Thursday, June 7, 2018

A Thursday in June

We got back from our trip to Montana on Saturday.
Big Sky country (also known as God's country).
The place you can order iced tea without the UN-sweetened descriptor.
The home of (some of) my ancestors.
The land my family would travel to every summer of my childhood- where memories are thick.

I had talked about Montana enough that, last spring, my youngest asked if we could go there. When I told her it was too expensive to go and that we would have to wait awhile until we had saved some money, she cried. I didn't know then that a year later we would all be there again- this time to bury my dad's ashes. Bittersweet provision.

There's too much to tell about the trip, except to say that it was wonderful. Time was spent with extended family; the kids were exposed to new and beautiful places and got along with each other far better than I expected. I am debating if magical is too strong a word.

Back home in the heat and humidity, I found my tomatoes and chicks were three times the size as  when I left and the weeds ten times larger. I am exaggerating. But only a little. I've spent the last several days making my way through laundry and weeds, trying to reclaim some order.

This morning, I weeded some of the front flower bed, trying to finish up what I suckered the kids into starting for me. Finally, the sun pushed away too much shade, so I wandered out to check on the chickens. I had forgotten to close the gate last night, so hoped I wouldn't find any carnage. [That is unless it was the ugly, white, little rooster I've been needing to dispose of.] The little ones I knew would be alright, as I had locked them in the coop to give them a chance to eat their crumble without harassment from the older birds.

There were no clumps of feather in the chicken run, so I opened up the coop to check on the little ones. Next to the small, chicken door, a Cuckoo Maran appeared to be sleeping, eyes closed and breathing regularly. I clapped my hands to startle it awake, but it didn't flinch. "Great," I thought. "Something is wrong with it." I had three fourths of a mind to walk away and started to do so, but apparently, my new thing is trying to save small animals in distress. I scooped it up and headed to the house.

Cuckoo Marans (and Barred Rocks) have lovely feathers. I cradled the bird in my hand, marveling at its softness. the poor bird's head bobbed and drooped as I walked. I had almost made it to the stable to grabbed the bag of Quik Chik electrolytes when, down the front of my shirt and shorts, the bird released its bowels- and in that same moment, its life.

And so it goes.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Hamster Drama

We had crawled into bed a little later than normal. It was almost 9:30, and I had given up making sure the kids were tucked in. I figured they would find their way to slumberland eventually. No sooner had I pulled the blanket over my legs when I heard a knock on the bedroom door.

"Come in." This late at night, I try to make it sound as unwelcoming as possible, but that strategy never works.

The door opened, and there stood Joe in obvious distress. "I think Tiger Eye is dead."

Chris and I were immediately out of bed, following Joe upstairs.

There was Tiger Eye, half-sprawled across the floor of his critter tank, still as a rock. Chris leaned in a little closer. "He's not dead yet," he said and picked up the hamster. Tiger Eyes whiskers moved ever so slightly. Several pieces of poop clung to the hair around his butt. Chris put him back down.

Tears welled in Joe's eyes while we discussed the possible causes of Tiger Eye's pending demise. Had he been getting enough to eat? Joe had been feeding him. Finley had given him some apple last night. Maybe he was just old. Smokey, chugging water in his nearby critter tank, was older. Diabetes? Some other random hamster illness?

I glanced at the container that held Tiger Eye's food. Only a pinch of millet seeds were left. Looking down into the tank, my eyes searched the shavings. Normally, a well-fed hamster will have a stash of food somewhere, but I saw nothing. My stomach turned at the thought that Joe may have inadvertently been starving Tiger Eye to death. Finley just cleaned the cage a few days ago, maybe that was why there wasn't any food...

Joe picked Tiger Eye up and stroked his fur. TE's eye were mere slits and his ears laid back. He wore a pathetically tired expression. So cute and sad.

I can't just let him die, I thought to myself. He needs easy food. Something to perk him up. Electrolytes.

"Joe, go to the shop and grab a bottle of Gatorade."

While Joe ran to the shop, I searched the medicine cabinet for a syringe.

Back upstairs, I sucked some Gatorade into the syringe, and while Joe held TE up, I ever-so-carefully squeezed a drop into the hamster's mouth. He swallowed. Another drop, and he swallowed again. A third drop pooled in TE's mouth, then slid down his chin, threatening to drop to the floor. My heart sank a little.

