Browsed by
Category: Farm

Sad Tales. Happy Tails.

Sad Tales. Happy Tails.


Of course the pig would have to choose a windy, icy night on which to birth out.  It just had to be 3am after I’d been ill for a few days.  Her milk just had to come in on the night Stephen had to work late and she just had to be in the wrong field and we just had to herd her into the farrowing barn through the ice and wind instead of being cosy and warm by the fire like normal people.

Normal.  People.

No it doesn’t ring true, so I should just let it go.  Normal people don’t put their hand inside a 600lb sow at 3.45am on a Wednesday in March to retrieve tangled piglets and bring them gasping into the world.  But if I didn’t I wouldn’t get to hold squiggling bundles as they feel cold air for the first time, and are propelled by every instinct in their tiny bodies towards the milky safety of their Mama.  I wouldn’t get to feel the powerful pulse of life, working along side an animal that trusts me, gently but firmly pulling breech birth babies out by the tail while sweating in the frigid night air.

I don’t think normal is my bag.


Normal sounds quite appealing when things go badly, like several hours earlier when I was riddled with stress and panic, wondering if we could coax our ready-to-birth sow across the line she’d learned to avoid and respect.  If we could get her to walk across the now massive seeming pasture and into the safety of the farrowing barn, where she and her babies would be safe.  Because let me tell you, that pig does not go anywhere she doesn’t want to.

In the end ‘we’ didn’t.  Stephen did.  The relationship he has with that pig really does astound me, and so he coaxed her carefully in to the barn where she could birth in safety and her piglets could be coddled and healthy.  Putting my arm up a pig’s birth canal was peanuts in comparison to that, I’m really not kidding.

Our clever girl birthed 13 piglets, a beautiful mix of black, Berkshire striped and spotty ones.  They couldn’t be prettier and we sighed with relief when she cleared the second after birth and stood up for a drink.   In September her birthing had been so hard we wondered if she could be a Mama again, but our vet was confident and I’m so glad we took her advice.  Mrs B was a super champ and has been the most content with this litter that I have ever seen.  In her purpose built pen she can see her babies as they cosy up under the heat lamps in their special ‘creep’ box.  They can get out of her way as she gets cosy and moves around, then she lies down (along protective boards that give piglets places to hide) with her udder facing them and oinks for them to come to dinner.  It’s the loveliest scene you can imagine.

And while I like to tell people about the lovely bits, there are sad bits too.  Pigs have lots of babies because they are not all expected to make it.  We’ve worked very hard to create an environment that minimises the risk of crushing and keeps the babies safe and warm.  The pen allows Mrs B freedom of movement (unlike farrowing crates) and when they are all napping under the heat lamps she gets to rest and recover.

But as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall said, ‘Sometimes we don’t get to play God.  Sometimes God does.’

One of the piglets, one we dubbed ‘squealer’ because she was shrieky from minute one, started to show signs of struggle early.  I was out with the kids when Stephen called to tell me she was looking really weak, she seemed to have had some kind of stroke.  He wisely brought her inside and kept her warm and cosy, secretly hoping she might bounce back.  She died on our bed in the sunshine; the warmth of the house and a gentle departure was the best we could offer her.

The next day, when I was doing my bi-hourly check of the piglets, I found another little one down.  She was the runt of the litter, half the size of the others and had struggled from minute one.  Somehow she’d managed to wriggle herself under the slide board during the birthing process and was cold as a stone when we found her there.  While we assisted Mrs B we’d kept her in our jackets, close to our bodies, to warm her.  After a session with me by the fire she’d perked up and returned to her Mama.  When I found her she was cold and still, barely breathing.  I sighed with heavy heart and brought her in.

Warming her up was the priority so I dug out the sling I used to carry the boys in and tucked her in there with a heat pack.  She staying snuggled in for hours and, much to my surprise, carried on breathing.  No one sells pig milk replacer in our area, but our vet had told us that kitten milk might work.  We duly purchased some and began to syringe feed the little one in the hopes of giving her strength.

Syringe feeding can be a risky business, if you get it wrong the piglet will aspirate and die, so slow and steady is the order of the day.  After a good feed we graduated her to a heat pad by the fire, a cosy blanket was her bed and we placed a heat pack next to her to simulate her family.  Piglets are not meant to be alone and she duly snuggled it with all her strength.  In between feeds she slept flat out, breathing softly, the rest of her still.

The tide began to turn around 10.30pm when, after moving her to our bedroom for night feeding,  I came in to find her out of her box and having a power show down with one of our cats.  She squealed and stood her ground fiercely, I’ve never seen a cat look so confused.  That feed was different, she was more wriggly and demanding, sucking down the milk ferociously and with determination.  Around 11.30 she demanded more and again around 2.  By 5am, when she began to refuse the milk and took up biting me instead; I decided that she was ready to return to Mama.  And so she did.

Mrs B, champion mother that she is, welcomed her back with a happy oink and nothing more.  I think she is so used to us that our smell did not alarm her, we sighed with relief the she hadn’t rejected this little scrap and let them get on with it.  ‘Charlotte’ as we’ve dubbed her, is still going strong.  We tried feeding her the milk a couple of times but she made it clear what she thought of that, not much.  We watch in fascination as she fights through the hoard and gets the milk she wants, always first and last at the teat.  She sneaks out while the others are asleep too, she’s not daft that Charlotte.

Yesterday we were out in the barn and we snuck a look under the lid at the babies as they napped.  In a long line they were, top to tail and squeezed together, happily snoozing.  Along the top of several of her siblings, using them as a mini porcine sun lounger, was Charlotte; basking in the heat from beneath and above she snoozed, as happy as a pig can be I think.  A dozen happy pigs, plus Mama, is pretty good going by my reckoning.  Makes icy winds and crazy nights seem worth it.

