Robbie

During a recent cold snap, while out in the garden harvesting the last peppers and tomatoes, I spotted Robbie’s nametag on a fence post. I had placed it there exactly five years ago this weekend. Here is a post from the archives, remembering that sweet dog.

Robbie, our six-year old English Shepherd, was put to sleep yesterday. I picked him from the veterinarian’s office packed in a box and drove home. I started digging a grave in the middle of the garden. Cindy came out and got a spade and joined in the work. In very little time we dug down three feet a tidy rectangle.

Cindy went back to the house. I opened up the box and took Robbie out, such a beautiful dog even in death. For a working breed he had lovely quiet disposition, sometimes too quiet and easy going for his job as farm dog.

He was the classic “lover not a fighter.” The exception was with Becky or a strange dog; from time to time they would without warning tear into each other. Just last Sunday as we walked in the woods, Becky and Robbie sparred for a full ten minutes, leaving each other bruised, bloodied and ready for more.

On Tuesday morning well before dawn, we let Robbie and Tip out of the mud room; Becky stays out all night. By the time we had coffee and Cindy left for work, Robbie had traveled the quarter-mile to the road, been hit by a car, walked up the drive twenty yards and collapsed in shock.

Cindy spotted him curled up in the grass at the side of the driveway and rushed back to get me. Using a blanket, we wrapped him up and put him in my truck and took off to the vet. Not Robbie’s first rodeo: a fractured tibia from catching his leg between metal slats jumping off a hay wagon, a severed artery of unknown cause.

The x-rays showed a smashed pelvis and hemorrhaging in the chest cavity. Two nights and three days in the hospital and he came home. The internal bleeding had stopped, but they couldn’t do anything with the pelvis. Cindy took Robbie to a vet on Friday that specializes in surgery on dogs. They did more x-rays. This time they discovered that the pelvis was worse than originally thought, but they could fix it for around $3000. No guarantees, but a reasonable prognosis with a long recovery. Surgery was scheduled immediately. First, though, bloodwork in response to Cindy’s observation of urinary incontinence. The vet discovered that Robbie’s bladder had ruptured. Repairable, with more surgery. In the blink of an eye, we were now looking at vet bills totaling $5000. A decision had to be made immediately.

What is the value of a loving and loyal pet? Do we love our pets more or less when we make decisions based on cost? There is no easy or correct answer. Cindy, who was back at work, would probably have opted for the surgery. In a hurried, emotional phone discussion, I suggested it was time to let our much-loved Robbie go. We made the choice, and I called the vet and asked them to put him to sleep.

He was still warm when I pulled him out of the box. I held him for a few minutes before laying him on the dirt. Shoveling dirt, gently at first until covered and then faster, until the grave was filled and mounded over the top. Cindy went out later and spent time at the gravesite.

He now belongs to the future as much as the past.

A Lamb’s Life

Winter: It was 24 degrees the morning No. 28 was born. Sleet pellets bounced off my old Carhartt jacket and the sky was slate gray when I headed out on my early morning rounds. The two cups of hot coffee helped little in warding off the chill wind as I rushed through my outdoor chores before reaching the relative warmth of the barn.

Entering a barn during lambing season involves careful observation: Who is soon to lamb, and is anyone showing signs of a distressed labor? Who has lambed already, and are all lambs up and nursing? The experienced mother will keep close track of her offspring, protecting them from the scrum of other sheep, but a first-time mother is easily unnerved and will often rush outside without her newborns, trailing the afterbirth, oblivious to what is expected of her in this new role in life.

On this particular morning, January 6th, a handful of fresh faces greeted me — the most exciting, twins born to our favorite ewe, No. 1333. No. 1333 is a large, handsome ewe who is uncommonly friendly, always standing still to receive a good scratching. As in the previous lambing season, she had just given birth to a male and a female. Much to our disappointment, she had lost the last year’s ewe lamb in a freak accident. We were anxious that nothing go wrong this time.

Later in the day, we eartagged No. 28 and her twin, 29. Eventually, we’d finish the season with 44 lambs, but in this first week of the year, lambing was just getting started. Other than the identifying numbers, the twins were soon indistinguishable from the mass of other lambs, running in and out of the larger flock, occasionally pummeling the udders of their moms.

