Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Nerds in Love

Yesterday we went to pick up a "rent-a-boyfriend" for the goats. His name is Curious. Henry grew concerned that Mom and Dad weren't really asking the important questions of the goat's owner, so he had to fill in for us. "Does he have any sperm?", he asked farmer Tony. Tony replied that he probably did. Definitely a good thing to know about.

Ashley, who still seemed a bit down after her latest worm episode, has perked right up. She *really* likes Mr. Curious. With a coy look and a "come hither" flick of her tail, Ashley lures him over. Curious's tongue flops out, and he starts with a nasal snickering while nibbling at Ashley's neck. She nibbles back. Her tail flicks again and captures his attention. As he begins his move, Ashley rears up and spins around to give him a head-butt. Life isn't easy for us men-folk.

Mary Kate wants nothing to do with Mr. C. You can see the utter disgust in her eyes as she stands in the corner watching his clumsy advances on gullible Ashley, and she often tries to intervene. She slips between them and gives Curious a solid knock on the noggin quite frequently. Just to make sure he remembers it, she rears up on her hinds (making her taller than I am) before coming down at him.

Buttercup was in a good mood this evening, as she started bouncing around the barnyard like a spring lamb. I reciprocated on my side of the fence, and we went back and forth a few times. Like a lot of other people who've never worked around cows, I was once convinced that they were not particularly bright or charismatic. In Germany, for instance, a common insult is to say "You're as dumb as a cow". I don't think they're dumb at all. They didn't exactly evolve to fly rocketships, but they're very good at what they did evolve to do. Don't ask me what that is though.

I was previously pouring Buttercup's grain ration right next to the hay in her feed trough at each milking, and got a little fed up that she kept tossing the hay out to get at the grain. Now I give her grain first. When she's cleaned out her trough, she steps back and looks at me. I pull the bucket aside, and go to fill up the trough with hay. Problem solved. No more dancing in the stanchion while I try to simultaneously keep the bucket near her udder but away from her hooves.

Buttercup apparently likes to take a Sunday stroll. Exactly a week after her first adventure that inspired my last blog entry, she got out again. This time, it was zero degrees out, with a wind chill of about 20 below. I think the wind rattled the barnyard gate open, so at least it wasn't a result of me being stupid in exactly the same way as last time. I was stupid in a different way, which somehow seems better. I now know to make sure that the latch chain attaches to a point below the hook on the gate.

After milking Mary Kate, Rachel noticed that Buttercup wasn't in her usual spot, and walked around the barn to see if she'd gone off to the other corner of the barnyard, when she discovered the open gate with departing hoofprints. She ran back to the house to inform me, and I went out to inspect. Sure enough -- she had escaped again. The tracks were on the same path as before, so I started my morning jogging routine. As I made it out to the road, I could see her at the top of the rise to the west, merrily trotting along.

Rachel grabbed Henry and followed us in the car, hoping that she might be able to herd Buttercup back in the direction of our farm. I finally caught up to her at the neighbor's house, and followed behind her into the soybean field. It was really blowing there, with little snow-devils whipping accross the field, and drifts that nearly topped my barn boots.

Buttercup saw Rachel and the car, and paused as I walked around to approach her from the other side. She let me approach, and came up to sniff my hand. With a playful bounce, she spun around and sprayed manure all over the snow. Then she turned around, and walked back on her own path right into the barnyard with me right behind her. It was apparently too cold for a Sunday stroll afterall. She did pause in the neighbor's field, long enough for me to take notice and look up to see a pair of foxes sneaking into the brush.

This last Sunday we decided that it might be a nice time to try skating on our pond. Henry and Rachel have some skates from the Goodwill, which were in definite need of breaking-in. Earlier in the week we'd had 60 degree weather which had melted all the snow, which pooled on top of the ice and re-froze quite nicely. I really need to find some skates for myself now, as Rachel really looked like she was having fun. Henry was excited to try his skates, but grew a little less enthusiastic when he wasn't able to instantly learn how to use them.

As I closed up the barn after this evening's milking, I stopped to watch a car pull slowly into our neighbor's driveway. It was dark, and they only had their parking lights on. Someone got out, donned a headlamp, and walked up the driveway towards their shop, which sits away from the house. I grabbed a flashlight which immediately went dead (D'oh!) and headed over to investigate. As soon as I stepped out our front door, the car backed out, headed down the road a bit, and finally turned their headlights back on.