Power Outage

Power Outage

I’ve never made any bones about that fact that Stephen is the power house behind our farm.  He’s the muscle that brings the hustle, he’s the man with a plan.  Except.

Well except for the fact that he’s human and can break.  I know this because I watched it happen.  Over months discomfort turned into pain, which turned into debilitation.  After ‘treatment’ for back pain that only made things worse, we finally found out that Stephen’s back had herniated.  It could have been the time he carried twelve 5 gallon buckets of water for the cows, it could have been a million other things.  Death by a thousand…well heavy buckets I suppose.

Eventually, after not being taken seriously by a lot of different people, we ended up where I knew we would, emergency surgery.  As ever I’m eternally grateful for the medical services we have access to, as much as we try to do our own thing medically, when you can’t feel your legs you’re really happy that someone spent many years in medical school learning how to make you better.

So it’s been a bit of a road.  A road of discovery, of hard work, of trying to figure out how we are going to manage everything.  I took over the farm chores just after Christmas and it’s been mostly me and the boys up until now.  Stephen has been on call for emergencies (so every other day) and has been coming out to help more than I’d like, but woman power has been keeping things going.

Now I’d like to big myself up, but my work is really a sticky plaster keeping things from gushing.  Though I have learned to use an electric drill with deadly force, I know my limits.  Luckily the work we did last year to improve the infrastructure on the farm has made it possible for me to step into Stephen’s wood smoke smelling farm coat and keep things ticking over.  Without it, I really don’t think it would have been possible for me to manage the animal load with have this winter.  5 pigs, 4 cows, 9 ducks and a flock of laying chickens is more than we’ve carried in the past and was more than I would have thought I could have managed without my love to carry the bulk of it.

So how have I managed?  Well, at times, I’ve felt not very well.  There have been tears of frustration, of anger, of exhaustion.  I’ve been worried, I’ve been fearful, I’ve been extremely cross.  The weather has been a mix of blessedly mild and horribly problematic (I’m looking at you ice rain) but I’m generally grateful for the lack of mind numbing temperatures that make your fingers stop working after 5 minutes.

There have been setbacks, more than a few.  A frozen water supply because one of our cows likes to pull the plug out of the trough heater.  The pigs all deciding a fun game of ‘swap houses’ would liven things up during the long winter months.  A less fun game of ‘try to shag my underage daughter’ meant that the house swap really was not groovy and had to be resolved asap despite the fact that one of the players is a 600lb boar who ain’t going no where if he doesn’t want to.  And then there was the day when I walked into the chicken house to find that most of my flock had been murdered in the night by a weasel that I would really, really like to kill.

And that was just the last 2 weeks.

But hey, as my neighbour says, that’s farming.  As the weeks have gone on I’ve found my rhythm.  I’ve worked out what I can and can’t do, what I will and won’t tolerate.  I’ve got my own little routines and have figured out ways to make things easier.  I’m taking pride in learning new skills and am basking in the glow of some pretty heavy kudos coming my way from my beloved.  He’s a man not given to false praise I can tell you.  I feel a bit broken in places but I’m proud too, proud of keeping things going forward and of not giving in.  I’ve really wanted to at times, but these weeks have given me a real sense of ownership over aspects of the farm I never saw as mine.  I’m making more decisions, I’m able to see the issues more clearly because I’m part of it all more.  I’m finding a mental stamina that feels good to possess.

Plus I’ve had help.  I’ve had Stephen’s knowledge which is extensive, his physical help whenever it’s been needed or even when it’s not (sitting back doesn’t come naturally to him).  Our neighbour has stepped in and moved hay, shifted snow and been a support as he has for the last 5 years.  My dear friend and her husband have helped with childcare, meals, shifting heavy feed sacks and general sanity preservation; things really would have been bleak without their amazing back up.  We have loving family members offering to get on flights and help out if need be, plus the emotional support we need from those we love the most.

The boys (particularly Huwyl) have been basically wonderful.  Hauling wood, water and straw bales around the farm isn’t the usual remit of an 11 year old, but my lad has been by my side whenever possible.  Though they are still young the boys are learning the importance of family sticking together, of working side by side to support each other when it’s needed.  I’m proud of the young men these lads are turning into, I’m grateful for their open hearts and strong shoulders.

So here we are.  Counting the weeks until spring, watching the weather forecast obsessively and turning our faces to the wind to see if it feels like spring is coming yet.  There are good days and bad days, but that’s the way it always is.  A lot of the time I wonder why, why do we put this stress on ourselves.  Why do we make life harder than it has to be?  Wouldn’t it be nice to just lounge in bed a little more each day?  Wouldn’t it be easier to just not?

Yes, it would be.

But then, the moments that make it all seem worthwhile would be gone too.  The special glimmer that shines like a diamond sliver in a handful of sand.  The feel of a heartbeat on a fresh born baby critter, the long chats at the farm gate while the fragrance of wild summer air surrounds you.  The knowledge inside you that made something, did something, created something where otherwise nothing would exist.  It’s what keeps you moving forward, the memory of that, the hope of that.  It’s addicting.  I’m hooked.  It’s a lost cause.

Snowfall

Snowfall

In the heat of summer, when just moving around sets the sweat dripping down your back, we are thinking about winter.  From the first leaf of green peeking up through the mud and snow, to the last red and gold leaves that cover the ground with a luminous carpet, there is another colour that is always on our minds.

White.

