Friday, April 30, 2010

Maggie gone to tetanus poisoning

Well, yesterday was a bummer. And that's a total understatement.

I was sitting in the smallest room on the throne when I happened to look out of the window, which in our house with no real need for privacy overlooks the Back Forty, and said out loud "what's the matter with that sheep."

Aimee, seeing the same thing I saw from the kitchen window, headed out fast, while I, in some disarray, did what I could to expedite matters. Automatically I grabbed the rifle as I went, but thought better of it en route and left in in the garage. But, as my creative writing instructor said when I was in college, the rifle was taken off the wall and so would need to be used before the story was done.

We arrived at the spot to find Maggie, one of our own Womerlippi farm born and bred ewes, having what can only be described as a spastic fit on the grass. Legs extended, couldn't get up, raking her legs back and forth, and twitching, neck extended. The worst passed, and we helped her up, but she was reeling and wobbly.

Calcium, I said. Milk fever. But we don't have injectable calcium on hand. We had mineral and vitamin paste, so we tried to squeeze some of that into her. As we were squeezing, we noticed her jaw was locked. Not calcium, then. Calcium would have been easy.

Tetanus. The dread disease of sheep. Our first case. Next to no chance of recovery.

We had the anti-toxin on hand, but it was old and out-of-date. Also penicillin. The treatment is massive doses of both, in a usually futile effort to counteract the current toxin in the nerves, and kill the bacteria to prevent more.

Maggie got all the anti-toxin we had, 9,000 units, to no avail, as well as 7 ml. of penicillin. But she was no better by evening. I observed and nursed her on and off most of the day while finishing up a report I had due at work. She was obviously very poorly, and very unhappy, so just before suppertime we decided to end her misery and I shot her and buried her out back.

And now we have Quinn, an poor orphan lamb. Luckily five-week old Quinn is well into eating solid food by now, grass and grain, while her aunt Nellie doesn't seem to object too much to nursing her. Quinn won't suffer too much, and may not even need a bottle. We'll know when we see how lively she is by the end of today. If she's still bright eyed and getting around OK after 24 hours, she'll be getting enough food.

But Quinn is still wandering around checking all the ewes, because one of them must be her mom, right? Poor little lamb.

We felt robbed too, because Maggie has had all her tetanus shots each year religiously, including one this year a couple weeks before giving birth. But the shots don't always work, say the papers and sheep blogs. And I nicked her tail with the scissors while dung-tagging last week. Sprayed it immediately with Blue-Cote, but it was a nick and went deeper than usual because it was on the end of the tail stub.

Sometimes I think that being a shepherd is like being a character in a soap opera, where life is accelerated and over-dramatized. Sheep really do live out their lives doing their best to die, like the old saw says. And they get far too many weird diseases. It does get very soap-opera like.

But then I stop and think again and realize that this isn't fiction. That was a real bullet I had to put into Maggie's poor woolly head.

There must be something good psychologically for the shepherds that comes out of having to do this kind of thing, some kind of ultimate reality check, some end to illusions and fantasy, perhaps. A deeper ability to face facts, maybe.

I can't for the life of me decide what good it is right now.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Green, green grass of home

The most important and valuable crop around here is firewood. But a close second is grass.

Every cord of firewood we harvest off our own land and dry with our own sunshine saves us between $200 and $250, if we were to replace it with someone else's wood (around 20 mBtu/cord for dry ash). That same cord contains as much heat as about 150 gallons of oil (124,000 Btu/gal), which would cost us between $300 and $450, were we silly enough to buy that much oil. But actually we get a bit more since we use a woodstove that has a 90% thermal efficiency, while our older furnace is only 75%.

But feeding sheep on outside feed is expensive, and grass is by far their preferred nosh anyway, so we try to grow as much and as nice a feed as we can.

We feed grass, hay, and grain.

We can feed our own grass from April to November. From November to March we feed hay, which we have to buy in. We give more grain that time of year too since the ewes are growing lambs. In summer they only get a little grain, mostly to keep them tame and to help move them from pasture to pasture. They get a mix of Maine-grown oats and #16 sweet feed, more of the latter in the breeding season, more of the former in summer.

But grass is the main thing.

Grass management isn't too hard, but it does require some insight, which I've only slowly developed.

The main things seem to be the level of grazing pressure and the species composition.

Grazing pressure we manage with frequent rotation and fairly constant fencing and refencing of plots. The sheep are only ever allowed open access to one plot, their home paddock, which we call the "Back Forty," although it's only 3 acres. This is one of two permanent paddocks we have close to the barn that have good night-time security from predators. The Back Forty contains a security pen with a small shelter. Often we keep them penned-in during the day eating hay, to allow the paddock to recover, and since the very occasional numpty shows up with an off-leash dog while we're not here.

(Woe betide any lost or feral dog that shows up without an owner and hurts our sheep. That would be a dog that just forfeited the right to live. That's why God invented the 30-30 rifle.)

In the afternoons or evenings when we come home from work, or earlier on the weekends and in summer, we generally move them out on to small rotational paddocks, of which we have three, the New Paddock, the Island, and the Front Lawn. These are our best grass, green and very lush. We grow them out to between six and eight inches, and graze them down to about two inches. That two inches is enough leaf for the plant to recover quickly.