I wasn't sure if anyone had been dropped off, or if the car's passenger had returned while I was in our house. I spoke with the neighbor (an elderly couple who appreciated my effort), and walked around their shop, but found nothing amiss. She mentioned that another neighbor had fought some intruders a few years earlier, and later died of a heart attack a few days after the struggle. I'm a little disappointed that I didn't catch anyone, but it's probably best for all involved that I just scared them off.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Buttercup's Big Adventure

Buttercup is a mellow girl, except for the few times when she lowers her horns and chases goats or chickens around the barnyard to let them know who's boss. As with most cows, she's into routine. She follows the same path out through the barnyard to her "cud corner" every morning after eating breakfast and getting a big drink.

With this in mind, I figured that she wouldn't be much of a flight risk when I opened the barnyard gate to drive the truck out after unloading some wood chips in the muddy spots behind the barn. The goats I knew to be opportunists, so I made sure to lock them both in the barn before opening the gate. With Buttercup, I just had to keep an eye on her in case she moseyed over in the wrong direction.

After sequestering the goats, I opened the gate, hopped into the truck, turned the key, and looked out the window to see a large brown and white object slowly moving towards the gate.

I hopped out, not wanting to scare her out of the barnyard, and casually walked over to her, thinking I'd just head her off at the pass. She maneuvered around me, headed out the gate, and made a break for it. Thus began Buttercup's big adventure.

My first thought was that I'd just taken off her halter a few days before, and didn't have any lead with me, but it really didn't matter. I did have some bailing twine in my pocket, so made a loop out of that to slip over her horns when I got close enough. But she wasn't interested in me getting too close.

She took off accross the small field to the west of our house and headed west (away from Hwy 60, fortunately) at a nice trot with me in hot pursuit, wearing my big wool Filson coat and rubber barn boots (I wonder why Olympic runners never wear these things?). I think she overheated about the same time I did, so she slowed down with me about 50' behind her. I wasn't too excited about her being out on an icy road (cars might have a tough time stopping if they saw her), but no longer had any say in the matter. She was going out for an adventure.

She first stopped at our neighbor's house to the west, where they have a barn with some goats and a horse; she thought it looked like a nice place to hang out, and looked over the barnyard fence for a while, but kept me at a distance. Then she turned around, back towards our house, but left the road to check out our neighbor's property (the one who's extra sensitive about trespassers, of course). It's just a hunting property, so he doesn't live there and didn't see this, fortunately. His property is mostly overgrown farm fields with lots of briars. They don't seem to bother her as much as they did me.

Then through the woods, past a beautiful pond (must be some good ice skating there!), accross a soybean field and accross county line road. She was starting to slow down quite a bit at this point, but still wouldn't let me near her. Finally she paused in another soybean field, nearly a mile to the west, and I swung a big circle around her until I was able to push her back towards our house.

She headed back accross the field in the direction she'd come, crossed the road, and picked up her old path. I grew hopeful that she'd follow it all the way home, which is exactly what she did. She kept her nose down almost like a bloodhound, and even knew to skip the detours.
I've traced it out for all to see above. The red was her departing route, the blue her returning route. I really need to set up our electric fence.

We also managed to rid ourselves of the oil furnace that dominated our basement this weekend. Put up a craigslist add, and after a few false starts, I had a taker who even removed most of the ductwork. The basement is much improved.

I finally got our rail put up near the top of our stairwell, so now we don't have to cringe every time Henry veers a little too close.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Nothing terribly exciting to report lately. Ashley the goat, who had chronic problems with worms earlier in the year (quite common for goats and sheep both), started having problems again. Rachel read that grey goats often suffer from copper deficiencies, and that copper deficiencies may lower a goat's resistance to worms. So maybe that's why she's having so many more problems than Mary Kate (who is brown).

One day she was looking particularly bad; she wouldn't stand up, and was shivering quite a bit as the worms really lower blood sugar and make it difficult to keep warm. Hearing stories about goats essentially dropping over dead in such situations caused a little concern, so we brought her inside to lay down in front of the wood stove that afternoon. She immediately perked up, but started screaming the instant I left the room, so I spent the rest of the afternoon working in the living room where she was. I was pleasantly surprised to see that she didn't leave any goat berries for us to clean up. Memphis the dog, however, was quite disappointed.

It was 15 degrees when I went out for this evening's milking. That means frozen teat-dip, but I've figured out that I can thaw it in the bucket of warm water I bring down for the pre-milking cleanup. I also figured out what I think was one of the causes of Buttercup's "dancing" in the stanchion, particularly towards the end of milking. We had left her halter on these last few weeks, thinking it was akin to a dog collar like the ones we keep on the goats. I decided that it wasn't really needed anymore, so took it off to reveal some sores along her jaw where her chewing caused it to chafe quite a bit. She seems to be a little less agitated now.

