Hanging in Here

Sorry for the slow posting of late; we are here, but buried under the summer’s work on the farm. Add to it a slew of professional work (my business is opinion research, particularly political, which spikes during the summer and fall months of even-numbered years), and it’s been hard to come up for air.

For those who are curious, Tabasco continues to hang in there as well. We got a refill on her medications; I think the vet was a little surprised to hear she stabilized, but gave us a month’s worth of pills for her. We’ve kept on spoiling her rotten, letting her have first crack at the best dinner scraps. She’s been acting very old and slow, but content and not in a lot of pain. So…for the time being we’re going to keep appreciating every extra day we get to have her in our lives, even as we prepare ourselves for the day when it’s clear we won’t be able to let her keep going on.

My goal for the weekend is to butcher the six remaining Pekin ducks. Or maybe fewer, if Homeschooled Farm Girl prevails and convinces me to keep a one or two of the females.

“Why do you want us to keep one?” I asked her.

“Because I like them,” she replied.

When you’re a Daddy’s Girl, that’s usually enough to prevail.

Our Survivor

Thanks to all who have responded with sympathy at the recent news that our dog, Tabasco, is dying. She’s been a wonderful companion, and I’m going to miss her terribly.

She’s also a scrappy survivor. We don’t know how long she survived on the streets as a stray before we got her; she was scrawny and starved when she showed up at the animal shelter four years ago, and the experience probably took a permanent toll on her body. But she held her own against Tessa, the Great Pyrenees we had at the time. Tessa was built like a polar bear, and outweighed Tabasco by orders of magnitude, and considered herself the farm’s Alpha. But Tabasco never backed away from a confrontation, and wasn’t afraid to snarl back. We ended up having to keep them physically separated.

So, it takes a lot to keep Tabasco down. And, remarkably — with the help of the medications the vet gave — she’s even been clawing her way back from her most recent medical problems. The diuretic has led to a dramatic reduction of her bloating…to the point where she’s now getting thirsty and drinking significantly more. I wasn’t crazy about mopping up the big “piddle puddles” she left in my office overnight this weekend, but it was a whole lot better than seeing her about to explode from bloat. The steroid the vet prescribed has helped her breathing a lot; Tabasco is getting around much better. She still doesn’t run, but her walking gait is a lot closer to what it had been months ago. She’s more perky, more interested in what’s going on around her, and no longer looking like she wants the whole thing to be over.

We don’t want it to be over, either. As long as she’s willing to keep going, we’re willing to let her. X-rays don’t lie, and I’m not kidding myself about Tabasco’s long-term prognosis. But we’re deeply grateful the vet has bought us some quality time to get used to the idea of letting her go. And to spoil her rotten with all the good stuff she likes to eat.

Saying Goodbye

That recent post about calling the vet, and calculating how much an animal is “worth” in vet bills, has now become highly relevant for us.

We have two farm dogs. Scooter the Border Collie gets most of the coverage here on the blog, because he’s such a useful worker. He’s young and very healthy, and loves nothing more than running with the livestock.

But there’s also Tabasco. She got more posts in the past, but has since gotten old and much less active. She’s largely been a companion, and spends her days and nights in my office. It’s hard to ask for a better pet than she has been.

The problem is, she’s been getting up there in years. Just how far, we don’t know. We got her nearly four years ago (seems much longer, though); she showed up at the local animal shelter the exact same day our collie was killed by a car, and we welcomed her as an addition to our Illinois farm. The vet estimated her to be at least six years old, but no one knew for sure. Anyway, late last fall she developed pneumonia. The vet x-rayed her lungs, identified it, and gave me some antibiotics to treat it.

She seemed fine. Then, over the last couple of months, she’s been getting increasingly slow and stiff. And then her belly began bloating. At first we thought that was a good thing; her days as a stray had left her very scrawny and bony, and it was nice to see her fill out a bit. But in recent days, the bloat has gotten so bad she’s had trouble breathing.

