Monday, January 13, 2014

Lessons I Wish I Didn't Learn the Hard Way

Fair Hogs
Don't they look happy?
When I was a little girl, about 7 or 8, my father had a number of hogs. I've always loved pigs, they always look happy (and I really like bacon). There was one big white sow he let me name “Petunia”. I was thrilled when I found out she was going to have piglets. While she wasn't my personal responsibility, I enjoyed visiting and scratching her big, bristly back and listening to her grunt in approval.

(I was an odd little kid who felt completely comfortable in the barn and loved its inhabitants. I preferred their company to that of my family. I really enjoyed the animals and I had learned a lot about responsibility and animal care with the barn menagerie.  I was about to get a big lesson in animal husbandry.)

The big day arrived and the piglets seemed to be thriving.  However, due to some mis-communication between my parents, the pig family was housed in a stall in the barn with deep bedding rather than the hard concrete-floored pen my father intended for them.  Much to my horror, some of the piglets were being flattened (and killed) when the mother would lie down in the pen. 

As I watched my “city girl” mother burst into helpless tears at the disturbing sight, I inwardly vowed that I would never face such a situation again. It was my childish suggestion that we simply sew up the split piggies…surely that would fix it. We did manage to get all the survivors moved into the correct pen and the story had a somewhat happy ending. Unfortunately, similar disasters seemed to beset our little “farmette” often and before I started high school, the animals were just a memory.

While I can honestly say that I never did experience such a thing again, I also have to admit that I have shed my fair share of tears in the barn. Not tears of helplessness, but tears of frustration accompanying a feeling of “dammit, this should not happen!” and I could tell my own tales of woe and disaster.
Cows have been some of my greatest teachers

There is a saying among old-time farmers that if you have livestock long enough you will indeed experience dead stock at some point.  You learn a lot about living and dying while spending time in the barn.
I know what to do for milk fever, mastitis and how to “fix” a prolapse.  I can detect parasite overload and illness, often with just a glance. I know the signs of lambing distress and ringwomb...frost-bite and scours.  I’ve set broken bones, corrected mis-presented births and  once the Boss and I performed a post-mortem C-section and saved the lamb. I’ve attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and once doctored an egg-bound hen.  But, the truth of the matter is I only learned these things because the unthinkable happened.

More than once the “simple, country life” has nearly defeated us---me in particular. I thought I knew about animal husbandry and farm life...but,  since moving to the hill in ’97, I have had to learn a lot...the hard way.  Rather than let the bad experiences whip me, I’ve asked questions, read books and done online research.  But, sometimes even that is not enough.

No, he wasn't just taking a nap in the sunshine
This past spring, we lost a lamb. A big, beautiful lamb just about ready for harvest.  After being a shepherd for more than 10 years, I heartily concur with “the thing sheep do best is die”. I hate to lose animals, but it happens.  When we lost the second lamb, I began to panic. The whole flock seemed to be ailing and we had absolutely no clue what was going on. Our area has a recurring rabies issue and the Boss and I were both more than a little concerned about the illness. A trip to the state lab was in order for a necropsy.   I had numerous discussions with the veterinarian on call and he was about as baffled as I was.  Everything seemed to point to a clostridial disease, but I had followed the same protocol I had followed for years.  We went home from the lab and vaccinated the remaining animals again, figuring that we had to do something.  By the time the lab report came back indicating that it was indeed clostridial in nature, we had lost two more animals.  In the end, the veterinarian was fairly certain that the only reason the losses weren’t higher was because we treated the remaining animals when we did.

Now, I like to think that I am a fairly intelligent person, but the protocol that we had been following (at my direction…I am the default vet here on the hill) was wrong, due to my lack of knowledge or misunderstanding.  Ultimately it was my fault that those animals died. That didn’t make me cry…but, it did renew my resolve to do everything in my power not to let that happen again! I felt incredibly stupid and realized there was indeed more to learn.

Sometimes the learning curve seems insurmountable.  I know that over the years I have struggled with things that folks born to this way of life would never have given a second thought.  However, when I’ve gone to other farmers or my favorite vet with my questions or troubles, they didn’t lecture me or even roll their eyes, they answered the question graciously and pointed me in the right direction.  On occasion, I have been comforted with a pat on the back and the words “sometimes that’s just what happens”.

Because, sometimes even your best shot isn’t enough.  We’ve lost lambs because we were under the impression that spring lambing would work for everyone.  I had to watch helplessly as one pet lamb died because our “natural” methods for parasite control were not effective. I spent countless hours (and dollars) in the barn with the vet because I didn’t understand the nutrition issues that can cause milk fever. But, in the long run, we learned from each of these situations and haven’t had to have any repeat lessons.  As a matter of fact, the dairyman who really didn’t even want to sell us a cow at one point actually offered to buy one that we had bred and raised.  The vet whose brusque no-nonsense manner scared me witless on his first visit, allowed me to call him by his nickname AND told me in no uncertain terms that I knew what I was doing and knew my cows…as much as any one of his old farmers. (no small praise from such an old-school man)

Memories of the losses still sting.  Not because we lost pets…these are farm animals destined for the plate.  The memories sting because they point to ignorance, bad husbandry and poor stewardship. And, quite honestly I wonder what other people think. But, the experiences gave me insights that would have been missed otherwise and a level of experience and expertise to help other folks in the future.

     ...and there's always that sweetness of victory and success at the end of a difficult situation.

But, I must say every time...  “that’s a lesson I wish I didn't learn the hard way!” 
                                                                                                                                                      (THE HARD WAY-Eric Church)

Success is oh, so sweet!

1 comment:

  1. I think (maybe I should say hope) all farmers feel like this Barbara. I know how when it happens to us we have the same gut reaction.