No, that’s not me in the bag. That’s about one-thousand pounds of concrete hanging off of the arm of the bucket truck. And it’s just one of seven sacks of concrete Bob and Nick hoisted 24-feet up to the top of the silo/tower, to pour the foundation for the new observation deck overlooking the farm.
But before I get to the big pour, I want to share with you my own harrowing climb to the top. As I mentioned in my earlier post about the tower, I am terrified of heights. So before anything changed up there, I tried to hand off my camera to Bob so he could take some “before” pictures of the silo top. But he wouldn’t to it. He said he’d carry the camera up for me but if I wanted pictures I’d have to go up there and take them myself. I know Bob was anxious for me to see the view and I think he used my commitment to the pictures to get me to punch through my fear and make the climb. (And I suppose this is why I love him, because he gets me out of my comfort zones).
I agreed to try. But I wasn’t sure I’d make it. To start, I had to shimmy my way through an opening in the silo to get inside of it and climb onto the ladder. You can see the opening in the above photo. What you can’t see is that the ladder extends downward another six feet before it touches the ground. So just getting on the ladder requires stepping out over a pit. Once on the ladder, you’re already six feet up with another twenty-four or so feet to go.
Did I mention the ladder is wobbly? With every step up, I could feel it shaking. Bob said the ladder is designed to do that. Something about needing the flexibility so it doesn’t break under a lot of weight or pressure. But it didn’t feel like a safety feature to me. The closer I got to the top, the more it shook. Soon my knees were shaking, too. That made it hard to keep climbing. But I did. Bob braced the bottom of the ladder, mostly to make me stop worrying about it tipping backwards, and I found it helped to look straight ahead at the wall of the silo and not look up or down.
The scariest part of the climb came at the end, when I emerged out of the opening at the top and had to get off of the ladder and onto the silo . If I weren’t such a chicken, I could have just stepped up and stood there. But I was far too scared to stand up, especially with all of the hog wire laid out on the roof of the silo to hold the coming concrete. So I sort of dragged myself out onto the silo on my belly and then flopped my legs off of the ladder like the tail of a fish. And there I was, 24-feet up, clinging to the hog wire! Lying on my belly, I snapped the above “before” photo of the pour area I had made the climb to get. Looking at the photo, I hope you can see how the concrete will fill in to the top of the wooden form to cover the sloping cone and create a flat observation deck.
I never did work up the nerve to stand but I did press myself up like a sphinx to peek out over the wooden form to see the vineyard. Wow, what a view! Ever since moving here, I have wanted to get a picture that shows the vineyard in the foreground and the horses grazing in the pasture in the background. I wasn’t going to get that picture this time, not without standing up. But I could see that once the flat platform is finished and I feel more comfortable moving around up there, I can go back up and get it.
I was inspired to sit up a bit more so I could take more pictures, but just then, the arm of the bucket truck appeared. Nick was ready to start mixing and hoisting concrete. And that was my cue to get down. There was no way I wanted to be up there dodging a 1,000 pound sack of wet concrete!
So I had to flop my legs back into the silo and onto the ladder and then shimmy on my belly backwards as I stepped down the rungs until I was back on the ladder and climbing down. Bob went first and was just below me on the ladder and Nick steadied it from ground. The ladder still wobbled, but going down was much easier than going up. Having survived the climb once, I know I will go back up there when the observation deck is finished. It will be yet another interesting vantage point from which to photograph and share the vineyard.
Now, with me safely on the ground, and without further adieu, here are the pictures of The Big Pour, or, how Bob and Nick got 7,000 pounds of concrete to the top of the tower:
Most people see an old silo sitting next to the donkey barn. But not Bob. Bob sees a tower. He has ever since he and his Dad first looked at the property back in February of 2010.
But it wasn’t until this past February that he finally got to the top of the silo to check out the view.
He got up there by putting an extension ladder inside of the silo and bravely climbing it to the top. I wanted no part of it. I am terrified of heights and the inside of the silo reminds me of the ship’s smokestack where Roddy McDowall fell to his death in the 70s Disaster Movie, The Poseidon Adventure. (I can still hear the Ernest Borgnine character yelling “Linda. You killed my Linda!” But I digress).
Bob scampered up the ladder like the experienced rock climber he is and popped out of the top of the silo. But that’s as far as he could go. The top of the silo is shaped like an inverted cone and it was covered in wet, slippery moss. Not the ideal platform for an observation deck. So while he sat up there, Bob hatched a plan.
He built a wooden form in the exact circumference of the top of the silo so he could pour a new concrete top over the inverted cone. He had Nathan use the power washer to blast the moss off of the silo. Then, they guys hoisted the wooden form to the top of the silo.
I suppose I should say a few words now about our bucket truck. Bob bought it a few years ago in Colorado because “you never know when you are going to need a bucket truck.” The truck didn’t run when we bought it, and it didn’t have a bucket. We had to load it on a semi and have it trucked out to Oregon when we moved to the farm.
Bob and Nick spent the winter getting the bucket truck running and the hydraulics working again, and now I know why. It still doesn’t have a bucket. But for this project, we don’t need a bucket. We just need a hook.
