Thank God for Good Vets

It can be hard to find a good large-animal veterinarian. We were fortunate to have one just around the corner from us in Illinois, and who didn’t charge a fortune to come see us at the farm. Here, it took us awhile to locate a good vet who can see the livestock, but we did at last find one; most of his practice is dogs and cats, but he has good experience with farm animals. He will come out on farm calls, but it’s a fairly steep charge. Since every one of our animals is small enough to fit in a vehicle, we find it makes most sense to drive the 14 miles to his office.

A year or two ago, one of our excellent dairy goats, Thistle (or, as our four-year-old called her when he was learning to talk, “Fissle”), developed a cancer of her eye. A sizable tumor began consuming the eyeball, and it was one of the most unsettling things we’d ever seen. We were really afraid we might have to put her down. The vet said not to worry; he’d seen this numerous times before in various types of livestock, and knew just what to do. He put her under anesthesia, and in very short order (1) removed the entire eyeball and (2) sewed her eyelid shut. The next day, Thistle was home on the farm and feeling fine. She’s certainly one of the more bizarre-looking animals, and has only half her original sight, but is otherwise none the worse for the experience. She remains a gentle doe who takes good care of her kids and gives us lots of milk. With the added bonus that she’s now much easier to catch — you just need to sneak up on her from the “blind side.”

Which brings us to Button, the mother of Thistle. She had twin kids about a month ago, and has been producing an outrageous amount of milk. We’re talking basketball-sized udder, with teats like great big sausages. Plenty for the twins and us.

Anyway, late last week, Button got some sort of scrape on her right teat. It wasn’t too big a deal, and the Yeoman Farm Children worked around it when they milked. We treated it with salve, and it was scabbing over. Problem was, the scab began growing and blocking the milk hole. This meant it had to be opened up a bit for each milking. Which was fine…but on Sunday morning we found the hole simply would not open. We tried everything we could, but didn’t want to hurt her; we were concerned that scar tissue might be forming.

Mrs Yeoman Farmer called the vet, who was willing to see Button on a Sunday — but there would be a substantial “emergency fee.” We were grateful for the option, but knew Button would be fine (if a little full) until Monday morning.

The plan was to get Button packed up and to the vet as close as possible to his 8am opening time; he sees walk-ins from 8-10 on most mornings, so we wanted to be first in line. Unfortunately, as Homeschooled Farm Girl and I were moving Button out of the barn to our van, the goat’s engorged teat caught on a piece of fence and tore the skin. Great. One thing after another. Now quite worried, and somewhat delayed, we sped off to the vet.

We turned out to be second in line, and got in to see him after just a short wait. Must be interesting being a country vet; the person ahead of us was an elderly lady getting her pet dog’s toenails trimmed. Then us, with a dairy goat with a torn teat! Anyway, the vet was a bit taken aback at first by the wound, but then got right to work computing how much anesthesia Button would need. He gave her a little shot, she collapsed in a heap, and then I helped the vet lift Button onto a work table.

First order of business was to clean the teat and bathe the cut with some sort of antibiotic cream. He then needed to drain the teat, which he did by inserting a catheter and then putting a bowl under it to catch the milk. After all the work we usually have to do, expressing milk, it was amazing to see the stuff all come running out like through a faucet. I even joked that we’d better not let our children see this process, or they’ll ask if they can start catheterizing the goats every time they go out to milk.

With the teat going flaccid, and with me holding Button’s leg so she wouldn’t interfere with his work if she twiched, he began suturing the cut closed. He explained that he was leaving plenty of loose skin, so the teat would be able to expand with milk. It took him just a few minutes to get everything done.

Then, since the anesthetic still had Button nearly entirely knocked out, he took advantage of the opportunity to give her hooves a good trimming. “It’s a lot easier when they can’t kick!” he joked.

This whole time, my daughter had been sitting in the quiet waiting room, doing school work. Once Button awakened, the vet and I called Homeschooled Farm Girl back and explained the situation. Button would need to be milked several times per day, to make sure the re-opened teat remained open and didn’t scar over. This would need to be done gently, taking care not to stress the sutures. And we would obviously need to keep Button totally separated from her kids for the next ten days or so.

HFG happily volunteered to take on the management of the situation, all the way from milking Button to bottle-feeding that milk to the twins. Needless to say, it’s very gratifying whenever one of your children takes that kind of initiative, without any kind of “bargaining” or questioning what might be in it for her. It just needs doing, and she wants to take charge of it.

So, after a wild morning, we’re all back home on the farm. Just another crazy day in our life.

Another Brood

We’ve had a few Buff Orpington hens go broody lately (in addition to the one that insisted on hatching a clutch of eggs last fall). Given that we’ve got eggs coming out our ears, I figured there was no harm in allowing them to set.

