Category Archives: Animals

Our adventures with small farm animals.

A Day on the Farm with Michael

Editor’s Note:  Liz started this with Michael a while ago, but hasn’t been able to convince him to finish it.  Rather than wait for what will probably never happen, I’ve decided to post what he’s done so far for the benefit of people who want a view of our world through the eyes of Michael.  Who knows what this would have looked like had Michael finished it, but for now, enjoy the sneak peak.   –Peter

Today Michael and I decided to make a book.  He asked me to take pictures of “bugs, animals, chickens, Thornton, and cracks in the dirt.”

The adventure begins…

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“I’m standing on the chicken roost.”
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“These chickens are having a happy day ’cause we didn’t mess around with them.”
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“This is what eggs look like.”
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“This is a striped rooster.”

 

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Meatloaf and Cabrito

This day has been approaching for some time now, and finally arrived… A gaggle of goat kids, barely over the trauma of having their horns or other body parts removed (as was the case for the males), have been traumatized again. Having reached adolescence, it was time to wean them from their mothers by forcibly separating them.  I’m such an evil man.

Today has been a day of musical goats so to speak.  Atticus (Cocoa’s baby), Patricia, and Stephanie (Nippa’s girls) had to go away today so their mothers could rest and I could get more milk.  At the same time, Meatloaf (Laura and Banny’s only goat kid this year), Dasher and Flash (LInda’s male kids this year) needed to find new homes for the same reason.  Atticus went on an extended holiday to Banny’s place, Stephanie found a permanent new home there in exchange for Meatloaf (who came back here), Patricia went to Linda’s in exchange for Flash (renamed Cabrito),  and Dasher went to Linda’s neighbor.     I’ll go get Atticus back in a few weeks after he’s fully weaned and add him to the flock of future hamburger.

DSCF0491 Say goodbye to Patricia and Stephanie, and see ya later to Atticus.

And, with the caveat that nobody is to get too attached to them, say hello to Meatloaf and Cabrito (Meatloaf is the cream-colored one between Coca and Nippa, and Cabrito is the white and black one behind Nippa). DSCF0493

Good Ideas

The weekend after Thanksgiving we took the family up to Waco to a harvest festival put on by a group of anababtists who farm using traditional (non-mechanized) methods, teach traditional crafts, and generally do things a bit slower than the general population.  Along with selling their wares, they teach a series of seminars on self sufficiency, skills like blacksmithing and beekeeping, animal husbandry, etc…  It’s interesting and fun to spend a few days wandering, watching, and listening.  This year, Liz came home with a few “good ideas.”  Good ideas generally mean work… lots of it.

We’ve been meaning to put in a garden since we got here, but the holdup has been putting up enough fence to keep critters ranging from chickens to deer and wild pig from eating the fruits of our labor.  In preparation to put in the garden and with her interest to learn new methods for gardening and natural pest control Liz attended a seminar that piqued her interest.  That’s where the work comes in.

Apparently, grasshoppers and similar pests don’t fly or jump nearly as far or as often as they crawl.    One suggestion for ways to minimize damage due to bugs was to surround the garden with an eight-foot wide chicken run.  Chickens LOVE bugs, and will scratch and peck their run down to nothing but dirt, leaving a barren wasteland of death for any bugs brave enough to attempt to cross it.  I guess the odds of a bug getting across an eight-foot wide no-man’s-land filled with ravenous predators are pretty bleak.   Sounded great… until I did the math.

Something I learned a while ago is that most of the work putting in fences goes into getting the corner posts and braces in.  For every corner I have to dig three post holes (2 1/2 feet deep into hard clay) and tie in two braces.  Given how hard the clay is once you dig down more than about six inches, it can take up to an hour to dig a single hole, and in the end you end up with a gloppy mess because the only way to get through it is to use a combination of water and a 16lb digging bar to break up the clay before scooping it out with a post-hole digger.  That pile of goopy glue sticks to my shoes, gloves, tools, etc… making everything about 5-10 lbs heavier than it would normally be.  Then you get the pleasure of putting the post in the hole, backfilling the dirt you just took out, and using that 16lb bar to tamp and pack the dirt down by repeatedly pounding the flat end of it against the ground.  Building fencing sucks…  But it’s a great workout for your upper back.