Maybe the smell of some food will perk him up.

I ran down to the fridge and yanked off two small pieces of broccoli. Back upstairs, I shoved it in front of TE's nose, but it was obvious TE was too weak to do anything about it. We tried some more Gatorade, and I couldn't tell if he swallowed any or not. Joe set TE down on his leg, and we watched as TE's nose twitched a bit. I needed to find something easy for him to eat. Yogurt? I wasn't sure how good that would be for a dying hamster. I went through the cupboards in my mind, and landed on the perfect thing: peanut butter.

Downstairs again, I grabbed the peanut butter and a toothpick, then ran back up. With TE back in Joe's hand, I waved a tiny glob in front of TE, then tried to push it into his mouth. Half of the glob caught in the hair around his mouth while TE seemed uninterested in opening his mouth. I wasn't about to give up. Gently, I shoved the peanut butter between his lips, and waited. Finally, Tiger Eye seemed to come to and work the peanut butter down his throat. More Gatorade, then a little more peanut butter.

Ever so slowly and slightly, Tiger Eye seemed to perk up. The next time I offered the Gatorade, he reached out and grabbed the nozzle with his paw, eyes still mostly closed. We set him down with a glob of peanut butter in front of his nose, but he was too wobbly to hold himself up. Joe held him again while I spooned a tiny bit more to his mouth. TE nibbled it off the toothpick. After another drop of Gatorade, we took a break to observe the poor little hamster. He was doing a tiny bit better.

Back at the fridge, I found the container of spaghetti noodles Finley had cooked the night before. That would be a nice, easy thing for a sick hamster to eat. Upstairs, I put a few bits in front of Tiger Eye, which he managed to either eat or stuff in his cheek- I wasn't sure which. Then we offered him some of Finley's hamster food, which he stuffed in his cheeks.

It was getting late. We piled more spaghetti, the broccoli, and some shelled sunflower seeds in TE's tank, then after a quick little prayer, Joe set him gently inside. Tiger eye sniffed at the food, then tried to stand up on his four paws. Wobbling and shaking, he turned away from the food, and carefully scooted some shavings aside and curled up into a ball.

The rest of us retreated to our rooms, Joe with red eyes.

When I woke up the next morning, the first thing I wondered was if Tiger Eye was dead or alive. I dreaded going upstairs to see. Chris had already been up and informed me TE was still alive. In what state, he wasn't sure. I woke Joe up and we went to check on him together.

Sure enough, he was alive, and with most- if not all- of his strength back.

One hamster: saved from the brink of death.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Spring and Bees on the Funny Farm

Mother Nature and I have a few things in common, primarily that we both can be wishy-washy and not sure of what it is we want.

Mother N had me shivering in my skivvies yesterday at Joe's trap practice. The night before, temps had dropped below freezing, and we had woken up to frost on the ground. I expected all the apple blossoms and baby leaves to wilt in defeat, but they look like they aren't playing Mother N's games this time around and will carry on as if this is a normal spring.

Last Wednesday, I picked up a new package of bees. Having made it a full year without killing off my first hive, I figured it wouldn't be completely irresponsible to add more bees to the farm. Not even bothering to don a bee veil, I dumped those bees in the new hive as if I had done it a million times. This time, though, I strapped the box with the queen bee in it directly to a frame with a rubber band and squished the two frames as closely together as I could in hopes that the worker bees wouldn't draw out any burr comb this time around. I had hoped to check on the new hive Saturday, but Mother N wasn't cooperating. It finally warmed back up enough today to let me check on my hives. I'm learning that bees will do as they please, regardless of your bright ideas.

Thankfully, the queen decided she didn't want to lay any eggs in the burr comb and had wandered off to a different frame to do her business. (She's marked with a blue dot.)

Convinced that the new bees were doing well enough, I opened up my first hive. I love these bees. While the new bees were buzzing around like mad (though not aggressively), my old hive didn't even seem to notice that I was there. Third frame in, and I found some capped brood. 

I hope I'm doing this correctly... Since I am only using medium, 8-frame boxes, I figure the bees will want 3 boxes for the brood chamber. Then I added a queen excluder and a new honey super on top of that. Pretty soon, if the bees are happy enough to make some honey, I'll need a ladder to get in.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Funny Farmers at the Swine Show

"Old dogs can learn new tricks, but things are a whole lot easier if you grow up doing them." - Me
Two days before the 4H Regional Swine Show, and two things were apparent: 1) Not having our own livestock trailer, we weren't entirely sure how we were going to transport the hogs, and 2) Chris wasn't going to be able to help me.

