Thursday, December 20, 2012

Tough Life

In honor of my last official day of work until JANUARY 2, 2013 (!!!!!!!!!), I thought it easier to show how I'll be spending the time off rather than explain.  That's right, picture me in a pile of sleeping or snoring goats for one full week.  An odd way to spend free time, perhaps, but also one of the best.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

At least it's not my car

Queen of the Rodeo

Kimberly and I exchanged concerned looks momentarily the day we came by to pick up Maddie and her little calf.  As expected, Maddie was (and remains) the sweetest and calmest cow I've ever met.  And also the most affectionate.  Her little calf, however, was a different story.  Regardless of her early upbringing around people, she tended towards acting more like a mini bucking bronco than calf, when given the opportunity.  She skittered away from both of us when Kimberly tried to catch her for loading into the trailer.  The whites of her eyes showed against eggplant fur, and she was breathing heavily.  But I wasn't too concerned with Rodeo's early, almost feral, behavior.  She was (and still is) nursing and had very little use for humans.  We brought her home and led her from the trailer on a lead rope.  For one whole hour she pulled against the rope like it was on fire, her bottom stuck straight up in the air, hooves dug into the ground, head tossing, those white ringed eyes wide open, and snorting dramatically as if her life were in danger.  To be fair, how would she know the difference between impending death and the beginning of a wonderful relationship with new owners?  After all, I remind myself with all my animals daily, she is a cow - she cannot know the difference (yet).

Since that first day we quickly learned that the secret to all animals' hearts is also the key to unlock miss Rodeo Queen.  Eventually she realized that we are the keepers of all things alfalfa and oat related, the two most precious commodities to a cow (aside from mother's milk, of course).  At first she'd come only so close that she could slurp up a few pieces of grain with the very tippy tip of her tongue, leaning forward at the edge of her front hooves, neck strained, and eyes bugged violently from her sockets in complete fear.  But oh, how the fear must have been worth the delicious risk.  Soon, I was moving my grain-filled palm closer to my chest, forcing her forward, forward, slowly so that - before long- she had to withstand gentle scratches and pats in order to retrieve the glorious grain/nectar.  Oh - the torment.

Luckily for me, and for the calf, the entire process was expedited because of the forced separation that must occur with dairy animals.  The only way to actually milk the mother is to keep the baby away for long enough intervals to produce more milk.  I hemmed and hawed over the necessity of separation.  It seemed cruel to keep them apart for any length of time when they had only just undergone a traumatic change in living situation.  I imagined the devastation it would cause.  The screaming.  The tears (mine or theirs?).  Then I realized I was guilty of anthropomorphism - my typical go-to reaction when it comes to animals - and one morning I hooked Rodeo to a lead rope and pulled (dragged) her into the front yard where she shared a fence with the cow pasture and Maddie.  Then I stuck my fist in my mouth and squinted up my eyes waiting for the subsequent screaming and panic that would surely ensue.  But.......nothing.  Instead, Rodeo trotted to the lush bermuda that still covers our front yard and started to happily eat this new, rare commodity - GRASS!

The two weeks I spent waiting to finally separate the baby from her mama, all in anticipation of torture and drama, was for naught.  Rodeo comes running now when she sees us arrive at the pasture gate in the morning.  She trots right into the front yard and makes herself happily at home with the nice coastal hay she's provided, the handfuls of grain she's fed in trade for neck scratching and back-patting.  She has, quite literally, become the queen of the most prime real estate on the property.  The separation has also afforded us a lot of QT with the tiny royalty, and she walks right up once I sit down on the ground.  It's become her habit to cover my face and clothing in slimy calf licks - something that may seem appalling to most - but we consider a sign of progress and victory.  The bucking bronco we brought home one month ago has transformed into one of the more affectionate creatures on the property.  Further proof that most animals deserve second (sometimes third) chances.  Also, that first impressions aren't always accurate - and all that.  Kimberly worried that she might grow into the name, maybe she should have been named something with a less high-strung connotation?  But considering how she's taken to ruling the front pasture, I'd say she got the name just right.