When we put the fence around the 1.2 acre “yard” I ended up with about 30 wood posts including posts and braces for three gates.  The rest were T-posts that are quick, cheap, and easy.  It took me several weekends to get it done.  With that in mind, consider the following:

chicken_yard If you subtract the six posts that are already there from the earlier fencing effort, that still leaves 27 posts if I did the arithmetic correctly.

The holes are done, posts in the ground, and now I get to finish bracing and stringing the fence fabric.  I guess I’d better quit writing about it and get busy doing it.

Free cats are REALLY hard to keep

A while back I wrote that free cats were hard to keep.  That hasn’t changed.  Since that post, we’ve had another three to four cats go AWOL.  All of them quite friendly, dedicated, and effective at keeping the mice under control.

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Our most recent mouser (Cocoa’s friend seen above) lasted only a few weeks.  At this point, I can’t even remember it’s name because we’ve been through so many.  Needless to say, it was named for some Shakespearian character (Guildenstern maybe).

The unfortunate thing about cats around here is that they are just about meal-sized for coyotes, and they don’t respect fence-lines. While the goats and chickens stay inside the fence for the most part, the cats like to hunt off-reservation.  The unlucky part for the cats is that so do the coyotes.  I recently read an article claiming that most of their diet was made up of cats.  That article was focused on urban coyotes, but it seems the same problem exists here.  We’ve been through nine cats since we brought the first one home and are now totally cat-free.  I never thought that kind of statement would bother me, but I don’t relish a repeat of the snake in the garage incident.

We do still have some form of semi-effective pest control though…  When we first moved in, I was killing a handful of scorpions every night.  As soon as the chickens started wandering the yard, that stopped.  I haven’t seen a single scorpion outside in months.  However, it appears at least one of them got smart and decided to hide-out in a laundry pile Sydney had left in the bathroom.   No chickens in there.  Welcome to Texas!

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Meet Cocoa

The coyotes seem to have given us a break recently.  Between permanently moving Thornton outside and doing a better job making sure the electric fence isn’t shorted out, we haven’t lost any animals to predators in a few months.  So what do we do to celebrate…  get more animals I guess.

Nippa the milk machine had a pair of very nice kids last March.  Rex, the boy, has found a home with Linda’s (the lady we got Nippa from) neighbour,  but Linda figured Nippa could use some company and sent Cocoa our way rather than continue to spend money to feed her.  Meet Cocoa.

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So, how does Nippa feel about having her daughter around to keep her company?  Let’s ask…  Are you happy Nippa?

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That’s a resounding YES!

Both Nippa and Cocoa have been bred and will be kidding sometime around the first week in March.  Nippa has a track record of throwing two kids each year, so if Cocoa has two we could have up to six goats within a few months.  Not quite like rabbits, but still pretty awesome.  More milk and some cabrito assuming we end up with a male or two.

On the flip-side, since Thornton has been banished outside to discourage coyotes and for tracking in unacceptable levels of mud and other dirt, he has become very lonely and somewhat depressed.  I think we’ll get him a friend next.  It’s almost disturbing how quickly animals multiply here (unless it’s a cat).

A Doghouse for Mr Thornton

Liz has never really liked the idea of an “inside dog,” coyotes were wreaking havoc on our chickens, and we were planning on going on a family vacation for two weeks and leaving the Dog outside to “protect” the other animals and to make it much easier on the family who was going to be feeding and watering the animals.  The dog would need somewhere to get out of the weather.  Because the barn is behind the back pasture fence and I don’t like the idea of the dog hanging out in the chicken coop I decided the best option would be to knock together a doghouse out of scrap lumber in the (vain) hope that he would use it.

As far as the dog goes, it was a wasted effort.  According to our friend who was feeding and watering him, Mr Thornton spent his time hiding in the shade under my truck, and I can’t see any evidence that he has been in there.  Since we got home, he’s insisted that he belongs inside with us, and I think we’ve given up on trying to convince him he lives outside.  On the up-side, the boys had fun painting it to match the barn and coop, and the one turkey the coyotes didn’t get while we were out of town has decided it makes a decent roost, and he  spends the night on top of if after the chickens he’s adopted as his flock go in for the night.

