With temperatures staying between -10 and -25 WITHOUT the wind-chill, the past few weeks have been a challenge. Every day there are frozen water taps outside to thaw or buckets to fill in the house. Next we carry them out to the animals and try not to dump any on ourselves. Then we try to coax the cattle out of their shelter to come and drink before it freezes. Then repeat again half a day later. Spring cannot come soon enough. Next year we hope to have a better winter watering system set up.
The cold weather has brought more than inconvenience to some of us. Our one-month-old calf, named Jonny, became hypothermic last week. Mike was out checking the cattle in the morning and noticed the calf was acting strange. He was put under a heat lamp for a half hour, but he just seemed to go further downhill. We decided to take more drastic measures and move him into the house. The kids were ecstatic to see a calf cuddled in warm blankets and surrounded by hot water bottles on our laundry room floor. Jonny had a core temperature of 94 degrees and a heart rate of 50 beats/min which meant he was in critical condition. We decided that he was going to need more than just a warm blanket if he was going to make it. He was first stomach tubed with a homemade electrolyte solution (made with Himalayan salts, baking soda, maple syrup and molasses) and then we called the vet. The vet suggested an antibiotic and steroid injection along with a night in the house with more electrolytes and milk replacer. In the morning the calf was strong enough to go back outside. We were so thankful that the Lord had spared his life. Death is part of farm life. It is the result of livestock getting sick, predator attacks and even from the essential and inevitable butcher. For some of us it is a difficult reality. It is also something that our children have to understand and get used to. Our youngest son, at two years old, kept asking me “why is the baby calf dying?”. We work so hard to give our animals a healthy and happy life. When something goes wrong, it is hard to not blame ourselves. The farmer has been given a responsibility to care for their livestock and very often hold the life of an animal in our hand. Most farmers I know take their duty very seriously and endeavour to be the best stewards they can.
In the chicken coop there is another set of challenges. Our hens are being very stubborn and do not want to lay eggs for us. I am getting very tired of feeding them every day and getting nothing in return. We have tried a myriad of different things to coax them into laying. Our hens now have the whole place to themselves (the goats were kicked out), a heated water bowl, several LED light bulbs (the light spectrum is closer to daylight), 24 new nesting boxes and lots of feed and bedding. Mike installed new roosts this week to see if that helps. One of the trials of farming is that despite our best efforts to get to know our livestock, they still can’t talk to us and tell us what the matter is! Next week we are going to pick up 10 bags of certified organic layer mash for them so I hope they will start laying soon. We have also noticed that they rarely go outside anymore. Maybe they are just sick and tired of winter too. In all honesty I have to say that there is one suggestion I haven’t tried as of yet. Our neighbour, who gets eggs every day, buys his chickens fresh raspberries as a treat from Walmart. Who knows? Maybe I will have to resort to that, but the hens will probably have to compete with the children for them!
The regulations in Ontario limit farms without quota to 100 laying hens, so our egg enterprise will always be small. Those same regulations also make selling eggs anywhere other than our property illegal. Ungraded eggs can only be sold through farm-gate sales.
Winter is beautiful on a farm though. When I look out the window on a beautiful sunny day, the fields are so clean and fresh with snow. The fencerows are a stark contrast with their angular shadows on the soft drifts. It is so nice that I actually was conned by the gorgeous landscape into taking a walk to the back to check if the creek was frozen. The first bit across the open fields was okay since the snow was only about half way up to my knees, but as soon as I was in the shelter of trees the snow was past my knees. When I finally arrived and collapsed at the frozen creek, I realized in horror that I would have to walk back. The creek, by the way, is about 75 acres or so back. Not just a walk in the park. Let’s just say that I am still sore today, three days later!
Spring has started early at the farm this year, with three new baby animals already: a bull calf and two goat kids. Normally we prefer not to to calve (or kid) in the winter, but we purchased both of the mothers pregnant so it was out of our hands. Our baby bull had a bit of a rough start since he was born on a day with a temperature around -15. We left him to bond with his mother for the first few hours, but I knew that I would have to intervene when he wouldn’t get up and nurse. Since Mike wasn’t home to help, all I could do was put on a movie for the kids and run back and forth with blankets hot from the dryer and throw them on top of him. I was so relieved that within a couple of hours he was dried off and had stopped shivering. Soon he was even up and nursing a bit. A calf needs to get colostrum, the first ‘milk’ of his mother, within a few hours of birth in order for it to absorb the necessary antibodies and nutrients. Calves and baby animals of all kinds will not do well and will most likely have weak immune systems their whole lives as a result of not getting any or enough colostrum. Often they will die in their first year. Because our calf was a bit weak from his slow start, we decided to give him some powdered colostrum in case he had not got enough from his mother. First we tried with a bottle, but we only had a nipple in goat size, (which incidentally the goat refused as well, so go figure) and we could not get him to suck from it despite our best efforts to convince him. He was surprisingly strong at only 10 hours old! In the end, we had to use a tube and put the warm colostrum directly into his stomach. After that, he perked up nicely and has been healthy and strong ever since. He is really friendly and will approach Mike or I if we are in the paddock.
Our twin baby goats were born about a week later and one did well right from the start. The other needed a bit of help, but since he was a lot smaller than the calf we were able to bring him in the house to warm up. I milked some colostrum from the mom and fed it to him in a baby bottle, which he loved! They are all quite comfortable sharing the chicken coop with our laying hens. On sunny days, I have tried to coax them out to play in the sun, but they are not very interested in leaving their cozy abode.
Besides our birth stories, life on the farm has been pretty quiet. Most of our chores are hampered by the cold and snow. The tractor has a hard time starting and water has to be brought from the house in buckets. At least it gives us some exercise and fresh air.
Spring seems a long time away, but I am already planning our gardens and doing seed orders. Our plan is to get a substantial herb garden established so that we can use more of our own ingredients in the body care product line that we are developing. Mike has ordered two hives of bees so that we can use our own chemical-free honey and beeswax as well.
It isn’t all work though. We have cleared off a tiny ice rink on one of the farm ponds and the kids have been learning to skate. Next year we plan to keep a path clear with the snow blower and use the tractor to clear the pond. Then we will be able to play hockey and actually skate without going in little circles.
Our first year on the farm has passed and although we have accomplished a lot, there is still a lot work to be done. Our most exciting news is the launch of our new website and blog. Being buried by snow and minus 20 degree weather has put a halt on most of our outdoor projects so now is the time to write. The purpose of this blog is to keep customers and friends of our farm up to date on our products and also to help people connect with what life is like here on our farm. We want you to feel connected with the farm and be part of the process of producing your food. We also want to encourage people to ask questions and come visit the farm.
The picture above shows our “winter paddock”. On the left is our chick brooder house which is currently home to our small layer flock and our 4 lively goats. In the spring it will be used for our meat chicks until they are old enough to be out on pasture. To the right is our cattle shelter. Beef cattle are not typically housed in enclosed barns, but live outside all winter with some shelter from wind, snow and rain. In the foreground you can see the progress Mike has made on our fence. It is called a patent fence and is the most common fence style in stony Lanark county because it does not require digging post holes. Mike has spent the majority of his time since we moved in repairing existing fences and building new ones.
Thank you for visiting and I hope you check back soon.