Moving the Website

June 4, 2010

In an effort to consolodate our online presence, the GreenAcresToday blog has been integrated into our farm website, SoleilFarm.com.

You can still reach my blog at www.greenacrestoday.com.  It’s just part of a bigger website now.

If you go to www.greenacrestoday.com and wind up back here, it’s just because the link hasn’t “propagated” yet.  It may be until June 6 before that’s complete.  Don’t worry.  This site has all the current posts.  There won’t be any new posts until the link is completely functional.

I appreciate everyone who follows my trials and tribulations.

Alan

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Spring Critters – 2010 Edition

June 3, 2010

My wife stood in the front yard and took aim as the killdeer flew over.

“Pow! Pow! Pow!” and a look of satisfaction washed over her face.  Of course, she was only pointing her index fingers at the incessantly squeaking bird – she’d sooner surrender me to Somali pirates than harm the beautiful animal – but her sentiment was genuine.  The damn birds keep us up at night.

The killdeer babies, which are almost full grown and should have summer jobs, seem to love the security of our high-voltage pastures and the bugs that inhabit them.  We love fresh air and keep our bedroom window open most of the year.  Killdeer and open windows are an oil-and-water combination that robs us of sleep and fosters fantasies of avicide (who knew there really is a word that means “killing of birds” – must have been coined by someone with killdeer in their front yard).

We didn’t think it could get worse, until … the frogs came.  Spring showers turned the thin strip of trees along the road into an endless cacophony of amphibian virility.  Picture the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in your front yard, two-thirds of whom gently blow police whistles of varying pitch to some obscure and unpredictable rhythm.  The other third of the choir is gargling with Listerine.

And just when you’ve managed to doze off, they stop all at once, and you’re suddenly awake thanks to the startling and deafening silence.  Your mind races and you imagine some massive predator cruising your front yard.  Your heart pounds until the frogs eventually resume their chorus, slowly building to a crescendo that has you slamming the window down on a beautiful, star-lit night.

There’s nothing quiet about the country.

Last year I bragged about going on a seven-tick hike.  What hubris.  Coming in with seven ticks is nothing.  This year, I spent several hours relocating the goat fence and came in with 52 ticks on my body and clothing.  That’s right, 52.  Even the locals I’ve told say it’s a record.

The little hitchhikers are looking for a blood meal someplace dark, moist and warm.  In the words of a good friend, they are “ball bag bound.”  If the image of 52 ticks affixed to you-know-where doesn’t motivate you to strip and pluck with the utmost expediency, nothing will.

Leslie helped of course, which turned a potentially Machiavellian incident into a bit of (mostly imagined) adult entertainment.  Hey, when you’re covered with parasites, you get your jollies any way you can.

We had a headless rooster fall from the sky the other day.  I’m guessing most people live their entire lives without saying that.  Behind our house and shielded from the road by several pastures of high voltage fencing, we found a fresh, headless, one-winged rooster.  The closest poultry are a mile down the road and no predator would drag a rooster through half a mile of forest to drop it in the open next to our fence.

Locals have seen hawks carry away roosters and chickens, so we’re guessing some butter-taloned bird of prey chewed off a rooster’s head and wing, then flew over our property on his way to put the rest of the carcass in the freezer.  Oops!

Leslie will tell you that I momentarily mistook the headless carcass for small turkey.  Balderdash.  Don’t believe it.  Yes, I was looking at the enormous spurs on the rooster’s feet and may have “accidentally” referred to them as turkey spurs, but anyone can tell a headless, one-winged rooster from a baby turkey.  Geez.

Impressive Rooster Spurs

Impressed with the lethality of these two-inch spurs, I cut off both legs and put them in a bag in our freezer.  And Leslie didn’t object.  After all, we have a goat fetus in a glass jar in the mud room, which was enough to make a visiting extension agent look at me with a combination of pity and fear.

Anyway, after chopping off the feet, I tossed the turkey, er, I mean rooster carcass in the back yard.  It was gone the next morning, no doubt carried off by the fox I’ve been shooting at the last few months.  I can only imagine the fox’s thoughts as he carried off the rooster, “First, he shoots at me, now he’s feeding me.  This guy’s nuts!”

Early this spring, our neighbor across the road came over to tell Leslie he saw a young black bear in his front yard.  A few weeks ago, another neighbor saw a black bear crossing the road only a half mile away.  Great.

My wife isn’t afraid of spiders or lizards, and she’ll grab a snake faster than a Black Friday bargain, but she has this unrelenting fear of bears.  So, for the last three years, I wake every workday at 0430 to watch my wife climb into her car and go to work.  I told her I probably couldn’t get to her in time to fight off an attacking bear, and she surely can’t outrun one, but she just smiles and says all she has to do is outrun me.  Ain’t love grand?

So, I’m destined to forever be my soul mate’s bear bait.  It would be worth it, if only the bears ate killdeer and frogs.

###


Cursing Killdeer

May 11, 2010

Now I know how killdeer got their name.

Contrary to what’s reported in zoology texts, their call sounds nothing like the words “kill deer.”  Whoever came up with that most likely attended the Helen Keller School of Bird Watching.  Killdeer sound more like rusted, squeaking Walmart shopping carts being pushed around your house, 24/7.

For a month, the killdeer eggs sat in our pasture.  We marked the area with stones so as not to step on them.  We kept the horses in a different pasture.  We looked at the eggs daily to ensure they were OK, and eventually the mother displayed only token displeasure when we were near.  We also learned to interpret her different calls, including the one that signaled panic.

Twice at night, the mother’s cries alerted us to a fox in the pasture.  Armed with a spotlight and .22 rifle, I shot at the predator, despite being over 100 yards away.  I had little chance of hitting the running fox, but scared it sufficiently to ensure a few hours of peace.

And then the babies were born.

Killdeer babies, just a few hours after hatching

Killdeer babies are “precocial” which means they’re born with feathers and can almost immediately leave the nest to forage for insects.  They can’t fly, but they run like they’ve been shoplifting at Petsmart.  The mom and dad try to keep tabs on the frantic foursome with constant squeals, fleet feet and aerial acrobatics.

The babies are cute and this all sounds endearing, until you realize your front yard is the killdeer fairgrounds and this avian rodeo is in town for weeks.

Killdeer babies - photo by Leslie Keck

Killdeer baby - photo by Leslie Keck

Picture your next-door neighbor coming home from the hospital with quadruplets.  There are a few “Ooooo” and “Ahhhhh” moments, but after several hours the babies jump to their feet and head for different exits.  One runs out the front door, another the back door and two find open windows.

The mother yells for the father to help and they both run outside to catch the babies.  One infant is running down the street, another is being chased by your dog and two are running around the pool to see who gets dizzy and falls down first.  Everyone is screaming.

Finally, the kids run out of gas and plop down in your driveway.  Mom and dad are so exhausted, they let the babies rest wherever they fall until their batteries are recharged and the noisy circus begins anew … usually just when you’ve fallen asleep.

That’s life with a killdeer family.  They’re in all three pastures and just about everywhere else – all at once, it seems.  Leslie has to avoid running over them when she comes home at night.  They squeal at everything and anything.  I’m over it.

So how did killdeer get their name?  After two months of this, I turned to Leslie and said, “I have the urge to kill, dear.”  Mystery solved.

###


Bleatin’ Kids

April 8, 2010

We have more babies.

Last week Leslie and I witnessed the birth of our latest additions to Soleil Farm.  Yes, after living out here for almost three years, we finally decided on a farm name.  Soleil (pronounced so-LAY) is French for, “You’re gonna get skin cancer.”

Anyway, when our doe (Neo, short for Neapolitan, because her coloring resembles the ice cream by the same name) decided to lay down and finally push out the kids she’d been carrying for what seemed like a year, Leslie was right there.  And I mean, RIGHT THERE.

As Neo bleated her imprecations against the father – “You did this to me!  I want morphine!” – Leslie turned to me and hollered, “Go in the house and get my medical kit and some towels.”   She was serious.  I’m surprised she didn’t ask me to boil some water.

Leslie knelt next to Neo and prepared to assist, but I guess her presence was more disconcerting than the labor pains because Neo got up and walked away.

It seems that goats have been birthing kids for many years without the help of a nurse.  Who knew?  So we stood 20 yards away and watched.

For an ex-paramedic who has seen far too many urban babies being born, watching the goats come into the world was rather fun for me.  And I stayed clean, which is always a plus.

A little buck came first and we named him Casserole.  Yes, we’re sick, but we’re fun at parties.  Come on, this is a meat goat.

The little doe is named Oprah.  Now, both Leslie and I like and admire Oprah.  This is in no way meant as an insult.  Just look at the pictures and decide for yourself.

Oprah and Oprah. You decide.

Here are some more photos of the happy family.

Casserole exercises his vocal cords

Oprah poses. Was it Jenny Craig?

Neo feeds the hungry twins

Casserole and Oprah pose

The family poses for pasture paparazzi

We also have another expectant mother in the pasture.  A female Killdeer has made her ground nest only 12 yards from the nursing enclosure.  Why she chose here, I don’t know.  She could have been 100 yards away and much safer from wayward caprine hoofs, but I don’t question a mother’s instinct.

