Sunday, March 30, 2014

New life, begins with "U"

Here are our first two as-yet nameless lambs of the year. Their names, when they get them, will begin with "U," since that's the alphabetical system we use. Last year was "T", and we got Tansy and Tango and wotnot. Aimee can remember the names. She chooses them or nearly all of them. I have to write them down or I forget them!

We'd been wondering when we'd get the first lambs. It's eminently predictable, of course: With almost all sheep breeds, you get lambs almost exactly five months after "tupping" -- when the ram services the ewe. Five months after sheep sex, in other words. The problem is, you have to observe the sheep sex act in person and note it down. This is not nearly as perverted as it sounds.

British sheep farmers, for whom lambing is the make-or-break farm profit time of the year, use elaborate systems of harness and crayon or paint to make sure they know as much as they possibly can. The ram either wears a harness with a tablet of waxy "crayon", or has his chest covered in a greasy kind of paint, and the farmer can see the marks on the backs of each ewe and know that she's been serviced. By taking notes of the dates and making counts of the number of painted ewes observed, the farmer can plan ahead.

We have no such need for precision. It's been five months nearly to the day. Having only a few animals to care for, we can observe each animal several times daily. The signs that an ewe is about to give birth are pretty obvious, off her feed, standing alone, circling, pawing the ground, lying down, grunting, and so on. Accordingly, when last night we observed poor old skinny Nellie looking uncomfortable and off by herself, when everyone else was tucking into a feed of hay, we separated her immediately and bundled her into one of the lambing pens.

I stumbled out rather groggily to check on Nellie at around 2.30 am or so, only to realize immediately we'd separated the wrong animal, and another ewe named Reggie had already given birth to at least one lamb. She's a sensible sort of ewe for a youngun' and this is her second year, so she'd chosen to give birth in the barn instead of the nasty, sleety, rain-on-snowbanks-with-added-ice-for-good-measure, typical nasty Maine spring weather, that we had going on outside. For which we are grateful. Chasing sheep with newborn lambs to catch 'em among crusty, rained-on, manure-smeared snowbanks is no great fun for man or beast.

By the time I'd gone back into the house to pull on coveralls and warmer clothes -- I'd gone out to make the night check in my big fleece coat and plastic Crocs, nothing more -- and wake Aimee and get both of us back out there to help Reggie out if need be, there was already a second lamb. I think she had given birth to both earlier and I just hadn't seen the second one at first because, well, I didn't even have me specs on!

Anyway, mother and lambs, one ewe-lamb and one ram-lamb, went into the maternity pens, and were given a heat lamp. Mom got a feed of hay and a little grain and a bucket of water. I checked for milk, and we watched to see if the lambs would feed.

But watching newborn lambs try to find the udder is like waiting for Christmas as a five year old -- sometimes it takes forever. Both were on their feet and warm, and mom wasn't rejecting them, so we went back to bed. They'd sort it eventually. Back out at six am for another check and both were doing great, warm and dry and still on their feet, so they must have fed.

And so, without very much fanfare at all, begins another lambing season on the Great Farm of Jackson, Maine, and the circle of life keeps turning.

We're more aware of this particular circle than usual because we both had poor news of ailing older relatives yesterday. One one hand we're watching out for new life, and on the other we're worried about old age, sickness and to be blunt, death, for people we love.

But that's life, which happens, sometimes wonderful like a warm, live, wet newborn lamb, sometimes sad and scary, sometimes on the same day in the same hour, and it's probably better for the human person to be closer to it than is the norm in our very silly modern world.

Which I suppose is why we farm.

Saturday, March 29, 2014


I'm not sure what reaction my students will have when they see this awesomely naff video of my old school in the 1960s (discovered by one of my old service buddies and posted today on FaceBook). Probably hysterical laughter. But, as the movie shows, it was a whole world unto itself.

In my partial defense, I will say that when I went through RAF Halton's aircraft engineering school, about fifteen years later in 1979, the coveralls were fireproof and slightly smarter, and the technology more modern. However, the instructors were just the same character types, crusty, bristly, bloody-minded corporals and sergeants, some of whom were actually left over from WWII, who thought nothing of taking a week's metalwork, rejecting it on some minor flaw, failing tolerance by 1/1000th of an inch, and making you start over. Some of them were probably the same instructors in this movie.

