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Tending animals leaves me out in the cold

February 02, 2009

Take it from me, there is nothing more rewarding than rising before dawn on a below-zero morning to chip ice out of a farm animal's water trough. It is thrilling. But mildly so.

My one hope for this exceedingly cold winter is that it might eliminate certain insect types native to warmer climes that have of late been encroaching on our turf. Read, stink bugs. The FedEx guy drove up the other afternoon when it was about 6 degrees to see me staring at a stink-bug hangout on the foundation yelling, "Take that! How do you like Maryland now!"

He left the package down by the mailbox.

So on the hobby farm, the day starts like this: dark.

Beth chucks some firewood under my old steam engine's boiler:

"We need to get up."

"Umthuppt."

"We need to feed the animals."

"Roiglh. Outside. Degrees. Three. Zerobelow. Mercury. Allgone."

"But the animals have to eat."

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"Thhrrp. They eat yesterday. No fricken restaurant, me. Short-order donkey cook. Like to see that hmmm. Hate everything. Cold Barough."

"OK, that's fine, I'll feed everybody myself. You just lie here where it's warm."

Me: Eats entire pillow.

"Really, never mind. I'll be fine. I'd rather see you be comfortable."

"You seethelight. Goomph."

"I've got a lot to do today, but if I'm a little late, that'll be fine. I can thaw my hands in the microwave. I'll get started on the horse's water. By the way, where do you keep the ax? I should be able to chop through it. My carpal tunnel's a lot better now after the surgery, really. I'll be fine."

Of course there's nothing to do but get up and head for the rock-solid water buckets. There are nine of them. The hose has been frozen solid for weeks now, so it's a matter of trekking to either the spigot or the bathtub in our office.

The bathtub is necessary because the different animals like their water at different temperatures -- or at least Beth has me believing they do. The horses are OK with cold. The goats like cold with a splash of hot. The chickens take theirs lukewarm. The pig likes his on the hot side, and he prefers it when I warm his trough. All in all, this is less like working on a farm than at Starbucks.

The animals all watch with varying degrees of amusement and/or impatience as I hack away at the larger troughs with a sledgehammer. Lately, I have heard that it's been so cold that even those smug animal owners who have automatic waterers have seen them freeze up as well.

I am a small, petty man, and when I heard this, I confess to feeling a great deal of perverse satisfaction. If I'm suffering, they need to be suffering.

But the final insult came last week when we had an ice storm. So not only was there ice in the buckets, there was an inch of ice on top of the ice. That just didn't seem fair. It's forming from the bottom up and now from the top down.

And it's not as simple as, say, putting the water inside their houses. Magellan the pig, for example, fancies himself as quite the interior decorator, so his dining implements wind up where he wants them, not where I want them.

We have talked about potential solutions. Beth says we could move someplace warm. But I am more practical; I want to trade all our critters in for camels. After this winter, the appeal of an animal that only drinks once a month cannot be denied.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or via e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com.

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