Wednesday, December 20, 2006

An Inconvenient Trap

Cisco and leg-hold trap - Dec. 2006

We were walking in the rain. We walk every morning whether it is raining or foggy or cold or clear. Rain in the Oregon Coast Range is often what I would call an English mist. Today we were walking in an English mist.

We walk to keep fit, to chase away osteoporosis, to clear the brain for the day, to chatter about whatever comes to mind - books, families, community, gossip, even weather. We also, or maybe here I should say "I", walk for the dogs. Patches and Cisco live to walk. You can tell it in the way they yelp when I grab the keys to the truck or my walking buddies arrive at the front door. It is a yelp of excitement: "You're here! Yippee! Let's go! Hurry up!" These are happy dogs.

I have never quite understood this level of excitement. It would make sense if the dogs were kept inside every day, but these dogs have their own dog door. They can come and go as they please. They can eat sheep poop in the orchard, chase chipmunks hiding in the raspberry bushes, surreptitiously herd sheep, run down the driveway to bark at passing cars on the gravel road - mostly all without being scolded. But, look like you might be going out for a walk and our dogs start to bounce around, underfoot, at the door, pleading and whining, "Me too; me too!"

When we walk in the woods, it is not like the "walkies" of that funny English lady on TV years ago. It's the off-the-leash walks up the logging roads, some recently rocked to keep the trucks from sinking in the mud; others left unused and starting to cover with soft grasses and fallen pine needles. This day, we chose a logging road with more tender footing and no trucks. We call it the 'Graveyard' road because the locals have the bad habit of dumping fresh carcasses of game they have killed, either legally or illegally. There are bones everywhere. Archaeologists a thousand years from now will wonder if the 21st century residents of the Alsea Valley practiced ritual slaughter. To bring us sun? To bring us oil? To bring us closer to God? We call it the Graveyard road because it is peacefully quiet...and dead.

Not so peaceful. One of my dogs was shrieking. Shrieking in pain or fear. Whatever it was, he kept screaming and screaming. I couldn't see him, but I started to run into the dark, dank woods. Off the road. Towards the terrible noise. My first thought was the dog had had an encounter with a porcupine. I saw him in the gloom, at the base of a large snag. Why wasn't he running back to me? Did something have a hold of his face? My mind raced next to thoughts of a badger or a raccoon, jaws holding him tight. But his face turned toward me from time to time as he screamed. His paw was caught. In a hole? Under a root? Cisco is such a baby about his feet and anything touching them. I crouched beside him throwing off my gloves and reaching for his paw. It was only then I realized Cisco was caught in the vise-grip of a leg-hold trap, baited with the very bones that named our road.

As I pushed against Cisco to stop him pulling harder against the trap, I thought about coyotes, known to bite off a foot to get out of a trap. Cisco was panicked. What would he do? I put my arms around him from behind and tried to keep him secure while I struggled to press down on one side of the trap. I could barely make it move and, by pressing down on only one side, I pinched Cisco's paw harder. He screamed. I was not strong enough to hold the dog and open the trap. I wasn't sure I was even strong enough to open the trap at all.

My friends had stayed on the road as I bounded thoughtlessly into the woods to save my dog. After all, it could have been a cougar attack, though this never crossed my mind. I yelled for help. Nancy came running. Janet hesitated, still unsure about the wisdom of entering the forest. Nancy crouched beside me and called to Janet again. I knew now how the trap worked and babbled what I needed. Both women looked at me in confusion. I tried to explain. Cisco yelled and struggled, his large teeth just inches from their faces as they bent over the trap. I grabbed his muzzle and pointed his head away. "Push! Push hard!" The first attempt failed. Were none of us strong enough? "Try again! Lean down on it! With all your weight!" Now I was panicked. The adrenalin kicked in for all three of us as Nancy and Janet pushed hard on the springs. The trap opened enough for me to pull Cisco's paw free; then it snapped shut again, this time on itself.

I let Cisco go and stood up shaking. He sat down to lick his paw, then looked up expectantly. "Can we go now?" There was no three-legged hopping. Cisco scampered toward the road. "I'm okay. My feet are okay. No, you cannot take a look. Let's get out of here!" I figured his adrenaline was probably so cranked he couldn't feel pain yet. I thanked Nancy and Janet and realized I was still babbling. I needed to get Cisco home to take a look at his paw and then to a vet. I needed to sit down. I needed to calm myself. I don't even remember saying good-bye as I started to walk back down the road to the car.

As I walked, I was surprised my hands had become so cold so fast. I had put my gloves back on and was now aware of that tingling sensation you get when you warm your hands too fast next to the fire. I pulled my gloves back off. My right hand was covered in blood mixed with the grimy dirt from the forest floor. There was some on Cisco's face too. Where had he been cut? I didn't see any blood on his paw. Slowly, I realized I was the one who was bleeding. In the confusion, Cisco had bitten me and I hadn't even felt it.

Four weeks later, I still have purple under my thumbnail, a mark from one tooth on the side of it, and a prescription in my wallet for antibiotics I never had to take. Cisco ended up being the luckiest of dogs. The vet was amazed he had no broken bones, although getting a look at his foot was a trick in itself, requiring a muzzle, a blanket and three people. Our youngest daughter returned with me to find the sprung trap, except it had been reset! It took two of us, but we were able to pull out three feet of rebar holding it in the ground and then carried the trap back to our house because it had been set illegally. I had already checked with the logging company that owned the ground. Yes, they had trappers, but this was not one of them. They didn't want to tell me what to do about the trap, but did say, come spring, there would be active trapping in the area for beaver devastating their recently planted Douglas fir forest.

I have since warned my neighbors. Most of us hike in the woods with our dogs. Most of us don't think about traps as a hazard on these outings. I'm not sure how to proceed with this new knowledge that there is something called a fur license to trap beaver or coyotes or bobcats or any other animal that trips the metal jaws. I can't understand it myself because it's not in my nature, this trapping thing.

