Living relatively self-sufficiently on five acres, we always had some livestock. For all intents and purposes, we had a farm, but it was more of a small family farm than the big operations I usually think of when I hear the term (with cattle, pigs, chickens, sheep, etc.).
At any given time our livestock generally consisted of one milk cow and a coop full of chickens. Along the way we tried out different animals, but this was the general combination that held.
Sweetheart the Cow
We had two different milk cows over the years, April and Sweetheart. When we moved to Central Oregon from the valley back in 1976, April came with us; Sweetheart came along later, after April died. In addition, each year the respective cow would be bred and we would raise a calf for beef, so for a part of each year we would have cattle (though it probably didn’t qualify as a herd).
Each cow was milked twice a day, in the morning and in the evening. My dad did most of the milking, though I did a share of the evening milking with Sweetheart.
Milking a cow by hand; now there’s an activity.
Our cows were pretty good-natured about being milked, but even so they would occasionally aim a kick at something while you were down there. You’d have to be quick to pull the bucket out of the way, and at least once Sweetheart got the bucket before I could move it—resulting in spilled milk covering the barn floor and the bucket stuck to the cow’s foot.
Another favorite was getting whipped in the head by the tail. Usually a cow whips and twitches its tail to shoo flies away, but sometimes I think they would aim for your head on purpose, just for amusement.
We would get two to three gallons of fresh milk every day: raw, unpasteurized, whole milk, with heavy cream that would rise to the surface to be skimmed off (delicious when poured over cereal). People these days tend to wig out when you tell them things like that, but let me tell you, when it comes to fresh dairy, it doesn’t get any better than that. No hormones, no antibiotics, no processed feed from waste by-products, no weird chemicals.
Funny thing about the cows: for their sheer size, mass, and strength, they are (mostly) incredibly docile animals. Half the time they run away from you, if they notice you at all. We thought nothing of wandering around the pasture, walking right up to them, or just casually being around them (with the exception of one or two), though if you stop to consider it, these are nigh-unstoppable tanks of meat and horns lumbering about.
For instance, if they ever wanted to escape the pasture, they could simply walk right through the fence. But they almost never did; they would always wait for a gate to be left open, and then they would make their break. Seriously, that fence might as well be tissue paper—if a ton of beef wants through, it’s going through. No, the fence is strictly psychological.
That was always one of my greatest fears about the cattle: having them escape. (I would hope the reason why is obvious.) And they did get out, from time to time. April was the worst case scenario: she would take off and head for the hills. See, she was raised in the Willamette Valley where there was grass and greenery everywhere; the desert landscape must have freaked her out a bit, because when she escaped, she ran, looking for that green.
Sweetheart, on the other hand, was raised in Central Oregon and therefore knew there was nothing over the hill worth running for. She would simply meander into the garden and wait for you to come get her while she worked her way through the vegetables.
The ultimate cow escape story, however, comes not from either one of those two, but from a bull we had one year (temporarily, for breeding purposes).
Who knows what triggered it, but one day the bull decided to go for a run. Out of the blue, just like that. Remember what I wrote about fences begin as good as tissue paper to a cow? Well, this bull put that into practice: he simply walked through the fence (four strands of barbed wire), and left.
Now, understand that we lived on the edge of the High Desert, not on a large ranch or farm with relatively cleared and flat land; no, we were surrounded by hills and ridges and escarpments and rimrocks and lava outcroppings and depressions (ad nauseum), so when the bull took off, he disappeared into the landscape. All we knew was the general direction he’d been traveling. Fortunately, he left a pretty clear trail in the sand.
We were currently undergoing some expansion on the house at the time, so my dad was up on the roof helping anchor trusses or something and saw the whole thing; he dropped what he was doing, enlisted me, my youngest brother, and my friend to follow the bull so as not to lose him entirely, while he and my other brother jumped in the car to try to head him off.
At this precise moment, a car load of relatives whom we only saw occasionally showed up. Why? Who knows, but the timing was astounding. So, we did the only logical thing we could: We left anyway.
What followed was more a comedy of errors than anything. We (my brother, friend, and I) went overland, tracking the bull’s trail as it meandered through the desert. He was heading west, and led us over the ridge into the next “subdivision”. I don’t really know what we three kids would have done had we actually caught up to the bull; but we were carrying sticks and apparently had it covered. Meanwhile, we followed the trail through some of the White Trashiest properties we had ever seen.
And oh yes, my little brother was barefoot. (Mr. Pot, meet Mr. Kettle.)
We met up with my dad and other brother in the car—this was the Volkswagon Bug we had then. What on earth are you going to do with a rogue bull from a Bug? All I know is, it seemed to make sense at the time.
At one point we caught up with the bull on some old man’s property, who had a small (very small) fenced pen. The old man told us he’d “caught” our bull; in reality the bull himself decided to jump the fence (a split-rail and log fence, not a wire one) to get into the pen, but there was a hitch: he didn’t quite make it over. He was sort of dangling into the pen, his back legs stuck on the top of the fence.
