Frozen Solid

Temperatures have been in the single digits for a few days now, and everything is frozen solid as a rock. As we haven’t yet figured out a way to rig up heaters for the animals’ water, this means they all tend to get pretty thirsty.

The dairy goats are easiest: we take a couple of gallons of hot water from the kitchen each time we go milk, and pour it into their water bucket. It usually stays fairly liquid until the next milking.

The chickens are also easy: I carry a couple of five gallon buckets about 20 feet from the house, and they drink until it freezes.

The sheep are the hardest, becuase there are so many (ten) of them — and because they are farthest from the house. If I simply set five gallon buckets in the pasture, they’ll squabble and knock them over. What I end up doing is taking a copule of buckets out to the pasture and standing with them as they drink. This morning, they saw me coming and all crowded around the gate as I opened it. Despite some locking of horns, and head-butting, they all managed to get a turn with one of the buckets. They sucked down almost ten gallons in a matter of minutes. I guess I better get out there with water more often.


I have to admit it: for many years, I had a “weekend” mentality. Saturday and Sunday were, for me, a unit of time between work weeks. Apart from Sunday Mass, there wasn’t much difference between the two days. It was like one big block of time off.

I’d read a biography of St. John Vianney which detailed his fire and brimstone homilies against the abuse of the sabbath rest, which had been rampant when he came to Ars. I dismissed those admonitions as being only for 19th century France. This was, after all, a different time and a different culture.

What finally got me thinking more about Sunday, and how it ought to be special, was John Paul II’s apostolic letter, Dies Domini. Even then, however, I wasn’t convinced that our family needed to treat Sundays all that much different than Saturdays. Fortunately, my wife was convinced otherwise. Together, we agreed to try making a radical change in the way we approached Sunday. Going forward, on Sundays, we would do only essential chores and tasks. No more working on cars, butchering animals, building fences, planting trees, or non-critical repairs. Shopping, even for Sunday dinner, had to be completed on Saturday. Exceptions could be made if we were traveling, or if something extraordinary came up, but otherwise Sunday would be kept strictly as a day for family, or for having friends over to visit.

The transition was a rough one for me, and wasn’t without some conflict, but it didn’t take long before I grew to appreciate our family’s new aproach to the Sunday rest. Week by week, we increasingly “took back” the seventh day. We slowed down. We enjoyed the time together, and we enjoyed the liberation from all the bustling around and feeling that we had to be “getting something done.” My mentality changed: I began to treasure the abundance of time-freed-from-expectations we had each Sunday. After we get home from Mass in the late morning, the kids and I read, or watch a sporting event on TV, or go for a walk down country roads with the dogs, or we watch a movie. Today we watched part of the Ken Burns “Baseball” documentary, and later tonight we’ll read the last chapter of one of the Great Brain books.

We also try to have something special for dinner, and it’s usually my responsibility to select and prepare it. Today, I picked beef roast. The roast came from a pasture-fed cow, raised on a neighboring farm, by good friends of ours from the local parish. Before the cow was sent to the slaughterhouse, we arranged to buy half of the beef that came off that animal. We ended up with a wonderful collection of steaks, roasts, hamburger, and soup bones in our freezer, and it’s by far the best beef we’ve ever had. What makes it even more special is our personal connection to the people who raised it, and knowing just how healthy and well cared for the animals in that herd are.

Temperatures here were in the single digits this morning, and the wind chill was well below zero. We got a roaring fire going in the woodstove, and decided this would be a good day to cook in it. I put the roast in a cast iron Dutch oven, then filled the remaining space with seasonings and thinly-sliced carrots, potatoes, and onions. I added some water, and then put the lid on the Dutch oven. Finally, I slid the Dutch oven into the oven compartment of the woodstove. As this picture shows, the Dutch oven is in the oven compartment to the right; the firebox is to the left. The slot at the bottom left is the combination ash tray / air intake. By opening or closing the door to that tray, we can increase or decrease the fire’s air supply — and thus the size of the fire.

The woodstove kept the house quite comfortable, even though the temperature outside never got above twenty degrees. And the roast was absolutely delicious.

