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Monday, January 19, 2015

Saying goodbye to Donk and Gracie

Occasionally when you live on a farm things become abundantly clear. This is going to be tough for me, and the Farmer as well. There will be a few tears – and there have been already, at least at my end. It’s time to say goodbye to Donkey, Gracie, Misty and Chelsea.
No, they don’t have to leave in one fell swoop. This isn’t an emergency; we’ve been considering it for months, since we sold all our sheep. But there is a natural order in which some things should be done. That’s why it has taken us so long to come to this conclusion. I’ve been having trouble getting my head around it.
I didn’t grow up on a farm – I’ve only been on one for seven years so it’s a different way of thinking that I have had to adapt to. In my world growing up, animals were pets but they were also part of the family. You committed to them, you did your best for them, and you didn’t re-home them unless it was absolutely necessary.
But on a farm, things are different. Every animal has a purpose. We are definitely downsizing, the Farmer and I. We sold all our sheep last year because I was finding it too exhausting, both physically and emotionally. So we really don’t need a sheepdog or a Donkey anymore. I kept my favourite sheep Gracie because she is more of a dog than a sheep – but without Donkey to protect her she will have to go too. I don’t want to look out the window someday and see that she has been picked off by a coyote.
If Donkey leaves, Misty has to go too. Since her sister died, Donkey has been her best friend. I’m sure if left alone she would cope – maybe join up with Mocha or one of the more agreeable cows – but she really belongs with other horses. At 12 years she is middle-aged so I don’t know how much training she will accept but she is a beautiful animal if someone is looking for a companion for their horses.
The sheepdog, as I have written before, has taken up barking as a new occupation, with no sheep to herd. She is also getting on in years but would be far happier working on a sheep farm to the end of her days. It’s her most favourite thing to do in the whole world. She’ll even herd people if you linger around in her space. That’s why I think a working sheep farm would be the best place for her, with someone who understands high-strung Border Collies.
I don’t want them to just go anywhere. I need to know who will be caring for them after me.
So I woke up the other morning and realized, a friend a few concessions over has recently started into the lambing business, and she has had a few struggles. I think a donkey would solve her coyote problems, and he would also help bring the sheep up to the barn at night. Gracie would blend right in, and probably have another lamb or two before she retires as well.
If you’ve never had a Donkey you haven’t witnessed their ability to communicate. They are keen surveyors of their kingdom, watching for anything that is amiss. When the Farmer has changed the landscape even slightly, by bringing something large and colourful out to the burn barrel, or setting up targets in the middle of the field for practice, Donkey always has to comment. He brays loudly, then slowly approaches the inanimate intruder to ensure everyone is safe. He is the perfect guardian of the farm.
On the other hand, he can get himself into some trouble, because of his horse-like tendency to get bored and mischievous.
So Donkey and Gracie will be heading to the sheep farm down the road, where I can visit them – and hopefully hear about them often, in the writings of their new owner. I know they will be happy there, and a welcome addition to another working sheep farm. That is their happy place. I can’t wait to see Gracie when she notices the other sheep.
Now to find a home for my big blonde girl, and my yappy little sheepdog. Any takers?
If you know of someone, please contact me. I’ll be the one over here looking dazed and confused, missing my pets.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Winter descends on the farm