Interestingly, the cars and motorcycles we drove and rode were actually much worse by 1979, as was some (not all) of the popular music, although the newer aircraft types we trained on and later were responsible for were even more awesome. These classic British Lightnings and V-Bombers were cool and helped face down the Soviets in the 1960s, but the Harrier actually won a war -- the Falklands -- in 1983.

The RAF's unique paternalism was just the same, as was the attitude to sports and outdoor activities. I couldn't play rugby anymore by then -- I'd gotten too skinny for the front row, so I became a distance runner instead while at Halton. There were lots of British Asian kids there too, just as there are in this movie. We were also just as nerdy as some of the very young-looking recruits in this movie. The club facilities were probably a little shabbier by 1979, but I spent hours nightly, fixing up my motorcycles in the motorcycle club. Later I learned BW photography in a photography club at RAF Leeming. The glider field was still there, but had newer model gliders.

I never regretted for even a minute becoming an RAF engine fitter. The technical and engineering education I got there was second to none, and it's paid off in thousands of dollars of income and value over the years. I expect the character traits this former life helped me develop -- intellectual honesty, stubbornness, bloody mindedness, being totally unimpressed by spin, results-based, interested in real things and real results -- have been both good and bad for me, but mostly good.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Ram trouble

It was time to give all the sheep their tetanus booster shots. This annual chore needs to be done before lambing, to make sure their immunity is at its strongest before all the blood and trauma of parturition. Accordingly, once fresh vaccine arrived in the mail -- it comes very quickly, and in spiffy insulated mailer bags -- I got to work bringing all the ewes and ewe-lambs into the barn and confining them for easy capture.

The first part went well. First I lured the ram out of his stall with some grain and quickly boarded up his entrance, trapping him in his outside pen. I did this because I didn't want him to be close to the action when it began.

Then it was time for the ewes and lambs. After a winter of not being handled much, they were trusting and hungry for grain and went easily into the main pen to grab a few handfuls of sweet feed, scattered in couple of tubs on the floor. I simply opened the gate between the sheep's pen and the barn floor, dropped the feed on the ground, walked out of the front door, closing it behind me, and then quietly went around the back and in the back door. I was able to close the gate again, trapping them all neatly in the main part of the barn. From there they went easily into the second stall, where they had less room to run around and panic.

My mistake was not counting them at this point.

Aimee then showed up with the vaccine. She always handles the syringes, leaving my hands free to catch each sheep and wrestle them onto their backs. She then passes me the syringe and I quickly give the individual animal their shot, a subcutaneous injection in one or another of the four bald spots sheep have at the inside of the top of each leg, the sheep equivalent of the human armpit. It's all very smooth and practiced, and doesn't stress the animals out too much.

It was about the fifth or sixth animal into the chore. I'd just caught another sheep and flipped it on its back, and was moving legs and fleece apart looking for a good spot for the needle, when I was suddenly dumbfounded by the mysterious appearance of a set of testicles where an udder should have been!

My first thought was that we had somehow mis-sexed one of our ewe-lambs, and had instead accidentally kept a ram-lamb through the winter thinking it was a ewe. That thought soon passed as Aimee began laughing at my stupification. The animal I was holding was Shaun the ram. He must have jumped over his fence after being confined to his outside pen and joined the main herd in the barn. Aimee took a quick look outside and confirmed: no ram in the pen.

He needed the booster too, so he got it, and was then bundled unceremoniously back into his stall.

The rest of the job went well, and then it was time to find out how the ram had gotten out. It was simple enough. The snow being so deep this year, it had piled up next to the barn, reducing the effective height of the fence. It was only two feet tall at one point, not enough to hold him if he was even slightly motivated. He must have figured out that the rest of the sheep were getting extra grain and decided to join the party.

This was obviously not a situation that could be allowed to continue, and so I went looking for an extra bit of fence with which to increase the effective height of the outside pen. It was as I was fitting this that the real trouble started. Shaunie decided to start ramming me through the fence while I was working, and succeeded in bending the fence material, not that easy because it was quarter-inch "cattle panel" stuff, as well as knocking over the tool box, spilling all the screws and bits into the snow, and bruising my leg to boot.

My first reaction was to hit him in the head with the screwgun to prevent a second bruising. This didn't faze him much. He just looked vaguely upset, as if he didn't understand why I was reacting so violently to a little mild head-butting. He backed up for another charge.

The second reaction was more sensible, which was to jump the fence and tackle him before he could make that charge. Then I simply pulled him into the barn and pushed him into another stall and locked him in before going back to my fencing.

