Sunday Morning Excitement

Our weekly “day of rest” got off to an interesting start this morning. While heading to the barn at about 7:45am, I heard an unusual commotion in the distance. About 50 yards down the road to the west, I spotted a man and woman who’d parked their pickup truck near the edge of our hay field. They were thrashing around in the brush with sticks or rods, and shouting.

Given how few people are usually even up and moving around here on a Sunday morning, let alone one as cold as today, my initial assumption was that they were hunters in hot pursuit of something they’d wounded. It is, after all, still firearm deer season in Lower Michigan. But why would a hunter with a firearm not use that firearm to finish off the deer? They were acting more like they were after a pheasant or a wild turkey, but I don’t think either of those are in season.

As I continued watching, now both curious and a little nervous, something truly odd happened: a large dark object began inching up a scrawny tree, like a flag being hoisted up a flagpole. The larger of the two people was shouting and swinging a stick at this “flag,” but to no avail.

Realizing that this “flag” must in fact be some sort of varmint, I ran inside and grabbed my twelve gauge shotgun. Once back outside, I shouted and waved at the pair (who were now both swinging sticks at the varmint), and jogged across the hayfield toward them with the shotgun.

“It’s a coon!” the man called out to me.

“Great!” I called back, jogging nearer. “I’ve got a shotgun!”

The couple, who I assume were husband and wife, explained that they were out early delivering Sunday newspapers when the coon had run across the road in front of them. They’d stopped and given chase with makeshift clubs, knowing that a small child lives in the next house down from us.

“And we have kids and livestock,” I added. “I appreciate it, because we’ve lost lots of chickens this last year. I hate these things.”

I loaded the shotgun with buckshot, disengaged the safety, and prepared to line it up with the coon. The thing was about ten feet off the ground, which was most of the way to the top of the scrawny tree. And the sucker was huge. Wouldn’t have surprised me if it’d feasted on several of our chickens and ducks.

“Wait,” the man said, as I drew the shotgun to my shoulder. “Do you want the pelt?”

“I just want it dead,” I replied. “Why? Do you want it?” I’ve never tanned hides, and had no interest in getting started today.

“Yeah,” the two of them told me. “Can you shoot it in the head?”

I told them I’d do my best, but a twelve gauge is a twelve gauge. And I wasn’t going back inside for my .380 pistol with the laser sight. A buckshot shell contains nine large pieces of metal, which will spray when launched, but the odds were better than using birdshot. I aimed high, and the fairly close range meant the nine pieces of shot would remain pretty much together on impact. With one squeeze of the trigger, the big coon tumbled from the tree like a bag of wet cement.

The man kicked the coon over. When it didn’t move, he picked it up by a hind leg and announced, “Huge hole in the head!” Indeed, it looked like half its skull had been blown off — but the rest of the body was untouched. In all honesty, it was a much better shot than I’d been expecting to make, given the coon’s vertical (head upward) orientation on the tree trunk. The man handed the coon to his wife, who tossed it into the back of their pickup.

They thanked me for letting them keep the coon for its hide, and for dispatching the coon before it could hurt the little boy who lives next door. I told them how much I appreciated their stopping and making so much of an effort chasing the thing down, and giving me the chance to take it out.

They seemed like a nice couple, and pure “country folks” without any pretentions, who really wanted to do the right thing. Which is what I like so much about living out here: no matter what we might do for a living, or what kind of vehicle we might drive, or what kind of property or livestock we might have, we’re all pretty much of one mind about a lot of things.

Like what you do when you catch a big fat coon crossing the road.

Turkeys Were Here

No, it’s not graffiti. But the turkeys left their mark on the hay field as clearly as if they’d used spray paint. Green spray paint:

This year, we kept the turkeys in three portable pasture pens that we moved in a staggered formation along the edge of the hay field. Each pen is four feet wide and eight feet long. In their staggered formation, the three pens therefore took up the first twelve feet of the hay field. Because that portion of the field is bordered by fence, mowing and raking it into hay is a tricky proposition anyway. It seemed like a good place to let the turkeys clean up some overgrown grass. And since we have plenty of hay stored up in the barn, we didn’t mind seeing the harvest reduced by a few bales.

We moved the three pens each day, allowing the birds to feast on fresh alfalfa and grass (in addition to their 21% protein grain ration). As the pens were dragged forward, the turkeys would also scramble to snap up all the crickets and other bugs being disturbed by the moving grass, further supplementing the protein in their diet. Moving the pens got the turkeys off their droppings, and ensured their fertilizer would be spread fairly evenly.

The photo above is from a spot where the turkeys were over the summer. Each day, they consumed a huge amount of the grass that their pen had been covering. Judging by how well the “replacement” grass has been coming up, and how green it is, the turkeys left behind some serious fertilizer and is doing some serious work. It’ll be interesting to see how well that portion of the hay field yields next year. Maybe we won’t lose any bales after all.

