A day in the life of a wannabe farmer

Recently, leaving the city for a more “sustainable” life on a hobby farm seems to be all the rage. Now, I love our life out here, but I thought I’d provide a little snapshot of life with animals. Both for those considering making the jump and for those who are more the armchair dreamer type. Because it is not for the faint of heart. Animals, like children, almost never behave according to plan.

Candy, not where she belongs

A system that works for months will suddenly break down at the most inopportune moment. And so this particular snap shot begins as I’m driving my children to town for tumbling/dance camp. An event they have been out of their minds excited about for weeks.

And I don’t see the cow in the pasture. Or the little bull calf that is her constant shadow.

Now, there are plenty of places in the pasture she could be and I wouldn’t see her. The grass is just tall enough, she could even be out in the open and I might miss her just driving by, especially considering how high above the road our pasture is. This doubt of my own observations sustains me all the way to town, but there is no way that lingering question mark is going to leave me alone. So I instruct the girls what to do if I’m not back when I’m supposed to be and head home.

And as I pull in the drive, Candy pokes her head out of the pig barn to say hello. Not catastrophic. She is technically still in the pasture, just not the section she belongs in. So I get a bucket with a little bit of grain and open the gate to let them out of the barn and the pasture gate to let them in with the sheep.

They aren’t interested in the grain bucket. Not one little bit. They run to the big barn and make themselves cozey in the corner. Which really wouldn’t be that big of a deal either, but this section is overgrazed and I really just need them to go take their morning snooze in the shade provided in the outer pasture where they belong.

So I shake the bucket which alerts the sheep who come running. The ram unnerves me. He’s never done anything, but I don’t know what’s going through his head when he looks at me. He stands too close, rests his head against the side of my leg and . . . thinks. I’m not sure if he’s planning on killing me for the bucket or claiming me as one of his ewes or if he’s just a nice ram that isn’t at all like the ones I’ve read about and I really should put more trust in his history of never doing anything than all I’ve read about how dangerous a ram with no fear of humans can be. After all, he only acts this way when I’m holding a bucket.

I finally give up on enticing the cattle out of the barn and lock the door, hoping to keep them in until they’re hungry enough to follow me back to where they belong. And I dump the grain on the ground to be rid of my uncomfortably friendly ram who doesn’t pay me any more attention.

Except now I notice that while I had closed the gates behind me, I had failed to tie the gate to the pig barn shut. This isn’t a quick task. It involves lacing baling wire through the gate and around a post because the gate is really just a collectiong of things we found in the barn and tied to an old metal gate to keep the animals from getting out. I think I had more hoped the gilts would just not realize that all they needed to do was push to get out.

That’s actually Mr. Freckles, but you don’t stop to take pictures when your pigs escape!

Normally, this wouldn’t be that big of a deal to have happen right there where I can see. Miss Tumble (the one who got out) is a friendly gilt and more than happy to go where I direct her, with or without a bucket. Except that this particular exit to the barn leads to the little “porch” I made for the boars to acclimate them to the electric fencing. And given the odd “songs” Miss Tumble and Mr. Freckles had been singing to one another the night before, I was a little concerned that Miss Tumble might be in heat.

And by “songs,” I mean deep throated growls. Roars, even. I went down in the middle of the night to collect some chickens I knew were out and thought there was a bear in the pig barn.

Perhaps it is relevant to also mention here that the chickens were out because the day before the gilts had knocked over my daughter’s poorly conceived fencing to steal chicken feed, allowing all of our most prized birds to escape. None were injured, but they all eluded capture until nightfall led them to roost. In the pig barn. With the roaring-bears-that-were-pigs. Where I collected them by the light of a cell phone and tried not to imagine all that crossed the boar’s mind when he trotted over to me.

I thought he might be on a murderous rampage. He just wanted scritches so I obliged and escaped before he changed his mind.

At any rate, the little gate that I had propped open to let the boys go in and out of their half of the barn was wide open and doesn’t close as easily as the main gate Miss Tumble wandered out of. So I threw a rabbit cage in front of it, hoping to thwart any attempts at blocking me from extracting the object of his affection from his “porch.”

With all the animals finally secured, I walked out to the far pasture to see how exactly Candy and her shadow had escaped.

The actual exit point wasn’t that bad. I live in continual fear that Candy will cease to even pretend to fear the electric fence and that will be the end of containing her. But the top two lines had been dropped, probably for the short legs of small children who were retrieving a bucket. It was a small hop over and a short walk to the pig barn where they know there is grain available.

