Casaubon's Book

Dances with Bulls

Last night as I went about my chores, I was mulling over a possible post on how farming is actually easier than most people think it is. I’m winding up a stretch of time where Eric and the boys have been in NYC visiting Grandma, while I stayed at home to tend the farm. While Eric and I don’t have a very gendered division of labor, we do have our customary tasks. Eric does floors, I do roofs, He does engines, I cut wood, I can, he bakes, when we had babies, I did input (nursing) and he did output (diaper changes). I got all self-satisfied about how well I was managing by myself, which of course, always leads to some kind of denoument..

Hubris is always punished – thus, today I got my comeuppance. It started at 4am. I had already been up at 1am to check the barn – Meadowsweet, last year’s first baby, is due to deliver any minute now. She’s huge (I’m betting triplets at least) and her mother came unusually early with her, so I had already staggered out in the dark once that morning.

At 4am, the first thunderstorm started. Now normally this would not be a problem, as ordinarily all my goats have perfectly adequate shelter to weather any storm, but this is not quite ordinary. You see, Cadfael, one of our bucks, is a consummate fence jumper. Until recently he was pretty content to stay in a fence because a. his buddy Tekky was there and b. there were only three other bucks higher in the pecking order than he and no calves. But when we gave Tekky to a friend who had just lost a goat and needed a companion for his remaining one, and added calves and yet another buck bigger than he, Cadfael took on a “let’s blow this taco stand” attitude, and started jumping fence.

Our solution to this problem was to spend a bunch of time and money improving, expanding and raising our fence to give the boys more room and make it harder for Cadfael to get jump over. After two days of hard labor we finished – and two minutes later watched Cadfael sail over the fence. Which left me with only one place to put Cadfael (who I’m probably going to have to sell since I can’t give him the quality of life I’d like – if anyone wants a really nice, proven buck, drop me an email – but have good fence!) – a small pasture that has minimal shelter – only an old children’s play structure to get under – it provides plenty of shade, but won’t protect them much from the truly torrential downpour that was beginning.. Cadfael has been there for the last week with three young boys who are being weaned from their Moms and who aren’t too pleased about it. They express their feelings by yelling non-stop “Meeeeeehhhhh!” They occasionally pause to eat something….chew, chew “Meeeeeehhhhhh.”

I had known we were expecting storms, but the prediction was that they were going to begin mid-day. But it is 4am, my goats are screaming, and out I go into the pouring rain. I put the young wethers and Cadfael in with the baby doelings, even though the doelings are getting a bit old for being in with a fertile buck (cross my fingers and pray no one gets pregnant – they probably aren’t fertile yet) but I don’t have anywhere else that won’t take a long time to set up and it is 4am, dammit!

Eventually I get dry and back to sleep for an hour or so. Then it is time to do the chores. After feeding and milking everyone else, I head up the hill with the pail of milk to feed the calves.

The calves and four of the bucks live up on our big field. They have a small shelter and plenty of trees to get under, and though they aren’t thrilled by the weather (and who is?) they are fine. The larger problem is that the calves have apparently been using all their free time to think up new tricks. As they ruminate, they ruminate.

I unplug the electric fence at the bottom of the hill, and hike up the slick, muddy path to the top. When I reach the top, I pour the milk into two calf buckets (buckets with nipples on them so that the calves can drink) and the calves set to slurping. I feed the bucks and move their minerals out of the rain and when the calves are done, give everyone a pat and head back down the hill. That’s when the calves decide to show me they are smarter than I thought.

Somehow, they have figured out that the electric fence netting is off when I come to feed them. Our bucks have been inside the electric netting for so long they don’t challenge the fence. Even Cadfael only goes over it, not through. The calves, however, have clued in to the fact that the fence is not on until I get down the hill. I start down the hill, and one of the calves charges the fence. He gets tangled in the netting and falls in the mud – I’m not sure if this is an accident or not, but I rush to untangle him. He’s big, it is slippery, and I end up in the mud too, and shove him back inside the fence. I turn to go, assuming this was not intentional. I make it about 30 feet before both calves charge the fence again.

