Sunday, September 5, 2010

Farm Journal: Testosterone Rush, Farm Safety and Nostalgia


One of the things I like about farming is that it gives me a testosterone rush, something every woman needs from time to time.

We haul things around, use machines, and care for the animals, some of which are 1800 pounds. Of course, everything we do is outdoors. This is so different from my urban, academic life of 28 years!

My 1950’s mindset still associates work done outside as men’s work. I never liked housework because I found the tasks my father did outside more appealing. Our biggest project was leveling the front lawn. It took all day and a lot of sweat but it looked much better and I felt great accomplishment. Now that I’m farming, I’ve get this same kind of feeling all over again!

Today, we took down the stock fence from what used to be sectioned off as the buck pen. This fence will be used at the farm in Bangor. In the meantime, this newly-opened area will give the buffalo more room. Once they discovered their expanded digs after a day in pasture, they immediately started investigating it—and found new grass to munch!

The panels of the fence were put together with clips that hung on nine-foot steel fence posts. With a pair of huge tin snips, Ron snapped off the clips as I collected them. We have to be careful we don’t drop such small metal pieces on the ground because the goats and buffs will eat them. These pieces are indigestible and would stay in their rumens eventually causing problems. So we take extra special care to make sure all metal pieces, nails, etc. are out of the animals' reach.

Soo spent most of the day at the office but then arrived home at just the right time to help with the fence. Together we carried the 16-foot panels over to the barn where they will later be packed. Then we had to pull out the fence posts, which were stuck deep into the ground by about two feet. Now I was to learn a new use for the tractor.

Ron brought out the longest and heaviest link chain I have ever seen in my life and began wrapping it around the bucket of the tractor. Next he wrapped the chain around the bottom of the fence post and hooked one end to the wrapped chain. He jumped back into the tractor seat and lifted the bucket straight up to pull out the fence post and voila. It was like extracting a big tooth.

“You saw how I did it,” he said to me. “Now it’s your turn.”

He positioned the tractor bucket in front off the next post and then like him, I wrapped the chain around the bottom of the post. He lifted the bucket and the post again came out. I felt instant success!

We went on to the third post but I somehow got the hook on the wrong part of the chain. When Ron lifted the tractor bucket, the chain unraveled. Then I had to put the whole thing back together again. With Soo’s help and Ron’s direction, I finally got the chain around the bucket and away we went pulling out the next post. I was beginning to “feel my oats” with this job and enthusiastically “worked” the chain like a pro.

“Pay attention,” yelled Ron, noticing a bit of my overconfidence. “Watch out for the bucket as well as the fork lifts sticking out of the front of the tractor.”

Farm work is extremely dangerous and the cause of many unnecessary and foolish accidents. It pays to know what can happen so that you can prevent tragedy. Here are some of the most common accidents based on STD/LTD/Fatal Claims, 2005-2009 (March 31, 2010):
· Overexertion while lifting boxes, crates, pots, buckets, bags, bundles
· Overexertion while pulling/pushing carts, boxes, crates
· Struck by cattle, horses
· Struck by knives
· Struck by doors, gates
· Falling from ladder
· Falling/jumping from nonmoving cart/tractor/vehicle
· Tripping over skids, ropes, pipes, pallets, platforms, blocks, etc.
· Slipping on ice/water
· Falling while carrying a heavy object

John Temperley, from the Australian Centre for Agricultural Health and Safety, says each on-farm accident costs at least $1 million and that farm accident and deaths cost the agricultural sector more than $1 billion per year (http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/07/23/2961902.htm).

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that tractor accidents on farms cause the highest number of fatalities with tractor overturns accounting for 44 percent of all tractor fatalities. Even though this data is from 1989, it serves as an important and pertinent warning to farmers today--rookies and experienced veterans alike.

The American Red Cross has long acknowledged the need for home and farm accident education for nearly a century and in 1935 it established an accident prevention program at the national level. Primarily known as the premier provider of first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) training, lifeguard training and water safety instruction, HIV/AIDS prevention education, caregiving, the Red Cross sees health and safety education programs as part of the organization's mission of emergency prevention and preparedness.

While I’m talking about farm safety, I should note that Ron had also told me that bulls are especially dangerous on farms and this is the reason we must be very careful with Le Bon, the water buffalo. I looked up Wikipedia’s references about bulls and it notes that 42 percent of all livestock-related fatalities are a result of bull attacks, and only one in twenty victims of a bull attack survives. Dairy breed bulls are particularly dangerous and unpredictable; the hazards of bull handling are a significant cause of injury and death for dairy farmers in some parts of the United States. The need to move the bull in and out of its pen to cover cows exposes the farmer to serious jeopardy of life and limb. Being trampled, jammed against a wall or gored by a bull was one of the most frequent causes of death in the dairy industry prior to 1940. As suggested in one popular farming magazine, “Handle [the bull] with a staff and take no chances. The gentle bull, not the vicious one, most often kills or maims his keeper.”

