Grand opening just around the corner

These days are filled with tension and excitement as the Grand Opening Day approaches. The Big day is this Saturday, September 7th. Yesterday we got the threshing machine ready. Today we are putting the final touches on the MooTell, the Snoop House and the Welcome Center. Need to work in a little grass cutting in somewhere. Duane is tuning up horses and getting equipment ready.

20130904-064311.jpg cutting the rye for the threshing demonstration

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Spring farm photos

Spring is making a slow entrance this year. Here are some recent photos

20130614-064557.jpg Lilacs, very late this year, fill the air with a sweet, wonderful fragrance. Mrs Ed and Dallas picking bouquets for the kitchen

20130614-064811.jpg The rabbits enjoy being outdoors in their new three story rabbit hut. Winston, senior farm dog, checks them out.

20130614-065035.jpg Spring field work is in full swing. We had three, three horse hitches going, two plowing, one on the disc.

20130614-065338.jpg Duane with his fine Belgium horses on a two way Oliver plow.

20130614-065516.jpg Duke in the Furrow, Dutchess working the middle and Bud on the land

20130614-065713.jpg Len Hardy plowing with percherons. Mick is in the furrow, Bud in the middle and Harley on the land.

Moving day

Today was moving day for Gladys and Lucile, the two resident potbelly pigs. Working around the rain drops these past two weeks, I finally finished the new Piggery. My original plan was to tuck the piggery under the old truck which serves as a hay shed for the lambing barn. Winter put the project on hold. Thanks to my friend Duane, the new Chicken Palace was completed before winter hit. It allowed me to do a major chicken roundup of the wild bunch and move the flock from the old 8 by 12 coop into a new 14 by 24 building. The chickens, including 80 roosters hatched last summer, loved it. Thanks to Craigslist, I was able to trade the roosters for two turkeys. That’s a story for another day.

Anyway, the old coop became the piggery for the winter. I got Gladys and Lucile in a trade. I traded hay for a petting zoo. Gladys and Lucile are real pigs! They love to eat. They survived the winter hunkering down in a mountain of straw, eating and getting real fat! I try to make sure my animals get enough food. Apparently pot bellied pigs are easy keepers. I didn’t factor that in to my feeding. I suppose I could rationalize and say their legs shrunk from snuggling in a thick blanket of straw all winter. Needless to say, when your a four legged critter and your belly exceeds your leg length, you begin to experience mobility issues. Sorry girls!

So I added a piggery into my work plan. My work plans are fluid. I make them up as I go along. I had lots of eight foot two by fours so I decided on an eight by eight structure. The two by fours cut in half led me to decide on four foot walls. Using rough lumber, I decided to make the sheeting a board and batten finish. Deep within my storage shed, I retrieved an old barn cupola I had bought at the Waverly auction, as it still had the tag on it. Pigs stink. I figured ventilation would be a good thing. I mounted the unit in the center of the roof and built the roof around it. Also stored in the shed were bundles of shingles left over from another project. Just enough as it turned out.

So today was a big day! Just as I finished caulking around the cupola my young neighbor Dallas rumbles into the yard on her four wheeler. “What are you doing Mr. Ed? ” “Getting ready to move the new piggery” I said. “Can I Help?” “You, bet”, I said, glad to have help. Did I mention I built the piggery out in the yard in front of the workshop? As most of my projects, the new piggery, turned our a bit more substantial than I anticipated. “Are you going to be able to pull it”? My skeptical friend asked as we hooked up the chains. “if the tractor can’t , I’ll go get the horses”, I joked. She helped hook the chains. I hopped on the tractor, put it in low gear and slowly began moving forward. It moved! I crawled towards the new site, Dallas borrowed my phone and documented this momentous occasion.

Five minutes later we began maneuvering the new Piggery into position. Pushing, pulling, shoving and sliding, we managed to get it where we wanted. Time for a lemonade break. Rested and updated on the events of the day, my friend and I moved on to phase two. We needed to connect the pig pen to the Piggery. I pounded the posts, Dallas tied the hog panels to them. Pigs have strong snouts. We made sure each corner was secured well.

Phase three proved to be the most challenging. As I flung open the door of the chicken coop, Dallas informed the girls, it was time to move! They grunted and resumed snoozing. I hate to say it, but offering them a snack was the only way to get their attention. After a few minutes of pushing and urging, we were able to get them to exit the old coop. Pigs aren’t stupid. They quickly figured out something was up. Faced with a choice of moving twenty feet to a new home or going back to the familiar, they protested vehemently. Growling, squealing and snarling like beasts ten times their size, Gladys and Lucile, pushed Dallas and I to the limits. First we tried gentle persuasion by pushing them. Not. Then we tried the stick method like the experts use at the State Fair. No way. They tried to eat the stick. Next came the rope method. Try lassoing a two hundred pound solid chunk of pig when there is no ground clearance! When I finally got the rope around Glady’s middle, I pulled it tight. Upset by the rope, she pulled me backwards. Them we tried the rope around the rump trick. Gladys retaliated by peeing on my boot. Dallas found that particularly amusing.