Apart from cooking dinner and doing the usual chores, we didn’t really get anything “done” today. Yet I wouldn’t trade this Sunday time for anything. And just a few years ago, I never would’ve imagined the day when I’d say that.

Get these kids out of me!

Snapped this picture of Queen Anne’s Lace The Goat from the hayloft overlooking the goat pen. Definitely looking like she’s carrying twins. And she’s definitely looking uncomfortable.

Here’s a wider view of the two goats in their area. They also have access to a similar-sized area outside the barn. The other goat is named Double Play (the kids were obsessed with baseball last summer), and her mastitis is unfortunately still not clearing up. If it’s not clear by Sunday night, we’re going to give it one last super-agressive treatment. And if that doesn’t work…well, I’m just hoping that she doesn’t have to take a one-way trip to Forrest Meats with Coco Puff the Ram.

A Time to Cull

One of the hardest decisions we have to make is which animals we keep and which we butcher. But sometimes, the animal himself (and usually it is a “him”) makes that decision a lot easier for us. A prime example was Buddy, the Icelandic ram. He had been kept in line by Star, the alpha ram—but when Star died of bloat, Buddy became incorrigible. I couldn’t turn my back on him without risking getting pummeled, and it was impossible to tend to other members of the flock. If I even tried to trim a sheep’s hooves, Buddy would launch himself at me. It was with great pleasure that I took Buddy to the butcher.

I was reluctant about keeping any ram lamb from Buddy’s line for breeding, but his lamb Coco Puff had too beautiful a fleece to turn down. Setting aside my animus for Buddy, we kept Coco Puff as a breeding ram.

I intended to limit his breeding, and use “Pinch” (so-named because we brought him in as a pinch-hitter for Star) as the primary flock sire. Pinch was an absolutely magnificent animal, with a nice disposition…but he died of worms in the summer of 2006. Fortunately, he produced this beautiful ram lamb before he left us.

We finally got the pasture subdivided for rotational grazing in the summer of 2006, and when the fall breeding season arrived I separated the flock. Most ewes went in one section, with Pinch’s son. The remainder went with Coco Puff in another section. However, Coco Puff soon began exhibiting behavioral problems. He started rubbing and pressing hard against all the fences, searching and straining for weak portions. He squeezed under the fence in several places, forcing me to spend considerable time reinforcing them. Here is an example of what he did to the fences:

Once the fences were iron clad, he tried another tactic: pounding the sheep shelter to bits (The photo above shows what he finally did to it — and the fence). Fortunately, the shelter and fence were sturdy enough to last until the end of breeding season, but everything finally came completely apart earlier this month. I gave up and reunited the flock, hoping that the separation was what had caused his acting out.

No such luck. Yesterday, he began pounding on the other shelter, and today it all started coming down. I had to leave work, collect my tools, and run out in the frigid weather to repair it. I managed to put it back together, but who knows how long it’ll last. Here is what it looked like once I put it back together — note what he did to the shelter on the other side, and to the plywood separating the two shelters (those holes are from his horns).
So, thanks Coco Puff, for making my decision about you all the easier. As soon as we have enough freezer space for 50 pounds of ground ram (basically what Buddy yielded), you’ll be getting yourself a one-way trip to Forrest Meats — and your lambs born this spring will be joining you in the fall. As a breeder, we just can’t keep this kind of a genetic line in our flock…no matter how beautiful the fleece. As I noted above, that’s the toughest part about raising livestock. I’m just glad when the animal makes my decision this easy.

Tabasco, Part 2

After getting Tabasco back last night, we kept her in the house overnight last night. She curled up on the couch in my office for most of the day today. In the afternoon, I took her with me when I went to the feed store. It was wonderful having her perched on the passenger seat of the van, driving out to Gibson City and back.

And then, as I was putting the feed into metal containers in the chicken house, I lost sight of her. When I finished the chores, I whistled and called — but there was no response. She was gone, again. I walked the hedgerow before the sun went down, whistling and calling. I drove a whole mile radius around our property, on the country roads, but no sign of her.