Everything we work on, every project, everything we build is centred around the coming season.  From the seeds we plant to put food in the pantry for the colder days, to the wood we chop for the fire and furnace.  Even the animals we raise are there to help see us, and other families, through the long cold months where the earth is buried under a blanket of snow.  Well less of a blanket and more of a duvet 4 ft think.  With a few inches of ice on it just for safe measure.  So a very cold duvet.

We plan for it, we work at it, we build and chop and grow and never stop for months and months; but we are never, ever ready for it.  This year in particular, our wedding took up the month of September and we’ve been trying to catch up on the work every since.  Neither of us regret a moment of that joy, of course, some things are worth getting cold and snowy for.

Over the last few weeks we have finally started to feel that we are ready to head into winter mode.  We’ve had a few trial runs of heavy frosts, cold nights and some snowfalls, but we are used to these slightly faltering starts to the season.  We’ve started to view them as a chance to trouble shoot the farm for the several cold, cold months ahead.  Are there things that aren’t working?  Have the cows eaten through the pipe insulation again?  Will that roof leak when rained on?

Stephen has worked tirelessly since October on the farm infrastructure, resetting power supplies, building new accommodations and setting up new areas for the animals to live in.  We’ve learned to lay the foundations for next year in the fall of the previous year, allowing us to be up and running as soon as the weather allows.


This year we are carrying more animals than ever through the winter, meaning we needed more accommodations than ever before too.  Stephen repurposed a summer chicken tractor as a cosy duck house for the winter, they are happily snuggled in there with easy access to the pond on unfrozen days.  The cows have a new concrete platform for the wet and cold months making it safer for them and easier for us.  The farrowing barn is full with two piglets for spring meat and our lovely Pip (seen above) who will be bred for the first time this winter.

And the piece de resistance is the hay bale pig house that Stephen built for Mrs B. and Arthur the boar.  Using old bales that were no longer eating standard, he used the dance floor from our wedding as a roof and created the cosy hobbit house seen above.  The bales keep it incredibly warm with plenty of room for snuggling, hanging out and grown up piggy time that happens when a Mummy pig and a Daddy pig love each other very much.

This year, though I welcome the quietening snow and the lighter schedule the winter months bring, I feel a sense of melancholy too.  Perhaps it is that when I look at the tent frame or the wooden archway built for our wedding, I hear and feel the echoes of family and friends surrounding us.  I remember the bonfires and laughter as we joined together to celebrate not just our relationship, but all the elements that make our life what it is. The farm, our family, our friends, our own children, it’s all part of a puzzle that makes us what we are.

But some of those pieces are far away, not near enough to snuggle or share a joke with.  And I miss them so very deeply.  As the snow falls in a deep, plump carpet over the farm I wish I could share it all with them.  I suppose that is why I am writing this instead, to show them what today looks like, so different from only a short time ago.

But the beauty of this day wasn’t patient with my melancholy moment, it insisted I notice how the snow was so light and fluffy as it can only be in the early part of the season.  It pointed out to me that the piles of flakes building up on branches and buildings were just so delightful, that to be gloomy would be churlish and bad tempered.  As the soft icicles touched my face, one after the other, this day insisted that I notice the now.  That I notice how much this day intends to snow all over us; that I go out and turn my face up to falling flakes and feel lucky as the tiny dabs of silence touch my eyelashes and my house warmed skin.

And so I did.

Signs of Life

Signs of Life

First of all thank you to everyone who said such nice things to us after I wrote about Morag.  In person, on facebook, in the comments section we were met with kindness and understanding.  Thank you.  

Well last week was a bit of a funny one.  We are used to death in some ways on the farm, we are used to being in control of the lives of animals and part of that is deciding when the end should come.  But when a death is sudden and unexpected it feels very different, especially when we lost a favourite girl.  But life goes on, whizzing along whether you like it or not.  In my experience its best to grab onto it and hold on tight, joy is always worth having.

All around us now are the signs of new life, there will be more as the spring progresses with new chicks arriving this week and more gardening planned too.  The grass is greening, trees are budding, herbs are coming back to life and there are babies everywhere.

DSC_0016 DSC_0019 DSC_0029 DSC_0032

The pastures are greening up as the morass of mud slowly recedes, giving hope to the possibility of being able to walk across a field without being ankle deep in mud.  I mean really, just imagine. We have plans afoot for new infrastructure on the farm this year that will help us combat the spring mud season (and the winter snow season) but right now we are grateful for being able to walk across the cow field without actually getting stuck.

DSC_0038 DSC_0042 DSC_0044 DSC_0045

Planting from years past and natures own goodness is all starting to come into leaf, making my thoughts drift forward to warmer days of harvesting and storing.  Right now the wind still holds a pinch of winter, but we’ve had some tasters of jacket free days…dare I even dream of sandals?

DSC_0047 DSC_0051 DSC_0052

Inside the seed trays are simply full of leaf and life, though the prospect of having to pot on around 250 tomato plants caused me to declare this week a Farm Week, a week where we focus on the tasks that really need to happen now but can’t be packed into an already packed weekend.  What with classes, friends, chores, chicken moving, calf feeding….the hours just seem to run away with us.  So this week I’m enslaving my children, giving my children an invaluable hands on educational experience,  and really trying to catch the tail of spring as she whizzes past us, greening everything in sight.

But really the main preoccupation this week has been a beautiful baby calf, one week old yesterday, who’s beauty just astounds us.  There really is something utterly magical about a newborn anything, they hold such perfection and such promise; she is certainly no different and we admire her to anyone who’ll listen.  Frankly if they’re not listening we’ll still go on about her.

