Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Romantic Vision vs. Reality

When I signed up to collect sap from maple trees at a local park, I have visions of crisp, sunny afternoons, frozen ground, a little snow.

When I arrived at the park yesterday afternoon, it was raining and the ground had thawed. To reach the first tree and bucket, I slogged through slick, wet leaves.

Snapping the top off the first metal bucket, I looked inside and groaned.

It was full of sap.

Sap flow is regulated by temperature. About 24 hours earlier, the temperature climbed above freezing and stayed there.

The park had tapped about 30 maple trees within 250 yards of the sugar shack. My job on this rainy afternoon was to collect sap and carry it to the sugar shack. There, I put it in plastic barrels. When the park had 60-80 gallons, it would boil it and make maple syrup.

Over the weekend, when the daytime temperatures barely rose about freezing, my husband and I had collected about a gallon of sap one day and about 14 gallons the following day.

On this rainy day, I'd collected two gallons from the first tree.

But not all trees produce the same amount of sap. The next three trees produced just over two gallons of sap.

Still, it was going to be a long, wet afternoon.

But not a cold one.

There is nothing like carrying buckets of sap to warm the body.

As I carried those buckets, I thought of horse camping and endurance riding, and how we always seemed to be so far from the water tank, and how it always seemed to be 90 degrees.

When I was endurance riding -- some 20-plus years ago -- I had a co-worker who had romantic notions of those weekends of horseback riding and camping.

"You might want to rethink the corn on the cob," he said, when I told him about my packing list. "You know, corn between the teeth -- not that attractive."

I explained that by the end of the weekend, I would have gone several days without a shower and be wearing dried sweat, horse hair, dirt, hay chaff, and dirty clothes.

"Corn between my teeth is the least of my worries," I told him.

Yesterday at the park, I carried more buckets than I ever carried at an endurance ride. When finished, I noted that there were 34 trees tapped -- not the 30 that I was told, and I'd collected almost 50 gallons of sap.

Although the weather wasn't my romantic ideal, I didn't mind it after a while. The rain kept others from the park, and I found myself listening, trying to distinguish the difference between the tap, tap, tap of sap falling into a metal bucket and the tap, tap, tap of rain falling from leaves.

PHOTO: The park district gives its volunteers samples of the maple syrup.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Great Shed Begins

I'm not sure who welcomes the late winter grooming more -- the horses or me.

The Haflingers are beginning the spring shed. Over the next few months they will lose the winter coats that protected them from the ice, snow and wind.

Today, I ran the curry comb in circles on their faces, legs, neck, bellies, backs and rumps. The horses sighed and lip-trembled in appreciation as dust and three-inch strands of hair loosened their hold on their winter coats.

When finished, I had a few handfuls of hairs and horses that still looked like yaks. I was dusty, hair-covered and reminded of my arm muscles.

Yet, I was happy to begin this rite of spring.

PHOTO: The photo was taken of Jet and Lily last year on one of those rare late winter days when the sun was shining. I love it because it captures the joy of sunshine and the promise of spring on a late February day.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Built for the weather, not the wind

When the snow and wind gusts hit, the sheep parked themselves in the barn area and refused to venture to the pasture where the almost-spring grass awaited.

The Haflinger horses, though, cantered to the hay field and grazed while the wind gusted.

I pondered the scene.

Both the sheep and horses are built to handle cold. The Katahdin sheep were developed in Maine, while the Haflingers originated in the mountains of northern Italy and Austria.

All animals are in good flesh -- a polite way of saying they're carrying a protective layer of fat.

When the winds died down and the temperatures remained in the teens, the sheep moseyed to the pasture and I had my answer to what was keeping the sheep at the barn. It was the gusting wind.

Sheep have little defenses against predators. They're not particularly fast, so they can't outrun a coyote or dog. While flight is out, their fight defenses aren't that great either.

When sheep graze, they are always listening and watching for danger. Wind, though, hinders this. So, when the wind blows, the sheep opt for safety.

My little piggy Haflingers, though, are confident in their ability to run from danger. So they turn their butts to the wind and graze, graze, graze.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Quality of Life: The Dark Side

If I wanted to keep my hens safe from sheep hooves, hawks and dogs, I'd lock them inside the chicken house.

They'd protest.

The desire to stretch their wings, fly, scratch and peck, roam, is embedded in their DNA.

