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Archive for December, 2012

Warming feet in front of fire

It started with a slightly scratchy throat on Christmas Eve.

I drove up to see a good friend who lives north of Louisville that day, and warned her as I stepped in the door that I was coming down with something and was probably contagious.  She made me a cup of tea with honey, and that was the last I thought about being sick during our visit.

By Christmas night, the scratchy throat was joined by chest congestion, which is not the usual cold progression for me; normally a cold will start as sinus congestion first, then move down into my chest.  This time I started coughing long before the sneezing and nose-blowing stage, which hit me full-force on Wednesday.  It snowed that day, and I stayed close to the fire, crossing off all but the most necessary items from my daily to-do list, and bundling up well for pasture rounds.

By Thursday, my chest was aching and I could feel a deep congestion settling into my bronchial tubes, something I’ve not had in quite a long time.  As an ex-smoker, I expect residual damage and weakness in that area, but since quitting 18 months ago I haven’t had any serious chest colds.  This one would break that streak.  But I didn’t know that yet, so Thursday afternoon I bundled up and got a little exercise, cutting up a downed sassafrass tree at the edge of one of the pastures, to add to my firewood stash.

My standard response to cold symptoms these days does not usually involve masking symptoms with pharmaceuticals.  Mostly, I think, because I’m too cheap to spend the money on the stuff.  Unless I’m aching so bad I can’t sleep, I won’t take pain killers; I really don’t like the way antihistamines artificially dry out the sinuses, and cough syrup that either inhibits or promotes expectorant just doesn’t make any sense to me.  Granted, I don’t have to go to a workplace job and interact with other employees or the public, so the snottier aspects of being sick are just between me and my kerchief.

Other than common sense measures like keeping my head and feet warm, drinking lots of liquids, and slowing down to let my body fight the bug, the only additional support I employ is a high-dosage of vitamin C powder dissolved in water, taken throughout the day.  I have found this helps my body’s response efforts and shortens the duration of the cold.  I’ve never done a double-blind study to prove any beneficial effects, but it’s cheap and non-toxic and I figure it can’t hurt.

The major drawback to not masking symptoms with drugs, though, is you have to experience the symptoms.  But they don’t last forever, and my colds move through me much quicker now that I’m not inhaling smoke and toxins on a daily basis.  And usually I don’t find the “I’m sick” stuff – the sneezing, nose-blowing, coughing – to be overwhelmingly decapacitating, just annoying.  But the chest congestion that came with this cold, I swear it nearly killed me Thursday night.

I will spare you the phlegmy details, but suffice it to say, I didn’t sleep much and thought a couple of times I needed to be intubated just to keep breathing.  Heavy stuff.  Worst crap I’ve had in my bronchi in a long, long time.  Kind of scared me, actually, the not being able to breathe part.  So yesterday I took another sick day, and crossed the project of spreading gravel with the tractor up on the hill before it rained off my list, and stayed close to the woodstove all day.  It was crappy weather, mid-thirties, spitting rain:  I didn’t need to push myself any further toward the cliff edge.

So today, I feel much better, and the congestion is loosening and lightening, and my energy is back.  I’m recovering.  I warm my tootsies in front of the stove every time I come back in from pasture rounds, I wear a hat every time I step outside even if it’s just to take the dogs out for a pee break, and for one more day, I left the extra outside projects off my list.

They will get done in due time.  I’d rather be getting better and be behind on my winter projects, than the other way around.

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Snowy pastures on Boxing Day

I don’t watch TV news here at the farm, so my weather information comes from the internet or the national news on the local NPR station out of Bowling Green, KY.  Sounds and looks like today’s winter storm has clobbered some southern and midwestern states, wreaking havoc and even killing some unfortunate souls.  Road travel was especially hazardous in those areas today.

Luckily, the only road I had to deal with today was the muddy road from the house up to the pastures, and the muddy “roads” I’ve created up there.  My top speed today was 10 mph, and I crawled through the mud puddles, so the hazards were few.  It wasn’t even really all that cold.  Tonight, though, the temps should drop into the mid-twenties.

I took the day off to nurse this dratted chest cold that Santa brought me for Christmas, which means, after getting back down from morning rounds, I stripped down to long johns, stoked the fire, and snuggled into one of the reclining chairs under a blanket to watch documentaries on Netflix.  Very, very lazy behavior for me, I must say.  But even the legendary Thistledog needs to throttle back when under attack by the cold bug.  Hopefully, it’ll exit stage left in the next couple of days.

The rain turned to snow around noon.  Big, swirly fluffy flakes out the front window made me feel like I was in a just-shaken snow globe.  I pulled the blanket tighter around my shoulders and let myself go back to sleep.  The house was warm, the animals fed, and my to-do list could just sit there and not be done, no harm, no foul.  I roused mid-afternoon to fill up the water tank on the gator, and made the afternoon rounds up on the hill.  Snow was sticking to the grass, momentarily, and blowing a little.  Cows and heifers and yearling steers all had full rumens and though wet, were fine.  So back down the hill I went, for a little more down time in front of the fire.