DSC_0036

Every six hours she’s fed by hand, stroked and admired, cuddled and fussed.  Stephen has robbed himself of sleep to keep her on the perfect schedule, plodding out there as the moon rises and shortly after as the sun chases her to the horizon.  Wee Morag stumbles around like a drunken Bambi, making you laugh as she tries to head butt you in the face for more milk while the bottle is held an inch from her mouth.  There really is nothing so bonkers as a cow’s face looming at you.  I’m learning to wear a second layer when it’s my turn because between frothy milk mouth and shiny cow bogeys, clothing doesn’t stand much of a chance.  She’s learning a little about the world and meeting the other cows from the safety of a leash so that she can’t be accidentally stood on.  She’s received some licks from her sister and they’ve all had a good sniff.  I think they’ll all get along very well.

But for now she still occupies the deluxe suite, the barn set aside just for her with a corral that she can boing around in without risk of harm.  The boys go down every day and spend time with her, enjoying her enjoyment of strokes and scratches and hugs.  We can’t replace her lovely Mama, the devoted attention she would have received as they roamed together each day.  But we can give it all we’ve got and hope it’s enough.

So far, she’s doing wonderfully.  She is wonderful.

Morag, the cow who lost her moo.

Morag, the cow who lost her moo.

12802777_445031102353284_7391342229119067523_n 12799216_445031072353287_3646384853947982442_n

3 years ago, when I was in the UK visiting my Dad with the boys, I got a message from Stephen saying “I just bought a cow!”.  My response was something supportive like “You bought a what?!” until I eventually established that no he wasn’t kidding and yes he’d bought a cow.  A real one.  Granted the messages had been preceded by ones like “I’m at an auction!” and “They have cows here!” so I really should have seen it coming.  When I told my Dad and he expressed surprise I said “Are you really surprised?  Doesn’t this seem exactly like the kind of thing we do?”.  He conceded this was the case.

I’ll admit to being unimpressed by Stephen’s mystery purchase and when he sent me a picture of a scraggly, skinny and frankly hacked off looking cow my spirits didn’t lift massively.  It was when he told me that she was a bit underweight, a bit unloved and pregnant that the tide started to turn for me.  I have a bit of a thing for bringing neglected things back to life (hence the purchase of 100 acres of derelict land) and she was just that; neglected, unwanted and now all ours.

A couple of weeks later our second hand cow calved out a still born calf, a truly sad outcome that hit us quite hard.  She was boarding with our kind neighbour who looked after her perfectly, but he told us that with her being underweight and a bit neglected she was at a higher risk of losing her calf.  On most farms that would have been the end for her, she wasn’t calving healthy calves so the road would have firmly ended.  But not with us.  That summer she ran with our neighbour’s bull and the following spring she calved out a beautiful bull calf for us.  Quietly and without fuss she proved her Mama skills.

Devoted Mama that she was we bred her again and last spring she gave us Daisy, a beautiful Angus/Simmental cross, born in the pasture on a warm day in May.  Again she showed what a devoted mother she was and raised up a strong and healthy girl.  Our herd was growing and Morag was its centre, the others followed her lead and were kept in line by her firm but fair direction.  She was the Queen Cow and, frankly, she was our favourite.  Extra oats for Morag all winter?  No problem.  Someone wants their head scratched?  Morag is first in line.  She let us fuss her, for as long as she wanted and no longer, and had a judgmental stare a 17th century nun would have been proud of.  We adored her.

 

11262399_362463260610069_42099861638689670_n

When Morag first came to live with us we noticed that she never mooed.  Now contented cows don’t have that much to moo about, but our other cow would occasionally let out a moo or two, maybe of greeting, maybe to alert us to the fact that a few more oats would be quite welcome thank you.  But Morag never made a sound.  Sometimes a raspy cough but that is it.  But when her first calf came along that changed, a Mama needs to be able to call to her baby and that’s what she tried to do.  At first her moo was harsh, like a voice that has gone unused for a really long time; but one day, when her little guy had strayed just that bit too far she let out a true Mama bellow.  After that she could moo like a champ, like a lot of us she found her voice when she was a Mum.

Last summer we bred our top girl up to some primo Angus love juice.  We were hoping for a lovely heifer to finally succeed her mother to the crown, years down the line we’d have Morag’s daughter to continue her proud heritage.  She duly fell pregnant on the first try and munched her way healthily through summer, fall and winter emerging wide and very, very pregnant when spring finally dawned.  With just two weeks to go we were excited about her calving out and enjoying the warmer weather that had finally arrived.

On Saturday morning we went out to find her ‘cast’, stuck on her side and unable to get up.  We called our neighbour and then the vet to check the calf and help us get her up.  We determined that she couldn’t stand, that her hip was either dislocated or broken, but either way things weren’t good.  We managed, after much work and a very long day, to get her in a comfy warm spot where she could eat and drink and be warmed by the sun.  The vet induced the calf as she was less that two weeks before her due date and we watched and waited.  Stephen didn’t sleep that night, going out every hour to check that she hadn’t rolled back onto her side and managing to get her back over when she did.  It was a real act of devotion on his part.

The next day, the hottest of the year, we waited and watched again.  We hoped she would calve out naturally and perhaps the reduced load on her body would free her hip up to get back into place.  We prepared for the worst and hoped for the best.  As her labour progressed we had great hope, she’d birthed her last two with relative ease and calm; but time dragged on and even our neighbour began to be concerned.  We called the vet again, hoping he could help to pull the calf or give her a jab to help strengthen her contractions.  She was clearly worn out and the calf was at grave risk.

