Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Woman Scorned

When we first bought Buttercup last November, she was overdue for breeding. I soon realized that I need to learn how to identify and keep tabs on our cow's heat cycles. After a vet determined that she was in fact in heat, we brought out the AI lady and had her inseminated, but she didn't take.

So ever since, then, I've been paying close attention to Buttercup's behavior, as we're planning to have her bred in May now. She seems a little more spunky when she's in heat. Or is she just being spunky for no reason? I make frequent fanny inspections, but it's still hard to tell when she's in heat.

A couple weeks ago, I ventured out to the barnyard after work, for our customary friendship building session, which involves me feeding her some carrots and petting her while she licks my clothes. She immediately noticed me, and ran right up for our encounter. Usually she's a little more shy about it, but hey -- maybe these friendship building sessions are really working?

Next thing I know she's reared up on her hinds and is coming at me, ready to bring our friendship to the "next level". I made sure not to turn my back as I made a hasty exit. So now I have a very positive ID of one of Buttercup's heat cycles. In a few days now she'll come back into heat. I'm not sure yet if I should venture into her pen for another positive ID.

This morning before work, I was walking through our new orchard where I found a cow-pie with a pile of dirt on top. To the untrained eye, this would just be a... uh... cowpie with dirt on top. But to me it was something much more exciting.

Lifting up the cow-pie, I discovered some burrows underneath. Henry and I went to go get a shovel and inspect the burrows. As soon as I lifted up the soil, out popped a big dung beetle, complete with a ball of manure that she had buried.

Why is this exciting? First of all, dung beetles are extremely beneficial, because they dismantle the cowpies which would otherwise be hosting all sorts of nasty parasitic flies. Of the three main types, "tunnelers" which hollow out the cowpie from the inside are the most beneficial, and that's what we'd just found. I had assumed that they don't make it this far north, and none of the farmers I'd asked around here even knew what they were. Chances are that most farmers haven't seen them, because conventional wormers kill them.

I haven't figured out what kind of beetle we have yet, but will be searching dilligently. They're all black, and have one large and two smaller horns on their head.

As I alluded to a while back, we've been very busy this spring. The last couple months have been spent putting up 800 feet of woven wire field fencing around our garden, 2,000 feet of electric fence around our pastures, planting the garden, planting the new orchard, plowing/disking/dragging and seeding about 4 acres of new pasture, and working with the Amish crew we brought back to re-roof the barn. This weekend I'm hoping to finish off the electric pasture fencing so that Buttercup can be set free and stop eating hay. We've been planting some more in the garden, and I also have a horse-drawn corn planter (converted for tractor use -- but I'll switch it back to it's rightful state soon enough) that I'm planning to use on a corner of the newly tilled pasture.

Plowing a field is definitely destructive, but it's something we have to do at least once to get our pastures seeded in as we want them. Turning up soil is actually one of the biggest sources of CO2 in the atmosphere as well -- because all of the carbon in the soil becomes oxidized when it's brought up to the high-oxygen environment at the surface. Some sources say this actually exceeds the amount of carbon we've released through the burning of fossil fuels.

In addition to harming the soil, plowing isn't particularly nice to wildlife. Even if you're vegan, I can assure you that your eating habits kill animals. I've found plenty of minced snakes, dismembered salamanders, mice, and turtle eggs, not to mention the thousands of beneficial earthworms and insects. However, I did manage to find one plowing victim who appeared to be unscathed -- a baby painted turtle.

Speaking of pasture, ours is growing very well now, or at least the stuff we planted last fall is. Our hayfield is up about 7" tall already, and the adjacent clover/grass pasture is nearly that tall as well. Now that it's all grown up, I can't see all the rocks which cover our fields. That makes me happy, but my mood might change when I start hitting the rocks with the sickle mower in a few weeks.

As I inspected our newly planted pasture this morning, I was heartened to see some tiny sprouts starting up. I then moved over to inspect the bare ground that I'll be planting to field corn this weekend, where I found the same sort of sprouts all over. Hmmm...

Back to the new roof on our barn...