Note to readers who are learning about/taking up farming in preparation for civilizational collapse, or who simply want to hatch their own chicks: Buff Orpingtons are a wonderfully self-sufficient breed. We’ve found them to be excellent setters and mother hens.

Broody #1 started hatching her chicks a few days ago, and yesterday took her chicks for their first stroll off the nest. I checked on her last night, and she had all seven of her chicks safely under her wings; there is really nothing quite like listening to the deep, reassuring clucks that a hen makes to her brood in a darkened barn.

Today, she took all of them for an outdoor adventure:

She quickly found a spot where Little Brother spilled some grain, and had the chicks getting their first good meal. I’m just glad the spilled feed didn’t go to waste. Then she took them into a weedy/overgrown area between the barn and the garage.

I managed to shoot a brief, low-tech video. (It’s the very first one I’ve uploaded to YouTube.) My sense was that a still photo wouldn’t give the full sense of how fascinating a mother hen’s behavior is. She clucks constantly, and is constantly pointing out new food, and scratching to uncover new food. And watch the way the chicks respond to her!

About five minutes after I shot this, she seemed to have decided the chicks had been exposed to the 55 degree temps for long enough. Like a football quarterback, she called a huddle — and all of them found their way back under her feathers. No telling how long she’s going to sit out there before scratching around again. But she’s picked a safe spot for the huddle; it’s in a corner, and she has a full view of everything approaching.

Hard to think of any place better for homeschooling than a farm is. We never run out of real life education here.

Breaking a Broody

A reader poses a good question in the Comments section for one of the posts about our broody hen:

We’ve got a broody hen and I don’t know what to do with her! My neighbor has told me I need either a bucket or a trap to get the hen ‘off the cluck’.

It is indeed hard to break a hen of her broodiness. Once she’s in full brood mode, she’s already stopped laying eggs. If you can catch her on the first day, she should start laying again in seven days. But if you don’t catch her and break her until the fourth day, it’ll be another 18 days or so before she begins laying again. We basically let our hen brood this time because (1) we had enough other hens to keep laying; (2) we had a bunch of fertile eggs we didn’t need to eat; and (3) it’s too much work to break a hen of broodiness — and we’ve never had much luck doing it.

Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens lists several tips for breaking up a broody hen (p. 181):
  • Don’t let eggs accumulate in the nest
  • Repeatedly remove the hen from her nest
  • Move or cover the nest so she can’t get in
  • Move the hen to different housing
  • Put the hen in a “broody coop,” which is a hanging cage with a wire or slat floor, for a few days.

How hard you work to break a broody hen will depend in part on why you’re raising chickens in the first place. If your egg production is tight, and you’re interested in nothing but eggs, and you have just a few hens, you’ll want to do everything you can to break her. You may even want to cull a persistent broody hen, if broodiness is a trait you do not want in your flock.

But for us, in our situation, raising chickens has always been about more than maximizing egg production. We’ve fortunately always had enough “extra” hens, and have always had roosters running with them, so we can allow broody hens to remain broody. Broodiness is a trait that we actually appreciate, and it gives us another “teachable moment” in homeschooling our children. The kids are learning that chicks don’t come merely from a hatchery; nature has a beautiful and mysterious way of ensuring that the cycle of life continues itself without our mechanical intervention. Also, there are few things as fun or entertaining as watching a hen escort a brood of chicks around the barnyard, keeping them close and showing them what is good to eat.
We’ve also wondered if there may come a time when it’s difficult to obtain chicks from a hatchery, or when hatchery chicks become prohibitively expensive. For that reason, we’ve wanted to have some heritage breeds of chickens, ducks, turkeys and geese that will be capable of “getting the job done” without our help, and ensuring that we will always have some home-produced supply of meat and eggs. The birds haven’t always been successful in brooding and raising their own young. We’re just glad that, in a pinch, we have some brood-capable birds we can work with.

What is Home?

My apologies for the slow posting of late; I’ve returned to Michigan after several days visiting Seattle, where I grew up, for the first time in nearly two years. It was a wonderful trip; altogether too short, but when you have a farm…getting away for even a few days in the middle of summer is asking a lot. I went alone, and am grateful that Mrs Yeoman Farmer and the Yeoman Farm Children (particularly the older two) were able to carry the burden in my absence.

The purpose of my trip was to ride the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic on July 11th, and I will be putting up a separate post describing that adventure. It’s an event I’ve done many times in the past, but not since 1996. Being able to get in shape again, and manage all the logistics of getting myself and my bicycle to Seattle (and then to Portland) once more, fulfilled a dream that had been simmering in my mind for several years. As I pedaled along Lake Washington Blvd on Saturday morning, with the rising sun framing the Cascade range in purple, and Mt. Rainier standing with all its immensitude in the crystal clear summer daybreak, my heart overflowed with joy. I’m really here. I’m really doing it. This is truly happening. Everything in the world is exactly right.