Here it is, past 9pm, and she’s still not back. We’re starting to wonder if, perhaps, she wasn’t spayed when we got her. The vet thought she probably had been “fixed,” but wasn’t certain. I’m wondering if she’s gone into heat, and is roaming the countryside looking for a mate. If so, I’m just glad she’s wearing her tags—but I sure hope she makes it home before the coyotes find her.

UPDATE: Late Wednesday morning, she showed up at my office door as if nothing had happened. She was soaking wet, and had cockle burrs in her fur. She seemed chastened. My wife and kids were excited that Tabasco had returned, but my wife and I took this opportunity to re-emphasize to the kids that we can’t be too attached to Tabasco going forward.

Drying Up

Yesterday morning, our all-star milk goat climbed into the stanchion for the last time before next month’s kidding. She’s had an amazing run of lactation; she kidded for the first time in the spring of 2005, we bought her in the fall of 2005, and then milked her all the way through the winter of 2005. At her peak, we were getting about four and a half quarts of milk per day (two and a quarter quarts in the morning, and the same in the evening.) We milked her all the way through 2006, and bred her at the end of September. Did that slow her down? Heck no. We were still getting a good supply of milk all the way through December. In recent weeks, she’s dropped off quite a bit; her energy is rightly going to her unborn kids rather than to milk production. In the last week, we were only getting about a half-cup per milking, so decided that she was about done.

Her full name is Queen Anne’s Lace, The Goat. (Or, as our youngest used to say when he was learning to talk, “Een-ahn-uh-ate, yah oat.”) During most of her lactation, she was giving plenty of milk for our three children. There’s really no need to have a cow, unless you have a larger family—but, even then, multiple goats are cheaper and easier to manage than one large cow. A good dairy goat will give enough milk for most families. And with multiple goats, you can stagger their breeding and drying up, to ensure the family always has milk. When a single cow dries up, you’re out of milk until her next calf delivers. Someday, I’ll post the whole sordid tale of our misadventure with Buttercup, the Jersey cow we got before we knew better. Suffice it for now to say that we’re sold on goats. They’re much easier to manage, and the milk is terrific.

On top of their other food allergies, our kids are lactose intolerant. My wife takes the raw goat milk and cultures it into a Swedish drink called fil mjolk (pronounced “feel milk” in English) that they can consume. It’s similar to yogurt, and our kids love it. As for me, I save a little of the raw milk and use it on cereal. Raw milk is wonderfully rich and creamy; it’s unfortunate that raw milk is almost impossible to find unless you have your own dairy animal. When we have lots of extra milk, I put it in quart mason jars, screw the lids in place, and set those jars out on the counter at room temperature. About a week later, the solid curds separate from the whey, yielding an amazing — and simple — soft goat cheese. We feed the whey to the chickens, and keep the cheese in the fridge. I use it on tacos, in chili, on bagels, and with scrambled eggs or omelettes.

One important thing we learned early on: goats are related to deer, not sheep or cattle. Therefore, goats are referred to as “does” and “bucks,” like deer. Say “doe” and “buck,” and people will know that you know goats. Say “nanny” and “billy,” and people will think you’re an amateur.

We do have a second goat, but she’s been suffering from mastitis for several months. As we haven’t needed her milk for the children until now, we’ve been either feeding her milk to the dogs/chickens or making cheese with it. This week, we’ve begun treating her mastitis more aggressively, and hope we can get it cleared up enough to be able to culture her milk. (Mastitic milk does not culture well.) Stay tuned.


It’s not just cats; I’m convinced that some dogs have nine lives, too. We have three dogs here on the farm: Tessa, the Great Pyrenees livestock guardian; Scooter, the Australian Shepherd/Border Collie puppy; and Tabasco, the Red Healer. Tessa and Scooter are content to hang out with the livestock; Tabasco’s preference is clearly for human companionship. Her coming to join us seemed like Divine Providence: she showed up at the local animal shelter on the same day (September 12th of last year) our beloved Collie, Cassie, was struck and killed by a car. We let it be known that we were looking for a replacement, and a few days later got a call from the animal shelter that they might have a good match for us.