Thirty minutes later we managed to cajole them into their new pen. They nibbled the new grass. I Hope they enjoy their new home and new lean green diet. Just in case they were still upset, I gave them a little scoop of grain. Judging by their grunts and slobbering, I think they were thinking about forgiveness. Only time will tell.

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Piggery on the move

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Dallas, shaking out the straw for the new home.

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The newest addition to Mr. Ed’s Farm, the Piggery

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Gladys and Lucile enjoying a welcome wagon snack.

Time to “Name that Dog”

You wouldn’t think naming a dog would be so interesting. After I posted “Ruffing it”, Matt and I received many suggestions. Thank you all!

This dog is the son of Winston and Rosie. Born blind, under humble circumstances, he and his seven litter mates emerged from under a small storage shed on or about October 15, 2012. Of average intelligence, or maybe slightly below based on where he ended up in the constant dog pile fights, this medium sized pup never strived to stand out in the pack. He always let his siblings go ahead of him when venturing out. This probably explains why he was the second to the last to be adopted out. His brother George was sleeping the day this dog’s new owners came to the farm.

I remember the day clearly because he kept just out of reach when I tried to catch him. It took a whole bag of doggy treats and some serious sneaking before I managed to snatch him from behind his mother. When he left I told his new family they could bring him back if it didn’t work out. I should have suspected something then when his ears perked up and when he gave me what I now recognize as a ” dog faced grin”. Sure enough, the venture lasted just a few days less than two weeks. A phone call and then an unceremonious return to his place of youth. ” Hey Puppy”, as I called him then, was back. In no time at all, he resumed his favorite activity, lounging, only to be interrupted with the chasing an occasional chicken and barking at the sheep.

In retrospect I suppose calling him and all of his litter mates “Hey Puppy”, was a mistake. It’s like when you come from a big family and your Dad calls out several names before he gets to yours because he can’t remember which one you are. It happens, I do it with the horses all the time.

I tried a few of my own names on him including Butch, Stubby, Homer and Stinky. Not only didn’t he come, he would shake his head and slink away. Mrs Ed suggested I call him Dog. He just growled at that. I suppose any dog can be a Dog.

So the call for help went out on the Internet. Names flooded in on Facebook. Yesterday i assembled my list of dog names. This morning I sat on the porch swing, the dog with no name sacked out on the step. I started at the top of the list and called out each name, hoping for a reaction. Vladimir! He didn’t come a-Russian. I tried Bro. That didn’t make him go. Then Gus, Eddie, Beau, Shep, and Slick. I thought I had him on Slick when he woke up long enough to lick himself. Then Scout, Rascal, Bingo, Ringo, Snoopy, Jackson, Boomer, Cool Beans, Cool. Cool Hand Luke. Nothing. By this time he was snoring. On I went, Latla, Steve, Henry, Hoss, Albert and Askim. He wagged his tail once but continued his journey through dog dreamland.

I was one name short of the end of my list. I saved this one for the last because it was suggested by not one but two Facebook dog namers. Most suggesters gave a reason for their preferred name. For example Rascal, because he looked like a trouble maker and Cool Beans because he looked like he had gas.

The final name on my list was inspired by two things. The dog obviously thinks he is cool because he does what he wants when he wants. Secondly he wears a black coat which he keeps groomed by licking it into place. I took a deep breath. With everything riding on it, I said in my best “Dog Master’s” voice “Fonzie!”. At that moment the most amazing thing happened! The dog actually opened his eyes, looked at me, yawned while uttering a sound resembling Ahhhh! That was followed by a look that I interpreted as a “Whatever” before resuming his snooze.

Thanks everyone for your suggestions. The Fonz would say Hi but he is napping.

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Fonzie, trying out the second step.

Mr. Ed’s Dogs : Ruffing it on the farm

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This is Winston, senior dog of the farm. Born in 2007, he came from my sister Gloria. His mother Lucy was a collie, his father Sam was a border collie. What he lacks in border collie intensity, he makes up with loyalty. He likes to play fetch but won’t give the ball back. He greets visitors by putting his head on your lap when you open your car door. Yesterday he jumped in the UPS truck. Seizing the moment, I told the driver “nice dog! I wish I had one like that”. He gave him to me.