Spring: Unlike the long and devastating drought of the previous year, this winter and spring’s rains had created a lush growth by April. It became a daily occurrence for us to remark on the change in landscape, as the unnatural browns gave way to the deepest greens. The lambs and ewes were turned out on new grass and thrived. For hours on end we’d watch the youngsters, tumbling about in soft grass at play, interrupted only by a mother’s bleat or a long, sun-warmed nap. Throughout the season, the inevitable deaths occurred: the lamb born at night that managed to roll outside the barn and die from the elements; the one I had to dispatch mercifully after it was stepped on by the flock and broke its back.

Summer: Mild temperatures and steady rain, a record hay crop, and modest garden success provided the backdrop as our little No. 28 transformed into a hardy, large-framed weanling. In June we separated the babies from their mothers. For the next few days, the moms would crowd one gate, the lambs another, fifty yards between them, and bleat. Loudly. Day and night. Another couple of days and the moms turned their attention back to the grass; a couple more and the lambs finally followed suit. Weaning accomplished, quiet restored.

Fall: It was an October evening during the late Indian summer, as we headed out to a dinner with friends, that we spotted a lamb lying down in the tall grass of the bottom pasture, noticeable by its isolation from the flock. We stopped the car and walked out to the field. There she was, No. 28, head up, alert, but unmoving.

Sheep are prey animals. They don’t lie down and stay down until they’re physically unable to go anymore. A quick check of the lamb’s gums revealed an unhealthy lack of color. Seemingly overnight, she had lost all of her body fat. We grabbed a wheelbarrow, put her in for the ride, and I pushed her up the long hill to the barn. We secured her in a stall and went on to dinner.

Over the next several days, we treated her with two different types of wormers. For us, worming is an infrequent occurrence. All sheep have some internal parasites, but we select and cull based on an individual sheep’s ability to carry a small enough “worm load” that she thrives without repeated use of parasiticides.

Each morning, we’d bring a bucket of warm water and mild soap to the barn and sponge off the accumulated scouring (diarrhea) from No. 28’s rear legs. After the second wormer was administered, the feces became solid, well formed — not what you’d expect from a lamb with a heavy parasite load. At that point we began to suspect something else was at work, since No. 28 remained alert, yet still unable to stand.

The day before we found her lying in the lower field, our 200-pound ram had managed to breach a fence and spend the night with our ewe lambs. Our new working hypothesis was that the ram had attempted to breed the developing young ewe and caused some nerve damage.

Having ascertained that her back was not broken, we rigged up a makeshift sling of saddle girths in hopes of retraining No. 28 to stand. For the next three days, we placed her in the sling three times a day with her feet just touching the ground. We would exercise each leg, moving it forward and backward, side to side. Through all of this, the ewe lamb continued to have a healthy appetite. We were committed to nursing her as long as the possibility of recovery still existed. But recovery was not to be.

On the morning of the fourth day, when I entered the barn, No. 28 was lying upright, but her head was extended forward onto the hay. This is never a good sign, but we were both loathe to give up on her too soon. We were anxious to preserve both her genetics and her life. She remained a calm, affectionate lamb, seemingly glad to have you stroke her head even in her distress.

Leaving the barn, I headed out to finish bush-hogging an upper pasture. We had a cold front coming in around midday and were expecting rain. It was a few hours before I made my noonday hospital visit to the patient. This time, when I approached, her neck was stretched out in the hay, her body limp, like a balloon with a slow leak. Her eyes still followed me, but without the usual spark. This was an act in a play that we had seen too many times. She was going to die — it was now just a matter of when.

I walked slowly back to the house. I picked up my 30-30 and returned to the barn. The lamb’s labored breathing was audible when I opened the stall gate. I raised the rifle and shot her between and just above both watching eyes. She died instantly.

Outside, the cold rain began to fall on the valley. I went back to the house, gun in my hand, breathing in the smell of the rain, of this season, aware of this rhythm, this awful beauty in the dying of the year. But I continued to look ahead, on another cold day in early January, to when the next lambing season begins on our farm, always in hope and sometimes in death.

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Reading this weekend: The Art of Loading Brush: new agrarian writings, by Wendell Berry. And, The Lean Farm: how to minimize waste, increase efficiency, and maximize value and profits with less work, by Ben Hartman. Both, seemingly at odds with each other upon first glance.