I call more often now for Cisco and Patches to stay close when we walk, especially when we near the Graveyard road. As they dash into the dark of the forest, I hold my breath and wait for the sound of screaming. I whistle until I see the bounding bodies, the wagging tails, the frosted breath as both dash towards me, "We're here. What do you want? Why don't you trust us? We're happy dogs!" I exhale, then rejoin the conversation with my friends, as we continue down the logging road.

(Cisco is standing next to the leg-hold trap we yanked from the forest floor. It was bigger than I remembered. Oh, yeah, the name of this chapter is an intentional play on Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth...sign of the times)

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Prolapsed What?

Leaping Lamb Farm 12-06 (gate, lambs, fall hay field) 004

This is one of those graphic farm stories you might want to skip, unless you raise or take care of animals on a regular basis. I certainly would have passed on this experience if I had been able, because even describing the events as they unfolded still sounds so incredibly impossible...and unforseen. Apparently, I should have read my How To Raise Sheep book with more diligence and care. If you are a vet, this story may have some interest and you will nod your head in understanding and probably furrow your brow once you hear how we handled it. The one thing that all agree who have dealt with sheep - they are a hardy lot and what you think should kill them often does not.

Of course, as an interesting side note (and one that may save a sheep in the future when you find yourself driving through the rural countryside, so I shall add it here), there are things that kill sheep, little things that don't seem quite fair. Getting stuck on their back in a ditch in the field will kill sheep soon enough if no one tugs on a leg and turns them right-side up. That's your part, or at least to notify the owner of the sheep. The multiple stomachs don't like to be up-ended for any length of time. They twist and then bloat. It can get pretty ugly. And, yes, this has happened to us several times (the sheep on their backs part).

I have received calls from neighbors on their way to work, "I think you have a dead sheep in the pasture." Sure enough, I can see in the distance a downed ewe, her legs sticking straight in the air, as if rigor mortis had set in. I am sure she is dead, wondering how I could be such a bad shepherd ... until I see the slightest twitch of an ear and know we are lucky this time. Thankfully, it doesn't take much to right a sheep. She will sway for a bit until her head clears, then move off to find the rest of the flock as if nothing has happened ... except she could have died.

All things being equal, a sheep on her back is a walk in the park. That was not the problem here. I should have had an inkling lambing season was going to be difficult when I started having troubles before I ever saw a lamb. I didn't actually know I had trouble until Salty, one of the former owner's of our farm, stopped over to fill his water jugs and, looking out the window, thought he saw a ewe in distress.

Why was it, every time either Gisela or Salty came over, we had some animal down or birthing or dying? I think Salty asked himself the same question. I, on the other hand, was thankful he recognized we had a problem, as he obviously had better eyes and more years of experience at this. Salty said he thought I had a ewe with a prolapsed uterus and we needed to catch her and fix it. Fix it? In my defense, I didn't know what I was supposed to be looking for and, once pointed out, what I was looking at either. I followed him out the door and grabbed a rope from the wood shop for good measure.

As we trotted down the orchard, I scanned the flock for a prolapsed uterus. A what? Salty informed me, "A big, red 'balloon' hanging out of the back side of the sheep." I saw it. The ewe looked around at us and then at her backside. Oh, my God, where did that come from and how were we going to get it back in? We needed to catch the ewe, that, while in some pain and hobbled by the prolapse, seemed quite able to run, avoiding our outstretched arms and poorly flung lasso.

I am quite the girl when it comes to catching sheep. It is not a natural act to fling myself upon a fleeing animal in a body tackle. I would rather wrap my hands in wool and hang on, if I could ever get close enough to grab onto anything more than air. Salty chased the ewe down to the river's edge. If she crossed into the cold water, we would lose her since there was no easy way across in that area. Luckily, I found them both on the ground, leaning into the wet moss and mud of the river bank, Salty's legs wrapped around the ewe to hold her down. Then, I listened to his directions.

I was going to need some warm water,soap and rubber gloves. He couldn't quite remember how Gisela used to do this because he was always on the other end, but somehow, I needed to push the prolapsed member back into the ewe. I ran to the house and decided on the way to call my sheep mentor, Russ, and ask his advice. This had happened to his sheep before. It wasn't pretty, but it was possible to correct. His voice was calm and cool as he went through the procedure. My former city life seemed farther away than ever.

With the directions in my head, I rejoined a now soggy and tired Salty on the banks of the Honey Grove. I washed the ewe, put antiseptic on my gloves, and grabbed the offending part. With steady pressure, I started to push, breathing slowly, whispering cooing sounds to the ewe that had ceased to struggle, but grunted softly. All of a sudden the prolapse retreated back into place. I couldn't believe it. She was whole once again with everything where it shoud be. We let the ewe up. I slipped the lasso over her neck. We had caught her once. I didn't want to let her go just yet.

Salty could not leave fast enough. I wasn't even sure I would ever see him again. He would probably tell Gisela to come get her own water next time. It was lambing season. Who knew what other horrible afflictions lurked around the farm. I called Russ back to tell him of our success and he mildly informed me to keep an eye on the ewe. She could prolapse again. What?!!! I had an appointment in town. She would be fine. I would just lock the ewe in the garden to localize her movements and check on her when I returned home.

The ewe prolapsed while I was gone and by the time I finally found her, since she had also broken out of the garden, the skies were dark and cloudy with rain and night falling. I had no idea how long she had been in this shape. The longer the prolapse; the harder the retraction. But, this time, I knew the procedure. This time it was Greg in the mud holding down the ewe. This time, the prolapse wouldn't retreat no matter how hard or how long I pushed. I called Russ again. Could he come over and help?