Once the fence was safely completed I threw some food in his bowl and opened the gate to the second stall, thinking he'd go easily back to his pen. Big mistake. Instead of going after the food, he went after the ewes, leaping the inside gate like a steeplechaser. After casing him around the snow filled paddock a couple of times and realizing there was no profit in that, I went for a rope, lured all the animals back in the barn with yet more sweet feed, caught Shaun with the rope, separated him, and then confined him back in his pen. This all sounds very easy, but it actually took about twenty more minutes of sheep rugby to achieve.

The whole business left me feeling not a little battered and with a new-found respect for the hurdling capabilities of a full-grown yet still youthful ram.

I was ready to make ram-burger out of him, but we need to keep him for most of the rest of this year. Not a minute longer than we need to, though. Given that we don't breed yearling ewe-lambs and switch out our rams every two years, there's an eleven-month period every three years when we are "between rams." The next such period begins this fall, once Shaunie-ram has done his work of impregnating all the ewes we have that he isn't directly related to.

I can't wait.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Look what a good few nights' sleep gets you

I've been sleeping very well this weekend. I think it's partly the fact that I managed to bring very little work home with me for our two-week Spring Break. I have two moderately big committee projects and about thirty pieces of grading, which in nothing very much in the grand scheme of things. Aimee has a few more things to do, but is also sleeping well.

It may also be because there's still a ton of snow on the ground and so the mud season chores around the farm have not yet begun. Once the snow is gone we'll have much more to do, raking up the winter's debris in the dooryard, turning the compost heap, repairing the greenhouses, both of which were damaged by heavy snow. Ant that's just the beginning. But all of that has to wait for now. The snow is still thick on the ground and the cold weather will mean it won't begin to melt quickly for a few more days. It will be spring soon enough, and then we shall have lambs coming and night checks and so much less sleep. But for now, we have a small season of blessed quiet.

Call it pre-mud season, or late winter. You'd think we'd have cabin fever, but actually what we have is a special and very welcome kind of calm. Aimee has the summer plants starting under lights, and I'm thinking of doing some spring cleaning, but neither of us is in a big hurry to start the headlong rush to harvest-time that comprises spring and summer on any small farm.

I have a list, of course, but it's minor stuff. Yesterday -- other than walking the dogs for a mile twice and cleaning house, which don't need to go on any list -- I cleaned up in the shed, fixed the bolt on the front door and set the tappets on the Land Rover. Big deal! I also took two hour-long naps on the couch.

So I've slept and slept, and so has Aimee. And with sleep has come dreams for both of us. Last night I dreamed that she and I were somehow assigned to host, of all people, Vladimir Putin for, of all things, a picnic! We were supposed to avoid making a diplomatic incident, so we weren't to let our feelings about him show. Imagine! The erstwhile tyrant was well-behaved and didn't invade any countries during the meal, at least as far as we could tell. And then I dreamed I was back at the Findhorn commune, only this time with students on a field trip, trapped in an endless food line in the old original kitchen at the caravan park. One of our Unity College colleagues, Dr. Eaton, was with us, but snuck away from the food line to study math in the University of St. Andrews library (which was somehow now located close to Forres, although in reality it's at the other end of the A9 highway).

These are, of course, old haunts I'm dreaming about. When I was on III Squadron and stationed at RAF Leuchars, I had a non-student membership of the university library, and used to check out books on geology and the human history and ecology of the British Isles and Scandinavia, two of my big interests back then, and still. And a year or so later, after demob, I used to cook vegetarian breakfast, lunch, and dinner every Thursday in the caravan park kitchen. I wasn't an official member of the commune, but the kitchen's permanent staff needed a day off each week, so they and I worked out a sweet deal whereby I would run the kitchen for one day each week, leading the volunteers the commune always had in large numbers, while the staff had a kind of prayer retreat in the morning, and a well-earned afternoon off.

I worked out a different work exchange for my accommodation at Minton House, and the upshot was, for three days work a week, I had my food and accommodation tax free and could do what I wanted with my other four days. With this copious spare time I ran a handyman business around the local community, fixing laundry machines and wotnot for pocket money, and volunteered several days each week for the Findhorn Foundation Youth Project, which seems to still be up and running after all these years. At least, it has a webpage.

I think dreams are sometimes the mind's way of subconsciously reflecting on old or new troubles and events that you haven't had time to reflect on more consciously. I left both Leuchars and Findhorn behind years ago, but I left both places in a hurry to get someplace else, deadlines imposed externally. But I deeply loved both the St. Andrews University Library and the Caravan Park kitchen, albeit in different ways. And I extracted life lessons from each. Perhaps I haven't quite finished with these lessons.