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Rosie, a 2 year old border collie, is truly the “Queen” of the farm. She came from a large family of 11 pups on a dairy farm near Elrosa Minnesota. She greets me at the door every morning and stays just ahead of me when I do chores. When I open the barn door she rushes in to make sure the coast is clear. The sheep snap to attention and the wild chickens fly up to the rafters.

She gets upset when something is out of place. Last summer a rouge skunk entered the chicken coop, reeking havoc on the flock. Rosie’s distinct bark roused me out of a deep sleep. Armed with a flashlight with a weak battery and my trusty 22, I went skunk hunting in the dark. The skunk must have smelled me and exited the chicken shack.. Just about the time I was ready to retreat to hunt another day, Rosie stalked off in the direction of the machine shed. Following the sound of her sharp bark, I stealth-fully proceeded with extreme caution. Straining down the weak beam of light, I caught the reflection of a pair of beady eyes peering out from under the riding lawn mower. Dispatching black and white marauders with the aid of a black and white canine is not without risk. I felt Rosie brush against my leg. I glanced down. Our eyes met. “Shoot-em”, she seemed to be saying. “And, don’t hit the tire”. I squeezed the trigger. The dark shape moved. “shoot-em again”. I did. A horrific smell permeated the air. I gagged. Rosie looked up at me, smiled and messaged me “Sure glad I don’t have to cut grass, ha ha”

At nine months old, Rosie, with a little help from Winston, gave us eight puppies, three girls and five boys. A bit confused at first, the first puppy was born on the porch. About an hour later it disappeared. The next one was born in the middle of the yard. We were trimming horse’s feet and Rosie was standing guard, making sure the horses behaved themselves. Suddenly, out popped a puppy. I watched as she licked off its head. Then, with amazing gentleness, she picked the tiny, squirming baby in her mouth and carried it off. Keeping a safe distance, I followed her to see where she was going. Ducking behind the workshop, she disappeared. As I got close, I could hear mewing sounds coming from under the storage shed. Rosie had hollowed out a space under the safety of the building, just big enough for her and the pups. A curious Winston approached the small entry only to be greeted by the snarls of a protective mother who meant business.

The puppies grew amazingly fast on their mother’s milk. Rosie slimmed down, even while devouring cans and cans of dog food. She grew increasingly neurotic, trying to attend to the puppies and fulfill her farm management duties. Once the puppy’s eyes opened, their demands grew. Soon they began venturing out, short distances at first, a little further each day. I felt sorry for Winston, who was still kept at a distance. At first Rosie made sure she was between me and her babies. Gradually she let me pick them up and hold them. Their favorite game was sibling irritation. More than once, Mom had to step in and break up a dog pile. Before long she was joining in. Gradually the pups turned their attention to Dad, a big furry target. He was surprising tolerant to their chewing and tugging. If he uttered an irritated growl, Rosie stepped in to remind him to mind his manners.

While the puppies were great fun, It soon became obvious that 9 border collies and a loyal mutt, we’re too much for any farm. They were starting to drive Mr. Ed and the animals a little crazy. Instead of one serious “queen of the barnyard” bursting into the barn every morning, the animals were now greeted by a pack of rowdy puppies competing to see who could make the sheep run the fastest and who could make the chickens fly the highest. Chaos ensued on a regular basis. This forced me to take the next step. Put out the word: Puppies for Sale. Within days, the three females and a male left for new homes and loving owners. With each departure Rosie would walk up to the car and look at the puppy in the window as if to say “Be good and remember to take charge”.

Time passed. Plan B: Craigslist. After a couple of weeks, only one pup remained. I decided he could stay. Then a family came to visit. They had just lost their old dog and the children were heart broken. I think Dad was too. The last of Rosie’s and Winston’s puppies became George of the Zim Bog. After months of puppyitement, calmness once again fell upon the land.

Then the phone rang. To back up a second, before I sold a dog, I would visit with the prospective owners. Had they ever had a border collie? Did they know they are a dog that needs to work, to have a place to roam? That they can become a little stir crazy if they are confined? Before they left, I told each person, if it doesn’t work out, bring the pup back, no questions asked. The phone call was from one of the optimistic owners. It turned out the puppy needed much more attention than they thought. I welcomed him back. Upon return, I learned he had learned to sit and stay on command. He was much friendlier too, so overall, it was good for him to experience the big world before returning to the farm of his youth. It didn’t take but a few minutes and a couple of low growls to reestablish old acquaintances.

I haven’t settled on a name yet. He came back as Atlas. I tried Butch, Stubby and Chumbly. Nothing seems to fit. I asked him what he thought and he said “Ruff Ruff”. I didn’t know dogs had last names too but I suppose that’s possible. He seems to have a sense of humor because when I asked him his middle name he said “Ruff”!

20130329-093337.jpg What should you call a dog who is laid back and thinks he is so cool?

