Farewell to Mean

Homeschooled Farm Girl is the consummate cat lover. She has named pretty much all of our barn cats, plays with the barn cats, draws sketches of our barn cats in her spare time, and has been put in charge of feeding and tending the litter box of the two kittens that dwell in the basement (and which I tolerate for the sole reason that they catch field mice before those mice make their way into the pantry). By contrast, I am a dog person and enjoy having both dogs in my office all day long as I work. I tolerate felines to the extent they provide a useful service (e.g. catching mice), but otherwise cannot be bothered with them. 

HFG is our early warning radar, alerting us if anything goes wrong with any of the half-dozen or cats. She is the first to notice when any feline goes missing, or when any of them is acting sick. Predictably, she was the one who came to us yesterday afternoon with a concern about a barn cat named Mean (who, yes, had a littermate named “Nice”…but, just to confuse things, as they grew up “Nice” became mean and “Mean” became nice. I suggested they swap names, but HFG would have none of it). Anyway, it seemed that Mean had recently gotten injured in some way. HFG brought Mean to my office, and I took a look at the injury. I couldn’t tell exactly what was wrong, but the cat was definitely having problems. She smelled especially awful, was meowing like she was in pain, and she had something weird sticking out of her rear end. It looked almost like what happened to one of our geese, several years back, when the goose laid her first egg and the whole oviduct came out with the egg. (I had to butcher that goose.) But Mean had been fixed, so I knew it had nothing to do with reproduction.

Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I had a quick conference. I contended that the barn cat wasn’t worth anything, and that we shouldn’t expend any resources on saving her. MYF insisted that we need to be good stewards of all our animals, and sometimes that means doing things that don’t make economic sense. With doe-eyed HFG looking on, and me wrapped tightly around HFG’s little finger, I caved quickly.

The nearest veterinary clinic has evening office hours, so MYF offered to take the cat in at 6pm. She obviously had to take Yeoman Farm Baby with her, and I was grateful that Homeschooled Farm Boy offered to go as well, to help hold the cat (allowing HFG to remain at home with me and Little Brother, rather than at the vet clinic to hear what I assumed would be a bad prognosis). Around 7pm or so, I got The Call from MYF. When her first words were, “Is [HFG] with you?”, I knew the news couldn’t be good.

Turns out, it wasn’t. The cat had a prolapsed rectum — indeed, not unlike the prolapsed oviduct that our goose experienced. The condition could theoretically be repaired with (expensive) surgery, but even then the vet said she couldn’t make any promises about Mean’s prospects. MYF was inclined to have the cat euthanized, and I quickly seconded the suggestion. MYF then explained that the cost would be $15 if we simply had her put to sleep and took the body home for disposal — and another twenty bucks if the vet clinic had the body incinerated for us. (Long-time readers will recall that in Illinois, we were quoted $35 for incinerating the 90# body of a dog that got hit by a car.)

Naturally, my first question to MYF was: “Can’t you just bring the cat home so I can shoot her myself?”  I had to put an injured cat down about three years ago; it wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience, but a bullet only costs twenty cents. MYF gave a half-chuckle, and explained that a few minutes earlier, when the vet had come in to explain the options, Homeschooled Farm Boy’s first question was: “Or, can’t we just take her home and have Daddy put her down?” To which I replied, proudly, “That’s my boy!” MYF muttered something like “No kidding,” but then raised her objection to the plan: she was concerned about the potential trauma for HFG of bringing the cat home alive, seeing the cat, seeing me take the cat behind the barn, hearing a gunshot, seeing me carrying a dead cat back from behind the barn, etc. MYF feared that this experience might drive a wedge between me and HFG, especially given that my dislike of cats is well known in the family. The bottom line: MYF didn’t want me to be established in my daughter’s mind as “Cat Killer.”

Fair enough, I replied. But why not just bring the cat home and let me “take care of it” that very night, in the dark, without telling HFG anything about it? What would we owe the vet if we did that?

MYF put the phone down and asked a few questions. As it turned out, if we had the cat euthanized the total charge for the night would be fifteen bucks. But if we took a live cat home, we would be charged twenty bucks for the office visit and evaluation. Go figure! “That’s a total no-brainer. Have the vet put the cat to sleep and bring the body home,” I told her. MYF agreed, and said she’d have it taken care of.