Calves are big. I am not a small person, but these guys do require different handling techniques than the ones I have used with my goats or the sheep over the years. My goats are small – most of the does weigh in around 60lbs, the bucks get up to 110 or so. For the majority of my flock, if I need them to go somewhere and they don’t want to, I can pick them up in my arms and take them. I can’t do this with Frodo or Wiggy our senior bucks, but by the time they reach their heaviest, they are calm, middle aged guys.

These calves weigh as much as Frodo or Wiggy, but it is rangy weight, half again the height and longer. I still outweigh them, but they run fast and they are babies – they want to play. I don’t want to get in the habit of playing with bull calves (they could hurt me or Eric by accident as they get bigger). The calves are clearly trying to play with me – they aren’t running away, they are tossing their heads and dancing around and coming up to me to try and get petted. This is a game for them.

For me, not so much. Besides the fact that I don’t want to play games with my month-old bull calves, I’m up the hill in the middle of a big field in a lightning storm. I can’t see a thing because it is pouring and my glasses are soaked, and as I might have mentioned, I don’t want to play. I’ve already slid in the mud once. This is my last chore for the morning. Given a choice between chasing wet cattle through lightning flashes in the mud in a blinding storm and going back to the house, taking a hot shower, having another cup of tea and pitting cherries while listening to Bluegrass, which do you think I’d prefer?

I wrestle the calves back into the fencing, cursing like a sailor the whole way. This takes a good 10 minutes and is exhausting – it is like trying to put a wet squid in a sack, pulling these heavy, excited creatures back into the fence. This time I hurry, sure I’ll reach the plug before they do it again. I might have if I hadn’t slid down the path on my behind when I hit a particularly big mud puddle (I should note that for this to be truly, optimally funny, I should have been carrying eggs in my pocket. That I was not (I often do) seems some kind of artistic failure in my punishment for hubris. I am just mentioning this. My attempt to beat the calves to the fence fails miserably, and I am now wetter and muddier than I thought it was possible for any human being to be.

The calves are back out *AGAIN.* One of them thinks that chase would be an awesome game. He runs a little ways, and waits for me to come close to reach out for his collar – oh, fun, look, the human *almost* got me. I take one more mud slide, just for old time’s sake before I finally get ahold of both calves.

This time I don’t even make it halfway down the hill before they charge the fence. Ok, I give up. I get smart (note, it might not seem to you like a human would have too much trouble being smarter than a month old calf, but that’s just because we haven’t met ;-)). I grab their nipple buckets and offer them to the calves. The calves follow me willingly, sucking tiny molecules of goat’s milk out of them.

My problem is simple – I don’t have another human being around. With another pair of human hands, I can have someone stand at the bottom of the hill where the plug is, and plug in the fence the second I get out of it. Then the calves get shocked and re-learn that they can’t charge the fence. I could try the dogs – try and get them to restrain the calves,behind the fence long enough for me to get to the plug, but I anticipate this taking some time, and I really just want to get the fuck off the hill at this point, besides the fact that the lightning and thunder claps are now nearly simultaneous.

Since more human hands will not be arriving until later, I choose plan B. The calves follow the nipple bucket down to the stable halfway up the hill. Then, I bring the rest of the bucks down there too because now a portion of the fence is down, because when two calves run over something 8 or 10 times, there tends to be some damage. Go figure. I can fix it, but right now, I just want to be done. Moreover, I can’t actually fix it effectively without that extra pair of hands to keep the calves from running right back out.

Meanwhile, Cadfael has been yelling to get out of the barn stall where I put him last night – he’s not in the best space for daytime accomodation, but I don’t have a better choice, since I do not want him to presently knock up any does.

