Monday, April 28, 2014

Sheep and vehicles

 Because that's all I've been doing lately, apart from work.

Uma is the oldest lamb, and a big strong girl. She'd win prizes if she was a purebred Romney or Corriedale. As it is, she's a likely keeper. We like them big and strong around here. None of your girly girls.

The sheep get outdoor hay, but the last batch we bought was not so great, so they waste a lot of stemmy stuff. We plan to make a lot of compost this year. Normally a pile this big would be a half-day job for the little Kubota tractor, but I have a secret plan: Our buddy Tim has to come by with his John Deere to put in the septic extension that was a condition of our plumbing permit, so we'll pay him a little extra to scrape up all the waste hay and make some nice compost piles.

Quinnie's two black lambs are also growing like weeds. The black ones don't show the dirt as much I say, just like cars and trucks.

Requiem for the old Nissan. Poor old truck. But the engine was still going strong. The wrecker driver was surprised to find that it would start. 

That old flatbed served us well, but only extended the truck's life for four more years after the bed rusted out. The new one has rust in all the same places, but not nearly as bad, and now I've discovered Fluid Film, it doesn't worry me.

Here is the new truck after a work-over yesterday and the day before. I cut off the rusted bumper and ordered a new one, as well as a tailgate latch, removed and de-rusted the trailer hitch and re-fitted it with new galvanized bolts, removed the rear wheels and checked the brake pads and drums, fixed a muffler leak, fitted a battery hold-down, did an oil change, drilled out some broken bolts in the sump cover and fitted new, self-tapping ones. Now all it needs to pass inspection are tires and the new bumper. Pretty good truck for $5,000, I'd say, and certainly a useful one, being a four-door extended cab as well as having a cap, and a solid, heavy duty hitch for towing a trailer.

And here's Aimee's "new" 2009 Matrix, which doesn't need any work and can't have any as it's still under warranty. I don't want to void the only warranty I've ever had! But once we get to 3,000 miles or three months, whichever comes first, it's getting new brake pads all around.

If I know Aimee she'll burn through 3,000 miles in way less than three months.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Shade tree update: Too much stuff going on!

I haven''t been able to post much in the last month or so because, well, dear readers, there's just been so many things happening, there hasn't been time for me to tell you about them.

Much of the business stemmed from the fact that my sister managed to sell our mother's retirement bungalow in the Glamorgan valleys for a good price, after two years languishing on a low UK house market. (Well done, sis!) That meant that I received a modest inheritance. I'd planned to pay off the farm with it, but the recent low interest rates made that unnecessary. We refinanced last year with PenFed (one benefit of being a veteran), now have a very cheap mortgage, and don't owe very much compared to the value of our property.

Which all meant, once I'd paid off some credit cards and put much of the rest in retirement, I had a lot of vehicle work to get done.

There has been an awful lot of vehicle maintenance put on hold for want of time and money these last few years, and indeed, for want of vehicles that had any useful life left in them worth the investment. It was well past time to put this situation to rights.

This is a long story, and has been a major theme of this blog over the years. Aimee and I never have compatible work schedules, and there isn't any kind of public transportation or car pool facility available to us, so we both need our own vehicles to get to work. Aimee gets a reliable car, which in recent years was our lucky Camry. For many years now I've managed to get by using a series of end-of-life junkers, first a succession of Saabs, then the Mazda, and eventually the old Ford Escort wagon.

There's also a need for four-wheel drive vehicles in winter, and for vehicles to do farm work. Our venerable 1971 Land Rover is my winter truck, does a lot of the farm work around here, and will last the rest of my life if I take care of it. But Aimee also needs a winter vehicle, which for as long as we can both remember has been her old Nissan Frontier pick-em up truck. She also needs a vehicle for her summer field work in marine biology.

These are well-documented vehicles. The Nissan Mazda, Camry and Escort are all mentioned in numerous posts on these blog pages. The Land Rover has both blog pages and even a FaceBook page, showing the original restoration work. The most relevant to today's post, however is this one here, where I explain why the Ford needs to go to that great junkyard in the sky.

In all this long saga of beat-up old jalopies, there's one theme: How to get the maximum useful life out of a vehicle with the minimum payment. That's mostly my job, for which I have a significant array of proper tools, a small shop, and big dooryard with the appropriate shade trees for a traditional "shade tree" mechanic.

We've done quite well. The Mazda gave us over 60,000 miles for about $2,000 total, the Ford has managed about the same. The Camry has given us 50,000 for around $5,000 total, but is still going strong and has lots of useful life left in it. The Nissan, which was new when Aimee got it in 1999 while a graduate student at UMass Dartmouth, ran on and on, and gave us 212,000 miles in the end, until I foolishly burned up the transmission.