Grazing properly on a rotational basis encourages green growth and discourages stem growth and seed setting. The sheep get a nice easy bite, and have to work less hard to feed themselves. Their teeth last longer too.

In winter we keep them in the second home paddock, which we call the North Paddock. This field has direct access to the barn, and has a lot of trees for shelter. It takes the most hammer of all our pastures during winter and lambing season, and it gets the most seeding and raking. In midsummer, after a period of recovery, it can become another rotational paddock.

I resow our various paddocks frequently, perhaps over-frequently, to maintain the clover content and to drive the grass species distribution towards preferred types.

It's a fairly basic system, but it seems to be working especially well this spring, perhaps because of the mild weather and frequent rain, but also I think because we had a good year for rotating last year, and because we culled a couple of sheep that weren't needed, so our numbers are down a bit.

Whatever the reason, it's as green as can be out there, so green it hurts your eyes. Just beautiful, especially in the morning and evening light.

These photos, from the top, show...

1) The front lawn, with the electric fence we use to control the sheep on the smaller paddocks,

2) The New Paddock, showing the brush cutting operation. This is mostly sumac and ash saplings being cut. The grass underneath this relatively new growth is still green and lush and the species composition hasn't yet become more woodland-like.

3) The edge of the North Paddock showing the heavy winter grazing pressure. This will recover, although it will need some seeding and a little raking here and there with the tractor rake.

4) A bit of the Back Forty that loops around the garden. This bit is mossy, but grows very fine, really thin-stemmed grass.

5) Close up showing ladino or white clover penetration. This legume is the basis of our food chain, since grass by itself can't fix nitrogen. Clover will be bred out of pastures if you just leave it, but it takes seed well in early spring, before the frosts are gone, so I regularly sow small amounts all around. The seeds survive for more than one year, and so it can be kept up with relatively low effort.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Aimee feeds the sheep some stale bread

Ooops. Aimee's mad. She hates when I post pictures of her on the blog.

But here she is feeding stale bread to the sheep. Sheep like bread, no matter how stale it is. Chickens get whatever crumbs the sheep drop.

The two on the left are Nellie and Tillie, who like to be petted.

These were taken candid-camera style, through the kitchen window screen, hence the criss-cross pattern..

Not as easy as I thought...

Here's Molly with her lamb born last weekend.

And here's me trying to get that old tiller sorted.

I was able to get the new tire and a tube to match, and the other tires or wheels I was looking for on my expedition this morning.

I resorted to the chainsaw (one of the older saws with a trash blade) to get the old tire off. I was then forced to grind a whole bunch of nasty crumbly rust off the rim, rust that might have punctured the tube. I used an old tube for a liner, holding it on tight with lots of tape.

The new tire went on easy and inflated just fine. Starting the tiller up went just fine. The problem occurred after I tilled a couple rows. That old green Tecumseh engine seized solid.

I tore it down to see whether it was crank bearings or piston and cylinder. It was the crank. Not much point in rebuilding it right away, I thought, seeing as how I had a whole other engine.

But then I realized that my spare engine, the red one in these photos, had a slightly different drive shaft, too big for the tiller's main pulley.

What to do?

Luckily the shaft was too big, not too small, so I assembled the fuel tank and carb to it, got it started nicely, and then ground down the shaft with the angle grinder while the engine was running.

This rather ad-hoc lathe worked fine and I finished up with the correct taper on the shaft, if a little off-round. I decided that it would hold fine, and put the whole thing back together and tilled the pea patch as planned, only a few hours late. All worked just fine. I think the tiller looks pretty spiff with its new red engine.

I then fitted all the other wheels to all the other equipment.

I now have good tires on all our equipment.

That would have been plenty excitement for me for one day, but then our friends and occasional farm-helpers Anders and Alysa came by, so we had drinks and let our dogs play on the lawn with their mutt, Gusto.

Sleepy Saturday and equipment edification

It's dawn on the Saturday before the last week of term. Aimee is sleeping in after a week of too much work AND late nights watching Pittsburgh Penguins hockey in the Stanley Cup play-offs. Plus a large martini last night. My lovely wife has zero tolerance for alcohol, so one martini is all she wrote until about 10am, I expect.

I'm tired too, although I got a good night's sleep. It's that time of year at our day jobs. The college year comes crashing and grinding to a halt right on time every time, predictable, but messy, a flurry of last-minute grading, the usual lazy students trying to graduate when they haven't done all the assignments, the usual committee reports due, handed off to other committees who may or may not read them, and may or may not follow the recommendations, the usual administrative despair as those of us with responsibilities try to plan the impossible for the fall: budgets, adjuncts, classes, grants, reports, all with too few resources, while other faculty and of course students who do not have administrative duties can think only of the long summer break.


Double blech.

Sixty, seventy, eighty-hour weeks, right up to the end, then you tie a pretty bow on the whole mess the day before graduation, send it up the pike, and then take a deep breath and GET SOME PERSPECTIVE and go totter out of your tip of an office, into the sunshine and finally get some exercise and good fresh food and fresh air and go dig in the dirt and grow some spuds or lambs or a pig or two and do something real with what short few decades are left of your life.