The three young wethers in with him are also screaming bloody murder because they can hear their Moms and can’t get at them. I’m sick of all creatures great and small right now, especially those that make noise or have needs, and the thunderstorms are predicted to go on and off all day today and over night. I’ve decided I am no-more-mistress-nice-farmer, dammit. All loud and otherwise annoying creatures are going up in the stable, where I can’t hear them. I look like the swamp thing. I am pissed. I am exhausted from wrestling calves. I am not going to be writing any post about how awesome solitary agriculture is, so now I’ve got to think up something else.. Bah.

I use a combination of buckets of grain and picking up goats and hurling them (gently) where I want them to put the three wethers and Cadfael in with the other bucks and the calves. They do not all get along, but I really don’t care right now. They can work out their personal issues without involving me.

I carry up trays of mineral, heavy buckets of water (and manage to not quite slip again in the mud – this one was more of a knee slide) and a bale of hay (No, generally I do not want to feed hay in the summer, but as I said, I don’t give a fuck any more. If it ever stops thundering I will scythe them a bunch of greenery to put the manger. Just at this moment, however, holding a large metal object up high in an open field doesn’t sound like such a wise idea,)

By the time I get my shower done it is 10:30 in the morning – morning chores, normally 45 minutes on a slow day, took me almost three hours. I came home wearing 20 extra pounds of mud and water. The only consolation is that this makes a much funnier post than the one about how easy it is running a farm all alone. Who knows, perhaps the universe is not seeking to punish me for hubris, but simply to improve my art by giving me the life to match the story. .Or pehaps, dear readers, this is for your benefit – you needed to know not how easy agriculture is, but how funny. Yup, I did it all for your sake!

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 nancy brownlee
    July 3, 2011

    How come you have all those bucks? When I had milk goats, I just had them freshened (via someone else’s buck) and didn’t have the headache or the stink of bucks to contend with.

  2. #2 Stephen B.
    July 3, 2011

    Sharon, please be careful!!

    A person in Maine was killed by a bull earlier this past week :(

    http://bangordailynews.com/2011/07/01/news/lewiston-auburn/mainer-killed-by-bull-on-farm/

  3. #3 ET
    July 3, 2011

    # 1 farm rule – never keep an animal who’s manure piles are bigger than your own/that you can’t wrestle to the ground

    Read here for info on raising a bottle fed cow with a proper flight zone/attitude

    http://matronofhusbandry.wordpress.com/2010/10/01/janes-progress-at-4-months/

    Good to hear it all worked out!

  4. #4 Sharon Astyk
    July 3, 2011

    ET, we’re working on precisely this – but they are 4 week old babies. It takes time and practice. They are also beef calves, not a milk cow – I don’t have to be able to handle them as intimately as the matron does. Normally they get much firmer treatment than they go today – and I can certainly handle them physically. I just don’t enjoy it in a mudslide. I can flip them, for example, but if I flip them I have to haul them on mud ;-).

    Stephen, thanks for the concern. By the time that they get big enough to seriously hurt me, they won’t be bulls anymore ;-). They are a bit young yet to be banded, but that day is coming.

    Hi Nancy – well, partly because we’re trying to breed for specific genetic outcomes, including good milk production on grass alone. Our breeding program requires specific things that we can’t get easily nearby. Also, I found drive-thru goat breeding to be a royal pain even with a few does – with nearly 20 we’d be spending all our time hauling goats to and fro. The boys do get ripe, but they are sweet natured and we do love them, and the smell just isn’t that big a deal compared to being able to breed truly backyard goats.

    Sharon

  5. #5 Bill
    July 3, 2011

    Once, when we had cows, I asked one of our cowboys why the cows managed to outsmart us so often. He said, “Well, I guess they just don’t have that much else to think about.”

    Made sense to me.