Back to the fence posts--and more

We finished with the steel posts and it was such enjoyable that I felt I could do it all day. It gave me a rush to see how human ingenuity and machine could get a job done. This is something I especially appreciate about farm work: using practical applications to solve various problems that invariably arise. Farmers think differently from academics, for example, who live in a world of ideas. Let’s just say that right now I seek to become more practical as I continue to work on the farm. But let me provide another example of farm think.

Every morning before Ron feeds the animals, he says hello to them and looks them over for lesions, worms, weight and other health issues. He also observes their behavior individually and with the other animals, especially at this time of year when the does go into heat and the bucks begin the ritual of spraying each other with urine (an aphrodisiac for goats) and knocking each other around as they ready themselves for the mating season.

Ron and I were standing at the blue farm gate at the north pen next to the barn when one of the heifers Ron was petting suddenly jumped away from him. It happened again and this time five other heifers jumped back 20 feet away looking puzzled. Ron then got a shock. Something was wrong and he had to find out what it was and it provided yet another example of how Ron’s mind works.

His life as a scientist has trained him to begin any problem-solving process with the phrase: “Now let’s think about this.” Fortunately, it didn’t take him long to figure out that the buffs had been leaning against the stock fence and bent it so that it inadvertently touched the electric wire that lines the inside of the north pen. That was the reason for the small electric shocks. Since the timing of this discovery was not an optimal one to fix the fence (the animals needed to be fed and put out to pasture so that we could clean the barn), Ron sought a temporary solution. He asked me to find a three-foot piece of wood near the barn and then he put it in between the electric wire and the stock fence. Problem solved for now. Hours later after we took down the stock fence, he fixed this part of the fence.

After we finished with the fencing, Ron, Soo and I spread new straw on the floor of the barn. The animals had been waiting to get into the barn for some time. They gathered at the gate a few times when we were in sight as if to say: “Let us in. We want a rest from the pasture in the cool barn.” When we didn’t let them in, they’d disappear or sit under the trees within eye-shot of the barn. Occasionally, we’d talk about them and they seemed to know this. Lucy, who is always good conversation for her antics, seemed to glare at us as if she heard what we said about her. Then Koo-Koo, who was sitting under a tree with the water buffalo, got up and moved closer to us when we started talking about her wide-body girth. Coincidence? Maybe, but I don’t doubt for a minute that the animals know when we're talking about them. By God, they can even understand English!

One big surprise today: we found a guinea hen nest in the kid pen! At least this one is protected from predators. Last month one of guineas made a nest near the potato field so Ron built a protective "house" of sticks around it. When the 11 chicks hatched, he put them in the poultry house. However, the guinea led her brood out one day and four were lost or killed. Ron captured the remaining seven and returned them to safety. Last month Ron found another guinea nest at the pond near the house and the eggs were eaten probably by a raccoon. One day Donna found a turkey nest in the loft with 11 eggs while we were stacking straw bales. Only two of those eggs survived and yesterday while Kurt and I were picking raspberries, the young turkeys were out for a walk around the potato field with their proud parents. It was quite a sight as they emerged from the green plants. The tom looked especially brilliant as he seems to have healed from his wounds after a predator attacked him in July. Thank goodness. He's sometimes a pest but he's beautiful when he struts with all his feathers displayed.

We were very efficient at cleaning the barn today and I feel as though I’m getting to know every nook and cranny of the building, what it demands as well as where goats, buffs and llamas hang out in it. For example, Shadow, Koo-Koo, Lily and Elle typically lie down in the middle stall while many of the year-old doelings use the larger one to the right of it. Some of the kids stay in the buffalo section of the barn on top of and below a platform that is there, while the “triplets,” Ella, Georgia and Lena, have chosen the small spot under the feeder in the loafing room. The llamas have their own latrine in the southeast corner.

This will probably be the last time we clean the barn before the move to Bangor. Ron will have the entire building power sprayed. I will miss cleaning this barn as I will miss working on this farm. It was here that I first learned about gardening, goats, running the tractor and all the other things. I’m just a hopeless nostalgic. On the other hand, there will be new challenges, new learnings, and new experiences on the Kleins’ new farm in Bangor, which will further my understanding of farming in the new post-industrial, post-peak oil era. More on that later. Sunshadow Farm, here we come!

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