I was finally able to get her in to the vet today, and Tabasco looked so bad they let us cut to the front of the line even without an appointment. The vet x-rayed her lungs again, and put the image next to the one from December. Not only was the pneumonia back, but there was something worse: lots of nasty-looking growths and masses in her lungs. Those had been invisibly microscopic in the December x-rays, but were now sizable. She’s got a full-blown case of lung cancer, and it came upon her very fast.

Bottom line: at her age (and this vet estimates Tabasco is actually closer to 12-14 years old), there is nothing we can do to treat the cancer. And nothing we could’ve done, no matter when this had been diagnosed. Declining further treatment, in my mind, is a question of accepting the inevitible and not trying to prolong an animal’s suffering. He gave her a shot of steroids (to clear her airway), and a diuretic (to drain the fluid that’s been pooling behind her heart), and gave me a ten day supply of pills that’ll keep doing the same. The vet totally understood that the whole family needs some time to say goodbye, and to get used to the idea of not having her with us. He cautioned that she may not even survive the weekend. But if she makes the ten days, we should call and decide what to do next.

I never thought I’d break down at a vet’s office. After all, we lose animals all the time. I’ve personally put down any number of animals. But this was completely different. I managed to avoid totally sobbing until Tabasco and I were back at our car. I’m a dog person. And Tabasco is my companion dog. I’m going to miss her a lot.

In the meantime, I’ve had to let her out about a half dozen times to urinate — which is good. Hopefully she’ll get that fluid drained. And she’s already getting around a little better. We’re going to spoil her rotten for the next ten days, giving her all the choice stuff from our table. Scooter…he’s just going to have to wait.

There’s a novel I recently finished reading. It’s called The Art of Racing in the Rain. (Although I enjoyed the story, there are a number of reasons why I can’t recommend it.) Anyway, if you happen to have read the book, you’ll understand why a certain phrase has been in my mind since beginning the drive home from the vet:

Two barks means faster!

Breed a Better Chicken?

Many of us rely on the Cornish x Rock “monster birds” as a primary meat chickens. As dull and stupid of a breed as they are, they get amazingly large in a remarkably short period of time. Nearly every hatchery carries a similar version.

We’ve never tried breeding our own meat birds, or experimented with “heritage” chicken breeds for meat. We have on occasion ordered a straight run (mixed male-female) chicks from an egg layer breed like Buff Orpington or Barred Rock, and butchered the cockerels for meat. But they were disappointingly small, and took a long time to get even that big. And, in the meantime, we had lots of juvenile crowing and cockfights to deal with.

Several years back, a friend recommended a new hatchery; the breeder was experimenting with a “sustainable” meat chicken that got almost as big as the “monster” birds almost as fast, but that was a better forager and could actually breed (and breed true). [The Cornish x Rock birds are hybrids, and at maturity are so enormous…well, let’s just say that natural breeding would be an interesting challenge. Just like with broad breasted turkeys.] We ordered a batch of chicks from that hatchery, and were pleased with everything about them. Much more interesting than the typical “monster” birds. In fact, we were going to order all our future meat chicks from that guy. But then…he sent word to all his customers that he was shutting down his hatchery and moving to China. Someone over there had offered an opportunity to set up a breeding program — and he also wanted to do Christian missionary work there. We never heard from him again, and never heard of anyone else attempting to carry on what he’d started. (If this story rings a bell with anyone, or if any of my readers know what became of that breeder, particularly if he’s gone back into business, please post a comment with the info.)

Anyway, I post this because a reader dropped me a note. He and his family have begun small-scale farming in our area, and our families have enjoyed getting together. He’s raised some Cornish Cross birds, but is interested in finding or developing a meat chicken that’s more interesting than the typical hatchery offering:

I was wondering if you’ve every tried any of the heritage breeds for meat. Based on my reading, I think the Delawares are good, but may take a few extra weeks to get to full size. I’ve also seen discussions of the “Freedom Rangers“, but their breeding program seems a bit involved. Any ideas or suggestions?

Readers: does anyone know of a hatchery that is attempting to develop such a bird? Or have any of you experimented with breeding your own hybrid meat birds, based on large heritage chicken breeds such as Delaware, Cornish, etc? Or are you aware of blogs/research postings from people who have done such experiments? He and I would both be very interested in hearing about it.