At least, that's just the sort of unscientific nonsense the New Agers at Findhorn would come up with! More likely, our minds just wander randomly while sleeping deeply.

I'm not sure what the Vladimir Putin stuff is about, though. Very unsettling, that!

Friday, March 14, 2014

The three-wheeled tractor

A pretty substantial snowstorm blew through Wednesday and much of Thursday, giving us another foot or so on the ground. It was tough to move, heavy stuff with some ice built-in. Then the wheel fell off the tractor!

I guess the cotter pin must have fallen out. I expect we'll find the pin in the spring. I jacked it up, refitted the wheel, and put a bolt in the hole with two lock nuts. Should hold her.

A hungry chickadee was pecking at our bedroom window, seemingly trying to get at a fly buzzing around on the inside. Might be time to check the feeder to make sure that we have sunflower seeds!

I expect I would need my snowshoes to reach that feeder.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Hundred Acre Hayfield, redux

There's a vast area, some four or five thousand acres, of second growth woodland behind our house. There are even small pockets of old, old trees that have never been logged, as well as the extensive wetland of the Great Farm Brook. 

A large portion of this wildland once belonged to the Great Farm that Israel Thorndike had cleared. One area that was allowed to grow back to woodland only in the last thirty years or so is the so-called Hundred-Acre Hayfield. This starts just beyond our back fence and continues for a half mile or so east and about a third of a mile south. You can tell where the hayfield was because most of the trees are, or were, young ash under ten inches diameter. Elsewhere the trees are older and more established.

No longer, because the young fellow that now owns it has had it logged clear, or almost so. The ash trees are now in a giant pile waiting to be chipped by Sappi Paper Co.

This is, to say the least, a scene of some considerable devastation. The idea is to make a livestock farm, and I suppose that with effort a decent crop of fodder will eventually grow where the trees were. But it will be many years before the stumps rot and allow machinery to be used, and until then there will be a lot of weeds and less than optimal forage.

Here's the giant forwarder moving the cut trees in bundles to the yard.

Here's the log yard, where a chipper will stand in a few days time and reduce all these trees to chips.

Here's the new access road that was put in.A house will be built here this spring.

This is a relatively new development in Maine agriculture. It's been a century and a half or more since farmers cleared land in Maine. Farming declined after the Civil War around here, as the people moved west to warmer climes with better soils, and land was cheaply available for decades for those few youngsters who did want to try their hands. Now that the nearby coast has become such a tourist and second-home magnet, old farmsteads are too expensive, but timber land is not, and the equipment now exists to remove an entire forest in a few days.

This particular young farmer wants to grow organic beef. I'm not sure the founders of the organic movement had this kind of approach in mind. And it will take a lifetime of organic beef-raising to offset the climate emissions caused by the removal of the forest. That was a fast-growing second-growth New England forest, the kind that sequesters most carbon of all.

This is one of those cases where the desire to own a farm over-rode other principles. As someone who dreamed of a farm for many years, I'm sympathetic. But it will take a mighty act of denial to go through with this. I feel sorry for this kid that he can't afford to buy one of the established old farms that are for sale around here, but that would have probably cost three or four times what he paid for this forestland, and there would have been no income from logging to tide him over until other income arrived.  But I don't think an enterprise based on so large an act of denial can succeed in the long run.

Removing large areas of active climate-sequestering forest to make an organic farm probably shouldn't be allowed by organic certification standards. Organic certification, based primarily on not using artificial chemicals,  means very little if other kinds of environmental damage are not taken into account. I've talked it over with some of the staffers of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardener's Association, of which we've long been members, but they say that with the USDA now issuing organic standards, some of the authority is out of their hands. The beef raised here can be marketed as organic and customers need be none the wiser, at least until the authorities wise up, or a more comprehensive climate bill is passed. In Europe, the landowner would have been better compensated for the climate sequestration value of the forest, but not yet in Maine.

Aimee is of course, the Steward of the Great Farm Brook Preserve. Although the preserve is fine, the trail that goes from our house to the preserve is over part of this cut-over land, and the right-of-way is now covered in chips and cut brush, with machinery blocking the way. The snowmobiles have taken an unauthorized detour to the north, over a different owner's land. We don't know whether or not we'll be able to resume the public access that used to exist.

All in all, a major countryside disaster at the Great Farm. Very sad.