Friday, June 11, 2010

Farm Journal: Gates and Maimed Males

Gates are an essential feature on a farm. Opening and closing them is constant because they are the traffic controllers, you might say, in keeping the animals in or out of places where you want them to go. That lesson would become more poignant today after a much-needed cleaning of the barn.

Ron and I worked on the west half of the barn in an effort to get the job done before the rain hit—again. We’ve had an inordinate amount of rain this spring! He had done the east half of the barn a day or two ago so that meant we had two of the three birthing stalls to do, the loafing room and the entrance from the barnyard.

The animals must out of the barn in order to clean it. They can get hurt if they get in the way of our pitchforks and shovels that scoop up the composted straw and put it into the tractor bucket. We literally bring the tractor into the barn and then haul away the compost and put it on the pile near the hoop house. However, weather becomes a factor with barn cleaning because the animals don’t like the rain and if it storms, they risk getting hit by lightening. Water buffalo are especially vulnerable because they are so grounded with their weight and size.

Because the animals don’t spend that much time in the barn now that winter is over, it is much easier to shovel up the straw. They don’t poop or urinate on it as much and it doesn’t get caked on the cement floor. It’s also not as heavy for the same reason. So we finished our work in no time—and just before the rumbling of thunder and the pelting rain.

Ron took the last load just as it started to rain. He told me to close the gates of the birthing stalls, spread the straw from the paddock in the loafing room, and remove the tools so the animals wouldn’t get hurt by them. But this was an anxious moment as we tried to beat the rain. The goats were already gathering under a tree to protect themselves and the buffalo were at the gate leading into the barnyard. Ron tends to give a number of directions quickly and forgets that a rookie like me can’t get everything all at once because I am still unfamiliar with the routines. In fact, he had to tell me twice what he wanted me to do while he hauled away the last load of compost.

So I went to work. I put the tools away except for a scraper that I couldn’t carry; it was not as harmful to the animals if it fell. Then I took straw in the barnyard entrance and spread it in the loafing room. I completely forgot the gates in the barn because I was intent on opening the pasture gate to let in the animals. I did this for two reasons: I wanted to “rescue” the animals and be a hero and I wanted to do it before Ron returned. So as I was opening the gate to let in the goats, Ron returned and asked me if I had closed the barn gates. Yes, I said, completely forgetting that I hadn’t. Then I remembered. Shit, what a fool I was!

Meanwhile, I had forgotten that I would be in the barnyard with the buffs. Never before had I done that. This was actually dangerous because they could crush me. Fortunately, they were intent on getting past the gate and not worrying about interacting with me. As I opened the gate they came through one by one and went to the barn. However, I felt terrible at my negligence of closing the stalls inside the barn.

Inside the barn Ron sequesters the water buffalo from the goats with a big blue farm gate that leads into the loafing room. He doesn’t want the buffs in there because they can get stuck in the small birthing stalls. More importantly, the buffs and llamas can’t consume the goat mineral because they are sensitive to high amounts of copper. Goats have a copper requirement and their mineral has much more copper than llamas and buffs can tolerate over time. Also, because we hadn’t layed the straw in the birthing stalls yet, he didn’t want the goats to go in there because they would poop and urinate on bare concrete without the straw absorbing it. Needless to say, I felt like a fool unable to do what he told me to do. The tasks seemed so simple and yet I failed in them.

Then I found out that I had taken the straw from the barnyard entrance that had been limed and should have taken it from the paddock, which hadn’t been limed. At least I took the top straw and didn’t scrape it up from the floor. I just didn’t know the difference. But the ultimate problem with mistakes that it puts the animals in danger and creates more work for us, especially if they get hurt. Protecting the animals is like protecting an investment. They are the producers of milk and if something happens to them, production is adversely affected. Of course, you want to avoid any of them getting hurt because that makes the animal miserable.

Another problem with mistakes is that it causes you more work. Farm work by hand is hard. It’s physical. You are always seeking the greatest efficiency in order to preserve your muscles. If you don’t, you pay the price in having to re-do something—and that takes up more of your time. On a farm, you work until you get all your tasks done because no one else is going to do them for you. So you have to think ahead.


We were out of straw so we got into Ron’s big white pick-up truck and went off to the straw store. The store is a little family farm operation that grows and cuts the straw and stacks it in a small shed on the side of the road. You take what you need and leave your money in a little box inside the shed. It’s all done on the honor system. Straw bales cost $4.50 now and we took six bales. A few years ago, Ron said a bale cost only a quarter, so even straw is at a premium. Because the water buffalo really make a mess in straw, Ron has had to clean the barn even more times per week than when he just had the goats. And the more straw it takes, the more it costs to run the farm.