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Puppies in training

Meet Mr. Ed’s horses

Here are some new pictures of Mr. Ed’s horses .

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This is Sam. He is a Spotted Draft Horse. Big, handsome with a great personality and work ethic.

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Sam’s sister Sue is all white.

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This is “Sweetie”. A little brown mare, she is the newest member of the herd. My friend DJ calls her “Tootsie” because she is the color of a Tootsie Roll. In harness, she is all business.

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Traded for in a moment of midlife crisis, this handsome Percheron gelding is my “Harley”.

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Cody is eleven years old and still sports his dapples. Dapple grey and white Percherons are born black and eventually turn white.

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At age thirteen, Mick and Bud are my “old” team. I call them my “Christmas horses” because they were a present from Mrs. Ed. Their last names are “Alob and Wiser”.

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This black Percheron gelding is Luke. His nickname is Lazy Luke” because he is so laid back and mellow. He is not afraid to get down and pull when needed.

FIRE!

It was a long time ago. I was at the age when I liked to help but was probably more in the way than helpful. I was there. I remember it in vivid detail. The fear I felt still gripes me when I think about it today, just as it did back that night in the oats field.

I was very fortunate to have grown up on a farm that was a little behind the modernization of American agriculture. Horse powered farms began to give way to mechanized tractor farms in the 1920’s. Progressive farmers sold their teams and bought gasoline powered row crop tractors starting in the 1930’s. By the time WWII roared in, factories were producing tractors and implements at an extraordinary rate. Many farm boys left to join the service, leaving farms shorthanded. The tractor made it possible for one person to do the work of several on a previously horse powered farm. Like any industry, producing more with less is considered good business. Many, if not most, returning veterans never returned to the farm after the war.

Dad’s family was no exception. Four of his brothers went to war. Three returned. Dad stayed to work the farm. After the war he bought the farm from my grandfather and married my mother. They raised eight children. I don’t think they ever had a lot of money. They never talked about it in front of us kids. I suppose they didn’t want us to worry. They paid for most everything in cash except I remember Mom showing me a paper where they had the payment for a additional piece of land deducted from the milk check. People didn’t charge things back then like we do now.

Dad was a hard working farmer. To earn extra money he occasionally worked for a neighbor named Ed. Ed was considered a progressive farmer. He bought new equipment, subscribed to the latest farming techniques, and did custom work for other farmers. Dad would trade labor. When it came time to fill silo, Dad would help Ed and, in exchange, Ed would bring his field chopper and blower to fill our silo. As time passed and money allowed, Dad and Mom bought more equipment, usually used, like a baler, field chopper, etc. I remember one time Dad bought a manure spreader “for Mom” for her birthday. I am sure they worked it out ahead of time as they never bought anything they had not saved for.

In the days when Dad was growing up it was common for neighbors to work together and share equipment and exchange labor. The Nelsons, Rudolph’s, Fuchs, Fruths and Kienows worked together at threshing time. Dad used to tell stories about making the rounds with the threshing machine. I think the thing he remembered most was the meals. Farm women’s reputations depended on how good their lunch or supper was.

I remember a story he liked to tell about the time he and several others were pitching bundles onto their wagons when another neighbor, who owned a small plane, decided to buzz the field. The normally dead broke farm teams who probably had never seen a plane before, bolted, running wildly in all directions. Dad said it took a long time to find all the horses, get them sorted out and repair the harnesses. Later the pilot came by to tell them how funny it looked from the air, horses running all over with guys chasing them.

By the time I came along it was down to the Nelson’s and Rudolph’s. Mom was a Rudolph. Her brothers were my uncles. Her mother, my grandmother, was a fantastic cook. Mom was too. Grandpa Rudolph was in charge of the threshing machine. It had to be set up just right, level, pointing with the wind so the straw could be blown neatly into a pile. He would continually tinker, grease and make adjustments throughout the day.

I remember one time my Uncle Raymond encountered a skunk hiding under a shock of oats. Raymond was pretty quick with a three tined bundle fork and managed to dispatch the stinker before it got him. Faced with one of two options, leaving the skunk lay or playing a good one on Grandpa, he chose the later. Carefully concealing the striped critter under some oats bundles, he waited his turn at the thresher. When the team ahead of him finished unloading and drove off, he brought his team in next to the belt and commenced pitching bundles in the elevator. He waited until Grandpa had climbed up on the separator to adjust the blower before flinging the skunk into the mouth of the machine. The machine rumbled and roared as the odorous carcass hit the whirling blades that cut the twine. It was instantaneously sucked into the conclaves and down into the belly of the Case separator. By the time it hit the blower fan, it was pretty well “separated”, skunk meat in one direction, stink in all directions. For what was said later, I gather it didn’t take Grandpa too long to exit his perch!