  6. #6 Glenn
    July 4, 2011

    Please, you’re killing me. Next time post a video, I’m sure it’s much funnier on film than in a written narrative. Maybe a pay per view live camera feed could help subsidize your farm. Or save the best stuff and sell it on disk…

  7. #7 Brad K.
    July 4, 2011

    Sharon,

    With horses I was taught that electric is always the second secure fence, intended to protect the primary fence. With cows, often all that is used is a hot wire or two, but even then, I prefer the electric to be the secondary fence.

    Might I suggest an electric gate? Use insulated handles to disconnect part of the fence, step through, then re-connect the fence, using the handles. Thus, the disconnect is momentary, only part of the fence is disabled, and that for a very short period of time. Plus, it reduces wear on the plug of the electric fence charger.

    So, have you considered training the brave and adventurous calves to draft work — oxen, that is, when they are trained and four year old steers? The Small Farmers Journal has plans for a “work sled”, a year round training and work vehicle for moving hay and other materials about the place.

    Luck!

  8. #8 hickchick
    July 4, 2011

    I have never experienced a fence that would keep in a determined calf 100% of the time. My favorite cows-got-out story happened when I was wearing stripper heels, short shorts, and a cropped top. Good times.

  9. #9 rheather
    July 4, 2011

    I had a buck who figured out when the electric fence was off and the senior buck was heading off to dinner and went over it. Two willing goats can have lots of sex while being chased by a screaming person. The buck later took to climbing the woven wire fences and now is in the freezer-but he added nothing good to the gene pool.

    And I have to admit I’m jealous that your goats shut up when their mouths are full. Mine keep yelling and it’s a horrible strangled yodeling noise then.

    Good luck with managing the calves…..

  10. #10 Nicole
    July 4, 2011

    LOL! I agree with Glenn, don’t you need a farm-cam for just such moments?

    My neighbor’s calves used to routinely “take the zap” once they got a bit bigger in order to get out of his electric fence and into my habitually under-mowed yard and the pasture which was only mowed twice a year and grazed by rabbits. And my garden, naturally.

    Then, of course, they didn’t want to get zapped again to go home. All I had to do was chase them toward about 600′ of fenceline with sufficient vigor to convince them I was worse than the zap. They are amazingly slippery even without the rain and the mud.

  11. #11 Apple Jack Creek
    July 4, 2011

    Wow, and here I thought it was just us who had days like this!

    If I ever come into a huge amount of money, I’m paying someone to put in more fences and build me lots of really great gates. ‘Course some stupid animal would still figure out how to get out and keep me occupied, but hey, it’s a nice fantasy. :)

    (Note: the lady we bought our Dexter from said her cows learned how to UNLATCH the gate – she had to use a dog leash with the little lever-clip to close the gate, since they couldn’t work that without opposable thumbs)

  12. #12 Gerry
    July 5, 2011

    Be grateful you don’t have a donkey!

    When I was growing up on a small farm in the west of Ireland we had LeatherLugs, a big grey donkey.

    On wet nights he would work back the shed door bolt with his nose, bring the calves in out of the rain and close the door after him! The first time he did this I searched the entire farm, and a few neighbour’s fields for the missing animals. I swear they were laughing hysterically at me!

  13. #13 Dave
    July 5, 2011

    I liked Gerry’s story – I had a little filly quarter horse that would do much the same thing. One day I saw her standing near the electric wire that kept her from getting to the gate. Her ears were back, and she seemed to be in a terrible mood, which was not like her at all. As I watched she gently and carefully moved until one of her whiskers touched the fence. The charger was on at the time and she jumped back and then came over for some petting, but I realized this was her trick. When the charger was off – it was several hundred feet away in another building so she couldn’t hear it – she would touch the wire with her whisker and know that it was off. She would then proceed to break this little protective wire and get to the gate. Once she was at the gate she used her prehensile lips to open it, unless it was wired down, and then she was out and would let the calves and other horses out for recess.

  14. #14 Meredith
    July 7, 2011

    I’ve enjoyed your blog (and insights and humour) for years, but I think this is my favorite sentence so far:
    As they ruminate, they ruminate. :) thanks for the smile