We literally dragged the ewe up to the barn, both for light and only slightly more sanitary conditions on the barn floor. In the meantime, I had been wondering how a pregnant ewe could have a prolapsed uterus if she still had babies inside her. It didn't make anatomical sense. As Greg was holding the ewe and Russ and I were lying side by side on the ground trying to get four hands around this red balloon to push with even pressure, Russ admitted that maybe this wasn't the uterus. He wasn't all that up on female anatomy. I thought so. This was a prolapsed vagina. At least that cleared up one mystery. The babies were still inside and needed a way out.

We almost gave up. We probably pushed for 30 minutes and everyone, including the ewe was starting to get tired. Then, the boys had a thought. What if we used gravity to help? What if we put the ewe on her back and lifted her hind end off the ground. Just like that, the vagina retreated back to its safe spot. We had long ago given up with trying to keep everything clean and now all I could hope was a shot of antibiotics might knock out any infection.

We took one other preventative measure. We inserted a prolapse paddle into the ewe to discourage further problems. You have to figure, if there is a prolapse paddle, this is not that rare an occurrence in the lambing world. There was even an entire section in my sheep book once I looked under 'prolapse'. The paddle would keep the sheep safe until she was ready to deliver. Russ told me I would need to pull the paddle right before delivery and the lambs should birth just fine. Since most of our ewes deliver their lambs in the middle of the night, how was I supposed to time this? Did I need to sleep in the barn? It didn't look as if my own problems were diminishing.

As it turned out, I was ultimately well aware when the ewe went into labor. I required both Russ' and his wife, Carolyn's, assistance again. But, that is another story for another time. It is important to note only that this rural life is filled with neighbors willing to leave a warm fire or dinner table to assist when called. We are blessed with that kind of friendship. We are also blessed when sheep do not need any assistance from us, either stuck upside down in a ditch or trailing things from their backsides, but we are their shepherds and, so, we do the best we can when necessary.

(This photo shows our new Katahdin sheep with 3-day-old lambs. They are said to be "easy-keepers" both on the land and during lambing. We have brought them in to try and do away with stories like the one just recounted. I will report back in the spring, but these little darlings all birthed without assistance early this fall.)

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Something Had to Give

Leaping Lamb Farm 12-06 (gate, lambs, fall hay field) 009

Well, the good news is the gate latch held. The bad news is the corner of the barn ripped off, taking with it the gate, dangling now at a dangerous angle by the latch. It was one of those mornings again.

When I looked toward the barn, having just grabbed my first cup of coffee, I didn't see any horses looking back. Usually, by poking my head out the back door, I can at least elicit a whinny, mildly interpreted as, "Get your sorry ass over here and let us out because we are dying of hunger." Except Tater, the one grumbling the most, is a big fatty. Why couldn't he be more patient?

Instead, this particular morning, there was nothing. With kids, no sound and no action usually means trouble. The same follows with animals. I picked up the pace towards the barn yard, only to find our three horses grazing peacefully, as if nothing was wrong. Except, they were in the barn yard and not confined in their loafing shed area. The two wearing blankets, meant only for indoor or under cover use, were soaked through from the rain.

I checked for wounds on all three horses because a gate doesn't pull out by its bolts without a body slam from a large animal, either directly against the gate or several bodies pushed tightly and leaning hard in an attempt to escape a kick or a bite. That would be Tater bullying my horse, Chaco, in a show of testosterone and youth. I was thinking through my plans for the day and schedules to be changed to accommodate a vet visit. Who could have a 'real' job while living on a farm when the unexpected always seemed to rear its head at the most inconventient times?

I couldn't believe it. The horses were fine. No scrapes, no bumps, no swollen joints. Just horses happy to be on new, green grass that didn't look like the new green grass on their side of the fence. Even happier when I took off their blankets that now seemed to weigh 50 pounds a piece. How was I going to dry these? Certainly not in my clothes dryer. This was not the time of year to wash the blankets outside with a scrub brush and I was not going to put these nasty, dirty things into the same place I put the whites! I spread them out on saw horses in the tack room and turned up the heat.

The broken gate was the only barrier between the horse's loafing shed and the barn yard. I found one hanger bolt on the ground beneath the gate. I found the other about 20 feet away in the grass. I had no idea what happened, exactly, but I did know re-securing the gate was going to be a bitch because the corner of the barn was lying on the ground next to the hanger bolt.

Not sure I could handle the reconstruction, I called my neighbor, Dave, for a look-see. I had the tools and I even had a possible 4 x 4 to fit at the corner of the barn, but the nails needed to hold it all together (also known as 'spikes')looked daunting in both length and breadth and I wasn't exactly sure how I would hammer them in.

It's a good thing Dave was around. He is an ex-logger with a great deal of enthusiasm for hitting things hard. We came up with a plan to reattach the gate, but when the spike hit the old-growth wood in the barn frame, even Dave's wailing almost came to a stop. I have never seen someone pound a nail with a sledge so hard yet for such little impression. The wood was like stone and every time Dave drove down on the nail, with his thumb just inches away, I flinched. Between that and threading the hanger bolts for the gate, I am afraid, if left to my own devices, Greg would have returned home from work to a temporary panel lashed to the posts with baling twine and no easy way in or out from the corral.

Dave smacked the spikes until they were in and then hit the 4 x 4 a couple more times just for good measure. We rehung the gate in such a way Tater could not use one of his latest moves, which was to stick his head through the rungs of the gate and pull up, thus lifting the gate off its hinges,defying our newly devised gate latch. If you can't open one side of a gate; try for the other - he is not a stupid animal.

The repair was complete. The sun was shining. No animals had been wounded in the event. The day had a feeling of normalcy. So, my plans were off by an hour, but it could have been far worse. Just a little hiccup at the farm. Just a little "oops" from the horses. It is probably better I don't know exactly what happened to rip the corner off the barn, hang the gate at a dangerous angle for escape, place three horses in the barn yard instead of safe under the loafing shed. If Tater could talk, he would probably lie about whose fault it was. Better to leave it alone and get on to the next project on the list of farm projects, the ones actually written down and planned for the day.

