Friday, November 30, 2012

Spilled Milk

I've never been one to handle defeat gracefully - at least not initially.  I have screamed, kicked, thrown things and acted, generally, as if the sky were falling.  Which is why, today, I know that I've finally made impressive steps towards full-on maturity.  Today - after separating the calf from Maddie and after listening to bugle-like cow yodeling/screaming for more than 6 hours, and after waiting more than a week to fully separate the two in order to get a full milking, and after months of waiting for the cows to, literally, come home, and after more than 4 yrs of waiting for the milk cow I've dreamed of: I spilled the milk.  And, I am pleased to report, I didn't cry over it.

Or not for too long.

One of the reasons the Madaline/Rodeo Queen package was so attractive was because a well-trained, friendly milk cow was coming with a nursing calf.  This sort of arrangement alleviates the pressure to milk twice daily in order to keep the cow from drying up.  It's a milk share situation and a wonderful way to ease a novice into the whole ordeal.  Also, it's rare that two people can efficiently consume one gallon of milk each day or turn it into milk by-products.  It has been done, but not by people like me.  The trick to a milk-share is separating the calf from the momma periodically so that you can obtain more than a few piddly squirts from her udder.  In an over-cautious effort to ease their transition, I waited more than a week to finally separate the two for any length of time.  Moving to a new farm is traumatic enough so I was in no hurry to immediately cause further stress.  Today, however, I was on a mission.  Since I'd be home all day, it was a great opportunity to pull/lure the little bucking bronco calf (she's really started to love me as long as there's food in my pocket) into the front yard where she and Maddie could share a fence.  My hope being that keeping them close would alleviate drama.  And I was right! (mostly)  For the first few hours, Rodeo trotted around her new enclosure and sampled all of the exotic delicacies in the front yard, namely - bermuda grass.  Maddie ate from the round bale keeping an eye on her baby.  It wasn't until several hours later when Maddie's udder began to fill with new milk and Rodeo became bored with the grass and hay that the bugling started.  They paced the fence crying and pawing.  Both finally laid down and, true story, mooed quietly in their sleep.  It was a dreadful spectacle that tugged at my weak little heart strings enough that I decided to milk Maddie two hours earlier than planned.

After waiting so very, very long - I under-filled her feed bucket.  Rookie mistake.  When milking an animal, it's imperative they have enough feed to last them through the activity, otherwise they will become peckish and feisty and do things like back up and out of the milk stand.  For the first time since bringing her here, Maddie had enough milk that I was able to get comfortable milking with both hands like you see in movies and stuff.  I felt incredibly fancy.  Through my newly acquired speed and fanciness - the milk developed a beautiful frothy, foamy head in the shiny bucket.  This is IT!!!  I shouted in my head - YOU ARE AN AMAZING, PROFESSIONAL MILKING PERSON!!!  It probably takes most people weeks - nay - MONTHS to achieve such profound heights of milking perfection - I smirked happily down at the bucket that contained a volume of milk I previously believed to be unattainable.  What - WHAT - had I been worried about all those sleepless nights before bringing the cows home?

I am clearly a natural.

Just at that moment, you know, when an invisible hand started patting me on the back - at that moment - I noticed Maddie start to snuffle and toss her head, heard the distinct sounds of a tongue licking an empty bowl.  She shifted one way.  Then the other.  And then, in comically slow motion, she began to back up.  I reached down, also in slow motion, screaming "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooooooo!" but as I grabbed the bucket, my "No" faded slowly with the realization that, despite holding the bucket firmly, it was making contact with her back leg which was raised in the air - a motion moving backwards.  Just at the moment when the bucket hit her kneecap, its precious contents - hard-won milk my hands were still cramped from milking - flew forth onto my chest, sprayed both arms, and dripped down my thighs.  Maddie stopped moving and looked up at me, letting out a soft, "moooo."  What's with all the theatrics, lady?!

I stood up to full height, empty bucket in one hand, milk already forming a tight skin on my arms, the warm stuff absorbing into my jeans.  It smelled sweet.  And I knew how delicious it tasted.  I allowed myself one, very quiet, whispered, "Dumbass" to myself and hung my head momentarily before walking forlornly from the pasture, wearing the fruits of my labor.  

But the point of all this, of the painfully explicit details, is to illustrate one proud fact: I did not cry or throw anything or kick the feed room wall.  I cursed under my breath, rinsed myself off, and am very, very close to laughing about it.   