What was inside the pasture, however, was a far worse sight. Half a mile of fencing down and criss crossed across the pasture, like a glistening spider web of metal. Worried that the horses would get tangled in it, I shooed them over to the pasture section with the least damage and put up a line of fencing to keep them from walking through the tangled mess. The horses are good. I think they’d stay in a fence made of yarn as long as they were together.

I walked back to the barn and told Candy and Endeavor they were hamburger. Candy walked up to the barn door and stuck her head over the bar. I thumped her brisket.

“You know why this is your brisket? Because that’s what you make out of it. Slather it in BBQ sauce and it is far better than restringing fencing.”

She nuzzled me. I’m pretty sure she thinks the various cuts of meat I have taught her over the years are various pet names for how wonderful she is.

I looked at my phone. 9:45. I would be right on time to pick up my youngest daughter and take her over to her sister’s five day club.

Not even lunch time and I felt like I had already put in a full day’s work without actually accomplishing anything. And I still had a half mile of fencing to untangle and restring before I could begin the projects I had planned for the day.

So if you ever wonder what this whole sustainability-hobby-farm-thing is about, now you know. Working, re-working, planning, re-planning and always learning on the fly.

That and the soft brown eyes of an impish cow who rests her head on your shoulder while you threaten to turn her into hamburger because even she knows you don’t mean it.

And this. Because in the end, it really does all come back to your children.

Micah with his very best friend.

 

 

Round about the farm

So this is a bit of a hobby farm. In that we have a lot of animals and plants most people would consider crops, even if they don’t produce anything. These are a few of the main characters. You can tell because we took enough pictures of them that a few of them actually turned out!

This here is Candy in her characteristic Candy pose. She has looked at me like this since she was a calf and, according to the breeder, her mama did it, too. Can’t help but wonder if her little calf at her side will do the same! We milk her every morning and then turn her out with her beautiful baby for the day.

This is Scout. At 15 and a half hands, he’s a big boy. Mouse’s pride and joy. And the horse I wish I wanted to ride? I was looking for something in the neighborhood of 14 hands and older. Maybe a retired trail horse. I thought that sounded like a good first “real” horse for my daughter, but this boy had been through quite a bit of training and was almost the perfect horse, even if he was only 8 when we got him and quite a bit taller than I had in mind.

My saskatoons. I have no idea why I was so excited to get these from the Nemaha Resource District. We planted a whole hedge of berries I had never tried before. Good thing they were delicious!

And more first fruits from our dreams. Blackberries! We’ve harvested a couple handfuls so far this year and hoping for maybe one more. For a family of eight, that doesn’t last long. Tradition here is to share the the first fruits a plant produces. You know how much fun it was to divide up our first two cherries? The single peach was the best though. I’ve never eaten something so delicious.

One of my honeybees. Drinking from the aquaponics tank. One of the many benefits of aquaponics: no more dead bees floating in livestock waterers!

And finally, evidence that we take compassion even on garden pests. Maybe it has something to do with how beautiful the butterflies are. Or that we homeschool. But rather than disposing of these devourers of dill, we took cuttings, brought them inside and named them Bob and Crystal. Unfortunately, they escaped rather than building a chrysallis like a good caterpillar under observation.

Well, out of close to 200 pictures, that’s all that seemed worth sharing. And why I don’t share pictures all that often. It’s just too much work!

Livestock will keep you humble

There’s nothing quite like livestock to keep you humble.

I say that because we have these two steer. Calves, really. I mean, they’re almost a year old, but even their mothers get mistaken for calves by the cattle people around here because they’re not Angus or Hereford or Simental. They’re Dexters. And they top out at about 41 inches and 700 pounds.

And they lead like puppy dogs. When they see their halters, they come running. It means a walk. Fresh pasture. A visit with mom. All good things happen after the halter is secured. This is why it seemed like a good idea to go ahead and let the girls show them at the fair. Sure, they’ll look a little puny against those muscle bound products of our neighbor’s, but they shouldn’t take two grown men bodysurfing through the fair like that steer last year.

So getting them weighed on Saturday should have been a breeze. Nevermind the fact I can’t back up a trailer to save my life. I mean, I have sweet little halter broke calves that look like newborns compared to these half-wild beasts being unloaded before and after us.

When I said, “Load up!” they hopped in the trailer. When I said, “Back out!” they backed out and let us lead them to their pen.

Easy peasy.

It absolutely did not matter that I could not back the trailer up to that shoot.

Until I told Mike, the kind man opening and closing the gate that we were just walking them out to the trailer.

Open went the gate and off went the calves. All my daughter and I had left was the rope burn as they kicked up their heels, bucked around the parking lot and made for the grass on the other side.