Where are the turkeys now? Here, where the final two are meeting their end this afternoon (note the rooster cleaning up spilled grain from the previous day):

I’ve been butchering like crazy over the last few weeks; note the large pile of feathers on the right. That’s the fence post where every turkey hung upside down from twine tied to its feet, to bleed out, before getting dry-plucked. That took about 75% of the feathers off. I then took each bird into the barn, dunked it in scalding water to loosen the remaining feathers, and hung the bird from a nail in the rafters so I could finish plucking. I found that if I did no more than two or three in a day, it wasn’t too burdensome. Hefting around big turkeys can become a real pain in the back if you save all the butchering for a single day.

We had so many poults survive the brooder, and the freezer is getting so full, we’ve decided to overwinter two toms and several hens. Those birds are now in the barn at night, hanging out with the chickens and ducks and geese. They can go out and range in the pasture during the day if they like, but they’ve preferred to lie low for now. Given how well some of our Buff Orpingtons managed to hatch out and brood their own chicks this past year, I think we’ll try collecting turkey eggs and giving them to the chicken hens to manage (assuming the turkey hens don’t do the job themselves — it’s just that we’ve never had any luck in this department in the past). But if the Buffs succeed, we’ll be able to save at least seven bucks for every poult we don’t have to purchase from a hatchery next spring.

In the meantime, we’re going to enjoy roasting up the turkeys in our freezer. A heritage breed hen makes a nice Sunday dinner for our family, with enough left over for a second meal and some soup. The toms are a good size to break out when entertaining guests.

And, needless to say, we’re very much looking forward to our Thanksgiving feast later this month.

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!

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?

Such a Deal!

If you’re looking for a great Christmas gift, Amazon has knocked 10% off the cover price for my novel. I’m not sure how long the $13.45 price will last, but this appears to be a pre-holiday promotion.

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=theyeofar-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&m=amazon&f=ifr&md=10FE9736YVPPT7A0FBG2&asins=0976659662

UPDATE: It appears that Barnes and Noble is currently offering the same deal. $13.45 is usually their “members only” price for my novel, but they are temporarily giving all customers the “member” price.

More information about the novel itself can be found at the book’s website.

Hay Hay Hay!

One reason for the slow posting of late is the extraordinary amount of harvest activity that kicks in on the farm in late summer. Add to that an extraordinary amount of professional work that’s come in recently, and I’m going an embarrassing amount of time between blog posts. Hope to get caught up toward the end of next week, when everything should be slowing down a bit.

Last Thursday, the big harvest project was HAY. We brought in our third (and final) cutting of the year, and it was extremely rich in alfalfa. The way hay works, three cuttings is considered a good/standard year. The field is planted in a mix of grass and alfalfa; the latter is what provides most of the protein in hay. The first cutting of the spring is very heavy in grass, but has some alfalfa. This year, thanks to a good application of fertilizer last fall, we got 465 bales in our first cutting. We brought in the second cutting on July 14th, and got 240 bales; it was less bulky, due to the grass slowing down in the heat of summer, but richer in alfalfa.

This year’s third cutting was only 123 bales, but they were overwhelmingly alfalfa and will provide a wonderful, protein-rich supplement for the sheep this winter. And in case you’re keeping count, cutting #2 yielded 51% of the number of bales we got in cutting #1. And cutting #3 yielded 51% of the bales we got in cutting #2. That is par for the course. You get fewer bales as the year goes on, but they’re richer.

The farmer who helps us decided that he would make a single trip around the field making bales and stacking them on the hay rack; that was pushing the upper limit of what the rack could hold, but he didn’t want to waste time making two trips to the barn. Instead, he stacked the bales seven high. Our two youngest kids, who’d been riding around on the rack as the bales came it, had the absolute time of their lives: as the bales stacked higher, they got to climb higher. And higher. And higher. By the time the tractor and hay rack were coming in to the barn, they were literally almost as high up as the power lines running from the road to our house. They needed a ladder to come down.

It’s a wonderful sense of security to have many hundreds of bales of hay stacked to the rafters in the big red barn. We have much more than we’ll need for the next year, but our thinking is that we shouldn’t sell any. If drought conditions limit next year’s harvest, we’ll be very glad to have these extra bales in the winter of 2010-2011…especially because, in a drought year, hay purchased on the open market would be extremely expensive. And it’s not like this stuff goes bad, as long as you keep it dry in the barn. If next year’s harvest is another bumper one, we might sell some of that hay.

For now, I love looking at the beautifully-cut field and remember that all the haying work is now done for the year and the produce is safely gathered into the barn.