The more time we spend down here in the trenches, the more idioms I remember - the kinds we all heard growing up that I now understand have roots planted firmly in agriculture.  There was a time when the majority of folks milked their own cows rather than heading to a supermarket (what the heck was a supermarket?!).  In those days, no explanation was needed if you had a bad day because the milk had spilled.  And your neighbor, probably also someone with their own little cow, would have assured you that there's always tomorrow, so there's no point in crying over spilled milk.  I actually said this to myself today.  I said it as I calculated the cost of the grain that went into her bucket meant entirely to distract her through the milking.  I said it to myself when thinking about the time I carved out of a busy day last week to haul 10 bales of expensive coastal hay in the truck - just so the calf would have something special to nibble on while separated from her mom.  I said it to myself as I thought about the check just written for that adorable cow who is, after all, an animal - who does not always behave as we would hope.  But one thing is certain: tomorrow there will be more milk.  And I'll put more grain in that damned bucket.  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Got Milk?

Almost there.  We've been busy here at BTF/NNFR: building barns, building milk stanchions, acquiring milk cows, etc.  You know...the usual.  We have all of the pieces in place now.  Once Jenna gets back into a routine after some business travel, I expect we'll be elbow deep in the liquid, white goodness.  The little bit she's collected so far has been surprisingly sweet.  More updates to come.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Seeing in the Dark

I guess I've gotten in the habit of writing here the night before.  Over the course of four years, before has meant many things.  It's meant bringing livestock home for the first time (that we stared at bewildered by our luck or stupidity for a full 2 hours after they jumped from the trailer), or before meant breaking ground on the house (a process that we stared at bewildered by our luck or stupidity for two full hours as the bulldozers plucked trees from the ground), or before meant gathering wobbly baby goats in our arms and placing them in the back of the car (I looked at them and they blinked back at me, bewildered by our luck or stupidity for loading brand new babies in a car and driving them down the highway).  Tonight marks another before moment for us.  Whether it amounts to being big or small, something that rearranges our lives or something that is just a blip on our timeline: there's no telling.  With all things, and especially in the choices we make, there is never any telling.

Tomorrow Madaline and her calf Rodeo Queen come home to Bee Tree.

Madaline is the particularly small Dexter cow that I met over two years ago when I first attended Kimberly's milking class.  After weeks of battling Jer's damaged back and other inconveniences that obstruct land work when the two landowners have full time jobs and an unfinished house: the milking area and cow shelter are nearly done.  They're done enough that tomorrow afternoon we can finally load the little cow and her calf into Dwayne's trailer and bring them here.  It's true that we're not new to cows, but our other little Dexter herd was nothing more than glorified pasture ornaments until they alternately became food and were sold to more appropriate owners.  Madaline, for me, is an old fashioned dairy cow.  She will be a part of this family.  Her contributions and presence here are an important part of what we will eat and drink - how we subsist.  I've got high hopes for little Rodeo Queen, as well.  This is either the beginning of something, or not worth mentioning.  I have a feeling it's the former.

Tonight I'm giddy as we prepare for tomorrow; driving over to Dwayne's to hook his trailer to our truck in the total darkness.  His horses hang over the paddock fence snorting and pawing at the ground, hoping for carrots - receiving the entertainment of two idiots lining up a trailer, instead.  At our place, Jer gets home from work in the already inky night.  With a headlamp and dull tractor headlights he goes through the motions of unattaching tractor implements and hooking on the hay spear.  The goats peer through the fence and bleat weakly.  The puppies stand like soldiers watching Their People so close but too far to reach over and pat a head.  I'm holding a dark Mexican beer as I walk in front of the tractor to open and close gates.  Lock and unlock padlocks.  Use the unsharpened army knife to tear away the plastic binding around the round bale.  We set out a new bundle of hay tonight for the arrivals tomorrow.  Up on a hill I can make out the sketch of 6 rotund donkeys who've just wandered up from wherever they were mulling.  The minute we rip the binding off hay it releases a pungent smell of dried grass, the last wisp of green scent captured somewhere from when it was cut in June - like insects in old amber - a waft of summer floats off the bale.  The donkeys catch it in the air and go screaming with excitement, come trotting down the hill.

We all stand in this scene, completing the ritual of setting out new hay in the feeble light of late dusk.  There was a time I never could have seen so clearly in this sort of darkness.  I never could have picked out the name of animals with only my hands or measured the distance of a mesquite limb from my exposed arm in such little light.  I don't claim that we've gone feral living out here in the harsh contrast between night and day, woods and prairie, city and country.  But I've gotten much, much better at seeing in the dark.  It's an acute evolution, those most primal survival skills kicking in when necessity demands them.  Because we can't, naturally, see in the dark.  Just like we can't, naturally, know how our decisions today will mold everything else - starting tomorrow.