As for Thornton protecting the other animals, ALL of the chickens survived the coyote raids.  Only the turkeys (who were in the back pasture where Thornton couldn’t go) were picked off.  Apparently a coyote had managed to get through the electric fence, grabbed a turkey to take back to the den, then dropped it on the wires when he got shocked by the fence.  The dead turkey shorted out the fence and opened up a hole that made it easier for the coyotes to get in and out over the next few days to pick off most of the rest of the birds.  You could see where Thornton had been scratching and digging at the fence and gate to get to the back pasture.  I suspect he was trying to go after the coyotes, because he doesn’t bother any of our animals.

In the end, I don’t mind the lost turkeys.  I’m tired of scraping and spraying poop off the porch and listening to the constant noise.  The one bird that’s left is noisier than our rooster and leaves more messes on the porch than all 15 of the chickens combined.  Now that he’s the only one he spends his time with the chickens, and without a flock to keep him company I can’t keep him in the back field where I wouldn’t mind the mess and noise.  If this one makes it to Thanksgiving I’ll be surprised.

When is Enough Enough?

I thought things were getting pretty bad a while ago when our collection of animals grew from ONE dog and three children to a gaggle of chickens, the dog, and a series of feral cats (never more than two at a time).  One thing I’m learning though is that if you are willing to accept responsibility for an animal, someone will be willing to give one to you.   Thanks to the wiles of the coyotes we were down to one cat and had cut our chicken flock substantially, so of course we needed to fill the void with something…  Enter the goat, a bunch of turkeys and a kitten.

In our desire to “simplify” our diet (principally as a reaction to a life-changing diagnosis) we had shifted to drinking raw milk and moved away from highly processed foods or foods with ingredients that are made in a laboratory or manufacturing facility.   Raw milk is delicious but expensive.  Naturally raised meat is worse.  The chickens were round one in a broader effort to have more control over what we eat, but only round one.  While the  best grass-fed raw-milk dairy in Texas is closer than the closest gas station, I sometimes feel like we were single-handedly paying for the farmer’s race car.   Unfortunately, we were tapped out in the home/yard/pasture project portion of the budget, so even if we wanted to, we couldn’t afford a goat or dairy cow.

In spite of our best efforts not to give interest-free loans to the government, when we did our taxes this year we found we would have several thousand dollars we hadn’t planned on.  We decided to use it to build a small barn to shelter things that turn grass into delicious food and string electric fence around about a quarter of our lot (electric fence is cheaper and quicker to install than any other type).  About the same time, a friend was having trouble figuring out what to do with the milk from three lactating goats to the tune of about two gallons a day.  She offered to let us take a few of the goats once our fence was up.  Double good…  she doesn’t have to milk as much, figure out what to do with all the milk she can’t drink, or feed goats she doesn’t get benefit from; and I get to cut down our milk budget by almost a car payment.  Meet “Nipa” – on extended loan from down the street.  She ain’t pretty to look at, but is quite the “sweet spirit.”IMG_8056The goat is about as entertaining as the chickens.  I’m almost convinced she thinks she’s a dog.  Any time the dog comes over, the goat wants to be right there getting a pat on the head.  She spends a lot of the day on top of a large pile of dirt that was left behind when our builder dug the leach-fields for the septic system.  I actually enjoy milking her in the mornings, and Liz  has decided that she doesn’t mind goat milk as long as the milk is clean and free of the “goaty” aftertaste that was the result of our friend not brushing down the goat, thoroughly cleaning the udders, and stripping the first few squirts for the dog or cat (whoever is closer).As if the goat weren’t enough, we decided to try “free-range” turkey for Thanksgiving.   Chickens were easy enough and kinda fun, so we ordered the minimum number of  poults (baby turkeys) you could order from the hatchery.  Several weeks later and we have nine disgusting birds that look a lot like vultures and poop all over the place (one of the original ten got smothered by the others the first night I moved them out of the brooder).  They’d better taste good.  They do eat a lot of bugs and spiders though.

