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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Happy Trails, Misty Girl

We got the phone call we had been waiting for, Wednesday morning. I woke the Farmer. “You do know you sold our horse last night, right?” We had been in the midst of St. Patrick’s Day festivities at an Irish pub when he made the sale over the phone. It’s like getting a tattoo. Sometimes you regret it the next morning. But no, he said, he was of sound mind when he made the deal. And Roy Sherrer was on his way from Spencerville to pick her up.
I went outside to break the news to Misty. She was standing at the hay feeder with the cows. Over the last few days she had given up trying to get into the inner sanctum of the barn where new mamas rested with their calves in comfort, and she seemed to have forgiven me for putting a cow and calf in her stable. But it was clear she wasn’t comfortable with calving time. She needed a farm full of horses. Where she could be trained, and maybe bred too. That’s where she was going. Shermount Farms. I told her all of this and she listened intently, flicking her ears back and forth and moving to stand very, very close to me. She put her chin on the top of my head and rested it there. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes and a lump forming in my throat. Maybe she did too.
We watched as the horse trailer rounded the bend in the road and made the slow approach to our driveway. It was almost silent – not like the cattle truck, the sound of which tends to get the animals whipped into a frenzy. They know it means someone is either coming or going, every time they hear it. I tried to get Misty to follow me to the stable but she stayed locked to her spot, her ears nervously twitching, eyes watching the trailer as it backed into position.
A bowl of sweetfeed worked to lure her into the stable. I held her harness and stood just to the side of the deep freezer, in case she decided to freak out and bolt either forward or back through the stable. She did neither.
All of the doors and gates worked quietly on the trailer. Maybe because Roy works with horses, he knows that spooking them will only make his job more difficult. When he snapped a lead on Misty and pulled her toward the trailer, she followed obediently. Then her big dinner plate hooves hit the patch of ice at the door of the stable, and she lost her footing for a moment. She steadied herself and froze to the spot, afraid to move. Roy stepped down from the trailer, grabbed hold of the tuft of hair at the back of her front leg and pulled until she buckled and allowed him to place it up on the trailer. She gave the wood floor a good tap as if to test its stability, then she followed him up into her chariot.
“You’ve already got her trained more than we ever did,” the Farmer said.
“Oh, I know Misty,” Roy answered.
Roy Sherrer used to trim Misty’s hooves when she was a young horse on Ron Cooke’s farm. She has also been to Shermount Farms before, for a few weeks a year ago when we tried to breed her to a Belgian stud. She might meet him again someday soon, or maybe they will try matching her up with someone else for one more go at breeding before she gets too old. She is twelve now. She will probably live to about twenty-five.
While the men stood talking, I climbed up into the horse trailer and whispered to Misty. She turned slightly so she could see me. Then she looked back out the window, at her pasture. I wondered what she was thinking, as I told her she was a good girl and we loved her very much and wanted her to be happy. Then I realized she was probably letting it all sink in, that this was goodbye. She was looking out over the fields she had thundered over for the past six summers, with her sister Ashley, Donkey, and Gracie the sheep.
I had a good cry, then, and I’m tearing up again as I write this. Happy trails, my Misty Girl. You will be missed.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Lucky Number 13

