What follows is a collection of stories submitted by readers in response to the theme of “farm animals.”
I was standing on an upside-down five-gallon bucket inside the chicken coop, hoping I could persuade the critter that had settled down inside a nesting box that they were better off leaving. The evening before, the chickens had acted strangely skittish when I went to close them in for the night. They did not want to settle on the roost. I shooed them in but found them just as unsettled the next morning when I went to feed them before heading off to work.
I took a quick look around to see what was off and to do a count. Walking the space between the nesting boxes and the roost, I saw the reason for the unrest. A snaggled-toothed grimace came from inside the furthest box: an opossum smile. My presence made the animal crouch deeper into the dark corner. Our coop is a garden shed/chicken house, divided and very narrow for our small flock. The outdoor area for the birds was on the far side and I was standing in the way of getting the ‘possum out of the coop.
I grabbed a broom and poked. They just showed more of those crazy teeth. I needed to get out of the way. I got the bucket and broom and climbed up. There I was, in my work clothes (i.e., the good ones) with a useless idea that wasn’t going to work. I was unhappy about the prospect of leaving the chickens in with the opossum all day.
I called my husband who worked in town and had a little more flexible schedule and told him what was happening. “Do you want me to come home?” he asked. I hesitated (they are my chickens after all) and then said a grateful “yes.”
He arrived and headed straight for the shop with a little smile on his face. Out he came with a tool we had acquired when we cleaned out his parents’ house after his father’s death. My father-in-law had a lot of stuff crammed into a small cottage; we took little home with us but a few tools we thought we could use.
Out he came with a reacher-grabber senior assist tool that had made its way to our house but had gathered dust out in the workshop until now. Into the coop he went, coming out seconds later with a large, dazed opossum, dangling by the neck a few feet away at the end of the reacher-grabber. He gently lowered them to the ground and released. The opossum took a few seconds to reorient and then headed slowly into the woods. My father-in-law would no doubt appreciate that his son found an ingenious use for his inheritance — and would be laughing with us.
Karen McCarthy Eger, South Berwick, Maine
“Sheep are stupid!” I have heard many exclaim, over the 20-plus years a small spinner’s flock has graced my farm. I’ve even come across numerous farmers who proclaim, “Sheep just like to die.” Living with my fiber flock has been an evolving recognition of sheep smarts, most of which revolves around their primitive driving force, which is to avoid the wolf at the door. This fear is the basis for the herding instinct. The slow sheep gets eaten, therefore they must all bunch together in anticipation of the wolf’s arrival, or, perhaps, just the vet. Sheep are successfully herded by dogs due to this instinct. And it is thought that our herding dogs, with their finely honed skills in rounding up sheep, are spurred on because they are protecting a joint food source with their humans.
Sheep have a prodigious memory for faces, food and a sense of place. A smiling-face study with sheep showed that they consistently preferred to eat food located in a dish below a picture of a smiling human, rather than food placed below the unsmiling. My sheep know I am their shepherd and will call out in recognition, or probably just for treats. They even know the sound of my car when I pull up.
Sheep are easy keepers, and dual-purpose, converting greens to wool and providing meat should you choose. Some breeds, such as Romney, can do an excellent job of providing both luxurious wool and meat. The sheep maximize their foraging and rush directly to each apple tree to gather windfall when let into a new pasture. They also wear a narrow dirt track from one end of the pasture to the other. These well-worn paths are used for running back to the barn, single file, thereby avoiding ruts and dreaded woodchuck holes.
Sheep know enough to come in out of the rain — even though they have lanolin water-proofing their wool. But, they seem to enjoy lying in the snow, looking like a field of growing ski moguls among distant drifts. Not a flake melts as the heat of their bodies is completely insulated from the snow gathering on their wool.
They stick to their own farmland, rarely taking off on the lam into the woods, or running down the road, even if they do break through their fencing. Mostly they just want to eat your most-loved flowers or hardest-to-grow vegetables.
Rams are not to be trifled with, and even ewes and wethers can be rambunctious in their play, or while establishing a pecking order. This is why chutes — not ladders — are critical to sheep management. Sometimes, feeding over the fence is advised, or you might find yourself lifted as a sheep plows between your knees to get to their winter grain. But, when all is quiet, many sheep will come in for nose rubs and scritches under the chin. Not stupid, just misunderstood. I say to you, “Smile, and give sheep a chance!”