Within moments the vet pronounced that we had two choices, lose Morag or lose them both.  Her pelvis had shattered as a result of what can only be described as a freak accident, and possibly compounded by her not being a young cow (we think somewhere between 11 and 16 at the outside), there was no possibility of recovery.  We agreed to a c-section to bring out her calf and then he would end her life as quickly as possible.

I sat by her head as the vet worked, I stroked her neck and told her how brave she was.  I promised that we would look after her baby for her, I told her what a good girl she was.  Stephen helped to pull the calf out and clear her of mucus while I tried to keep Morag calm.  She was not in pain but she was scared, I tried to help her feel better.  I remembered how I had felt when my first boy came into the world via c-section; I cried while I did it and for a while after too.  She saw her little baby girl come into the world, the girl we had so hoped for, but had never imagined she would be born like this.  Born to trade places with her own Mama within moments.  And then Morag was gone.

We tended to calf in the sunshine, rubbing her with towels and cuddling her.  We sat with Morag while our neighbour dug a place for her in our woods, a peaceful spot under a break in the trees.  The vet went off to get colostrum from a nearby dairy for us and so we sat together with our new girl and our old girl.  I couldn’t seem to stop crying and even Stephen, my tough northern chap, had a suspiciously husky tone to his voice.  It had all been so quick, so sudden and so terribly, terribly sad.

At that moment our sow, basking blissfully in the sun a few feet away, broke wind in a long and pleasingly full bodied parp.  It went on for some time and seemed to make her even more satisfied.  We turned and looked at her, laughing at the timing and watched her piglets bouncing around her, enjoying the sun alongside their Mummy.  We laughed because it was funny and because, as the saying goes, if you don’t laugh you’ll cry.

Morag has stayed on the farm, she’ll always be here with us.  We didn’t want her life to end this way but I’m glad her final years were spent as Queen of the Herd, pampered, adored, praised and loved.  Her baby girl will grow up to be the rightful heiress to her kingdom I’m sure, we are already devoted to her, feeding, stroking, fussing and spoiling her.  We decided to call her Wee Morag Silver Linings, because she is the gift her Mama gave us.

I told my neighbour, a kind but laconic fellow, a man of few words to say the least, that I could see she would be spoiled rotten in no time at all.

“Well,” he replied “Better spoiled than not I’d say.”

I agree.

Spring Starts

Spring Starts

Today I have actually reached the point of feeling that I can actually use the word ‘spring’ officially without a) crying at the same time b) using some kind of prefix like “what the $&@#$ is up with….” and c) expecting there to be some kind of weather related retribution that will bring at least 10 cms of snow in the next 24 hours.  It’s been that kind of spring.

A few times in the last couple of months I have wandered outside, my face turned up to the sky and basked in the warm spring-like sunshine and thought to myself ‘this is it’.  Of course the next day my face was firmly inside because I didn’t want a foot of snow all over it.  Seriously.  There was a lot of snow this spring.  A lot.  Enough to bury my soul in.  Science fact.

But the weather forecast is finally releasing us from our wintery gloom and predicting 20 degrees on the weekend.  20 degrees!  20!!!  Degrees!!!!  Sorry I know that is an irrational amount of exclamation marks but holy cow, I’m ready for spring.  I know I say that every spring and I mean it every spring but this year I really, really mean it.  A lot.

DSC_0003DSC_0007

Despite the mildness of this winter past, especially when compared with the face peeling cold of the previous two winters, it has still felt long and dreary and long.  Did I say long?  Because it felt long.  And, as it does every year, my foolish British soul peeks it’s head from behind it’s metaphorical spiritual duvet sometime in March and starts saying annoying things like “Isn’t it time for the children to be outside yet?”  And I, of course, reply “Shut up soul!  You do this every year!  It’s going to suck for at least another 6 weeks and look now it’s snowing again.”  Usually I weep at that point, or face plant into a cake.  Or both if I’m honest; this year was no different.

But some desperate optimism about the weather must have caught on because Stephen and I spent some time on the weekend starting seeds, little brown packages of hope that they are; plopping them into warm, moist soil and nurturing them, just as they will sustain us through the coming months.  Over the last few days we’ve watched and marvelled as the first sparks of life emerge in plastic trays in the dining room of our house.  I love how life works that way, miraculous and utterly mundane.

DSC_0006 DSC_0004

We’ve had increasingly warm days this week, slightly stymied by my littlest bean coming down with a yucky tummy bug, but we are all emerging into the sunlight a little mystified and a lot happier.  There have been moments where the house has fallen silent as the boys run off outside for a bit (Sometimes with some encouragement from Mummy.  Or a lot of encouragement.  Some people would use the word threats but it’s such an ugly term.)  I’ve looked around a little, momentarily unoccupied and been a little unsure what to do.  We are coming into a new season not just of the year but of life, but that’s a post for another day and thoughts for another hour.

So as I peek underneath the condensation clouded lids of my seeds trays and as I wander, oh so casually, out to the polytunnel so recently cleared out by the lovely men in my life, my inner eye is beginning to dream of abundance.  Though there are only specks here and there and the memory of snow is a starkly recent one, my dreaming life is painted with green.  Green and the scent of honey on the air.

Season’s Turn

Season’s Turn

There is no doubt, now, that the balance of the year has indeed tipped.  While the customary snow of this northern clime has yet to show itself, the nights are dark and the mornings frosty.  Frosty is wildly preferable to snowy and, strangely, preferable to the milder weather we’ve experienced this November.  With mildness comes rain and with rain…mud.  I can’t say I’m sorry to have moved past ankle deep slop, in favour of firm and crunchy frost underfoot.

