Friday, February 28, 2014

"Cowmunes" and the difference between a small farm and an industrialized one

Perspective is everything. Growing up it didn’t seem weird to me that we left our cows alone and only medicated them if they were sick or injured. I didn’t realize that on other farms people would feed them things other than hay, grass, and trace minerals. Okay, and sweet feed to the bull that one time when I was eight and my mom had a heart attack because I was petting him and hand feeding him his “treat”  and I never did it again because she yelled so much. Of course, that was also the year that I learned I shouldn’t share my bologna sandwich and sugar cookies with my horse, despite her love of them. But that is a whole other story. Growing up our cattle operation went something like: check them, count them, and leave them be until round up day.

Apparently that is progressive. I’ve been reading a lot about the benefits of grass fed beef. Not only is it more nutritionally sound than what you would buy at the store, but it also is better for the cows. Go figure. That’s the way we have been doing it my entire life.
We joke amongst ourselves that we have a “cowmune.” The momma’s share calves. Any calf can walk up to any cow with milk and nurse at their pleasure. Heifers “babysit” groups of five or seven little ones while the mothers go for a swim in the lake. I have to walk up and poke the cows to get them to move out of my way when I am bringing them their round bales. The old gals live out their lives surrounded by generations of their daughters and sisters. Most of them have never been vaccinated, eaten anything other than a grass derivative, or required medical treatment. They wander at their will through woods and fields munching on whatever tidbit that takes their fancy. They come to the barn and moo their displeasure with the grass hay until dad or I go up in the barn loft to throw them a few bales of alfalfa hay, or let them in the yard so that they can munch on the grass on the other side of the fence.

Seriously, if cows could play drums, there would be a circle going. Someone would have found their spirit guide by now.

Even our two bulls don’t fight much. Instead they bellow back and forth like two little old men discussing the news over their coffee cups. Give them some tie dye, because this is not what a “farm” is supposed to look like.
At least not the industrialized monsters that raise most of the cows that wind up on super market shelves. Line those babies up and run them through a squeeze chute because when you are being finished in a feed lot you’re going to get sick without a bunch of vaccines and antibiotics. Preventative medicine is where it is at when you are cramming everyone on top of each other. I get that. Cows eating candy instead of grass? (If you don’t believe me check out this article on CNN. This practice has been happening for awhile. I have even heard of them being fed leftover tacos!) That I have a harder time with, but I guess even the big time farmers have to have their margins so that they can eat too. Right? Where is the balance between doing what is right for your animals and land, and making a profit? Land prices are outrageous, and the taxes on them aren’t cheap. Even with the subsidies that the new farm bill gives to large scale farmers. It lays out plenty of hoops that are expensive to jump through too.

That’s one of the reasons why grass fed is so much higher in the grocery store. Not only are grass fed animals slower growing, usually, you are paying more to help a small scale farmer survive without selling out to one of the big boys. After reading about everything that happens to cows in industrialized feed lots I started looking into grass fed operations where we could sell our cows. I found that all of the local operations operate on less than 500 acres. Which is pretty freaking cool. Small scale farms are slowly disappearing from the United States, and with them the other “cowmunes” of the world. I love our hippie cows. I’m pretty psyched about doing my part to help them survive. Are you?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The sucky part.

When I got home last night I found Pearl down on a hillside. Her hind legs were straddling the lowest of the boards on our white vinyl fence. Fear gripped my heart, causing my stomach to drop lower than my knees.

It immediately took me back to when my baby boy, Mac the Tennessee walking horse, used to lay down and be unable to stand up again on his own. He had that problem for years and I got to be quite proficient at flipping him over and bracing him so that he could get up again.
I did my best to soothe Pearl, and her blind best friend Cabernet, as I slid the boards out and tried to use the skills Mac taught me to roll her over. I struggled against her weight and gravity unsuccessfully. Hoping against hope that she was just laying down and not getting ready to transition to the next stage of life. At her age transitioning was likely, but this was the horse that snuck out to try and graze while I was moving her hay on Saturday. Spry and persnickety are her hallmarks. I called my parents to come home and help me, and then I got to work praying and trying to get her up on her sternum.

