Monday, July 27, 2015

Mae's birth story

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New mothers post a birth story after they have a baby... do I get to post the birth story of my calf? I think it's only fair!

We knew Mae cow was due sometime between the middle of July and the middle of August. We knew this because she was pastured with a bull nine months ago for about a month. But we never saw "the deed" occur, so it was a guessing game that involved a lot of staring at her backside for the past few weeks and trying to guess how close she was to birthing.

The are signs you can look for. You can watch the "pin bones" which are the pelvic bones. They begin to protrude more when the cow is nearing calving time as the ligaments soften. You can watch the vulva, which becomes looser and sometimes has mucous hanging from it. You can watch her udder, which will begin to develop and fill with colostrum (the first milk the calf will drink.) These are things you look at while trying to make some kind of educated guess as to when the calf will be born. And the fact of the matter is, no matter how many signs you watch for or see, it's going to be a mystery. Some of those things will happen, some won't, and some you won't see until after the calf is on the ground. There were a few times we thought she was really close and got up every few hours in the night to check on her. The result was no calf and a distinct lack of sleep.

Yesterday morning, as I do every morning, I checked on the cows in the pasture by looking through binoculars while I had my morning coffee. I noticed Mae was walking around with her tail held out, much like she had to go poo, but without the poo. That was all the sign I needed to know something was up. I chugged the coffee and went out to find long strings of mucous hanging from her back end. I milked Clara Belle as quickly as I could, then locked Mae into the stall on a bed of fresh straw. Then I called a neighbor as my on-call help and watched for a bit.

Side note: earlier this month, Clara Belle had her calf. She'd been bred too early (the neighbor bull tore down the fence to get to her) and the calf died in the birthing process. It had to be pulled out, something I never would have had the strength to do alone. Luckily, Andrew was here and managed, though it wasn't easy and Clara had a hard time walking for several days. I decided having a neighbor with more strength and experience close at hand would make me feel better after such a rough birth experience. Mae was (intentionally) bred to the same big Angus bull.

As I watched, she pushed. I saw hooves. Calves (and most baby animals) are born in a sort of diving position, their nose right on top of two hooves coming straight out. What I saw were two hooves and an ear, and they were coming sideways out of Mae. Sideways had the potential to be bad. I called the neighbors and asked them to go ahead and come up. I probably could have waited, but I was jittery after Clara's experience and decided I'd rather just not be facing it alone. She pushed a few times, with no progress. Then she stood up again. She paced, arched her back, and pawed the floor during a contraction. Instead of coming further out, the calf went back inside. This is normal, and didn't worry me too much. Then she laid back down, and I saw hooves again... and this time, they were straight and headed out the right direction. Shortly after that, I saw an itty bitty little calf nose. The neighbors arrived about that time. A few more pushes, and a big, healthy heifer calf was born.

Mae's an amazing mama. She jumped right up, started talking to it, and began cleaning it with vigor. A mama cow's rough tongue stimulates the calf to take its first breaths and to try to sit up. It worked. She cleaned the calve's head, it sneezed a few times to clear the amniotic fluid from its nose, and laid there calmly as Mae cleaned it carefully. Within ten minutes it was standing, wobbling around on four of the longest legs I've ever seen on a calf. She would stand, sway back and forth, and fall on her face in the straw, then try again. It wasn't long before she was up and stayed there. She tried nursing from the barn wall, the gate, and Mae's front leg before Mae got her situated where she was supposed to be. And my goodness but did that little calf go to town nursing. She's a strong little gal, and got her belly filled up nicely. The she wandered out of the barn into the corral and stared into the light, walked back inside, and plopped down for a nice little nap. Mae stood sentry over her, the way she does, still contracting while the placenta worked its way out as the calf rested at her feet. I took a break and got a bowl of cereal.

By the time I got back, the calf was nearly dry and nursing again, this time on much stronger legs. When she was finished nursing, she did a little jig, danced and hopped around the barn stall (at two hours old!) and then had another nap.