Monday, December 17, 2012


Pulling laundry from the washing machine this morning, I heard the faint clinking sound of bits of things fall against the metal spinner.  Once it was clear of clothing I saw a pile of grain had accumulated beneath the clothes, the remnants of so many mornings spent taming a wee calf.  Finding grain in the washing machine is a sure sign you're taming livestock, or that your livestock are perhaps very spoiled.  It's become second nature now to fill the goat feeders in the morning and shove two handfuls of grain in any empty pocket (which are hard to come by lately since most are filling with kleenex and mittens) before heading out to spend time with the calf.  In my hurry to clean clothes, I forgot to empty pockets and am left with a puddle of animal feed.  I try to remember that these things are signs of a life well-lived, or at least a life lived fully.  Or at least that I'm alive?  I try not to sweat the small stuff like a load of clothes faintly coated with oat and alfalfa dust - is my point.

So many reminders like this lately, so many juxtapositions growing more distinctly -well- juxtaposed.  At the feed mill today I spent time chatting with an employee and learned about an organization that lends a voice to farmers and ranchers (FARFA) during legislative sessions (and all the time).  We exchanged cards, and I drove the old farm truck home down the potholed roads that cut straight through rolling prairie.  With my policy background, maybe I could get involved in this stuff - just a little at first - but who knows what it could lead to.  Can I chisel my way into work that finally, actually, completely aligns with my life?  It's a big dream, I guess.  But so was the farm.  And this place started with just a little box of chickens.  I arrived home, sat down at the computer, and worked on public education stuff.  Then I went outside briefly for some impromptu lead training with the darling Rodeo Queen (Yes, there's grain in my pocket again).  Came back inside to answer emails related to, again, public education stuff.  Farm hat. Work hat. Farm hat. Work hat.

First feta from Bee Tree Farm milk
I also talked with the owner of the mill today who likes to meet his patrons and hear about the animals that are fed through his small scale, organic feed mill.  He leaned against the truck and asked what cheeses I've made, and do I plan to share some chevre with him in the spring?  Will I have a little extra cream to spare from the cow's milk?  He got a little misty talking about his love of raw milk, how it's so hard to come by unless it's bootlegged (his words).  How people clamor for the stuff, and that I should consider upping my production.  It was a funny conversation for various reasons, namely that we were suddenly classified as "producers" of anything, just because we have one small dairy cow.  Funny also since the entire conversation between both the owner and the talk about helping with advocacy work took place over what was technically considered my lunch break.  The owner asked if my husband is a full time farmer.  I explained that, no, he is a full time engineer and a part time farmer.  So, he then reasoned, you're the full time farmer in the family?  Laughing again, I explained that I also "worked" part time as a farmer but my work from home set-up makes it feasible.  But goats and cows, he stated in complete seriousness, they are a 7 day per week, 24 hour per day job, and they don't take vacation.  How, he asked, can you do it?  I opened my mouth, ready to spew forth a witty response, but all that came out was a feeble, "I don't know."

I don't know.

Since we acquired Madaline and her calf, the responsibility and work around here has almost doubled.  This change coincided with the addition of Atlas, the little buckling, who now lives in the cow pasture with Boss.  The transition has been difficult for all of us.  The guard puppies are only recently overcoming their confusion over the loss of herd mates, and they've finally stopped breaking into Boss's pasture to make sure he's ok.  This morning I spent a better part of one hour patching areas of the fence that Boss had slipped under to return to his herd, Atlas screaming and kicking along the fenceline each time Boss escaped back in to be with the girls and puppies.  Meanwhile, the cows must be separated in order for an afternoon milking which means more animals to maintain with clean water and fresh hay.  I cried a few times this weekend in those moments where it seemed many choices were a big mistake (namely - the bucks) and wished desperately to speak their language to explain why it must be so.  It also struck me how absolutely tethered I have become to this place now.  2 months ago, I was still more of my old self than new.  But over the past few weeks it's clear I've crossed some invisible line that delineates Then and Now.  Or the Before and After of these lifestyle changes.