Here are some shots of the Killdeer.

Mama Killdeer sitting on her eggs

Here's the clutch Mama Killdeer is incubating

Mama Killdeer fakes a broken wing to draw predators away from the babies. Amazing!

Mama Killdeer settles down, but still has her eye on me

Casserole and Oprah take a much-deserved rest in the warm sun

###


Bumping into Neighbors

April 6, 2010

Do you know this guy?

Preparing for a rural shopping trip

Leslie and I had just pulled into the Food Lion, and we were discussing what she was going to buy.  Out here, you plan your trips to the market carefully.  At almost 30 miles for a round trip to the closest grocery store, you don’t want to forget anything.

As we sat in the truck debating dinner, one of our elderly neighbors entered the parking lot.  Driving a spotless Buick LeSaber and accompanied by a yappy toy mutt, he came down the aisle in front of us, smoothly pulled into the parking space in front of us and then proceeded forward until he smacked into the front of my truck.

Momentarily dumbstruck, all I could mutter was a John Belushi line from Animal House: “That’s good!”

As we watched with somewhat enhanced attention, the elderly driver put the car in park, switched his lit cigarette from his right hand to his left, and then reached for his open Busch beer, finishing off the can in one long swig while we watched in stunned silence.

He never once looked up at us or even seemed to notice that a big, blue Ford logo was just a couple of feet from his windshield.  I’d like to say that he then unbuckled his seat belt, but out here that would surely be fantasy.

Leslie quickly picked up her lower jaw and quietly slipped out the door.  She hates confrontation, but I don’t think she was worried I’d go postal on some old guy.  She simply knew that anything I said would be clearly audible in the store.

Cigarette firmly between his lips and Busch can drained, grandpa stepped out of the car just as my feet hit the asphalt.

“Hey!” I yelled, and paused while the echo died.  “You might want to consider leaving the beer at home the next time you go shopping old man.  You just hit my truck while parking.”

Leslie will tell you that in the last few months I’ve made several female salespeople cry, so you won’t be surprised to learn that when I feel the Shaft of Life nearing my backside, my brain surrenders command to General Testosterone.  Yet, this 5-foot-6, 130-pound AARP reject didn’t flinch.

Incredulous, he took a few steps toward the front of his car and looked over the hood where our vehicles met.  With an almost imperceptible nod he acknowledged the veracity of my claim and quietly muttered, “Sorry,” then turned and walked into the store.

What was I going to do?  Chase him down?  I thought about calling the police, but by the time an officer got there, the guy would be long gone.  There was no damage to report anyway and the guy didn’t really look drunk.  Besides, out here there are several valid excuses for drinking and driving (like going fishing or running to the store for more beer during a NASCAR caution), so I didn’t see any point.

I gathered my fleeting rage and climbed into the truck.  My dear wife then called me on the cell phone laughing so hard I thought she’d pee.

Grandpa felt numb.  Leslie and the other shoppers felt entertained.  All I felt was the Shaft of Life tickling the back of my thighs.

###


Farm Physics

March 10, 2010

You gotta love the Internet.  One minute I’m outside scrutinizing a pregnant doe’s woo-hoo, looking for signs of eminent delivery, and the next I’m chatting via e-mail with a quantum physicist from a prestigious Australian university.  I’ve had the pleasure of conducting a minor business transaction with Dr. Andrew White, professor of physics at the University of Queensland, in Australia.

It’s obvious from Dr. White’s website that he’d be comfortable talking shop with Albert Einstein, and his curriculum vitae indicates he didn’t fall asleep in eighth grade Earth science class (mine was right after lunch – what was I supposed to do?).

Corresponding with Dr. White makes me feel a bit like Forrest Gump, but my resume has something Dr. White’s does not: the Eastern Academy Mary Jane Science Award.  By the time I graduated high school in 1976 I had managed to take, and pass, all of the small private school’s science classes, so I guess the faculty felt I was worthy of the award.  Standards were a bit lower in the 70s.  However, the award was sponsored by Norfolk’s Mary Jane Bakery, so I guess that proves that sliced bread really is one of man’s greatest scientific achievements.

The Mary Jane Science Award - heavier than the Nobel

I doubt Dr. White is jealous of my award.  Besides his obvious brilliance, he’s warm and engaging.  So, as one of the few in our county with a subscription to Discover Magazine, I thought I’d help Dr. White with his quantum research.  Rural farms are natural laboratories for physics, and farmers are often defacto scientists.  Perhaps we can contribute to science in ways not found in the average university lab.

For instance, physicists are always on the lookout for Dark Matter, theoretical matter than may make up the majority of mass in the universe.  There are three general classifications of Dark Matter: Hot Dark Matter, Warm Dark Matter and Cold Dark Matter.  Well, I’ve found them all.  It’s goat poop.

Goat poop is everywhere.  Really.  And through careful observation and new batteries for my HP 12c calculator, I’ve determined that a large herd of goats can produce enough poop to account for most of the universe’s mass.  It’s created hot, becomes warm on the ground, and transforms into Cold Dark Matter on the bottom of your work boots overnight.  You be the judge.

I’m willing to theorize that in the outer reaches of our solar system, beyond the Kuiper belt, is the Caprine Feces belt, an orbiting ring of goat poop comprising a googleplex of marble-sized caprine excrement, so massive it could engulf a million suns.  So how did these countless goat balls get out there?  Why, they were ejected by millions of miniature black holes, of course (come on, you had to see that one coming).

Another vexing physics problem is the search for the Theory of Everything, a universal equation that would bind Einstein’s theories of General and Special Relativity with Quantum Mechanics.  Newtonian physics says that an object cannot be in two places at the same time.  Quantum Mechanics theorizes it is possible at the sub-atomic level.

This is heady stuff, unless you have horses.  They’re the bridge between the known physical and quantum worlds.  Take the horse hoof – it can be directly under the horse while at the same time on your foot, even though you are several feet away.  You may think this is a flawed observation, but I know that when gravity draws the mass of the horse onto my foot, my toes are changed at the quantum level.  If we can understand gravity and the horse, the Theory of Everything will become apparent.

And, if you’ll notice, the Theory of Everything is abbreviated TOE.  Coincidence?  I think not.

Farmers also have a keen understanding of the equation E=MC2.  Einstein got the equation right, but got the terms wrong.  “E” is the number if equines, while “MC” stands for mashed cuticles.  Therefore, to determine the number of horses a person owns, calculate the square root of the total of his mashed cuticles (toes and fingers), and voila, you have the number.  If a farmer has only one mashed cuticle, his wife is probably tending to the horses.

I’ve noticed that physicists love particle accelerators.  The world’s most powerful is the Large Hadron Collider, operated by CERN on the boarder of France and Switzerland.  That’s certainly something to be proud of, but rural folks have particle accelerators too.  We call them shotguns.

At LHC (cool, scientist-speak, eh?) they accelerate sub-atomic particles to nearly the speed of light (that’s almost as fast as my wife drives), in opposite directions around a large loop and crash them into each other.  I’ve seen graphics of the resulting collisions and it’s impressive.  But not as impressive as buckshot from a 12-gauge ripping into a warm bottle of Budweiser at 10 feet.  Now THAT’s a particle collision.

Quarks, muons and leptons.  I always thought these were new shapes in Lucky Charms, but they’re actually the names of sub-atomic particles.  There are also gluons, which I thought were similar to Klingons – those tiny little slivers of rolled toilet paper that collect near Uranus (I never pass on a Uranus joke).

Anyway, country folk are quite familiar with sub-atomic particles.  In fact, as we age, anything smaller than a marble is deemed sub-atomic if you’re not wearing your reading glasses.  And they are all named “damn things,” as in, “Where’d that damn thing go?”

One of the biggest challenges for the physicists at LHC is finding the Higgs boson, a theoretical sub-atomic particle thought to be responsible for all mass.  I haven’t found the Higgs boson, but an eccentric farmer down the road has a bison named Higgs.  He’s definitely massive, and a prodigious producer of Brown Matter, Dark Matter’s bovine equivalent, and an element that constitutes the majority of every politician’s cerebral cortex.

Another coincidence?  Noooooo.

I hope Dr. White can use some of my research.  I’d be satisfied to simply get an honorable mention at his Nobel ceremony, but even if I don’t, I wish him all the best.

###


Winter Goats Photo Montage

March 4, 2010

Pregnant/Nursing does and babies feast on fresh-cut pine

Our bottle-baby, Ducky, a.k.a. The Duck

Babies Bobbie Socks & Rogers scratch themselves in the sunshine

Your Sister smiles for the camera

Bobbie Socks uses Big Pa as playground equipment

Bobbie Socks snuggles with Big Pa

Heidi smiles for the camera

Bobbie Socks does her runway walk

The Duck tries to eat solid food

Daisy Mae smiles for the camera

Three babies sampling the pine

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Winter Farming: When Goats Fly

February 28, 2010

It was the goat farming day from Hell.