For this I got a PhD? Oy veh. Roll on retirement!

After a long week of probably futile office work and certainly no exercise, I'm looking forward to a weekend of farm activity. Although the weather is not likely to be great, it's not so bad either. My main concern this weekend, now that lambing is done, spring fencing is done, and the green grass is growing well, is to fix up all our various bits of farm equipment, to get it ready for the summer's work.

We own two compact tractors with various associated implements, a rototiller, a collection of chainsaws, and a small utility trailer. And a gas-powered lawnmower, I guess, if all else fails. (We try to do 95% or more of our grass and weed control with sheep.) There are also a couple of generators, but those don't count as farm equipment.

These machines are all very old and require quite a bit of TLC to keep them operating.

I get a ridiculous amount of pleasure out of this tinkering. I really need to get a life, I know. But if my whole life was just this farmhouse, farm and animals and this sorry collection of farm equipment and maybe a couple of old Land Rovers, and of course my lovely wifie (still snoring!), and all I had to do was look after all of the above and sell or give away food, I'd be well pleased.

Voluntary simplicity.

The big job this year is to replace all the leaky, busted, and worn-out tires. I happened upon a large pile of assorted small equipment tires outside a small engine shop on Wednesday afternoon, as I was returning from a wind power site visit. I've been limping along with busted and slow-leaking tires for way too long.

I plan to return to the shop and strike a deal for an assortment of wheels and tires that we badly need.

We need, at minimum:

A tire and tube for the ancient Troy-Bilt rototiller. This beast, which won't die, a franken-tiller, has one completely busted tire that I tried to keep using by filling with spray foam, but I've given up. I saw the exact right tire on the pile at the small engine shop and the guy said he would save it for me. Half the price of a new one on the Internet. A new tire for this tiller will give it an entire new lease of life, and since I have a spare motor for it too, salvaged from a dying chipper/shredder, I expect to keep it running as long as I keep running.

Actually, I expect to keep most of this equipment running as long as we need it. We can't afford to waste money on equipment around here, so this collection is it for the duration. Policy decree. Read my lips: no new equipment. The only exceptions are the chainsaws. I just bought a brand new heavy duty chainsaw with what was left of our tax rebate. There's no cheap substitute for a safe reliable chainsaw, so I buy new ones.

I kept all the old ones though, one that works, another that can be fixed, and one for parts, all identical models, which we'll use for roots and brush and the kind of stuff that will help wreck my nice new saw, so I expect we'll at least one and maybe two of them running for a few more decades too.

Then we need a front wheel for the equally decrepit Bolens lawn tractor, which we use with the farm trailer to haul loads of hay and logs and just about anything else from one part of the farm to the other. I couldn't believe it when I went out to start this thing this year, after it had been under the snow for four months, and it started immediately, didn't even need a battery charge. But it has three leaky tires, two of which hold enough air to get work done, but one of which needs to be replaced. I need it ready for firewood season, which might start any day now as the leaves are finally coming out on the trees.

Sheep love ash tree leaves, so it's better to cut ash for firewood in the spring and early summer around here so the sheep can feed on the leaves.

A two-fer, that: sheep forage and firewood all in one. One good 12-inch DBH, 40-foot tall ash tree in bloom is half a cord of firewood, twenty to fifty pea-sticks and small diameter roundwood fence material, and a day's feed for around five sheep. All that is left is a bunch of tiny twigs.

Who knew sheep would eat trees?

(Only all our British isles and German peasant ancestors, that's who. How do we forget things like this and still maintain civilization?)

Then we need a tire or wheel, plus a spare tire or wheel, for the utility trailer. This also needs to be done in time for firewood time. I also will need this trailer for my day job this summer, along with the four-wheel drive Kubota, to retrieve wind assessment equipment from remote sites. It has a completely bald tire where the tube is bulging through the sidewall.

All of which I should be able to get at at least half price out of the pile of tires outside this guy's shop. There's nothing quite like side-of-the-road bargains in Maine. Might be a few garage sales along the way, and there'll certainly be Car Talk on the radio.

Before I go get this tire bonanza, I'll put the sheep in the back paddock, where the grass and clover are already lush and green. Today will be the first day that they get to eat green grass all day.

Happy sheep. That's what we need in this world. More happy sheep. And old equipment that still works when you need it. And Saturday morning drives in the Maine countryside.

That's my idea of perspective.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Lamb stampede

Lamb rugby again

Going out to check the ewes and lambs last night before dark --- where's Molly? She was all the way back down the far end next to the fence and the coyote-filled woods, sitting tight in the wilderness spot where she first gave birth again, with her new born and still somewhat fragile baby, who was already shivering, close by.

So again lamb-stealer Mick picks up the wee one and, tucking said lamb under his arm just like the good number 7 flanker he used to be, runs for the try-line of the barn door.

Only a 90-yard dash.

Where is Eddie Waring when you need him?

And Molly, a large, woolly, guided missile, programmed perfectly, came right after at full warp speed, crossed the threshold without slowing, and was duly locked in the slammer again for the night with her wee lambie and a nice heat lamp.

How many times do you think we can do this before she catches on?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A walk in the woods and dung tagging

Here's me dung tagging young Poppy, one of last year's ewe-lambs, and washing the shitty face of one of this years wee ones.

