Farm Follies Livestock Adventures

REST is a Four-Letter Word

Whenever I meet someone new and I tell him or her how I live on a farm, I am still amazed at how many people tell me, “Oh, I have ALWAYS wanted to live on a farm. It must be so nice.” I nod and smile and think, “They have absolutely no idea what they are talking about.” This may or may not be true, but at least it makes me feel better about the times that I get frustrated living here.

The thing is, living on a farm has never been a dream of mine. A place with a small garden and some land, sure, but a running cattle farm? Never. That is not to say that I am not grateful for the beauty and tradition of this place, quite the contrary. It is only to say that when I thought about where I would be at forty I never thought that I would be dodging chicken droppings in the garage and shooing barn cats off my kitchen counter. Just saying.

Farming, I have discovered, is something that many romanticize, but only a few are actually made for. This is because most of us are lazy. Offended? Think about it. If you are a farmer, and want to run a sustainable farm, REST is one of those four-letter words that you can’t repeat around your kids. After dinner, there is no settling down in front of the TV to catch up on the latest episode of C.S.I., there are fences to be walked, things to be fed, manure to be cleaned. To put it simply — there is WORK to be done — a four-letter word that is welcomed here on the farm.

I am a hybrid. A farmer’s wife who sometimes likes to lay in bed and watch Grey’s Anatomy. In my defense, teaching takes a lot out of me. Perhaps some day I will start a teaching blog that shows just how much work that we do and the emotional toll that it takes upon us, but this is not the time nor place. My goal here is to show what life on a little farm is actually like — with a little sass thrown in.

Long-time readers may remember that every year my husband and his family go on a camping trip up to the northern parts of Maine. While this is not the only time during the year that I am left to tend the farm, it is the only time when his father is also not around in case of emergencies. This makes me fully responsible for every cow, chicken, pig, cat, dog, and kid that lives here.

It is stressful.

This year Xandy planned his trip from Thursday to Sunday, a mere four days. Four days. I can do anything for four days, at  least that is what I told myself at the onset of this year’s camping time. Before the trip, Xandy leaves a list of names and numbers in case there is a “Cow Emergency.” The list includes neighbors who are willing to help if the herd runs into the road and the large-animal vet who is willing to come out if one of our cows goes into a particularly difficult labor. Someday I will describe what one of those particularly difficult labors looks like — as I have helped my husband by kneeling in the manure pit, pulling on baling twine tied around a half-birthed calf’s legs. But that is another story.

This story begins on:

Day One: Thursday

After Kitt and I visited the local farmer’s market so that Kitt could get her sugar-fix from the Amish bakers and I could get my carbohydrate fix from the Good Bread Guy, we came home to begin our solo time on the farm. I walked into the house only to be greeted by the ringing phones in the kitchen — yes two, see my post about my husband as an anachronism to catch up.

Xandy’s sister was heading up to the camping spot and wanted to know if the cows were ok.

“I just walked in the door. I have absolutely no idea how the cows are doing.”

“Well, dad and Xandy said that there are two cows that are ready to calve out, so they just wanted me to check in.”

“Two WHAT? They didn’t tell me there were two. I don’t know which ones are even still pregnant.”

She laughed, “I’m sorry, dude. I am just doing what I am told.”

I know that feeling.

“Let me get the cordless. I’ll go check.” I turned an episode of Dinosaur Train on for Kitt, threw my purple gum-rubber barn boots on (which I received from Xandy as a birthday present), and walked out back to find the cows.

The herd was miserable as we were in day two of a five-day heat-wave. All of them looked at me, panting, bleating, pleading — please make it cooler. Sam, the calf Kitt named after one of her classmates, pushed his way up toward me looking for food. His mother is gone (not actually — she is in our freezer — another long story), and Sam is now a “bucket-fed baby” meaning that he gets a bucket of milk-replacer every night. He looked at me and gave me a “mea0000.” I told him he would have to be patient.

Under the barn ALL of the cows looked to be nine-months pregnant and miserable, but none seemed more miserable than others, so I told my sister-in-law that they all seemed to be OK, and then I headed back into the house to get Kitt to actually feed things.

“I’ll help, Mom. I know what to do.” And she did — as most nights while I cooked dinner, she heads out with Xandy to “feed things.”