She's a pretty little red-brown calf, strong as I could hope for. The girls had her named by the time I got back out from breakfast. Her name will be Hazel because of her pretty brownish coloring and because we have a hankering for old fashioned names.

Welcome to the world, little Hazel.

This was the fourteenth birth here on our little farmstead. All but one have gone as smoothly as we could hope for and have required very little or no assistance. And every single one still leaves me in awe at the miracle of birth and the instinct of animals. This is why we do what we do!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Ins and Outs of Showing Poultry

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So Fair happened. A whole week of running crazy, surrounded by animals and good friends, full of life lessons in sportsmanship, community, and agriculture. For our family, the county fair is made of up three parts: poultry show, the livestock sale, and indoor projects.

In some ways it was a rough year for The Oldest, who is, for the last year, the only one in 4-H. (Littlest One is still just a bit too young, though she participates in much of what we do.) Out of the five chicks that we ordered this year, only three survived, and one of those got hurt pretty bad and couldn't go to fair this year. We also take older birds to fair, but here's our reality: we live on a farm. We have farm chickens, not show chickens. They free range, eat table scraps, and do whatever it is that chickens do all day when they aren't kept in indoor cages with supplemental lighting. They aren't in perfect condition - they are missing tail feathers and have broken feathers, the roosters fight sometimes and leave each other a little beat-up. For heaven's sake, they spend half their day digging in the manure pile. So when they go to show, it can be a little rough. Showing poultry is a whole different world than farming poultry. Real show birds are kept in separate cages. They are fed specific diets and are kept in pristine condition. If a feather breaks, it is immediately pulled out so a new one will grow in its place. (Broken poultry feathers do not grow back unless they fall out or are removed.)  All that said, The Oldest still walked away with a few blue ribbons, a few red ones, and even a Reserve Grand Champion rosette for the single comb clean legged bantam class.

A note on classes - there are standard chickens, and there are bantam chickens. Bantams are like mini versions of standard ones and are essentially worthless except that they lay tiny eggs and make great little pets. Of those two groups, each one is broken down into five or six smaller groups. Standards are divided into classes based on where the breed originated - Mediterranean, American, Asiatic, etc. Bantams are divided into classes based on their physical characteristics - single comb clean legged, single comb feather legged, rose comb, etc. At a poultry show, all the birds in one class are judged against each other. The judge is looking to see how well they fit The Standard. What is The Standard? It's a $60.00 book you order from the American Poultry Association that essentially tells you what your chicken is supposed to look like. It's really specific, too. It tells you what color their eyes should be, how many points should be on their comb (that red floppy thing on top of their head) what color legs they ought to have, and how many mis-colored feathers they can have for their color and breed. Some of those things, if your chicken doesn't have them, are considered a "defect" - they aren't perfect, but they can still be shown. Others are called "disqualifications" and mean that your bird isn't even allowed on the show table because essentially, it's a failure. So during a show, all the chickens from one class are brought up to the table (divided into even smaller groups of adult and young male and female birds) and the judge looks at each of them, deciding which one is most perfect according to that big, fancy book. He also looks at their condition - how perfect their feathers are, how clean they are, making sure they are as perfectly groomed as a chicken can possibly be.

The other aspect of showing poultry comes in the Showmanship part of the competition. The kids spent countless hours studying The Standard and other publications, learning all their is to know about poultry. They can define defects and disqualifications. They can identify breeds and colors of chickens just by looking at them (and there are hundreds!) They learn to identify poultry diseases and how to treat them. They learn the parts of a feather, an egg, the wing. They study the history of their chosen breed and can tell you exactly how that type of chicken got to be what it is. And then they spend even more hours training their chosen showmanship bird. The chicken must stand still and pose in a specific way for as long as it is expected to. It must accept being flipped onto its back, held upside down, held above the shoulder, having its mouth opened and its wings stretched out. The child must learn how to thoroughly inspect the bird, looking for any signs of defect or illness, and learn to show these things to the judge. And they have to get really good at talking to a perfect stranger about everything they know (which can be the hardest part for some kids.)

