Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Dark Side

Most of what you'll read about farming these days is perhaps a little one-sided.  People like to share their victories, their bucolic photos, or their accomplishments, because those are all fun to share. That's what I like to share too, but perhaps it's good to take off the rose colored glasses once in a while and tell it like it is, or at least how it's been lately.

Before we started our grand rural adventure, a friend who was already down the homesteading road a ways related, "You'd think it'd get easier after a few years, when you've learned from your mistakes and gained more experience.  But it doesn't."  He was right.  Some things do get easier, but there's always a new pitfall to experience.  We've found a few of those this year.

Wherever there's life, there's death.  The nice scene of cows or sheep out on pasture hides the fact that most of these animals will eventually be butchered.  A loved pet invariably dies, and perhaps suffers. So it is with all animals. The more life there is, the more death and suffering. They're two sides of the same coin.

Much of this is to be expected by any aspiring farmer who knows full well that animals raised for meat must eventually be killed, but there's always the unexpected as well. You could easily work yourself into a tizzy trying to prepare for all the possible ailments depicted in the Merck Veterinary Manual, but chances are you'd never experience more than a minute fraction of what's listed there in a whole lifetime of farming.  Experience provides some perspective as to which ailments need to be guarded against, but there's always new and exciting ways to fall into the same traps.  The worst is to fall into traps you already know about. Here's a sampling of the pitfalls we've fallen into lately...

Fritz was one of our steer calves, slated for butcher this fall.  Playful, friendly, and (like all cows) expensive to feed through the winter.  One morning this spring, he failed to come back to the barn with the other cows for morning milking.  Figuring he had probably just fallen asleep and not noticed the herd leaving him (it wouldn't be the first time), I went to go check just to be sure.  I found him dead underneath a tree on the edge of the pasture, before I had to head (late) into work, wondering. It wasn't a good morning.  I really have no idea how or why he died, though my suspicion is something known as hardware disease.

Cows aren't too particular about what they swallow.  Nails, bits of wire, glass... just about anything to be found in the grass can be swallowed.  The usual method of avoiding this is to make the cow swallow a magnet, which remains in the cow's first stomach and captures any steel floating by, before it can do damage in the more vulnerable parts of the digestive tract.  I knew plenty about this, but had never given one to Fritz, thinking that he was unlikely to need it before heading off to freezer land.  I was wrong, apparently. Or perhaps I wasn't.

Later on this spring, our cow Penelope (Penny) had her first calf on our farm, a little bull calf we named Pancho. We've had one cow experience milk fever before, so I knew to avoid it by giving calcium supplements to the mother immediately after calving.  I wasn't able to find the tube of supplement I had stashed away the evening that she calved though, and figured I could look again in the morning and give it to her then.  It was late, I was tired, and the chance of her developing milk fever was slim.

In the morning I found Penny groaning on her side, half passed out from milk fever.  She had fallen over on Pancho and killed him.  I ran up to the house to get our emergency treatment -- an IV of calcium gluconate (which, of course, had expired).  Rachel called the vet while I tried to remember everything about setting up an emergency IV -- which is inserted into the cow's jugular vein.  The vet arrived just about the time that the IV had finished.  Penny wasn't fully perked up at that point, but an additional shot of dextrose (which the vet administered) did the trick.  One cow saved, one calf dead.  At least we'd have lots of milk.

A week after the milk fever episode, Penny didn't want to come back to the barn in the morning. When I finally goaded her into getting up, she remained hunch-backed, as if her stomach hurt. Thus my introduction to ketosis -- an apparently common malady among high producing cows who are also prone to milk fever.  It can also kill, but we managed to avoid that outcome.

Not all the animals that die on our farm are our own, or die by accident. With our broiler chickens being raised in a chicken tractor (that's a movable pen) out in the orchard, the raccoons had discovered that they could reach through the wire and grab the less-than-wary chicks.  I set up the live trap, and sure enough, caught the culprit.

In their efforts to escape they invariably tear up a surprising amount of grass and pull it into the cage with them. They also do a lot of pooping.  If you shoot them inside the cage, the headshot tends to make for a lot of bleeding, leaving a bloody, poopy mess that nobody wants to pick out of the wire. The cage is as long as my arm, so getting everything out means reaching in all the way, and getting up close and intimate with the mess.

With this in mind, I released the first raccoon to shoot *outside* the cage.  Thinking this would be simple, I was wrong.  He got away.  More chickens died the next night, as the trap sprung prematurely without an occupant.

I wasn't going to mess around anymore.  I shot the next one in the cage, bloody shitty mess be damned.  And the next.  And the next.  Raccoons, if you've never seen one up close, are really cute, and really smart. They growl at you. They look at you like they know exactly what's happening when you point a rifle between their eyes, point blank. Contrary to what Hollywood would suggest, a creature shot in the head doesn't just go limp right away.  They writhe, flail, squirm, and make you wonder if your shot was true.  I don't like shooting raccoons, and finally decided that the chickens were old and smart enough to stay away from the wire when they were around.  Fortunately, I was right.  I'm sure there are still plenty of raccoons around.