Another Day on the Farm

the time before sunrise

Dawn: Sitting on the back deck with a first cup of coffee, I contemplate the rain-soaked windrows of hay on the hill in front of me. I had just finished baling half of what would have been a record harvest the previous evening, when the storm broke over the ridge with heavy winds, rain, and hail. Limping home on the tractor, I saw a glass that was half empty. Now, in the early dawn light of a new day, I see my work cut out for me: turning over windrows to let them dry out before attempting to bale the remainder of the hay. The dogs interrupt my thoughts to announce a coyote halfway up the hill. He stares down at his accusers, separated by a woven wire fence, and, with a distinctive limp, turns and abandons the hayfield. “Comrade,” I say into the morning air.

Mid-morning: I rustle a branch and a mourning dove explodes out of the crabapple tree. Leaning in on my orchard ladder, I part the curtain of twigs and leaves. There, hidden in the heart of the branches, is a single fledgling within days of its first flight. Fat and unlovely, like the son who won’t leave home, it takes up the whole nest. It stares at me with one anticipating eye before, in a “you aren’t my mother” moment, turning back to its inner world of waiting. I close the curtain and finish my harvest. I return to the house with two full buckets of fruit.

Noon: I toss down the last of the fresh bedding for the lambs, completing one of my more enjoyable tasks on the farm. I’m tempted to collapse into the soft hay, but instead grab a bag of minerals to fill up the flock’s saltbox. Before filling, I turn over the box to knock out the bits of poop and straw. And, in the doing, uncover a large nest of mice. Dozens of small rodents swarm over my boots and out the sides of the barn to safety. The dogs jump into action, fulfilling their designated role on the other side of the gate with loud abandon. Inside the barn, two dozen lambs stampede the saltbox, obliviously trampling the remaining mice. I quickly dump out the mineral and then leave the natural order to sort itself out.

Evening: I’m back on the deck, a pint of beer in hand, the same drying windrows in front of me. The dogs assume I need convincing of their utility and pick up their pattern of wild barking toward the hill. I rise from my chair and spot a large buck with impressive antlers. He stands in the evening light, the last rays of the setting sun as his company. Ignoring the peasant dogs, he turns and strolls with a dignified air over the hill and out of sight.

Raising my glass, I toast him and the close of another day on the farm.

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Reading this weekend: The Retro Future: looking to the past to reinvent the future. By J. M. Greer.

We Don’t Farm, We Do Farm…. Oh, Whatever

A recent phone call I had with the farmers co-op:

I’d like to schedule the lime spreader to come out.

Sure, how many acres?

We need 22 acres covered. That will be six different pastures. The amount of lime varies per pasture, but it adds up to 26 tons, total.

Well, we’re a bit backed up right now. It’ll be a few weeks.

No problem, we just wanted to get in the queue.

Ok. What is the name of your farm?

Winged Elm Farm.

(Laughs) Ok. We Don’t Farm. That’s a new one.

What? No, we do farm. Winged Elm Farm.

Oh, sorry. We Do Farm. Interesting name.

Yeah, it’s a tree around here. We were going to call it White Oak Farm, but we found out there were hundreds of those around the country. We are the only ones with our name.

I know that’s right. Ok. We will call you the day before we can come out. There might be rain next week. That’ll push us back even further before we can get into the fields.

Sounds good. Thanks.

The co-op driver came out two weeks later and spread the lime. Nice guy. When he was done he handed me the invoice. Printed at the top was our farm name, We Do Farm Farm.

Sigh.

A Farm Bestiary: Skunk Dog

A fine example of a Tennessee Skunk Dog

As a member of the canine branch of the animal kingdom, this creature is noteworthy for being impervious to the malodorous scent of the skunk. Many dogs, upon first encountering the spray of this animal, avoid all future such rendezvous by maintaining a respectful distance. Not so with Skunk Dog, aka Grainger, the Carolina dog. He positively revels in attacking and killing and rolling around on such sad creatures.

You might first be alerted to the demise of Pepe Le Pew’s cousin by the distinctive whiff drifting in through the open window on a Saturday night. Or, perhaps you hear the frenzied barking up near the muscadine vines, followed by a sudden silence, followed by… “the cloud”.

