I felt my rubber muck boot catch the bottom wire of the horse fence. My ankle caught the strand that I had strung there this summer. My knees hit the snow. The five gallon bucket I had been filling at the spigot fell forward out of my hands and spilled into the stark, white snow, soaking my hands through my gloves, emptying in a mockery of the small task I was trying to accomplish.
I was wearing too many layers to injure myself in the fall: my legs were insulated against their snowy landing spot by two pairs of pants and a pair of heavy duty coveralls. Rather, the -15 degree windchill made the possibility of frostbite through my wet gloves my most pressing concern. I stood up slowly–the only possible way to stand in coveralls–and, swearing at the wind or the weather or my own clumsiness, began to refill the bucket. Ponies need water. It is my job to make sure they have it, whether the process for getting it is pleasant or not. Continue reading “Living the Dream”→
“I don’t wanna go outside!” I whined. We whine together a lot. If we lived closer, we’d wine together a lot…and that would be better. “I checked, Lauren. It’s been consistently colder here than at your place. Which seems completely unfair given that you’re basically Canadian!”
Lauren laughed, but acknowledged that it’s true. They live far enough north that she could damn near apply for dual citizenship. I, however, live in the middle ground of the country. Illinois. Home of Chicago at one end and cornfields at the other. Despite the expectations that it’s more temperate here, we get nearly arctic colds and southern warms. (Temperate my ass…110 heat index in Summers and -20+ windchill in the winter.) Last week, my little corner of creation went through a cold snap. It was colder here than in Bangor, ME. Actually, as a matter of fact, it was colder here than in Nome, AK.
For many of us in the Midwest, El Nino has been a kind and benevolent overlord this winter. Sure, he brought with him some scary-ass storms and some flooding (more towards St. Louis really, but the Illinois River is pretty freaking high for this time of year), but he has also kept the frigid temperatures away…For the bulk of this season, I’ve been reveling in 40-50 degree days. With the memory of the Polar Vortex and it’s negative thirty degree windchills of a few years ago still fresh in my mind, that’s basically t-shirt weather.
middle of the day…
(Images from the Polar Vortex)
Until this week.
This week kicked off our first round of single digits and negative numbers, and while no one I know likes those sort of numbers, it’s especially vexing for those of us who take care of livestock. For me, extreme cold means that I spend about twice as much time outside every day. My aging herd of llamas is locked in to the barn with their heat lamps. When they’re locked in, they eat more. They poop more. They some how dirty their waterers faster. Plus, I’m pretty sure they get super bored and annoyed with me. (How dare I shut them in to prevent frostbite and exposure??? I am SO rude!)
All of the creatures, from the 4 lb chickens to the 1200 lb horses, require more care and more clean up when the weather is this wretched. I feed more. I clean more. I go outside more often, and I stay there longer.
Most of the time, I don’t really mind. It’s part of this gig, and I usually see it as an unfortunate but fair trade for my wonderful spring, summer, and fall days out here. But there is one event that can turn it from generally unpleasant to downright nasty: Freezing Water Lines.
They tell me spring is on its way. They say it will start on March 20th. I’m not sure I believe them.
Jeremiah took off around 5:30 this morning for another shoeing conference. He will be gone for about a week. Then I’ll be leaving the morning of the day he gets back for a vacation in Costa Rica with my sister. Thankfully, one of us will be at the ranch the whole time, so we won’t need to call on too much help, but taken together, these next two weeks will probably account for the most time we’ve spent apart since we first started dating in 2010.
Until I leave, things will be cold. Really cold. (Like, -7 degrees tonight.) Right now, outside looks like this.
The woods remind me of a Robert Frost poem as I make my nightly trudge out to the barn, but I have hopes that we will at least be above freezing temperatures by the time I get home. In the meantime, Spring whispers sweet nothings, small promises that give me just a little hope that its closer than we think.
For example, my chickens have started laying a bit more. A few days ago, Jeremiah collected 5 eggs, up from the 2, 1, or 0 we have been collecting each day this winter. Of course, all of the eggs were frozen solid. But hey, it’s a start, right?
Also, we have a bit more daylight each day. The sun won’t set until 5:40 today. I am in love with each extra second of daylight.
Spring cannot get here soon enough for my liking. Everything we do out here on the ranch takes more time and costs more money in the winter, and I’m kind of over it. Stalls get dirtier. Chores have to be done in the dark. We use more electricity for lights and water heaters. We have to feed more hay and more grain. Not to mention keeping the house heated.
I’m looking forward to warmer weather. To daylight into late evening. I’m looking forward to riding my horses again. And I’m looking forward to being able to go out to the barn without adding layers and layers of bulky clothes.