It occurs to me that my sheep may be cold. I went out to the barnyard to check on the pregnant brood of cattle when I heard a faint bleating from the barn. I followed the well-beaten path into the room where the heated water is available for the beasts to have a good, long drink. There was Gracie, curled up between two mounds of frozen dirt. This is her first winter without friends for body heat.
Gracie spends her days with Donkey and Misty, the big Belgian horse. Her comrades are also her protectors, but I don’t know if they would curl up with her to sleep. And this time of year, when the horse and donkey come into the stable at night, Gracie is left alone in the barn.
At night the cows come in and huddle together, and that should warm things up considerably. It’s just the bitter midday cold that has me worried about her. She has a good fleece coat but I’m sure she would like to cuddle up to someone for that extra bit of warmth on a windy, cold winter day. Just one more reason why sheep shouldn’t be kept as solitary animals, the Farmer will say.
On my way back to the house I pass through the stable. It wasn’t yet time to put the horse and donkey in, as we like to keep them outside as long as possible – less mess to clean up in the stable, I suppose. Donkey thought otherwise, however, and started tailgating me, very closely. He fairly skipped over the last few piles of frozen dung to catch up with me as I opened the stable door. I would have had to slam it in his face to keep him out, so I didn’t. I ushered him into the warm stable, with the horse close behind.
Once the animals were inside their stalls, I loaded up the feeders with hay, filled the buckets with warm water and measured out portions of sweet feed. That’s where the trouble started. I put Misty’s sweet feed bowl in front of her, but before I had even put Donkey’s snack in front of him, the big horse reached over the partition that separated them and nipped him on the neck. I guess this is her way of reminding him that it is only out of her generosity that he is getting a snack at all. I gave her a scolding, firmly clasped the tie on her halter, and moved Donkey’s treat just out of her reach so she could neither steal it nor bite him. Still, it took some coaxing before Donkey would turn back around from where he hung his head in the corner. I think his pride was hurt. The politics of farm animals.
The bald spots on Donkey’s back are getting some hair regrowth. The sulfur lotion I have been applying to his bare patches seems to be working really well and that’s a good thing because I think it stings. I don’t want to have to put any more on him. The last time he sensed I was trying to dribble some of the stuff on his back he didn’t kick at me but he did do a double-legged donkey hop-kick sort of a thing to discourage me from further treatment. That kind of freaked me out. I was in the horse stall with him at the time. If he decided to line up and kick me, I wouldn’t stand a chance. And I’ve heard his hooves hit the wall. It sounds like a gunshot. So, the treatment has ended.
The cows are due to give birth any day now. We aren’t exactly sure when they are due, because it wasn’t a case of getting a bull and letting them dance together. A mature bull sets about his business right away. You can pretty much mark the date on the calendar and expect the calves nine months later. The little bull we got in the fall of 2013 was probably old enough to perform in the spring of 2014 but we aren’t exactly sure about that. He was pretty tiny. Our cows, however, appear to be massively pregnant.
Every morning and afternoon we have to walk the perimeter of the barnyard looking for calves. Particularly this week, when it’s expected to be bitter cold, we don’t want any calves born outside in the snow. We will have to make room inside the barn for the mamas as soon as they show signs of labour, so we don’t lose any young to winter.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Merry Christmas from the Fisher Farm

I call this "Bovines in Hoarfrost"