Up until this week, he had twelve head of cattle. Every night the Farmer would go out and count heads, making sure no one was missing in action. Then, last month on Friday, February 13th, number thirteen was born. Unfortunately, the number wasn’t lucky for him. He was a very big calf and we suspect he died in the birth canal. The mama, Gina (thus named for the big curl on her head that makes her look like Gina Lollobrigida) was released from the barn to rejoin the herd. The other cows didn’t treat her very well for a day or two. Maybe she smelled different to them. In any case, a month later, she is still trying to fit in but I often see her off by herself. There seems to be some shunning going on.
This week we had another Friday the 13th and, one month to the day, another calf was born. It isn’t normal for us to have a gap of a month between calf births. We were certain the other calves would come in succession after the first one (the Farmer says the first birth in the season is always a disaster – it rang true with our sheep as well). We left instructions for our farm-sitter when we went on vacation and every day I texted him from the beach: “How many head of cattle?”  And his reply: “Still only 12.”
It was a relief, because I would hate for his first farming experience to be traumatic, with too-big calves being stuck during birth and having to be pulled out against their will to enter the -35 degree Canadian winter.
So on the morning of March 14th the horse was acting strange. She was running up and down the field, snorting and tossing her mane. Then the Farmer pointed out the new calf. That was what Misty was trying to tell us. Mocha had given birth some time during the night, and her calf was up and nursing, springing around and loving life.
After an introductory photo and video session I noticed the other cows were not being very friendly to the little bull calf. He would get confused and try to nurse on someone who wasn’t his mother and they would respond most rudely with a sharp kick to his side. I talked the Farmer into putting a rope around the calf and hop-stepping him to the stable, where he and his mother could bond for a few days.
I’ll admit, this may not have been the best idea. Normally we bring the new cows (or the ones in labour, if we can get them on time) into the barn to bond with their babies. But the stable was closer and easier to access. Misty, the usual occupant of the stable, was not at all impressed with the development. There are plenty of other spots in the barn for her to find shelter, so that wasn’t the issue. But her sweet feed is in the stable. And she was absolutely sure that cow and her calf were in there, eating it. She could smell it. (I admit I did give Mocha a scoop of molasses corn-candy for good behaviour).
Misty did some more moaning and complaining outside the stable and when nothing came of it, she decided to put the run on the other cows. The Farmer and I were in the barn with the second cow to go into labour when we heard the stampede. It was quite a dangerous situation, with the 1800-lb. horse chasing the pregnant, uncoordinated cows over icy patches of unlevel ground, where they could easily slip or trip, breaking a leg or miscarrying. I went out to confront Misty.
We had an exchange of sorts. I yelled NO, smacked my leather mitts together and stomped my feet and she just stared at me, giving repeated snorts and tossing her mane. She also stomped her foot at one point. Talk about a hissy fit.
I know she understood me. Every time I go to the barnyard she follows close on my heels, as if pleading her case. But she stopped chasing the cows. I will not be manipulated by a horse. And she’s not getting back into her stable until Mocha is finished with it, in another day or two.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

March arrives like a lamb, without the lambs

There is no use complaining about it. We are Canadians and we are blessed with four seasons. Unfortunately, one of them is freezing cold.
I don’t really mind winter. I love the first morning when you wake up to a blanket of unblemished, perfect white snow. Christmas this year just wasn’t the same with mud instead of snowflakes. But this is enough, already. It’s March. Take a hike, Old Man Winter. We’ve had it with you.
They say you are never given more than you can handle in life. Well let me tell you, there’s a reason my family did not settle in Kapuskasing. We can only handle so much cold. Those people up in Kap get snow a solid month ahead of us and they keep it into April. And they’re still smiling. Winter builds character. So I guess we shouldn’t complain with our lot in life.
According to weather sources, this is the coldest February we have suffered since 1889. No, it’s not your imagination. February has had an extremely poor attitude this year. Let’s hope March is a little kinder to us.
The Farmer and I like to escape the cold for a week every winter. It’s a cheat move, I know, but we’re getting up in years and can no longer bear the brutality of winter for so many days in a row. We’ll leave that for the young’uns on their snowboards.
This year we almost didn’t make it. Our flight was booked for February 15th and on the 12th I woke up with a funny feeling. I thought to check our passports and, sure enough, they had expired three weeks earlier. Thank goodness for emergency passport service. Twenty-four hours, two horrible passport photos and $450 dollars later, we had passports that are good for the next five years.  Phew. That was a close one.
Now we’re into March and it has arrived like a lamb. We filled the house on Sunday with family and friends to celebrate a very special double birthday – my daughter Milena’s 26th and my grandmother Vicky’s 100th.
Just as cars were beginning to arrive I looked out the window at Cody the dog, who was not doing his characteristic hopping up and down for attention from the arriving houseguests. He was in fact lying quietly in repose. Something wasn’t quite right about it, however. When I took a second look I realized his left hind leg was suspended in mid air. He looked like he was a hospital patient, in traction. Somehow he had managed to get the chain wound around and around his leg until it was suspended in mid air. Seriously? Right now you have to pull this stunt? I traipsed outside in my high heels to assess the situation. Then I changed into more sensible shoes, unhooked his chain and brought him in the house. With his long, matted winter fur, it took three of us to untangle the chain and set him free. By the time I finished reattaching him to his dog run my pant legs were all wet. But people were arriving so the show must go on.
The Farmer made Grandma fish for her 100th birthday dinner as per her request. It was a recipe we learned while in Jamaica. Unfortunately, the Farmer has very strong ideas about how to cook and doesn’t always listen to me. I advised him to remove the seeds from those chilis before he put them in to steam the fish. He did not. As a result, at least two of our family members are choking on chili resin tonight. Sorry. My 100-year-old grandmother, however, is fine.
Around the farm, things have been rather quiet lately as we have no lambing season to prepare for this year.
Mocha has been ushered into the barn as she is showing signs of getting ready to give birth. Or maybe she just knows how to con the Farmer into bringing her into shelter, giving her hay, water and a room of her own so she doesn’t have to share. Either way, she’s in there and we are waiting, along with her, for that calf to arrive. We are crossing fingers and toes, hoping it isn’t as big as the last one, that got stuck.