Straw is an important byproduct of a threshing operation. Building a straw pile that would shed water was an art. The Rudolph’s built theirs adjacent to the barnyard where the horses fed off of it in the winter and the pigs burrowed under it in the summer. At our place, the pile was put in the field and baled with a square baler immediately after it was threshed. All the straw had to be hand fed into the baler so you didn’t want to let it settle, or worse yet, let it get rained on. It was not uncommon to finish threshing in the afternoon and bale straw until dark.

On the aforementioned night of terror, I remember heading out to bale straw after supper. Dad had an International baler powered by a Farmall H. I don’t know if I was on the hayrack trying to help pile bales or sitting on the baler watching the knotters. The Internationals were notorious for miss tying. It the knotter missed a knot it was the kid’s, who was sitting on the twine box, job to alert Dad.

As dusk settled in and the sky became darker I remember watching and listening to the H as it worked. Dew was beginning to moisten the ground and the straw pile. The dampness made the straw “tough”. The little red baler groaned as the plunger, with it’s thick cutting knife, slammed into the straw. The tractor’s governor responded, increasing the gas, causing the engine to reeve up. This resulted in a shower of sparks shooting out the top of the exhaust pipe. I suppose they were there all the time but it was just easier to see them in the twilight. Dad and the crew pitching the straw worked like a well oiled machine, grabbing , pulling and shoving forkfuls of straw into the baler’s pickup.

Suddenly someone shouted “FIRE”! At first I didn’t realize what was happening. The pitchers threw their forks and ran. Dad reached for the power take off lever, slammed the baler out of gear and jumped on the tractor all in one motion. He threw it in gear and hit the gas. The tractor, baler and half loaded hayrack lurched forward and out of harm’s way.

The dry straw was no match for the hot sparks. The top of the straw pile had burst into flames. Black smoke billowed skyward. The heat from the massive flames forced us to move back again and again. It roared as it lit up the night sky. In a matter of minutes, the whole pile was gone!

It was dark when we headed home. Mom made us something to eat. Nobody said much. I didn’t sleep very well. The next morning there was only a smoldering black spot on the field where the straw pile once stood.

To this day, when I catch a whiff of a certain kind of smoke, I am reminded of that night long ago.

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Nelson – Rudolph threshing operation

The burdens of brotherhood

Growing up in a big farm family involves growing through stages. For example, clothing is handed down from older to younger. Theoretically the oldest boy or girl is the luckiest because they get to be first time wearers. I don’t know if that was true in our family as clothing often came from the older cousins. I was the third boy, by the time I inherited a pair of jeans there were patches on the patches. It really didn’t matter, that’s just the way it was done. Used or not, if it was put in your drawer, it was new to you.

Chores were another thing that were passed down as everyone got older. The youngest did the dishes until they were old enough to go down to the barn. Then came feeding the chickens and picking eggs. As you approached double digits, you would graduate to feeding calves. A little older, you would throw down silage from the silo and feed the cows. The eldest of the teenage kids milked cows and cleaned barn. As we graduated off the farm, the next in line took your place.

There were other things too that the older kids handed off to the younger ones. I dis-stinkly remember one time Dad shot a skunk that was raising havoc in the chicken coop. Since he had done the shooting, he didn’t have to do the removing. In cases like this he would get us kids to play a game of Wahoo (a card game called crazy 8’s). The loser had to dig a hole and bury the skunk. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but according to my older siblings, old enough to participate in a game of Wahoo. I guess I lost because they told me I had to bury the skunk.

I wasn’t quite big enough to dig a hole. Someone did that for me. My older sister suggested I use a scoop shovel to slide under the stinking animal and drag it to the hole. She also suggested I hold my nose with the other hand and to be careful that I didn’t touch it as it would stink up my clothes. It was a memorable experience and inspired me to learn how to become a better Wahoo player, at least better than my younger siblings.

This morning I took the Jersey Boys out for a walk. The boys are two calves named Joe and Vinney that are being trained to become oxen. The first step is to train them to lead. It is best to start when they are small so you can physically handle them when they make a break for it. Joe and Vinney were born in September. They are probably getting to about 350-400 pounds. The first two or three times were spent going around and around in a circle until they figured out they were not going to get away from the old guy on the rope. Once they submit, the rest is just a lot of patience and practice.

I learned about training oxen when I was in high school. I showed dairy animals in FFA classes at the fair. They had to be trained to lead to be exhibited. Patience and practice. During this time, our old team of horses died. I already had the draft horse itch, but no horses. I did the next best thing. I picked out a couple of white Holstein bull calves and started to train them to lead. I got the Foxfire Book that shows how to carve an ox yoke and managed to crudely rough one out. I took a couple of small white oak saplings and formed the bows. When I was done, I fitted it on the calves. They looked just like the oxen in the pictures, only smaller.

