Friday, July 31, 2009

Downsized haying

Boy, it's been a rough haying season so far. While the country life and messing with farm animals have their fair share of idyllic moments, the lifestyle also has its share of maddening frustrations. I won't even go into the exceptionally cold spring that was followed by a growth-inhibiting dry spell. The vagaries of nature have to be expected sometimes.

The big problem this year is equipment failures. A few years ago, after I lost an off-the-farm job, we downsized and sold a 75 horsepower tractor and a good John Deere haybine (a glorified mower that conditions the hay by crimping it so that it will dry faster). I also stopped traveling around the countryside with my haying partner who had a decent Gehl round baler, leaving me with no baler at all. The price of gas and diesel last year was making the cost of putting up our own hay in quantities adequate to supply a marketable beef cattle herd along with our horses, llamas and goats through the long North Woods winter simply uneconomical.

Debra and I decided to try to hay off about 25 acres of our own pasture and cut down on the size of our hay-burning livestock herd. With such small acreage to harvest, we decided to buy a good smaller tractor and some very old used haying equipment, including a sickle bar mower, an ancient rusty side-delivery rake, and an old square baler.

When I was growing up, I had heard that you could always tell the successful farmers that were in it for the long haul from those doomed to failure simply by looking at the equipment in their fields. The ones most likely to succeed were said to be those using the oldest equipment on diversified crops. Those taking the plunge into huge acreage monoculture with the most modern expensive equipment were asking for big debt trouble.

So I figured it was about time I put this theory to the test. We got ten bales out of the field while testing the equipment, and too much hay cut and laying down when the equipment started falling apart. That downed hay will be good for nothing but bedding if we can ever get it baled and in the barn.

Boy, am I ever getting a lesson in breaking rusty bolts, knocking out leaking and worn bearings, replacing universal joints, facing the impossibility of buying parts that are obsolete and no longer available, and trying to fabricate parts that will substitute in their stead. So far the sickle bar mower has broken 4 times, and the gear box and drive shaft on the rake are currently in pieces.

Thank goodness Jack, my summer fishing buddy, is around to help. He has spent years in the woods repairing logging equipment, and can pretty much tell how something must be put together before it is even taken apart. He is also much less shy with the hammer and cold chisel than I am, and has been able to convince old, ungreased, oxidation-fused metal to yield to his wishes with much more success. Hopefully, we can get things up and running again before the snow flies.

Time will tell how this noble experiment with restored farm equipment works. Thus far, I am tempted to believe an old billboard that I once saw down in the Ozarks of Missouri. It was advertising recreational boating equipment and read: "Buy the best... and only cry once!"

Oh, well. My new mantra is: "At least I'm not paying interest... not paying interest... no interest... no debt... no interest..."

I just have to prevent this mantra from evolving into "... no interest... no interest... no interest in farming!"

Friday, July 10, 2009

A New Lake, Ospreys and Eagles

My wife and Pat had plans for convening a local conclave of fellow "Goat Ladies" at Pat's place yesterday afternoon to exchange stories and information. So Jack and I decided to go fishing.

Jack took his boat. It's an old 14 foot aluminum v-hull with a 10 horse Evinrude motor that he had salvaged and repaired. He has it rigged with an anchor made of five old double hung window sash weights wired together. That anchor holds us in place in a good stiff breeze. The vessel is just right for two grumpy old men, but would be an insult for those guys with their 200 horsepower engines on their metal-flake fiberglass boats that I call bass bullets with their fully equipped electronic geostationary satellite positioning devices and "you can't hide from me" fish locators.

Anyway, Jack took us to a lake that I had never been to before--- Jungle Lake.

It was a gorgeous setting. Very few homes on the shore. Crystal clear water. Surrounded by forest. And we were the only ones on the water that day. The fish were biting pretty slowly, but steadily enough to keep things interesting. We ended up with our limit of bluegill, perch, sunfish, and rock bass. We also caught a few largemouth bass, but threw them back.

The real highlight of the day, though was the birds. A solo loon serenaded us throughout the day and was diving all around the boat. That loon call is as significant to my northwoods summers as the first robin song is to spring. I love it. For anyone who has never heard the loon's tremolos, wails, yodels and hoots, go here.

There were also two big ospreys out fishing for most of the day. They soar high over the water peering down for fish near the surface that they can swoop down and nab. It's amazing to me that they can not only pick out a fish from so high, especially when there is a good rippling wave on the water, but that they can tell that it is swimming close enough to the surface for them to hit when they stab for it.