The dogs and I walked up at dusk to shut the ducks in for the night.  It was still snowing lightly, but the snow is melting quickly and everything underfoot is soggy.  We’re thankful the storm path went north of us, at least this time.  Grateful for our blessed location.

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Roadwork

Load of dense grade

With an annual rainfall of over 45 inches a year, you can bet there’s always roadwork to be done on the farm.  Everything from driveways, equipment yards, and steep sections of the 1/4-mile dirt road between the house and the hilltop pastures are all starting to ooze mud and need graveled in places.

In addition to the existing roads, I’ve established driving lanes across and through the pastures at permanent points, which are now in need of road base.  In some places, very badly in need of road base.  Time to get to work.

A little over a week ago, I ordered a full load of what around here they call “dense grade” gravel delivered, and I’m sure it’s just one of several I’ll work my way through this winter.  Dense grade has limestone mixed in with the gravel, which adds a powdery filler that compacts much better than just plain gravel.  It also doesn’t sink in to the mud quite as badly as gravel.

So with the help of my able assistant, Jack the Tractor, I’ve spent several hours this past week spreading bucketloads of road base in variously muddy and treacherous locations.  That enormous $300 pile of gravel is nearly gone, but the mud isn’t.  Time to order more…

Roadwork

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The Girls eating hay in December

My little cow herd is doing pretty well, all things considered.  They are all purebred Devons, bought in one group along with a registered Devon bull, a younger unregistered bull, three heifers, and a handful of steer calves.  The bulls are gone now, sold after failing their fertility test, and the two horned yearlings went to a friend and neighbor to fill their freezer next fall.

I’ll tell the whole story of how they all came to the Farm some other time.  It’s a long story and I don’t feel like putting it all together today.  I have work to do outside before it rains, and Christmas cards to write and address, and receipts to file, and then afternoon rounds up on the pasture.  But I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the progress we’ve made in just four months with these cows.

To begin with, here are a few shots of what they looked like back in late July and early August:

Skinny Cow 1

Skinny Cow 2

Skinny Cow 3

this is a skinny cow

Pretty skinny, huh?  [Edited to add:  Actually, these photos are more than a little disturbing to me.  I forgot how emaciated these cows were.]  What is important to note is the lack of fat on the spine, on the hip bones, on the tail head, and in the brisket.  Animals can lose muscle but when their fat reserves disappear, they are on the road to starvation.  These cows were being starved – you can see the pasture they were in was nothing but chewed-down stubble and rank, unclipped weeds.  Their body condition scores were very low 4’s and one of them at least, was a 3, by my estimation.

I took a great big risk on them.  I had them hauled back to the farm and put them on my stockpiled pastures, and let them eat, and eat, and eat.  I knew there might be health issues, and there were:  pinkeye, most significantly.  The little weakling male calf came down with it first during an extended rainy period in early September, then just about all the others showed symptoms within a few days and the job of treatment began.  Their eyes cleared up, then one of them would get a runny eye again, and the conjunctivitis would be back.  It was a tough couple of months.   I joke a little about earning my “Junior Vet Badge” but believe me, it was tough, and I’d rather not repeat it.

I don’t feel we are quite out of the woods yet, either, as I will occasionally see a runny eye here and there.  So I watch them like a hawk and take great care to ensure their nutritional plane remains high and steady.  They all get a generous helping of kelp meal each day, and the younger crowd, isolated from the older cows, are eating supplemental clover hay as well.

I’m pleased to see them come back in to condition like they have.  Those photos just say it all.  Now, as we move into winter, I am focusing on maintaining that good condition, and building health.

Whitey

Hefty

Pepsi Girl

So much better!

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Creek high from rain

Over three inches of rain have fallen here in south-central Kentucky since this weather system moved in on Friday.  On and off, sometimes gentle, sometimes a downpour, and it continues to rain lightly today.  An inch already since sunrise.  The creek that runs in front of the house is running high and fast and greets me with the sound of rushing water when I step outside.  Blessedly, the temps have not been at all wintry – 60’s mostly during the day, and mid-fifties at night – so the misery factor’s been low.  But that’s all about to change.

Falling temps 10 Dec 2012

By early morning it’s supposed to be 28 degrees, and will probably be colder than that down here at the bottom of the hill where the house is.  With everything and everyone wet up on the pastures, it’ll likely feel colder than that to the livestock.  So I’m taking a tip from Sandra over at Thistle Cove Farm and will head up this afternoon to unroll and lay out a couple of worthless hay bales (another story, another post) for dry bedding in their paddocks.  The pastures are just soaked.  The little ones especially may appreciate a dry spot to lay on tonight.  They have their winter coats on already, but that wet ground can suck the warmth out of a polar bear, I’m sure.

Down here at the farmhouse, we’re staying dry and warm, with a small fire blazing since the temperature started dropping, christmas music playing, and a cup of tea at hand.   The little stray kitty is snug in her box of rags and sweaters under the porch woodpile tarp, the dogs are curled up in their usual daytime snoozing spots, and I am doing inside work, until time for pasture rounds.

