Friday, August 8, 2008

Farm Trek: Episode 8, Attack of the Veterinarians

Captain's Log
Star Date: August 6, 2008
Location: The White Bird Appaloosa Horse Rescue, Constellation Triskelion, Burkeville Galaxy.

With little warning, aggressors of the Veterinarian race (known for their mysterious healing powers and a diet consisting only of Veterans), left their home planet of Southsideequine, in the Phenix Galaxy, and descended upon the hapless inhabitants of White Bird Appaloosa Horse Rescue in the Constellation Triskelion.

The sympathetic Bovine inhabitants of the planet Moo, and the Ovis and Gallus races watched from afar, but did little to assist their distressed neighbors. The Bovines of Moo made several speeches and offered a few meaningless gestures of support, since the Bovine Queen is running for re-election and she is necessarily concerned about offending anyone. The well-meaning Queen of Gallus gallus sent over bugs and worms. But the Administration of Gallus gallus had neglected to do the requisite research to determine that bugs and worms would not be helpful to the citizens of White Bird. So, the Equines were unaware that they were being offered assistance, and were instead, offended. The Ovines rearranged folders and papers on their desks and held meetings until the need to make a decision was long past. They then resumed their normal activities: surfing the Internet for chicken-road jokes and grumbling about the Bovines getting all the attention.

Meanwhile, chaos reined supreme at White Bird, as one Equine after another was subjected to the torturous injection of foreign vaccines by the attackers. In a particularly gruesome blood-letting ceremony, two inhabitants were forced to submit to what the Veterinarians referred to as a “Coggins test.” The horror lasted for hours, and when it became apparent that the Equines “couldnae take na more,” the Veterinarians departed in their black van, as quickly and mysteriously as they had arrived.

Epilogue: The White Bird Medic (Damn it, Jim, he’s an engineer, not a farmer!) has completed his analysis of the victims and detected a number of foreign substances and their associated antibodies. These are: Eastern and Western Encephalitis, Tetanus, West Nile Virus and Rabies. The antibodies (Life, but not as we know it, Jim.) will lie in secret wait until they are one day needed to fend off invaders. White Bird is slowly getting back to normal and the “Time of Terror” is fading into distant memory. This is the second “Time of Terror”. The first one had something to do with a bear in the tack room. But the attack is never spoken of. Actually, they all forgot about it maybe two minutes later.

Next Episode: Invasion from the Planet Equidentistry
Cool Background Photo: NASA, launch of Endeavor

Happy Birthday, Girls!

Happy Birthday Annie, Happy Birthday Penny

Well, phew, we made it through three weeks without losing a calf, a mother, or much more of my hair! That was one steep learning curve, and I'm sure we aren't out of the woods, yet. But..... I now manage to milk the cows without the hysterics of the first week (from me, not the cows) having blocked as many holes in the bagpipes as I can to ensure concentration on one teat at a time.

Claw and Bagpipes

Does anyone else find all this talk of multi-tasking grossly overrated? My feeling is that doing one task well, before going on to the next one, is probably more efficient than ten all at the same time. No doubt the research is being done as I post, and my cognition friends will have the answer. Anyway back to the Birthday Girls. Their growing up is just amazing and they now attempt to drink from the trough - a good thing, as even with fans and shade the heat and humidity are taking their toll on all of us. Annie in particular, being bottle fed, was showing some signs of dehydration and we have switched to giving her milk in three meals rather than two. That has helped her a lot, and she and Penny have plenty of energy to skip around and play cow fights all over the arena.

This three weeks has probably been the longest in our lives, and without the patience and understanding of some experienced cow people, and our cow vet, plus a little humor, might just have been an animal or two, too far. What I can say, is that the next calves are going to get the benefit of this learning in spades, and we might even be able to sleep at night without worrying that we are making some serious mistake somewhere. We could alter the tag line to "Two Ex-Pregnant Cows - lots of experience! except that might viewed as a little bit of an exaggeration after only three weeks. So we'll leave it as it is!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Not Quite Ready for Myers-Briggs

According to National Public Radio, farm animals have personalities. In the August 4th airing of "All Things Considered" commentator Julie Zickefoose provided the following*:

"Behavioral scientists are just now trying to establish that fact with quantifiable, reproducible studies. Their work has started to crack the door on animal personalities, starting with water striders and fruit flies, which nobody could hope to think have them. Scientists have just shown that some water striders and fruit flies are demonstrably more aggressive and "bossy" than others; some are timorous and retiring. It's a start, I guess, to look at insect individuality; no one could accuse a researcher of bias in a study of fruit flies.

But those of us who live among animals know that quantifying insect personalities is just the frost on a very large, animate iceberg. News flash: Hominids aren't the only ones out there who think and feel, who chart their own individual course on the planet. And not everything that goes on in the head of a dog, cat, cow or fruit fly can be quantified or reproduced. "

We beg to differ. Not for one second do we think our animals have individual personalities. Take our dogs. Our dogs are unanimous in their love of food. Except for Shandy, who won’t eat when she thinks it might thunder. They are otherwise interchangeable, though Bridget is deaf except when she isn’t and Jack is loyal and responsible. Maisie seeks acceptance and expects little. But otherwise, they are pretty ordinary dogs.