But, the most common way to gain such knowledge of said slaughter is to invite Skunk Dog to jump in the front seat of your truck for a ride on a hot summer’s day. Only as you close the door and he begins to wallow on you and the seat covers, only as your eyes tear up, do you realize your mistake. And, only then do you open the door and roll out onto the ground…gasping.

Beware of Skunk Dog, he is coming for you. And, he is wet.

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Reading this weekend: Following the Wild Bees: the craft and science of bee hunting. By, Thomas D. Seeley.

These are the Days of the Evil Uncle

We are currently hosting my fifteen-year-old nephew on the farm for two weeks. I’ve been devoting all my spare hours to developing fiendish new ways to torture this city-born boy. But, it has proved more difficult than this Evil Uncle imagined. I have put him on the fencing rack for seven straight hours, forced him to work in the greenhouse all morning, restring hundreds of feet of electric fence for hogs….and, he was still smiling.

But, on Tuesday I have a plan to finally break his spirit. We will be putting up over three-hundred square bales in the barn. That should do the trick.

In the meantime, breakfast. For, even the condemned deserve a final meal, or, two.

On Becoming an Evolutionary Cul-de-sac

I was 16 when I put brand new brakes on my car. It took most of an afternoon, and it was a task that finally completed gave me a real sense of accomplishment. True, I had a couple of small parts left over. But I was young and I operated under the assumption that the auto parts store had given me either spares or parts that didn’t go with my model.

Once finished, I climbed in the driver’s seat, turned the ignition, and took off down the road. Wow! It was a smooth ride and I felt great. That is, until I came up fast to my first stop sign and applied the brakes. Odd feeling, pushing down on the brake pedal at 50 miles an hour and encountering no resistance. It’s a memory I can still summon readily to this day. Fortunate for me, the auto engineers had built in a backup breaking mechanism called the emergency brake, a handy invention that I deduced might be best to deploy … quickly.

I give you this preamble as evidence that even though a person comes from solid civil engineering stock, basic mechanical skill is not an inherited gene. We all have the friend, often on speed dial, who is great at teasing out the workings of ‘most any thingamajig. But my solutions to mechanical failures are victories hard won. The puzzles that five-year-olds routinely solve on Facebook in a cute two minutes elude me — sometimes for hours, and sometimes for many years.

The Neanderthals who lurk in my ancestry were a smartish but conservative group of bipeds. They developed a reliable tool kit over the millennia to make their lives run smoother. But then they apparently had a community meeting and said, Enough is enough, and they settled in for the next 100,000 years and made no new improvements. I kind of admire that about them; perhaps we could learn a thing or two from that approach to technology.

But then there is my H. sapiens DNA. It allows me, eventually, to not only see a solution but also want to implement it. Yesterday, for instance, we were unloading feed barrels. Cindy backed up the tractor and boom pole to the bed of the truck. Dangling from the boom pole was a nifty contraption called a barrel lifter. This simple invention is the best $40 we ever spent. It has two metal “hands” at the end of a chain that grab the edge of the barrel. Once the boom pole is raised, the barrel lifter and barrel in tow swing up and out of the truck bed. No muscling required.

The first barrel was a breeze. The second barrel presented a slight problem. It didn’t completely clear the bed of the truck. Taking on my finest Thinker pose, I struggled for a solution. After some minutes, the little gray cells began to sing: It’s the weight, I deduced triumphantly! Each 300-pound feed barrel removed took more weight off the truck suspension, thereby raising the bed of the truck a couple of inches and causing each subsequent barrel to drag along the tailgate when hoisted. But voilà! A few adjustments to the tractor’s three-point hitch, which in turn shortened the top link’s angle after each barrel, gave the boom pole a higher lift. Problem solved.

This Eureka moment may not mean much to you engineering types. But small successes like this one are huge to my sapiens self. Victories for H. sapiens, yet disappointments to my inner Neanderthal, who, wrinkling his jutting brow, mutters, What’s next? Will he be wanting to invent block and tackle?

Perhaps. But I must leave that astonishing accomplishment for later. I’ve just had a brain flash that there just might be a better way to knap flint! Stay tuned.