(Photo is pretty self explanatory. The gate is 'down', thus the horses are no longer in the loafing shed, but rather, farther down the barnyard behind me eating grass)

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Friday, November 24, 2006

A Lamb named Piglet

11-29-06 IMG_0416

Piglet is my newest bummer lamb. I didn't name him Piglet because he likes to eat, but rather because when he was born I could hold him in my cupped hands. He was so very tiny. He weighed 3 pounds by the fish scale, my method for weighing baby lambs. I put them in a cloth grocery bag and hang the bag on the scale hook to get a reading. 3-ish pounds was about right. It's not an exact science

We had almost missed him in the field when he was first born. We saw his tall white brother, but the small pile of brown lying on the dry grass could have been a mole hill, and we weren't exactly expecting lambs that day anyway. We were, however, expecting about 75 people for our annual barn party. All eyes were on preparations, not livestock in states of delivery.

I was on time for once and figured I'd be ready before the first guests arrived. On a quick trip to the Mercantile, our daughter had seen a ewe down in the lower pasture with what she thought looked like a lamb. We trotted out for a quick look and discovered the mother had two lambs. Best to leave her alone while she bonded with her babies. Best to focus on the party.

Greg came in and mentioned the two new lambs.
I said, "Yup, we've already checked them...the black one and the white one."
He looked at me quizzically. "No, the two white ones."
"In the lower field just past the barn field?"
"No," he said, "In the hay pasture."

I looked at him with a feeling the farm was once again interrupting my best laid plans, then went out to check the other set of twins at the opposite end of the farm. They looked okay, but there had been coyote sightings up our valley and the lambs might not be safe at night. Greg grabbed one and I grabbed the other. It was a long walk back to the chicken yard, the only place on the farm with a tall woven-wire fence on all sides. The ewe was confused and ran circles around us until we put her lambs on the ground. The geese squawked in protest. I hurried back to my preparations. Now I was running late.

The next thing I know, Greg and his friend, Arfa, who had arrived early for the party, are walking towards me carrying a small bundle. In Arfa's arms, cradled like he would cradle his daughter, is a tiny, weak Piglet. Arfa had seen him lying in the field, the ewe standing some distance away with her other lamb, a clear sign she was rejecting him. I took Piglet from Arfa and enlisted Greg's help to go back out into the field to retrieve the ewe and her white lamb. We needed to do some quick triage for Piglet or he would die before the party was over.

The two things I like about new lambs: you can catch them pretty easily, and their mothers will follow you anywhere if you carry the lambs at nose level. Even so, my plan to also put this mother and her babies in the chicken yard was a half hour procedure because of the distance and the cajoling. Just because the mother will follow doesn't mean it's not problematic when she loses sight or decides to run back the way she came in case her baby is behind her. It also always amazes me how lambs of any weight can feel heavy after only a little while. My arms were getting tired. I smelled like sheep.

Once in the chicken yard, I did a quick milking and tubed Piglet, which means I stuck a tube down his throat into his stomach and then poured the milk into the tube. This way I knew he had a belly full of colostrom and would be okay for a while, at least until the guests had gone home. I raced back to the house to try to salvage my party preparations and change my clothes.

I would have left it at that, except arriving guests asked to see the new lambs. I mean, who wouldn't? Gisela wanted to do more than look. She had years of experience birthing lambs and she wanted to see Piglet nurse to make sure he was all right. He was almost too little to reach the teat and his mother was bothered by his attempts. The next thing I know, Gisela, in her nice white skirt, is showing me, in my nice tan pants and white top, how to drop the ewe on her side so the teat is at a better height for Piglet. We placed Piglet on his mother and held her down while we tried to fit the nipple in his mouth. He didn't really have the hang of sucking yet, but he got a little milk.

And, that is how Piglet's life began. I ended up bringing him inside the next several nights because of the cold, just to get him over the hump of survival. I had straw in a box and a heating pad. In the mornings I taught him to drink from a baby bottle and took him back out to the chicken yard and his mom. Pretty soon, I was his mom. Pretty soon, there were more sheep with new lambs in the chicken yard.

These days, Piglet and I are good buddies. He is almost 10 weeks old and I am trying to wean him from the expensive formula he adores. He fits his name better now with a round belly and short little bow legs. He'll stay with us on the farm and be a companion for the ram from April through October, when the ewes are attending their new crop of lambs and don't need the attentions of a randy male in their midst. It's not a bad life for a wether (a neutered male sheep). The dogs treat Piglet as their own and clean his face and lick the water from his back when he lets them.

From time to time, Arfa asks about Piglet too. I am thinking as the lamb gets bigger, he will outgrow the reason for his name and we should find him a new name. I am thinking we might call him Arfa.

(Because Piglet is a chocolate brown, he does not photograph well. He is covered with hay in this photo because he always stands under me while I am putting hay in the feeders. Patches, one of his "guardians" is observing.)

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Salmon gone wild

Leaping Lamb Farm Fall 06- Salmon

They are mostly dead now, lying pink in the shallow waters or caught in a snag on the Honey Grove. A few shadows still loom beneath the surface, flip sideways in the current, struggle in their fight for life, dying a lttle bit more with every extra effort to swim higher upstream. The Chinook are back.

It's our good fortune we live on a spawning creek for Chinook and Coho salmon because we get to see an incredible act of inherited memory. There is nothing more mesmerizing than standing on the creek bank looking (listening really) for the telltale fins and churning water, signs the fish have returned. I feel like I am in the middle of a National Geographic special. Greg says it is their sense of smell that leads these fish back to where they were born. Janet says to watch as they swim upsteam in pairs or more, several males fighting for the right to fertilize the eggs laid in the sandy shoals just before the adults die*.