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Pond Nazi

pond nazi fences free rangers

You were expecting a picture of a pond, perhaps.  Yes, we have a pond – in fact, we have two up on the pastures.  And we have ducks; thirteen now, soon to be a smaller number; Muscovies, as you might be able to tell by the prominent red caruncles around their eyes in the photo above.

You would think that ducks and ponds go together.  In fact, they do, but to a fault.  The fault is, once the ducks make it to the pond, that’s all they ever want to do; that’s the only place they ever want to be.  They camp on the pond.  It’s ducky pond camp.  They trample and poop around the edge, and swim off into the middle whenever I approach.  They won’t get out of the pond and go back to their hooch in the evening.  The pond, for the ducks, is Nirvana.

But it’s not where I want them to be.  Paddling around the little pond all day and sleeping on it unprotected from predators, is not what I’m paying them to do.  They’re tree ducks, actually, and their owner’s manual specifically states that they do not need a pond to live well and prosper.  They have plastic concrete mixing tubs for bathing and cleaning out their little duck nostrils, which I keep clean and filled twice daily.  They have a nice big hooch with lots of bedding to snuggle into and locked doors at night.  They have cow paddocks to forage bugs and fly larvae in.  They have an always-full feeder of delicious high-protein crumbles.  They don’t need a damned pond.

But the ducks love the pond.  And once they found the pond, they wanted nothing else but to camp on the pond.  So I moved them and their hooch further away, down by the yearlings’ winter paddock, thinking the shift of territory would stymie them.  Oh, no.  The first day at that new location, the very first hour after they were let out in the morning, they hoofed it right back to the pond – a journey of perhaps an eighth of a mile, I might add.   They are pond addicts.

But the pond is mine, and I hired them for pasture duty.  And getting them de-ponded is not an easy task, unless they are very hungry and can be lured off the water with a shaken feed can.  My alternative methods of getting them out of the water ranged from shouting, banging sticks, throwing sticks, chucking stones at them (to scare them out, not to hit them), and attempting to send a dog in after them (to herd them out, not to eat them).  The one night we went up to put them to bed and found them back in Nirvana Pond, the dogs and I had to admit defeat and leave them there all night, after much thrashing about in the dark on the overgrown pond edges.  Sitting ducks, as the phrase goes, and it was just luck they were all still there in their little flotilla in the morning.  The countryside is full of hungry dogs, foxes, and racoons.

So, like the Soup Nazi in the Seinfield episode, I furrowed my brows and in my meanest voice said “NO POND FOR YOU!!!”

Poultry netting got put back up yesterday.  Half the flock figured out how to worm under the bottom of it and spent the whole day back in pond camp, where they got hungry enough to come out of the water when I shook the feed can at them in the afternoon.  So this morning I snugged it all down before I let them out of their hooch, and that did the trick.  Time to start relocating the big boys to the big freezer, though.  I am hopeful that once their numbers are smaller, once the flock is only hens and a couple of drakes, their wanderlust will subside and I can let them free range around their hooch again.  Otherwise, we’ll have to come up with a way of plunking their pen down in the paddocks so they can do what they’ve been hired to do:  catch flies, not fish.

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Splitting hickory

My farm is in Kentucky, but I’m a Colorado native.  A lifetime ago, when I was in my early twenties, I lived and worked year-round in the northern foothills of the Colorado Front Range,  where the snow that comes in October doesn’t stay until April, but the cold sets in for the season and can be serious.  I cooked on a wood cookstove back then, so firewood was a way of life, all twelve months of the year.  In winter it became even more important, as it also provided our only heat.

I’m no stranger to the task of laying up a supply of firewood for winter.  Felling whole trees, cutting them to stove length, and splitting the logs into burnable chunks – these are familiar skills, though I’ve not used them for many years.  (We bought a cord of split firewood every winter in San Diego for the fireplace, but the only work of that was loading and unloading and stacking.)  So I’m pleased to report, I can still swing a splitting maul well enough to reduce a whole log into halves, then quarters, and so on.  A very necessary skill here.

There is really nothing quite like the satisfaction of driving a splitting maul into the top of a 14″ log and splitting it in half in one clean stroke.  Starting a clean split, as in the photo above, that can be finished with a sledge hammer pounding the splitting maul through, ranks a close second.  It takes a certain amount of force and technique, there’s no doubt.  One has to swing the maul with every intent of cleaving the log; head speed is critical.  And aim is even more so.  But when the two collide with wood grain ready to break apart, it’s a beautiful thing.

There are easier ways to split firewood.  I can borrow a wood splitter from friends and probably will, soon.  But it is good to know I still have the skill and strength to turn a tree into firewood, by hand, in a couple of afternoons with the right tools.

This first winter at the farm is my first real winter in 25 years, and I am late in all my preparations.  I’d rather not be splitting firewood in December for this year’s fires.  Glad, though, that I’m able to.

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