Our children have grown accustomed to animals being born and animals dying, but it’s always much harder on them to lose a dog or cat than it is to lose a chicken or duck. As we waited for MYF to come home from the vet, HFG disappeared. My “daddy” instinct kicked in, and I told Little Brother to entertain himself downstairs while I went up and looked for HFG. Sure enough, I found her in her bedroom, looking very sad. I sat down, had her sit in my lap, held her tight, and told her it was okay to cry if she wanted. And when the tears did come, I kissed them and told her everything would be okay, and that we should all be thankful for having had such a wonderful barn cat as Mean.

MYF’s instincts also kicked in. She stopped on the way home from the vet at the video rental store and picked up three movies (one that each child especially likes) to watch over the next couple of days. That preemptive gesture seems to have helped, because all three kids did surprisingly well yesterday evening — and woke up in surprisingly good spirits.

And, no doubt, when I go out this afternoon to butcher some old laying hens…HFG will be the first to ask if she can help cut their throats and pluck their feathers.

That’s my girl.

The Return of Yeomanry

Phillip Longman is up with an excellent piece at MercatorNet, discussing underlying reasons for the comeback of small scale farming and manufacturing…and where these trends may take us in the future. Longman touches on many themes near and dear to this Yeoman Farmer, including:

This word “yeomanry” is now obscure in English, and may be impossible to translate into many other languages. But particularly in America during the 18th and 19th century, it stood for a clear ideal of human organization, which was small-scale production centered on a self-sufficient family unit.

One of America’s most prominent founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote frequently the superior virtue of the country’s then substantial yeomanry, which mostly comprised family farmers who owned their own land and small family business owners. Jefferson’s vision of America’s future was that widespread family ownership of small scale productive would remain the dominant form of social and economic organization, and that the influence of both Big Business and Big Government would be held in check.

Since then all manner of social philosophers in many different traditions and different generations, have articulated and defended this vision. It was the dream for example, of Pope Leo XIII. It was also the dream Bulgaria’s Alexander Stamboliski and the other leaders of Eastern Europe’s mostly forgotten democratic “Green” movement, who in the aftermath of World War I reconfigured the former Austro-Hungarian Empire by redistributing royal lands and converting tenant farmers into self-sufficient freeholders.

But until recently, real-life yeomen could be and were dismissed–often violently. Joseph Stalin, for example, made short work of Eastern Europe’s land-holding peasant class. During the 20th century, both capitalists and communists, for different reasons, were hostile to the idea of a property owning, prosperous peasantry. Capitalists wanted agriculture to be industrialized, while Communists wanted it collectivized, with both opposed to any possible third way. For both Capitalists and Communists, the future would be one of ever greater division of labor and increasing economies of scale, with the family stripped of nearly all productive function.

Yet today there are signs that the yeoman ideal of small-scale ownership and production, having already out-survived communism, maybe be poised for a big comeback around the world. This is not to predict the end of globalism, if by that we mean simply high levels of interconnectivity. But it is to suggest that for reasons of technology, demography, culture, and efficiency, big is no longer necessarily better and the yeoman has a chance.

Later in the article, Longman talks more about agriculture in particular. The whole piece is definitely worth a read.

H/T: Zach Frey.

Back in Gen Pop

For those who have been following the saga of Henny Penny, our intrepid Buff Orpington who made up her mind to hatch a brood of chicks out of season, yesterday brought a new development: I decided to move her back to Gen Pop from Ad Seg (that’s prison lingo for “general population” and “administrative segregation.”). She’d been in the upstairs (hay loft / basketball court) portion of the barn, confined to a 4′ x 8′ chicken tractor with her brood since mid-November. The chicks are now seven or eight weeks old, fully feathered, and no longer need her body heat to stay warm even on the bitterly cold (single digit temp) nights we’ve been having here in Michigan. And even if they did need her body heat, they’re now much too large to fit under her wings. She liked playing mother hen, and clucking the brood around the pen, but I could tell she was getting cabin fever with the confinement. Once I dropped her through the trap door and into the main portion of the barn, she went running off without so much as a backward glance.

The chicks, however, are going to remain upstairs for awhile. The big issue is water: they aren’t big enough or coordinated enough to jump onto the edge of a bucket or 40 gallon water trough and get themselves a drink. In the past, we’ve had many chicks their size plop right into the bucket or trough and drown. At this age, they really ought to be taking their water from a ground-level dispenser, and the big ones freeze solid within hours of being filled up. The six of them don’t seem to mind hanging out together in the upstairs pen, and I can easily keep them supplied with a quart jar of warm water each morning. Even though their jar freezes each night, it’s a simple matter to take it in the house, thaw it in the sink, and refill it for them.