Worried about fly strike, Aimee and I corralled all the sheep in the barn and went through them one-by-one looking for maggots and removing dags. Poppy was a particularly shitty little sheep and couldn't help but add to everyone's woes by farting in our "general direction."

Thank you, Polly.

All the sheep got the treatment except for Molly who just gave birth and Jewel who wouldn't be caught. Nellie too was excused games, due to her serious maggot removal operations yesterday, although we'll have to catch her again soon to see if all the nasty critters are gone.

Earlier Haggis and I took a good long walk in the woods up by Howes Pond. The landowner, an acquaintance of mine, is culling trees for firewood, to "release" the better trees to grow faster. He's selecting for high quality hardwoods and within a couple decades here will have an exemplary commercial hardwood stand: beech, oak, maple, all good lumber for furniture, hardwood flooring, and other special uses. In the meantime he has this firewood, which we sometimes buy. He was trying to add a third crop, wind turbines, but a majority of the rest of his town wouldn't let that happen -- the usual paranoia and fear of the unknown -- and enacted a restrictive ordinance.

Anyway, he has a beautiful piece of land which Haggis and I have permission to hike on. We had fun.

Too much fun on the farm

Yesterday was a day of agricultural complexities and ovine excitement, not at all what I had been expecting.

I was expecting rain and a stack of economics exam grading.

But the fun started with the snow. We had a couple inches on the ground when I awoke, and it kept coming for a while. We were supposed to get rain after 11am, but what we got instead was snow before 11am, and in fact most of it was gone by 9am. We're high here, so that might explain the fact that the rain was frozen.

I almost was upset by the sight of snow again after all that winter, but I knew it wouldn't be long for this world. And it wasn't.

I began my day with a headache that made grading impossible, so I ventured out in the snow to fence instead. Our paddocks come right up to the edges of the various roads and tracks in this neighborhood, and their fences are easily destroyed by snow plowing, and so many of them have to come down each fall and be put up again each spring. I put up the garden fence, fenced in the barnyard which we use for a small paddock, and fenced the New Paddock where I'm cutting brush. This work was done in two stints. I'm duty officer for the statewide SAR system all week, so I can't leave the phone unattended. When I ran out of fence posts, Aimee had to be the one to go get them. She was going shopping anyway. When she came back I finished the job. In between I took a nap and pottered around a bit happily enough in my workshop where I have a phone extension.

At around 2pm Aimee was back and we unloaded groceries and fence posts and oats for sheep. With me on duty all week I can't go get a cheap half ton load of oats, so we had to buy expensive 50 pound bags.

Then I went out to fix fence. We use a mix of #14 and #12 galvanized steel field fence and Premier brand electric mesh fence. We like both but especially the Premier which can be moved around to make new paddocks and accommodate other land uses, like lawn parties, earth moving, or daffodils. Each year we add a couple panels of the Premier to our supply. We have to buy it a bit at a time because it's expensive stuff, over a dollar a foot. These electric fences were in particularly bad shape. They had been taken down in a hurry in the fall (not by me!) and were full of grass and twigs and tangles and twists, and took a while to sort.

I managed to grade a few papers somewhere in there, but that wasn't too exciting.

What was exciting and a bit worrying was when I caught Nellie to give her a good dung tagging and found fly-strike maggots infesting her rump and crotch. This is our first case of fly-strike. I guess we've been lucky. Anyway, it was a bad infestation and took the clipping of most of her crotch and a fair amount of hydrogen peroxide to remove or kill or the maggots. By mutual and unspoken agreement around here, the most disgusting sheep maintenance jobs are mine to do and wifie just looked on for a second or two while this was going on, although as a biologist she's normally quite rugged about parasites. Poor Nellie was quite stoic.

Now I need to worry about the others. I've been dagging them all in sequence, one by one every few days, and am pretty sure that Poppy and Penelope are free of maggots, but each of the others will need an investigation, whether or not they have dags to trim.

The next big thing was Molly.

From fairly early on yesterday, even after they were let out to graze in the barnyard, Molly decided she wanted nothing to do with her mother, aunts, cousins, and sisters, and took herself off to the nether reaches of the North Paddock to sulk and await birth pains. This was hardly ideal as the back of this paddock is a long walk from the house and by evening it was clear the lamb or lambs would come that night. We tried herding her towards the barn and the lambing pen but she was having none of this. Molly is our biggest ewe and very sturdy and, although previously placid, had by now developed a serious attitude.

So we left her out there in the wilderness, way too close to a trail the coyotes use, and made the trek down to the far end of the sheep world every hour or so, all evening long, in between grading and TV and pudding (blueberry crumble) and so on. The lamb came somewhere between visits at 12 pm and 1 am. It was already standing when it was found.

This was our chance to get Molly in the barn. If you pick up a newborn lamb and carry it off, all but the most brain-dead sheep mothers will follow you as you take off with their baby.

But lamb-stealing is also a very grave crime in the mind of a sheep.

Aimee, who had discovered the newborn, was not going to be the one to risk picking it up. She came back to get me out of bed instead instead. There's a kind of finality to the wifely decision that a job just has to be done by the husband that brooks no discussion. Outranked. Yes ma'am. No ifs, ands, or buts.