No injuries, though, and once he’d gotten himself down and straightened out, he’d had enough of the pen and took off again. Through the fence this time, rather than over it—the tissue paper analogy in full force.
After that we lost him again—after a bit of a chase—and wearily trudged back home. Sometimes it’s just not worth it, you know? I wouldn’t even hazard a guess as to how many miles we logged on foot that day. In the end, though, it didn’t really matter…
…the bull was back in the pasture, pretty-as-you-please, grazing away as if nothing had happened.
Had my dad had a gun on him at that moment he would have shot the bull dead.
The relatives, in the meantime, had made themselves at home and had a good laugh over the whole ordeal. I think that was the last time they were invited out.
“Home to Roost” © alauraborealis on Flickr
Chickens were great fun; we had Rhode Island reds and bantams and Plymouth Rocks mostly, and every year would buy two or three dozen from the feed store to raise for butchering.
What? You’ve never heard of buying baby chicks at the feed store? Or of butchering your own chickens?
Anyway. At some point in time, the chicken flock evolved from living primarily in a coop and pen to running wild around the property and roosting in trees. Or maybe there was the coop chickens and the feral chickens concurrently; my memory is a bit fuzzy in that regard. You would look outside and see chickens roaming around and I wonder what the neighbors must have thought when they saw that.
Part of the reason for that is because one year, the day after Christmas of all days, the chicken coop burned down. To the ground. A heat lamp that was kept in there during the winter months sparked a fire and the building—made of particle board and full of dry straw and chicken manure—was consumed quickly. Fortunately, none of the chickens perished; they were huddled in a corner of the outside pen in the cold.
(Funny story about that; my dad and my brothers had gone to town to spend some Christmas money for the day-after shopping bonanzas—no small undertaking when you lived a half hour out of town—and we were just coming home, pulling in the driveway when my mom came darting out from the barnyard, waving us down. My sarcastic comment was—and I kid you not—”Jeez, what, did the chicken coop burn down or something?”)
So there was a transition period for the chickens as they lost one coop and we converted the barn (we were no longer milking at that point, and the cow never actually used the barn) into a new one. I’m guessing during this period is when the evolution toward feral chicken flocks began, as they had no permanent home during that time.
Every few years we would buy a few baby chick hens to raise for egg laying and not for butchering. New baby chicks (whether of the butchering variety or not) always started out in the house, in a box in the bathroom heated by a lightbulb. Baby chicks partially raised in the house tended to be fairly tame, and one year we had a batch of Rhode Island red hens that were brazenly so.
For one thing, they would eat right out of your hands. Aggressively. Even after they were moved out to the coop, they would wander into the backyard and right up to the back door (a sliding glass patio door they could see through) and want to be let in. When you came outside they would kind of mill around, seeing if you had anything they could eat. My brother lost part of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich one day when one of the hens jumped up and caught it; to hear the story told, she hung there for a few seconds before a piece broke off and she ran away with it.
I get no end of amusement from imagining a large red chicken hanging from a sandwich…
It was inevitable at some point that we would end up with a chicken as a house pet. And that’s what happened.
Ralph the Rooster
Ralph was a black bantam rooster that was hatched in the dead cold of late December. His mother was one of the insane hens (we always has a few who were insane for some reason; perhaps the better label would be “ain’t right in the head“) who hatched a single egg out of season and then abandoned him in the middle of the barnyard. My brother found him, brought him in to the house, and he went into the chicken box with the lightbulb. Since it was winter, he stayed in the house far longer than any of the other chickens who started in the house, and by the time it was warm enough and he was old enough to move out to the coop, well, he was a pet. He stayed.
Ralph spent the night in the bathroom when it was cold (door closed), and out on the porch when it was warm. He would go in or out of the house at will, just like the dogs. I believe he thought he was a dog, in fact; he didn’t ever get along with the other chickens. His favorite food was Doritos corn chips (nacho flavor). No joke. If he heard the bag rustling, he would come running.
One of the problems with having a rooster as a pet is that roosters tend to try to assert their dominance in the pecking order with others. In Ralph’s case, these “others” tended to be kids (except for me). Ralph would generally attack and/or chase kids; it never helped that the kids would invariably shriek in terror and run away. Unsurprisingly, this tended to leave a legacy of bitter feelings toward him among certain people.
(Being chased by roosters when you’re little is scary. When I was young, we had a mean old Rhode Island red rooster—named, naturally enough, Big Red—who used to terrorize me. And believe it or not, a rooster can do some damage if they attack you; they can draw blood if they peck hard enough, and their spurs are nasty.)
“Ralph as a Pet” is a story on its own and as such deserves its own post, but suffice to say, he was actually a surprisingly good pet. One thing to keep in mind though: chickens can not be housebroken.
We had a flock of a dozen guineafowl (“Guineafowl” being the proper word, apparently, though we always just called them “guineas”) that we raised from hatched chicks—you guessed it, the feed store again. They ran wild on the property (intentionally, unlike the feral chickens) and roosted in the trees at night. They were never intended to be a food source; rather, I think we bought them for pest control and, well, they were rather fun and interesting to have.