Meredith Toumayan, Jackson, Maine
The 2019 Common Ground Country Fair was a special one for me. I was awarded my first-ever blue ribbon for competing in the Harry S. Truman Manure Pitch-Off, an annual event that determines the premiere manure pitcher in the state of Maine. Each chucker gets three throws, and the longest throw wins, just like in javelin, discus or shotput. Judges are positioned downrange to mark precisely where your ball of get-a-whiff-of-this lands. Hurlers are in deep doo doo if they plaster one of the judges with a meadow muffin.
Donning rubber gloves provided by competition authorities, I carefully selected dung from the official pile o’ shite. The idea is to choose manure of a consistency that will remain intact at launch — not too dry, not too wet, well-laced with straw — and shape it into an aerodynamic moo-pie.
I placed my orb of Montana shoeshine on a pitchfork, stepped to the line and gave her a royal heave, trying not to pull a hammy in the process. The hammy held but the patty didn’t. It broke apart in flight, the bane of shite-chuckers. I firmed-up my second entry and let ‘er rip using a shovel this time. She, too, broke apart.
For my third and final throw, I switched to the glide technique used by Parry O’Brien in the early ‘50s to become one of the world’s great shot putters. I positioned myself a couple yards back from the pitch line, carefully centered a jolly big dollop between the second and third tines of my pitchfork, drew the loaded fork back, crouched on my back leg, coiled my forward leg up, rocked back-and-forth a few times to calm the nerves and lock-in my rhythm, exploded forward, hopping on my back leg like O’Brien, and, with a tremendous grunt, made a titanic toss. For a micro-moment it seemed my Big Mac might sail beyond the course boundary, over the hedge and into the goat-hoof-trimming demonstration underway in the adjoining lot, but alas, while the malodorous missile held together, and had good loft and arc, and the distance might have been respectable for a 69-year-old, it landed far short of ribbon range.
Three young muck-bucks were awarded gold, silver and bronze for the longest throws. Thinking the 2019 pitch-off was over, the crowd of at least a dozen began to disperse. Then they called me up to the medal stand (a patch of grass), where I was awarded a ribbon amidst raucous applause, hoots and hollers. An event official suggested I wear it as I strolled around the fairgrounds, which I gladly did. Several folks seeing the likes of me sporting a coveted blue ribbon offered their congratulations. I’m thinking, “So, this is what it feels like to be Usain Bolt.” A few asked, “What did you get the ribbon for?” Frankly, I wasn’t sure. My throws were nowhere near the longest. Then it dawned on me that the award was not for any kind of athletic feat but for being a game old duffer willing to make a fool of himself by aping a shot putter with faux Olympian seriousness, among other antics. With this revelation, I vowed to return to the field of foul-smelling dreams and win a ribbon the old-fashioned way, with a Herculean hurl.
In 2020 and 2021, COVID-19 cancelled the in-person Fair. In 2022, I was set to defend my title as “Oddest, Oldest Slinger of Bull” when I got COVID. Home alone with my virus, blue ribbon and mucky memories, I started to practice for 2023. On the clam flats in front of my house I slung globs of muck, which are more or less the consistency of heifer hummus. By the time the Fair rolled around, I was ready.
I planned to arrive early to stretch, do some deep breathing by the manure pile, and grab an advance peek at the manure we’d be using for projectiles. It took a while to find the venue. The storied all-about-excrement event — the only event at the Fair named after a U.S. president — had been relegated to a hard-to-find lot next to a couple dumpsters (of course) and the sign marking the venue was a DIY flip chart. What happened to the big banner they had in 2019? Do I sound cranky? Yes, I guess I am, and it’s because I’m deeply disappointed in myself. My performance at this year’s event was crap, simply execrable. My hurl went splat. A lanky lacrosse-playing lad brought home The Blue.
But I’ll be back. I’ll continue to sling bull — metaphorically and otherwise — till the cows come home. After all, the Truman Games are not all about blue ribbons, they’re about sharing common ground and a few laughs and pitchforks and muck with good folks at the beginning of fall in the great state of Maine.
Gary Newton, Georgetown, Maine
The noises that woke me up in the middle of the night told me that the cows were in the dooryard, not the pasture. I had cut some corn for them that day and after feeding them, I left the remainder in the pickup, now parked in the yard.
Apparently they wanted more. I groggily made it downstairs, turned on the lights in our kitchen, found my shoes and ran out into the very dark night — only to run broadside into one of the cows. She didn’t care.
Black Angus cows are really black! Especially on a moonless night. I couldn’t see them because my eyes were not adjusted from the kitchen.