We’re used to wind out here.  It’s a blessing in the blistering heat of summer and pleasant in the early days of fall.  But when it brings sub-freezing cold, causes hundreds of dollars worth of damage and sends your goats airborne, not so much.

Several weeks ago one of this season’s many winter storms brought wind gusts in the 50 mph range.  Gusts over 60 mph were reported only several miles away.  Even Winnie the Pooh would have stayed inside.

But our horses and goats live outside (although Leslie would have them in the house if I let her).  Goats need shelter or they get really fussy, so we use two 10×10 high-tech, portable shelters, one for the goats and one for hay storage.  They’re made of a strong, waterproof tarpaulin fabric form-fitted over a sturdy metal frame.  I staked them to the ground so solid and deep that it actually takes more effort to jack up the stakes than move the whole structure.

They had withstood some serious wind without a problem.  But the melting snow and freezing temperatures conspired against me.  The ground was saturated, but frozen on the surface.  What looked like solid ground was just a thin layer of frozen dirt over mud.  Something akin to a graham cracker sitting on top of a bowl of oatmeal.

I discovered this too late.

Before dawn the wind blew like a scene from the Wizard of Oz, and when sunlight hit the farm, I saw our hay shelter lying in ruins in the middle of the front pasture.  Afraid it would blow into the street, I managed to drag the heap of twisted metal and torn fabric back to the now-exposed hay pile and cover it in cinder blocks.

Hay tent wreckage

I went inside to ponder the fate of the second shelter, the one housing two pregnant does, one nursing mother and three baby kids.  The ground it was staked to was much more solid, yet I tried to think of how I could reinforce the structure in the midst of this windstorm.

I didn’t get too far.  As I stood at the glass doors contemplating action, the shelter magically rose from the ground and flew out of sight toward the road as though commanded by some off-camera special-effects director.  Left in its place were six goats, each looking skyward with a distinct WTF expression.

The shelter, which weighs close to 100 pounds not including the 2×4 cross beam and heat lamp I had attached, flew across the property like an empty drink cup.  It slashed through the temporary hot fence, ripping the top strands and pulling many of the sections out of the ground.

Strewn along the shelter’s path were the four t-post stakes I had driven to secure the shelter.  Each was pulled out of the ground like a popsicle out of a mold.

With the temporary hot fence in shambles, the mothers and kids were now free.

I ran outside without a plan or even a jacket.  Thank goodness I had pants on.  They say fear keeps you warm.  It does … for about 15 seconds.

The shelter bounced off the hay feeder, across the driveway, into and over the high-tensile fence, across the front pasture, across the high-tensile fence again, and thanks to a ratchet buckle attached to a strand of one-inch webbing that snagged on the fence, the shelter was stopped just a few feet from the road.  The shelter traveled 150 yards in the time it took you to read this sentence.

We live on a curve in the road and log trucks and local bubbas wiz past at 55 mph-plus.  Only a thin strand of metal wire was keeping this behemoth from the road.

Right about now I was doing my Baby Huey meets Chicken Little dance in the yard.  The goats were running free in search of food and cover from the wind, but the shelter was a million-dollar lawsuit in the making.  Leslie was at work and Jordan was at a friend’s house with my truck.  I ran to the tractor and called Jordan on the cell so he could come home and help.

With the wind screaming and small bits of yard debris whizzing past my head, I struggled to start the tractor and talk to Jordan.  Acutely aware of the cold but unwilling to run inside for a jacket, I heard Jordan begin to explain the inconvenience I was causing him.  Thankfully, the roaring wind drowned out most of my response.  It seems my parenting skills blew away with the goat shelter.

I drove around the pasture to the shelter and grabbed the nylon strap to insure the tent wouldn’t fly into the road.  But with hundreds of square feet of metal-framed fabric being pushed by constant 40 mph-plus winds, I had no hope of moving the structure.  So I dug into my pocket, took out my pocketknife and began slashing at the shelter’s fabric covering until I had reduced the covering of this once-sturdy structure into scraps of wind-whipped canvas.

Slowly I collected the fabric and stuffed it into the tractor’s bucket.  The shelter’s frame still sits by the road, like a slain elephant’s skeleton on the Serengeti – a reminder that Mom Nature can kick anyone’s ass, anytime she wants.

Skeleton of wind-wrecked goat tent

I drove back to the house, ran inside for my jacket, and when I came back out, I saw one of the babies, not yet two weeks old, running past a downed-section of the portable hot fence.

The portable hot fence is 42-inch wide netting interwoven with wire and staked every 12 feet.  It carries around 9,000 volts, and when properly installed, provides a barrier to almost anything, including bears.  But now, the fence was pushed over almost on it’s side, and the parts that were still staked in the ground were flapping like flags in the wind.

When the baby ran past one downed section, a gust lifted him off his feet and deposited him right in the middle of a section of fence.  He was thrashing in an effort to find the ground and tangled his legs in the net.  And the fence was still hot.

His weight put him in contact with the ground and he’d bleat in juvenile agony as 9,000 volts coursed through his body.  Then the spring action of the bent-over posts and his kicking legs would lift him for a moment before depositing him back on the ground for another jolt.

“Bwaaaaaa!” – plop – “Bwaaaaaa!” – plop – “Bwaaaaaa!” – plop …

I was horrified.  And laughing.  You can do both, if you’re a sick ex-paramedic.

I ran to the cut-off switch, which, thankfully, I remembered to hit before trying to remove the kid.  And for those who know me, yes, I really did run.  Not trot, but run.  Normally, I move like Godzilla through Tokyo.  Picture that in fast-forward.  It was a sight to behold, I’m sure.

I extricated the fried kid from the netting, insured his health and noticed Father Anthony and the nuns in the west pasture.  They’d been watching everything with perverse interest.  Goats laugh, you know.  Not with the quiet majesty of horses, but with the childish glee of kindergartners who’ve heard a good booger joke.  Some days I hate goats.

Jordan arrived about now, so we pulled several thousand dollars worth of tools out of the equipment shed and made a temporary home for the mothers and kids.  We surrounded the tool shed with a section of portable hot fence and wasted several bales of feed hay for bedding.

The yard was in shambles, tools and equipment lay outside in the weather, but the goats were secure.  The damage was in the hundreds and we were without a shelter for the pregnant/nursing mothers or the hay.  Welcome to goat farming, Mr. Keck.

If you’d like to help, we set up a charity website at http://www.Really-Pitiful-Farm-Boy.com.  Just kidding.  But not by much.

###


Our Grand Kids

February 3, 2010

“We got babies, we got babies!” my wife screamed as she repeatedly punched me in the shoulder.

It was 4:30 in the afternoon as we pulled into the driveway and noticed our herd queen standing in the pasture next to two tiny kids. The squealing was almost deafening. Not from the kids. From Leslie as she ran to get her camera.

These are our first grandkids. We are so proud.

Queen with babies Rogers and Bobbie Socks, hours after birth

It’s been an interesting week since. The newborn kids – the doeling is named Bobbie Socks and the buck is named Rogers – have grown and developed with amazing speed and precision. Few things bring as much joy as watching two goat babies jump and prance and climb on their mother.

Bobbie Socks, two days after birth, poses for the camera

But all is not joy when goats are kidding in the dead of winter. Since Queen had her babies, we got 12 inches of snow and the temperature fell to single digits. Two other goats are due any day, and we’ve been afraid they’d birth in the midst of the worst weather.

We had to separate the herd, since the young does who weren’t pregnant want to flip the newborns in the air. Kid juggling isn’t just for humans anymore. Now we have two goat pastures – one with the mothers and another with the non-pregnant does.

The three mothers share a large, heated tent with Bobbie, Rogers and a bottle baby given to us by our goat mentor, Ned Strange. We named the bottle baby Ducky, since the first night here, the only sound he made sounded like a duck quacking.

That first night, we kept Ducky in the mud room in a cat carrier. Ducky didn’t mind, but it traumatized the cats, who also share that room with their litter boxes. One cat was about to use the litter box when Ducky “quacked” from atop the washing machine. The cat bolted and chose to leave a present in my office. And in our bathtub. Ducky had to go outside, posthaste. The cat almost joined him.

We feed Ducky four times a day from what is essentially a baby bottle. And since he isn’t allowed to snuggle with the other goats (goats can be real snobs), Leslie made him a sweater so he wouldn’t catch cold. Yes, this goat will most likely become someone’s Easter meal and my wife is dressing him in caprine active wear.

Leslie feeds "The Duck"

The rest of our herd – 12 does and one rent-a-buck – are in a nearby horse trailer, also with a heat lamp. We’ve had the buck, Anthony, for over three months, yet nothing seems to be “happening” between him and his harem. So, I call him Father Anthony, and his cloister of nuns. Together they live in a pasture near the horses. They eat, they poop, they complain and they refuse to have sex. Like I said, they’re nuns.

Having two herds effectively doubles the feeding/watering chores, but nothing compared to Sunday morning. I got up about 0400 to use the bathroom, when the heater cut out. I noticed the ceiling fan was slowing down, so I knew the power was off.