The day came to see if they could pull something. I remembered seeing a picture of a two wheeled ox cart. At this point I enlisted my younger brother Ron’s help. He was a pretty handy kid for his size and age. We sorted through the scrap pile behind the tools house for parts. We knew wheels had to be round. Two gears taken off some junked piece of machinery seemed to fit the purpose. We found a rod that fit through the holes to serve as an axle. It didn’t matter that there was quite a bit of slack. It was better that way anyway because it would pull easier. We managed to figure out a platform to sit on and a tongue to attach to the ox yoke. It wasn’t exactly factory built, but we figured it was good enough for what we wanted to do.

It was time to give it a try. Because this was their maiden voyage, I decided it would be best to start at the top of the hill and go towards the barn. John and Thor, the oxen in training, were more willing to be led towards the barn than away from it anyway.

Being the older sibling, it was my duty to do the ox handling. Ron’s job was to provide the ballast. Besides, someone should be lucky enough to experience the exhilaration of this historic moment. Even at his young age, he appeared skeptical. “It will be ok” I assured him, “I’ll Lead them down the hill. It will be fun”.

Reluctantly he agreed and climbed on the platform. “Are you ready”? I think he nodded. “Hump”, I uttered, the sound I use to get the calves moving. I tugged on the lead ropes. They eased into the yoke. As things do before all hell breaks loose, things went well. One step, two steps, the cast iron gears hit the gravel about the time they emitted a loud screech. I suppose we should have added a little grease, but in our hurry, we hadn’t thought of it.

The young, less than seasoned future beasts of burden, suddenly began paying attention. This became abundantly apparent by the sudden tautness I felt in the lead ropes. I don’t think it could have been the terrified look on the passenger’s face or his shrill utterance, but something inspired them to liberate the lead ropes from the bullwacker’s hands. Hands stinging from the rope burns, I stood by helplessly watching the trio bounce wildly down the hill at a speed faster than you think cattle can run. The sound of steel hitting rocks, amplified by squeaks and squeals and muffled screams, was pretty traumatic for me.

Amazingly, young Ron held on as the beasts slammed into the closed gate. “Wow, I bet that was fun”, I remember I probably said when I reached the site of the culmination of that historic ride. The story has a happy ending. The oxen grew up, performed farm chores, participated in community parades and left us with many special family memories.

Being an older brother carries lifelong burdens. In a conversation with Ron today, many years after this historic incident, he reminded me who was holding the ropes and who was riding the cart. The way I remember it, all I got was rope burn, he got one heck of a ride!

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John and Thor, oxen in training circa early 1970’s

Oopsy-daisy

March snow storms are memorable. Just when you think spring is here, Mother Nature snaps you back to reality. Either that or it is just part of the state hockey tournament tradition. Watching the snow swirl around outside this morning reminds me of the March morning that tipped my world upside down and left me with egg on my face.

The story started the summer before and it involves horse trading. In an earlier blog, I related the story of Charlie Horse, and my crash course on what not to do when buying horses. Charlie and I parted company at about two in the morning at the Mora Sales Barn. On the long way home I had time to reflect on my next move. Ben, Charlie’s good team mate, would surely be lonely and Mrs Ed would be sympathetic to the need to find a new mate for him. It wasn’t a hard sell except that it came with one condition, that I enlist the advice of someone who knew what they were doing, before shelling out any more money for horses. Swallowing my pride, I agreed. It turned out to be pretty good advice.

I called my friend and harness maker. He knew of a 4 year old mare that was for sale from a reputable horseman. I contracted him, made a visit, actually drove the horse, had coffee and pie with him and bought the horse. I figured anyone you have coffee and pie with is trustworthy. You can’t be too careful. Besides I like pie.

Patsy was a Belgian mare, blondish mane and tail. She was about the same size as Ben. Ben was a liver colored Percheron type so I was able to tell them apart. I borrowed a small trailer to bring her home. In hindsight it was too small. Patsy was unaccustomed to being loaded in a trailer, especially one designed for a much smaller horse. After some pushing, pulling and gentle cajoling, we got her loaded.

It just so happened that my Dad and Uncle came up that day to visit. When we arrived at the farm they helped me hitch Ben and Patsy together for the first time. Another case where having experienced help paid off. The hitch went off without a hitch! I was on my way to farming with horses.

That summer I plowed, dished, cut hay, hauled manure and a whole bunch of other things. When winter came. I took the team in the woods to skid trees from a fence line logging project. I even built a new sled and made trails through the woods. I was having fun! Then came that fateful March day.