DSC_0281 DSC_0283 DSC_0286

Without too much effort we meet the sunrise each day, something I would never endeavour to accomplish in the summer.  The air is cold and fresh, increasingly I feel the need to wrap up against it, knowing that even a short delay can lead to feeling very cold indeed.  Anyone who did not know me well (or at all) might be forgiven for thinking I am the sort that likes to be up and at life, springing from beneath the duvet with bags of vim and slippers full of vigour.  They would be so wrong, so spectacularly wrong, that they would be in heavy contention for the Most Wrong You Can Be About Anything award and have full confidence of walking away with the prize.

In truth I’d happily remain in bed for around a week at a time, dining upon bed appropriate foods such as soft boiled eggs and jam tarts with tea.  I would wear bed jackets, bed socks and, not to put too fine a point on it, a sew in sleeping bag with a hood if I thought I could get away with it.  But life is not organized to accommodate by bed addiction and so, each day, I drag myself reluctantly from the joys of my memory foam mattress and head out into the world.  As I stand by the garage door I always give a little sigh to myself and a pause, a moment in which someone can cry to me “Emmalina!  There has been a mistake!  Please return to your bed, it turns out that chickens are fully able to look after themselves now.  Frankly we are all embarrassed for the misunderstanding.”  The voice has yet to come, but I pause anyway.

DSC_0306 DSC_0305  But, once I’ve trekked out to the chickens (now cosily snuggled with the Muscovy ducks we are keeping to breed from next year) the fresh air has done it’s work.  By the time I wander over to meet Stephen in the cow field I am awake enough to spend 10 minutes discussing the sex life of our pigs (I’m telling you, it never gets old) and chat about some farm related thoughts of one type or another.

The list of tasks is getting shorter now, as the cold weather has closed down the last of the garden, leaving me with garden related longing until spring.  The ducks went to slaughter last week, the pigs went a few days after that.  On Sunday the last of our piglets were sold and we took advantage of the solid ground and moved our Large Black Boar, Arthur to reunite with his lady love; unencumbered by mothering duties, she can now focus on the man in her life.  We’re hoping for a nice litter of little piggles in early spring.

DSC_0303DSC_0304

The cow field is solid underfoot for the first time in months and there was frost on their coats this morning.  Our bottle fed calf (the little guy in the pic above) is on his last month of milk before he’s old enough to enjoy just hay along with the other cows.  It’s one of the last tasks that we’ll be ticking off before Christmas as we wind down into our winter schedule, where maintenance is the goal along with minimum outside time.  With the wood all cut and split, the freezers full and the major tasks of the season completed, we can finally take a breath and begin to enjoy some leisure time.

DSC_0273 DSC_0268

When Stephen designed this house, he planned that the winter solstice sun would set in the window opposite the kitchen counter.  I spend a lot of my time in the kitchen and, as the nights draw in so early, the world outside can seem far away.  But then, as I’m cooking at the stove or popping trays in the oven, I’ll look up.  The scorching display across the afternoon sky will capture my whole attention and I’ll stop.  For a moment, or a few minutes, I’ll step away from what I’m doing and look.  Perhaps I’ll step out into the cool air and snap a picture or two of the luminous clouds, of the burning disc snagged for a brief second in the branches of a leafless tree.

In that moment, I’m grateful for this season and for this special time of year.  I’m grateful for the sun burned skies, the blackened night littered with stars, the frost coating and ice cover of morning.  Soon the snow will come, turning the world monochrome until the spring reclaims it.  For now, we enjoy this chance to pause and, if we’re lucky, to rest a little.

Season’s End

Season’s End

I don’t quite know how it is that so many months have passed since I last took the time to sit and write here, but they have.  Actually, when I come to think about it I know exactly how it is that so much time has slipped by.  Between farm work and taking animals to slaughter, selling our products, running farm workshops, keeping up with the garden, harvesting what we’ve raised and grown as well as having a first grader and a fifth grader homeschooling this year…well let’s just say the plates have been pretty full around here.

This year one of our goals has been to decide what works and what doesn’t.  We’ve pared down some of the activities on the farm (no dairy, not selling eggs this winter) to try and get a better balance and give us more focus.  But no matter what, the harvest season is busy.  Between drying herbs, beans, onions and garlic, processing lots of tomatoes, freezing peas and carrots…there is kitchen work aplenty to keep me hopping for a while.

DSC_0135 DSC_0134 DSC_0133

As well as the produce from the garden, we’ve filled our freezers for the year with home raised chicken (done for the year!), beef (we took our first steer to slaughter in September) and the pork and duck that will go for ‘finishing’ next week.  We’ve worked hard and now the season is upon us to enjoy our bounty.

After the wood has been processed of course.  Only about another 6 cords to chop and split I think.  And stack.  We mustn’t forget the stacking.  But it’s worth it to have the house cosy and warm all winter, to have a hearth fire to gather around with tea and books and cosy times.  I admit the work isn’t really mine, when my Dad was here he broke the back of it with Stephen and now my beloved is continuing manfully by himself to finish the job before the snow comes and makes everything that much more difficult.  For the first year I think he’s actually going to pull it off, he’s quite a worker my chap.

I’m mostly inside now, except for bits of farm stuff and outside time with the boys; my goals are turning inwards as the weather slowly closes in and the school year really gets under way.  With two boys needing a lot of my time and attention the days feel very full, add onto that some new activities for the year and it feels non stop!  I’m grateful for this season of slowing down as the farm heads into winter mode, allowing for hearth and home to be our focus.