On our way back from the straw store Ron showed me how to distinguish the difference in farm soil—rich soil from sandy soil. Crops are starting to come forth. Some corn was already knee-high and half a month early at that. He pointed out the CAFOs, one of them re-constructed so that the hogs had more room in them than they usually do. The farmer there is pretty successful and he sells his pork to some out of state distributors. Ron also told me stories about some of the people he knew as we passed their farms. He has lived in this area for over 25 years and while many small farmers have gone out of business due to the farm foreclosures of the 1980s, the area is still heavily farmed. Actually, this area was settled more densely than the city of Kalamazoo was when it was founded because of the rich soils. What was most interesting to me as we traveled the country roads was how much a part of the farming community Ron was. I hadn’t seen that side of him before.

When we returned to the farm we spread some of the straw in the barn we had just cleaned. Ron cut the ties on the bale and then tossed loose flakes into the loafing room sometimes on top of the goats. They didn’t seem to mind and he considered this as a form of play with them. I then took the straw and spread it around the birthing stalls and the loafing room outside the stalls.

Goats are very clean animals. They don’t eat anything that’s touched the ground. And when the barn has been cleaned and spread with fresh new straw, they love to run around the barn to check it their new digs. It’s very funny to watch. As I spread the straw in the birthing stalls many of the goats came in and then walked out. It’s as if they are christening the new straw with their presence. Oftentimes they do it with their pellets or urine almost immediately after I’ve layed down the straw. A farmer’s work is never done!

Earlier in the day I noticed the kids walking on the backs of the seated water buffalo. This was very funny but it’s also a bit dangerous. Lil Man found that out when he did it and ended up with a lame leg. Perhaps he played around a buffalo who didn’t like it and then the buff moved and rolled over on his hind leg. He now walks—and sometimes runs—with a limp or he drags the useless leg with him. It’s sad to watch him because he looks like an old goat and he’s only a year old. Because he is male he is a little more aggressive and difficult to handle. However, this injury seems to have chastened him or at least trimmed down his verve quite a bit. Fortunately, his hurt leg is one of his hind legs and he can still move, even run, although not as fast. The front legs are more important to him for mobility. If one of them had been hurt, he would have been irreversibly crippled and culled from the herd. Unfortunately, his injury is in the lower part of his leg and it can’t be fixed. However, if someday it becomes noticeably painful for him, he’ll have to be put down and that would be a sad day.

Lil Man was conceived through the fence in an unscheduled mating between Tiger and Elle, one of the younger does. Ron knew it was Tiger and not Leonidas who sired the Lil Man because the kid has French Alpine ears like Tiger. Leonidas is a LaMancha with very, very short ears as is characteristic of the breed.

Lil Man’s beginning in life continues with him. I first met him when he was only a couple months old. A group of us was sitting on the patio and this little kid came up to see us like a cat would. He had slipped through the gate because he was so small. Lil Man continues to be an escape artist in various ways—until he met his match with one of the buffs.

After Ron and I returned from the straw store, he noticed blood on the floor of the barn. We tried to track it down to find out who had been hurt and where. It turns out it was the turkey tom. In fact, when the tom saw us at the barn entrance he limped all the way down the hill to see us. He had lost some feathers and his leg was bleeding. He had been in a fight with something. We went over to the fence next to the barn where he roosts and that, too, was bloody. Ron suspects that something grabbed at him when he was roosting. It seems this happened while we were away because the blood was so fresh.

The turkey tom has been an annoyance over the past few months. One day he attacked Donna and Ron had to discipline him by grabbing his wings and throwing him in the buck pen where he stayed for the rest of the day a chastened bird. He’d also attack Ron who one day kicked him hard in the chest to cause him to loose feathers. Ron and Soo threatened to cook him and hold a feast with friends.

Over the entire winter he was in full features swaggering around the barn with his thumping-like voice. He’d mount a hen or two for fun, which ultimately worked out well because one of the hens layed 11 eggs. Donna found the next in the hayloft a month ago and all the eggs hatched. Unfortunately, the poults have been picked off one by one by predators, maybe raccoons. Some were crushed by water buffalo because the hen decided she and her poults would sleep next to the buffs at night.)

On this day, however, seeing the turkey tom hurt was very sad. Ron gave him some grain to soothe the tom in the hope he heals. There is little much else he can do. The guinea hens immediately discovered there was grain to be had and they descended upon it but I shooed them away to let the tom eat in peace. Fortunately, within a week he recovered.

Lil Man and the Turkey Tom were proud and strong males in their own right and it’s difficult seeing them maimed like this. On my next visit to the farm, I would see it happen to Tiger, too. Lesson: as obnoxious as testosterone in a male animal can be, it’s awful and sorrowful to see them hurt. They look debased and disgraced.

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