Memories of Christmas past

When I was a little girl, Mom and Dad would pile my sister Cathy and me, along with cardboard boxes stuffed with wrapped gifts, into the back of our station wagon early in the day on Christmas Eve. Destination: East Ottawa, Grandma’s house. It was only an hour or so to drive but it seemed like quite a journey to a kid. That was before the 416, so we took old 16 (County Road 44) straight through North Gower.
Once in Ottawa, Cathy and I would settle in to the guest room with twin beds. I could never imagine my father as a little kid in that room. The twin beds had white chenille bedspreads with raised patterns and swirls – I am pretty sure they still do. A thick Persian area rug padded the floor over the thin green carpet between the beds. We slept deeply in that room.
On Christmas Eve, we would go to my uncle’s house two blocks away from Grandma’s. There our five cousins would have some sort of entertainment planned for the evening. When we were younger, the eldest, Sherry, had us all singing Christmas carols for the adults, in our pajamas. In later years, we snuggled down in the rec room and watched movies together on the brand-new VCR.
I was always anxious to get to bed, because in my reasoning, the sooner you get to sleep, the faster Christmas morning comes. Before bed we were allowed to open one gift but for some reason Mom was always allowed to choose which one we would open. It was always pajamas.
Grandma had sugar cookies and milk for Santa. We put those on a plate in the kitchen before turning in. I remember wondering how he would get in when Grandma didn’t have a fireplace. I studied the old coal burner in the basement and examined the laundry chute between the floors. As my Dad the science teacher said, there are some things we just aren’t meant to understand. I was ok with that.
Christmas morning Cathy and I woke with the very first rays of sunlight, and sometimes a bit before. I will never forget the feeling of the over-stuffed felt stocking that had been left at the end of my bed – likely to entertain us for another hour or two so the parents could sleep a bit longer. The stretched felt squeaked as I quietly pulled out a coloring book (in later years a fashion magazine), a doll, candy, tangerines, socks (in later years, pantyhose), hair accessories, jewellery, etc. One of us would wake the other and we would celebrate our finds in whispered squeals.
Once that excitement wore off, we would pull on slippers and pad down to the living room. There was a light left on so we could survey the bounty. The gifts from Dad even beat the ones we asked of Santa, because they were always so original. And he always painstakingly wrapped them himself. One year he gave us walkie talkies. Which reminds me of our last Christmas together, in 2007, when he gave us tickets to see Mamma Mia at the NAC. I miss my Dad. So many of my memories revolve around him.
On Christmas Day we got our best outfits on and went back over to our cousins’ house for a big turkey lunch. That was our tradition, every year.
Now that we have divided families and our kids are paired up with partners there are many commitments and social obligations so we have to be creative. Christmas morning we will gather at my sister’s house for brunch and gift exchange. Then home for a nap and Christmas afternoon the Farmer and I will head to his sister’s house in Ottawa for dinner.
But I harbour a secret wish. Sometimes I daydream about a Christmas a few years from now, when our five daughters will come and stay with us in this big farmhouse on Christmas eve, with their young families. Christmas morning we will be awakened by the squeal of tiny children in fuzzy pajamas with feet. Santa may have trouble getting down the chimney of our woodstove, so we might leave the porch door open for him. I can’t wait.
Enjoy your holidays making memories with family and friends.
Merry Christmas from The Farmer and me.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A donkey looks good to a donkey

“I haven’t seen you in a donkey’s age. You’ve been gone for donkey years. Almost as long as donkey’s ears.”

The many variations on the theme of this colloquial expression would lead one to believe that a donkey lives for a very long time. They also have long ears.
We aren’t exactly sure how old our Donkey is. He is getting bald patches on his back again but that is due to rain rot – a type of fungus – and not necessarily age. A few good applications of sulfur rub and he will be growing a thick, wiry coat again. Not a shiny, glossy and furry coat like the winter wear of the horse, but a reliable, almost impermeable covering of bristle that will get him through the colder months.
A quick search of the Internet says donkeys can live between 45 to 50 years. That’s a good 20 on a horse. The oldest donkey on record lived to the ripe old age of 57.
Donkeys are very easy to care for, they don’t ask for much, they are smart, and hardy and dedicated. So why the bad rap? Why do we have insulting references in almost every language on the globe, related to the stupidity of the ‘lowly’ donkey? Probably because the donkey can be found on just about every continent on the earth. They are common. They are easy to care for, so they are owned even by those who cannot afford the fussy feed and care that a horse might require, for example.
The donkey is the only animal on our farm who does not complain about the food. When the hay is a bit moldy or the silage a bit too ripe, he just keeps eating while the horse, cattle and even the lone sheep line up at the fence to sing a complaint in the general direction of the farm house. Donkey just stands at the feeder, happily chewing and swallowing down the sub-par menu.
When Donkey comes in to the stable for the night as company for the horse, he doesn’t even eat or drink. He just stands guard while she tosses her hay around and spills her water everywhere. He can get to her water and hay if he needs a snack but we don’t even bother to fill his water bucket anymore as it is just frozen solid in the morning, untouched.
If the horse is getting sweet feed, however, you have to give Donkey some. Same with apples. If he smells an apple, he will have his chin on your shoulder, nibbling at your ear until you hand it over. That animal loves a good over-ripe apple.
On our farm, the donkey has built a bit of a reputation because he is very smart and therefore, like the horse, he gets bored. If the ATV or tractor is left out in the open where the animals can access them, they will happily bite and tug on the squishy padded seat and rubberized handles for hours. The hoodlums will have the tractor stripped by the time the Farmer gets home.
If the animals are on the lawn, trotting down the road or visiting the cornfield next door, you can bet it was Donkey who let them out. He studies a gate latch and plays with it for hours until he masters it. What else does he have to do all day? Might as well work on his Houdini routine.
The Farmer says we don’t need Donkey anymore, because we only have one sheep left and she is kept safe by always standing next to the big Belgian horse. But I argue that Donkey and Misty the horse are best friends since she lost her sister. She would be lost, without him. She doesn’t even like to go into the stable if he isn’t with her.
Donkeys are important. This time of year we tell the story of a very special donkey who carried someone named Mary quite a distance on his back, without complaint or demand, all the way to Bethlehem.
So once again, I argue respect for the donkey. He shall receive a large bag of over-ripe apples to share with the horse and the sheep and his favourite cows on Christmas morning. They can eat the sweet fruit until their bellies ache. Except Donkey won’t get a belly ache, because he has a cast-iron stomach and he isn’t fussy like that.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Winter warning