While they had the planks off of the roof peak, I took the opportunity to inspect our hay trolley and track, which runs along the entire ridge of the barn. These were used for stacking loose hay, before tractors made hay balers an option. Everything looks to be intact, and I think it will all be usable for the upcoming hay season. I'll probably get our neighbor to bale most of it, but definitely want to try putting some of it up loose, as I plan to eventually put all of our hay up that way.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


Today was a beautiful day. Sunny and in the 50's with a brisk wind. A windy day is always a good day for me. Wind makes the world come alive.

As I walked back across the pastures towards the house though, the goat's half of the barnyard was empty. Ashley and Mary Kate weren't out sunning themselves, or running up to the fence to greet me. Ashley wasn't looking out her favorite window. Though I had just buried both of them, I still half expected to see them there in the barn.

Yesterday, in the mail, we received the results for some blood tests we'd had taken on our goats and cow. Both of the goats tested positive for Johne's disease. It's a chronic degenerative disease, for which there is no cure. It affects only ruminants, and most are only susceptible to contracting it in the first three months of life. Our goats were born within a couple weeks of each other on the same farm, and were probably both infected then.

It's difficult to test for as well, since symptoms rarely show before the animal reaches two years of age, and tests often return false negatives. Apparently about 70% of all dairy farms have some infected animals, so it's not uncommon.

I suspect that it's not unlike tuberculosis in that many animals may carry the disease without expressing any symptoms, unless their immune system becomes compromised. Even so -- even if we could keep the goats in good health -- the risk of infecting their kids or Buttercup's future calves is unacceptable. So I had to put them both down today. I think it's probably the hardest thing I've ever done.

Some of my best memories as of late are of sitting in the barnyard in the evening after work, with Rachel and Henry. Buttercup would come up close to see what we were up to. Mary Kate would nibble at my jacket in an attempt to get a head-scratching out of me. The chickens seemed to always show up and start scratching through the leaves, and the barn cats would come out looking for attention. Being surrounded by all these creatures really creates a sense of well being. I just have to remember that all life is temporary.

When you get livestock, you know that someday you'll likely be butchering them. I figure that making sure they live the best life possible is the important part. I didn't have much of a problem butchering chickens, probably because I knew from the beginning that they would end up as food. Chickens aren't particularly endearing, but the goats, however, were just as affectionate and playful as dogs.

I like dairy animals in part because they're not all butchered after a year or two. I guess I allowed myself to grow attached to these two because I didn't expect that they'd have to be butchered or put down for quite a few years. Such is life, eh?

Henry says we should put up a good head stone for the goats to remember them by. I think it's a good idea.

Now on to other, less depressing subjects...

Last week Rachel and Henry held down the fort while I had my first direct experience with draft horses in a four day class at Tillers International. Along with three other students and a handful of Tiller's interns, we worked with four Belgians, learning how to harness, drive, plow, disk, harrow, seed, and log with the draft teams. Tillers even has a freshly restored road grader that we hooked up and used for a bit.

Though I've seen them before, what really struck me is how *enormous* these horses are. It wouldn't take much for them to squash me like a mosquito, but they're exceptionally gentle.

One of the cool things about draft horses is that they tend to know where you want to go. That's a good thing when a hapless student messes up his gee and haw commands. Or so I'm told...

The down side of that is that they don't always think you want them to go where you really do want them to go. When we switched from plowing to disking, I could tell that they were still trying to walk in the furrow while I was trying to get them on a different path.

Tillers is a really neat organization. Aside from teaching a number of classes in everything from training oxen to timber framing or blacksmithing, they work to promote the use of draft animals (primarily oxen) in many parts of the world where they make a big difference in people's lives. They have an amazing collection of old farm implements. Many of the older implements are easily copied by craftsmen in these countries, as they often use much more wood than metal.

A couple weeks ago we started planting peas in the garden, and came to the realization that our chickens would soon find the sprouts to be irresistible (as our old chickens did in Bellingham). So -- we've started fencing it in. As luck would have it, Rachel found an ad in Craigslist for black locust fenceposts, which are exactly what we wanted (they're never available in stores), so we've now got a nice big stack which should see us through our fencing endeavors over the next couple years.