No power means no heat, no electric fence, no water and definitely no fun. With a foot of snow on the ground and the temperature falling from the low teens into single digits, Leslie and I were outside at 0415 with flashlights gassing up our portable generator and warming up the tractor to carry it near the house. Eventually, a very unhappy Jordan joined us. If you think a wet, cold goat looks and sounds unhappy, you should wake a 16-year-old at 0415 on a Sunday morning.

We hooked up extension cords to keep the heat lamps on and the water buckets warm. Still, the electric fence was off, which means if the goats see food on the other side, the normally hot wire becomes barely an obstacle. I envisioned 13 hungry goats running willy-nilly into the woods looking for food.

The horses’ water trough was freezing (not enough extension cords to go around) and everyone was hungry, including the shivering bottle baby, yet we couldn’t heat up his formula. So, I carried his refrigerated bottle in my shirt, next to my skin. Just what you need when it’s dark, the temperature is in the low teens and you’re standing in 12 inches of snow – a refrigerated bottle of milk rubbing against your nipples. TMI?

In the pre-dawn arctic that used to be our home, we fed all the goats and horses while inside the house the temperature dropped into the 50s. The cats were not happy. My wife was not happy and Jordan was past not happy. And with no ability to run the water, I was afraid our pipes would freeze.

When the chores were done, we climbed into the truck and cranked the heat.

By dawn, the temperature was nine degrees, but the power came on around 0800 and all became good again.

The hackneyed buzz of Sports Center replaced the drone of the generator, the horses got water and we could flush. It’s good to flush.

Now, if only the bleating nuns would take a vow of silence.

###


Dear Meets Deer Meat, Part Deux

January 17, 2010

The result when my wife, a car and wildlife converge

Two years ago, Leslie side-swiped a deer on the way to work.  She and the wayward herbivore survived without damage, and a lesson was (hopefully) learned by all.

But it happened again last week, this time with damage.

I was in South Boston embarrassing Jordan — a bona fide sport in my book — by picking him up from an outing with his swim team friends.  I wasn’t even trying, but evidently when you’re almost 17 and your daddy is in the parking lot waiting to take you home, you won’t be dating the prom queen anytime soon.

But I digress.  Anyway, my cell phone rang and it was Leslie, slightly out of breath.

“I hit a deer, but the car looks OK,” she panted.

She had my attention.

“Where did you hit it,” I asked, thinking she knew I’d be interested in the car, but she started to give me some obscure description of the highway.

“No, no, no, where on the car was the impact,” I explained.

“On the passenger door,” she replied.

OK, this wasn’t as bad as I thought.  It seems that the deer hit the car, not the other way around.  To be sure, I asked several questions about damage, and she reported that it was localized to the passenger door.  So, I said, “Then the deer really hit you, right?”

“Oh no, I hit the deer,” she said.

If you’re like me, you have mental image of her flying down the highway, drifting sideways at 80 mph around a corner when she slams into some poor deer.  With Leslie, it’s a very real possibility.  But she insists she was flying straight and level when the stupid critter jumped out at her.

So I asked her to tell me exactly how it happened.

“Well, I was on 501 right out of Durham and I was on the phone with Nola.  You see, Nola was telling me about …”

It’s about here I “politely” interrupted and assured my lovely bride that I really didn’t care about the conversation she was having with Nola.  The car and the deer were the topics at hand, and if she valued my sanity, she’d limit her narrative to those.

In short order (short for Leslie) I discovered she hit the deer near the right front headlight, and then, ” … ran over it.”

“You ran OVER the deer,” I shouted?

“Yes, with both wheels on the right side,” she (now calmly) replied.

The clearance under a Toyota Camry is about the same as a go-cart, so all I could visualize was her doing a Dukes of Hazard launch over this deer and hitting the pavement in a shower of sparks.

“Yeeeeeeee-Haaaaaa,” she would scream as the car slid sideways to a stop and she climbed out the window.

Now I was panting as she tried to calm me down.  I insisted there had to be damage, but she insisted there was only a small crease on the passenger door.  She had stopped, got out and inspected the car.  The headlights were all working and the car drove fine.  I was convinced I was getting bogus information.

“So, the deer is OK then,” I asked.

“Oh no, he’s dead in the road,” she replied.  “Should I call somebody?”

I suggested “next of kin.”  Not the deer’s, but mine.

Leslie beat Jordan and me home, so when I pulled up to her car, I put my headlights on the right side of the General Lee.  There were a few minor dents in the door, some hair (I hope it’s deer hair) stuck in the front fender-well and a wad wedged between the rear tire and the rim.  Honest.

And the right front fog light is gone, with the bulb socket dangling under the bumper.  All things considered we got away lucky.  Not so much for the deer.

While Jordan and Leslie went inside and I parked my truck, I noticed something laying in the driveway behind the Toyota.  Yep, it was the fog light housing.  It must have dangled under the bumper all the way home and gave up the ghost 20 feet from where she parked.

I know better than to quiz my wife on why she couldn’t assess the damage better.  She had avoided major damage, even while sharing gossip with a friend, and that’s all I care about.  Well, almost.  I couldn’t resist a late-night round of “Embarrass Jordan.”

Despite owning a shotgun and taking the Hunter Education course with me this year, Jordan didn’t go hunting.  So, he’s still hasn’t killed a deer, a condition shared by few 16-year-olds in these parts.

“Hey Jordan,” I said.  “Mom’s killed more deer this season than you have.”

I know, I’m an S.O.B., but I play to win.  Yeeeeee-Haaaaaa!

###


New Year’s Resolutions

January 6, 2010

When I lived in the city, New Year’s resolutions were typical and banal.  E.g. eat better, drink less, exercise more, stop spying on the neighbors with binoculars … you know, the basics.

But in the country, New Year’s resolutions are more practical and fundamental.  For instance, this year’s No. 1 resolution is to stop smashing my thumb with a hammer.  In several weeks the last of my missing thumbnail will have regrown, and for the first time in years, none of my 20 digits will be black-and-blue.

After hammering several billion fence staples my thumb was perpetually flattened, blue and bloody.  I resolve to avoid that the entire year.

I also resolve to remember that the pasture fences are electrically charged.  When we got goats, I replaced the mild horse zapper with a high-voltage behemoth that would send a T-Rex yelping.  You can move the biggest horse with the static electricity from rubbing your hand through your hair, but goats need high-voltage persuasion to stay away from the fence.  And yet, they get zapped less than I.  It’s a wonder I don’t have a tic and dane brammage.

I will resolve to stop cursing at the animals.  Intellectually, I know the damn things (oops!) don’t mean any harm, but some days working with these infernal beasts can be exasperating.  And those are just the house cats.

My penultimate resolution is to acquire no more animals.  The goats will have babies, and that’s OK, but under no circumstances will I accept any more animals from anywhere for any reason.  We have three cats, two horses and 16 goats (one is a rent-a-buck).  That’s enough.

My last resolution is to include more photos in my blog.  Since I’m a writer, I like words, but Leslie informs me that others like photos too.  Go figure.  So, here are some recent pictures from our farm, all taken by Leslie.

Have a great new year.

Abandoned farm buildings across the street from us

Hoofbeat Trail in the snow - one of many horse trails on our property

Part of our backyard in the snow

Another backyard perspective

Snow in the woods

Using the tractor to circumnavigate the pasture

Snow horses - Corky (foreground) and Duke

Goats hiking in the snow

Horses napping in the snowy sunshine

Anthony, Your Sister and Daisy keep warm in the snow

Good friends Nola and Jim on the annual Alton New Year's ride

Winter sunset at Sunset Farm

###


Of Mouse and Man

December 16, 2009

Mouse Trap or Mouse Feeder?I have been so naive.  I used to call the object pictured here a “mouse trap.”  Sure, in the city it would kill unwanted mice, and even out here it would crush an occasional rodent.  But I submit that these devices of deception are in fact designed by and for the mice themselves.

It is I who is caught in the maze, while the mice masters deftly pull my strings.  Remember the cartoon Tom and Jerry?  Tom was 100 times larger, faster, stronger and endowed with natural hunting instincts, yet could never get the best of Jerry.  Coincidence?  I think not.

Go ahead.  Call me crazy, but remember, they laughed at Galileo too.

Our tack/feed shed and my man-cave (work shed) each hold materials suitable for mouse nutrition and nest construction.  Soon after I built these structures, the evidence of rodent visits was apparent.  So, I bought a handful of “mouse traps,” baited them with peanut butter and congratulated myself on using mind over mice.

At first I killed several unwary mice and proudly used hash marks on the structure’s rafters to record my tally.  But then the kills stopped, yet the peanut butter disappeared regularly.  I wasn’t trapping mice.  I was feeding them.

It was easy to theorize that I had killed the heavy-lickers and only the light-of-tongue remained.  But I wanted proof, so I staked out the tack shed and waited.  Sure enough, as the sun and the temperature dropped, a forward scout entered the shed and deftly began removing peanut butter from an armed “trap.”

With blinding speed and a gloved hand, I grabbed the startled mouse and held him for questioning.  He was reluctant to speak.  I’m not proud of this, but when faced with a threat so pernicious and so pervasive, I felt it necessary to resort to enhanced interrogation techniques.  I strapped the little sucker to a popsicle stick, draped a tissue over his nose and dribbled water on his face.  He broke.