A pile of bucklings.  A pile of trouble.
Yesterday I turned 33 years old.  I spent last year's birthday in a muddy construction zone arguing with the painting crew and then arguing with the builder, then crawled under the covers and begged Jer to sell the whole damned place.  It's a lifetime away from now, back when we had a garage and were perched on a cul-de-sac and could see into our neighbor's postage stamp yards.  This year I fixed fencing, separated animals, Jeremy shot (another!) coyote, and I milked a cow before my birthday dinner.  What's stayed the same, mostly, is the day job, and it's making less sense to me every day - is certainly less important.  Now, more than ever, I am pulled in two directions; a feeling you can't prepare for even when anticipated.  How do you explain to your employer that you absolutely must not travel in January in case the goats kid?  I am officially teetering along the work/life balance beam, (not so) secretly hoping that something will push me fully into the farm.  These transitions are tough and they're dirty, so I scrub beneath my nails at night, and I re-wash the clothes covered in bits of grain forgotten in pockets.  And for now I accept my current situation as a wishbone, reveling in the small victories of homemade cheese and clean work clothes - these split identities battling it out each day for my attention.  May the best one win.  

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Stupid Chickens: Part 12

Tila Tequila is the last remaining chicken from our Austin house.  We moved all of the Austin ladies out to the "farm" about 9 months ago.  Since then coyotes, hawks, neighbor's dogs, etc. have taken their toll.  But 'ol Tila has out lasted the other 8 ladies.  I think a key part of her successful strategy is to turn her nose up to the communal hen house and stubbornly reside on the porch of the house.  Yes, Tila has set up shop on the porch, and has refused to be transplanted to the hen house regardless of how many times we physically move her after she's roosted for the night.  You may be wondering what's the big deal if a helpless chicken decides to sleep on the porch, but if you've ever had to play hopscotch in the morning to avoid the chicken "bombs" from the previous evening, you understand.  So, this evening I moved the firewood stack that has previously been her roost to throw her off.  Tila has lasted this long because she is resilient and adaptable.  After the sun set, I wandered around the porch hoping to f ind a Tila-free porch.  Alas, she found another roost atop my lawn mower.  Stupid (or incredibly stubborn) chickens.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The New Normal

Sunday night I shoved my body against an injured goat and pinned her to the barn.  She screamed angrily at me as I shook bright blue blood stop powder down onto the wound that leaked into her eyes and down her neck.  The sound of four other goats slamming their bodies against the fence for a good view competed with the sound of an angry Jolene.  She bucked and bleated.  It was near pitch darkness, and I could only make out the outline of her head and smell the pungent metallic scent of blood.  This wasn't working.  So for the first time, I'd have to bring a goat inside the house.  I'm surprised it hasn't happened sooner.

I jogged towards the house knowing she'd follow me.  A well-loved goat forgives her owner quickly, and she trotted along behind me.  Still screaming.  Annoyed and bleating.  I opened the door to the mud room and she ambled in, instantly mesmerized by the assorted shoes she could sample, the dirty laundry bin she could raid for something possibly delicious.  "JEREMYYY!" I screamed down the hallway, "NEED GOAT HELP.  NOW.  HELP. NOW."  In under a minute he appeared at the door, yawned, stretched.  What would it be this time?