Each morning, I let them out of the hen house to go about their daily business of being chickens.

Each evening, after they return to roost, I lock them in.

But every once in a while -- about once or twice a year -- the number returning is one less.

That happened yesterday when I went outside to do the evening chores.

I spotted the hen immediately. Her lifeless body lay next to the fence that separated the ram and sheep pens. Apparently she'd flown into the ram pen and was unable to escape the territorial ram.

Picking her up, I took her in the barn where I removed the yellow leg band that signified a 2011 model.

Then, I scooped up some scratch grain and offered it to the remaining hens and roosters who cooed and scratched and strutted and delighted in the late afternoon snow.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Productive Distractions

Every few minutes I look up from my writing and glance out the window.

For an hour now, the sheep are huddled around the closed pasture gate.

I consider running outside and opening the gate so they can sprint to the barn. Instead, I write and watch, write and watch.

After an hour, the lead ewe turns and walks north toward the open gate in the far corner of the pasture.

My article is written, and I've moved on to my next assignment.

The sheep are now following the ewe in a single file line.

I write another paragraph and another.

Looking out again, I see the sheep have now walked from the far corner of the pasture and toward the barn. Smiling, I think, "I outlasted them."

And I marvel how much more productive and creative I am when surrounded by the distraction of stubborn ewes, terrorist kitties and dogs, not so patiently waiting to go outside.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Maple Syrup Time

Sap keeps its own schedule.

When the days warm in late winter, it runs. When temperatures dip below freezing, it doesn't. When the buds emerge on the maple trees, maple syrup season is over.

The sap is running in the sugar maple trees in western Ohio.

One morning, I went to nearby Maple Ridge Park to collect sap from about 30 trees. Officially, the overnight temperature was 29 degrees.

But the collection buckets showed the variation in temperatures. In some, the sap was slushy. In others, it was nearly frozen. But in some -- those with the most sap -- it was pure liquid.

Inside the sugar shack, though, the sap was in full boil. By day's end, it will be thick and sweet maple syrup.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Blinded by the White

This weekend, when the ground was frozen and snow-covered, I couldn't trim Caeli's tail, even though I knew the mud was coming.

Because the tail hair is so fine and because Caeli is so determined to run through the mud, I usually keep the tail hair trimmed to two inches long.

Not since adopting her has the tail hair been so long.

As I brushed, I admired its silkiness.

Today, five minutes into the walk, I realized how silly I'd been.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Saying Good-bye to the Boys

The last group of market lambs went to the butcher on Saturday.

While chore time is easier, I miss the boys.

Lambs go to the butcher in late fall and mid-winter. Because the weather is usually good through late fall, the first group spends most of its time on pasture.

The second group, though, alternated its time between the barn and pastures. When downpours, high winds or snowstorms were predicted, the Border collie and I brought them in from pasture and put them in a stall.

By January, they were so accustomed to the routine that I didn't need a dog for help. I didn't tell the Border collie that.

But on those walks to and from the pasture, I watched the boys be boys -- head butting, running, twisting, circling, and, generally, being goofy. The ewe lambs that are in the ewe flock don't act like that.

So now our flock consists of one don-turn-your-back-on-him ram, many pregnant ewes as well as a few older ewes and ewe lambs.

But when I look at the calendar and at the ewes -- especially the ewes -- I am reminded that lambing season is only six weeks away, and the goofy, playful lamb act begins again.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Egg Mystery is Solved

The two dozen hens produced four eggs this week. That's usually not a cause for rejoicing. However, after five weeks of no eggs, I'm happy.

Never in the previous decade of winters have the chickens laid no eggs.

What happened?

Egg laying is regulated by light. While this winter has had its dreary moments, there have been worse winters.

The hens received less light because of a change of behavior.

We let our hens free-range. During the warmer months, when the grass is growing, they usually roam the pastures and come back to the hen house at night. After we built the sheep lean-to, they often found that a great place to hang out. There, they were out of the rain and safe from hawks.

However, this winter, they moved their "hanging out" place into the livestock barn, which, when closed up in the winter, is dark, dark, dark.

When this cold spell breaks, I'll change their behavior. I'll move half the flock to the other hen house and cut off access to the dark, dark barn.

For an unscientific explanation of what happened, check out Cheeps and Bleats.