What’s Wrong with this Picture?

Twice now, within the last week, the following has happened: I went out to the barn early in the morning, flipped on the lights, and a little black mouse has begun running all up and down the chicken area until it can disappear under cover. I then looked over at the eight (or however many…I can’t even keep count of them anymore) barn cats, all of whom are camped out around the old table where Big Little Brother feeds them cheap cat food twice a day. And they look back, bored.

Sheesh, I think. Eight of you guys, and not one can be bothered to nab this mouse?

Seriously, maybe we need to feed them less. Or let Wilbur the dog start sleeping in the barn, so he can give these felines some lessons in mousing.

Our Dog, the Cat

It’s been cold, rainy, windy and generally nasty around here for the last several days, which has given very little to smile about. But who can’t smile at a dog who’s caught more mice in the last week than our barn cats have?

Wilbur has a great nose, and is a great digger. He unearthed and dispatched several moles this summer, and in the last few days has come up with two field mice. Just like a cat, he walks around with the mouse squirming in his mouth. Then he puts it down, watches it flop and stumble around, and plays with it until I approach. Then he picks the squirming, dog-spit-covered rodent back up, retreats a safe distance, and does the whole thing again. Eventually, he finishes the mouse off.

Now, if we could just get him to do his digging somewhere other than Mrs. Yeoman Farmer’s garden…

Lamb Concern (Updated)

After the amazement of Dot’s delivery last night, the reality of the situation is setting in — and it’s not looking great.

First off, the male (black) lamb is much smaller than his (white) sister. As noted yesterday, I thought the male had been born dead. But he did manage to get up and walk…and, multiple times, get through the fence into the chicken area. So did the white lamb.

This happened, in large part, because Dot wasn’t very much interested in either lamb. She didn’t call to them, or urge them to nurse, or anything else. It didn’t seem like she was rejecting them (we’ve seen that and know what it looks like), but more like she was just plain tired. She seemed content to simply lay on the floor and chew her cud, while the lambs wandered off. I turned off the lights, hoping that with darkness they’d be less adventure-prone.

Didn’t help. I had to search all over for them this morning, and neither was near Dot. But at least, I thought, they’re strong enough to walk. I had Homeschooled Farm Girl help me move Dot and both twins into the now-empty goat kidding pen. I figured that would help the three of them bond more effectively, especially since we had to be gone for much of the day and couldn’t keep close tabs on them.

I tried to get the little black lamb to nurse. He definitely seemed interested, but once the teat was in his mouth he would just sit there. No suckle. He got a little bit, but then Dot started moving. The bigger lamb was much more active, and much better at suckling. She took quite a bit.

After doing some other chores, and helping to get the kids ready for church, I made another stop in the barn to help get the lambs tanked up. The little black one was just so small and weak, he wouldn’t even suckle. We had to leave, so I didn’t have the chance to do more for him. I will try to get something into him with a dropper this evening, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we lose him.

Big sister, by contrast, again nursed well — at least when I held Dot in place. But Dot was starting to act irritated at both of them, almost like she wanted to reject them. It became a huge struggle to keep Dot from walking away when I put either of them on a teat. I’m hoping they work it out today while we’re gone, but I’m mentally preparing myself to bottle feed them all the way. Especially since, in an email exchange with our breeder, we learned that these old ewes often don’t produce nearly as much milk as they did when younger.

I’ll close this “downer” update with something more amusing: while I was out of the barn this morning, and Dot was busy eating hay, both lambs somehow found their way into the corner of the pen, where a barn cat has been raising three little kittens. When I came back, the mother cat was away, but all five babies were curled up together in a big inter-species pile! One of those priceless scenes I really wish I’d had a camera to capture. The kittens even cried when I took the lambs away. Maybe they’ll be back there when we return home this morning…

Or maybe the barn cat will adopt the little black lamb! That would solve everything. And put us in a record book somewhere.

We got home, to a mixed scene. The black lamb, unfortunately (but not unexpectedly), had expired sometime during the day. The white lamb was doing well, but Dot did seem to have rejected her. I managed to hold Dot steady long enough for the lamb to get a good meal; one advantage of Dot’s advanced age is that she no longer has the strength to fight me and escape the way she used to. Her udder seemed quite large and full, so milk production doesn’t seem to be a problem.

I’m not crazy about going out to hold Dot for nursing several times a day, and we may end up bottle feeding eventually. But for now, the lamb needs the colostrum. And we’ll do whatever’s necessary to help her along.

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…

      When to Call the Vet?

      In some recent posts, an issue came up about calling in a veterinarian’s help. We’ve experienced both extremes of veterinary availability: in Illinois, a large animal vet lived literally around the corner from us and could come pretty much any time; here, we can’t even find a large animal vet (who does anything but horses). As one commenter pointed out, with livestock it is really necessary to do a cost-benefit analysis before calling a vet. How much is it worth to save a $150 animal?

      We’ve found $50 to be about the limit for young goat kids who’ve developed pneunomia. We’ve driven a couple of them to the local “dog and cat” vet clinic, gotten them treated, and had them grow to butchering size. But given the cost of butchering, and of feeding them to get to that size, when you add another $50 you’re basically just breaking even on the price of meat. And if the animal doesn’t survive, you’re out everything.

      There’s another element, however: we see ourselves as custodians or stewards of these animals, and therefore under an obligation to do what we can to maintain their health. For that reason, we’re sometimes willing to spend more than an animal’s replacement value, if necessary, and if the treatment promises to yield a good result.

      Still, it’s quite a different — more utilitarian — mentality than the approach many people have to veterinary care for their house pets. For many, a dog or cat is almost literally a member of their family, and they’re willing to spend great sums to prolong that pet’s life. I confess to a deep attachment to our dogs, and in most cases would spend significantly more on veterinary care than they are “worth”. Barn cats are different; we (especially our kids) like them, and we do get them basic veterinary care, but they are expendible when their conditions are too complicated.