The Accidental Farmwife
The animals prepare for winter
By Diana Fisher

I turned the porch light on and there he was. A huge grey tabby, with half an ear missing and some crooked whiskers. He was eating the cat food I leave there, and the light made him freeze on the spot. But he saw me. His eyes met and locked on mine. I did the same thing I had done a couple years ago to tame Sammy. Slow blinks. The grey cat stayed frozen, staring at me, and slowly his eyes began to appear less startled, less alarmed. Calmer. He slowly blinked back at me. Then he turned and disappeared into the wood pile.
As the weather turns colder, cats we’ve never seen before appear out of nowhere, looking for food. Cats we thought had disappeared long ago suddenly reappear on the scene, checking out the familiar feeding spots. I was happy to see Sabrina the barn cat again. None of the other cats accepted her and they always scared her away when she came to eat. I used to have to feed her behind the stack of rubber boots or up on top of the freezer, where they couldn’t see her.
We first saw the grey tabby last spring when that calico cat was here. Every time she was in heat he would show up, answering her mournful cry at the window. We got her fixed and found her a home, though, after her babies were weaned. Then we didn’t see him again. Until now. There are no fertile females here to attract him anymore so he must be here for the free food.
One of the barn cats who eats on the back porch but doesn’t like people, has decided she will occasionally come in just to warm up. Nosey just darts in when you open the door. If you aren’t looking down, you don’t even see her. She’s just a stripey blur. I come home from work and there she is in the hallway, sitting like a statue, watching me. The girls must have inadvertently let her in after school. Sometimes she overnights with us and I don’t even know she is inside until I go downstairs and see, out of the corner of my eye, a brown tail disappear into a dollhouse.
The horse, donkey and cows are now covered with a fine coat of fur. They are ready for winter. I try to remember how thick their coats were last year. Some farmers can predict how harsh the winter will be by the thickness of the animals’ coats. The horse can be convinced to come into the stable every night now, for sweet feed and hay and shelter from whatever weather the night will bring. In summer she often stays down in the meadow, sleeping under a tree. Now the animals are usually up by the barn, eating from the feeders.
We’ve had to put a few bales up a week, but it’s already December and they can still go down on the meadow if they want to. They keep eyeing my front lawn and watching to see if we remember to lock the gate.
The horse has had her anti-botulism shots so she can eat the wrapped silage hay but she prefers the dry hay. The cows also prefer the dry hay this year. Hopefully they will acquire a taste for the sweet whiskey-smelling wrapped hay soon because that is what we have planned to feed them through the winter.
The dog houses are lined with hay and the dogs spend long hours napping every day, in snug comfort.
The birdfeeder is full and the two house cats spend the afternoons on the windowsill, cackling at the chickadees. The birds are so happy to see the black-oiled sunflowers they flit around my head as I fill the feeder, brushing my arms with their wings.
That last wind made it easy for the Farmer to find deadwood for the fire. He cut the felled trees with his chainsaw, stacked the logs on his wagon and brought them up to the house. Then he threw the logs up on the porch and stacked them in a wall of wood to block the wind and feed our woodstove.
There’s nothing like a wood fire in winter. So we’re ready. Bring it on.