Except for the butting.

Usually the ewe just exhibits great concern for the lamb and will follow you anywhere, but as soon as I snagged the lamb, Molly the Viking sheep went beserk and began to charge me and thump me pretty hard with her head, aiming of course for the crotch. The only way to slow the attacks was to hold the lamb between me and her and walk backwards. Even that wasn't too safe for either me or the lamb. But it got us about halfway. At that point a break in the action allowed me to run for it with the lamb,

(Aimee shouting the usual helpful wifely hints about how to play lamb rugby.)

I was able to jog without being attacked to within about 25 yards of the barn when poor Molly suddenly lost all her bearings and ran searching all the way back down to the far end again, bleating for her poor lost lambie. So I set the lamb down on all fours and it began bleating for Molly. This immediately had mum loop back around and come sailing at full ramming speed from all the way from the end of the paddock, a guided missile, and so I took off again with the lamb. I dashed through the lambing pen door, which opens on to the North Paddock, dropping the lamb as I went, slammed the gate safely behind me, then doubled back around through the front of the barn just in time to see Aimee deftly drop the latch on Molly, now suitably imprisoned in the proper pen, lambie and all.


Molly was of course furious to be caught and proceeded to alternate between tearing up all the bedding in the pen, and licking the baby vigorously, almost tearing up her precious lamb in the process.

But that wasn't the end of things, because now we had to decide if there was going to be a second lamb. No way were either of us going to get into the ring with Molly right there and then, so we decided to leave matters be for now. Hopefully any second lambie would come out on its own. Aimee set the alarm for 3 am.

And so at 3am I duly awoke and tottered off to the barn to see no new lamb, although the first one was doing fine. No placenta either, although Molly in her current mood might have made short work of it. If I was to get in the pen with Molly and have a feel for a second lamb, I had to lift the first lamb out. Of course, as soon as I did this Molly went beserk again.

Which made me think twice about getting in with her.

I decided, with some reason but possibly a fair amount of pure chicken, that Molly was obviously still strong and so if there was a second lamb it would come on its own, and went back to bed. At 5am I checked again but still no lamb. Molly meanwhile was relatively calm, obviously comfortable, and obviously no longer in labor.

Discretion still the better part of valor, I went back to bed until 8am. Still comfy, still fine, Miss Molly was, it seemed more and more certain, only going to have one lamb this year.

Which is surprising considering how huge she was. But now we're thinking about it she had only one the year before last and was huge then too. And the other thing is, she's only ever had males or poor Polly who had to be culled, so she's never had a lambie that stuck around. Maybe that's why she's so uppity.

This one isn't going to help that any. This is a ram lamb too.

Poor Molly. How's she ever going to be a grandma like this?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Thorndike's grassy ruins, vehicle shopping and carb cleaning

The sheep went out on pasture twice in the last three days, the first time this year. I'm monitoring the growth of our various paddocks carefully, and have also begun cutting brush on the New Paddock, or what we call the New Paddock, a half-acre square to the north of the North Paddock (this nomenclature gets complicated, doesn't it?) our neighbors don't use for anything and so are happy to let us use for sheep. There's a lot of sumac which has to go, and elms, apples, and bird cherries which have to stay.

This is an interesting field because it contains what must be the foundation of the original Great Farm mansion, Israel Thorndike's summer home, reputed to have been fairly palatial for these parts. The stone remnants are pretty extensive and the outline of the building seems kind of elaborate, not a plain rectangle, but we'll see more as we get the trees gone. It burned in 1880.

I expect when I get done with it it will look rather National-Trustish, a grassy ruin, like all those ruined castles in the UK, the second- and third-tier ones that just have a oak-leaf sign and an iron fence and a squeaky kissing gate and a bunch of sheep to keep the grass down, and are kept up primarily by local volunteers. I might even ask the neighbors if our college's tame archeologist can have a go. Never know what you might find. It would be enough to confirm that this was indeed the homeplace and not an outbuilding.

In other activities, we've been keeping the hens in the barn most of the day while we hope that the evil chicken hawk goes elsewhere for feed. I hope someone shoots him. If I see him, I will. I don't care if he does have a nest of chicks and a wifie-hawk to keep.

I've also been working on the smaller of our two tillers, doing the springtime chore of twiddling with the carb to make the float bowl and needle work. A post-Easter resurrection.

This tiller is a Troy-Bilt, by far the most indestructible of tillers as far as the gearbox and tines and chassis are concerned.

Motors, however, are another story.

Years ago I changed the drive motor on this beast from a worn-out Briggsy-Stratton to a recycled one off an old genny that used to power the Bale House. It now has a Tecumseh nine-horse, and these motors have the crappiest and least reliable carbs of any American small motor design. When I worked in the rental yard all those years ago (in San Fransisco's Mission District), we would just put on a new carb each time, but we can't afford that here at Womerlippi Finance Central, so I cannibalize and improvise and keep it limping along. This time the float bowl pin had rusted up, preventing the float from lifting with the fuel, causing flooding and a drippy air filter. I'll replace the pin with a bit of nail or wire and we'll be fixed up again for a year.