The plan was, once mother's house had sold, for Aimee to get a new car, as well as a replacement transmission in the Nissan, while I would take the Camry. The first part of this was achieved the first week in April, when we secured a "new" 2009 Toyota Matrix for Aimee. This is likely to be a reliable and cost-effective vehicle for her, and because we got it from a dealer, it even comes with a three-month warranty, the first car or truck I've ever owned that had such a thing. The mileage is especially good, at what seems around 35-40 mpg. We looked at a Prius, but were put off by the low ground clearance, as well as the high cost. The Prius mileage was only touted at 45 mpg, so the Matrix was a better deal. It also has side air bags, stability control, and ABS, all needed because Aimee isn't the world's best driver in the snow.

My experience with Toyotas, having now owned three, is that they have superior rust protection and are easier to work on because of sensible layout

Once the Matrix was in hand, I started driving the Camry. We traded the Ford Escort for a couple days of sheep-sitting from a young person with a little sheep experience. They needed a car, and the Ford can probably serve, if it passes state inspection. If not, the price of scrap is high enough these days that they can sell it and use the money for a different car. They will pick it up tomorrow.

All the cars taken care of or in hand, I then turned my attention to trucks and particularly the Nissan's transmission. With some reluctance I stripped away the old wooden flatbed decking, the result of previous efforts to keep this truck going. My intent was to clean up the frame and replace the decking at the same time as I did the transmission.

But once the decking was stripped away and I got a good look at the frame I realized there would be no new transmission for the Nissan. The frame work I'd done four and five years ago, in 2009 and 2011, had managed to last alright, but there was new rust in different places, while the cab was also rusted out at the rockers. I realized that a new transmission was not going to be such a good investment. I sold the truck for scrap, then looked for a replacement.

Both Aimee and I were a little sad the day the wrecker came. We've had this truck for a long time, and gotten a lot of useful service out of it, but all good trucks come to an end (unless they are Land Rovers).

The knowledge that the frame was gone should have made me feel better about burning up the transmission, but didn't. I hate to waste money, especially with stupid mistakes like that.

But still, I had to bite the bullet and get a new truck, so I started reading the classified and driving around to look at what was on the market.

In the end I got us another four-wheel drive Frontier, just slightly newer, a 2002. I picked it up at a wholesale lot in Bangor for five grand, plus taxes. It needs work, and I have it on jack stands in the dooryard right now, while I go through it, but it came with a cap, a tow hitch, and an extended cab, so it seats five. It has 144,000 miles already, so we know we won't get that many more miles out of it, but it only needs to do a few thousand miles a year. Most of Aimee's miles will go on the Matrix. The new truck's rear frame is rusty, and the bumper rusted out, but it's still better than the old one was when I worked on the frame all those years ago, so If I catch it now with rust converter and the wire wheel on the grinder, spray the heck out of it with undercoat, and use Fluid Film every winter, it should last for at least five years.

Fluid Film is a godsend. I should buy stock. Until I discovered this stuff, all my cars rusted out no matter what I did. It's the only thing that makes sense out of driving in a New England winter, with all the road salt used around here. Even the Land Rover would corrode if it wasn't for Fluid Film.

Plus, it's made from sheep's lanolin. What could be better?

If I get time later today, I'll take some pictures of the new vehicles to add to this post. But yes, I've had my work cut out for me recently. All this and lambing season too. (We now have six, but more are coming.)

Mother would be happy enough, though, with what I've managed to do with all her hard work and savings. In particular, as many Great Farm Diary readers know, Aimee's now expecting. I should think my mum would want her first and only grandchild to be driven in safe vehicles. I should think she'd also be glad to know how much she's helped our family financially. She was a very practical woman when it came to houses and money.

I put a lot of this in my eulogy for her, but it took a while to come true.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Peaceable kingdom

Where the lamb lays down with the sheep, if not a lion.

All quiet on the sheep front. But where are the other lambs? Too late for Easter lambs, that's for sure.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Two black ones

Clever girl Quinnie finally gave birth to two beautiful black lambs late Sunday night.

Ordinarily this would have made for a lousy Monday for me -- a thirteen-hour workday after all that lost sleep! But as it happened Aimee did all the lamb-watching this time.

But that means I haven't had time or daylight to take pictures.

Late this afternoon I'll be able to get out there and take some.

