Monthly Archives: September 2011

Thesaurus Thursday: Remnant

Farmers are scientists. And like any other scientists, they’re resourceful.

If they don’t know the answer to something, they know where to find it, or they probably know which neighbor can steer them in the right direction.

Most of the northeast has had more than enough rain for one month. Rain means puddles, puddles mean mosquitoes, and mosquitoes mean nasty diseases that can affect both humans and animals. Irene and her friends left more rain than we’ve seen in years, and we’re still dealing with the remnants.

Horses are susceptible to a number of mosquito-borne diseases that are especially bad after excess rain causes ponding.

Remnant: noun. leftover part.

Synonyms: balance, dregs, excess, leavings, leftovers, remainder, residual, residue.

One disease that thrives in residual water is West Nile Virus (WNV), an arbovirus that caused nationwide panic when it was identified in New York in 1999. It was the most exotic-sounding disease to surface in a long time, and was treated as an emerging infectious disease by the CDC.  The disease spread, and although the initial panic has subsided, WNV is still present throughout the United States.  Wild birds are the primary reservoir for WNV. Most species carry the disease without being affected. However, some birds, including crows, blue jays, magpies and ravens, (Corvidae family if you’re a biology geek) are very susceptible to West Nile Virus. That’s why many states have asked residents to report dead birds of those species.

So after the 15+ inches of rain from Irene and other tropical storms subsided, it became pretty obvious that the puddles in (yes, in) and around the barn weren’t going away any time soon. I decided that it was time to make sure we weren’t hosting a breeding bonanza for mosquitoes.

As a farmer, I know that one of the resources I can rely on is our local conservation

Tractor tires left deep ruts in the ground and created the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes.

district. I called, and the West Nile Virus technician came out the next day. The first samples he took were from standing water in ruts made by the tractor tires.

He found a few squirming larvae and plunked them into a sample container. But the real bonanza was still waiting. Due to the super-saturated ground and seepage of ground water into one section of our barn, several semi-permanent puddles had formed. I was ready to give them names.  The technician scooped out

A very small amount of water yielded lots of larvae.

a little bit of water, barely enough to cover the bottom of his collection cup. The little sea monkey larvae were too numerous to count, and from just a small sample. The tech identified egg rafts and some almost-ready-for-prime-time pupae that would soon hatch, fly around, bite us or our horses and no doubt lay more eggs. And so on.

What we saw in that small sample of water was amazing, but they were all better off dead. Most of us are familiar with the less-than-pleasant biological factoid that only female mosquitoes bite. That’s because those females require a blood meal prior to laying eggs. Once the eggs are laid, they go through several stages and voila! They’re full-fledged adults, ready for a blood meal.

We were amazed at the little creatures; some wigglers (larvae) and some of them tumblers (pupae).

Egg rafts, larvae and pupae were all present in the sample collected from the barn puddle.

But we weren’t so amazed that we would let them survive. West Nile Virus is a serious threat to humans and can be deadly to horses. The technician treated the puddles with Bs, or Bacillus sphaericus – a naturally occurring bacterium that release toxins into the mosquito’s gut. The toxin disrupts the gut in the mosquito by binding to receptor cells (present in insects but not in mammals) which causes the larvae to stop eating and die.

Next step? Check to see what kind of adult mosquitoes are actively laying eggs. For the barn, this means using a gravid trap, which is designed to attract pregnant female mosquitoes ready to lay eggs.

The technician prepares gravid trap, which captures pregnant adult mosquitoes for ID sampling.

The device on top draws air through a collection chamber. Female mosquitoes are attracted by the stagnant water and attempts to land on the water surface to lay her eggs. She is drawn into the collection chamber and trapped.

We also decided to set a light trap to collect adults that might be seeking a blood meal.

The technician prepares a CO2 trap to attract mosquitoes seeking a blood meal.

The light trap, or CO2 trap, is hung from a tree branch and collects mosquitoes overnight. Mosquitoes are attracted to the CO2 that is emitted from the trap, just as they’d be attracted to the CO2 emitted by a human.

We may still be dealing with the remnants of excess rain for weeks to come, although cooler weather will help slow mosquito breeding. Until then, we’re watching and treating every puddle and pool of water that shows signs of life…life that has the potential to make us humans seriously ill.

Pooled water and puddles all have the potential to harbor infected mosquitoes.

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Thesaurus Thursday: Deluge

Right before Labor Day, when every weather forecaster within several counties promised close to 100% chance of rain, we were thrilled. Our region (and surrounding areas) have experienced severe drought conditions for most of the summer, so any kind of moisture was certainly welcome.We would’ve been happy with an inch or so, but what we got was a deluge.

Deluge: noun. downpour, flood of something.

It rained so hard we couldn't see across the road.

Synonyms: avalanche, barrage, cataclysm, drencher, flux, inundation, niagara, overflowing, pour, rush, spate, torrent.

We had a deluge, that’s for sure. A drencher; an overflowing rush. Rain came down in torrents and it seemed as if there was no end to it. When the rain gauge accumulated 5 inches, we had to dump it and start over. The dumping-and-starting-over continued until we tallied almost 12 inches. But we were lucky. The worst we dealt with was a flooded basement (and staying up til 5 a.m to make sure the pump didn’t overheat). Others weren’t as fortunate. Several lives were lost, and many people lost their homes and/or property.

