Saturday, December 19, 2009

Barnyard Politics

I've read a lot of farming books, but some things just aren't covered. I've yet to see a chapter on barnyard politics, so everything I've learned there has been through my own trial and error (heavy on the latter).

First of all, there's a pecking order, both for each type of animal as well as the individuals of each type. Our order is as follows:
  1. Bruce (draft horse)
  2. Doc (draft horse)
  3. Josie (dairy cow)
  4. Buttercup (dairy cow)
  5. Thunder (the ram who thinks he's at #3)
  6. #57 (ewe)
  7. #56 (ewe)
First, let's start with the horses. Bruce is fat. There are a number of reasons for this: He came to us that way. I mistakenly thought that eliminating grain from his diet would cure the problem, but a summer on pasture has disproven that theory. He should be getting worked more, but such is the life of a weekend farmer's horse. Now that he's eating hay for the winter, I have a little more control over his diet, but not as much as I'd like. As the boss horse, he makes sure that he always gets his fair share of the hay, and he gets to define "fair".

My new theory is that if I feed the horses hay at two separate locations, Bruce will only be able to defend one at a time, giving Doc his fair share (as defined by me). It seems to be working, but Bruce is still fat. I did see a liposuction machine for sale on Craigslist last week -- only $1800...

It's important that the animals are fed in accordance with their pecking order, or trouble ensues. If I feed the cows before the horses, the horses nibble our barn as if it's a big gingerbread house. I doubt the barn tastes very good; it's really just the horses' form of blackmail. The chewing doesn't stop until the hay comes out.
When we first bought the sheep, Thunder was still quite young, and couldn't reach into the hay feeder I had built for the cows. He quickly learned to jump up into the feeder for easier access. He's now full grown, but still jumps up into the hay feeder to eat.

One evening I made the mistake of putting hay in the cow's outside feeder before stocking the milking station. It was dark outside, so I couldn't see very clearly. Josie had returned outside, and I chased after her to get her back into the barn. She was using her nose to shovel a bale out of the feeder and on to the ground. I didn't put a second bale in the feeder though. It took me a couple seconds to realize that it wasn't actually a bale she was working on. It was Thunder, now pinned against the slats. He didn't move at all or make a peep. I wasn't sure if he was in shock, or dead, or was still trying to hold his ground. Or maybe he couldn't feel a 900lb cow through his wool cocoon.

Now Josie gets her hay at the milking station immediately after the horses are fed, but before I open the door for the cows or put any hay outside. But all is not well in the barn.

In the interest of producing higher quality milk, reducing e-coli, and improving our cow's health, I've eliminated grain as a regular part of the cow's diet. She was just fine with that, and made the transition much better than I'd anticipated. In the absence of grain, however, she demands gourmet hay. It has to be better than pasture in the summer, and it has to be better than her "regular" hay in the winter, or she won't come in.

The loose hay we put up last summer was her favorite, so that's what I used until it ran out a week ago. Knowing that there would be hell to pay if I didn't have anything to keep her at her trough, we went to the hay auction and bought 50 bales of the softest, greenest hay I've ever seen, which at $8/bale had better satisfy Josie's picky palate.

The first night I served this to her, she sniffed it, reached deep into the trough, and shoveled it out onto the ground. I put it back in, and she shoved it back out again. Hmmmm....

She's since decided that the new hay is alright, but has developed an annoying habit. Legume hay has leaves, some of which typically shatter in the baler and spill out as the bale is opened up. That's the tastiest part of the hay.

Josie likes to fluff the hay up a bit so that the leaves fall out. Then she tosses it all out of the feeder and licks up the leaf bits that remain. When the leaf bits are all gone, she starts craning her neck to reach the hay she just threw out, dancing in her stanchion and giving me fits as I try to milk while protecting the bucket from her dancing hooves.

So now I've added yet another item to the endless list of farm tasks. Build a new Josie-proof feeder that will keep her from tossing out her hay. I'll get to it one of these days, probably after I'm freshly inspired to build it when she puts her hoof in the bucket.

Below is some footage of an intelligence test we recently administered to Henry and Bilbo, cleverly disguised as a game of keep-away.

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