At one point, one had come to a hovering stand still about 30 feet over a spot in the water.

Jack said, "Hey, it looks like he's spotted one."

And we both watched as it rocketed down and splashed, only to emerge with its talons full.

"Yup, he nailed it."

But as we watched, it climbed about 15 feet in the air, and the fish dropped back into the water.

Simultaneously we both yelled, "Oooooh! It got away," just like it was one of our fishing buddies right there in the boat with us.

"Hey look. He's still got one though." And, sure enough, he still had one in his talons. He must have caught two at once. Unbelievable.

He circled once, but then started to call out. Normally, they remain pretty quiet when they are fishing.

Soon we saw that a mature bald eagle was headed across the water toward him and the osprey was telling it to get the heck out of there. The eagle seemed to chase the osprey for a while, but then it turned its attention to the dropped fish. Sure enough, that eagle swooped down right where the osprey had dropped his catch and popped it out of the water.

Then the eagle flew low over the water across the lake to perch in its pine, and the osprey went off on its way. I hate to inform you of this, but our national bird is a lazy opportunist.

I looked over at Jack, and said, "Darned eagle is just like a tourist pushing his way into our favorite fishing spot."

To which Jack responded, "Did you ever stop and think that maybe we are the tourists in his fishing spot?"


If you've never seen an osprey fish, it would be worth a couple of minutes to view the following National Geographic clip:

As usual, I failed to bring a camera on this trip. The links to the images used are:

1) Mapquest
2) Loon

3) Osprey in flight

4) Osprey with fish

5) Eagle with fish

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A New Cria and Goat Impossibilities

We had our last baby of the year. It was born to the most famous llama in the country: our Olivia.

My wife named her Olivia. I call her Ollie for short. Famous? Why famous, you ask?

Surely you've heard of the Ollie Llama?

That shadow on the ground is a new cria. It was pretty dry, but it still had membrane clinging to it at this point.

That makes our fifth llama. The stud was our only registered llama. His papers came with the name Joya. We think that it is probably a Spanish name, so we pronounce the J like H. So I gave him his last name: Doin'. So now we walk up to the paddock and call out Joya Doin'.

Two years ago, we had a little boy baby, Ollie's first. It was born with a windswept deformity, so all four legs were bent in the same direction as though they were blowing in the wind, kind of like this: (( Three of the legs straightened out, so we named him OK. That stands for Off Kilter. He is now gelded.

Last year, we had another boy. His name is Llimpopo. Rudyard Kipling wrote a series of children's stories called the Just So Stories. One of them was about how the elephant got its long trunk. A baby elephant was drinking out of a river when a crocodile grabbed its nose, which got stretched in the ensuing struggle. Maybe elephants have strong necks and weak noses, but llamas have strong noses and weak necks. So when an alligator grabbed the cria by the nose, its neck stretched instead. Maybe. That's what I tell the visiting kids, anyway. Oh.... the name of the river: The Great Grey-green Greazy Limpopo.... hence the name Llimpopo.

We've now determined that this year's cria is yet another boy. We've decided to name him for the retired racehorse jockey that lives across the street, who used to own this place: Leonard M. So we'll name this one Lleonard.... Llenny Llama.

As with any birth on the farm, it is always important to check to make certain the placenta hasn't been retained. For those of you who have never seen this, here's a picture. Warning, fly past this photo if you love babies, but not afterbabies.

Now on to this morning's adventure.

We rescued four goats two winters ago. Their owners were an elderly deaf couple who were in a crippling car accident. One of the goats was a huge goat of unknown lineage. It is the biggest goat that I have ever see and it can jump any fence or gate on the farm when it wants to. We have to hide it during antlerless deer season. It is also, I think the world's ugliest goat with a huge underbite and a couple of missing front teeth. He looks like he took one too many punches in the nose, so we named him Bruiser.

In the goat pen, we have a variety of large run-in shelters along with a small Igloo brand plastic dog house that our pygmy goats and geese like to lay in. I went out this morning, and somehow Bruiser had squeezed his huge body into that little bitty dog house and got wedged in. He must have gone in head first and turned around, but based on the size of the goat and the size of the house, that's utterly impossible. The lower lip on the doorway made it so that his legs were pinned in. He was well and truly stuck.

I struggled and pushed and pulled. I got one leg out, but he pulled it back in. (Now I have had my practice session if I ever have to pull a baby goat during labor.) He grunted and pushed and squirmed. No go. I finally decided that I was going to have to take the house apart to get him out. Finally, though, he gave one last heave that buckled the plastic, popped out and immediately emptied his bladder.