Then we're shopping for a small car for Aimee. Not too happy about this as we can't really afford it, but twice now her truck has experienced a mild misfire accompanied by the check-engine light flashing dire warnings. The light has been on permanently for years because we haven't changed the oxygen sensors as they've quit one by one, but when it flashes like this there's more going on. Each time I pulled and decipher the codes, ignoring all the oxygen sensor ones which stay on all the time, to get by a process of elimination to the code for "detected misfire on number four cylinder."

So you run the engine and pull the wires off the distributer cap one by one, and yes, there is no change in engine tone when you disconnect number four. So you pull the spark plug. Actually, the first time this happened I changed them all, thinking 200,000 miles was not too overdue for a change of plugs. Except for number six which needs a special tool, or a universal wrist joint and a second elbow between the wrist and the regular one.

But number four is the middle cylinder on the right hand bank as you're looking from the front, not too hard to reach on this V-six engine. That could be worse. But what I don't like is the smell of coolant on the plug when I pull it. About five thousand miles is how much driving it takes to foul the plug.

So this is the beginning of the long slow death of an otherwise friendly and helpful engine, and the first sign of passage of an otherwise gloriously reliable and hard-working farm truck, and we can pour money into it to get it fixed, or we can get a new engine, or we can sell it and get maybe $3,000, or we can accept the fact that the truck is rusting out anyway and just reduce it's usage to farm- and winter-use only and baby it for another two-three years, or maybe more if we get lucky.

We chose the latter. The truck is worn out but very useful around here.

Which means Aimee needs a new drive-to-work car. She puts $35 of gas in the truck each week, which at 25 mpg means if we can get 50 mpg out of a new car, we have $70 a month to pay for a newer car. This is doable if we put down a couple-three thousand. We've looked at a Prius, the only car that really gets up to 50 mpg. The only one we've had time to see is a high miler for six thousand dollars, a little over-priced on the blue book, but close by and convenient. But there are more Prius's to look at. We can get one eventually.

Problem is, we don't have time to car shop. So this project might take until midsummer to finish. And it's going to be a pain. We'll just have to be patient.

Where, oh where, is the mint 1960-70 diesel Land Rover pick-up of my dreams? The only car I'd ever need again for the rest of my life.

Aimee wants to take the Prius's to a dealer for checking out. She says she would trust my opinion on a 1970 Land Rover but not on a 2000's Prius.


I'll remember that one for the rest of my life too. She won't live it down.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Chicken hawk horror

Don't look at these pictures if you're squeamish.

I drove back from an errand yesterday afternoon to find a hawk eating one of our chickens alive on the front lawn. The hawk flew off as I pulled up, but it had already made a wound too large to close, so the chicken was slaughtered. Aimee's name for the bird was Skippy, due to a habit of skipping, I guess.

I searched hard for the rest of our small flock but couldn't find them all so we then had wait for them to come in from wherever they had gone to ground. It took several hours, until normal chicken bed-time. They all came in, but one had a pretty well-plucked spot on its bum. Still, no blood, so she lived.

Where was my fearless wifie, who was home while all this was happening? Oblivious, on her exercise machine with the TV blaring.

I guess that's another good reason to consider yard and farm work a superior form of exercise. Not only do you get something accomplished, you also keep the animals safe if you're in the farmyard working. I'm up to cutting trees down again, for firewood and brush clearing. With a machete. Good exercise, that.

Poor Skippy was very fat and full of eggs. I hate to see such a good layer have to be killed. But there's only one think to make with such a fat old layer.

Chicken soup! And very fat and greasy soup at that.

The birds will have to stay in the barn for a day or three. We don't need to encourage any hawks to hang around around here regularly. And the rifle is loaded.

Although I'm wishing for a scattergun.

Bloody old hawk.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Dog and pony whine and mutton chop express

I was beside myself with frustration yesterday to come home around 3pm (on a Sunday!) and realize a whole weekend had gone by without a single important chore or project being done, and that I was too tired to do anything, even if there had been time.

How I hate weekend work!

One of the huge potential advantages and disadvantages of the academic profession is the requirement to make some kind of contribution, hopefully useful, to society in general. In my case this has me doing lots of things, but what I call the "dog and pony show" is the most common manifestation. This is when some civic group wants a talk. Talks are often on evenings and weekends, because that is when the civic group meets.

But evenings and weekends are when I must do farm chores and tend to sheep and gardens and machines and buildings. And if I don't attend to these things, well, eventually bad things start to happen around here.

Even so, I generally accept invitations to give talks. It seems to be part of the job, part of the price you must pay for the privilege of being a public thinker. But I often regret it.

Aimee says I accept too many, and don't notice when they pile up on my schedule. She may be right. There are also vast differences in the quality and receptiveness of audiences. I've traveled a hundred miles in a day to give a talk on energy efficiency weatherization and retrofit for the home to a Grange hall group of nine old ladies and one old gentleman, and on the long drive back realized that not one of those old ladies had the slightest intention of ever remodeling their homes for energy or indeed for anything, ever again in the remainder of their lives. I generally think that the Grange is a worthwhile organization, especially in rural areas like ours. But it is aging and anachronistic in some ways. And the Grange system requires an educational talk for every meeting, and each group has an officer in charge of scheduling talkers, and so public academics like me are easy prey. In this particular case any sober assessment would have to admit that it was a complete waste of everyone's time.