It occurred to me that this could be a rough working definition of “home”: not simply the place where a person happens to be living at the moment, but the place in the world where everything seems right. The place where a person senses he belongs, and the place from which a person feels exiled when he is not able to be there. Circumstances and grave obligations may force a long — even permanent — exile. But it takes much more than relocation to change one’s sense of “home.”

I had several days, largely to myself, to reflect on these and other thoughts. In a sense, the trip was not unlike a retreat. I spent last Wednesday getting to Seattle and retrieving my bike from the mechanic to whom I’d shipped it. Then, apart from reconnecting with an old friend for dinner one night, and the big event on Saturday, and spending Sunday afternoon with relatives, I had few scheduled obligations for the rest of the trip. I was able to spend much of Thursday and Friday simply riding all over…and thinking, and praying, and reflecting. I rode the Burke-Gilman trail to the small town where I grew up, pedaled past our family’s first house, and rolled around town.

The community swimming pool was still there. So was the football field. And the Ranch Drive-In. But there were also uncomfortable changes: the local library — my favorite spot as a young child — was now a cold municipal office building; the books had been relocated into a larger and more modern structure nearby. One of the grand old school administration buildings had been razed and was now a parking lot. Other buildings had disappeared. There were new buildings I didn’t recognize. And so on. And so forth.

And I couldn’t help asking myself: Is this where everything seems right? Because it’s funny how, the longer you don’t live somewhere, the more it lives in memory … even if the reality has become quite different.

In that town, and all over Seattle, I did see plenty of other places and things that were familiar and comfortable, and were reassuring in their seeming permanence. But despite the joy of being in Seattle, it was hard to avoid a simultaneous sense of melancholy…because nothing in Seattle is truly “mine” any longer. I couldn’t stay. I couldn’t be attached to it. As much as I may feel a sense of belonging in that city, I don’t truly belong there now. And it was these two competing senses about “belonging,” pulling in opposite directions, that triggered the melancholy.

Because no matter what I might feel, the inescapable reality remains: I chose to leave and go to college in Chicago. I chose to take a job in Detroit after college. I chose to attend graduate school in California. And, above all, I chose to marry a woman who grew up in Michigan, with deep roots in that part of the country, who very much dislikes the part of the country in which I grew up. One of the better definitions of “adulthood” that I’ve come across goes something like this: doing the things we ought to do and need to do, and not necessarily the things we want to do. And in our family’s case, there is no doubt about what we ought to be doing, and need to be doing: living in rural Michigan, near the town in which MYF grew up and has so many friends and so much family. And I have no doubt that “adulthood” was calling me to do all the other things (education, career) that took me farther and farther away from Seattle, one step at a time. Funny how easy it was to take each of those steps, without reflecting on the larger picture of how much distance each of them was putting between me and the city I loved so much. And yet even if I had seen the whole picture, with all its consequences, I wouldn’t go back and change any of those steps.

I will no doubt be living in Michigan for many years, and I have few illusions that the passage of time will make it seem any more like “home” than Seattle always will. I will always be, in some sense, an exile here. But you know what? That’s okay. And the more I pedaled around the region where I grew up, and the more I thought about it, the more okay with everything I became. My family is infinitely more important to me than getting to live in any particular place…and at the end of the day, I’m much happier living with my family in a place that is so completely right for them than I ever could be if they were compelled to live in a place that was “right” for me but completely wrong for everyone else. Because it’s ultimately not being in any particular place that makes us happy…it’s being with the people we love, and above all it’s living our lives in the way God wants. And I have absolutely zero doubts that that this little farm in this little town in this Rust Belt state is exactly where God wants me — and my family — to be.

Out With the Old, In With the New

We had such a large number of lambs born (and survive) last year, it was impossible to take them all to the butcher in one trip. Our solution was to take a first batch last October, with all the large males, and to keep the runts and females to see if we could fatten them up a bit. I even planned to try butchering one of the small ones myself, just to see if I could figure it out.

One thing led to another (or, more precisely, one bitterly cold snowstorm led to another) all winter, and I never did get around to trying my hand at butchering a lamb…or even driving the second batch in to the butcher.

Finally, today, I got my act together and cleared out the seven remaining lambs. They’d been eating us out of house and home, plowing through the hay that needs to last until the pasture begins growing — but they weren’t putting on much weight. Yesterday, I made the call to the butcher to see if I could get them in; Wednesdays are the only day they do lambs and goats. Fortunately, they had some availability, so I made the appointment.

I went out to the barn early this morning, to make sure everything was okay with the sheep. I flipped on the lights, and immediately noticed the Scooter the Border Collie was acting a bit unusual. He seemed extremely interested in what was going on in the sheep area, was wagging his tail purposely, and had his muzzle tucked into the fence separating him from the sheep. One quick look revealed what had Scooter so interested: a tiny black lamb, tottering near the fence.