On the Honey Grove it seemed we had more salmon coming upstream this year than past seasons. Maybe the deluge last winter gave the stream beds a good cleaning. The locals say it is nothing like thirty years ago. "There were so many fish we could almost walk across their backs." Fish so thick they filled the streams to the banks? Of course we had our own fish stories this year. "You can't believe it! These fish are three, four feet long...or maybe two and a half." I think it was the magnification in the water. Maybe that is how all fish stories begin.

I have one other fish story to tell, in the event it helps someone down the line. It is local to the Northwest, about the darker history of dead and dying salmon. At least for people who have dogs. Dead salmon poisons dogs. We learned this our first year living on the Honey Grove because we have Cisco, a dog with a small brain when it comes to food; one who will eat sheep poop, and horse poop, and geese poop, and apparently dead stinky fish. I had been forewarned by a farm neighbor and was almost ready with the medicine I needed. I had meant to buy it, but decayed fish wasn't yet top of mind in those early days.

I ended up having to make a special trip to town for Terramaycin since the Alsea Mercantile, that has almost anything one could need, did not have this particular antibiotic, and my dog was dying. You have about three days to catch the symptoms and then you either lose the dog or have an extremely expensive vet bill and a dog with liver damage. I think I caught it at day two, plus the hours it took to drive 40 miles to and from town. I haven't seen Cisco interested in eating fish since that summer, but they say the dogs that survive gain a natural immunity. He still eats poop, so fish is not a stretch.

Which leads me to this conclusion. If you ever come to our farm in the fall you may get the chance to see the salmon fighting up the creek and be part of your own National Geographic special. Just remember. You really don't want to let Cisco give you kisses.

(You have to look hard at this photo, but, I promise, there is a very large salmon fighting its way upstream)

* Actually, Janet and her husband became so fascinated with the returning salmon, they have started hosting a salmon festival here in Alsea every November with speakers and walks along the restored salmon habitat creeks on their property. Of course, after all this exercise, there is a feast of home-cooked, locally sourced food with salmon staked around an open fire the way the Native Americans used to cook them. It's worth checking out the Thyme Garden website for recipes and other things they do:

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Monday, November 06, 2006

Cow Nests

Leaping Lamb Farm Summer 06 - cows and calves

We never did find our calves on our own. Then again, I never knew I was supposed to be looking for a cow nest in the woods. I thought the coyotes had hauled off both the baby and the mom the first time. What kind of a bad farmer was I to have allowed this to happen?! We had hiked out at 3 AM to the far field near the forest to find out what kind of trouble our cows were in. There had been bellowing going on for an hour. We figured it was something bad. What we saw in the light of our failing flashlight was a dark figure on the ground at the feet of one of our heifers. Did it move or was it just a cow pattie in the moonlight?

We weren't supposed to have calves for another three weeks. I had looked at my chart and figured the end of July. Hank, our borrowed bull, had been in with the cows from November to January. His owner corrected me. The calves were due in August. Yet here we were; it was the end of July and we had a black and white calf up off the ground and swaying on its feet. As we were a fair distance from the barn, it was the middle of the night, and I had my nightgown tucked into my jeans, we decided to wait for the light of day to herd the cows back to the barn field for better security and to control their movement around our 40 acre farm. We were still expecting another calf.

We woke our youngest daughter and visiting nephew to the news of the new calf, but when we went out to find it there was no sign of the mother and baby. I mean, absolutely nothing to prove there had been a new life dropped in the middle of the field other than a slight trace of blood-stained grass. Could coyotes take down a full-grown cow and calf in one go?

Instead of my daily exercise hike up the logging roads behind the farm, I enlisted the kids and Karen, the neighbor who had thought she was just in for a gravel road and a bit of a climb, to tramp through the wet woods and sticky, prickly undergrowth looking for our missing half ton brown and whites. It really was quite amazing that in three hours of searching we couldn't find anything other than hoof prints to nowhere. It was hot; there were flies buzzing around; I was desperate to know how I could have failed so badly at my cow husbandry.

For two more mornings, I scoured the back woods and every sheep hiding place I could think of. It was only on the third day I admitted to Hank's owners my horrible faux-pas. Marian laughed out loud. Didn't I know that cows hid their calves like deer and you could almost be on top of them and never know? She also mentioned, if a predator ever dragged off a calf, unlikely at best, the mother would have carried on bellowing and crashing around and there wouldn't have been any question where she was hiding. Relieved to know the calf was most likely safe somewhere right under our nose, we stopped looking.

The fifth day out, a couple loggers came on the property to scout some trees. I mentioned the "lost" cows in the woods. It took George and Chris maybe 5 minutes to find them! We hiked off a trail I had ignored for its steepness; bushwacked down into a ravine; and there in a nest of leaves under a fallen tree lay a beautiful, little black and white heifer curled in a ball. The mom stood over her, then tried to lead us away. She was nervous and started to snort.

Not having learned my lesson the first time about grabbing babies when you see them, I ran back to the house to get the kids for their first viewing, finally. Of course, on return, the cows had vanished. My nephew was beginning to think we were imagining things and, as he was leaving in two days, time was running out.

This story has a happy ending. The cow came out of hiding the day Woody was leaving for home, as if nothing had happened. She was hungry and we slammed the gates to the barn field shut so both she, her baby, and the still pregnant heifer could be contained under our watchful eyes. Any thoughts of catching the wee-one to administer a vaccine went immediately out the window. She was fast and she had no intention of coming near us. Then, again, the mom always stood between us and I remembered the warning the loggers had made, "Don't get between a cow and her calf if you don't want to get bowled over and stomped in the dirt." So noted.

I continued to watch our second heifer for signs she was ready to deliver. I could tell she was close. So close she knocked the gate off its hinges and disappeared into the undergrowth for five days. This time we didn't search. She was too mean and it was too hot. We found a few nests, some with matted grass, others with fallen leaves and moss. Never that far off the path. Never obvious. Her calf was quiet as a fawn. The large heifer reappeared with a tall bull calf about a week later. It was healthy but stupid. Apparently most male calves fall into this category. Something about taking at least six month to get a brain. They must just survive on their brawn until then.