BIG STRETCH. Man, it must have felt good to get out of there! Now he seems none the worse for wear and is back to his old happy self again.

Now I'm curious to see where he tries to sleep tonight.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Porcupine Quills and Riding Mowers

Things get a little crazy up here in the North Woods on these big holiday weekends. The population on the roads and waterways explodes. For the local economy, they say it provides a very big boost. It can be tough on the wildlife, though.

On Friday morning, July 3, I got a rescue call from the Northwoods Wildlife Center. Several people had phoned in that there was an injured porcupine on the side of the highway.

Porcupines are one of those animals that seem to thrive up here. It is not uncommon to see dead ones on the shoulders any time of the year. They are nocturnal and pretty slow moving, so it's easy to drive up on one at night and hit it before you can avoid it. Evidently that is what happened to my rescue victim, but this one was reportedly still alive.

Now one of the rules of the rescue driver that is set in stone with zero tolerance for rule abridgment is that there are to be NO pictures taken of the injured animals. The animals are stressed enough without flashes going off and lenses being pointed in their faces. For those of you unfamiliar with a closeup view of a porcupine, I am borrowing a very good photo from Click on the photo for a full-sized view.

Anyway, I loaded up my trusty tote and paraphernalia and headed out to the scene. It was supposedly lying along the north side of the road somewhere in the 20 miles between where I live and Rhinelander. I had my doubts as to whether it would still be alive by the time that I found it, and if it was, it most likely would have wandered off into the woods again.

I passed several that were obviously long dead and decomposing. Then about seven miles east of Rhinelander, I spotted it not a foot off the blacktop. I pulled over, got out and walked up to it. It sure looked dead. I gave it a slight nudge with my toe, and it curled up a bit tighter. So it was alive. I saw a wound on its flank that didn't look too serious, but who knows what internal trauma it may have had.

I then went back, got my tote, a heavy sheet, and my welding gloves. I covered it with the sheet, gently picked it up, put it in the box, and headed on in to headquarters.

I must admit that this porcupine handling was done with a degree of trepidation on my part. Several years ago, on one of the coldest nights of the year and after a very rare overindulgence in social drinking, a friend told me, "Ya know, porkypine quillsh are worth a bundle on the innernet."

I said, "You gotta be kiddin' me. Toothpicks are a lot cheaper and easier on the gums."

"Naw, man. They use 'em fer joolry an' decoratin' and stuff."

"You may be right, by gosh. I have been hearin' a lot about pierced ears and pierced unmentionables. Heck, I know where I can get some right here, right now."

Not long before that, I had been out in our back 40 to show a visitor a junky old hunting shack that the boys of the previous owners had thrown together out in the woods. When we got there, we found that a porcupine had taken up residence in one of the top bunks and seemed to be pretty well ensconced for the winter. It was no big deal to me because I was never going to use the building, and it really didn't matter if the porcupine gnawed it to the ground if he wanted to.

Well when my buddy told me that the quills were like a pot of gold, in my slightly alcohol-addled mind, I decided to go out and offer that porcupine nice warm room and board in our basement in exchange for an occasional quill harvest.

So I donned my Carhartt overalls and hat and gloves, grabbed a feed bag and decided I'd just stuff it in the sack and bring him on home.

You'd be amazed at how strong, belligerent and pig headed an indignant quill pig can be when rousted from its chosen cozy spot. Suffice it to say, that I returned home with an empty bag and hands and wrists that looked like pincushions. And yes the quills did penetrate the fabric in sufficient numbers that my coat and gloves may as well have been stapled to my body with an electric staple gun gone wild. There was no way to take them off without pliers and helping hands.

Ah well, I haven't overindulged since then... and I didn't even find a buyer for the quills.

Nah, nah, what's done is done. That was then, and this is now. Older and wiser.

I got the injured animal into the animal E.R. They got it tranquilized and injected antibiotics and dexamethasone, and we're all hoping for the best.

I do happen to have a sheet of spare quills in case any of you creative souls out there feel some inspiration.

They are hollow and can be dyed and used like you would use Indian beads. Here are a few examples from the Internet of things created with them:

I might be talked into harvesting a few quills from the road shoulders if anyone is interested. There are a lot of creative people out there.

Which brings me to my final holiday find. The summer holiday weekends are also huge times for garage sales. This weekend, on my way to the animal E.R., I spotted a riding mower for sale. Boy, if it weren't for an injured victim in my car, I would have been sorely tempted to buy my wife a "Green Movement" 4th of July gift.