For a moment, I just stood there. For a moment, I thought it would be fine. They’d settle in to grazing and we’d just walk up to them and pick up their leads and haul them to the trailer. After all, they were scared. Grazing is comfort. We’re security. It would all be fine.

That’s why I didn’t run.

That and the fact that thanks to an old hip injury I really can’t run. But at that moment, I wouldn’t have even if I could have. I even told my daughter to approach from the south but to walk slowly.

And then the train whistle blew.

And the calves bolted.

And Mike sprinted. I never knew a man wearing work boots and Carharts could move so fast. But he was at a full run, waving his arms and doing everything he could to get those calves to turn.

I was almost at a run and the searing pain that normally accompanies such endeavors was noticeably absent. And then everything turned to slow motion. Mike, my daughter, the train, the calves.

And I saw it all. They were going to reach the tracks just ahead of the train. Just in time to get hit and there was nothing we could do about it. But everyone kept running. And I just saw them spattered all over the train and started wondering since we were right there if they would be able to process anything we scraped off the tracks when it was over.

Then they turned. The relief was met with that searing pain I hadn’t felt a moment ago and I couldn’t keep up the pace that really wasn’t getting me anywhere, anyway.

They ran straight up ninth street and the vet’s office there on the corner emptied out — the vet, the vet tech and I’m pretty sure the third person joining the chase was a customer. It was like the running of the bulls right there in Tecumseh, Nebraska.

Except everyone was in workboots and Carharts. And they were chasing 375 pound calves that don’t even have horns. Or testicles, for that matter.

They finally got them cornered and tied them to a fence while I went to get the trailer. A fence that in no way could hold them if they decided to take off again.

Ask me how I know.

Ask me why we had to replace our chicken run this summer.

And after a short lesson in managing steers, and a simple, “Load up!” we had them back in the trailer and tied for the ride.

And I told my daughter we’re changing the family motto from the old McIntire “per ardua” (through hardship) to “Yes, we’re that family.” And I’m putting it on a T-shirt.

Though apparently that isn’t necessary. Because when I stopped at Orscheln’s to pick up a new halter, the checker greeted me with, “So I heard about what happened with your little calves.”

Word travels fast.

And livestock keep you humble.

My dog was hit by a car

I was sitting at the computer, nursing, surfing facebook.

“There’s someone here!” the children shouted.

I looked up to see our neighbor at the door. I knew it couldn’t be good. Not many people just drop in, but especially not this late in the evening. I didn’t really have time to think, though, because the door was already open.

“I just hit your white dog.”

And I was stunned. The only thing I could even think to say was, “He’s not even supposed to be out.”

livestock guardian

And he wasn’t . . . supposed to be out, that is. But Flee’s a good livestock guardian, patrolling his pasture, looking over his animals and making sure everyone makes it home safely. That’s why he chases cars. And from his side of the pasture, it is a beautiful sight to see him at a full run, escorting the car past his domain and standing at the end of the fenceline like a king as he watches the car travel on down the road. Another threat averted.

But that’s only when he’s on his side of the fence and I know no harm can come to him. That’s also why I don’t intentionally let him out of the pasture.

But he also likes to look over his mismatched flock of animals. He’s particularly fond of the cattle. You see, we got him after our little calf was attacked by a coyote and we were determined not to have that happen again. He was raised alongside those calves. He romped with them, watched over them and led them to safety any time danger was near. He is happiest when his herd is together and he can look over them all.

Livestock Guardian Dog

In return, they look to him for safety. When he barks, they come and stand near him. When he naps in the sun, they graze and play. And when it was time for them to have their own calves, they just looked on as he helped clean their newborn babes.

And at milking time, as we lead the cows out of the barn to tie them in the stanchion, Flee likes to follow. He likes to lay down by the alfalfa and just watch his girls and their calves. He likes to make sure the shepherds don’t get too close because there is absolutely no reason in his mind that they should ever give his girls that eye.

But then there’s the car chasing.

And tonight, my daughter was milking. And tonight, my daughter didn’t think about it.

So I walked out to the road with the neighbor as she told me he came out of nowhere. That she hit him pretty hard. That he ran off into the corn field.

And I wasn’t upset with her. I was thankful. We lost Timmy to this road and the driver never even slowed down. But there was no sign of Flee and I could only hope that whatever his injuries were, he could make it home so that we could take care of him and so that he could be comforted amongst his people and his herd.