Sunday, April 13, 2014


We keep looking at our two sheep-mountains, ewes Quinn and Quetzal, as they waddle around, wondering when they'll pop. They are so huge! But nothing ever seems to happen. Night checks are tiring, and so I try to fit in a nap during the day, but that's impossible on Mondays and Wednesdays when I have a late class. Hopefully they and the other three smaller pregnant ewes decide to give birth soon. I need more rest!

In other news, Aimee now has the long-planned "new" car, a Toyota Matrix with just under 60,000 miles, in very good shape. This, the culmination of about three weeks of car shopping that began in earnest during our spring break. That means I'm driving the Camry now, while the Ford, whose rust has become almost terminal, is up for sale.

Accordingly a couple weeks ago I listed it on Maine Craigslist. I wanted at least $600, and so turned down a couple of offers of $500. Then I clumsily missed a gear one day while making a left turn and caught the unmistakable whiff of clutch burning. At 167,000 miles without ever having had a clutch job, this car is well overdue. And no-one in their right mind would put a clutch in a car whose body was so rusty.

At about the same time a young person with some sheep farming experience called about the ad, and so one thing led to another. The Ford had to be discounted, on the grounds that I couldn't sell anyone a "lemon" without full disclosure and a price reduction, while we needed farm help with watching pregnant ewes and lambs on Mondays. In a series of email exchanges, we agreed to discount the price of the Ford to a couple of day's of sheep watching, throwing in a promise of mechanical help with the sticker.

Since the car can probably pass the Maine State inspection after a couple of small jobs are done, and if not, has about $150 scrap value, this seemed like a fair deal.

Since then a neighbor dog appeared and sniffed around the perimeter fence before being chased off, so we are even more concerned to have the coverage.

Three more full work weeks and a few days of grading are all that is left before our three-month summer vacation. Already the list of projects is growing. I plan to finish my ongoing trailer project (of which pictures will come later), switch out the failed transmission in the Nissan truck, complete the insulation project on the main house, hang T-111 siding over the new insulation and the extension and finish it with UV-proof wood finish, build a deck, grow our usual massive vegetable garden, and on and on.

This weekend so far has been pleasant, and I've made a start with the trailer. But it's inevitable that we're in wait mode for so many such projects, as well as for the ewes to give birth.

What was it that Dr. Seuss said about the "waiting place?"
“For people just waiting. Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or a No or waiting for their hair to grow.”
Unfortunately, with sheep and summer breaks, waiting is inevitable.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Sheep soaps: Two more, and a fight develops

Aimee found my favorite ewe Nellie in labor before going to work around 10.15 am, Thursday, and called me on the cell phone to tell me. I was already at work. I came home as soon as I could and gave an "assist" on the first of two big lambs that Nellie birthed. The second popped out more naturally around noon.

Nellie is one of our better mothers and thankfully there was no sign of white muscle disease, so I was back to work in time for my one o'clock meeting. I tried to put mom and babies out in the sun later that afternoon, but that didn't work out, the babies being far too shaky in their legs still. They went out as soon as the morning feeding was done Friday.

Then ensued the beginning of a long-run ewe-war between Nellie and Reggie, the youngster that lost a ram-lamb to white muscle Monday.

Weird sheep stuff. It's as if Reggie is looking around for her lost lamb, and her eye fixes on Nellie's ram-lamb. Either she goes to him or he comes to her, but as soon as she sniffs him, she gets horribly angry, quite mad really, and pushes him away and rams him repeatedly, bowling him over or squashing him up against hard objects. Sometimes she picks on the sister too. If Reggie can trap this poor mite or his sister in a corner or against a tree, she'll kill one or both of them, it's that bad.

It doesn't help that little Uma, Reggie's survivor, wants to sniff at and play with her new cousins.

Nellie, a placid ewe who likes nothing more than to be petted and fed crusts of bread, has been slow to respond and only slowly has learned that she has to defend her babies. And when she did begin to respond and ram back, she still didn't give Reggie a good enough hiding to deter her. I had to separate them two or three times already.

But by bedtime the two combatants had staked out separate corners of the main pen and were in a stable stand-off, Reggie in one corner with her lamb under one heat lamp, and Nellie in the other. The lambs are stuffed in the corners and the ewes are outside in defensive posture, circling the wagons.

They say sheep know a hundred different ways to die, but I didn't think one of them was being rammed to death by your own auntie.

I'm glad none of my aunties were ever this mean!

With a plot like this, we could write soap opera for sheep.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

"Unlikely Uma"

Here's Uma, the survivor of the two lambs born with white muscle disease Saturday, getting to explore the wide world outside the lambing pen for the first time, the injection of Bo-Se having taken hold, or apparently so.

