Fall Frame of Mind

Autumn has definitely arrived here in mid-Michigan. Leaves are beginning to turn. We’ve just had a few days in a row of dreary and overcast skies, drizzle, and temperatures that haven’t climbed out of the mid-fifties. On Monday I brought in some firewood, cleared the cobwebs out of our wood burner, and within a few minutes our family room was glowing with the kind of warmth that only a fire can produce. Unsurprisingly, the Yeoman Farm Children have begun camping out on the carpet in front of it to do their school work. Little Big Brother in particular likes to set up shop there, first thing after I fire it up in the morning, before his siblings come downstairs.

The arrival of fall has also led to a change of menu: soups and stews are back. I found a couple of lamb necks in the freezer, added a couple of chicken feet from this summer’s crop of broilers, and let the whole thing soak for a couple of hours with an onion and carrot in a large pot of water with some apple cider vinegar. I then brought the thing to a boil and let it simmer all night. Around mid-day, I de-boned the meat and then added seasonings and a lot of sliced carrots and potatoes (a food processor makes quick work of these). That pot simmered all afternoon, and proved an extremely popular dinner. We had a couple of quarts left over for lunches, but it otherwise disappeared the first night. I made another pot yesterday, and it was again a popular dinner centerpiece.

I’ll probably make lamb stew later in the week. My soups and stews are all basically simple variations on the same theme. With stew, I’ll lightly marinate some lamb stew meat or shanks in the crock pot with a little apple cider vinegar and an onion for a few hours. I’ll then add a bit of water, and let the crock pot run on low all night. By morning, the meat falls off the bone and is simmering in a wonderfully thick sauce. After removing the bones, I’ll fill the crock pot with sliced carrots, potatoes, onions, seasonings, and the cooked stew meat. It then cooks on low the rest of the day. By afternoon, the whole house is filled with an incredible aroma…and by dinner, everyone is more than ready to dig in. We’re usually lucky if there’s a serving or two left over.

With eleven or so lambs going to the butcher in a couple of months, and a whole bunch of laying hens still needing to be butchered, we’re trying to clear out as much of last year’s meat as we can. I have a feeling we’re going to be keeping the crock pot and soup pot full for a while.

The Takedown

Late yesterday evening, I secured the barn and began walking back toward the house to call it a night. Remember that post over the summer, where I talked about what an important farm tool a pistol-grip spotlight is? I take that thing with me every time I go out at night, and am more or less constantly scanning the trees and fields as I walk. Last night, it proved itself especially useful. As I approached the house, I used the spotlight to illuminate the tall bushes near the back porch. Suddenly, a pair of eyes lit up in the middle of one of those bushes, about eight feet off the ground.

The eyes weren’t moving, and my first thought was that they belonged to a cat. After all, when you have as many barn cats running around as we do, that’s what these things usually end up being. And this animal’s fur even appeared to be the same color as one of our cats. But as I drew closer, something about it didn’t seem quite right. The head wasn’t the right shape. And it wasn’t sitting like a cat.

It looked like a possum. But since its tail was hidden in the bushes, and branches covered a fair amount of its body, I wanted to be sure before I did anything rash. I summoned Mrs. Yeoman Farmer, lit the animal up with the spotlight, and asked MYF if she thought it was a cat. “No way,” she replied. We agreed it was definitely a possum. And I figured it was stalking the barn cats which congregate on the back porch at night.

MYF held the spotlight on the possum, to “freeze” it, while I dashed upstairs to retrieve what may be the most essential of farm tools: a 12-gauge Mossberg pump action shotgun. Back on the porch, I racked a shell of 00 Buck into the chamber, disengaged the safety, and lined the little predator up in my sights from about 25 feet away. One squeeze of the trigger, and he fell through the branches. He was still gripping the branch with that long muscular tail, and at first I wasn’t sure I’d landed a lethal blow. But before I had to waste a second shot, he dropped to the lawn with a thud — and it was clear from the wound that he wasn’t “playing possum.”