In my 8th grade science class, we dissected sheep eyes.  At the back of each we found the most beautiful iridescent pebbles - I can't think of a better way to describe them.  They were hard as stone, smooth and oblong.  They were the color of peacock feathers, and I was mesmerized by their jewel toned beauty.  These were the tapetum lucidum - the reflective element to help mostly nocturnal animals see in the dark.  This hardened stone that grows at the back of the eye so creatures don't have to go around with their beastly legs (paws or hooves) groping out in front of them like us humans - fools that we are - relying on artificial light.  I shoved the stone in my pocket, perhaps a gruesome theft, but it looked like a precious gem.  And it possessed magical powers.

I will never be able to walk outside in the middle of a dark night and see exactly what's leering back at me.  I used to be afraid of it - all the windows here that illuminated me to whatever was glaring in from the trees.  I used to fear moonless skies.  It's eery to be covered in a black sky pin-pricked by starlight.  I used to require absolutely solid ground lightened by flashlight.  But here we are again, and who knows what we've signed up for or what it will turn into.  We've gotten great at opening doors straight out into the dark night, squinting until they adjust, sticking our hands out ahead of us and just feeling our way through it.  With a little optimism and hope we've learned to feel our way without reflective eye stones, or future-tellers, or absolute certainty.  Of anything.  And it's a deeply appropriate way to celebrate this Thanksgiving.  I'm so grateful for the night vision we've developed and the blind faith it's afforded us both.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Rolling Dice

Keno Farms is a really spectacular spot out in the Northwestern hills of Williamson County, just at the edge of the town where I grew up.  Huge barns and shelters pop up behind the old stone house that Jon and Mary Fenoglio built together themselves years ago.  The entire acreage in front of the house is cleared of every last speck of brambles and brush.  It's actually a registered airfield so their son can use the space to fly his tiny plane.  We had the privelege of watching it taxi and take off while we stood chatting on their front porch.  It looked like a little toy out there in the front lawn as it sputtered forward and suddenly gunned ahead, lifting up, up in silence as invisible hands of wind nudged it over a fence.  It dangled above a pasture, circled and flew away in a lazy line where the sun was setting.

I met the Fenoglios the way I meet most people these days: goats.  They have them, and I'm looking for another.  These folks don't advertise in the traditional way, in fact I found them through another goat breeder's website.  After exchanging emails about a particular little buckling for sale, I made the trek out not knowing what to expect because you can't ever know what to expect when it comes to these things.  The way we live on land and with our animals - it's a deeply personal ritual that everyone approaches differently.  It's a lovely freedom to be tucked off the road somewhere so that curb appeal doesn't matter, and it's quite alright if the chickens lay their eggs right there in the flower pot or at the base of a peach tree.  And if the peacock wants to roost on the rooftop well, then, it makes the prettiest wind vane I've ever seen.  So that's how we saw Keno Farms: airfield out front, eggs scattered amongst flower beds, geese chasing through a pasture of lazy goats, and a field of Holstein mooing through their cud.  As usual, Mom came along for this visit, a habit we've fallen into when I go to see a man about an animal.  We've gotten pretty good at having conversations with only expressions, and I've passed on a few bad decisions based on her furrowed brow alone.  Plus, like any animal lover, it's hard for her to pass on the opportunity to pet a few friendly goats.

Jon and Mary led us through pens and pastures, barn stalls and a dairy room.  We met their milkers and the dairy calves.  We saw the newly hatched chicks scamper behind a hen who led them under hay feeders and between goat hooves.  Mary and Jon themselves were as lively and fluid as their farm. Both kept up a constant stream of conversation, spouting off goat lineage and recalling anecdotes about earlier days of their farm.  The way they told stories it's obvious they must have whispered about this place years ago, clasping hands and having those "What if" conversations.  In fact, the farm's name itself refers to the gambling game since the land purchase was a risky business for the couple, some 30 years ago.  It was a hope and prayer type of situation apparently, and judging by what we saw, lady luck favored them when they rolled the dice on this dream.  "We couldn't make the first payment," Jon laughed while he scratched the back of his head and kicked at a rock on the ground, "but, want it bad enough.  So" - with a sweep of the arm towards the barns and vast array of happy goats, "you figure it out.  We made it work."  Mary is the sort of woman with perpetually rosy cheeks, and she smiled back.  I saw them like those trees that grow out of creek beds.  Two separate trunks with shared roots.  I'll be damned if I've ever met a lovelier couple.