I've thus far tried to keep this blog on the subject of our adventures in farming, but I think it's time for a rant. Those of you who know me well know that I couldn't keep it hidden for too long. Below are the thoughts that run through my mind on most days.

Everyone who has ever been born is either dead, or will die someday. There's nothing new about that. Not everyone gets to live a long life; disease, famine, violence, accidents, and wars are an unavoidable part of human existence. But throughout most of history, I think most people have known that the potential to live to a ripe old age was always there, even if they themselves died young. Maybe their children would lead long and fulfilling lives.

I think that's changed now. I'm nearly certain that I will never reach "retirement" age, and I'm doubtful that my son will ever reach my current age. While I sincerely hope that I'm mistaken, I'm not really haunted by this thought anymore; I've come to accept it. On occasion I'm angry about it. I'm angry when I think that human greed and ignorance are the two things which have created this situation. But then I remember that human greed and ignorance on this scale are really unavoidable. So it's just something I have to accept.

So what dark and terrible force do I think is going to end our lives so abruptly? It's the coal generating the electricity to run the computer I'm typing on, among other things. You see, making carbon dioxide is the one thing that us 6.7 billion humans are *really* good at. In fact, there wouldn't be 6.7 billion humans if we weren't really good at this. The only reason there are this many of us is because we figured out how to use fossil fuels.

Maybe you've heard someone like Mr. Gore warn of a "tipping point", past which climate change rages uncontrollably due to feedback loops and leads to the end of civilization as we know it. Anyone who warns you about this is either ignorant or misleading in my opinion, because we've already passed it. Our planet is the Titanic, and we've already hit the iceberg. I won't blame you for trying to patch the leak, and will respect you much more than those who claim there's no leak. But I think the odds are stacked against you. Chances are that you've done little or nothing to patch the leak though, as have I.

So here's the iceberg I see floating in our wake. Here's the gash in our hull. CO2 is already at 380 ppb in our atmosphere, and rising something like 2ppb annually. The rate of rise in CO2 is going up quite a bit faster than the rise in our emissions, because all of the carbon "sinks" are collapsing.

Over 50% of the worlds coral reefs are now dead (some figures and anectodal evidence put it closer to 90%, so I'm being conservative here). Coral formerly absorbed massive amounts of CO2, in the form of calcium carbonate, which it turned into rock (limestone). In addition to warming the planet, CO2 has the ability to acidify water. A recently published study from the University of Washington showed that the rate of acidification is now progressing at 10-20 times the previously accepted rate used in climate modeling. Another marine survey has shown that the plankton (which are the basis of all life in the ocean) levels are down roughly 40% from a few years ago. Acid seawater kills plankton. Unfortunately, acidification occurs first near the poles, which is also where the bulk of our plankton live. Much of the oxygen in our atmosphere comes from these plankton. If the ocean goes, our oxygen goes away, and away we go. It's a real bummer.

And just for you folks whom Exxon and Peabody Coal's propaganda teams have convinced that climate change is either a myth or is "a natural cycle", the acidification scenario doesn't involve climate change. It's just carbon emissions.

So let's say that some new acid-loving plankton takes over and saves our collective fanny. It's not unreasonable to think it might. In that case, I figure that climate change will eventually toast our tootsies. If you think that climate change is a "natural cycle", then we'll all be killed naturally. Go warm up your Escalade and keep voting Republican.

The north polar icecap appears as if it'll be gone within 6 years (this figure keeps being revised to match that pesky reality -- a few years ago they thought it should live at least another 70 years). This alone is evidence that we've tipped. Ironically, the oil companies are scrambling to see what new oilfields the retreating ice has made available. There goes human greed and ignorance again.

So on the off chance that we haven't tipped, I think it's a really good idea to cut your carbon emissions, and I'll respect you more if you do it. Buy a Prius if it makes you feel good, but it won't really make a lick of difference so long as there are 6.7 billion of us around. We would need to cut our emissions over 90% if we hadn't already tipped, so anything short of that is really inconsequential.

If you really want sustainable, it's time to trade in your Prius for a spear and a loincloth. Unfortunately, that only works when there are far fewer than 6.7 billion people, and where we haven't poisoned most of the streams and lakes that were once the focus of subsistence living. We've burned that bridge.

So there's really not much to be done, other than that which makes you feel as if you're doing some good. I guess it's just time to sit back and enjoy the ride while we're all still here. Make the most of your life while you've got it. Enjoy yourself!