Archive for May, 2011

School is over and I’m making up for lost time. I’ve been going to bed at eight, getting up at my usual 4:30 a.m. to milk. The kicker is that I then go back to bed! When I wake up I read. In an evening I devoured my secret pal’s summer gift (she was a fifth grade teacher from school who’s been surprising me with lovely treats all school year), “A Knitter’s Home Companion,” by Michelle Edwards. I also polished off two knitting mysteries: “Death by Cashmere,” by Sally Goldenbaum, and “Dyer Consequences,” by Maggie Sefton.

I can’t imagine a better way to slip into summer.


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Today I led Julia all the way from the barn to the milking parlor without the nose tongs. I held my breath most of the way. Twice she stopped, so I patted her head, rubbed under her chin and told her how smart and beautiful she was. Each time she walked companionably beside me until we reached the stanchion. Then, out came the nose tongs and in was dragged the cow.

And …

Today was the last day of the school year.

What more can I say?


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Some better

My recalcitrant cow is getting some better. The nose tongs weren’t the magic trick I’d hoped for. Still she resisted. What I learned about the nose tongs is that it’s best not to look. I also learned to use a bit more leverage by grabbing the knot that’s a mere three inches from her schnoz. That leverage, coupled with me not watching as the tongs distend her nostrils to an unnatural length, has helped guide Julia more expeditiously to the milking stanchion.

However, it ain’t pretty.

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This weekend I brought home enough hive bodies, honey supers, frames, lids and bases to outfit three new hives. My husband’s 30-year-old equipment is beginning to wear out and this stuff was new.

My mother took me to my grandparents’ farm, to the basement of the farmhouse where water is collecting from recent rains. In the puddles, stacked on pallets, are brand new hive bodies, honey supers, frames, lids and bases – painted in fresh paint, most unused. There are maybe 100 nucleus hives meant for catching swarms and raising queens.

The stacks of new equipment were the work of my father. At one time he kept more than 30 hives at that farm. His obsession is revealed in the basement. His attention to detail detailed by the fresh paint, 90 degree angles on frames, and the nails separating freshly painted hive bodies from freshly painted hive bodies – stacks upon stacks of never-used equipment.

About two years ago my father walked away from it all. Away from his wife, away from his children and grandchildren, away from the living bee hives that eventually died out, away from the freshly painted hive bodies meticulously stacked in the basement of the farm house.

I have not spoken to my father in over a year. I do not have his current phone number or address. I’ve heard he lives in Maryland.

My mother divorced him handily. From the outside, watching my mother divorce my father was a powerful thing to see. She was practical, methodical, dogged – as if she’d been waiting for this moment her whole life.

This weekend my mother and I decorated graves. We both have plans for Memorial Day, so we went a week early. She showed me the family graves and taught me to bring a dibble for “planting the flowers” if the ground is hard (It wasn’t; we needed muck boots to traverse the standing water). She talked about her divorce and told me family history I’d never heard.

From my father I have inherited an insatiable curiosity, a love for manual labor, and a desire to keep bees.

From my mother I have inherited a power that only women possess, deep roots, and desire to create family traditions.

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As I mention in my bio, in my spare time I play with fiber. I wish I had more spare time.

Two years ago I invested in several fleeces. Raw fleeces. Wool fleeces straight from the sheep. Mohair right off a goat. I rented a drum carder from my local guild, but I never could figure out how to use it. Turns out it was old, had been misused, and was in dire need of repair. It was sent off to be fixed.

So, my fleeces – one Border Leicester (pronounced “border lester”), one mohair, one Merino, one bison (a story for another day) and some collie – were lovingly washed and then packed into spotlessly clean five-gallon honey buckets with tight-sealing lids. And there they sat until today.

Today I rented a fiber picker from the local guild. It’s my second bout with medieval-looking tools this week.

It’s a Patrick Green fiber picker – judging from YouTube videos I’ve seen, I don’t think it’s the Triple Picker. More likely it’s the Bare Wood Picker, one with fewer points.

A fiber picker has a wooden base that’s loaded with tall, scary spikes. Not like nail spikes, but shiny, wickedly angled, dangerous spikes. The Triple Picker boasts 600 of these spikes, the Bare Wood Picker a mere 194. The inside of the base is coated with these spikes, as is the rounded cradle which rocks back and forth, toward and then away from the fiber artist (the literature advises she wear a leather apron). While it looks like some sort of medieval torture device, the picker’s results are sheer heaven.

In less than an hour I ran  two pounds of washed Border Leicester through the picker. It flew off the cradle in a cloud of airy fiber that was then dumped into a huge trash bag. I ran the Border Leicester through again – this time blending it with the washed mohair – and in what seemed like minutes, the trash bag was full of gray cloud. I gasp every time I feel the stuff.