I think maybe the critters are looking forward to Spring too.
Has Spring sprung in your neck of the woods, or are you still shivering with me and all the critters out here at Eagle Ridge?
The sky is blue fading black. Snow blankets the ground. Not deep snow, but enough to cover the mud and the muck and the browned out remnants of fall and summer. It’s unmolested, still a perfect shimmering white reflecting the brightest stars, the ones that manage to shine out between the wispy clouds. The light of the moon is mirrored by the snow covered earth, giving the entire outdoors an other-earthly feel. It’s stunning beyond the ability of pictures to capture.
… And it’s so damn cold your boogers will freeze right on your face.
Weather in the Midwest is notoriously unstable. Lately, we’ve had swings of 40 degrees or so several times a week. Most of the animals are handling it fairly well, but the older among them are having some difficultly with the extremes. Couple that with a string of bad luck, and it’s been a weird couple of weeks seemingly living in reaction to the realities of the ranch.
Since just before Christmas, I’ve had three sick llamas (two with infections and one with an upset tummy), one lame llama (who stood up when her foot was asleep and pulled a muscle), two lame horses (stone bruising due to the quick deep freeze), two lame cats, a lacerated dog requiring stitches, and an injured husband. I just came inside from the barn a few moments ago, sick myself with a nasty cough, after dealing with a llama who somehow managed to choke on crumbled grain…(Don’t ask; I have no idea.)
It was while I was walking toward the barn, mostly preoccupied with helping the choking animal Jeremiah had called to report, that I noticed the wild and untamable winter beauty of the place. It was on the way back from the other barn, with thirty mile an hour winds and a temperature of seven degrees, that I realized, pretty or not, the cold will cut through you like a knife and freeze exposed skin with a chill that somehow burns. (And your boogers, as mentioned, it will also freeze your boogers.)
This ranch is a lot like the cold, beautiful and harsh, sometimes in almost equal measure.
Llamas are usually a pretty hearty bunch, but our herd is aging. Nearly all of them are north of ten years old; several are flirting with twenty. In the past couple of weeks, mostly right around the holidays, we’ve had three vet visits to deal with the issues of various critters (one cat, one dog, one llama).
We sometimes jokingly refer to the ranch as the llama nursing home. It’s one of those jokes that’s only funny because it’s true. This summer, we had a bout of strange behavior that led both Jeremiah and I to believe that several animals were heading downhill, that they wouldn’t be with us much longer. We watched them closely and changed their diet. We put in a superbly expensive water filtration system (that eliminated the heavy metals that were disturbingly prevalent in the well). And they bounced back, but we continue to watch.
I don’t think it’s the trials themselves that make ranch life harsh, or the work. I am no stranger to hard work, nor is my husband. I think it’s the knowledge that whatever you do, out here you will eventually lose the fight. After all, as often as not, the fight is against time itself.
It’s a common saying amongst ranch people: “If you’re gunna have livestock, you’re gunna have deadstock.” My cousin and uncle who run a dairy farm and have lost far too many calves this year have muttered that adage the same way I do when one of our critters gets sick, the way I did last year when we lost two alpacas to the cold and the damp. I’ve been saying it since I was fourteen years old.
But the saying is just a saying when you watch animals you care about get sick. Last week, the three sick llamas were three of my favorites. Even though I know I will lose animals, that these creatures won’t be around forever, I was ready to raze hell for those three. Fortunately, all but one has fully recovered, and I think the last will be all better in a few days. Still, for a little while there, I felt like Molly Weasley taking on Bellatrix Lastrange in the last Harry Potter book, screaming “Not my daughter, you bitch!” Except in my case I wasn’t facing a Death Eater, just time and illness, screaming “Not my pets, you bitch!”
I know for a lot of you it probably seems strange to be so attached to such creatures; even I would have found myself less upset by everything if it had only been one, but three of my favorite animals in as many days was rough even by my standards.
However, for now, all is well. The llamas and alpacas and ponies are tucked in snug in their stalls with blankets and heat lamps as necessary. The barn doors and stall doors are shut tight against the wind and the chill. They have more hay to munch than they probably need for the night. The chickens are likewise warm in their coop, the barn cats in their tack room, even the feral kitty is tucked into the hayloft. The big horses in the back field are fluffed up with their winter coats (all four of them resembling equine Yetis). Jeremiah and I are in the house with the house pets, the dogs curled up in front of the hearth. Most everyone is well, or on the way to being well.
I know that this place with always have the bitter mixed with the sweet, that it will likely always be beautiful and harsh in equal measure, but I also know that it’s worth it. The land is worth it, the house is worth it, and, more than anything else, the animals are worth every bit of heartbreak that I will ever feel on their behalf.