Luckily, most of the herd was out on grass, so there was no need to throw down a lot of hay like we have to in the winter. There were, however, two yearling bulls in the barn waiting to be snipped so that they could also be put out in pasture. Xandy assured me that he had put enough hay bales down on the barn floor to last me for the four days. When we walked into the barn, only one bale lay on the floor. One bale and a note:

“We took four bales of hay. We’ll be back tomorrow for 25 more — and we want the greenest stuff you’ve got. Signed Peter and Lisa” (*names changed to protect identity).

So they had taken the hay Xandy had left and wanted more. A lot more.

“Green stuff?!?” I mumbled at Kitt, “It is freaking MAY. How green can year-old hay be? I mean COME ON!”

I gave the remaining hay left on the floor and water to the bulls, and then looked to find “green hay” — at this point drenched in sweat from the 90+ and humid weather.

In the back left corner of the barn I found a wall from floor to roof high of tightly packed hay. I threw Kitt in the grain bin to “play” (or at least not get squashed by a wall of hay) and set myself to work.

I was wearing a tank top and skirt with my boots, and hadn’t brought any gloves into the barn with me — but that didn’t stop me. I wanted to get this done. I climbed the wall, trying to pull down as many bales as I could without causing the entire thing to collapse. I started to envision me, dead, under 50 bales of hay and Kitt stuck in the grain bin eating the grain and the mealy worm that she had found and had let writhe around on her boot to survive. “Mom look, A WORM!” She had squealed with delight when she found it. “That’s good, Kitt. A worm.”

I kept going.

After what seemed like an hour and enough hay chaff in my boots to feed the bulls the next day, I was done. I nodded proudly at the pile and left a note:

“Peter and Lisa, Xandy and Mark are out-of-town for the weekend. This is the greenest stuff I could find. If it is not good enough please check in with them on Sunday. Thanks! Sherry.”

I fed Sam and the barn cats, got my kid out of the grain bin, found some chicken eggs in another bale in the barn, and went into the house to make dinner.

The beer that I drank as I rocked on the front porch later that night never tasted so good. I have to admit.

Day one down. Tune in later for days two through four.

Livestock Adventures

There’s A What????

You are never really alone when you live on a farm.

Over the last two years that my husband and I have lived on his family’s farm, this point has been reiterated many times. It was reiterated last night when I almost ran head on into a semi parked in our driveway waiting to unload roofing equipment for our barn; it was reiterated last Saturday when a curmudgeonly, old farmer from up the road knocked on our door at 6:45 AM to chat with my husband about farm business; it is reiterated last fall with a visit from a father and son looking for a place to unload a group of dying chicks they had purchased and had no idea how to take care of; it is reiterated almost daily by friendly neighbors, curious out-of-staters, and nosy family members.

It was especially reiterated early last summer when my mother-in-law Connie showed-up unannounced with my 2-year-old nephew in tow to babysit him at the farm for the day. They had decided to come to the farm to watch my father-in-law Mark hay.

“We’re here!” She declared as she shuffled in, filling our kitchen table with food, clothes, and diapers that would be needed for the day.

“Dit? Dit? Dit?” My nephew repeated as he toddled towards me. Dit is his name for my daughter Kitt – my daughter who I had just dropped off for one of her last days of daycare before I was off for the summer from my job as a teacher. It was one of the few days that the daycare was open, but my school was not. My plan was to take advantage of the rare alone time, and to get some work done.

“Kitt’s not here honey,” I leaned down to tell him, and his downtrodden look caused my eyes to well up, but I was resolved to get some work done.

“I was just about to mow the lawn,” I looked up to tell Connie. Unfortunately one of the drawbacks of farm-life is having a husband who has to cut hay for cattle and was often unable to cut grass for aesthetics, and we have a lot of fast-growing grass.

“Well don’t let us stop you; we know our way around,” this I knew to be true as she had lived in the house for forty years. After a visit I often found things rearranged back into the position she had kept them in. I think it is an unconscious habit – at least that is what I hope.

“Mmm, Mmm,” my nephew repeated, which I knew to be his sound for cows.
“We are going outside anyway. Max wants to look at the cows.”

After spending the morning dodging my nephew with the lawnmower, I gave-in and decided to visit for a while. It was Max’s naptime, anyway, so we would have time to relax. Connie and I sat and chatted. We flipped through magazines and Facebook pictures, and gossiped about everyone we knew.