Just another night, living in the country, and marveling at the way all these different tools can work together for the safety of our property. And grateful that I’d remembered to give the spotlight a full charge the night before. And invested in a bulk case of 00 Buckshot, so we’d never have to worry about having some close at hand when we needed it.

Just Another Week

The light at the end of the tunnel is beginning to come into sight, as the busiest season for my professional work winds down. I appreciate your forbearance with the slow posting, and I look forward to posting more frequently going forward this fall.

In between the craziness with work, here is a sampling of what it’s been like living on a farm for the past week or so:

  • Dot’s lamb is thriving, and managing to keep up with her mother all around the pasture. It’s a big pasture, and they occasionally lose sight of each other; we can tell because the lamb begins a piercing high pitched bleat. Dot usually comes and finds her soon thereafter. It’s been a real joy watching Dot mother another lamb; it wouldn’t surprise me if this is the last time she gets to do it.
  • That said, Dot’s instincts sometimes conflict with our own. The first couple of nights with her lamb, she attempted to bed down in the wooded ridge on the far end of the pasture. I’m sure she was seeking privacy and shelter, but the lamb would’ve been easy pickings for any number of predators — from raccoons to owls. When I did my head count at the barn the first evening, Dot was noticeably absent. Having gotten to know her pretty well over these years, I had a good idea as to where she’d be hiding out. I grabbed the spotlight and crossed the pasture to the ridge; sure enough, that’s where she’d bedded down. Much to Dot’s chagrin, I grabbed the lamb and began jogging across the pasture to the barn. The lamb bleated, and Dot came running. It was actually kind of amusing listening to her continual protest “Meeah” sounds as we jogged.
  • Dot tried the same trick the next night, and I again didn’t catch on until it was pitch dark. The third night, I dispatched the Yeoman Farm Children to the ridge just before dusk, and they did the honors. In the meantime, I spotted an older lamb which had gotten its horns stuck in the pasture fence farther down the ridge. I freed it, and it ran across the pasture to rejoin the rest of the flock. In the days since, Dot has begun coming into the barn on her own with the rest of the flock at dusk.
  • We’ve been taking Wilbur the puppy along whenever we do chores or work with the livestock. When we went to retrieve Dot and her lamb, for example, I took Wilbur with me on a leash. He’s no help with herding yet, but I want him to experience as many different aspects of farm life as possible. For the more routine tasks, he’s beginning to follow me even without a leash. Each morning, he accompanies me as I let the sheep out, fill water tanks, feed chickens, get hay for goats, and feed turkeys. And then he does it again in the evening. Puppies have such boundless energy, it’s nice giving him a chance to work some of it off.
  • Wilbur hangs out in my office with me much of the rest of the day, and he’s about 70% of the way toward being housebroken. He hits the paper most of the time, but the biggest frustration is getting him to relieve himself outside. Often after running around the farm with me, he’ll wait until he’s returned to my office to relieve himself on the paper.
  • We had a litter of kittens born in the barn over the weekend. They were very much unwanted and unplanned (we didn’t get the cat fixed in time), but the cat fortunately only had two of them. Unfortunately, though, the mother cat has been doing a poor job caring for them. I was inclined to let nature take its course, but Cat Girl is having none of it. She and her brothers have taken it upon themselves to bottle feed the things. As of this morning, the prognosis for one kitten wasn’t good. But Cat Girl is working hard to save the other one.
  • Speaking of the Yeoman Farm Children, Yeoman Farm Baby contracted the chicken pox a couple of weeks ago. It wasn’t a big deal, and Mrs. Yeoman Farmer treated it effectively with homeopathic remedies. YFB got over it toward the end of last week. Now, you guessed it, the others have begun coming down with it. Homeschooled Farm Boy wasn’t feeling well last night, and began breaking out with pox this morning. Little Big Brother began breaking out this afternoon. We figure Homeschooled Farm Girl isn’t far behind.
  • Pears have begin falling off our tree in the front yard, and I’ve enjoyed tossing the blemished ones over the fence. The sheep see them, and the word spreads quickly through the whole flock. Within minutes, they’re all happily munching as many as I can throw. Then the geese come honking in to join the feast. It’s better than television. Really.
  • On a sad note, we lost one of our oldest roosters this afternoon. Sardine had been the Alpha Rooster for a long time, but got deposed in a cockfight earlier this year. He went into exile, sleeping in a far corner of the barn each night for months. For awhile it looked like he was plotting a Rocky-like comeback, and he did roost with the flock for a time, but in the last few days he’d begun sleeping out in the pasture at night. Annoying me to no end, he would begin crowing at 4am near the house. Always the widest-ranging of the flock, he would regularly cross our road during the day to forage in the neighboring fields. This afternoon, he met the same fate that Scooter met a couple of weeks ago; I found his crumpled body along the side of the road. I won’t miss his pre-dawn crowing, but Sardine had been “one of the gang” and a fixture on our farm for years. He’s one of the few remaining birds that came with us in the “Noah’s Ark on Wheels” from Illinois. So…it’s sad to lose him, but I’m glad he had a long and happy life.
    • Just another week of farm life. What’s ahead? Our first harvest of honey from the bee hive. About a dozen old laying hens need butchering. Potatoes need to be dug. And who knows what other surprises we may find in the pasture…