Tabasco and I hit it off in the foyer of the animal shelter. She was scrawny and half-starved, but there was something about her sad eyes, and her whole demeanor, that told me she was the companion dog our family had been looking for. I drove her home in my convertible, her perched on the passenger seat, and I knew we were buddies already.

Back at the farm, without any training, she immediately went to work herding the sheep and other animals. She also proved herself a remarkable “mouser”. She had an real knack for sniffing out field mouse nests, digging them up, and then destroying the mice. Although she and Tessa had a few fights, she held her own and seemed to accept her position as “beta dog.”

Soon, Tabasco was following me to my office each morning, and loyally curling up on my couch as I worked. When I’d get in the car or truck to go somewhere, she’d jump in and go along as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I grew to love her companionship.

And then, last November, I went to New York City for five days to work as an Election Analyst for CNN. Two days after I’d left, Tabasco disappeared. My wife and the kids were worried sick, and so was I. My wife began researching the Red Healer breed, hoping for some clue as to what Tabasco might have done. It turns out, Red Healers are fiercely loyal to a single family — and often to a single individual within that family. There was no doubt as to who that person was in our family, and no doubt that she’d left to go look for me. As I walked the streets of New York, I imagined Tabasco coming around a corner with a “there you are, I finally found you!” look on her face.

Miraciously, on election day, Tabasco turned up at a farm a few miles away. My wife and kids retrieved her, and locked her up until I returned. We were all overjoyed. Lesson learned, we put her in a kennel when we went out of town for Christmas.

And then, this morning, without warning, she went AWOL again. At 7:50, I’d driven into town. Both she and Tessa had chased me down the driveway and into the street, but broke off after 50 feet or so. When I returned at 8:45, Tessa greeted me — but there was no sign of Tabasco. I drove to the neighbor’s farm, but she wasn’t there. I drove up and down our road, to no avail. All day, I whistled and called for her. I drove all over the country, whistling and calling. No Tabasco. My heart sank. Where could she have possibly gone? Why hadn’t I let her ride to town with me?

This evening, as we started saying the Rosary as a family, each of the kids offered a single intention: For Tabasco. Usually, each of them has a slew of intentions; that each of them was thinking only of the dog was almost enough to make me choke up. My wife, for her part, promised St. Anthony that if he could find Tabasco, she’d have nine Masses said in his honor. That’s how much this dog had come to mean to all of us. Seeing the kids’ pure and simple faith, I wondered how God could not come through for them.

Before dinner, I got out a high powered flashlight and walked a great distance up and down the hedgerow behind our property, calling and hollering. I feared perhaps she’d gotten tangled up in the underbrush, and hadn’t been able to free herself. No response. I called and whistled and whistled and called, but at last went into the house. We sat down to dinner, but no one felt much like eating.

And then, after dinner, our oldest son started shouting from upstairs: He saw her through a window! I didn’t believe it, but ran to the back door and threw it open. And, sure enough, there she was.

The family all made a huge fuss over her. We fed her two cans of tuna, and all the goat milk she wanted. “Don’t let her out of your sight!” my wife said. Once the excitement subsided, and Tabasco had curled up on the kitchen floor, we all gathered in a semicircle and recited the “Te Deum,” a traditional prayer of thanksgiving.

One of the kids asked if we could simply keep Tabasco in the house all the time from now on. No, my wife and I reminded them, every animal around here has a job to do. We don’t have any animals that are purely pets, and Tabasco is no exception. She digs up mouse and rat nests, she helps herd the sheep, and she barks at predators. We’ll keep a closer eye on her in the future, but she can’t be a full time house dog.

This incident was a good lesson in detachment. Farm life has been very healthy for our kids, because it’s taught them the distinction between animals and people. We need to take care of our animals, and our animals can be good companions, but at the end of the day we must remember that they are not people and shouldn’t be confused with human beings. Until she disappeared, I’m not sure we realized just how attached we’d grown to her. Going forward, we’ll have to work all the harder to keep all our animals in the proper perspective.