Just a week ago, the creek overflowed; just as it did this past spring. The photo below is the same view without all the water.

Even though I had six days to take pictures of the flooded creek, the rain was nothing short of a drencher – pouring down so hard that I didn’t want to take my camera outside. I found this photo from early spring that shows how much water came through and overflowed the stream banks. The water was actually higher than this several times during the storm; close to the tops of the fence posts.

The creek, on left, has receded. The stream on the right is leftover water that will take a little longer to soak into the already-saturated ground.

The creek is almost receded now, although the horse pasture is still soggy. After a couple of warm, sunny days, most of this water will be gone. We’ve established conservation plantings (mostly black willow and silky dogwood) that help hold the stream banks in place during heavy rain.

Although we’re still slogging through puddles, clean-up for us will involve clearing the stream crossings. With the help of NRCS we’ve fenced our stream banks and have specific stream-crossing areas so that livestock don’t pollute the water.

After heavy rain, we find debris from our upstream farm neighbor in the fence wires of our stream crossings.

However, our upstream neighbor isn’t very tidy. Every time it rains, we  find trash, bale wrap and even herbicide containers caught on the wires of the high-tensile fence at the stream crossings. They’re a small-scale dairy farm, but they certainly don’t fit the non-ag community’s mind picture of a small, neat and tidy family dairy.We know that personnel from our county NRCS are trying to work with them, and we don’t want to discourage them in their efforts to farm, but it’s somewhat of a nuisance to have to pick up after them after every heavy rain. They also give small-scale farmers a very bad name.

Despite the deluge, we’re thankful for the rain and very thankful that we didn’t have significant damage. We’re enjoying cool, sunny days, and look forward to watching the pastures and hay fields spring to life just in time for autumn…which arrives next week!

We're looking forward to bright, sunny days that will allow crops to mature in time for harvest.

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(Get to) know thy neighbor

We know our immediate neighbors. For the most part, it’s us.

We’re fortunate that our farm includes property across the road and on both sides of our house. The farm also includes significant stretches of road frontage, which means passersby can easily see what’s going on in certain pastures. Our road isn’t usually busy, but traffic includes anything from milk trucks and manure haulers to cyclists and non-farm neighbors.

Lots of cyclists pass by the farm on weekends.

Our sheep spend most of the year on pasture – not because that’s the only way to raise sheep, but because it works for us. In late spring, we keep the ready-to-lamb ewes in pastures that are near the house so we can check them easily. During one pasture check, I noticed a ewe that had started to lamb but wasn’t making progress. I knew she needed help, and fast. I caught her, carefully laid her on her side and used my leg to steady her in that position before ‘going in’ to assess the situation. It wasn’t pretty but it worked. Just as I figured out the lamb’s position (and mentally outlined a plan), I noticed a car that had pulled off the road. Since people often stop to watch lambs playing, this wasn’t too unusual.

Uh oh. The car wasn’t idling. For a brief moment (very brief), I considered the mini-dilemma: which was more important – explaining the situation to the woman (who had clearly stopped to watch the show) or the health and well-being of the ewe and her unborn lamb? No question. The ewe was #1; the woman could wait. I manipulated, pulled gently, manipulated again and within about 20 minutes, I was able to get the lamb out. It was huge. I cleared his nostrils, rubbed him briskly with a towel and tickled his nose with a blade of grass to help him sneeze out the rest of the lung gummies. He snorted a few times and was fine. Whew. Then I noticed that the woman was standing outside her car for a better view. It occurred to me that if I had driven by a sheep pasture and saw someone catch and straddle a sheep, I might be a bit curious myself. After about 15 minutes, I held up the lamb and shouted, ‘he’s fine!’ She watched until the lamb stood and nursed, and seemed relieved with the all’s well report. She smiled and drove off.

Tickling newborn lambs' nostrils helps them sneeze the lung gummies out.

What if the scene had been different? Lambing (or calving, kidding, foaling, whelping, etc) doesn’t always turn out ok. What if I had pulled out a dead lamb, which is a distinct possibility with a first-time lambing ewe trying to push out a large, single lamb? What do we say to our non-farm friends and neighbors when ‘stuff happens’?

I can’t explain everything, but what helps is having an open barn policy of sorts. That doesn’t mean people are free to wander in whenever they want. It means that if friends or neighbors are interested in the animals, I take the time to show them. If people pull over to watch lambs playing, I’ll stop what I’m doing and talk with them. If I have to explain that a certain animal is in a pen being treated for (whatever), I remind them that people get sick too, and when an animal is sick, we do whatever it takes to bring them back to health. I also remind them that the work we do every day – in every kind of weather – keeps our animals comfortable and healthy.

A group of teachers participating in 'Ag in the Classroom' learns about the role of livestock guardian dogs. Inviting educators to the farm pays off - teachers learn from farmers and pass that information to students and their parents.

One often-asked question is 'why do some lambs have green marks on their backs?' The answer is 'after they were born and before they came in as bottle babies, I color-coded them so I'd know which lambs came from which ewes.'

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