The forecast says next week at this time we should be up above zero and hovering there for a few days. We spring forward an hour next weekend, and spring is certainly on its way.

To Victoria on her 100th birthday

My grandma Vicky turns 100 next week. The same day that my eldest daughter Milena turns 26. These two Pisces ladies have a lot in common. I am thankful that my daughter will likely never have to go through the hardship that her great-grandmother has endured in her life, but somehow I think she would get through it just the way Vicky has, with a shrug and a giggle. The following is a backgrounder that my mother wrote about her mother.
“Victoria Cullen was born on March 2, 1915, and was named Victoria Marie Labelle. She was born during lambing season (she says) on a farm in Wright (near Gracefield, in West Quebec). French was her first language. She was raised on the same farm until age 16 when she came to Ottawa to live and work with the Grey Nuns. She almost became a nun, and had her photo taken in the Novice habit!
She married Wilbert Cullen in Ottawa and had to learn English because he didn't speak any French.
She raised 5 children: 4 sons and a daughter. One son is now deceased.
She had 8 grandchildren (1 grandson died) and 4 great-grandchildren.
She stayed at home to raise her children until they were all in school, then worked as head waitress at several Ottawa venues, including the Chateau Laurier and Carleton University Staff Cafeteria.
She has always loved growing and processing vegetables and had a large garden until she was 82. She loved picking wild raspberries and blueberries and made barrels of home-made wine from the berries. She loved to bake and cook, and her favourite greeting when you arrived for a visit was: Are you hungry?
She loved to dance and play cards, and still does!”

Grandma Vicky stood up at my daughter Anastasia’s wedding two years ago and sang a little French wedding song to the bride and groom. She says she finds crowds a bit overwhelming now but when she does manage to make it out to family gatherings she prefers to be in the centre of all the excitement. If you hand her a beer, she will likely serenade you with a naughty French pub song.
At 100 years of age, Vicky still has her hair died bright red, and she paints her lips and nails to match. When faced with difficulty, she loses her temper at times (that’s the Irish in her) but will look back on it with a laugh. If you’re speaking to her and she can’t quite hear you, she is more likely to just laugh and change the subject than to get frustrated or to check the batteries in her hearing aid.
She knows exactly when “Two and a Half Men” is on television because it’s her favourite show. When I asked her why, she said, “because Charlie Sheen is so BAD.”
Grandma Vicky always did have interesting taste in men, but she rarely spoke poorly of them. I remember once she told me about a man who wasn’t very nice – he had her work all day, climbing up a mountain to gather firewood and then carrying it down the hill to the truck, while he rested. Up and down, all day. “And I was 80 years old!” she said.
On Sunday, March the 1st, we will host a combined birthday party for Milena and Vicky at the farm. We have a slideshow of photos to put up on the big screen, and some speeches will be made. In recent weeks we have received letters of congratulations to Victoria on her 100th birthday, from some very important people. The Governor General of Canada David Johnston, and (according to Grandma), the future Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau (she was a big fan of his father). The letter from the Queen takes a little bit longer to come in but when it does, we will frame it along with the rest of them, for Grandma’s wall of fame in her room at the residence.
If I live to be 100, I hope that people will remember me as a feisty, funny gal too. I have a great example to follow. I hope I inherit her intestinal fortitude, along with her varicose veins (which seem to have skipped a generation and bestowed themselves on me).
Grandma, on your 100th, we thank you for being exactly who you are, and we wish you several more years on God’s green Earth, as you continue to show us exactly how life should be lived and enjoyed. 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