All was good on the farm. And the summer continued, bees droning down near the slow creek, corn stalks growing by inches a day, azure blue skies with never a cloud, and the gentle grunting of the hiefers as their babies suckled milk and fell asleep in the sun.

(Luckily the cows decided to return to their pasture, which didn't mean we could catch any of them any easier, but at least we knew where they were!)

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

One ball or two

Leaping Lamb Farm 8-06 (calves, flowers) 008
"Banding" male calves and lambs doesn't sound that bad in a sentence. It even elicits a picture of painting a wide swath of bright color on the animals for future identification. But, ask a couple of guys to help you "band the boys" and they start to look uncomfortable and pale. Add to the mix several female friends, with a basic knowledge of animal husbandry from years ago when their kids had goats and pigs for 4-H, and you have a farm recipe for confusion with the castration process. A big word for little balls on our two weeks old calf.

I wasn't exactly ready the morning we all came face to face with the ellastrator (the implement used to hold the band wide as you slip it over the balls). I had my three female hiking buddies and an extra husband headed out past the barn for a walk up the back '40' to the logging trails above. All in sneakers or hiking boots. Allen was the first to notice our male calf had become separated from his mother on the other side of the split rail fence. We had been warned early on not to get between a cow and her calf and had thus been unable, up until now, to get within 10 feet of this calf since he was born. Sort of a problem because he needed a shot and a band. Now, here he was, within easy reach...or so it seemed.

We figured, afterward, a two week old calf probably weights about 100 lbs. Even with five of us, a lariat that no one really knew how to throw, and barking, excited dogs stirring the mix, it was Greg who finally brought the calf down. He tackled it and hung on for dear life, upside down under its legs, before they both tumbled to the ground in the mud. Bull-dogging isn't as easy as it looks at the rodeos and I think Greg was lame for a week. The calf was pretty stunned too, but not so stunned it didn't take two guys to hold it down.

After running to the barn for my needles, my vaccine, and my ellastrator and bands, Greg and Allen pushed the calf over enough for me to look between its legs. The calf's balls were hairier and larger than my 8 lb. lambs and I wondered if the bands would even fit. I mentioned my general concern. The guys turned their heads away; the girls moved in for a discussion.

Now, banding young animals can be a bit tricky because you need to make sure the balls are in the sack or else you will end up with a bull or a ram anyway. I usually get confused at this part since once the animal suspects what you are doing it draws everything up tight. I stretched the band wide and dropped it down. Once you remove the ellastrator the band tightens and, voila, you release your victim. Except this time, Nancy stopped me. She knelt down and started feeling the sack. Then she looked at me. "I don't think you have anything in there," she said. I felt around. The guys looked uncomfortable and tired.

Getting a band off to try again is harder than placing it in the first place. You need to carefully cut through the thick rubber without nicking your patient. Greg's pocket knife was in his back pocket and unreachable as he was lying on the ground with the calf. Allen couldn't let go his grasp of the calves hind legs so I had the dubious pleasure of reaching into my neighbor's back pocket to find his, with his wife looking on. I started sawing carefully through the band, making everyone very nervous.

The second go-round with the ellastrator Nancy was on her knees beside me as we kneaded and dug around in this sorry calf's abdomen. In the end, we could only be sure we had secured one ball, not two. There was some uninformed discussion about the likelihood of the calf only having one ball and then the guys had had enough. Band the damn thing and let it up to join its mother. There had been enough "ball" talk to last until next spring's lambing season...and that I could do on my own.

The calf hopped up as if nothing had happened and soon joined his mother. We forgot about our walk. Once again an unplanned farm event had changed everyone's daily routine. It's not often you lie in the dirt with your neighbors, holding down livestock, feeling for balls. And, in the end, I love my neighbors for coming to our assistance, and I even love the miracle of birthing lambs and calves, but I sure wish sometimes they were all girls. There is no easy way around the balls.

(Photo of our boy calf before his life changed from bull to steer. He and his sister are called White Face, progeny from an Angus and a Hereford. For some reason, I am stuck on calling them Oreos.)

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Monday, October 16, 2006

Jumping cows and leaping lambs

Beach Retreat and Lamb Photos 050
Who knew cows could jump four foot split rail fences? Then again, who knew our heifers wouldn't walk over a small wooden bridge to join their calves on the other side of the creek the day they all escaped and hiked a mile up the road to our neighbor's house? They had already blazed a trail through terrain I thought was impassable to cows. What was the big deal about a three foot bridge? Heck, why not just jump over the creek?

No, these girls took the path of least resistance as we tried to push them along the most direct route to the "barn field", aka cow jail, where I would dare them to escape again. They jumped out of the orchard and into my flower garden, landing with cloven hooves in the middle of the hostas. Karen and Allen, our neighbors from up the road, the neighbors who had called to inform us the cows were in their backyard and who were, therefore, quickly learning the ins and outs of driving cattle (this was the second time in as many days), looked at me in surprise. I think I might have been swearing at the time.

The heifers were becoming more anxious (and dangerous) by the minute now they were in the flower garden, unfamiliar territory to them. Twelve hundred pound brown and white bovine bellowing for their babies is not a pretty sight from ground level. Where was my cow pony? Right, he was on a far pasture getting fat and not really trained for round ups amongst the roses anyway. There was no easy way out from the flower garden. All the paths were designed for people. One way led to the driveway and the road; the other had a swinging gate, maybe wide enough for a cow, but how to hold it open and not be in a direct line of two charging, wild eyed, and now mad mothers?

"Big arms! Big arms!" I yelled at my friends. What this really means is to spread your arms wide giving the impression you are bigger than you seem. If you have a stick in hand, well, even better. The peripheral vision of most farm animals allows them to take all this in and the smallest movement can effect a total change of direction. Chickens are the best for this, an irrelevant but useful factoid...if you have chickens.