Sometimes my stupidity doesn't result in death, which is a nice break from the norm. Our first attempt at this year's 2nd hay cutting came to an abrupt halt through just such an event.  While cutting our main field with the horses, I stopped and got off to move some cut grass that had fallen the wrong way, into the path of the next pass where it would jam the mower. Though it always makes me nervous, there are times when you have to drop the lines on the horses and trust them to stay in place, like when you're opening a gate or hooking up a log to haul out of the woods.  The more you work with them, the more you have an idea of what is and isn't safe.  Experience tells you what's not safe, and on this day I gained more of that.

The horses, enjoying neither the heat nor the flies, decided they had a better place to go (the shade of the trees at the edge of the field).  I was too far away to sprint and grab the lines (and was already doubting the situation), and they weren't interested in obeying my repeated "Whoa!" as I ran after them anyway. They ran the mower into the fence, breaking one of the main castings and tearing off the cutter bar.

Fortunately, we're about 45 minutes away from one of the only shops in the country that specializes in these antique mowers.  Unfortunately,  you can't call ahead because it's Amish owned. That particular day was also the start of "Horse Progress Days", an annual event showcasing the latest in horse drawn equipment and techniques.  When I arrived at the shop, still well within business hours, I found a note saying they were closed for the duration of the event.  

Thinking fast, I remembered another shop that might have a few mower parts.  After milling about the open (but unstaffed shop) for way too long with some other customers, I learned that they had sold their mower parts to another shop nearby.  Still hoping that I could salvage the day, I drove to the other shop, only to find a note on the door saying they were also at Horse Progress Days.  

So... no more haying that week. We took it easy and went to Horse Progress Days.  I'd planned on going anyway, while the hay was drying.

The next week, we finished putting up our 2nd cutting, and all went well.  Everything was safely in the barn, and nothing was broken.  We stopped at a nearby auction that evening, leaving early but staying long enough that I was late to start the evening milking.  

After milking, I headed over to the horse barn to bring them in for the night, but found that they had managed to open the gate to the hog pen. They had lifted the lid off of the feeder, but the two drafts were in the back of the pen nibbling at brush. Bobby (our Standardbred) pulled his head out of the feeder to show me his feed-dusted lips, as if offering to share some of the tasty stuff with me.

I checked the feeder, decided that the horses hadn't eaten much, and would probably be fine.  It was too late to call the vet anyway, unless I wanted to get him out for an emergency call. I went to bed and forgot all about it until the next day, when Rachel mentioned that the horses hadn't eaten well. Bruce, she thought, might be favoring one of his front hooves.

The wheels in my head started turning (about 15 hours too late), and I thought that it might be prudent to call the vet, just in case the horses had in fact eaten enough feed to cause problems. Too much grain becomes toxic to them, causing their gut to release endotoxins that trigger a massive inflammation response in their hooves, which can in turn cause the bones inside the hoof to shift and render them permanently lame and unable to work.

I called the vet, who set aside some medication that should help if they had problems.  Rachel picked it up, and I had it with me when I went to check on them after coming home from work.  

The horses seemed quieter than usual when I arrived, but I figured that might just be the heat.  I thought they were fine until I tried to take them outside for water when Bruce simply refused to walk. Doc wasn't much better.  Bobby walked, but slowly.

That's when it occurred to me that we were in deep doo-doo, that I might very well have to put down three of the most wonderful creatures on our farm. The horses who whinny a greeting at me when they see me each day. The ones who run across the pasture for me to slap the big horsefly on their flanks.  The horses who reach around to give me love nibbles with their big soft lips when I scratch their withers for them. The same horses who run, jump, and fart with joy when I let them out on pasture. The horses for whom I feel immense and loving gratitude every time I lift off their harnesses. Because I'd been negligent, I might have to look them in the eye and put a bullet in their head.  This realization is not pleasant, and remains the most likely outcome.

In the time elapsed (about 12 days), there's been no gun fired, but we're not out of the woods yet. Bobby seems to have emerged with little more than the initial tummy ache.  Bruce can get around alright, but is a little slower than usual.  

Doc got hit hard.  He fell over in the barn one day, but was able to get back up with the help of an Amish crew who happened to be replacing our roof that day.  It took me a half hour to get him out of his stall and walk 20 feet.  He's improved to the point where he can walk better, but walks like a 90 year old arthritic, afraid to put his hooves back down at the end of each step.  I still hope for some recovery, but know it's a very remote possibility.

I could go on... about cows who refuse to breed back, adult cows who insist on nursing, calves who don't restrict their nursing to their own mothers, sheep who develop hoof infections, pastures gone bare in the drought, the heat, ammonia, and flies of the barn in mid-summer, electric fences covered in weeds that need trimming, or hooves that also need trimming (and whose owners don't let me near with trimmers), and other annoyances...

I'm sure there are those who will look at all this and say, "Duh!  You'd have to be an idiot to want to be a farmer!" (and I count my former self among them).  All this trouble, and with monetary compensation that would make minimum-wage sound like a god-send. There are still times when I see it that way and wonder why it is that we're doing all this stuff. However, I still think that it's better than the alternatives, for ourselves and for all the animals involved.  


Shirley J said...

Hi David - we have a publication out of Junction City, Oregon called "Take Root." ( In the last publication there is an article titled, Horse-Powered Farm" a story about Ruby and Amber's Farm in Dorena, Oregon. the farm is owned by Walt bernard and Kris Woolhouse. It sounds like they have a lot in common with you. I hope you can check out the article on line.

David Veale said...

Hi Shirley,

Thanks for the link -- that's an inspiring article! For anyone else interested, the correct URL is actually