I walked down to the barn because if he came home, that would be where he’d head. The animals were all out of sorts. The sheep were bleating. The cattle were incessant with their mooing and I could hear them pacing in the barn. The horses were whinnying over and over. Candy in the stanchion lifted her head from her bucket of grain and was rocking against the sides as she turned to look at me when I walked in to tell my daughter what had happened.

“Really? I just saw him and he seemed fine.”

“It just happened. They said he ran off into the corn field. They drove up the road a little to see if they could see him.”

“No. I just saw him. I heard the car and he took off, but just like two minutes ago he ran through again. He was moving just fine. He was fast.”

I was confused. Had she seen him tearing off after the car? Or had she seen him coming home, scared but without serious injury?

So I walked around the property calling him and listened as all of our livestock called for him as well. But there was nothing. Flee isn’t like our other dogs. He was raised with cattle. They are his focus and his job. He knows us. He knows his name. But he comes when he wants. Even when he isn’t scared and in pain.

And a few minutes later, he appeared in the milking barn. Our steer returned to his feed. Candy relaxed and settled into chewing her cud. And as I ran my hands along his sides, back and legs, looking for any sign of pain, I noticed how quiet everything had suddenly become.

Flee was home. The guardian was safe. And everyone relaxed.

In which I run screaming down the road. Because of a honeybee.

I thought someone stole my beehive. Driving by on my way to town, I noticed it just wasn’t there. As I put my car into reverse to double check, I imagined someone cruising down the highway as my bees attacked.

photo by Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel

It didn’t help.

I’ve put too much time and effort into these bees. I’ve been trying to start a colony for three years, but I just can’t seem to carry a hive through winter. And here after failure after failure after failure, April and the dandelion bloom are in sight. One of my students in my nature study class found a dandelion bud and I beamed as I told them the importance of early spring flowers.

And now someone is going to up and steal my beehive?

I wanted to cry.

And then I spotted the beehive upside down in the windbreak.

It’s maybe been a touch on the windy side these last few days. I didn’t even have that happen when the tornado went through that pushed our neighbor’s outbuildings off the foundation.

So anyway, I was a little too relieved to really think through what I should do. I just put the car in park right there in the road, grabbed my daughter and ran over. I was happy to see a few bees buzzing about and hear the whole hive buzzing.

The angry “you better not mess with us” buzz. After all, what colony of anything likes lying on its back, exposed like that? It didn’t really occur to me that they might blame me for their misfortune. I had nothing to do with it. I was rescuing them. And it was cold out. Bees really don’t fly around much when it is below forty.

So my daughter grabbed one side, I grabbed the other and we gently rolled the hive over and backed away quickly.

“Yay! Success!”

Or so I thought. I figured it best to leave the hive alone for awhile. Let the bees calm down, I thought. Besides, I wasn’t sure my daughter and I actually would be able to lift it anyway. So we went back to the car and continued on our way.

I made it all the way to the stop sign at the bottom of our road before I felt a buzzing down my back.

And this is the weird thing. I’ve been stung before. It’s not that bad. It isn’t fun. I’d rather it not happen again. But you get over it. Especially if you have bindweed because if you chew the flower and smack that glob of goo on the sting, the pain goes away almost immediately.

Getting stung isn’t so bad. But knowing you’re about to get stung is enough to send you into a panic. Or at least it is enough to send me into a panic.

And this after I oh so calmly explained to someone on facebook how easy it is to lose your fear of working the bees. How calming it is, in fact. I failed to mention that it’s still scary as anything to have a bee fly into your clothing and start that angry buzz.

So, yeah. I slammed on the brakes and tried to get out of the car. The door was locked. Put the car in park. Swung open the door and jumped out while trying to extricate myself from my jacket while trying not to let my shirt tighten across my back.

“Mouse! Help me!” I cried out as I ran around the front of car. (Good thing it was in park. Oh how fun it would have been to try to explain how I ran over myself while running from a bee that was stuck in my shirt!)

I’m not sure she entirely knew what was going on, but she dutifully grabbed my sleeve and pulled my arm out as I spun. I had my shirt half off . . . right there in the middle of the road on a 35 degree day . . . when I felt the bee crawl up my back and into my hair.

I screamed. I screamed and ran, flipping my hair over my head and spinning for no real reason while my daughter yelled, “I see it! I see it!”

That’s when I ran right into the open car door. The one I had left open as I made my dramatic exit from the car.

And that’s when the bee flew off.

And when my daughter and I started laughing so hard, I couldn’t drive.

And once again, I found myself incredibly thankful we don’t have neighbors.

Because what would you do if you pulled up on someone half dressed and frantically screaming as they spun in circles around their car?