We had experienced a late February thaw, the kind that leaves barnyards muddy and messy. I did not yet have a large area fenced so the horses had muddied every available piece of high ground. It was Sunday. The sheep were lambing. A friend called and wanted to bring her children to see the animals. I harnessed the horses and took them for a wonderful sleigh ride. Except for the ominous dark clouds and an east wind, it was a perfect day.

That night, darkness came early. The weather forecasters were talking about freezing rain, sleet and snow. When I went out to do chores, little beads of ice stung my face. The horses were obviously restless, milling around the back door of the barn, whinnying to me when they saw me coming out of the sheep barn. By now the sleet had increased in intensity and the wind rattled a piece of loose tin somewhere on the barn roof.

Normally I do not put my horses inside the barn for a couple of reasons. I subscribe to the notion that horses are healthier out in the fresh air. Their winter coats keep them warn and they are free to move around in really cold weather for improved circulation. Also I don’t like to haul out piles of frozen horse manure. I have a lean-to that they can get out of the weather if they want.

Something was different about this night. Done with the sheep and chicken chores, I went to the horse barn. I could hear them outside, bumping the door with their noses. I scooped out a can of oats from the grain bin and put it in their feed box, I climbed up in the loft, groped around for some hay and straw bales. I dropped them down from the hay mow, to the floor below. As I descended the ladder, I could hear the wind howl. One of the horses rapped the door sharply with a hoof. “I’m coming”. I slid the door open. I jumped aside, as they rushed in and took their individual stalls. Bracing against the wind, I forced the door closed. The horses munched their grain as I slipped on their halters. I found a brush and cleaned the ice crystals off their backs. I filled the mangers with hay and spread straw in the alley way. By the time I left the barn, I could already feel it warming up. The smell of warm horses permeated the air. I flipped off the light switch and braced myself for an icy blast before I headed off to the house.

During lambing season, I usually make one or two barn checks during the night. I did the first one about midnight. All was quiet. On my return, I checked on the horses. Startled by the light, they shifted their feet when I came in. I put the hay that had fallen on the floor back into the manger. By now the storm had subsided and it was getting noticeably colder. It was Monday. Better get back to bed. Got to go to work in the morning.

By the time I headed out for morning chores, the sun was just peeking over the horizon. The sky was a brilliant blue. The fresh coating of snow glistened in the morning sun. Doing the Minnesota shuffle, I gingerly made my way down the ice coated path. Approaching the barn, I heard a commotion. A horse was whinnying and making nickering sounds. I picked up the pace, rushing to see what was wrong. Turning the latch and flipping on the light switch, I got the biggest surprise of my life. There in the middle of the aisle stood a wobbly legged foal! Patsy was tugging against her halter, trying to get free. I unsnapped her so she could join her baby.

By the time I got the other horses out of the barn and the sheep fed, I was seriously late for work. At that time I was driving a Chevy S 10 pickup. This is a rear wheel drive, mini pickup truck with poor traction even in the best of road conditions. Elated by the surprise, I rushed through the shower, got dressed and headed out the door, almost forgetting the five dozen eggs I was supposed to deliver that morning.

Briefcase full of papers in one hand, sack of eggs in the other, I jumped in the truck. After fastening my seat belt, I fired up the engine and sped down the driveway. Glancing at my watch, I knew I was already late for the egg delivery. My customer was a good friend but fussy about her eggs. Hitting the highway, I should have paid more attention to the fish tailing as I turned the corner. Thinking about the new baby, which the person I had bought Patsy from, didn’t warn me about, I didn’t take into account the icy road conditions. About five miles from home, the highway makes a slight curve. As I entered the curve, things got interesting real quick.

I remember the rear end swinging out. I compensated by turning the wheel. It swung the other way. I turned the wheel again. The snow bank suddenly loomed near the passenger door. From that moment, it felt like slow motion. The truck hit the bank, catching it just right for the momentum to begin the flip. Up, up and over. The next thing I knew I has hanging upside down suspended by the seatbelt, sliding down into the ditch. I remember stuff raining down around me, as the contents of my brief case emptied.

Fortunately there was someone behind me who witnessed the whole thing. I think she was more upset than I was when she came to my aid. Once it was determined I was alright, she offered me a ride to work. I’ll never forget, papers stuffed in my briefcase, going into the door at work. Waiting for me was my now irate egg customer. “Where are my eggs” she demanded!. Not knowing what else to do, I pointed to my hat, coat, pants and briefcase and said “I’m wearing them”. We laughed about that for many years.

I named the little filly Daisy, for the March day when my truck and I went oopsy-daisy!
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Patsy, Kate, Ben, and Matt Nelson

Do sheep need amusement too?