Yes, I water-boarded the mouse.  Shameful?  Perhaps, but when you learn what I discovered, you’ll be glad I had the courage to do it.

Centuries ago, a starving field mouse made a pact with a struggling king.  The mouse would direct his minions to stop raiding the royal grainery if the king would use the mouse’s design for all future mouse traps.  The deal was struck and both lived up to their word.

The mouse-designed trap featured a spring-loaded bar which was, indeed, quite lethal for rodents unschooled in it’s manipulation.  However, for those mice who became members of the Fraternal Order of Mousons, eating the bait without triggering the spring-loaded bar was easy, and very rewarding.

Further interrogation also revealed that humans once overheard the mice discussing this organization and were quite impressed.  However, since it’s hard to accurately interpret mouse whispers, the humans erroneously tried to emulate the mice and formed the Fraternal Order of Masons and set out to dominate the used car industry.

Anyway, the mouse-designed “traps” had distinct advantages over traditional methods of foraging.  Even raiding a grain depository was labor intensive, and the reward – grain – did not completely fulfill the mice’s dietary requirements.  By training the humans to place pieces of high-protein meat and fat on elevated pedestals within easy reach of the grainery’s door, labor was reduced, the diet was enhanced and the human grain was “protected.”

Certain undesirable mice – usually the lazy drunkards – were sacrificed in the traps to give the humans the illusion of success.  The Masons do something similar with their drunks, putting them in funny hats and calling them Shriners.

The result of this centuries-old plan is the creation of a super-race of mice, now weaned on nutrient-dense peanut butter and poised to take over our farms.  Their power was made permanent when they coined the phrase, “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.”

This quote – which humans attribute to Ralph Waldo Emerson – was, in fact, a means of brain washing meant to cement the superiority of the mouse-designed “trap” in the minds of humans.  It was an Emerson house-mouse who coined the phrase, and Emerson put it into common thought in exchange for editing help on his poem, “The Day’s Ration.”

You may doubt my account of the mouse’s coerced confession.  I don’t blame you.  I filmed the interrogation, but the tapes have been lost.

Was he just telling me what he thought I wanted to hear? I will never know, but for certain THIS particular mouse will never infiltrate my tack shed again.  I’m holding him, indefinitely, in my special, high-security Get Mouse container (I call it Get-Mo for short).

The mice think they have me where they want me.  They think I can’t afford to give up a bit of feed for my own long-term security.  But they’re wrong.  I am strong and willing to make any sacrifice to fight their evil brand of rodent extremism.

Who knows how many legions of el Queso mice I’ve nurtured with Skippy or Jiff.  But no more.  I may be over-run and my feed may be tainted, but I stand firm.  No more free lunches.

Go ahead you little schemers, waste your energy chewing through my feed bags for little more than compressed grass and minerals.  I will be your nursemaid no longer, for I am a true American.

###


Getting My Goat

November 12, 2009
Goat-Eye Oracle

Good Goat, Aye?

We did it!  Leslie and I are now members of the Secret Order of the Goat-Eye Oracle (SOGEO).  By day we are simple country folk, but by night, armed with the oracle and it’s transcendental wisdom, we become soldiers in the sacred quest to rid this planet of goat-killing parasites.

Over the top?  You decide.

Almost all goats have internal parasites, and if the goat is particularly susceptible and left untreated, it will die.  This problem is largely the result of our domestication of the goat.  It’s a long story and not easily corrected.

To kill the parasites, certain drugs have been developed, called anthelmintics.  These drugs are given orally, much like you give an eye-dropper of Pediaprofen to a toddler.  Like antibiotics, when anthelmintics are used indiscriminately, they actually help breed parasites that are resistant to the drug, making matters much worse.

But a very smart doctor named Faffa Malan in South Africa came up with a system to augment the effectiveness of anthelmintics without aiding in the creation of super resistant parasites.  In a nutshell, you only treat the goats that absolutely need it.  But first, you have to determine which goats are anemic enough to warrant treatment, and you do that by looking at the color of the conjunctiva in their eyes.

To facilitate uniform evaluation of conjunctiva color for anemia, Dr. Malan created a chart with five shades of pink, ranging from “near-perfect-health red” to “gonna-die-anytime white” (he uses a numbering system, but I spiced it up for this story).  Dr. Malan called this FAMACHA, taken from FAffa MAlan CHArt.

The FAMACHA chart is little more than a color swatch from Lowes that’s been laminated.  It’s the process for its use that’s valuable.

But that’s not how things work when you commingle commercialism and animal health.  The science behind FAMACHA is fascinating (yes, I’m a goat nerd) and the process is easy to learn.  Directions for understanding and implementing the process are readily available online or from local extension agents.  There is no mystery as to how to do this, and everyone with goats is encouraged to implement its strategies.

But if you want the laminated color card, you have to be certified.  Yes, CERTIFIED!  It’s OK to guess how anemic your goats are and treat them willy-nilly, but to get a color card you have to be certified.

It’s like teaching aspiring doctors how to do brain surgery and telling them they can give it a shot if they want to, but if they want a scalpel, then they have to go to med school and pay $500,000.

You can go into Tractor Supply and buy syringes, needles, scalpels, castrators, antibiotics and all sorts of drugs without a third-grade education or proof that you know a cow from a chicken.  But, you can’t buy a color card.  No sir.  For that you need to take a two-hour certification class, and of course, pay your $10 certification fee.

Dr. Malan says, “Thank you!”  Cha-ching.

As I am wont to do when faced with seeming idiocy, I wrote to the University of Georgia, College of Veterinary Medicine, which administers FAMACHA in the United States.  My e-mail was, admittedly, a bit sarcastic (Surprise!).  I explained that I had college credit in, among other health science topics, pharmacology and cardiology.  As a Nationally Registered paramedic I used to diagnose and treat serious human illnesses in the field without consulting a doctor.  But I’m not qualified to buy a color card?

I had goats that needed anthelmintics.  Was I to be denied a color card because there was no one in my area to teach me the ancient and venerable art of holding it next to an eye for comparison?  I had already listened to a certified FAMACHA instructor give a two-hour lecture on parasite control, including the FAMACHA system, but because the class was not billed as an official FAMACHA training session, I could not get a color card.

To his credit, the Georgia Ph.D. who responded to my missive was exceptionally cordial and helpful.  He gave me a ton of information on parasite control practices.  But he couldn’t give me a color card.  Nope.  That would violate his contract with Dr. Malan’s organization.

I understand contracts.  Nobody wants to wind up in court on charges of possession of a color card with intent to distribute.  I get that.  What would the neighbors say?  What surprises me is that there’s no black market for the cards.  “Psssst!  Wanna buy some FAMACHA?  It’s good shit.  Five bucks.  Fell off a nerd truck.  Honest.”

Leslie and I waited, and finally late last month we were officially certified in FAMACHA.  We paid our $10 and got our card.  We own the oracle.  Our lives have changed forever.  All hail the Goat-Eye Oracle.

But the irony of goat medicine doesn’t end there.  While I proudly carry the Goat-Eye Oracle with full legal protection, all of the drugs it recommends I use are illegal.  All the anthelmintics currently used for goats are labeled either for sheep or cows.  Extra-label usage of drugs by laypeople is a federal crime, so all goat farmers are criminals.

Psssst!  Wanna buy a used FAMACHA card?  Five bucks and it’s yours.  I have to make bail.

###


Bang-Bang! You’ve Been Harvested

November 9, 2009
Hunter Education Patch 01 (Medium)

Rural Badge of Honor

To hunt in Virginia, you need a license (unless you’re on your own property).  To get a license, you need to complete a 10-hour hunter education course.  Jordan and I did that a few weeks ago, along with 90 other locals.  It’s a rural right of passage, one we were honored to achieve.

The course was great.  I know a fair amount about guns, but I still learned a lot about hunting firearms, bows and muzzle loaders.  We also learned a lot about hunting laws and wildlife.  Jordan and I can now field-dress a squirrel in about 30 seconds.  In this economy, that could be quite valuable.  Unless you’re a squirrel.

We learned that hunting does not involve “killing” any animals.  All legally hunted animals are “harvested.”  Somehow, I don’t think PETA is fooled by that.  And trying to make a pickup full of drunken bozos with shotguns and blood lust sound like subsistence farmers bringing in a crop of corn is also a tad insulting.  But I digress.

We also discovered that hunting laws are written by the same people who conjure IRS regulations.  There are 51 different categories of hunting licenses, and like with deer, you probably need at least two just to hunt one animal.

There are 65 counties in Virginia, and each enforces a unique combination of 75 different firearms ordinances. For example, Halifax enforces firearms ordinances 33, 61 & 75.  Each county also has its own set of seasons for each of the 22 animals (not including waterfowl and fish) listed in Virginia’s annual publication Hunting & Trapping in Virginia (65 pages).  Each animal has multiple seasons for different methods of hunting, like archery, muzzle loading, firearms, etc.