Of course, we had been using big arms to start and I had even taken to 'wapping' the stick directly on the ground in front of one of the cows to get her to cross the bridge. When she decided to turn around and plow right past me, I tossed the stick and ducked behind a tree. Big arms are, after all, only the illusion of strength and size.

And then, it was over. The gate was held as wide as possible, the girls escaped the garden, crashed across the creek to within nose distance of their calves, another gate was opened, some pushing and herding, cow jail was achieved. As we walked back up the road to Karen and Allen's house to collect my car, I thanked them for all their help, starting with the original, apologetic phone call as I was heading out the door to the dentist, "Did I know my cows were in their back yard...again?" At least canceling a dentist appointment due to escaped cows is not seen as a "dog ate my homework" excuse around here.

And, the leaping lamb part of the story? While I never knew cows could jump, I was also not aware that lambs at play have this wonderful and hilarious way of running and leaping in the air, all four hooves off the ground at once. I have tried to capture this movement in photos, to show my more urban friends and family what I mean, with little success. Leaping lambs are the manifestation of an unexpected lightness of spirit we can all appreciate. They represent childhood and innocence and a carefree existence and they make us smile. Karen and Allen helped me out with the cows that day because they are good neighbors, but maybe also because you never know when you might just see a leaping lamb somewhere on the farm, and then, who cares if the cows jumped over the fence.

(This is a photo of Peter Rabbit, a bummer lamb from our spring crop. A bummer is a lamb that has been abandoned by his mother. I became his surrogate mama, with a fresh serving of formula every four hours for the first several weeks!)

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Home on the (free) range

Leaping Lamb Farm 9-06 (calves, produce, U-Latch display) 006
"Free-range" is obviously one of those old time traditions (way of life is probably a more accurate description here) that has become a modern marketing revelation in the grocery stores. These days we like to think whatever animal provided the free-range (eggs, milk, meat, ...) was able to freely go hither and yon- and that makes us feel good, or at least not so bad to be eating...whatever.

Having been on this farm now for three years, it is becoming obvious why animal husbandry took a dim view of wandering domesticates. Probably the wives and cooks were the first to cool to animals on the loose every time the chickens, the sheep, the goats, or the cows found their way into the vegetable garden. Flower gardens are a close second, as there is nothing like looking at a neatly planted row of stems, the flowering heads nibbled off before the deer ever had a chance.

Lest we think these animals know not what they do, I would say, "Think again!" because I am sure the sheep have been keeping a close eye on the garden gate and the chickens, for sure, can't wait until I turn over some new earth and plant something delicate and fragile.

I will readily admit I am not the best of gardeners, since my philosophy of doing something once and moving on to other tasks does not work well when it comes to young plants and weeds. Okay, I really don't like gardening that much. The smell of the earth is nice and the promise of flowers and veggies is a fruitful reward, but the sheep and chickens have pretty much ruined the excitement. It seems every time a bed begins to have potential to burst forth in flower, the chickens either scratch the living daylights out of it or the sheep figure out how to tramp through eating every last leaf.

The sheep barged into the garden this summer two days in a row - once while I had my back turned and the gate not securely fastened; the next day, with memories still fresh of delectable greens, they pushed hard enough the gate hinges ripped out of the old rotted post. First they hit the sunflowers and then the young leaves of the new grape vines we planted for a small vineyard. At least with sheep I can get the dogs to help me corral them and push them in a flock back out the gate, which I did with a big stick yanked out of a vegetable bed...and curses.

The horses were another matter. They didn't break down any gates to get into the garden. They waited for the sheep to do that. Trying to herd our three horses with dogs doesn't work. And, trying to herd three horses who think they should pretend they are wild, while running by (or through) rows of corn, jumping over (or stepping on) newly placed layers of weed cloth for the young grape vines, stopping to rip out whatever green plant they think they can grasp before I get to them with waving arms and shaking fists, well, it's not a pretty sight. The only solution is to lure one of them close enough I can wrap my fingers through a mane, try to reach the old baling twine hanging on the fence, fashion a halter of sorts, and cajole a resistant herd animal to the other side of the garden gate. Three times in all.

"Free range" is still the operative word on the farm this fall. Our locker lambs grow fat in the hay fields and the peacock is no longer chased from the vegetable garden since he finished off all our starts for late season lettuce. But, we became tired of the calls from the neighbors about our cows in their back yards, so they and their calves now reside in the gated barn field. And, our seven new lambs and their moms are secured in the chicken yard with the geese (the hens know how to escape during the day) because there is a coyote on the loose and it is our only area with woven wire fencing from top to bottom. It's a pastoral vision of sorts; however, it is only a matter of time before one or all of the animals are not exactly where I had intended. That's the "free" part of "free range" the grocery store doesn't tell anyone about.

(look closely at the photo - there are chickens hiding in the corn)

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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

I'm not crazy

With all the chaos of a farm, living on it can make one forgetful, or at least distracted, as can turning 50. One of my recurring bad habits is to forget I have turned on the hose to the water tub in the cow field. How do I finally remember? Actually, I usually discover this oversight when I want to clean up the kitchen from dinner, or worse still, my husband decides to take a bath, and there is only the hiss of air in the faucets. This means I have de-primed the pump and come close to emptying the spring-fed tank supplying water not only to the barn, but also to the house.

In our home, whoever leaves the hose on gets to go to the distant pump house down by the creek to re-prime the system, no matter the weather or the darkness outside. Over the past several years I have become an expert at crouching in the mud, pressed against the block doorway next to weird bugs frozen on the walls in the beam of my flashlight, to bleed the air from the line. Only then will the pump start. Sometimes I am lucky and it only takes me five minutes; other times I can be at the pump house for half an hour. It’s funny how a 50’ pipeline can fill with air in the time it takes to round up the sheep and horses, feed and secure them for the night, put out hay for the cows, collect the chicken eggs, lock up the hen house, cook dinner, eat it, and then, …oh damn!