We were out to look at their little Nubian male goats, a purchase I made in an effort to keep Boss, and to keep him happy, too.  I cannot keep a male goat with the does and with their eventual babies.  His scent will flavor the milk and his increasingly large presence could become dangerous to them - although he remains one of the gentlest and sweetest animals I've met.  The alternative is to find a new home for Boss, but in my commitment to keeping a buck on site for ease of breeding in the future, and because I love him - this is the choice right now (I will never have an animal live by itself).  Willy has proven to be too small for Boss's advances, and so he will remain as a companion in the doe's pasture.  There's no grand plan here, folks, and this might be another poor decision to go along with the decision to have one buck in the first place.  Or it will work out just fine.  A future teller would be handy now, but making mistakes is half of the process, so we'll see how wise my own judgement proves to be.  The new guy comes home soon.

All these decisions - to do or not to do - to buy or not to buy - to act or not to act - they weigh on me.  Someone commented recently on the heaviness we bring on ourselves and how complicated life must be for folks like the Fenoglios who have so many animals in their care.  Don't complicate your own life, was the unspoken implication.  It's fair warning.  It's true that each addition feels a bit like putting more on top of an already teetering tower of obligations, but I'm getting used to feeling full to the brim - to the extent that I'd miss the mess if it were gone.  In fact, a friend sent a note this evening.  She also lives on a small property and though she doesn't focus on animals, she's poured a great deal of energy (blood, sweat, etc) into that dirt as an avid gardener.  After carefully digging, planting, and tending a new tree, the deer attacked the thing, ripping it to shreds, save for a few spare limbs.  "So I went back out, and I planted the limbs.  We'll see," she reported to me tonight.

I can picture her out there carefully patting down dirt around tattered branches in the dark tonight, wearing a head lamp and swatting at gnats.  What drives us to this?  What is the human condition that recognizes when the odds are against us but forces us to give it a go anyhow?  My finger's not on the word for it just yet because it's an amalgamation of all the beautiful things in the spirit - all smashed together.  For her, for me, for the Fenoglios - for all of you crouched down over a dream: we'll see. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


For weeks now, I've been feeling slightly ill and unsettled.  There's a lot of change coming to the farm with the addition of Madaline and Rodeo and the goat babies I expect in late winter.  The anticipation of all these responsibilities keeps me up at night, but then, the fear of never having these responsibilities used to keep me awake, too. Jon Katz recently shared a quote from Lao-tzu on his Bedlam Farm blog: "Fill your bowl to the brim, and it will spill over."  I've been thinking about that a lot lately as my own cup starts to overfloweth.  I don't actually interpret the quote as a cautionary tale.  Maybe it's too much that I take on, but I prefer to swim upstream in the midst of things that make me happy.  The "spill over" mentioned, in my world, means that other parts of my life get affected, other people who know me are affected too.  While it doesn't bother me all the time, it requires a lot of patience from them.  Unintentionally, I drag others upstream along with me - for better or worse.  This translates into backbreaking labor on the part of Jeremy (and sometimes his father) to breathe life into whatever rudimentary sketches are drawn in my mind about animal shelters, fencing, garden plots - those little lines and zig zags that must somehow zip together and make sense. 

As we build more places to shelter more animals it's evident that we're running out of land.  Or, rather, the space we have is already earmarked by the farm that lives in my head.  I have to be strategic, at this point.  The plans I make now can be undone, with some trouble, and nothing I bring home or commit to now defines this place forever.  But it does shape the story, and the undoing of things is never as effortless as the decision to do them.

In thinking about our goals for the property, it's clear that they have already changed.  In the short time we've lived here, some realities have sunk like stone.  There's only so much space here and acquiring additional land remains a question mark that hovers each time I walk the property line.  So, it seems, the donkeys may need to be re-homed.  It's hard to even type this, because it means it might happen, and I have trouble bearing the thought of a pasture without them.  However, I increasingly struggle to justify their purpose out behind the fences.  Bringing animals in and then moving them out - it feels like a failure - a failure that I did not try harder to make them into something more purposeful and a failure to plan well and act with forethought.

It's timely then that Jon Katz recently wrote an ode to donkeys, the animals that he and his wife love dearly on their own farm in upstate New York.  This made me suck in my breath and pause before doing anything drastic.  The plans for them are stewing along with plans for other things.  Either way, it's a beautiful read.