“Deer season” is actually a combination of 22 different permutations of date and method which includes esoteric seasons like Early Antlerless Only Archery season.  Once you start to combine regulations on licensing, geography, date and hunting methodology, you need an IBM mainframe (see how old I am?) to figure  it all out.

The bottom line on hunting is that if you’re confronted by a game warden, you’d better have a stick of Chapstick because you’re gonna be kissing some serious butt.  It’s almost guaranteed you’ve violated some arcane provision of a hunting regulation.

To become certified to hunt, we had to pass a 50-question test, best described in one word: laughable.  The rules say you have to be in at least the fourth grade to take the course and test, but I know I sat next to a kid so young he couldn’t even read the test.  AND HE PASSED!

In fact, everyone passed.  Any test given to 90 people where everyone passed is not much of a test.  Especially in the country.  When the test was over, the instructors wouldn’t give out grades because, “What’s important is that you passed.”  Jordan and I disagreed.  We want to hunt with people who got 100 percent, not people who scored 70.  In fact, if you missed any of the questions, you shouldn’t be allowed to touch a hunting weapon.  Seriously.

The multiple choice questions went something like this:

The No. 1 rule when handling a firearm is:

A. Looking down the barrel of a loaded gun is safe, as long as you’re quick about it.

B. Always keep it loaded and ready to fire. You never know when a deer might jump in front of your truck.

C. Always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction.

D. Bullets are cheap.  Shoot fast and shoot often at anything that moves.

I’m going to guess most people reading this haven’t taken the course, but you should be able to answer this question correctly even without it.  The answer is “C” and I’m positive everyone out here got it right since the instructors did everything but tattoo the answer on their foreheads.  Yet, I get no comfort from hearing several smokers joke that “B” and/or “D” were more practical.

Still, the 10 hours was time well spent, even though I will probably never hunt.  I still don’t “get it.”  I have no problem killing an animal out of necessity or for food, but I’ve never, ever enjoyed it.  I know deer populations are exploding and they’re a danger to traffic and farmers, so I support hunters.  I just don’t know why they find it fun.

As a result, I’ve often made fun of hunters.  Many deserve it because they’re addle-brained yahoos who think a gun is a metaphorical extension of their manhood.  I have more respect for a wildlife photographer than a ninth-grade dropout sitting beside the road with a .30-06 pointed out the window.

But I was stunned when the instructors spent about 30 minutes making the same point.  They showed videos of hunters who give the sport a bad name.  They derided the bubbas who slap a dead deer on their hood and ride into town and park at the Dairy Dell.

And I almost fell out of my chair when an instructor pointed his finger at the class and said, “Let’s be honest.  There’s nothing pretty about death.  If you’re going to hunt, be responsible and respect those who don’t share your views on the sport.”

Out here, that’s tough talk.  I don’t know if anyone listened or cared, but it meant something to me.  Since that class, I’ve watched a good friend slaughter two goats.  He’s done it many times before and it wasn’t a big deal, yet I could tell that he didn’t find it fun.  Just necessary.

There are good hunters and bad hunters, but all are armed.  Therefore I have no respect for the bad ones.  It’s not even firearms deer season yet and already there’s been a hunting fatality in Virginia.  In Buena Vista (north of Lynchburg), a 21-year-old shot and killed a 15-year-old while hunting and is being charged with reckless handling of a firearm and involuntary manslaughter.

I can’t help but wonder what the 21-year-old scored on his hunter education course.

###


Dirty Jobs – Alton Edition

November 1, 2009

Two weeks ago, I watched two men whom I respect very much debate the merits of sticking a pointed, barbed, plastic plug in a goat’s rectum.  It was the beginning of an unusual, yet classically rural day.

Ned, my goat mentor and icon of all things rural, was slaughtering two goats for an upcoming meat goat association open house.  Aiding Ned was Fred, a recent addition to our community and a man well versed in animal dissection.

I’ve never “dressed” an animal, but I know the basic theory.  So, when I overheard Fred suggesting Ned stick this green plastic thing in the goat’s butt hole, I thought I’d caught the punch line to an off-color joke.  Good thing I stifled a sophomoric giggle.  These guys were serious.

The plug enables you to cut out the rectum, pull out the bowel and tie it off before you slice open the goat.  This prevents spilling any of the bowel’s contents on the meat.  The thing works like a charm.  I just can’t imagine being tasked with marketing this invention.

“Billy Mays here.  Do you have problems with fecal matter falling out of your dead goat’s rectum?  Well, say goodbye to those crappy clean-ups.  Introducing, Rectum Check, the sure-fire way to seal ANY goat’s rectum.”

But wait, there’s more …

Jordan and I watched these two goats being dressed and eventually lent a hand.  We skinned and hacked until we had gleaming, skinless goat carcasses hanging before us.

By now, everyone’s hands were covered with blood.  I brought latex gloves, not because I’m fastidious or a priss, but because years in EMS taught me to keep any and all body fluids off my skin.  But when I realized everyone else was going bare knuckled, I didn’t want to be the wuss wearing light green pinkie protectors.

At this time, Ned pulled out the Sawzall, a powerful reciprocating saw you’d likely find at any construction site.  While Fred held the carcasses, Ned deftly sawed them into smaller portions.  Both were occasionally rewarded with flecks of flesh, bone and blood flung on to their shirts and pants.

As we watched through a soft pink mist, the climax of the event came when the horned heads were sawed off and bounced on the bloody grass.  It was like a scene in a classic, third-rate horror movie, sans the pentagram, candles and bevy of nude virgins.  Nothing speaks to a man’s inner beast more than killing, dressing and ultimately eating an animal.  OK, nude virgins would have made it a little better, but not much.

Ned kept the meat for cooking and presentation at the open house and I volunteered to dispose of the offal on our property.  Then Jordan said he wanted to take home a goat head.  Kids today.  They expect it all: computer, HD TV, cellphone, iPod, you name it.  And he still has to have a freshly-severed, still-oozing, goat head with its trachea dangling underneath like a miniature, white garden hose.  We’ve certainly spoiled the boy.

I resisted, but he insisted.  I’m weak.  I caved, so into the truck went both goat heads along with their guts.  I confess, as I drove Jordan to school I fantasized about getting into an accident where the remains in my truck were tossed all over the highway.  The arriving constable would think I’d run over a small pack of albino cub scouts.

I know.  I need therapy.

Jordan had school and football the next two days, so figuring out what to do with the goat heads fell to me.  Insect larva (e.g. maggots) do an excellent job of eating decaying flesh, but if you leave body parts on the ground, larger predators chew up and drag off the bones.  So, Ned suggested I hoist the heads into a tree.

I pretty much ran the gamut of macabre that morning, beginning with my education in goat rectum sealing and ending with me standing in the forest a quarter mile from the house, hands on hips, admiring two bloody goat heads hanging from a tree.

I left the city an ex-soccer coach and sports writer.  Now I’m lord of the flies.

###


Hope for Heidi

September 14, 2009
Heidi, our "project" goat

Heidi, our "project" goat

Yes, I’m a goat rancher.  You don’t hear many city people say that.

But I’m also a caprine counselor, working to bring harmony to a small herd of goats that has chosen one of its own to bully and ostracize.  Leslie and I are working to keep six mean step-sisters from picking on a sweet doe that doesn’t “fit in.”

Rest assured, you don’t hear country people say that.

Welcome to my world.  It’s called cultural purgatory, and I’m the 2009 poster child.  It’s the price I pay for marrying a woman who embodies both pro wrestling and PETA.  She crushes bugs with her fingers, grabs snakes like they were department store bargains and once beat our oldest son arm wrestling when he was nearly 16 (he’s still in counseling).  And don’t get between her and a good steak lest you loose a limb.

Yet, she makes me stop in the middle of a busy road to rescue an injured bird.  She worries about rodents suffering in a mouse trap and she once brought home an injured frog she found dying in a gutter.

So, when we discussed raising meat goats, she agreed only if we could keep one as a pet.  As though taken from a saccharine Disney script, Leslie chose the outcast underdog as her pet.  Her name is Heidi.

All seven of our original doelings were sired by a pure-blood boer, but the mothers of six were Nubian dairy goats.  Heidi’s mother was, we’re told, a Saanen – another dairy breed that comes from Switzerland’s Saanen Valley and looks like the goat in the movie Heidi.  Now you know where the goat got her name.

Heidi is small and looks different, so on the proverbial goat playground, she’s the one that gets stuffed in the trash can.  When the rest of the goats are lounging in the shade of their shelter, Heidi is left outside to rest alone.  For no apparent reason, other goats will suddenly head-butt Heidi in the ribs, sometimes knocking her over.

When we give the goats their morning “training feed,” the herd keeps Heidi from eating, so we take a separate bucket behind the shelter for her so she can enjoy a few mouthfuls of feed without being tossed aside by her vicious step sisters.

But despite her lowly status, Heidi perseveres.  She’s often the friendliest goat and definitely the most vocal.  She adores attention and loves to be scratched.  I swear she knows her name.

And she’s possibly the bravest.