That was probably the worst case, but there have been plenty of others just like it. I don't think I would mind nearly as much giving up on a weekend or part of a weekend if the audience were receptive and likely to usefully employ the information.

The other thing I need to think about is getting enough rest from the classroom. Counting lab work with classes and dog and ponies for last week, I was up to 26 or 27 full contact hours. (A contact hour is the measure of how much time an academic spends in front of the class or leading activities.) The norm for Unity College is about 15. High school teachers regularly do 30 and up, but a large amount of that is supervising student work in the classroom, which is not at all the same thing as giving a lecture or running a technical lab or engineering activity, which is what I tend to do for my contact hours.

So. By the end of my last talk on Sunday I was exhausted, grumpy, in a hurry, skipping material and making mistakes. So I made a basic error in teaching a topic I've taught for nearly 30 years. And then drove home upset by this and have thought about it constantly ever since.

I suppose this is starting to sound like a whine, and it probably is a whine. But maybe I feel a little better for writing it anyway. What's the point of having a blog if you can't occasionally file a complaint in the great and totally random suggestion box that is the Internet.

And clearly, on reflection now that I've written this, I need to be more careful about how many dog and ponies I accept, and of what quality and usefulness. The Grange will have to go a long way, for instance, to convince me that it's worth driving more than twenty or fifteen miles to give a talk. And I think I will stop accepting talks for the same day or consecutive days. Especially after a busy week.

Boy, I really am looking forward to next weekend. So far, nothing is scheduled. Let's keep it that way!

The one chore that I did get done, apart from feeding and watering which always gets done, was to go get the mutton from Larkie from the butchers. Thinking that I had more than enough roasts left in the freezer, too many perhaps, I had asked for ground lamb, sausage with garlic, and mutton chops. There were about ten pounds each of sausage, and a huge box of chops. All was perfectly wrapped, vacuum-sealed and flash frozen as usual. The price for the butchering service was $65, an extra $15 because of the extra grinding.

The chops had a huge amount of fat on them, well over an inch in some cases. Poor old Larkie was in prime shape for being a mom. I've seem that much fat on pork chops, but never on lamb. I wonder what it will taste like.

I've never had a mutton chop, not as far as I know. When I had to cull Abraram in the fall, I ground him up completely for burger and sausage, no chops. I thought he'd be too stinky. But in the end the meat wasn't very gamey at all. I've had tons of lamb chops of course, so I suppose I might have had "mutton dressed as lamb" and not known it.

I'm interested to try. But since I have about a quart of curry and half a large shepherds pie left to eat in the fridge, it will take a few days.

Our freezer has enough meat in it for another year already, and the growing season hasn't even started yet.

I guess that must mean that we are succeeding at growing plenty of food on this part-time farm, even if I do lose a few weekends here and there to the odd dog and pony. And Aimee of course, got all her chores done, and some projects, especially in the greenhouse and kitchen, where she has plant starts started and extra bread baked.

So things could be a heck of a lot worse. Roll on Friday, though.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A stopper in it

That's what Molly must have. Still no signs except her rather large size, poor girl.

I have two "dog and ponies" to do this weekend, so no rest for the wicked. But I'll be running back and forth from college (at least the talks are at the college!) to see how she's doing.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Molly with her legs crossed

Molly is huge. She looks like a big fat cotton wool ball. Or the fat sheep "Shirley" on Shaun the Sheep.

I watched her lie down yesterday. It took quite a while. She first selected her spot, then knelt on her front legs. She then tried to fold her rear legs under her, but each time threatened to topple and stopped. Two-three tries, and she finally gave up and just toppled her rear legs to the right and she, or rather her butt, fell down instead of laying down. Going out to check on the sheep two-three times in the next few hours, I noticed that she didn't move from that position.

I have a wind assessment project today, an anemometer move on one of the Maine islands with students, so we're hoping that Molly keeps them crossed all day. I'll be back at five, but no sooner. Aimee will be back earlier, but there's not much she can do with a sheep the size of Molly by herself.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Idiots guide to Womerlipping

I'm very bad at using the Google Blogger categories. I rarely remember to use them at all.

But a students wanted easy access to an organized version of our farm blog to write a paper on our farm systems and ideas, such as they are.

So that was useful to do, and here it is in case I want to use it again, add, subtract, etc.

On shepherding

Pig rearing



Farm economics

On the philosophy and praxis of animal murder

Composting system:

On winter fuel:

More philosophizing





On involvement with land and food and general blah



Larkie gone

Larkie, our mentally challenged sheep, went to the butchers yesterday. This was unplanned, but long overdue. As I've mentioned before, we bought our original founding herd of six from a rather silly suburban-type couple who lived about forty miles north of here, the wife of which was very sentimental and extracted a promise from us that we wouldn't butcher any of the six. These were Abraram, Tillie, Tootsie, Jewel, Molly, and Lark, for which we paid $500, including some tack.