They make excellent watchdogs; whenever they saw people (or something surprised them) they would raise a raucous alarm, chirping, clucking, and screaming loudly at each other. They don’t scream like peacocks, though. More of a nattering shrieking sound.
And interestingly, the Wikipedia article mentions something I’d forgotten: the female guineas have a call that actually sounds like the word “buckwheat.” Two distinct syllables: buck-wheat!
During the time between having the cows April and Sweetheart, we experimented with goats. Mostly I remember this was a failure. We bought three goats: a female and her two kids. The goal, at least as far as the momma goat was concerned, was milk. I don’t remember if the kids came as part of a packaged deal or we were planning on butchering them. I suppose it doesn’t really matter, considering how the time with the goats ended.
We milked the goat, sure, and had goat milk as the primary dairy for a while. But a single goat doesn’t produce by far as much milk as a single cow does, and in a family with three boys, that’s just not sufficient. We probably would have needed four or five goats to milk.
The kids, in the meantime, were being treated a bit like barnyard animals and a bit like pets. For some reason we thought it would be a good idea to put leashes on them and take them out for a walk in the pasture; my memory of this is hazy but I do remember my brother stumbling and being pulled along the ground by a running goat.
Which is about what you’d expect from trying to leash up a goat.
These were active goats. And, like all goats, showed quite a propensity for climbing: the barnyard is fenced with a wall made from lava rock, and as such has lots of crags, nooks and handholds that are perfect for kids to climb—both of the human and goat variety. In fact, the baby goats would actually get a running start and run sideways along the rock wall for most of the length of it—a good 20 or 30 feet. Then they’d walk right up the side like it was nothing and walk around along the top of it (about five feet high).
So when you have animals that can literally walk right over your barnyard fence and escape at will, you do the only logical thing: string the top with coiled barbed wire.
As I mentioned, our time with the goats ended badly. I won’t go into the gory details, but suffice to say that the momma goat died. The kids, as my parents revealed to me recently, were traded for sausage.
…And by the way, let me just say that goats—their eyes, rather—freak me out. Have you ever looked closely at a goat? (Or a sheep, for that matter.) Their pupils are rectangular. It’s creepy as hell.
Aside from the chickens and the guineas, we had a duck for a period of time. His name was Pete when we got him, and that continued to be the duck’s name even after we discovered “he” laid eggs.
There was a big gray goose that actually belonged to the neighbors, but would come over to our place and walk right up to the kitchen porch and wait for people to come feed him. Or pay attention to him. Or something. It was a little disconcerting to see a big goose head peering in the kitchen doorway, but he was friendly enough. I don’t remember what happened to him.
Another iteration of neighbors had a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig that would visit each day. He was the size of a small dog, and wore a harness that proclaimed his name was Bruce. Bruce the Pig. My introduction to him was startling.
It was one morning when I was still asleep, and was jerked awake by loud, high-pitched screaming coming from outside. Screaming bloody murder. I seriously thought someone was being killed, so I jumped out of bed, got dressed and ran outside as quick as I could. My dad was carrying some animal up the hill back toward the neighbor’s house…
…and this animal was a screaming pig. I mean, really, really awful screaming. It was astounding. Apparently Bruce the Pig was as tame and friendly as could be unless you tried to pick him up; then he’d start screaming like Death was chewing his legs off with tobacco-stained teeth.
The rest of the time Bruce would just hang out, serving no real purpose as far as I could tell.
Early on we raised rabbits for a time. I really don’t have much to relate about that experience, it’s back in the hazy fog of memory and what I do remember are bits and pieces: the weathered hutch with the narrow-mesh wire screen that was heavier-gauged than the chicken wire used to fence the coop; being nervous of having fingers bitten if you poked at the rabbits too much; rabbit food, the odd little pellets that smelled grainy and leafy and grassy; having rabbit for dinner, which was both different and unremarkable (as far as taste) at the same time.
“Lavorare con Dolcezza #4” © _mirko_ (The Wine Sessions) on Flickr
And finally, while I doubt they qualify technically as livestock, we raised honeybees for a time. We had several hives, the box-and-frame variety with the easy-to-remove panels of honeycomb. I was always a little gun-shy around the bees, for obvious reasons; while honeybees are incredibly docile unless you piss them off, accidents do happen.
The one I most remember was being stung on the toe. I had helpfully taken a jar of sugar water out to feed the bees (literally: a quart jar of sugar dissolved in water) and for some insane reason I was either barefoot or wearing flip-flops. I was walking back to the house when I was stung; I had stepped on a honeybee with my bare foot.
You can bet I was extremely careful around the bees after that.
Looking back now, I have to wonder at the prospect of raising bees in the desert at all; honeybees gain sustenance and make honey from flower nectar (when they’re not being fed sugar water) and if there’s one thing that’s lacking in abundance on the High Desert, it’s flowers. Did they perhaps extract nectar from blooming sagebrush? Were there enough wildflowers about? Or did they just fly miles and miles until they found suitable flowers?
Of all the various animals I grew up around, chickens are still my favorite. I’m sure I’ll have more stories about them before this series is over.