Pearl was whickering and flailing her legs. Cabernet was calmer than I have seen her in years. She is normally a basket case any time her "seeing eye horse" is more than three inches away from her nose. Mom and dad arrived within seconds of each other and we rolled Pearl over and tried and tried to help her stand several times. Dad volunteered to go get the sling and the tractor. Mom backed up and surveyed the situation. "Guys, she isn't trying to get up. That isn't what her legs are doing. She's dying." About that time her breath went arrhythmic and her neck arched back in the way that only means one thing. She had passed.

I went up to the large pasture, praying aloud that one of the horses there would step up to the plate and be a friend for Cabernet since Pearl had passed. Luna was the first horse up to me, and I buried my hands in her coat whispering to her how sorry I was that her momma had gone on while I petted her fuzzy yellow hair. Her half sister, Pissante, came up about three feet away from Luna's head and neighed a neigh I have never heard before directly at her. It was odd. I know the sounds for calling distant herd members, or weaning, or for food, or fear, or anger; but never anything like this. This whole thing was made even stranger by the fact that Luna and Pissante are quite frankly the two hardest horses to catch and work with that we have in that pasture. Luna is known to jump 5' tall cattle panels to get away from me rather than be touched, and Pissante, well let's just say she earns her name. But not right now.

I brought another mare, Zippy, down from the large pasture hoping that she would buddy up with Cabernet. She is one of the lowest horses on the totem pole out there, and I hope that means she is timid. All of the other horses I have tried over the last few months have been very mean to Cab: biting, chasing, and kicking. When I introduced them to each other Zip turned her ears back, which means that she wasn't too happy being sniffed all over by a stranger, but she didn't pin them down or try to hurt Cabby with tooth or nail. I'm taking it as a good sign. As Truly and Grin both went into kicking fits.

However, as soon as I turned Zippy loose Cabernet went to stand next to Pearl, who was awaiting my dad's removal expertise. Cab raised her top lip, scenting for her best friend, and then lowered her nose to the body. Slowly and methodically she started licking and nipping at Pearl the way she did with her foals when she was trying to encourage them to stand. I watched her as she groomed her friend methodically, stopping every so often to nuzzle for a few moments before returning to her licking.

Tears were streaming down my cheeks by the time I had to turn away. I think that horse is capable of more love and grief than I am. My heart breaks for her.
Whoever says that animals aren't capable of emotions should witness what I did. I have seen cows line up for funeral processions, and mares mourn for their foals, but never have I seen anything so heartbreaking as Cabernet licking and loving, and trying to get her friend to stand up.

This is the part of life on a farm that I hate. Frankly, death, even when it isn't tragic, sucks.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Bad, bad, Biscuit.

I have a wonderful homemade biscuit recipe that I adapted from Suzanne McMinn over at Chickens in the Road (The lady is my heroine, seriously, check her out). I make these biscuits for Captain America fairly frequently. He can't get enough of them. They're damn good biscuits.

So, I made them for him Sunday morning before we headed downstairs to work on his basement remodel project. About an hour later there was a very loud THUNK! We looked at each other and nodded briefly. It was like in the movies. That one glance and slight chin tilt held more meaning
than an hour of conversation. I dropped the broom I was holding and made a mad dash for the stairs. I leapt up them two at a time and almost spun out on the laminate floor as I slid towards the kitchen.

There he was, CA's massive black and tan coon hound, Sampson; standing amidst a pile of still warm golden biscuit goodness.

I did what any sane person would do. I ran at him, screaming for him to back away from the biscuits. Believe it or not, he didn't listen and continued to nose around trying to remove the rest of towel that I had covered them with. I made it to him and started trying to drag him away from the pan before all of the biscuits were ruined by his doggie drool to no avail. He wasn't even sorry, or scared, or really wanting to move at all.

I picked up a biscuit that had rolled across the kitchen and threw it at him. It exploded in a golden shower of crumbs that spread all over the floor. The bits of yellow and white made a fine
counterpoint to the golden oak finish. I picked up another handful of bread heaven and started shoving it in his face. In my head it was like rubbing a puppy's nose in the mess he made.

Unfortunately, rubbing biscuit crumbs all over his face did not seem to punish him much. He
still was not apologetic or ready to flee the crazy biscuit flinging lady. So I reached around him, resorting to dragging him away from the pan manually. He is not a little dog, and while he was being removed from his prize he growled and snapped at me.

Growing up in a dog sanctuary, and watching a lot of The Dog Whisperer has taught me that there is one thing to do when a dog begins to be aggressive towards you. Roll them on their back and show them who is the alpha of the pack. I am always reminded of Cartman from Southpark, you WILL respect my authority!