Our horses are just your typical horses. Wendy is a little on the bossy side, Belle more delicate. Rudy the blind dude is smart and patient, and Oreo the Shetland pony is mischievous and friendly. Sunny is a good manager, Bear a bad one. But he is attached to Lily, the blind girl, who worries when he is not around. Rodney is ancient and clever, Fancy strong and opinionated. Norman has an enormous sense of humor. Apollo is trying to find his place in the world, Fallon already knows his and it scares him to death. Nothing scares Folly. Hollywood is a Diva and Chamara a reincarnated princess. Nikki wants a hug and Whiskey wants to hug everyone else. Star is gentle and likes to play with Wonder, his silly best friend. Dandi dislikes challenges to her authority.

The sheep are identical, too. Except that Demaris is bright and curious, Petey is sensible and Hope is in charge.

Nelson the cockatiel enjoys life, Hootie the parrot enjoys attention- and cheese. Sophie the cat is an acrobatic artiste and Arthur always wants you to stay with him just a little longer.

Cows don't have personalities. Except that Rosebud is demure, sweet and well-behaved, while Bessie, well you already know about Bessie. If not, see picture.

Nope, no personalities on this farm. Ms Zickefoose is surely mistaken.

*The complete broadcast can be found at: story/story. php?storyId= 93270340

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Old Dogs/New Tricks

Do you ever think about the meaning of life? Yours, not the Monty Python film. Don't worry, this is not a serious discourse on life, the universe and everything. But here I am, side of face covered in cow poop, screwdriver in one hand, listening to the vacuum pump (I'm sure it's asthmatic!) and contemplating the eight more horse stalls I have to pick, and the eight horse breakfasts to prepare. What on earth am I doing here! During my life I have made many choices, taken many paths. To say I have planned all along to be here and doing what I do, would be hardly fair to whatever great creator is responsible for my life journey. Yet I believe I am here by choice, however those choices were presented. Not only that the things I have learned during that journey have, quite amazingly, prepared me well for my new farming life. When I was a teenager in the UK, I became a "Young Farmer". Now, I was not really a country boy, and my family had no farming experience. Some of my friends joined, so did I. We met once a week or so, and listened to lectures on cows and chickens and the like, and then I forgot most of what I learnt in those two years. As with most teenage boys, girls happened along, and so I moved on to horses, just to impress a local beauty. I learned to ride and stuck with a local riding school for a year or so. Lack of scholastic endeavour led to my enlisting in the Royal Navy at the tender age of 16, and any thoughts of a bucolic life were submerged by engineering and the delights of pubs and tatoo parlours. I ploughed the seas (sorry, bad pun) but not the sod for 12 years, doing my bit in the "Cold War". I did learn a lot about pumps and electrics, and how to repair things with a piece of bent wire and duct tape, but with marriage and children came responsibility, and the inevitable settling down. Not unsurprisingly on the basis of "do what you know" I went into ship design, rather than agriculture. Until then my life choices had been governed more by Naval requirements, than personal choice, and it was a company requirement that put me on to what would prove to be my professional career as an ergonomist. Preparing equipment lists, budgeting tight projects, and dealing with the minutae of complex systems was my life, on and off, for the next 35 years. Coming to the US in pursuit of happiness in the form of my lovely Jorg, I was little aware that the jigsaw puzzle that was my past experience was going to be so beautifully put together at a farm in Southside, Virginia. My experience with animals had always been intermittent. Occasional cats, and the usual array of guinea pigs and rabbits for the kids. My philosphy has always been "don't have them (animals, although the same principle applies to kids!) if you aren't prepared to look after them properly." Suddenly, I was involved intimately with a real animal person, and there were horses, a dog, a parrot, some cats, and koi in the pond to look after and keep healthy. The stepping stones from that re-introduction to horses, via dog rescue transport, to our own horse rescue, and thence to Triskelion Farm and the menagerie we look after here, seem natural if explained sensibly, but that would be way too long for this post. Sufficient to say that the various learning organizations I had encountered throughout my life would be proud if they could see me now - side of face covered in cow poop, screwdriver in one hand, listening to the vacuum pump (I'm sure it's asthmatic!) and contemplating the eight more horse stalls I have to pick, and the eight horse breakfasts to prepare. But with a self-satisfied glow that outshines the golden brown I am turning from the Virginia sunshine.
That's me, on the left!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Colloidal Gold

Having settled into a routine disagreement over whether or not to stand still, for how long and how often to kick, Tom and Bessie "The Bruiser" (WCWF Champion 2008) have arrived at a certain mutual understanding. The end result of their daily negotiations is a predictable supply of rich, creamy milk. Rosebud, of course, has been quietly predictable all along, but we all know that the squeaky wheel gets the most attention. Still, reaching this long-awaited stage of development meant to us, among other things, the possibility of butter.