Our neighbor had a livestock trailer, but it was big enough to hold a small herd of cattle- far too big for me to handle. He did, however, have a pen fashioned from livestock panel that he had used to transport goats in the back of a truck. This sounded fantastic. I wouldn't have to deal with a trailer. But how were the kids and I supposed to coax two 200 pound pigs up a ramp into the bed of a truck? After soliciting advice from our other neighbor, I realized that would probably take a small large miracle, so we decided to move on to plan C.

Tuesday afternoon, the day before check-in, we strapped the livestock cage into the trailer Chris used for his mower, threw down a sheet of OSB, and wrapped the cage with a tarp for a wind break. That finished, Zivah, Joe, and I decided we should do a trial run loading the pigs so we knew what we were in for the next morning.

Now, if we had listened to our 4H agent, and if I had pushed to get the transportation figured out sooner, we would have had the trailer ready days in advance and would have been feeding the hogs on the trailer so they would be used to loading and unloading. But no. Funny Farmers have to learn the hard way.

The pigs weren't having it. More interested in digging up the dirt along the wall in the stable, it took a lot to steer them toward the ramp. Once there, one step on the ramp, and they would push their way elsewhere. It was exhausting. After a half hour or more of frustration, Joe managed to trick the pigs onto the trailer by slowly scooting the feed pans up the ramp while they ate. Letting them back into the stable that night and reloading them in the morning didn't seem like a good idea. We made them sleep on the trailer.

The next morning, we were off. Not having dealt with a trailer much before I was a little nervous about the drive, but we were in it this far. I wasn't going to back out now.

First stop was the vet for health papers. As we waited for the vet to come out, I sat on the tongue of the trailer drinking my coffee. I couldn't believe things were (finally) going so smoothly. We had manged to pull together supplies for the show, had loaded and strapped everything down, and were right on schedule. The vet came out, I sat my coffee on the bumper, and after a quick check, I was in the office paying the fee and receiving the papers. Back out to the truck, and we were on our way again.

A couple miles down the road, I reached down for my coffee. But it wasn't there. After a few moments of panic, I told myself and the kids that there was a chance it was still on the bumper. There happened to be a house at our next turn with a driveway that cut the corner, so I pulled in, and Joe jumped out to check. Sure enough, there it was.

We made the rest of the hour-long drive without incident, and pulled up to the agricultural center barns at MTSU. There was a line of trailers in front of us, waiting for check-in. A small army of people were waiting to help unload and direct the pigs to their pens, and by the time I had parked the truck and trailer, the kids and pigs were already settling in.

The other pens in our row were designated for other Marshall County exhibitors. Our "next door" neighbor was a high-schooler I hadn't met before named Jayme. We started peppering him with questions, trying to figure out what we were supposed to be doing. He answered our questions and let us follow him around, watching as he washed and fed his hogs. Since one of the other exhibitors hadn't shown up, there was a spare pen, and Jayme made a point to share it with us so we would have a place to store our supplies. He was scheduled to show his hogs in the pure-bred show later in the afternoon, so we finally left him alone and went to grab a bite to eat before the show started.

Now, I knew that it was customary to shave the pigs before showing them, but by Tuesday night, I was so stressed and exhausted, I figured if we just made it there and managed to show the pigs- hairy as they were- that would be a win for us. But the success of the day so far made me feel a little braver, and before leaving for the evening, the kids and I decided we would get up early the next morning to wash and clip the pigs before things got hectic in the barn.

At 5:30 the next morning, with soap and clippers in hand, we were out the door and on our way back to Murfreesboro.

Only a few people were there when we arrived, so we didn't have any trouble getting the pigs to the washing station, scrubbed down, and back to their pens. But when the pigs had dried off, I pulled out the clippers and tried to snap on the attachment. It didn't fit. We would have to hold the attachment in place while clipping them. Joe's pig, Chip, didn't give Joe too much trouble, but Rosie was another story. As I stepped into her pen to start, she started ramming and nipping at my legs. I fended her off for a good five minutes, getting in a swipe with the clippers when I could until she finally calmed down and I was able to finish the job.