Next, meaning the next minute I have some spare time, I will run that fluff through the Strauch Finest drum carder that I recently bought. I’ve already made a few batts – in a matter of minutes – with the clouds of Border Leicster/mohair that I’ve picked. It cards like a dream. Then all that’s left is the spinning.

In my spare time … .

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Tonight I came home from work and put together another hive body super for my new hive of bees. It’s been cold, so they’ve slowed down some. But as soon as it warms up, I want them to start drawing comb on another deep super. My older hive needs a honey super, but again, I’ll wait till it’s warm. Don’t want the colonies to catch a chill.

Assembling frames is sure a nice way to get a bit of aromatherapy. I’m not sure what smells better than beeswax. I had cleaned up the frames over the weekend, so all I needed to do was put in the foundation. It was very relaxing, standing at the workbench, easing the wax into place, nestling the wooden wedge against the top of the frame and the edge of the wax and then tapping the nails into place.

These are the same frames John used some 30 years ago when he kept dozens of hives of bees. Now there are just two hives. But it’s enough workers to pollinate the garden and keep us in honey for a year.

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Julia continues to up the ante.

She started out not wanting to lead, so we began using nose tongs. She now leads like a dream.

Then she started yanging her head out of the stanchion head catch. She’s got scuff marks on both sides of her face from her efforts. So John padded the head catch with styrofoam “noodles.” That put a stop to the yanging.

But this evening she pitched a hissy before I took her halter off, so I let her stand a minute to calm down. She threw her whole weight against the head catch, but with the thick padding it no longer hurts, so instead she went down on her knees and refused to stand up. I opened the head catch and she knelt there a few minutes before flying out backwards.

She’s belligerent. A contrarian.

I don’t think I’m going to deny her the kneeling. Apparently she needs a quirk to call her own. As long as she doesn’t do it while I’m milking, I’ll let her keep it. Sure looks weird, though.

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A few years ago John and I found ourselves pulling a calf. It was pitch black night and we tied the cow to the bumper of the truck and worked in its headlights. We had a couple of ropes and our own brute strength.

The calf was big. We had its front feet and head out and we could see it’s tongue lolled to one side. We ended up each with a boot on the cow’s backside as we strained for leverage. I was sure we were pulling a dead calf, but dead or alive, it had to come out. There was no other option. We got rope burns on our hands, but in the end we had a live calf, and momma and baby went on to do just fine.

The next day John ordered Dr. Frank’s Fetal Extractor. Its medieval looks live up to its medieval name. You would think that somewhere in the Dr. Frank’s Fetal Extractor company is a woman who has suggested a more marketable name. As an English teacher, I’m a big fan of alliteration, but even I would prefer the more mundane, Dr. Frank’s Calf Puller.

The extractor has a metal bar that makes a U-shape around the cow’s butt and a strap that goes over her rump to hold it in place. In the middle of the U is a place to screw in a long, ratcheting handle. Included with the fetal extractor are two small chains that go around the calf’s feet, and the accompanying hooks with handles for ease of gripping.

It sounds horrible, but it works.

I was reminded of how well it works tonight when we pulled one of the last of the heifers’ calves.

John had checked on her when he got home and saw she was off by herself. Thirty minutes later he saw toes. An hour later toes and ankles. Then nothing. Once you see toes, you should have a calf on the ground in about 45 minutes. As it was getting dark and it was her first calf, we decided it was time to intervene.

We set up the corral and head catch. John toted Dr. Frank’s Fetal Extractor out to our work area, along with a plastic Macy’s bag filled with long plastic gloves and paper towels. We got the cow up into the head catch and then got to work. It was now dark and we worked by the light of John’s headlamp.

A trying-to-be-born calf is as slippery as a fish, so it took both of us. John donned the gloves and reached in for a foot. I hooked the chain and handle to the first foot and held on. Then John found the second foot and we repeated the process. With a steady pull, the head emerged, again the tongue lolling to one side.

On went the extractor, its handle, and then we hooked it to the chains and John began to ratchet. Slowly. And we gently pulled downward, as the calves come out in an arc – like a diver, front feet together, head down. John unhooked the handle of the extractor just in time to ease the fall of the 80-pound calf as it slid to the ground.

The calf took a few raspy breaths as John wiped the afterbirth from its head and nostrils. The calf let out his first moo and then his mother got antsy and started in with her desperate, but soft, “moo, moo, moo.” We dragged the calf to the front of the head catch and let the cow out. She immediately started nudging him and within minutes he was trying to get to his feet.

We left the two, figuring we’d interrupted enough for one evening. When John checked on them later he found the calf up and nursing.

Dr. Frank’s Fetal Extractor has been carefully cleaned and all its parts are back in its box. A red bungee cord keeps the kit together. The last heifer calved over the weekend, so its tour of duty is done for the spring.

I’m glad.

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