So poultry show isn't just taking your bird to fair and having a judge look at it. It's months of preparation and studying and practicing speaking skills and really, truly managing a poultry flock. When The Oldest decided she wanted to try showing poultry, I had no idea what we were getting into. When I see a chicken, I see a farm animal that provides fresh eggs for the family. She sees beautiful birds, some bred purely for ornamental purposes because they only lay about five miniature eggs a year. And of course, those are the ones she loves the most. We have more worthless, miniature birds running around this property eating and pooping and not laying eggs than I can count. But she has them each named, can tell you their strengths and weaker qualities, and many are tame enough to be picked up and carried around. I've learned a lot right along with my kids in the past three years of doing this. As the resident Poultry Quizzer, it's my job to come up with questions to ask them to test their knowledge. As a result, I can tell you off the top of my head which class a bantam sebright falls into even though we've never owned one, how many days it takes for a muscovy duck egg to hatch, and what a side sprig is. And here's the kicker: I really, really  don't like chickens. They stink, they are noisy, and they are just sort of creepy. And yet despite that, there's often a rooster sitting at my kitchen table, nibbling at tortilla chip crumbs and crowing away while my  kids do their math.

So that's what poultry show day actually entails. And to say that my kid walked away with fourth place in poultry showmanship in the intermediate division (ages 11-13) as one of the youngest kids in a group of twelve, I think is pretty amazing. I'm darn proud of her, and I never cease to be amazed at all the hard work she so willingly puts into raising these birds and learning about them. And her handful of other ribbons are pretty impressive too, considering her birds spend the majority of their time digging for bugs in a manure pile.

And Littlest One was able to do showmanship in the pee-wee open class division, where she got Grand Champion out of five kids ages 5-7. She memorized a speech that lasts about 6 minutes, and the judge told her she could give some of the junior and intermediate kids a run for their money in poultry showmanship. To hear a seven year old little girl talk about things like a uropygial gland and discuss pencilling of neck feathers is pretty incredible.

It wasn't a perfect year - there were some difficulties. But both girls showed their hearts out, loved their birds, and learned a lot. So I think we can call it a success.

Friday, July 17, 2015

So You Think You Want To Move To The Country

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It sounds so idyllic, doesn't it? A little piece of land far away from the hustle and bustle of the city. A safe place to raise your kids. Space enough that you don't feel so closed in. A few animals - some fresh eggs, a garden, maybe even some goat's milk.

I get it. I really do. I left the city, moved an hour away up in the mountains, just for that idyllic life. And I wouldn't trade one single second for anything in the world. But there are things you don't think about when your imagination is running wild and you're stalking Zillow for that perfect piece of land. In your head, you see fresh tomatoes and homemade yogurt and acres of pasture for your little ones to run free on. But if you're really thinking you want to live this crazy-beautiful life, there are other things you need to be aware of. Things you need to really consider before you take that leap.

1. Even if you don't know themeveryone knows you. And not only do they know you, but they know exactly where you live, how much you paid for your house, and how many water shares you have. If you're looking for anonymity, you aren't going to find it in a small town. If you've got a secret, they know it and they are talking about it. They know your schedule - when you drive by, they know where you're headed. It's a creepy sort of comforting. But honestly, no matter how much you try to stay out of the loop, you're in it.

2. If you thrive on punctuality, this isn't the place for you. Time is different here. 10:00 could mean 10:00, or it could mean 10:30, or even noon if the cows got out. Life slows down when you live in the country. You're no less busy, but things happen at their own pace and you're not going to be able to control it.  It's not that folks are unreliable. It's just that life doesn't revolve around the clock. No one is racing to get from here to there - they know they'll get there when they get there. It's insanely frustrating times, and yet so very calming.

3. You won't know lonely until you've lived way out yonder. Yes, you know two thirds of the people who live within ten miles of you. But folks are busy. They've got work to do, and visiting just doesn't happen as often as anyone would like it to. If you don't have a reason to run to town (which consists of a post office, bank, hardware, and grocery) you might not see another soul for days on end. You better really, really enjoy your own company, or you better get a dog. Or three.