turkeysFinally, we got ANOTHER cat.  We were down to one (the one featured in a previous post) when a friend offered up a few kittens.  Liz brought one home and Michael immediately adopted it as his.   This has been the only thing that seems to work for keeping him out of the chicken coop.  Any time he’s outside he’s got that cat in his arms telling himself that the kitty is “sooo cute.”  He routinely dunks the cat in a bucket of water we leave out for the animals, then rolls it around in the dirt.  When he’s not playing Chinese water torture with it, he’s hanging it by it’s legs or tail.  The weirdest part of the whole thing is that the cat doesn’t seem to mind.Michael_and_Estella

Liz the Coyote Killer

It never fails… the best fun always happens when I’m not around.  I happened to be out of town this last week for work.  Were Liz and I to trade places, I’m pretty sure I’d go crazy with her on the road from time to time and me left at home to manage all the affairs.  This week though, she gave me even more evidence of her outstanding ability and my unworthiness in comparison.

As I was boarding my plane early Friday AM to come home I noticed a voice-mail that must have come in while my phone was going through the airport security protocols or I was rushing madly to make my gate after the planned one and one-half hour drive to the airport turned into three hours courtesy of regional flooding and closed roads.  After barely making my flight (I boarded right before they closed the doors), I listened to the voice-mail.  It turns out Syd had woken early and decided to go out on the back porch and watch the sunrise.  In addition to seeing a beautiful sunrise, she saw half a dozen “crazy” coyotes “jumping” around in the back lot.  Liz was calling to ask what she should do and if it was okay to shoot one.

By the time I called her back, she’d gotten her gun, gone out back, and popped off a round.  The whole pack scattered, but not before killing and eating two of our chickens.  Liz wasn’t convinced she’d hit anything, but a little later Isaac went out back and saw them in the next field over.  One of them could only walk a few steps before collapsing.   I hope the stupid thing dies a slow death.  Over-all, that’s pretty impressive.  Rather than mess with a long-gun she wasn’t particularly familiar with, she grabbed her handgun.  Given where the coyotes were and where the fence was, she couldn’t have been closer than about 30 feet.  A coyote is a pretty small target, and 30 feet is pretty far for a 3 inch barrel.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the pack learned their lesson.  They came back last evening while we were out at Sydney’s performance and killed four more chickens.  I can’t afford to loose any more.  The stupid little birds take forever to start laying eggs, and at the going rate I’ll be out of layers within a week.  In the interest of fresh eggs, I’ll be waiting for them with a big scary black rifle.  This could be an entertaining night…

Gloves are Good and Wow, That’s Red

One of the blessings of this life is that every day presents some form of opportunity to learn.  This week, among other things, I got a somewhat painful lesson about the wisdom of wearing gloves when trying to wrangle sheep, and a reminder that you shouldn’t wear your good sunglasses when painting a barn.

We have a good friend a few miles from here who is single and somewhat elderly.  When her husband died of cancer a little over a year ago, she was left to run the 10-acre homestead on her own.  She’s quite capable, but when it comes to wrestling the Dorper sheep she’s collected, she needs a little help.  Since I like to eat lamb, and since working trades is one of the standard ways to get stuff done out here in the boondocks, I help her out wherever I can, and she reciprocates.  This year, she’ll set me up with a nice lamb to slaughter for Christmas dinner.

Thursday, I took the day off work to work around the yard, and our friend asked if I could come help her immunize her flock and castrate two young males.  I’d never done that before, and the opportunity to learn a new skill sounded kinda fun (evidence that I’m firmly out of my right mind, but I’m happy in that state).  Everything went well for the first few.  We simply poured some grain in a trough set back into a pen, let several wander into the pen, closed it, and went to work.  Unfortunately, after the first round, they got the hint about what we were up to and decided to run for it.

Since they weren’t going to go down easy, it became a game of trying to corner and wrestle them to the ground long enough to get the job done.  It turns out I’m pretty good at it, because I was able to work through the herd quickly enough without much help, much to the surprise of our friend.  That’s when I got the lesson.  We had one sheep left, and she was the most skittish of the bunch (she’d just watched us castrate and immunize her two little boys).   Because she was so cagey, I figured I’d slowly work her into a corner before making a grab for a leg to flip her over and pin her down.

I managed to corner her, or so I’d thought.  She found a small gap about six inches wide between a fence and a tree with knobby bark.  I knew it was there, but I didn’t believe a sheep that fat could fit though a hole that small.  I grabbed hold just as she made a break for the gap, and she dragged me with her, scraping the back of my hand along the bark as she went.  Heavy gloves (you know, the kind I wear all the time when I’m working in the yard) would have been a godsend.