Making butter is simple. We all know that because our grandmothers could do it before they were born. If anyone reading this is from a second-world country or an emerging nation, please just ignore the next few paragraphs and go straight to the post about caterpillars. For that matter, also fast-forward if you are from the “country” in America, which includes most of Southside.

We planned this step precisely. We had purchased a cream separator to separate and collect the abundant cream found in Jersey milk. We also researched butter-making, and from the web site “Cooking for Engineers" (I am NOT making this up), discovered that you can make butter using a Kitchenaid mixer. We were supplied with several gallons of milk, our new separator and our Kitchenaid. We were locked and loaded and ready for action.

We poured our properly warmed milk into the separator and waited for the cream to politely appear out of the little cream spout. We waited. We waited some more. Meanwhile, milk began gushing from the milk spout causing us to keep switching collecting bowls like a couple of nervous sailors bailing water from a sinking boat. The milk that did not manage to reach the bowls, did manage to reach the counter, the walls, our clothes and hair, the floor and happily for them, our three dogs. After about 5 minutes, a very thick, yellow fluid began to collect at the cream spout, about the consistency of mayonnaise. We re-read the directions for the separator and found the part where it mentioned adjusting the setting to reach the right consistency, ONLY IF YOU HAVE EXHAUSTED EVERY OTHER OPTION. We pondered the possible consequences of overlooking an "option" for a few minutes (low credit score, pregnancy, demonic possession) before inserting the little hex key into the adjuster. We will lose this key within a week. After several trials of adjustment and recycling the milk through the tank, we finally produced a mixture that looked a bit like thick, yellowish cream. We settled for that.

The next step was easier. Armed with my detailed instructions and photos from “Cooking for Engineers,” I poured the cream into the mixing bowl. At this stage, it was still very thick and light yellow- not at all like the picture that featured two pints of pure white, store-bought cream. I mixed and waited for the next stage, which was identified in the photos as well-behaved “peaks of cream.” No dice. At no time did the contents of the bowl resemble anything in any picture. For just a second, I saw flecks of butter in the mix and my spirits soared. My hopes were dashed a second later when the entire mixture, took on the consistency of yellow pudding (that’s “custard” for the UK folks). I gave up at that point.

Not wanting to waste anything, I put the weird, custardy mix into a bowl and set it in the refrigerator, just in case I could come up with a possible use for it. An hour later (insert the "Hallelujah Chorus", here), amazingly, we had a bowl of solid butter. I have no idea why, or what happened to the whey that we were supposed to carefully rinse out. The only thing I can surmise is that we started with so much butterfat in the mix that there wasn’t much else in there to begin with. But it’s here and it’s lovely- a lot like Irish butter.

Cost of 1 lb of sweet butter to-date: Approximately $400 after the calves sell.
Somewhere in Heaven, I have a grandmother who is rolling on the floor, laughing at her totally inept granddaughter. Billy and Robin, we haven’t forgotten about you. We just didn’t want to poison anyone until we had this process down a little better. We'll be in touch.

By the way, the butter in the picture is not ours. I know that for sure because it is artfully arranged with rustic French utensils. Ours is sitting in a disposable plastic tub in the refrigerator, next to a bowl of withered jalapenos and a bottle of Kikkoman with a sell date of 1987.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Pop Quiz: What's this caterpillar?

Yes, I did have to look this one up. But I can give you some hints. It/they are cheerfully finishing off my dill, and there were a lot of them in there, so they must logically prefer dill to the basil and rosemary located right next to them. Can't blame 'em, there. But I digress. This will turn into a very common and recognizable butterfly, if we let it finish off the dill. The answer will be in the comments section.

While I was waiting for Tom to bring me some new batteries for the camera (we go through this exercise nearly every time we want to photograph anything because our camera eats batteries like beer nuts), I had an opportunity to quietly sit there in the grass, which was literally crawling with life around me. I used to do this a lot as a child. With the suburbanization of the area I lived in, many of the things I saw daily slowly disappeared from common view. People in suburban areas keep their lawns green and weed-free and their gardens treated with pesticides. Most insects eventually disappear, as do the birds and other animals that eat them. The exception to "most" of course are the Japanese Beetles, which are doing just fine.

Two years ago, we bought this farm in Southside, which for the uninitiated, means south of the James River in VA. One of the most pleasant surprises about this area was that many of the things that had disappeared from my life in Northern Virginia are still here. The Bobwhite Quail that used to run along in front of your car on every dirt road are not as numerous as they were, but we hear them call out from the hayfield in the evenings. I had not heard that sound for years.

One thing that has sadly not reappeared is the honey bee. Whether their severe decline has been due to veroa mites, a virus, or colony collapse disorder is still hard to say. But in 2006, beekeepers reported losses of 60 to 90 percent of their hives. The complete loss of honey bees would be an environmental catastrophe that would severely affect world food supply. I still look out for them when I am walking around barefoot in the grass. I really wish I needed to be that careful.