Males, in the world of livestock, fall into two categories, lucky or unlucky. Without going into great detail, farmers don’t need a one to one ratio of male to female animals to raise more animals. One rooster can enable many hens to produce eggs which can be hatched into new chickens. One good bull is sufficiently adequate to produce a new generation of calves, one stallion, a herd of new ponies etc. With the exception of geese, which take one mate for life, and horses that can be driven or ridden, most males are destined to become part of the food chain.

Males that are not selected for procreation purposes are not usually kept for an extended period of time on the farm because they can get mean and fight. Stallions have been known to fight to the death. An abundance of roosters leaves a flock of hens bedraggled. Billy goats and sheep bucks will inflict serious injury on each other as they spar for the dominate position. Bulls not only fight each other but can attack the farmer. As a farmer, I subscribe to the notion, one male is enough and sometimes, one too many.

There is a saying in the sheep business, the ram is half the flock. In a group of 40 ewes you might end up with 80 lambs. Forty of them have one sibling. All of them have 1 sibling and 79 half siblings because they all have the same sire (father). Half the genetics come from the ram, half from the dam ( mother). If a ewe has an undesirable trait like producing a lamb with an overbite, only two lambs might be affected. If the ram has a defect, he could potentially pass that onto all his offspring (babies).

I have had numerous rams over the years. There are certain things I look for. I generally buy one that is purebred (out of parents that are both of the same breed). Purebred’s generally exhibit the best qualities of the breed. For example if I want fast growing, heavily muscled lambs that you would like to have over for dinner, I choose a blackface breed like a Suffolk or Hampshire. If I want to produce wool, I’d chose a whiteface ram like a Merino, Corriedale or a Lincoln. There are many breeds to chose from. I like crossing one breed with another because the result is a “hybrid”. Hybrids usually grow faster than the purebreds and have better livability.

Finding the right ram can be interesting. I have found them by word of mouth, on line, at fairs and on the bulletin board at the feed store. The first thing you need to make sure of is the ram is not related to the ewes. Father/daughter, brother/sister matings can result in some weird looking lambs that usually do not live too long. The next thing I look for is size and conformation for the breed. If I want a market lamb, I look for a ram with a long thick loin. If the ram is a skinny one, the lambs will be skinny too.

One thing I learned the hard way is to select for disposition. Once I bought a ram I found at a county fair. He was a handsome beast aptly named Rambo. Very friendly too, as evidenced by how well he liked to have his head rubbed. This was a crowd pleaser at the fair but turned ugly as breeding season approached. Rambo had lost his fear and respect for humans. He saw them as competition, which he had no toleration for. He was sneaky too, launching his attack when you least expected it.

I generally avoid getting in the pen with the sheep during breeding season, however sometimes it is unavoidable. On one memorable encounter, Rambo left quite an impression on me. It was during evening chores, well after sunset, that I entered the barn. I flipped the light switch, noticing that another light bulb had burned out. I made a mental note to change it on Saturday. As I carried a bale of hay to the fence line feeder, I noticed a ewe with her head down, limping. Straining into the shadows, I could see she had a twine string around her neck and caught in her foot. Not thinking, I opened the small gate and rushed to her aid. I should have seen Rambo backing up and lowering his head, but I didn’t. The ewe struggled to get away. I grabbed her around the neck and attempted to push her into a corner. She dragged me around until I finally got her pinned against the waterer. I fumbled around in my pocket, trying to find my jack knife. About the time I located it, the ewe resumed her struggle to escape, causing me to drop the knife in the straw. One arm clutching the ewe, the other reaching for the knife, i was in a compromising position.

Rambo seized the moment. By the time I saw him break from the flock, it was too late. He had locked unto my rear and meant business. The next thing I remembered was being airborne, somersaulting over the ewe and the Ritchie Waterer. I landed on the opposite side of the fence, flat on my back. The flock gave a collective gasp, interspersed with a couple of snickers and a chuckle. Rambo simply looked at me, and walked, head held high, back to the girls. Meanwhile the distressed ewe had magically shed the twine and resumed normal activities.

Later that night, Mrs Ed noticed a rather large black and blue mark. “Where did you get that?” she inquired. “Is it in the shape of a sheep’s head?” I asked. I related the story. “You shouldn’t get in the pen with a ram”. She advised.

Advice well taken. However I’ll always wonder what really was going on. A couple of nights later, about the same time, I noticed a sheep standing next to the waterer. She appeared to have her head caught in a gate. As I rushed to her aid, I noticed all the sheep lining up and looking at me. Front and center, slightly hidden in the crowd, Rambo stood, head down, legs gathered under him,watching my every move. I decided to feed hay before making the rescue attempt. Miraculously the entangled ewe freed herself to go eat with the others. To this day, I wonder if sheep need amusement too?

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Rambo VII, a great, great, great third cousin, six times removed from Rambo the Terrible.