To the farm-sitter

Hi there; thanks for the generous offer to look after things while the Farmer and I escape to the beach. What follows here is a guidebook of instructions on how to look after the menagerie of animals on the farm.
  1. CODY. Our geriatric (estimated at 15 years old) Gordon Setter is an outdoor dog. He has a heavy winter coat, a hay-lined doghouse and a nice back porch to sit on in the sunshine. He does, however, like to come into the house in the morning for his water and a nap on the blanket in front of the fire. Feed him outside first, then bring him in. Don’t forget to put him back outside, on his leash, before you leave for the day. He won’t remind you. At night, Cody might like another serving of food (if you didn’t give him the full 4 cups in the morning) and another indoor visit before bed. If you have trouble getting him back outside, you can lure him outside with a cookie or cracker or crust of bread. Just don’t give him anything containing chocolate or onions. You might have trouble waking him as he is completely deaf.
  2. CHELSEA. Our middle-aged (estimated at 10 years old) Border Collie is a frustrated, unemployed sheepdog. She doesn’t trust anyone except the Farmer so speak to her in a firm voice, put her food down, refill her water bowl and then move away swiftly. If she threatens you, I would recommend you retrieve and return both bowls to her with the shepherd’s crook. Wear gloves in her presence and don’t linger.
  3. CATS. There are two housecats, Sheila and Sammy. They are the white ones of considerable girth and laziness. The other two tabbies are barn cats that have come in from the cold. The grey one is Junior. He cannot be trusted as he likes to launch himself onto the kitchen table and counters to see if anyone has left the butter unattended. The brown one is Nosey. You won’t see her unless you catch her by surprise. She is a phantom. The cats will likely spend most of their time in the basement when you are home. That is their safe place. Just make sure they have food and water and they will be fine. The litter box is well equipped but if it becomes offensive you can skim some of the lumps out of it and bring outside to the compost heap via the covered bucket I have left next to it. I would recommend you keep the couches covered unless you yourself don’t mind being covered in white cat hair.
  4. MISTY. Since the departure of Donkey, this horse has spent a considerable amount of time asserting her dominance over the rest of the barnyard. When you are attempting to fill the water buckets, she will likely lord it over the rest of the herd, bullying them out of the way. This can be a good thing, as she will keep the cows from fighting over the water and spilling the buckets before you have had a chance to fill them. You can give Misty a small scoop of sweet feed (in freezer in stable) once a day if you are trying to win her over. Otherwise, don’t worry too much about her. She takes care of herself quite effectively.
  5. ASSORTMENT OF CATTLE. Unfortunately, we have timed our vacation to coincide with calving season. And the little bull we thought would have trouble mating with our cows seems to be throwing rather large calves. One got stuck in the birth canal earlier this week and didn’t survive. So if you see a cow going into labour (balloon protruding from hind end), call Anastasia and/or Andrew and ask them to come and help you. Try to lure the pregnant cow into shelter from the wind and cold, and provide hay and water. We don’t pull them out unless they are seriously stuck but if a cow lies down and gives up, she will need your assistance. There are ropes in various places in the barn and stable to assist you. Watch out for any mama cow as she will not want you around after the calf is born, and she will kick. Also, Andrew has been instructed to give the calf a 1ml intra-muscular shot of selenium at birth because we seem to be mineral-deficient in the area and at times our livestock are born without the will to suck, as a result. And a calf that doesn’t suck, really sucks.

Thanks again for your help, and we hope you enjoy your farm-sitting experience!
Cheers, the Farmer and Farmwife.

The test of Dono the bull

When Dono jumped down out of the truck in the fall of 2013 he was closer in resemblance to a black Lab than a bull calf. We watched as he strutted confidently among the much larger females and thought, that boy is going to need a stepladder.
The following spring, it was time for him to prove his mettle. We didn’t witness the act; he appears to prefer discretion over mating in plain view. In any case, he was the only bull on the farm in early 2014 and some of our cows are clearly pregnant now so it would appear he has found a way to do his job.
Strangely enough, it looks like the bigger cows are the pregnant ones. The young heifers don’t appear to have gained anything in girth over the last few seasons. Dono must have aimed high and started with the most difficult job first. And he might have lost interest or quit before he finished the job.
Big Betty never looks pregnant. She carries her babies like a big-boned European woman. When she is going into labour she tends to be quite vocal. And then one day she just stops in mid-sentence, closes her eyes and…gives birth. We’ve never had any trouble with her. Ginger is absolutely massive, like a bulbous tug boat pulling in and out of harbour every time she enters or exits the barn. It will be difficult to get her into a pen for the birth so hopefully she is old and wise enough now to choose a sensible birthing place so we don’t have to.
Last year we brought some nice dry hay into the barn for a birthing area but it got extremely cold and one calf that was born just in the doorway to the barn froze within hours of birth. That affected the Farmer and I very deeply; we felt so bad that we weren’t prepared for that birth. The mama stood outside the door to the barn, the last place she saw her calf, and bawled for three days. Calving season can be a dramatic time.
We have been very lucky. We’ve never had to pull a calf. I guess we have chosen bulls that throw small enough calves that they don’t get stuck on the way out. Thank goodness. The idea of hooking chains up to the hooves and pulling a calf out of its mother with a tractor is enough to make me faint. We do have some sort of gentle pulling apparatus for sheep but I doubt it would work on a calf. I truly appreciate that our mamas seem to know what they are doing, for the most part.
We will be keeping a close eye on that mama who lost her calf in the snow last year, to ensure she is given access to shelter from the wind in the barn. Sometimes Betty and Ginger can take up all the good spots and everyone else is shut out but without the sheep we have a lot more room to spare this year.
I’m hoping we have better luck with the selenium deficiency this year. Last season we had one calf born who just didn’t know how to suck. He liked his mom and she liked him. That wasn’t the problem. He just didn’t seem to realize that she was also meant to be his source of food. He just cuddled up to her and she would look back at him and try to position herself so he would find the milk but he never clued in. Right away we realized we had a problem. Thankfully, the mama allowed the Farmer to steal some of the colostrum to feed the calf. Because without the liquid gold in that first mama’s milk, no newborn animal will thrive. Then I went to the house to mix up some milk replacer. I started with two large bottles a day and increased it gradually until I was feeding him up to four litres of milk replacer a day. I was his only source of nutrition. It was quite a responsibility. That little bull calf never did reach the size of his barnyard siblings but he did just fine. After a couple months the snow melted and he was on the new spring grass, growing every day.
You never know what drama is ahead with calving season. Here’s hoping it goes easy on us.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Taming the wild beast