      Surprise!

      As I drove past the pasture this morning, I took a look over at the sheep. They were beautifully spread out and grazing, as usual. And then I spotted something that hadn’t been there earlier: a tiny black lamb, tagging along behind her mother.

      This was a shocker, first, because Icelandics almost never deliver lambs this late in the year. Our previous latest was August, and that’s only happened once in the last eight years. Icelandics only tend to come into season in the fall, and deliver all their lambs in the early spring.

      It’s also a shock because the ewe in question, Dot, is now eleven years old. I honestly wasn’t expecting her to lamb this year. She’s the leader of the flock, and so we intend to keep her until she dies of natural causes at as ripe of an old age as possible…but we’d pretty much resigned ourselves to her lambing days being over.

      On the farm, marvels never cease. Now we just have to think of a good name for our new little addition.

      Some Puppy!

      After our recent loss of Tabasco and Scooter, our farm was left without a canine. Dogs are essential to a working farm, whether for protection of the property or for herding livestock. Scooter’s loss, in particular, hit us hard in both departments. Suddenly, we had no dog watching the property while we were away from home. Suddenly, if the sheep or goats got out, we were on our own in trying to round them back up. Suddenly, there was no deterrent to predators which might visit our property by night.

      Replacing a dog like Scooter isn’t easy, and I’m not confident we’ll find his equal. But we learned an important lesson with him: it’s best to start with a young puppy. Scooter was only about eight weeks old when we got him, and he was acclimated from that very early age to the whole environment and expectations of our farm. Ideally, we could find a border collie puppy to take his place…and we will continue looking for one. But, in the meantime, we need a dog of some sort to get to work.

      Our solution was to scout the local humane society’s animal shelter. Fortunately, about a week ago, we found a promising prospect: a litter of German Shepherd mix puppies was available. They went fast, and we managed to get the last one. His name is Wilbur, and his is indeed…Some Puppy!

      I’d almost forgotten how much fun little puppies can be; it’s been nearly four years since we got Scooter. He’s bright, inquisitive, and a quick learner. He enjoys tagging along as I do chores, and is eager to please. Best of all, he’s small enough so the other livestock (even the barn cats) are able to teach him his place and ensure he doesn’t turn predator. He may have some bird or hunting dog in his mongrel mix, but at this early age I think we can break him of any inclination he may have to attack the chickens or ducks.
      I’d also forgotten how much trouble little puppies can be, especially before they’re housebroken. And how much they chew on everything. And get into everything. He spends his days in my office with me (and his nights in a crate in my office), and the building is unfortunately starting to smell like it. Hopefully we’ll get him big enough soon to be able to spend his nights in the barn, and by next spring to be patrolling the property at night.
      And we’ll make sure we get the front of the property fenced tightly enough so he doesn’t meet the same fate that Scooter did.