DSC_0079 DSC_0064 DSC_0058

As life becomes more busy and complete I find myself less and less inclined to leave my cosy bubble of domestic life.  We have our outings, and dear friends we are lucky to share time with, but as a wise and completely anonymous sage (my fabulous pal Jac on the phone this morning) once said, they fall within the circle of home.  I love that phrase and aim to pass it off as my own by repeating it continuously, with a wise and knowing smile if at all possible, because it is so true.  There are experiences that draw from us, ask of us and lower our energy; there are others that give, bolster and renew.  Some places, and people, are home whether close at hand or far away.  The glow of their presence is warming and uplifting, I feel lucky to have been given the gift of friendship and family in a world where many do without it.

So for me the season of new, of out there, of bursting into the world, is over.  For a while anyway.  It’s time to turn inwards, to bask in the circle of home (see, I’m doing it already) and enjoy the literal fruits of our labour.  I will make tea from the wild plants of my farm, eat meals we raised and grew ourselves (whenever possible) and cosy up in front of the fire as much as is legally permissible.

And as I do so, I feel grateful and hopeful for all those who’ve been driven from their homes.  For whom the circle has been broken.  I do what I can to help, knowing it is not nearly enough.  But we have to try; we have to try our best.  Because home, that’s all that matters really isn’t it?

 

Endings

Endings

We are used to the idea of endings here on the farm, as much as we can be anyway.  We coo over cute chicks, but we know that they’ll be off to slaughter in a few months.  When we welcome piglets onto the farm, it’s in the knowledge that most of them will be off to new homes once they are weaned, and the ones that stay will eventually go for meat.  It’s the cycle of life here and we accept, even embrace, those facts.

But there are animals that come to us with the intention of them staying, they are here for the long haul.  We now have cows for breeding and a breeding pair of pigs, their life here may not be long by human standards, but their tenure will still be significant.  When our milking cow Wander came onto the farm, we had no expiry date, no sense of an ending to it all.  She came, we learned to milk, we continued ad infinitum.  Until, until we decided that there needed to be an ending there too.

wander

This year Wander calved out a bull calf (for the second time) and began her second lactation.  She did well, producing lots of milk for us.  Every day.  Every. Single. Day.  Our fridge was full, we ran out of places to put food and I spent a lot of my already limited spare time making our dairy products.  I made cheese, I made butter, I made yoghurt and I made even more cheese.  We were rocking the cheese making train.

Then Stephen had to go away for work for a few days, at the exact time a stomach bug hit us all.  So as well as looking after two poorly boys, being ill myself and having farm animals to care for, I had to do the milking.  I remember weeping, I remember doubling over trying not to vomit as I watched the cow standing on the lines I had so carefully cleaned to make ready for milking.  Stepping them firmly into a nice ripe cow pat and contaminating the lot.  I remember having to ask my still poorly eldest boy to help push the cart with the milking equipment back from the barn to the house.  I remember shouting bad words at the cow.  Very bad words.

That was when we started talking about selling the cow.  To have a job on the farm that I can’t fully participate in on a day to day basis is a) not fair and b) very impractical.  Stephen works full time, he also has to go away for his job sometimes.  I am a full time homeschooling Mum and I need to be away from the farm on day trips and to take the boys to activities.  November loomed large in our consciousness when we’d have to start milking twice a day, hauling the kit and the abundance of milk back and forth to the house no matter what the weather, no matter what the illness or schedule.

I started to imagine my days without a 5 hour block set aside for cheese making 2-3 times a week.  I started to imagine storage space in my fridge.  I started to imagine my beloved less exhausted, less frazzled, less drained from doing milking chores every morning before driving for an hour across the city to do a full day at work.  I started to think that  it was time to make a change.

When we started the farm, in 2012, we were so excited to finally be able to try all the things we’d been reading about for so long that we wanted to do it all.  And we have.  We’ve raised chicks, meat chickens, pigs; we’ve gone from buying to breeding and from imagining to doing.  We’ve learned so many new skills in such a short time that it seems mad if we stop to think about it, but we don’t, because we are too busy.  It’s all been wonderful, it’s all been difficult, it’s all be amazing.  It’s the life we’ve chosen for ourselves and we feel lucky, every day, to have it.

But after years of adding and doing more and more each year, we’re now acknowledging the need to pull back, just a bit.  We see the need for  a bit of breathing space, a bit less exhaustion and a bit more flexibility.  In that examination, the thing that we realised had to go, was the dairy.  So with regret we put Wander up for sale.

By day 10 of the ad going up a bargain was struck, by day 13 a lovely lady had driven up from Southern Ontario to collect her and take her off to her new home on a horse farm down there.  Her calf went with her of course, to keep each other company in the new paddocks on the new farm.  She went with reasonable grace and not too much fuss, but with enough shenanigans for us to know she was the same girl we’ve been raising for 2 1/2 years now.  We patted her goodbye and breathed into the quiet that was the next morning.  No milking chores, no cheese making, no milking machine to clean, no jars to scald for milk.  Done.

Perhaps I should claim some regret, a touch of sentimental sadness, but the truth is I don’t feel it.  We made a decision, one that was best for all of us, and it has borne fruit as we’d hoped it would.  Our mornings are quieter and easier to manage, we are less stressed and tired, a burden has been lifted and we are happy with that.  Wander has gone to a lovely farm, with premium horse hay for snacks no less, a place where she’ll be pampered and treasured I have no doubt at all.  I’m proud of the work it took to bring her to this moment, I’m relieved that work is done.