So it is with that thought that I look forward, into next year, into the next stage of things.
In a place like this, in a life like mine, you must learn to take the bad with the good. But guys? There is so much good to go around.
The snow falling outside my office window in the Heights probably means many things to many people. For me, it’s a gently falling reminder that old man winter beat us back to the ranch. We still aren’t moved back out there.
Just a few days ago, temperatures hovered between 55-60 degrees in our little corner of the planet. Now we’re in the 20s, complete with two days of snow. Illinois is like that, almost specializing in drastic weather changes that come in the night.
For the past few weeks, we’ve been expecting the cold. Our winter supply of hay–minus one flatbed load that we still need to pick up–is safely tucked away, either in barns or under tarps. Our grain room, likewise, is nearly full.
And, yet, the cold hit yesterday, and I found myself running around like mad trying to tie up loose ends.
I ran from store to store. At the first, I picked up a heated base for my chicken water, a sinking heater for my horse trough (the one from last year is toast), and cracked corn.
Then to another store for winter gloves that stand a chance against ranch life.
Back at the ranch, I noticed a shivering alpaca, just one, so I dug the winter coats out of the feed room
Eventually, several of our animals will be in coats, but I prefer to wait to put them on until they act cold. The more they regulate their own temperatures without help, the better.
We also dug out heat lamps, and, before leaving for the night, we shut our old men into their stall with their very own heat lamp.
Today, we will head out again, buying posts at Lowe’s for a pony shelter that needs to go in yesterday and winter clothes for Jeremiah. (Do you believe he went through all of last winter without a heavy winter coat? Said that if he bought one, winter won.)
And so begins another season out at the ranch. Hopefully, the big snows hold off for just a bit longer, and we can get moved back out before the roads get icy. We shall see.
Also, since I’m new at this one, does anyone want to share some friendly advice for keeping chickens nice and cozy? I have two that have bald(ish) backs from getting picked on, and I’m afraid of frostbite.
Ever since we moved our horses to the ranch (very early in the pre-buying process), Jeremiah and I have been talking about, finally, being able to entertain large numbers of people. For the first time in our married life, we finally feel like we have the space to have big get-togethers.
A few weeks ago, in my eternal optimism, I decided that we would definitely be moved back in by the middle of October. (I have no idea why I thought that, but I did…) With that in mind, I decided we should hold a bonfire/housewarming at the end of October. You know, really celebrate moving back in after all of the set backs and “rug pulled out from under our feet” moments along this crazy ride. And what’s not to celebrate? We are, after all, moving onto our dream property. Our horses are there! Eggs are fresh every day! I have little ponies! I’m taking care of llamas who I have LOVED since I was a teenager! This place, and everything it is and can be, is amazing and beautiful and a huge gift to our lives.
I figured we could have a lot of our projects done by then. We could be moved back in. All would be more settled and right with the world.
But, the thing is, we’re not actually moved back in yet. And, the more I think about it, the more I have no idea why I thought we would be.
So that started me thinking. (I should not be allowed to do that…)
It’s going to get cold soon. In fact, the cold settled in for a bit over the last few days. Thus far, it hasn’t gotten cold enough to require turning on the heat in the big house, but it will. (And never mind heating a house I don’t live in…) Once it does, we won’t be able to vent out the house like we have been; since we moved out, it has been shut up a few times, and each time the mothball smell and mold issues came back like a raging flood. Jeremiah and I can’t even really work in there when the house is not venting. There is pretty much no chance we can consider moving back in, with the cold, until we can bring Serv-Pro in to clean up the basement.
And while we’re on the subject of things I’m vaguely panicked about, I’ve had Jeremiah’s truck for several weeks while he’s been running around God’s Half Acre with my car. And suddenly I’m realizing how much it costs us to keep the vehicles running back and forth to the ranch every day. (I think it’s around 10-15 dollars a day for the truck…) I could do the math, but I really don’t want to. I am pretty sure that amount would more than pay for our hay for the winter though…
Oh, and speaking of panic, the snow is coming guys. According to the Farmer’s Almanac, who totally nailed their predictions last year, the snow in my area is going to be another snowmageddon… Last year, going back and forth during the worst of the winter was pretty bad. There were times when the roads were so bad that it took over an hour to make the twenty minute drive to the ranch. We were hauling water from one barn to the other, coming out multiple times a day to knock ice off the horses (who didn’t want to go into their nice, bedded stall with the heat lamp), and the only thing that made all of that ok was the knowledge that we wouldn’t have to do that routine from the Heights again. And, it seems, maybe we will.