Taking stock down on the farm

In the wake of drought: struggling to raise calves, dreaming of a simple horse-boarding operations and preparing for the onslaught of ankle-pecking chickens

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Last year, sun worshippers were pleased to see no sign of rain for weeks on end in eastern Ontario. Spring faded into summer without the seasonal showers and intermittent storms we’re accustomed to. After a few weeks without rain, however, farmers began to worry.

When we reached drought conditions, those in the business of agriculture knew the lack of rain would have long-lasting effects.

At the Fisher Farm, the lack of rain meant hay didn’t grow on the meadow. We were forced to tuck into our winter hay storage to feed the cattle through summer and fall. At the end of the year, we had to spend $8,000 to buy enough hay to get us through winter. With just a few calves to send to market, we pretty much broke even.

That was last year. This year, we’re encountering problems with our new crop of calves. We lost two that had no will to thrive. They appeared to be normal size with good muscle tone, but were weak and unable to suckle, even when bottle-fed.

The Farmer gives weak newborns a shot of selenium, because our soil in this region of the Canadian Shield is deficient in this important mineral. Normally that stuff is liquid gold – an energy boost to an animal that has had a rough start. But this time the needle didn’t have its usual dramatic effect. Perhaps the drought leached even more from the soil than we realized. Obviously, the grasses the cows did manage to shave off the field were not very nutritional.

I read that a local sheep farmer is having a problem with weak-legged lambs this spring. I’m wondering if that’s what has happened to our one calf with the gimpy leg.

The whole situation is rather disheartening. We can mix up bottles of milk replacer and hand-feed the weaker calves, but if they don’t want to drink, there’s not much you can do. I’m not going to force a calf to swallow a tube just to fill its stomach with milk every day.

This is one of the ugly sides of farming. At times like these, I fantasize about selling all our livestock and just boarding horses as a hobby. People who buy horses don’t always have a place to put them. We could put them up here, in the barn, with a few modifications to the facility (which has been used to house pigs, sheep and cattle, as well as mink, long ago).

It might be a bit of a stretch, but it sure would be nice to be able to pour a glass of wine and go out onto the porch to watch the horses coming in at sunset.

Another vision I have is to turn this farm into a shelter for abused women and their pets. Statistics show that many women stay in abusive relationships because they don’t want to leave their beloved pets behind in the hands of their abuser. They need a place to go that welcomes pets. I realize this is kind of a fairy tale and not very well thought out at that. It will likely have to wait until we’re finished with any sort of farming. And the Farmer probably has other plans for these 200 acres. I haven’t asked him.

For now, we’re a two-dozen-head cattle ranch and seasonal poultry farm. We have chickens arriving tomorrow: about 150 of the little ankle biters. I say that with love but, truly, I prefer turkeys when it comes to meat birds.

Chickens rush at you and peck your lower extremities while you’re trying to fill their feeders, but turkeys merely wander over and stand politely by your side, providing commentary on the activity with soft cooing noises. I also find it really fascinating the way turkeys communicate telepathically and then all sing out at once in the exact same song.

But we still have a freezer full of turkeys so we won’t be raising them this year.

The Farmer is out in the horse stable, emptying it out. He’ll string up heat lamps, block gaps in the wall with blankets and fill feeders with water in preparation for the arrival of the fluffy little chicklets.

I hope Fergus the Golden Retriever isn’t too intrigued by them.

Diana Leeson Fisher is married to retired university professor Jim Fisher and lives on a small farm near Kemptville, about an hour south of Ottawa. 

farm stock, living on a farm


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