With his help and the light, we cornered the frustrated animal whose little horn bud (called scurs, if you're interested) ripped off in her pregnancy-hormone fueled attack against the baby buckling we'd brought home that evening.  She was mad at the intruder, then mad the horn ripped off, then mad that I tried to doctor it, then mad that I was petting her, then mad that I wasn't.  That's goats for you.  We finally wiped her face, applied the powder and wound spray.  The bleeding stopped, and she was given a cookie for (relatively) good behavior.  Since then, Jolene's decided she rather likes the baby buckling who we've named Atlas.  My sister said his belly looks like an interpretive map of the world, and since I'm all out of creative energy, the name stuck.  Cleaning up later, I wiped the bloody hand print off the blood stop powder container and scrubbed my hands that were stained purple and blue for two days.  The blood that soaked into my favorite jeans appears permanent so they've been added to the pile of "farm clothes" that's slowly doubled over the course of this year.

And that's how this week began and continued.  I had a feeling it would be a doozy between the addition of a new goat, my aggressive attempts to extract milk from the cow, and a rather dodgy work situation - the combination of all this mixing as well as oil and water.  Add to the drama two guard puppies (one in particular) who have decided that enough is enough and it was about damn time to sample a chicken.  So we lost another to our own dogs, and although the hawk attacks have subsided, the coyotes have picked up where they left off.  The addition of cows in our pasture has lured chickens out to pick through the resulting cow patties - a wonderful little system.  However, it's made the coyote's work easy.  Too easy.  They simply lounge in the brush and pounce when a hen gets close.

So yesterday - yesterday I came home from the office early and set up shop downstairs at the table.  Jeremy was home not feeling well but went outside for a minute when a coyote sprang out of nowhere (and right in front of him) to grab a hen pecking at a patty.  The hen managed to escape, and Jer came running inside.  "Coyoteeeee!!" He yelled after grabbing the rifle from its case and bounding up the stairs into the attic, a spot that provides a pretty great vantage point of the back pasture although it happens to be (as his friend pointed out) a fairly un-classy way to shoot an animal.  Classy or not - there's only so much coyote predation one little farm can take.

As I sat at my computer, setting up a conference call for the following morning, a gunshot cracked out from above.  I blinked.  The dogs looked up at me and blinked.  Then I hit send on the email and stood up from work to go track a coyote in the pasture.

There's a lot more to say, I feel, about the many varied moments of drama we experienced this week here sprinkled in between the many varied moments of drama we both experienced at work.  This week, more than ever, I feel like our life's a big ball of dough that we're kneading, adding this and that, squishing things together.  Just when I feel it's settled, the ball starts to rise again slowly, all the yeasty stuff inside it doubling and growing, until we have to punch it down, knead things back together again.

For the foreseeable future, we're not adding any more animals, thank goodness, although I expect goat babies here in about six weeks.  Is six weeks enough time to relocate the bucks into a new pasture and finally (good lord, finally) learn how to efficiently milk a cow?  Is it enough time to finish the goat barn so there will be space for the new kids?  Enough time to hook it up to electricity?  Enough time to figure out how to make this place tick with the busy day jobs?  This is all, all of it, wishful thinking, and I get that patience is a virtue and all that.  But for right now - consider this my white flag waving up above the list of unfinished tasks, dirty floors in the house, broken pasture fencing, the weedy garden.  Even as I write this from a chair on the front porch, three dogs sprawled out beside me, one cat purrs and rubs against my feet and Winston growls in jealousy.  The resident porch chicken (the only old hen left from our Austin house), is perched on the antique Coke cooler eating cat food, the front yard sprinkled with The Chickens Who Lived, scratching at calf patties where Rodeo spent the day in separation from Madaline.  A chorus of five goats comes pouring out from the forest since it's one hour until their dinner time and they fear I'll forget, and six donkeys compete for hay at the round bale, kicking and snorting.  I'm answering work emails and setting up meetings for next week in between writing sentences here.  Between the nights - sleepless with job worry or sleepless from running out to chase coyote - and the days alternately cleaning up after animals or creating power points - it's not boring.
It's not easy, either.

Punch down and knead, knead, knead.      

I fought the farm.  The farm won.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Happy Holidays!

Ok, so it may have been 80F outside, and the windows may have been open, but we did have Christmas music playing.  Our first Christmas tree in the new house.