IMG_7845Aside from messing with sheep, I spent the rest of the day finally  painting the chicken coop and barn.  Liz said she wanted a red barn.  Wow, did she ever get one…  You can’t miss it.  I’ve been scraping little red flecks of paint off of my sunglasses for two days now.  If I haven’t learned by now to not wear nice things when working outside or in the garage, I doubt there’s much hope for me.

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Free Cats are Hard to Keep

IMG_7797Ever since we moved in here I’ve been saying we needed to get a barn cat to help keep the mice in check.  Even before the house was built, I was certain we would have problems because as I was clearing the land and cutting the brush and undergrowth the path in front of my tractor would almost look like the ground was boiling with all the mice and other vermin scattering in fear of death by power shredder.  Since I cleared off most of their cover and food supplies I wasn’t all that surprised when they moved into the garage to gorge on the chicken feed and anything else not securely enclosed in metal containers.

Not being all that partial to cats I tried trapping.  At first it looked like success because I was averaging half a dozen mice a day and didn’t think they could last much longer at that pace.  However, I was wrong.  The mice turds kept piling up, and the mice who had survived had apparently figured out how to avoid the traps.  The final straw was finding a rattlesnake in the garage.

Now, the environmentalists will tell you that you shouldn’t kill rattlesnakes because they are highly effective at keeping rodent populations under control.  While that may be true in a strict sense of the word, it seems to me to be about as accurate as saying that burning down the house is an effective strategy to prevent it from being burglarized.  If I have a choice between venomous serpents and disgusting rodents, the furry critters win.  Luckily, snakes aren’t the only things that eat mice, and some of the alternatives are a whole lot cuddlier and less poisonous.

One thing we’ve found out here in the country is that there isn’t a shortage of free cats.  A friend of ours connected us with a lady nearby who had been feeding a large collection of feral cats out of pity, and wouldn’t mind getting rid of a few of them.  A couple of them had even been “fixed” so we wouldn’t need to worry about any more little kitties floating around.  Sounded like a deal to me, so we went over to check things out.

Round one:  We only managed to lay hands on one of them, because as soon as we got one, the rest caught wind of what we were doing and took off.  That was okay, one was a start, so we took him home.  Within 24 hours, it had taken off to who knows where.  Apparently it didn’t like our dog, or kids, or food, or whatever.

Round two:  Thinking it might have gone “home” just a few miles from our house, we went back to the cat lady a few days later to see if he’d shown up.  Nope.  “That’s okay,” she told us, “there are plenty more where that one came from,” and this time she had a plan for catching more than just one and was convinced they would stay better if there were two to keep each other company.  A few minutes later we had two more friendly and cuddly demonstrated mouse killers in the truck.  Thinking it may take a day or so to acclimate, we kept these two in a crate for a day to help them get the idea.  As soon as we opened the door, they were gone.  I saw one cross the road from one field to another the next morning, but he never came back.

Round three:  We gave up on the cat lady’s cats.  I didn’t have the heart to tell her we lost two more.  However, one of Liz’s  friends volunteers as a “friend” of the local animal control, and had two lovely cats who were looking for a home.   As I sat here originally drafting this post, it had been a couple days, one cat was perched behind me taking a nap, and the other was running around with the dog playing.  These ones looked like they planed on staying and didn’t seem to mind the aggressive three year old too much, or the dog that thinks they are a self-mobile chew toy.

In the time it’s taken me to take a picture and download it, one of the two new cats (named Jane Eyre) has wandered off.  It kept trying to come inside and seems to have gotten miffed when it didn’t get to follow the dog inside.  All we are left with is Mr Rochester shown in the picture above.  After two days of waiting Jane hasn’t come back.  Maybe she’s just trying to play out the story of Jane and Mr Rochester and will come back after his crazy wife burns down the house, kills herself, and leaves Mr Rochester blind.   Wouldn’t that be dreadful?

Hopefully the one remaining is good at killing mice.

As a side note, any and all cats we happen to feed are OUTSIDE cats.  I hate litter boxes almost as much as I hate snakes.