4. Animals are a huge part of life. Cattle drives down main roads are a common occurrence, and you better be perfectly comfortable driving through them, around them, or waiting behind them. Hunting happens. Butchering happens, noise happens, smells happen, births happen. And shit. Lots of shit happens. You're going to drive through it, walk through it, kneel in it, and you will constantly be shoveling it if you have any animals of your own. Best get used to that.

5. There are all kinds of folks out there. Rich folks and poor folks, Classy folks and redneck folks. Drunk folks and teetotalers and friendly folks and cranky ones. And each and every one of them is a part of your town. You don't have to be good friends, but you need to learn to accept them and get used to seeing them around. A friendly hello isn't a bad idea, either.

6. Homeowners associations don't exist. You might buy a real nice place - a beautiful new house on a well-kept piece of land. And you might live right next to a single-wide with six cars up on cinder blocks in the front yard and a burn pile out back bigger than your barn. You aren't going to be able to change your neighbors, or their homes, or the way they choose to live. There aren't any rules out here.

7. If you're looking for a place to go and impress people, this isn't it. If you walk into the hardware store with makeup on, they'll ask what the special occasion is. If you run into a neighbor wearing muck boots and overalls that haven't been washed in two weeks, don't be surprised. There's not much "keeping up with the Joneses" going on here. You're just keeping up with the work. No one cares what you look like. If they love you, they're going to love you whether you're dressed for a day in the big city or you're wearing the same jeans you just helped deliver a calf in. This is a really great place to get over yourself.

8. Your neighbors are going to call you in the middle of the night. They'll realize they've lost a dog at two o'clock in the morning and they want to know if you've seen him. And you're going to call your neighbors in the middle of the night some day, too. You'll have a calf that needs pulled or a stranger in your drive or a horse that's down or maybe it's your dog that's missing. That's what neighbors do. If you aren't okay with helping folks at any hour they might need it, or if you aren't comfortable asking for the help you're going to desperately need, stick to the city where emergency services are available.

9. If you don't care about high school sports, you're going to need to start. When your local girl's basketball team makes it to state, you're going to stalk the town Facebook page for updates and you're going to care deeply and honestly about how they do. You're also going to listen for updates about how your town's 4-H clubs are doing at the county fair, and when one of your local kids wins a state championship archery tournament, you better expect to have tears in your eyes because you're so proud of her. When a local girl carries the American flag at the start of a rodeo, you're going to get goose bumps and a lump in your throat. No, they aren't your kids. You might hardly know them. But you're going to ride the high of their successes and you're going to feel the crush of defeat right along with them. Because in a small town, every single kid matters.

10. You are going to work harder than you have ever imagined. You're going to use muscles you didn't know existed, you're going to cry tears of frustration every day for weeks sometimes, you're going to be filthy and sweaty and so tired you don't think you can stand up for one more minute. You're going to learn how to do things you never thought you'd need to know, and you're going to accomplish tasks you  never thought you could. You're going to want to just not work anymore and then realize there's no one else to get it done, and you'll get 'er done. You'll face fears, you'll get hurt, you'll want more than anything to give up and walk away and then you'll suck it up and do it anyway.

This life - idyllic as it is - it's not always picture perfect. It's overwhelming in every sense of the word. If you've only ever lived in the city, it'll be like moving to the moon. Some folks thrive in a place like this. They love it - even every down side there is to it - and wouldn't trade it for the world. Others suffer through it and just aren't ever really happy. In the past four years, I've become stronger and braver and more independent than I ever thought I could. I've also learned to love the people I share this town with - or love to hate them, sometimes - and I've learned that there's no greater value than being a part of a community as tight-knit as ours is. They welcome you with open arms. They help you learn the ropes. And at some point you get to pass on that favor. The satisfaction is incredible... but only if it's something you're capable of truly loving.

Mama Kautz