She then got up to do clean the kitchen. This, I have learned, is the most positive aspect of having in-laws that frequently visit – you have a clean kitchen. I always hope someday she’ll get really bored and pick up the vacuum cleaner, but that hasn’t happened yet. I walked over to the sink to help her, when she looked out our back window towards the pool.

“Something’s in the pool!” she said in loud gasp.

Time seemed to stop then – I instantly went through every resident of the house that could be in there – Kitt, no—thankfully, she was still at daycare; Max—no, still in the crib sleeping; Mark – on the tractor; my husband Xandy – at work; my dog – her Norweigian elkhound coat is grey and black, whatever was in the pool was a chocolate color; Molly, my in-laws chocolate lab? Right color – definitely wrong size. This thing was the size of an adult person – but bulky and brown. The only thing left it could be – COW.

I followed Connie quickly out into the backyard, and stood at the pool surveying the situation. In the shallow end of the pool a brown and white spring calf’s head floated on the solar cover. The calf had obviously bent down to drink, fell in, and was saved by the solar cover’s presence. Only a few feet of water were visible, with most of the pool still under cover. The multi-chambered bovine stomach of the calf kept the rest of its body floating. I thought he must be dead.
As my mind wandered to “how sad” – the calf’s eyes found us, and I saw his nose flare.

Connie must have seen it too, because at that instant, my 63-year-old mother-in-law screamed, “Get it out. IT’S GOING TO RUIN THE POOL!”

She then took off her watch and her shoes and jumped in.

Now I came to the realization long ago, that I am NOT the person that you want with you if there is an emergency. In the classroom, I process information at lightening speed and can give an instantaneous answer to anything that happens, but in an emergency I become immobile. I always feel like I am in one of those dreams where you try to run and scream, but your legs won’t work and your voice is silent. That is exactly what happened as I watched Connie wade over to the calf, and hold its head above water.

“Try to grab it’s legs.” She motioned toward me as she floated the calf to the edge. The water on my face from her entry, woke me into action, and I hurried closer to the edge to help her.

Although this poor creature was a “calf” – it was by no means a small baby. At this point, the animal was at least 150 – 200 lbs in weight, and it became apparent quite quickly that we would not be able to get it out of the pool. Our effort was valiant, however. I pulled it’s front legs, and she pushed up from the bottom, but the frightened animal could not get footing and repeatedly fell back in.

“Get Mark, Quick!”

My father-in-law had been on a tractor across the road cutting hay, and had just jumped off the still running machine when I started yelling at him.

“Mark, quick, there’s a cow in the pool!” I yelled as a line of cars passed in front of me.

“A what?” he came to the edge of the road cupping his hand to his ear to try to filter through the sounds.


After a line of expletives, my 68-year-old father-in-law sprinted to the best of his ability towards the backyard.

When we returned to the backyard, the calf and Connie had bonded even more deeply. Connie stood hip-deep in what was becoming mucky water stroking the top of his head and muzzle as she waited. The calf was curiously calm in the situation – something for which we were all thankful.

Not hesitating for a second, Mark jumped into the pool, boots and all and began to push the cow up towards the edge. I again, went over to help, and within moments the beast was free. All I could think was “Now what?” when my dog came running up behind me. She started to bark at the frightened calf, forcing him to run towards the only non-chained link section of fence in the backyard. It became apparent as to how he go into the yard as he ducked and ran directly through the barbed-wire fence and joined the rest of the herd.

Connie and Mark chuckled and shook their heads and recounted the time when a full grown cow had fallen in the pool. That day ended with a dead cow and a new lining. I instantly felt lucky. After determining that our lining was still in tact we went into the house so that I could find them dry clothes.

A few moments later, my husband sauntered through the door, having come home early from work to hay. He didn’t have time to say hello as I launched into my animated story.

“Huh,” was his reaction.

“Huh, that’s all you have to say? HUH?”

“Yeah, well, I’ve been meaning to fix that fence. It’s on my To-Do list – I guess I should move it to the top.”

I looked over at my in-laws who again chuckled and shook their heads at their son’s lack of emotion. I joined in the laughter as my husband went to change into farm clothes. I sat for the rest of the afternoon listening to farm stories — glad that I lived in the kind of place people felt comfortable to visit.