Jordan loves to play “Around the World” by running around the goats’ pasture fencing and enticing them to follow.  Heidi, Omega goat in the day-to-day goat hierarchy, suddenly becomes Alpha leader, taking point as the weed munchers navigate the dense overgrowth in full sprint.  She always finishes first, bleating her triumph for all to hear.

We like to think our nurturing will make Heidi a strong and capable leader.  We want to make sure Heidi knows she’s loved and can overcome any adversity.  We want Heidi to be all she can be.

I know, it’s sad.  Deeply tanned and calloused, I fit in at the local Tractor Supply.  But beneath this manly, rural facade is a goat-pecked wuss who calls the herd his “goaty girls” and chirps with baby talk designed to sooth a tortured goat’s psyche.

(Sigh)

There’s no hope for me, but at least there’s hope for Heidi.

###


Your Sister Needs Worming

August 26, 2009

With one son off at college and another primed to leave in two years, Les and I were gearing up for an empty nest.  All that changed on August 16, when we brought home seven kids to feed and nurture.  Yes, seven darling little girls.

So far, they’ve been a joy, which is a good thing, because if they don’t behave as expected, we’ll either sell them or eat them.  Life is tough in the country.

The kids we’re talking about are baby goats.  Les and I are going into the meat goat business.

Raising meat goats is one of the fastest growing agricultural endeavors in the U.S. today.  Believe it or not, goat meat is the most prevalent type of meat eaten worldwide.  The U.S. is a rare exception where goat meat lags behind beef and pork.

Goat meat is incredibly lean, healthy and very tasty (I’m told).  Leslie and I have never actually eaten goat meat, which is called chevon.  Think about it.  You don’t eat cow meat, you eat beef.  You don’t eat pig meat, you eat pork.  Goat meat needed it’s own unique term, so voila, they coined “chevon.”

Chevon comes from the French word chevre, which means (Surprise!) goat.  We’re so creative.

With our burgeoning immigrant population and health-conscious culture, the demand for goat meat is growing and we’re gonna ride the wave.  We’ve joined the Southern Virginia Meat Goat Association, which has connected with national markets and can’t supply enough goats to meet demand.

But making money, if it happens, is only the cherry on the chevon cake.  These little critters love to eat the weeds and brush that cover half our 45 acres.  The land that was “cut-over” about five years ago is so dense with the type of vegetation goats love that we can’t even see most of our property.  There could be an old mine, hunting shack, ’57 Chevy or an old drum holding Jimmy Hoffa sitting out there and we wouldn’t know it.

In the first six days these four-legged weed whackers were here, they cleared out Poison Ivy Ridge, a small outcropping of trees, vines and brush that lies inside one of our horse pastures.  The goats went through it like Sherman through Atlanta, without the smoke.

And they leave thousand of little fertilizer “pills” behind.  The goat stomach is a miraculous four-chambered organ that turns heavily masticated vegetable matter into something that looks like a blueberry.  It’s really interesting to watch them poop (I know, I’ve lost it).

We paid a ridiculously low price for these wonderfully healthy doelings.  We had to drive into the squeal-like-a-pig western mountains of Virginia to get them, but it was worth it.  One of our local friends, Ned Strange, who is a big meat goat producer said, “Shoot, at that price, if one don’t work out, you can just eat her.  It’ll be the cheapest and best steak you ever had.”

Ned Strange is not a member of PETA.

Ned, and his wife Donna, are two of the finest people on Earth, and they’re helping us learn the goat trade.  But we’ve already disregarded one bit of their advice.  We named the goats.

Since these seven are going to (hopefully) be long-term mothers, we won’t be selling/eating them any time soon.  So, Leslie couldn’t resist giving them names.

The queen (the herd leader, or alpha doe) is named Blandine, after Leslie’s mother.  Another is Bertha, after my mom.  Jordan named one Funk Master in jest, but since he hasn’t revised that name, it’s stuck.  He’s embarrassed when we tell people the name, but not as much as the goat.

We also have Heidi and Daisy Mae, and one of our nephews named a goat Marley.  And last, but not least, is “Your Sister.”  That’s right, we named a goat Your Sister.  It’s a hoot, especially when we tell people.

“And this one is Your Sister,” I said.

“You named her Bernice?,” the local said.

“No, not after your sister, ‘Your Sister,'” I reply.  It’s loads of fun, especially when we’re in the pasture with the critters.

“Leslie, Your Sister is licking my leg again.  And she just pooped on my foot,” I say.

“Well, if Your Sister wasn’t such a pig she wouldn’t be pooping everywhere,” she replies.

The jokes are infinite.  We were going to name two of the goats after good friends Jamie and Carolyn, but there’s a Carolyn across the street and we were afraid she’d be on the front porch one evening and hear us say, “Carolyn needs her hooves trimmed, but she’s looking good for an old goat.”  That would wind up in the church bulletin.

Plenty more to say about the goats, but for now, au revoir.

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Your Sister Won't Shut Up

Your Sister Won't Shut Up


Bubbas (Part One)

July 16, 2009

I have been accused, on occasion, of lacking savoir-faire.  That James-Bond-esque sophistication most of you have come to expect from me doesn’t come naturally.  True!  While spending the better part of the last two decades living among high financiers, doctors and engineers, I secretly waged a battle with my inner redneck.

I was reared in a home where a t-shirt and boxers was legitimate dinner attire, real men proudly claimed their farts and everyone drank cheap beer from the can.  But then I met Leslie and I had to grow up (although I’m still a level-10 fart master).

In the country, many guys skip the “grow up” part.  They still aspire to succeed, but insist on remaining true to their redneck roots.  Sometimes, it’s hard not to admire the can-do attitude of the rural unsophisticated.  Case in point:

Leslie and I were driving the Halifax County back roads the other day, dodging deer, groundhogs and the occasional turkey.  Yes, all three are bona fide hazards to navigation on the roads.

In the middle of nowhere, we came upon a large area of cleared, mowed land and large, elaborate, brick pillars that would, in Virginia Beach, announce a trendy, up-scale neighborhood.  The expensive sign said “Gobbler’s Roost,” (not the real name since I don’t want to get shot) and a newly paved road led back into a nascent housing development.

Gravel driveways, livestock fences and RFD mailboxes are the norm out here, so Leslie and I turned into the development to see what form of “culture” had begun to blossom in the backwoods.  We turned right at the first intersection to find homemade markers delineating lots along the “road,” which went from asphalt to gravel to grass in just a few dozen yards.

We continued on, trying to get a lay of the land and a “sense” of the development.  The “road” quickly became a hastily graded cul-de-sac, so we did a lazy 180 and began to head out.  Suddenly, a big pickup truck whipped around the corner and slid to a stop beside us.  The window rolled down and I was greeted by a not-so-friendly “Can I help you?”

The guy offering the rhetorical help was about 45, overweight, shirtless and literally covered from bellybutton to neck in tattoos.  His greasy, gray hair was pulled back into a pony tail and his flush cheeks announced a Budweiser Blush.

A young man in the passenger seat had a shirt draped across his lap and there were people in the back seat I couldn’t see clearly.  The tone wasn’t friendly, so I resorted to my innocent-yet-smart-ass mode.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “Am I on private property?”

I could see the rusty wheels moving in Bubba’s head (he never introduced himself, so I’m calling him Bubba).  He was trying to sell property, but seemed offended that people would actually come by to look at it.  He wiped his face with his hand as though to put on a more friendly visage.

In the next two minutes we had a more cordial conversation.  The guys in the back seat put away their shotguns (I can only imagine) and Bubba scratched his ample, hairy, graffiti-covered chest in that endearing way a great ape makes guests feel at home in his banana tree.

In a little over 100 seconds, we learned that Bubba had been embroiled in a lawsuit in Alaska and took some of his settlement to buy this property.  Somewhere behind the trees and scrub was a little airstrip he had carved out of the clay.  He and his buddies had been “bush hogging hard” for the last few weeks to build a residential paradise for private pilots.

The goal was a “gated community” where residents can land and taxi their private aircraft right into the back yard.   You can’t tell, but I’m laughing as I type this.  We have a lot of gated communities around here.  How else do you keep the cows, horses and goats in?  But aircraft theft isn’t big on the local “radar.”  See, I made a funny.

Seriously, we actually know a commercial airline pilot who lives in Alton, and there is another guy near the post office who has his own airstrip, so the concept isn’t entirely crazy.  But I’m guessing that anybody looking for a John Travolta-like community isn’t going to be house hunting in this neck of the woods, or interested in buying real estate from a beer-sodden, bare-chested biker with the sales acumen of a roadhouse bouncer.

But Bubba seemed undeterred and unashamed.  His last words were, “Stop in for a beer sometime.”  I remember that from my real estate sales training days.  It’s called the Redneck Close.

As we pulled away and approached the development’s only intersection, one of Bubba’s buddies was standing in the middle of the road that led to the air strip like a Secret Service sentry, obviously tasked with making sure we didn’t proceed further and would take the correct path back to the main road.

Heaven forbid we should travel unescorted in this soon-to-be haven for airborne elite.

