet too. As she runs through the tall grass, she collects seedheads and bits of grass. Every few minutes she gives a good shake. Though tired after an hour of work, she can't stop smiling. She says her wardrobe is just fine.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Weaning Time

When do you wean a lamb? The sheep business book says at 30 days because lamb formula is expensive. The sheep husbandry book says at 60 days because that's when the lamb should be able to thrive on its own. My practical self says when we run out of lamb formula. And that's where we've run into problems this year. Usually an eight-pound bag of lamb formula lasts about 30 days. So, by the time we're finishing up the second bag, the lamb is around 60 days. But this year, we didn't start the baby lamb on formula until she was 10 days old. And this year, I paid more attention to the Great Deal! On Sale! signs than I did the weight signs when I ordered formula. Imagine my surprise when a 25-pound bag of formula arrived. How big is a 25-pound bag of formula? Think bigger than the big bag of catfood. Think big enough to take up a shelf in the freezer. Lindsey the Milkaholic was being fed 5-6 times a day, then it was cut back to five times, then four, and now three. Today, we begin twice a day feedings, and next week I begin diluting the formula, so that soon I'll be offering her water. Shortly after that, the bottle will be in her past. The leftover formula will remain in the freezer, ready for next lambing season.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


I've met many octogenarians who have downsized from house, yard, and garden, to apartment or condo. Yet, each summer, they still have a potted tomato plant or two. They just can't give up the taste of a warm, vine-ripened tomato. I thought of those folks this weekend, when a 73-year-old man was telling me about his little garden with 24 tomato plants. "What do you do with that many tomatoes?" I ask. "Oh, we eat some. We give some away," he says. "I've downsized my tomato crop this year," I tell him. I was spending way too many August and September nights canning tomatoes and making sauce. As I was weeding and staking my tomatoes yesterday, I wondered how gardens end up with so many tomatoes. I made an effort to buy only six plants this year -- four Amish Paste for canning and sauce, a Berkley Tie Dye and a Green Zebra for eating. Not counting chickens, I'm the only tomato eater in my family, so that should be plenty. I staked 10 plants. In addition to the ones I bought I also had two Mountain Fresh, a Black Pearl, and a Pink Brandywine that my mother gave me. That's the thing about tomatoes. Everyone seems to have extra plants. Everyone has favorite varieties. Every tomato offers a unique flavor or memory.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Getting a good look at the lambs

After the two-day old lambs leave their jugs in the barn, we only admire most of them from afar for the next several weeks.
At 7-14 days, the ram lambs are caught, banded and vaccinated for tetanus. Four weeks later, we catch all the lambs, give the males a booster shot, and vaccinate the females for the first time. We also deworm the ewes.

Lamb and ewe handling day was last week.

I marvel at how much we've learned in the past few years. There were no busted gates, no black eyes, no cussing.

Some things we've learned:
1. That it's much easier to catch the sheep when they're in a stall, with solid wood walls. At first, we tried to catch them when they were in a small outside pen with wire fencing. The lambs and ewes saw daylight and tried to run through the fence.
2. Solid panels and a dog are a great way to entice a sheep to go into the barn. Sheep don't like to go into dark spaces, and the barn is one of those. With a dog encouraging them and a panel directing them, they are learning to go inside.
3. It's easier to catch a ewe or lamb when there are several sheep in a small area. Sheep will flock together, so we just need to pick the one we need from the tight bunch.
4. Grease pencils are a wonderful thing. They let us quickly identify the sheep we've handled.
5. Needles aren't so scary. Okay, I still think they're awful, but at least I can give shots without having to give myself a pep talk before each one.
To vaccinate, I pinch a fold of skin between my fingers and inject the needle under the skin.
When I do this, it's a good thing to pinch an inch. Usually the singles or the twins with older moms carry the largest layer of fat and are growing the fastest. But, I was pleased to note that the late-born twins from a young ewe were also growing well.
"This is the easy one," I tell my husband as he holds a lamb and I inspect it.
When we do this again in a month, the lambs will be 15 pounds heavier, maybe more.
At some point, we'll also have to trim the ewes' hooves.
But we don't think about that as we look at the lambs, and marvel that we'd worked through 30+ lambs and ewes in less than 90 minutes.
"I think we're finally figuring this out," I say.