Sheila is a self-proclaimed house cat. We didn’t plan to have a house cat. She just waltzed in one day her first winter, jumped on the couch, curled up in a sunbeam and went to sleep. She didn’t go back out until spring.
The diminutive little white cat with grey spots was born in a feed storage bin in the shed. Her mama had her kittens and fed them there every day for a couple months. When they were old enough to wean, the mama took off, back to the barn. Some of the kittens followed, and they were taught mouse hunting as their main source of food. Sheila headed to the house. She finds mouse-hunting distasteful.
In the warm months, Sheila darts out the door to spend the day in the garden. She also enjoys a sunny day outside in winter, but she doesn’t last too long before she starts crying outside the door, because she hasn’t grown any kind of winter coat. She has a bad attitude most of the time but for some reason I find that endearing. I pick her up and give her a kiss, mostly because she hates it. She scowls, squawks at me and kicks ‘til I put her on the ground.
A few years ago, Sammy arrived. The tenants next door moved out and left their cat behind. Every day I saw him darting across the yard to the shed where he could share the food that I put out for the barn cats. Every night he would return to the house, waiting for his humans to return. They never did.
A man once told me that you can communicate with feral cats or cats that were once tame but have gone feral due to trauma by blinking at them. Each time I met eyes with Sammy as he crossed the yard he would freeze, not knowing whether I was friend or foe. Then I would blink. He stayed frozen. And blinked back.
Every day we shared this communication, and one day Sammy decided he would brave coming up on the back porch to eat some of the food I put there. I slid the patio door open slightly and Sheila appeared to confront the new cat. There was a short exchange and Sheila stepped back into the house, with one last remark at Sammy. He followed her, into the house, and straight down the stairs into the basement. The cat lair. Where the furry felines come in from the cold to find food, water and myriad hiding places.
I thought of the three-foot-tall dollhouses the Farmer made for his girls when they were little. Many times I have had feral cats in the house, being treated for one ailment or another, and when I open the cage to let them out, they dart into the far reaches of the dollhouse, where I cannot retrieve them. I hoped Sammy wouldn’t try to stuff himself in there. He was three times the size of the other cats.
Now, two years later, Sammy still startles easily, bolting off the couch and disappearing like a flash down the basement stairs every time he hears a strange noise. But he’s becoming bolder. Last night I saw him contemplating jumping up on the couch beside the Farmer. He’s never done that before.
So we have two house cats now. The Farmer doesn’t seem to mind. Except for when they use the carpeted stairs as a scratching post. Little tufts of carpet are strewn all over the floor in the morning. I came up with an idea to deter that particular activity. I covered their favourite section of the stairs with tin foil. They bat at it with their paws and check their reflection in it but it’s still there, protecting my stairs. It’s not exactly a d├ęcor improvement but it works.
This winter, the twin tabbies from the barn have also decided to be house cats, at least part time. They dart inside when someone opens the patio door, and scoot downstairs to eat. But instead of rushing back outside again when their bellies are full, now they stay inside for days. The brown tabby, who is adept at letting me get just within reach and then disappearing in a puff of fur, can now be found lounging on the couch by the window, watching the birds at the feeder.
The grey tabby, her brother, climbs the screen on the living room window and screams at us until we let him in.
At last count, we have four house cats now.