A few days later, Leslie told this story to a friend who is very familiar wth that part of the county.  “Drugs,” he said.  “Lots of people around there are into drugs.”

Great.  Now you know why everyone carries a gun around here.

My last words to Bubba were that I would spread the word.  So, if you’re a pilot looking for an inexpensive place to bring in your shipment of Columbian Gold, park your Piper, knock down a few beers with the locals and then crash before your big sale to the Mob at midnight, Gobbler’s Roost is the place for you.

Don’t tell Bubba I sent you.

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Tick Talk

June 15, 2009
Ticks we've collected just this spring

Ticks we've collected just this spring

Doesn’t everyone have a tick jar?

You come inside from a stroll around the property, strip for the requisite shower and began plucking the little critters off your nether regions, dropping them into a small jar of alcohol, thus saving them for posterity.

Are we the only ones?

Probably.  Only my wife could come up with such a macabre accessory as a tick jar.  She’s a nature nerd who can simultaneously channel Steve Irwin and Calamity Jane (and still be afraid of the dark).

But I am loath to mock this buggy beauty of the backwoods.  While most country folk pluck ticks and simply crush them between two fingernails and toss them on the ground, my wife has transformed de-tickifying into a fun summertime activity.

First, there’s the fun of a mutual tick hunt.  If you’ve ever heard Brad Paisley’s song Ticks, you know what I’m talking about.  But even if the hunt is solo, there’s much to learn.  Like where they prefer to hide, how fast they scamper when discovered and how tenacious they hold on once they’ve drilled for blood.

We mostly attract Lone Star ticks, which are rather large and brown with a big, white dot on their back.  They’re easier to spot than the smaller deer ticks, which are the ones that carry Lyme Disease.

Want to impress your friends when they come over?  Whip out the tick jar.  It’s a better conversation piece than grandma’s ashes on the mantle or that mangled big toe that won’t heal because the horses keep stepping on it.

An alcohol-filled tick jar also makes for a sure kill.  Ticks are essentially two-dimensional, without mass in the third dimension.  These creatures are very had to crush.  You can stomp on them, squeeze them between two fingers with all your might or even wash them down the sink and they will still come back to suck you dry.  Sort of like a teen you’ve sent off to college.

I once plucked a Lone Star and washed him down the bathroom sink.  An hour later I found him crawling up the spout and looking quite peeved.  I’ve been chased by turkeys, cows (a long story) and now ticks.  If only I attracted women that way.

Still, the most important value of a tick jar is its ability to measure your contact with nature.  Collecting, and thus counting your ticks gives you a sense of how closely you interact with the land.

For instance, on Sunday I took a seven-tick hike.  You can measure a hike in the woods by how long you were there or how far you traveled, but when you’re with Leslie, neither give you a sense of how close you got to the trees and bushes.  Ticks do.

She wanted to go for a walk, so I agreed.  She grabbed her camera on the way out so I knew what to expect.  If it walked, crawled, flew, chirped or buzzed, she had to stop and take six photos from three different angles.  We moved through the forest with all the grace and fluidity of a city bus moving through Manhattan.

But it was fun, at least until it became clear why I was such a valued hiking partner.  The vegetation surrounding the forest was heavily overgrown, and as we transitioned from open land to the forest and back, Princess Nature called on me to lead the way.

Like Shrek moving through a brier patch, I cleared a path for my beloved.  I donated blood to thorns, tasted leaves of all sorts, wrapped my head in spider webs and gave the ticks a once-in-a-lifetime target.  I could hear the tick lookout yell, “Holy hemoglobin boys, here comes the mother load.  On the count of three, JUMP!”

Once home, Leslie removed only five ticks from her bod.   But I set a record with seven.

Those ticks are dead, but country chivalry is alive and well.

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Spring Critters (Part Two)

June 10, 2009

You remember the old joke:  How do you catch a squirrel?  You climb up a tree and act like a nut.

In Alton, one man learned that to catch a bobcat, all you have to do is climb in the bushes and act like a turkey.

As reported in the Gazette-Virginian on 4-21-09 under the title “Bobcat Mauls Turkey Hunter,” a local learned the true price of quality camouflage and deft turkey calling.

Camouflaged from head to toe, with only a slit for his eyes, this intrepid hunter took to the underbrush and began his turkey chants.  It’s unknown if he fooled any turkeys, but he definitely got the attention of a hungry bobcat which jumped on the hunter’s head.

One can only speculate as to who was more surprised.  A brief struggle ensued and the bobcat (which weighs 20-30 pounds) tore at the hunter’s face.

“If I hadn’t been wearing glasses, I probably would have lost my eyes,” the hunter said.

The bobcat escaped and the bloody hunter drove himself to the emergency room.  I’m married to an ER nurse, so I can only imagine the giggles shared in the ER break room that day.  The hunter received stitches in his face and has to get regular rabies injections.

But his spirit is undaunted.  When asked by the Gazette-Virginian if the incident has deterred him from hunting, he replied, “Naw.  I went out hunting the next day … I just went to another spot.”

Nothing stops hunting out here.

Lest you think this is an isolated incident, something similar happened a few weeks later.

On May 13, the Gazette-Virginian again reported that the tables had been turned on a local hunter.  It seems a “veteran” hunter took a shot at a 20-pound gobbler and apparently missed.  He chased the bird into a clearing and dropped to one knee for a second shot.  It was then he had one of those, “Oh shit!” moments we all like to avoid when out in the woods alone.

“The turkey started toward me,” recalled the stunned hunter.  “I thought he would stop, or turn away, but he didn’t.  He attacked me.”

Turkeys have sharp, Jurassic Park-like spurs on their feet, so getting attacked by a big gobbler isn’t the same as dodging a dive-bombing mocking bird.  Wild turkeys are the bad-ass birds of the brush and have little in common with their fat, flightless Thanksgiving cousins.  Wild turkeys are armed.

The Gazette-Virginian reported, “The two fought it out in the woods, spurring, grappling, choking, battling until man emerged the victor.”

The hunter got a 12-inch gash on his arm from the bird’s 1 1/4-inch spurs, but to read the story you’d think it was a WWF cage fight on Pay Per View.  I’m guessing the reporter gets paid by the verb.

In reality, the bird was quickly dispatched, and I suppose made a tasty meal.

Wrestling with a bobcat sounds cool, even if the animal is nothing more than a house cat on steroids.  But getting your ass kicked by a turkey?  Man, it will take a while to shake that one off.

Which brings me to this morning.  I noticed a mama turkey in our back yard, not 50 feet from our deck.  That’s unusually close.  She was accompanied by a handful of chicks, none bigger than a sparrow.  I took some photos from the window before the horses noticed the birds and scared them into the tall grass.

Turkey mama with chicks wanders Sunset Rock

Turkey mama with chicks wanders Sunset Rock

I knew the turkey mama was hunkered-down just a few yards away, so I went outside to see if I could get some close-up shots.  In case you’re wondering, I was in pure city-boy mode.  The turkey hunting tales I’ve shared above hadn’t entered my mind.  That’s why I have to wear a special wrist band when I’m at the zoo, lest I wander unattended into the lion’s cage muttering, “Nice kitty …

I quietly moved toward the spot where I knew the turkey mama and babies were hiding.  Well, as quiet as a hippo in flip-flops can be.  I was about 10 feet away when the mama took off running with a big display of wings flapping and frantic gobbling.

Turkey mama runs away, hoping I'll follow

Turkey mama runs away, hoping I'll follow

The turkey mom wants a predator to follow her, leaving the babies alone.  She can fly and the babies can’t.  But when I failed to follow her, she stopped, turned and gave me a look I’ve never seen in an animal before.

"I'll bust you up, fool," says mad turkey mama

"I'll bust you up, fool," says mad turkey mama

Suddenly, the aforementioned turkey tales popped into my mind and I heard a familiar voice – my Inner Wuss.  Brevity has always been a hallmark of my Inner Wuss, and today’s tactical advice was no exception.  “Run!” is all it said.

No one could see me except the horses, and they have no respect for me anyway, so I wasn’t worried about the image of my lumbering, flip-flopping butt charging across the backyard while being pursued by a couple of drumsticks.

What I feared most was going to the ER, where my wife was working, with several spur slashes in my BACK.  If I’m going to do battle with a bird, I’m going to do it face-to-face, man-to-foul.  I’d rather lose my eyes than spend the rest of my life explaining that I was shanked in my own back yard by a turkey.

I stood my ground and continued to shoot pictures.  Most were out of focus because it’s hard to concentrate with your Inner Wuss yelling at you.

The charge was over quickly.  Obviously, the image of a large animal dressed like a Virginia Beach tourist is something of a deterrent in maternal turkey attacks.  Things like that are good to know.

Turkey mama gives up charge and heads for the bush

Turkey mama gives up charge and heads for the bush

The turkey mama veered off, headed for the brush while clucking for her chicks to follow.  I went inside secure in  the knowledge that I could offer the story to the local paper.  The headline would read, “City Feller Shows Rural Bravery in Standoff With Turkey.”

Just so long as they don’t interview the horses.

The horses laugh

The horses laugh

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