Anyway, so CA comes upstairs to find a biscuit pan on the floor, the kitchen COVERED in crumbs (imagine a biscuit bomb going off mid air. . . it was even in the shelving), and me sprawled out on top of the dog holding him on his back with one arm and rubbing his stomach with the other; muttering something about him being a "bad, bad Biscuit" all the while. Sampson was staring at me like I had lost my mind. He looked up at CA and whined something that I have to interpret as: "Save me daddy! I was just eating some good food I found, when this crazy lady came up and attacked me! I didn't do anything wrong. She came out of nowhere!"

What did CA do? He laughed his butt off. That's what. Great co-parent he is going to be!

Now every time that dog is bad we call him Biscuit. I'm not sure he was smart enough to know what his name was in the first place. That poor thing is going to have a complex.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The difference between want and need...

I hear lots of my friends talking about wants and needs when we are out and about. I struggle with them too. Do I want or need those new boots? That purse? That replacement bale ring for the cows? Then there are the wants and needs that aren't material: more free time, more rewarding experiences, vacations, weekends with friends, or exercising. I'll give you a hint. That last one is probably a need, but I really don't want to!

A lot of times the difference between want and need is painfully apparent when you live on a farm. Fortunately, this week began with them coinciding quite nicely. I wanted to be outside because it was sunshine-y and almost sixty degrees. I needed to move hay. I needed to fix the fence because the cows can easily get on the highway and die tragic bovine deaths.
But there are obviously times when the opposite is true and my wants and my needs are opposed. Like when it is -20 and I need to move hay. Or I want to leave for a vacation, but things will starve to death. Then there are times when my wants turn into needs.
For years I have wanted to clean up the old barn that stands on my parents’ property. It is a thing of beauty – all hand hewn oak beams and hand cut stone quarried from the property is stands on. Though it is home to six stalls and a great amount of space we really only use it for the hayloft and storing a few wagons. The space has been underutilized my entire life, but especially in the last five years since we started feeding the cats in the newer horse barn. The old barn has not received much TLC. We don’t really go in there unless we have to throw hay to the cows.
My grandfather recently passed away, and I am staring some massive barn and house renovations in the face starting around September; so, I have felt a huge push to try and get all of the little things off my to do list at mom and dad’s farm. Some of those things require more than one set of hands. Yeah. I’m talking about you Mr. Corner fence post that is washing away and needs to be fixed before taking the whole fence row down. We are gonna tango mister. Mark my words! Or are made easier with multiple sets of hands like trimming the fence line or replacing white boards in the danged vinyl fence. But one of them that didn’t need many sets of hands was cleaning up some of the trash in the old barn.
I mentioned that we used to feed cats in there. I have a confession. I’m lazy, and rather than cutting the weight circles off the bags (you can turn them in for rewards with Purina) I just threw them behind a partition. Out of sight, out of mind. I am really hating myself for that one. I have spent maybe two hours cutting off weight circles so far, and I am not even close to being done with that project. In the course of this though I have found that my desire to clean the barn might not be a want so much as a need.
When I took Captain America in there to show off my progress three weeks ago we heard the sound of running water coming from the barn basement. Yup. We had a pipe burst right outside the basement wall. The good Captain got right to work and dug a trench that appeared to go halfway to China before I could so much as blink. He and my dad fixed it, and it was all good. Well, if anything like that can actually be good. However, I had this thought in the back of my mind saying,  “How long would it have leaked if I hadn’t started cleaning in there? If I hadn’t wanted to show it off it could have run for months without anyone noticing.”
Then it got cold again, and it wasn’t until yesterday that I snuck away from my desk job and out to fix some fence. I got done in the daylight and decided to let the chickens loose for awhile. I won’t leave them out of earshot anymore since the Great Defeathering Incident of 2013 so I went back into the barn to clean up more feed sacks. I opened one of the stall doors to try and shine a little light on my project and started rocking out on my iPod and cutting out weight circles like a boss. I don’t know what drew my attention to it, but after awhile I looked up and noticed that one of the support beams, one of the support beams that is under the hayloft mind you, was sagging. The oak beams it was sitting on have splintered and rotted into almost nothing.  
Suddenly cleaning the barn is not a WANT, it is an EMERGENCY. AGH! So much for wanting to go to Captain America’s house this weekend.