Sunday, September 25, 2011

Hoofs and dags and Captives

Saturday was the first of two field trips each academic year in which Aimee and I host first year students from Unity College's Captive Wildlife Care and Education program at our farm.

This program, called "Captive" for short among students, trains applied biologists for careers in zoo=keeping and other animal care work at a professional or managerial level. Students may also go into veterinary careers.

It's a very popular program with young women, but there are a handful of young men too. The students are characterized by a particular fondness for animals.

Aimee and I enjoy having the students to the farm because a) it takes away some of the very back-breaking work of sheep care, and b) it's fun to watch the students literally come to grips with the sheep. The professors who run the program, Sarah Cunningham and Cheryl Frederick, are routinely delighted with the arrangement too, because of the great experience for their students at a crucial time in their education.

It's a good trade for all concerned, but especially the students, who like all students need to learn some important lessons.

Sheep are cute and fuzzy, especially our little lambs, but they're also wild and woolly, and will struggle mightily to get out of the shepherds hands.

They also smell.

A lot.

They smell a lot. And it's not a good smell.

I'm not sure how many "Captive" students question their career choices when, often for the first time in their lives, they are told to grab on to their damp, stinky, heavy, powerful, struggling animal and make her assume the proper control position for hoof care or medicine, or whatever peculiar and seemingly perverted task is called for, but if they do, well, that's a good lesson, isn't it?

One that had better be learned sooner rather than later in the college career. If you don't like handling sheep at this point in your career, you aren't going to like giraffe or hippopotami or grizzlum bear very much later, either, and so it may be time to go off and get yourself a communications degree, or join some other less contact-oriented line of work.

Today's task was FAMACHA® care, as well as the ubiquitous dung tags or "dags" for short, and a little hoof trimming. Nothing too difficult, but, as always, animals need to be immobilized and properly handled to manage all this, and it's probably the handling part that is the main lesson.

It's certainly the main emotional lesson. As we routinely tell the students, sheep care is a bit like rugby, and indeed it's no surprise that the regions of the world that produce the most domestic sheep, Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and of course my own homeland of northern England, also produce the best rugby players.

There are no half-way measures in rugby and sheep handling.

You just have to get "stuck in" and grab your sheep. This kind of gumption is not that easy to learn quickly, especially if you're a fashionable young lady from suburban America who has just left her teenage years.

There are other good lessons. FAMACHA care provides one. The main point of this routine is the control of the barber-pole worm, Haemonchus contortous. Infestation by this parasite is exhibited by the symptom of anemia, which itself is exhibited by lack of red blood cells in the blood vessels of the eyelid.

If the eyelid is white or creamy colored and almost devoid of red blood cells, then you treat for worms using a broad spectrum anti-helmintic such as Ivormec.

Notice the scientific language. The lesson is less about FAMACHA or worms, and more about science and its practical uses. First year students fresh out of high school in the first four weeks of their college career are apt to cherry-pick the lessons they like and the lessons they don't like. Routinely, the lessons they like are the ones with warm fuzzy animals, and the lessons they don't like have long words, math, and lots of complicated science reasoning.

This is understandable. One necessary character trait for a good college teacher is empathy for the student. It's a long time ago now, but I still remember well enough being an seventeen-year old RAF aeronautical engineering trainee, and being fascinated by fast fighter jets and less interested in the math, science, and engineering of flight.

But an empathetic student, faced with a sad wormy sheep, being taught by an empathetic professor, can begin to grasp that the proper care of this animal depends on her properly learning the science of worm management, and thus the science of biology, particularly cell biology and evolutionary ecology, is required.

And thus, dear readers, another applied biological scientist is born, and the world, or worm, turns once more.

Two sheep needed to be wormed, which was occasion for another big word : "intubate." Lacking a proper drenching tool, the Womerlippi Farmers get Ivormec into a sheep's stomach and importantly, not into a sheep's lungs, with an intubation kit that was originally designed for hypothermic new-born lambs. It's a little awkward but works.

The sheep had been out on good pasture all summer, so their hooves were nice and didn't need much trimming.

They didn't even have too many dags, which was in some ways a pity because dagging is a disgusting job and at this point in a college career a Captive students badly needs to have to do some truly disgusting animal care job or another.

They did fight a bit, but the proper holds and positions take care of that. A sheep can't move at all if held properly in any one of half a dozen holds. The students learn quickly to get the animal into the proper position and keep him there. Only one lamb escaped treatment, by scrambling rather athletically over a gate we thought was too tall to scramble over.

You never learn not to be surprised at what animals may do.

Three groups of students were handled in this way, nearly fifty students in all, but only ten sheep, counting the one that escaped. Three or four sheep per group.

Still, everyone got to get their hands on a sheep. And a good day was had by all, except possibly the sheep.

There was also a bit of talking involved, as we explained scientific care routines and bits and pieces of sheep medicine, and a little farming, all by reference to science. It's relatively easy to actually get lessons into the student's brain, once you've got his or her attention using the hands-on or haptic teaching method, wet wooly animals optional.

We call this approach praxis at Unity College. It's a relatively unique feature of our pedagogy. And it works.

Which saves an awful lot of effort and money. You'd be surprised how much expensive education is out there that doesn't work nearly as well.

You'd think folks would catch on, but they don't.