It took some time to get them all back in the pasture when I could find them. They won the night though. I gave them the rest of the fresh corn and went back to bed. It was just another day/night on the Ken-Ro Farm.
Ken Horn, Hermon, Maine
In late July of this year, I looked into Machias’s eye as he faced me.
“You have skirted fate for so long, my friend,” I said from a crouch. I rose, grabbed one of his horns and flipped him, hacking away the thick wool on his neck with a pair of dull scissors.
“I don’t know what you mean,” he said, looking at me from where he sat in the hay, his back on my shins.
And I told him that this would make tomorrow easier for him, and me, and my friend who would bring fate. Still, he did not understand, squirming between my knees. He would not still.
When Machias was born, he was a small, mostly black lamb with white poking through his shiny new curls. He had a white outline around his mouth, like he had dipped his muzzle into a bowl of sugar. By 2 years old, his whole muzzle was white. Pink-nosed, he had a dark mask from his cheeks up to his striped horns. His fleece had grown in mostly white, with bleaching black at the ends of each lock. His back was straight and his rump was round. He had a middling susceptibility to parasites, needing deworming a few times a year — although perhaps he could have done with fewer drenches, given his ability to gain weight on nothing more than grass and hay.
He was 6 months old when he bumped himself into my calf, impatient and wanting the hay I was holding. I grabbed his chin and spun him around until he rested against my shins, sitting. I held him there until he stilled. Strike one.
“This can’t happen again,” I told him. “You are a sheep, and I am a human, and you are not allowed to speak to me this way.” He stared, nostrils flaring.
At 1 year old, he discovered how to get under the electric line I used as fencing. I watched him as he flipped it up and over his head with his nose, his soft and shiny fleece shielding him from the shock. Strike two.
Strike three never arrived for this curious and questing boy. In April, I decided to give up my flock of seven Icelandic sheep. The four younger ewes were no trouble at all to relocate, but no one wanted an old ewe and no one spoke up for two fiber wethers. So, it would fall to the farmer to do what must be done. On a rainy day in July, Machias and I would say goodbye. I went out in the morning, empty-handed.
“I love you very much,” I told him.
“I would love it if you gave me some hay,” he replied.
I took him outside. While my friend and I held him on his side, he gobbled at a small pile of grain on the ground. With my shins on his back, he bucked and then stilled.
Chloë Geffken, Lincolnville, Maine
When we ordered our first Araucana and Golden Laced Wyandotte chicks from the feed store, my partner made a box for the newcomers with a lamp built into the hardware-cloth cover. The box also came with unlikely security: our four-year-old bird dog, a giant German Shorthaired Pointer named Sage.
We set the box in the living room atop an old wooden chest, and let Sage have a sniff and a lick of a couple of the chicks and told him it was his job to take care of them. He was instantly smitten. Because he was so tall, he could rest his head on the cover and stare down at the chicks, which is what he did for weeks.
When the chicks were large enough to move out to the chicken coop, Sage was despondent. Heavy doggie sighs from the living room finally disappeared when we started letting the birds out to range about the woods and yard.
If the girls were out, Sage was on patrol, laying down right in the middle of them as they grazed. If the flock broke off into groups, he would herd them back together like a well-trained Border Collie. Gracie, a silver Araucana, was madly in love with him. She followed him everywhere and they would sit together in the sun, Gracie chatting away while Sage kept an eye on his kingdom.
But his best work came at twilight or later with our regular discoveries that the door to the run had blown shut during the day preventing the girls from going into the coop to roost when it got dark.
With clipped wings, the girls couldn’t fly up into the trees near the hen house for the night. Instead, they would hide: under the porch in the spaces between the rungs of stacked ladders; between the roots of the hemlocks; under the truck cap that was sitting on a few bricks. The list goes on. They were good at hiding.
Fortunately, Sage had a nose that worked in the dark. We would tell him to find the birds and off he would go. We followed with flashlights until we saw him locked in his pointing stance, his nose inches from the hidden hen. One of us would grab the chicken while the other would tell him to find the birds again and the search continued.
One cold autumn night, locating the final bird seemed a lost cause after extensive searching. We called the dog in but he kept looking. Presently there came his excited whine and a bark that was usually reserved for squirrels up in a tree. We found him on his hind legs, stretching up the side of a stickered pile of fresh lumber, his nose not quite to the top board. Scrunched down on the tarp atop the stack, like a canape on a napkin, was the chicken. How she got there, and how he found her, I’ll never know.
Wren Pearson, Pownal, Maine
This article was originally published in the winter 2023-24 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.