Maybelle, one of our best mother ewes, was hovering protectively over the lamb, not quite understanding that Scooter was only trying to be protective (and helpful), too. A moment later, I spotted another tiny black lamb…and realized that Maybelle had done it again: delivered twins, and delivered before any of the other ewes. Her streak now extends to seven years in a row.

The arrival of Maybelle’s twins (one male and one female) meant it was doubly important to get those seven extra lambs from last year out of the sheep pen. All the extra bodies would only multiply the opportunity for little lambs to get trampled.

I managed to get our old 1984 Ford Bronco II fired up, and the rear seats folded down. Spread some old paper feed bags on the floor to catch sheep droppings, and then backed her into the barn. Homeschooled Farm Boy (HFB) helped make sure we barricaded both sides of the Bronco, to discourage any escape attempts. He then helped me pick up Maybelle’s lambs, and we used those as bait to lure her outside to the fenced sheep paddock. We also got Dilemma, our big breeding ram, out of the barn; he would have been liable to attack us as we caught the lambs to load them on the truck.

With the barn door shut, Scooter, HFB and I quickly caught lamb after lamb and hauled them into the back of the Bronco. The hardest part was hoisting each lamb up and in, and closing the rear hatch door, without any of the already-loaded lambs pushing their way out. Fortunately, between the three of us, we managed to get all seven loaded without any escapees.

As there is only one spare seat in the Bronco once all the lambs are loaded, our children take turns being the one who gets to ride with me to the butcher. This was HFB’s turn, which he thought was very exciting. Scooter always goes as well, in case he’s needed to quell a jail break. (The Bronco’s rear window does not latch, and we have had animals — particularly goats — try to escape at stop signs. Plus, when unloading at the butcher’s, anything can happen.) So, at about 7:40am, all of us set off.

With seven four-legged passengers in the back, and one four-legged passenger up front with us humans, we had a very full vehicle. The seven passengers in the back were particularly upset about having missed breakfast. Also, every time we went around a corner or came to a stop, all seven of them would tumble in one direction or another — and I would have to look carefully to make sure none was attempting an escape through that rear window. Needless to say, I made sure I obeyed all the traffic laws as I drove; I couldn’t imagine the conversation with a police officer, were I to get pulled over.

With HFB’s help, and Scooter looking on attentively, the unloading went off without incident. Once all seven lambs were secured in the holding pen on Death Row, I went around to the retail portion of the shop and explained to the butcher how I’d like the lambs prepared. HFB, Scooter and I then sped off to Mass in town; we managed to arrive just in time for HFB to get dressed to serve on this the Feast of the Annunciation.

Once back home, we were able to get some good pictures of Maybelle and her lambs (both of which seem to be doing very well):

Just another crazy day in the life of a homeschooling yeoman farm family. A family, I might add, that is looking forward to lots of dinners featuring delicious Icelandic lamb.

More than Just Bloat

After last night’s adventure saving Queen Anne’s Lace the Goat from bloat (detailed in a post this morning), it turns out that my suspicions about her engorged udder were correct: she was more than just bloated. She was also majorly pregnant!

I checked on her at lunchtime, and she was in active labor; the first kid’s amniotic sac, with fluid, was hanging out of her rear end. I ran to the house, and the children quickly came out to watch. Homeschooled Farm Girl cleared other goats out of the barn, and then helped me move QAL to the kidding pen. This took some real effort, as we had to time the move to fall between QAL’s increasingly-intense contractions.

Fortunately, we got her secured in time. Homeschooled Farm Girl and Little Brother made themselves comfortable, and we all settled in to watch. A hoof was clearly protruding and visible, and the kid’s head emerged next. Progress then slowed down; QAL struggled and pushed for several minutes, but not much more of the kid came out. HFG fretted that perhaps QAL needed help. My own private worries aside, I assured her that everything looked fine, and we just needed to leave QAL alone.

Sure enough, a few hearty pushes later, the kid emerged the rest of the way. QAL turned around and began licking it off. She looked to have another kid inside her, and we dcould have stayed to watch — but at this point I figured that what the goat needed most was some privacy so she could bond with Kid #1 and ready herself to deliver Kid #2. So, I told our children we needed to head back into the house and return to the books. But I think that the most valuable homeschooling lesson of the day had already taken place, right there in the barn.

I went back out about an hour later; both goat kids had been safely delivered, licked off, and were on their feet learning to nurse. We appear to have one male and one female.

And with three does now having delivered in the last month, we’re about to have a whole bunch of delicious goat milk.


Yesterday, Mrs Yeoman Farmer was going over a history lesson with Homeschooled Farm Boy.

MYF happened to remark, “Your history book is a lot more interesting than mine was in the eighth grade.”

HFB replied, matter-of-factly: “Well, yeah. A lot more has happened since then.”