Aimee has pictures here. Enjoy.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Getting in the harvest and putting up food

I didn't feel like writing much for the farm blog last weekend after Mary passed away. But it was a busy time, as we were getting ready for a class visit while also deep in fall harvesting and putting up of food.

The class, Agroecology, came by on Monday and spent a good couple hours on an in-depth farm tour. I has set up a tomato canning demonstration for them, but we ran out of time.

The tomatoes canned up just fine, all the same. I took some into college on Thursday, along with other products such as yarn and pesto and pork chops, to show the students and give out in class.

Next on the harvest list would be more apples, but that had to wait for this morning.

It's been an exceptionally good year for apples, and we have departed from our usual practice of making just a few packages of apple sauce/pie filling because of the failure of the blueberry crop at our friend's farm. Lacking our usual twenty or thirty pounds of blueberries, we needed more of some other kind of pie stock to see us through the winter and so the apples have come in handy.

It's always been my intention to get our apple trees all pruned and in shape for the long haul -- they're terribly overgrown, having seen no pruning in thirty or more years -- but that's a slow business. I was pleased that with no help from us this year they produced some very nice apples.

I had already picked a pretty good cart-load of Golden Delicious type apples and made those into apple sauce. Today's cart load were mostly of a different variety -- another of the many unknown kinds we have, something like a Cortland. They proved a superior pie apple, not turning brown and cooking down nicely.

I then took a tour of our apple trees, tasting and bringing in a few samples here and there. Deep in the woods I found a very pale yellow apple that was super-sweet, my favorite so far, but by the time I found it, all the best ones had fallen in the wind.

The next job was to bring in a few spuds, enough for a nice Sunday dinner of ham and mashed potato -- our pig came back from the butchers last Tuesday. Potatoes, like apples, have done well this year, despite the blight. Some of the spuds in our patch were blighted, but most were fine. I'll wait for a hard frost to do the main harvest, and sort them very carefully and we should still get our target two hundred or so pounds.

Aimee came home with the shopping just as I was finishing this very pleasant activity, and so there was a small bustle of work as we brought in the food and some animal feed, then Aimee turned her attention to the basil crop. She'd been shopping for bulk olive oil, parmesan cheese, and nuts, all for pesto. The next thing was to pick the necessary basil. This had needed to be covered last night for fear of a frost, while a more certain frost is forecast for tonight, so today was the very last day to do this job without the fuss of keeping plucked basil plants in water.

For a while now she's been sitting on the porch, listening to "Science Friday" on the Internet, plucking basil.

All very domestic here at the farm this weekend.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Mary gone to the great papa san in the sky

Our dog Mary died yesterday, of an overdose of sedatives on the vet's table.

She had been losing weight all summer. By the fall she was vomiting and piddling on the floor much more than usual. We took her to the vets, only to find she was riddled with cancer, so we had her put down.

We brought her home and buried her under the trees in the backyard next to Daisy, another dog, and Maggie, a ewe who escaped the butcher, thanks to tetanus. Quite the cemetery. But there are far worse places to end up than under a few feet of soil and a cairn of mossy rocks in a wooded yard in Maine.

We're not too sad about Mary, since the five or so years she had with us were kind of a second chance for this dog we found wandering and emaciated in the woods in Virginia. By rights she should have died back then, but we bought her up to Maine. She didn't like the snow much, but she did like Aimee's "papa san" bamboo couch. She spent most of her second-chance five years in that couch, which she claimed for her own.

No human has sat there for years.

Monday, September 5, 2011

A big clean-up and shingles nearly done

It's a holiday weekend -- "Labor Day" is the holiday, for those British readers unschooled in American holidays -- and accordingly we've been laboring, but not too hard. Aimee has a couple short rows of shingles left to nail, and she'll have finished one whole wall of the house. This is a truly laborious project -- every shingle is hand-dipped then carefully air-dried on a rack before being put in it's proper place. And yes, my tiny little wifie gets up that very long ladder and onto that scaffolding to personally nail every shingle in place.

As a result, this house which was falling into its cellar hole when we bought it all those years ago, looks like a million dollars. Below is a picture of what it used to look like, complete with part of the mountain of trash we removed from the site.

I don't imagine we'll ever have to do this job again in our lifetimes. Unprotected cedar shingles last for twenty or more years. I have no idea how long they last with such a thick coat of preservative, but I don't imagine I'll live to find out.

My contribution, such as it is, is to set the scaffolding in place and move it when needed.

I'm not allowed to so much as nail a single shingle. Aimee is a serious perfectionist when it comes to cedar shingles.

In other Labor-day weekend labor, Haggis was in need of a good grooming, and we had lost the sharp-toothed comb that is used for grooming a Haggis. He has a very thick coat of under-fur, and this must be de-thatched every few weeks or he gets a bit pongy. This is another Aimee-job.

What was the husband doing while all this labor was happening?

I was cleaning the house. We had some friends over for dinner, which meant the house needed a good besoming. Having guests is just the excuse to clean in all the corners and sweep out the cobwebs.

I'm a handy old besom, for a fella. Even if I'm not allowed to touch the shingles.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Old school

My old buddy Gary sent me these. He's the tall dark fellow.

Guess which one is me? Click on the image to enlarge.

Just to remind myself that I was once as young as our first years.

Or almost.

Please note, the litter handling technique circa 1983. Hasn't changed much.