Showmanship was first, starting with the older kids. We asked Jayme how we would know when our turn was up, and he showed us where the sheets were posted with the heats listed. When our time came we got the pigs to the show ring and managed to get them back. Next up was the "skillathon"- a testing of the kids' knowledge about all things hog related. By this point, I was so exhausted, I managed to convince the kids that we would skip the state show the next day and try to get the pigs home that night. Besides, snow and ice was forecast for the next day, and that was nothing I wanted to deal with on top of it all. All that was left, then, was to show the hogs in their cross-breed classes, load them up, and get home.

Surviving that round, I actively started worrying about how we were going to get the pigs loaded back up in the trailer. Thankfully, Jayme was nearby.

Now, I must admit, I was a little embarrassed by our trailer. Ours was the only one in the lot NOT an actual livestock trailer. I was expecting Jayme to at least snicker or give me a horrified look when I pulled up and he saw our trailer. But, bless him, he didn't even flinch. I was afraid I might back into someone's hog or a post, so asked Jayme to back the trailer up to the barn door for me- which he did with ease. And while Jayme was backing the trailer up, another kid about Joe's age walked up to me. "Is that your trailer?! That's great!" He proceeded to tell how impressed he was and how clever it was that we didn't spend a lot of money on a livestock trailer. And a tiny bit of my embarrassment turned to pride.

I don't know if we would have been able to get the hogs on that trailer without Jayme, but having a big, football-playing guy that knew pigs helping, it didn't take long. He proceeded to help us load up all our gear, then told us he hoped to see us back at it next year. Next I knew, we were on our way home.

I'll tell you what, it still makes me tear up a little bit with gratitude for all the help Jayme was to us. 4H kids are the best.

Back home, I managed to back the trailer up to the stable, ready to unload. Rosie tromped off the trailer fairly quickly and into the pen. But Chip was another story. He was feeling a little motion-sick from the ride, and didn't want to move- much less step onto the metal grate of the ramp. I got up in the trailer with the hog-board, got behind him, and started pushing. He grunted a little and set his feet a little firmer on the wood. I managed to get him closer to the edge of the board, but he refused to let himself get pushed onto the grate. The harder I pushed, the more intense his grunts became. I could feel the bruises forming on my knees. Every time I though I had him close, he pushed back and shoved past me. I didn't think we'd ever get him off.

After several minutes of head-scratching, I came up with the idea of scooting the cage off the trailer, so Joe and I unstrapped the cage and slowly yanked it toward the back of the trailer until Chip was finally forced off the board. Seeing that he no longer had solid footing beneath him, it didn't take a lot more effort to coax him down the ramp and into the stable.

It was nearly dark by the time we got the rest of everything unloaded and put away. Finally able to realx, we reveled in our accomplishments for the week, Zivah daydreaming about showing a hog again next year.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Hogs on the Farm

Sometime in September, I got an email from the 4H office. Would any of our kids be interested in raising and showing hogs? I asked Zivah. "YES, YES, YES!" was her immediate response. Joe wasn't quite as enthused, but once he figured he might be able to make a little money off the sale of the pig in the end, agreed to participate as well. 

A couple weeks later, we had a pen erected around my garden plot in hopes the hogs would do some clean-up and tilling for me, some bales of hay and plastic-covered wood for a shelter, and a good amount of excitement. We were hoping for a male and a female. The male we would butcher when the time came and share half with my brother, who was "going in" on the whole thing with us. The female, if all went well, we would breed in an effort to expand the Funny Farm's meat production prospects.

The hogs were delivered on a Saturday in mid-October. The smaller of the two was a barrow, weighing in around 50 pounds. The bigger, pink one was a gilt, weighing about 75 pounds.

They did a great job tilling up my garden, and we ended up building a pen off the stable so they would have some dryer shelter when the rains came. The kids have taken them out a couple times to work on their showmanship skills (which was quite the thing to watch); and now it is January, and the 4H Junior Swine Show starts tomorrow. Time does fly. (I'm glad pigs don't.) Chip, the barrow is now weighing about 200 lbs, and Rosie is right behind him in size. I wasn't sure they would make it to show weight, but they did!

We are trying to decided which would be better: coaxing the pigs up a narrow ramp into a cage on the back of the truck, or me driving a trailer. It is all kind of nerve-wracking for a city-raised girl like me, but, oh, what an adventure.