      One of Those Things You Don’t Really Believe Until You See…

      Posting has been slow of late because I’ve been swamped with professional work. But our family did manage to get down to Amish country in northern Indiana over Labor Day weekend, for the big Midwest Tandem Rally. I’ll post more about that event later, but in the meantime had a photo to share.

      We’d forgotten a few key items on the trip, so we stopped at a Wal-Mart in Sturgis, Michigan. It’s just across the state line from where all the Amish families live.

      That’s when we discovered just how universal Wal-Mart’s customer base is. And the lengths to which Wal-Mart will go to accommodate its customers:

      Yes, that’s a hitching post. And, yes, those are about a half dozen Amish buggies. And, no, I wouldn’t have believed it unless I’d seen it.

      I realize many people have divided opinions about Wal-Mart and the merits of shopping there versus supporting local Mom and Pop merchants. For the record, we prefer to support small local merchants, too … but sometimes Wal-Mart is the best option.

      It was interesting to find that even the Amish agree.

      Two in Two

      I am going to be sick.

      Just two weeks ago, we lost our beloved dog, Tabasco, to lung disease and old age. She was a close companion, which made the loss more difficult, but we were grateful we had a month or so get used to the idea that she was in a fatal decline.

      We got no such warning last night. The kids were in bed, and I’d gone out to my office to watch the end of a television program. At about 10:45, I heard Scooter the border collie barking like I’d never heard him bark before. In fact, at first I wasn’t even sure it was him. The bark was higher pitched, desperate, and very intense. I grabbed my spotlight and went out to investigate, thinking perhaps he’d gotten in a fight with (or simply cornered) a wild animal. The bark was coming from the direction of the road, and was now so urgent that I broke into a full run down the driveway.

      When I reached the road, I found no wild animal. Just Scooter, laying in the middle of the street, struggling — but failing — to get up. I ran still faster, to help him, but he’d clearly been injured very badly. He smelled awful, like the stuffing had been knocked out of him. I had to get him out of the road, and I wondered if we could make it to the vet in time.

      I’m not sure if my attempt to move him aggravated an internal injury, but he was already going into shock when I tried to pick him up. A passing motorist stopped and carried my light for me as I hauled Scooter to the back porch; I didn’t get his name, but his sympathy was greatly appreciated and I wish I could thank him again.

      Scooter was limp by the time I laid him on the porch. I ran in to tell Mrs. Yeoman Farmer; she’d heard the yelps, but hadn’t known what they were. She was as upset as I was about the whole thing, but we were glad the kids were already asleep.

      I returned to Scooter’s body, and was surprised I could still feel a heartbeat. His eyes were glazed over, and his body was doing little other than twitching. I didn’t know if he could hear me, but I told him over and over what a good boy he was. And kept my hand on his chest, feeling his heart beat. Finally, he made one big sudden twitch…and then I couldn’t feel his heart beating anymore.

      Not wanting the kids to discover the body in the morning, I hauled Scooter to the pasture where he’d gotten so much joy in giving us so much tremendous service. This morning, I got up early and dug a grave near where we buried Tabasco…but closer to the main path the sheep take to return to their paddock at night. I thought that’s where Scooter should rest: right near the place where he did his favorite work.

      He was only four years old. He was in the absolute prime and vigor of health. He loved every instant of his life, and the things he got to do here on the farm: bringing sheep in and out from pasture, rounding up the goats when they’d broken through a fence, chasing down errant birds and holding them carefully until I could pick them up, getting big squirts of milk when the Yeoman Farm Children milked the goats, taking romps with me through the woods as I inspected a trap or fence line…I’ll never forget the way he’d yelp with joy and practically jump out of his skin when he realized it was time to get to work.

      Which is what I need to do right now, actually. Stop typing and get to work, that is. I’m not yelping and jumping out of my skin at the prospect, but these weeks are absolutely jam packed with professional work for me. Which makes it the absolute worst time to have to cope with losing the Best Companion Dog Ever and the Best Farm Dog Ever in rapid succession. I am glad I have lots of work to immerse myself in. I’ll try to approach it with the enthusiasm Scooter would have for work on the farm.

      But right now, my heart is too heavy and my eyes are too full to do anything but grieve.