Lark was the cull, but it was all or nothing, so we took her too. Lark at the time was underweight by about one-third, but already mature in facial structure. She was neglected, and carried a three-year's fleece that had gone moldy. No lie. Green mold all along her back. She'd had a bout with white muscle disease and to boot was obviously not playing with a full deck. For the first few years we had her, this manifested itself in her getting filthy any chance she got. She was a truly dirty sheep, the only white black sheep of the family. She put on weight, however, under proper care and within a year and a half was as large as any other of our ewes.

But she never gave birth to a live lamb or lamb that lived. Motherhood or at least pregnancy just seemed to confuse her. Both times she was pregnant, she either gave birth and just wandered off or had a stillborn lamb. The first time we weren't sure because we weren't there to see what she did. Second time, I was right there.

I probably did some damage to her when I had my too-large hand inside her for well over a minute the other day after she gave birth to that stillborn lamb and I was looking to see if there was another. She got a small vaginal prolapse, treatable, but not in her case worth the trouble since there would never be another lamb, and I suppose that was the excuse I was waiting for.

I have learned that sentimentality has no place managing sheep and in fact just leads to more pain and distress for the animals. In this case, the whole herd will be better off and more economical without Larkie. Eventually, I want to have only breeding ewes on the farm, and buy in only baby rams, and those every two years or so, for two reasons, to keep bringing in a fresh male and thus genetic diversity, and to reduce the possibility of ram-related violence. Having only breeding ewes, no retirees, will facilitate this plan.

This cloud has another silver lining too -- there will be enough meat in the freezer this year that I won't need to raise a lamb for myself. Our two males can be sold and we already have a buyer. That full freezer means too, that I can take a one-third share in one of our porkers this year, not take a whole pig as I normally do.

But I do feel a little sorry for Lark. The butchers is a slower death than if I slaughter them here, and involves an 18-mile drive and a night in the pen alone, which for a sheep, a herd animal, is probably terrifying. Andy, our butcher, is a very decent and gentle fellow, and I'm sure she won't feel any pain. But there is that delay and the mental stress.

Still (I thought as I drove back), and thinking of other animal and human deaths I have known, there are worse ways to go. And she had a good life that in ordinary circumstances would not have lasted as long as it did.

Here she is as she was when she first came. You can see that filthy three-year fleece, with just a hint of green.

I couldn't believe it when the woolen mill took that fleece. But they did.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Two up there

Inside Nellie, that is. Two girls. Both doing well.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Happier times

Nellie's cervix hadn't full dilated even after 4 hours of labor, so she received what an American sports commentator would call an "assist."

But all came right in the end. Little Q-girl here has no name, but she does have a black patch on her right hind leg. Anybody know any q-words that mean spot or patch?

Here's Tillie's two wains, no longer starving now mother has recovered a little, enough to stay on her feet for a few good feeds. Larkie still bereft, though.

Very unhappy sheepie, is our Lark. Poor girlie.

Nellie in labor

Nellie went into labor around 2pm today. It's now 4pm, so it's going only slowly, but all seems OK so far.

Sunshine, maybe more lambs

It's been hard to want to post to the farm blog this week as our lambing results over the weekend became even more upsetting. But Sandra did ask (comment on previous-but-one post), so here goes.

There's only been one more lamb. Larkie, our otherwise too-stupid-to-breed sheep, who had been unfortunately impregnated when the ram got out last fall, had a very large misrepresented lamb that she labored long and hard with, apparently, from sometime after night checks last Sunday morning until just before breakfast.

She wasn't in labor when I checked in the wee hours, but when I went out again around six she had been in labor for a while. The bag had broken a couple hours before and the lamb was drying out. Head and feet were together, which is not the worst presentation, but it was a very large lamb.

I had to do the baling twine trick -- snagging the hoofs with the twine, pulling them out to unfold them, and then the head. It worked well enough, but the lamb was already dead.

So live lambs three, dead ones three. Our worst season ever.

To cap it all, after Tillie's affair on Friday, I then tried way too hard to feel for a second lamb. I didn't find one, but I spent way too long with my dirty great hand in Larkie's uterus, and after the difficult birth and the loss of the lamb, she's been upset all week. Dirty great is a form of speech -- I washed up with hot water and soap and had clipped my nails, of course. But I do have large hands. There's no infection, but the tissue remains a little swollen, and she's still very upset to not have a lamb. I tried putting one of Tillies hungry wains on her teat, but that didn't work for Lark or Tillie. So Larkie remains swollen-uddered, sore inside, and bereft.

Then to cap it all, the skies opened and it rained for four days solid, turning everything into a muddy mess or a swimming pool. The sheep took it all stoically, even Larkie, but we've been depressed.

Finally the rain ended early Thursday morning. By the afternoon it was beautiful, by evening the frogs were out in force, and this morning the birds were singing loudly for the first time in six months.

We have only a short Friday work day today, followed by a weekend in which one of us can be here 100% of the time, so the chances of something bad happening with the last two ewes, Molly and Nellie, are much reduced. Hopefully they give birth soon. Both are young, intelligent, and proven good mothers. The weather is supposed to be nice through Monday. The three lambs we have are healthy, even bouncy, although Tillie's two were skinny for their first few days because Tillie was so tired and not feeding often enough. Now they're thickening up. Maggie's Quinn, the one female so far and only keeper, is fat and sassy. All have reached the run-around stage, so we also have the comedic effect to cheer us up.

It should go better from here.