So, I was not surprised the first time I found our horses, Tater and Moralecia, happily finishing off a bale of hay left in the barn aisle for future feedings, the gate to one of the stalls wide open. While remembering to turn off the water, I must have forgotten to bolt the stall door. The next morning I was fairly put out to find the horses once again standing in the middle of the barn. This time Tater had managed to lock himself in the large sheep pen, although it was difficult to figure out how he had squeezed past the two ATVs to get into it. He had also managed to fall through the floor in one spot but had obviously cared little as he continued to search the floor for food. Okay, he did look a little sheepish about his predicament. Moralecia was skittish and nervous, knowing this was bad behavior on her part, as she backed away from a torn bag of salt and minerals. The door to the horse stall had swung shut and she didn’t see an easy way back to the other side.

I had proof now - I was obviously losing my mind. I released Moralecia and Tater into the loafing shed behind their stalls and watched them beeline to the water tank as I wondered exactly how much salt they had consumed. That night, while feeding, I checked every latch twice – and the water for good measure. I didn’t have time to be crazy.

As I walked toward the barn the next morning the loafing shed was eerily quiet. What was going on? I opened the door to the barn and came face-to-face with our third horse, Chaco, who in his current state of semi-blindness, had finally decided to follow the other horses into the barn aisle. He had strayed between the stairs to the hayloft and his stall, felt he was wedged, and then wasn’t brave enough to back up. It looked like he had been standing there all night. We negotiated an ungraceful exit together. The other two horses had eaten most of the new bale of hay I had once again left in the barn aisle the night before, confident it was secure because the gates were latched. Their heads hung low. They had had their fill. Thank god it was only grass hay.

And there it was, staring me in the face … or rather, there he was staring me in the face. The horse known to pull a fly mask, a halter, a lead rope or anything he could reach into his stall and tear it to shreds. The horse that loved to be on the outside of any fence, gate, or wall, especially if there was the promise of food. The horse that whiled away the nighttime gnawing on wood railings, running his teeth along metal gates, and, apparently, learning to flip up and slide open stall door latches. Tater, the liberator, the freedom fighter, the big brat was working me for all it was worth. At least I was in the clear. I was not losing my mind.

And the solution to the stall doors? To Tater’s great aggravation, and mine, I now clip caribeeners through the locking slot so that neither of us can get past the doors without a great deal of trouble. Of course, all I need is an opposable thumb. In Tater’s case, he has to wait for me to forget to use the clip. The next time the water runs dry, I may want to check the stall doors...

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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Freedom Fighter

Two summers ago a young quarter horse joined our herd of two so we could offer friends and family the opportunity to ride together up the logging roads behind our farm. This 5-year old bay was called Obi Wan by his original owners, the natural consequence of letting their teenage son name a colt. He didn't look like an Obi to us and, after a family conference, he was renamed Tater. Tater quickly turned out to be a juvenile delinquent when it came to getting into trouble in the middle of the night. I'm not sure that is how we perceived the name when we chose it, but that's how he has defined it.

Maybe it was the hint of concern and a smile I got from Tater's owners when they first dropped him at our farm that should have had me paying more attention. The wife checked our fencing and our gates and then tied Tater's lead rope around one of the gates that obviously worried her the most. She mentioned, on leaving, we needed to be careful closing things up tight and not leaving anything around we didn't mind losing, such as tack or blankets. As our two older horses had never given us much trouble, chewing didn't really come to mind until I started to find the baling twine I used for added gate security wadded up in chunks inside the paddock.

Next came the Christmas lights we had strung through the barn for a party, apparently within reach of a horse standing on tip-toes at the edge of his stall. They made the place cheery in the dull gloom of winter, but the crunch of glass bulbs was more than a horse could bear to leave alone. Once the lights were torn to pieces, the object of Tater's obsession were the chains used to hold our gates shut. They started to become bent and misshapen and the clips no longer fit together. Tater even took to chewing on them right in front of us, like some orally fixated teenager with a bad habit. Ultimately, there were the mornings I would look out the windows facing the barn and realize the horses and the sheep were on the lawn, the gates wide open. Tater had become the farm's freedom fighter.

Tater-inspired (because loose animals on a farm can be a bad thing) we started to play with a latch to foil Tater's apparently opposable tongue. We now have our latch and we are even to the point of selling it because we know we aren't the only people with "loosey-goosey" animals. Hence the stories to follow from folks, with equally talented animals, who have searched out our latch in the hopes of restoring peace and calm to their farms. They have their own anecdotes they have shared with us, because ... as anyone with livestock knows ... it sure is a drag to reach for that first cup of coffee in the morning and see a horse (or sheep, llama, alpaca, goat - fill in the blank) grazing the vegetable garden and wiping out the strawberries in one pass.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Animals gone wild

I never really thought about the derivation of the word "escapade", but when I needed a name for this blog, and the reason for the blog arose from listening to people talk about their personal experiences with their own escaping animals; well then, 'animal escapades' became clear and all encompassing. "Clear" because while we consider most animals on the wrong side of the fence as escaping, I am sure the animal just considers itself somewhere preferable for the moment...the "grass is always greener..." concept. "All encompassing" because, from my experience, the horse is the animal most likely to be called by its owner a "Houdini"; yet, in the past few weeks, I have been corrected by llama, alpaca, goat and dog owners - horses do not have the market on escapades. Why stop with these animals? I am certain mules and donkeys can be just as nimble. Of course, monkeys and orangutans also come to mind. Thus, the purpose of the blog - to record the affectionate and oftentimes hilarious stories of animals gone wild - because, as owners, I think many of us secretly admire the determination of some animals to get to the other side...
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