The Babysitters

When I walk toward the pasture, I notice one ewe surrounded by nine lambs.
How did she end up with half of the lambs? Did the ewes get together and decide she was in charge of babysitting this evening? Or, was she the gracious ewe who offered to watch the lambs so the others could have a break? Or, do the lambs think she's the cool mom, and they all want to hang out with her?
The lambs are at the tween stage, where they like to venture out and be on their own, but also want their mom nearby if they get scared or hungry.
Some lambs are inattentive and don't notice when their moms and most of the flock venture out to pasture. Some, like the black and white ram lamb in the photo, are more independent and quite content to have some living creature around.
Or maybe the little lamb thinks Llambert the Llama is his daddy.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Growing Sunflowers

Sometimes I'm amazed that this three-inch plant I see in early June will grow to eight feet by summer's end.
This year I'm venturing into sunflowers to add a splash of color to the garden, and to give the chickens something to feast on come fall.
The bunny living under the chicken house should like them too.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Looking Down

When Caeli goes on hikes, she looks across the horizon for deer, raccoons, sheep, and down for field mice and moles.
Tag does the same. Though he also looks up.
I call it the Rambles legacy.
When Tag was young, Rambles utility-poled a squirrel. After unsuccessfully trying to climb the pole, she decided to stare that squirrel down. When Tag saw the squirrel on top of the utility pole, it opened a whole new world to him. For days afterwards, he walked around looking up, hoping to find squirrels.
As we were walking along the driveway this week, Tag's ears perked. He'd spotted birds roosting on the electric wires.
I, though, find myself looking down these days and making some awesome discoveries.
Strawberries! Yeah, I know I planted them a few years ago and watched them bloom this spring. Yet, it's always a delight to discover that they're ripe, and even more of a delight to pluck off their caps and eat them, warm, from the garden.
Eggs! Yep, we have renegade hens who didn't care for their human accommodations and took up nesting elsewhere. I'd hoped that one would sit on the nest, but that hasn't happened yet.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Hunting for Ear Plugs

Top Prey of Trick, the Outdoor Cat:
1. Rabbits
2. Sparrows
3. Mice
4. Caeli, the Border Collie
5. Humans
6. Lambs
(Thankfully, he doesn't try to kill the last three on the list.)
Top Prey of Dewey, the Indoor Cat:
1. Lamb bottle nipples
2. Ear Plugs
3. Flies
4. Milk carton caps
5. Louie, the other kitty
Both cats take their job seriously.
I have to give Dewey credit for his speed and his ability to spot his prey. When I opened the door to a forbidden room the other day, the cat darted in, immediately spotted a wayward ear plug near the laundry basket, snatched it and hustled off.
The ear plug didn't squeak.
I did.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Divided Again

The Border collie is happy. The yearling ewes, not so much.
Through late winter and spring, I used the yearling ewes to practice herding. The yearlings stayed in their own pasture, separated from the older ewes, the llama, and later, the lambs.
They weren't always happy about it. Though they had a shelter and plenty of food, they wanted to be with the main flock.
They got their wish about a week ago when I decided the pastures could wait no more. In the spring, I try to delay mowing as long as possible so that the nesting birds can raise their young. By last week, the grass had grown so tall, it was devouring my young. I could no longer see the lambs. It was time to mow.
Our farm has six smaller pastures, a large pasture, paddocks, runs, and at least a dozen gates. When I mowed the yearling ewe pasture, I open a gate so they could go to the next pasture. Apparently, another gate was open that allowed them access to the flock of ewes and lambs.
They merged.
That meant no herding practice until we sorted the five yearlings from the flock.
Because young lambs are unpredictable and flighty, I wasn't looking forward to the project. So, we delayed it until this past weekend when we had to vaccinate the lambs and deworm the ewes. [Note: When doing this, we marked the lambs and ewes that we'd worked on with a red grease pencil on the forehead. Thus, the animals in the photos have grease pencil on their faces.]
So, Caeli and I have our practice sheep back, and Caeli is smiling again.