It's sunny, but still cold, and the other ewes may try to steal her -- something ewes sometimes do -- so we will have to keep watching her like a hawk. far, so good.

Aimee and I are working shifts, watching the lamb.

That's a lot of attention so far for this little tiny scrap of life.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Poor stiff lamb

I've been trying to blame something or someone other than myself for a few hours now, but can't quite manage it. I killed a young lamb yesterday.

How? By not being there when I was needed.

This is the problem with part-time farming: You have to have a day job. And while mine affords me far more flexibility than most would, there are still those horribly frustrating days when my time is unavoidably tied up with work requirements.

This particular yesterday, Monday 31st March, was my first day back at work after two week's off. I was responsible for class from 10am through 2.20 pm and then again at 6pm through 7.15 pm. I had to prepare materials for the 10am class, so I did all my chores as usual by around 7am, took a shower, put on clean clothes and headed for work around 7.30am.

I noticed just before I left that one of the two lambs was shivering a little under the heat lamp, but thought little of it at the time. It was cold and the lamb had been doing fine so far.

But if I'd thought about it, I would have remembered that this particular ewe didn't do such a great job of mothering last year. It probably would also have entered my consciousness that her two lambs this year were sorta quiet, for lambs, and not exactly jumping around. Lambs usually begin to bleat when they get hungry soon after birth, and they also begin to move around a bit more the second or third day after birth. These ones were born Saturday night, had only bleated a few times that we heard, and had spent most of their time lying down.

They were feeding though, or seemed to be, and they had a heat lamp, so we thought they'd be fine.

As soon as I could after the 10am-2.20pm class ended, I drove home. I was anxious, but not for the lambs already born. I was primarily worried that I'd missed another birth, and that some tiny mite was struggling for life because its mother had given birth over a snowbank in the rain. That stuff happens, and is why we always delay lambing until late March or early April, when the Maine weather can usually be relied upon to provide at least some warm sunshine.

But, of course, only a fool relies upon Maine weather for anything. It is always intrinsically unreliable. We had ice, sleet, rain and strong cold winds yesterday. Neither were the bad spring roads particularly helpful. Even in the Land Rover I could only manage 25-30mph on the back roads. But the teaching schedule schedule that tied me up from 8am to 2.20 pm was what really did it. Even then, it was under my control, or at least partly under my control. I probably should have cut class early and driven home during my lunch break.

If I'd stretched lunch to an hour instead of half and hour, I might have found the poor cold lamb before he died of hypothermia and popped him under the wood stove and given him a tube-feeding or a bottle.

Most likely he'd been trying to feed, but his mother was balky and wouldn't let him get enough milk, so he lay down under the heat lamp and slowly got colder and colder and died.

As it was, I didn't, and it was my fault. Not the ewe, who is stupid, but not any more stupid than most ewes, not the weather, not the roads, not even the schedule. I could have and should have put two and two together, and figured this might happen, but instead I was preoccupied, too busy-minded with work and other things to see and hear what was right under my eyes.

We're not going to make that mistake again this lambing season. The survivor has been checked four times tonight already. The mother remains balky and the lamb is still not filling out, but is at least warm, eating when she can, and has the suckle reflex. If the weather warms up, she'll get stronger. The weather is supposed to warm up after today. I have to go teach again today, but will come straight home after class. I can work from home, on grading and correspondence and committee work, and go check on the surviving lamb every hour or so.

Next year, if I get a teaching schedule like this one on Monday or any other day of the week, we'll hire a student to come by and check the lambs.

Which is what I need to be doing right now, too. Off to the barn again. Fifth time tonight.

PS: When I checked, I noticed two things, lots of lamb-poop, and a lamb that kept trying to poop, and even when she wasn't pooping, was hunched over.

Then the penny finally dropped: White muscle disease. The lamb very quickly was given a 1 cc Bo-Se injection. I expect before the day is out she'll be much better.

This is a problem endemic to Maine. The hay around here is selenium-deficient, so we give a small ration of expensive bagged feed to the ewes, as well as cheaper, and generally healthier oats for energy and protein. You should give too much bagged feed, or you get fat ewes that struggle to give birth, but we give enough to offset the low selenium in the hay. We also give free-access minerals in the form of a mineral block.

But that doesn't mean to say the ewe will eat enough of the bagged feed, or lick enough of the block, or pass enough selenium on to the lamb, especially if the ewe is balky and the lamb not getting enough milk.

We'll have to check with the supplier to make sure that they haven't changed the formula. The mineral lick may need to be put somewhere more obvious. Right now it's probably under some bedding. And we can give the newborns some vitamin paste after they are a day or so old.

It would also help if the wind would die down and the sun come out.