Water is definitely the biggest struggle on a farm in the winter. We’ve never been comfortable with the electric water heater units that can be placed in big troughs of water; it may be an irrational fear, but there’s something about placing an electrical appliance directly into water that makes us nervous. And at least in the sheep area (which the ducks and geese and chickens also have access to), we can go through 40 gallons of water before it freezes. The big problem is getting the faucet and hose unfrozen, so we can fill the trough back up. It is critical to disconnect the hose as soon as you finish using it, and drain all the water out before winding it up; otherwise, the water freezes in the hose and the whole thing has to be taken to the basement of the house to thaw. The faucet, on the other hand, always freezes solid. Fortunately, it’s very close to the ground, so only a small portion is sticking up and needing to be thawed. About every other day or every third day, I take a quart of very hot water out to the barn and pour it over the faucet until enough internal ice melts and it can be opened. Sometimes it requires a bit of shaking to dislodge the rest of the ice, so the water can flow freely, but we’ve always been able to get water eventually.

Simply having a barn with water is a huge blessing, and if you’re looking for a farm of your own this is definitely a feature you should check on. Our old farm did not have water in the barn, meaning we had to carry five gallon buckets from the house; needless to say, this got real old real fast in the dead of winter. (We had a rainwater collection system to supply the animals with water in the summer, but had to drag a hose from the basement if the rainwater ever ran out.) If, for some reason, we ever had to move to a different farm…I’m not sure I could go back to having a barn without running water.

With weather reports indicating another arctic blast is coming in tonight, I’d better stop typing and get started actually filling water troughs and battening down the hatches in the barn…

Goose Day

It looks like this, the final day of 2009, might go down as “Goose Day” on our farm.

Earlier this week, we were down to five geese: the two older Toulouse females, and three Embdens from this spring’s hatch. One very nice thing about having different breeds of geese each year is that it’s easy to determine their age; once a goose gets more than about a year old, it isn’t really worth butchering (the meat gets too tough). Anyway, I’d been meaning to butcher those final three Embdens, but Yeoman Farm Baby’s adoption interfered. That proved to be a good thing, as it gave us time to do more thinking about geese and where we want to go with them.

I took a closer look at those three Embdens, and determined we had two males and one female. The female was definitely a keeper. One of those ganders was very large, and clearly exhibited Alpha Goose qualities; the other gander was no larger than the female. Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I decided it would make most sense to butcher the Beta gander and feast on it during the Christmas Octave, and to keep Alpha as a breeder.

Although we haven’t had any success with hatching our own goslings in the past, we believe we can help the geese make more effective nests this spring. Back in Illinois, the problem was that after a goose went broody and we gave her a clutch of eggs to sit on, hens would inevitably sneak onto that nest and lay eggs of their own every time the goose got up to take a break. When Lucy Goosie would return to the nest, she’d crush the chicken eggs. This made a nasty, sticky mess and soon the goose eggs were coated with mud and straw. But here in Michigan, our barn is laid out such that we can give a broody goose a nice private area that chickens cannot violate. This spring, we’ll see if we can make that work. Goslings are so expensive (nine bucks each, at last check), there’s certainly no harm in trying. We will still buy some goslings, just to make sure we have goose to feast on next year, but hopefully our breeders will be able to add to that flock.

Anyway, this morning I went out to the barn to take care of the chores…and discovered that our Embden female had just laid her first egg! The shell was tinged with blood, and an examination of her rear end showed that she hadn’t laid it long before. Hopefully we’ll get several dozen eggs from her before she goes broody; I’m going to wait at least a couple more months before we even begin saving eggs for her to sit on. In the meantime, we will enjoy eating those goose eggs; each one is large enough to make its own omelet. (The photo is from last year, when I had a couple of goose eggs and wanted to show their size relative to a chicken egg.) When we have extras, we sell them to a Ukrainian woman who blows them out to use for crafts.

I really can’t say enough good things about geese; most breeds (other than Canadas) lay several dozen huge eggs each winter/spring, will lay for many years, can get to a good eating size on little other than grass, provide many pounds of meat, are extremely cold hardy, and are fierce enough to defend themselves against most predators. If you want to feed them grain, they will eventually reach live weights of 20# or more — but the grass-fed fall size (dressed weight of six to ten pounds) has always been plenty for our family. As long as you have a way to keep them out of the garden, and off the grass you want to let your children play on, I highly recommend them for every farmstead.