Thursday, May 5, 2011

End of the barnyard "semester"

It was a little like the feeling on the last day of the school year when you’re not graduating. I knew I’d be back, and I suspected nothing would be radically different when I returned. At the same time, like finishing a grade, it was the end of a phase, so I couldn’t help feeling a little bit reflective.

Specifically, yesterday was the last day of cow-feeding for the season. From now until mid-October, the animals will rely on grazing. I’ve pulled out the very last bale of hay; the barn is empty, and as I did my usual triple-check of the barn gates after feeding to be sure I’d secured everything, I had to laugh to myself: it wouldn’t really matter if the animals did get into the barn, at this point; there’s nothing in it for them to eat anyway.

Just as I used to do on the last day of school, I tried to think back to what had happened this past feeding season that was particularly memorable. There was the growing calf Rain’s uncanny ability to slip in and out of the sheep’s gate, a space that by all appearances he was too big for, and so we left it open when it was time to separate him from his mother for weaning. But every time we separated them, we found him back with her by the next morning. He’s the Houdini of the barnyard, able to will his way through an opening that appears to us to be much too small for his fast-growing frame. Finally we learned to leave the sheep gate closed so that he’d stay where he was supposed to be.

I thought back to the morning in late November when I went out to the barnyard and couldn’t find Hank, the 2,000-pound bull. That’s a lot of animal to be hiding, but when the other animals showed up to be fed, he did not. I drove to the house to share the problem with my parents; we all looked for him and speculated on what could have happened. A bull-napping incident? A fence break? Had he blundered into the pond? All sounded so improbable to us. It wasn’t until after we’d alerted the local police to the problem that we found him stuck (but not too badly stuck) in a chute behind the barn. Emergency averted; we coaxed him back out of the chute, and all was well in the barnyard again.

From that time on, I never again had the experience of animals not showing up at feeding time until last month, when I arrived at the barn one morning and none of them was in sight. The sound of mooing drew me eventually out toward the brook; then three of the four animals emerged from the woods and headed toward the hay bales I’d just put out. The fourth was tending to a newborn calf who then had to be coaxed up from the brook and onto higher, drier land. The calf is three weeks old now, strong and healthy.

This winter was memorable in the barnyard for the same reason it was memorable everywhere else: feet upon feet of snow. I remembered the days I slogged off the plowed driveway and through the untouched drifts to get to the barn in snow that was much higher than my knees. The worst thing to happen in terms of animal care this winter wasn’t the snow, though; it was the day the pump stopped working. My parents were out of town on vacation, and I was at a loss for what the problem was and what to do about it. The cows had already drunk most of the water in the trough by the time I discovered that no water would flow out of the pump, so I took the snow shovel and dumped as much snow as I could into the trough. It didn’t work as well as I expected, though; after a good fifteen minutes of shoveling snow into the trough, the water level had only risen a few inches. At that point I remembered that grade-school rule of meteorology: one foot of snow equals one inch of water. Filling the trough with snow as a means to keeping the cows watered was going to be almost impossible. Instead, I focused on what the problem with the pump might be and noticed that a bit of ice had built up around it. I chipped it away, cleared the accumulated snow out from around the pipes, and waited a few hours; the next time I tried, water flowed easily from the pump.

Also I’d learned at least one very valuable lesson. One day a month or two ago, my father and I tried to separate the cows and bulls. We put hay bales where we wanted the two cows; they followed us amicably into the enclosure, and we closed the gate while they munched away at their breakfast. But when I went briefly back into the cows’ pen I was taken by surprise when Gracie shoved her way right past me to get back to the bulls. Once she had food, I assumed she’d lose interest in being with the bulls. Without giving too much contemplation to what that says about me, I’ll simply admit here that I learned an important lesson about working with large animals that day.

Over the next few months, the cows will eat all the grass they want; we’ll hope the summer doesn’t become as dry as last year did. We’ll mow and cut hay, and then bale it and refill the barn for next winter. Come October, I’ll be back in the barnyard feeding the animals every morning again.

So it’s like the end of a school year. Lots happened – relatively speaking, of course; I acknowledge that these are cows, and nothing much happens even at the most adventurous of times – some of it good and some of it not so good, all of it enlightening. Spending time with this amiable herd every morning at feeding time has been a pleasure. I’ll come back in the fall a little more experienced in animal care, ready, I hope, for a new season of bovine adventures.

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