      This issue has been on my mind the last couple of days, after reading a provocative piece on the NY Times website, which explored the amount people are willing to spend on a sick pet.

      Most pet owners (62 percent) said they would likely pay for pet health care even if the cost reached $500, but that means more than a third of pet owners said that might be too much to spend on an animal.

      What if the bill for veterinary care reached $1,000? Fewer than half of pet owners said they were very likely to spend that much at the vet. Only a third said it was very likely they would pay a $2,000 vet bill.

      Once the cost of saving a sick pet reached $5,000, most pet owners said they would stop treatment. Only 22 percent said they were very likely to pick up $5,000 in veterinary costs to treat a sick dog or cat.

      The piece says “only 22%” would pay five grand, but I was frankly surprised it was that large. Even more fascinating than the poll results in the piece itself are the comments people have made, detailing the enormous sums of money they have spent (and consider well-spent), sometimes just to prolong an animal’s life by a few months.

      I do understand that for some people, a dog can be a beloved companion, especially in cases where a person does not have any children of his or her own, and prolonging the pet’s life for several more years is worth more to the person than having some extra pieces of green paper in the bank — particularly when the pet is relatively young and the prognosis for treatment is good. And when a person agrees to become the custodian of an animal, he is also agreeing to make some financial sacrifices on behalf of that animal.

      The question I have to ask myself is, when does the amount cross the line from “responsible” to “disordered”? Where each individual draws that line is a matter for his own conscience, but it’s something worth giving thought to.

      For myself, I think it’s a question of competing obligations. There were all kinds of things I was willing to spend money on before I was married or had kids, that now I would never consider spending so much on. Five grand might be an acceptable price for some people to spend saving a dog’s life, given their financial and family circumstances. But if a vet quoted me that amount, in anticipation of treating my dog, as much as I love him and as much help as he is with the livestock on our farm, my thought would be: Five grand will cover all of our family’s routine out-of-pocket medical and dental and vision care expenses for the next two years. How can I spend that on Scooter, when I have four kids who are depending on me to spend it on them?

      Where do you draw that line for yourself?

      Coda on Mean

      My apologies for the slow posting of late; things with work and the farm have kept us preocupied. Some of this has related to the legal process in adopting Yeoman Farm Baby — which, by the way, is progressing nicely (we appreciate your ongoing prayers for this intention).

      About a month ago, I wrote about the passing of a barn cat named Mean. She had a prolapsed rectum, and had to be put down. At the time, we puzzled over the choice the vet gave us: $15 to have her put to sleep on the spot, or $20 for an office visit if we took her home alive and put her down ourselves. After further discussion, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I came to a rough consensus about the price discrepancy: the vet’s office probably gives the price break to ensure the animals die as humanely as possible. I’m a pretty good shot, but not everybody is. The vet probably heard enough horror stories about people putting three or four bullets into their pets, causing unnecessary trauma for both the animal and the family, to decide an incentive should be offered to get the job done on the spot.

      We thought that would close the books on Mean. Then, a few days ago, we got a nice card in the mail from the vet’s office. The outside was covered with an illustration of doe-eyed puppies, kittens, bunnies, and the like, and read “In Loving Memory of Your Pet.” On the inside was a hand-written inscription reading:

      Dear [Mrs Yeoman Farmer], A loyal companion is hard to find, hard to lose, and impossible to forget. May you find comfort in the knowledge that you were truly belssed to have shared your life with such a friend as Mean. Thinking of you in your time of loss.

      And it was signed by every member of the vet’s staff.

      I want to emphasize that this card was extremely thoughtful, and very much appreciated…but it also sparked a conversation around our dinner table that was perhaps even more so. First off, we thought it was amusing to read the name “Mean” in the same sentence as the tender sentiments of pet friendship. “You know someone at the vet’s office was chuckling when they wrote that,” MYF commented (see the post linked above for more info about the name’s origin). But secondly, and more importantly, we discussed why the vet’s office probably sends these cards out: most families get so attached to their pets, and so “personify” their animals, losing one of them becomes as traumatic as losing a human member of the family. We’ve largely avoided that, by being vigilant in how we refer to the animals and treat them. Yes, it’s still hard when one of them dies — especially a barn cat that the kids enjoyed playing with, or a dog that was a constant companion [see the four “Goodbye to a Great Dog” posts linked in the right margin of the blog for an example]. But it’s not the end of the world, and we don’t construct memorials to them. By contrast, we have heard of some kids so stricken at a pet’s death that their parents allow them to miss school so they can grieve.

      Our kids were sad about Mean’s death, but they got over it in relatively short order. It turned out to be good preparation, because we ended up going through an identical situation just last week: Mean’s last surviving littermate, Hairy (yes, an extremely long-haired cat), also developed a prolapsed rectum. We caught it earlier this time, so thought perhaps the vet might be able to do something. MYF and the kids took Hairy in, but the vet said that once this kind of thing gets going at all there really isn’t any treatment. Furthermore (and this was important), it wasn’t that we did anything wrong. Cats can have a genetic predisposition to rectal prolapse, and that’s clearly what happened here. Both littermates developed it within weeks of each other.

      We told the kids that we could get another free kitten or two, the next time we see someone advertising them. Not surprisingly, all three of the older Yeoman Farm Children are urging me to start looking actively. And given the average life expectency we’ve had with barn cats, we may need to NOT have the new female kitten spayed, so we can produce some litters of our own in the future.

      But that’s okay. We and our kids understand well that both life and death are all part of the natural order of things. Especially on a farm.