So as the full moon rises over the beginning of this new season, as we contemplate the work that fall brings and the new starts that come along with it, I’m happy with this particular ending.  It’s not how we thought it would go, there have been many triumphs and frustrations along the way, we’ve learned a lot.  I wish Wander well in her new home, I’ll think of her fondly always.  And, I suppose, despite by stiff upper lip, I will miss that silly brown girl.  Just a little bit.

 

On Pig Love and Equinox Based Panicking

On Pig Love and Equinox Based Panicking

This is an odd time of year.  It’s odd every single year, yet every. single. year I am surprised by it.  I can feel the spring moving beneath my feet, feel her stirring and shifting the heavens and the earth, yet we are ice bound, cold and wintery for yet another month.  As I begin to look at the calendar I feel the panic, I start to feel for certain that there is no way, no way there is enough time for all the things we’ve planned for this season.  And as for enough money, well that’s laughable.

I keep feeling that we have arrived at a point where we stand a chance of knowing what we are doing.  Sort of.  Well at least we have a sense of the turn of the year, the tasks and the order they’ll come along in.  Booking animals into slaughter is routine and requires no agonizing, just planning.  Ordering chicks for the coming year is about ticks on the calendar, weeks counted and housing needs balanced.  We know what we are going to do, we just have to do it as well as we possibly can.

But now there are other levels of farming that we are just beginning to enter into.  We are intentionally breeding our sow Lady B with our boar Arthur; or should I say we seem to have bred them and now we are waiting to see how it all pans out.  Animal breeding is a bit like throwing cement, bricks and roof tiles in the air and hoping a house lands, that is to say it’s hit and miss.  We do our best but there are no guarantees and sometimes you just have to cross your fingers and do the best with what you get.

DSC_0814

DSC_0815

Last year we successfully bred Lady B to a borrowed boar from a nearby farm.  She was a young ingenue, he an experienced older…pig, and the union was immediately successful.  Let’s just say he was enthusiastic in his attentions, so much so that her caring Farm Dad sent the boar back after just one week because he was getting pretty rough with our sweet girl.  Like a pro she farrowed out in August, allowing us to sit with her through the long night, as she brought new life into the world.

After weaning (and selling) the extra piglets, we left Mama and babies to hang out in the field together.  Being a groovy, long term breast feeding mama myself I was happy to let her piglets continue to nurse on her, assuming they’d self wean after a certain point.  They didn’t.  They ate a bunch of feed and nursed on their mama, who became increasingly fed up and aggressive towards them.  This sweet, gentle pig was being asked to do too much and it showed.  So we moved the babies over to the other field and let her get some well earned rest.  After a little while we introduced a young, virile young lad called Arthur; they seemed to get along and we hoped for the best.

DSC_0813

DSC_0819

Lady B was undoubtedly keen, but poor Arthur just didn’t seem to know quite how to go about things.  This time he was the inexperienced one and she the older woman with lots to teach.  It took them some time to get their groove on.  We were concerned when, in January, she was displaying such obvious signs of heat we thought she might call a taxi and head to the nearest disco if Arthur didn’t tend to her womanly needs; after all, a girl’s gotta eat.  She displayed this with such subtle signs as mounting him, and Stephen and chasing me out of the field in case Stephen decided he fancied me more.  She was ready to go. No matter how much we watched we never saw any actual action, but pigs can be private creatures and with the cold weather we weren’t exactly hanging around outside that much.

In February, with Stephen away in the UK, I was on high alert for signs of heat.  I watched her back end with an unseemly interest, checking every day to see if she seemed to be in heat.  I watched for signs that Arthur was interested, or the two other (castrated) male pigs in the barn with her (being related doesn’t put them off one bit if she’s in heat) or that she was mounting anything that moved.  Nothing.  The only thing she cared about was eating and keeping warm, I could relate.

So here we are in March, still no signs of heat and a bit of a rounding out of the tummy that we hope means there are little squiggles in there.  I’ve also noted (this is where it gets farmy people) that Arthur’s package (ahem) is looking a bit wrinkly and under used (no judgement) unlike the full and swinging sack he had not so long ago.  Boars will stop producing mating hormones (responsible for the phenomenon known as boar taint) if they are separated from fertile females for 30 days.  I’m hoping his lack of love preparedness means that Lady B isn’t triggering him into baby making mode because she’s up the stick.  In the club.  Has several buns in her oven.  You know what I mean.

DSC_0817
DSC_0822

DSC_0824

DSC_0826

Yes, gentle reader, this is how Stephen and I spend our mornings here on the farmstead.  Checking out our pig’s clitoris and our boar’s testicles while doing calculations on gestationcalculator.com to find out when she might farrow out, when we’ll need to wean the piglets and when she can go back with the boar for a little bit of summer lovin’.  And that’s all before we’ve even had a cup of tea.  That’s when we’re not talking about udder formation and speculating on the relative value of a female Jersey calf (lottery) vs a male (full freezer).

On one hand, in fact on about 2/3 of my whole body, I’m basically in a state of panic about when in hell I’m going to have time to educate my children, grow a big garden (with a herb bed!), raise 300 meat chickens, take on new cows to expand our herd, milk a cow, make cheese, butter and yoghurt every day, can all the produce and stop my house from falling into a quagmire of filth with me banging my head against the washing machine as laundry tumbles over my head crying “Why?  Why?!!!”.

End scene.

Instead I’ll take a breath, fill out my plan for the next term of homeschool (more history, we need more history), begin my trays of tomatoes (my goal is to can 100 quarts!) and finish reading the Wintersmith to Huwyl and some James Herriot stories to Neirin.  I can’t do it all at once, truth be told I probably can’t do it at all.  But somehow, inexplicably, it will get done anyway.

In other news Neirin wants a bunny.