As it turns out, we do have a hook, which the guys dangled off the end of the truck’s bucket arm with a long strap. Then, Bob hooked the hook to some other straps he had wrapped around the wooden form. And from here, I think I will let the pictures tell the story:
Over the weekend, Bob and Nick started pouring the concrete, but not before I sucked it up and climbed to the top to snap off a few pictures. So what did I see when I got up there? And how did they get thousands of pounds of concrete 24-feet up in the air?
Here’s a peek at the view, if only to prove that I actually made it to the top of the silo despite my Roddy McDowall phobias:
As for the concrete pour, it’s getting late and I think I still have vertigo from being on top of the tower. It was a fascinating process and I want to do it justice. So that will have to be a blog for another day.
While I was on the 5:30am flight out of Eugene, Oregon Friday morning, Bob and Nathan were in the vineyard stoking our first Frost Fire of the season. I had known when I left for the airport a few hours earlier that it was going to be a frosty morning and I hoped the guys would be ready to do battle and that all of our preparations would pay off.
Thursday had been devoted to frost preps. Bob hung the plastic curtain on the deer fence along the upper perimeter of the vineyard while Nathan and Nick mowed down the grass within the fence, all thirteen acres of it. We cut the grass to maximize as much as possible the distance between any frost that would form on the ground and the green shoots on the vines. It’s a proven strategy for minimizing frost damage in vineyards.
The plastic curtain is an experiment, an idea Bob had to prevent the warmer air we circulate through the vines by burning fires and running a fan from escaping out of the vineyard. The vines in the ten or so rows along the fence are furthest from the fires and have suffered frost damage in past years, even on nights when we were up burning.
I am very excited to report that based on the results Friday morning, the frost curtain appears to be working! Bob and Nathan started the stump fire and the fan at 4:30am, about the time I was going through security at the airport. The outside temperature was down to 34F and had been dropping by about one degree per hour throughout the night. By dawn, it was just 30F outside of the curtain. But on the other side of the curtain in the vineyard, the temperature never dipped below 32F. And in the warmer parts of the vineyard, closer to the fire and fan, the temperature held at 34F.
This is the first empirical evidence we have that our frost fighting strategies are making a difference! The fire and the fan are definitely warming the air not just in the immediate vicinity of the fire, but throughout the vineyard. And the frost curtain is holding that warmer air in the vineyard to protect the vines.
This is a tremendous relief as our vines continue to leaf out. If you look closely at the above photo, you will see a bumpy nub starting to emerge from the top of the shoot. That’s the inflorescence, or flower pod that will produce the grapes. In the coming weeks the inflorescence will swell, and then little white flowers will appear. When the flowers fall off, little green berries will grow in their place to create a grape cluster. So there it is already in the tip of that shoot, our 2014 harvest and wine. That is, unless we let it freeze.
Of course, the best protection against frost in the vineyard is fog. When an overnight fog rolls in, it forms an insulating blanket over the entire vineyard that slows the temperature drop from the daytime highs. The past two mornings have been foggy and haven’t dropped below 34F, so no fires since Friday. But as I sit here now, the sun is out and there’s not a cloud in the sky. So we’ll be getting up throughout the night tonight to check the temperatures and look for fog.
Meantime, the dogs say it’s a beautiful day for a romp in the vineyard. And, I have horses to groom. But not until after this DET STL hockey game. If St. Louis loses, and it looks like they will, The Colorado Avalanche will finish the season as the top team in the Central Division! Woot!! (Little known fact, the five blocks of vines in the vineyard are named for the five former Avalanche players whose numbers have been retired. It was an idea we had while planting, as an homage to the team we had to leave behind in Denver).
Look what we awoke to this morning. Frost. In the vineyard!
This caught us completely off guard. Every forecast we look at, and there are many, predicted an overnight low of 40F. But at 7am, our vineyard thermometer said 31F. Yikes.
Nathan and I have toured the vineyard, and it looks like we dodged the bullet. There was frost on the ground before daybreak, but none on the vines. This tells me it was below freezing ever so briefly in the darkest moments before dawn, and so wasn’t cold enough for long enough to hurt the vines. Whew. It was a very close call.
We are in the same weather pattern through at least Tuesday, which means we could get early morning frost over the next several days. Bob is heading out to unfurl the frost curtain along the vineyard fence and Nathan is going to mow the grass in the rows between the vines. The shorter the grass, the greater the distance between the frost on the ground and the leaves on our vines. It might not seem like much, but every inch counts when trying to buy a degree or two in the battle against frost.
The guys will be on standby overnight for the next several nights to deploy the fan and fires if it gets this cold again in the wee hours of the morning. I won’t be here to see what happens tonight/tomorrow because I have to leave for the airport at 3:30 tomorrow morning for a quick, overnight trip. But I will fill you in on what happens, if anything, when I get back to the farm on Saturday. And lucky (sarcasm), we will have several nights of frost worries for me to document for the blog after that.
I am feeling a bit reflective again today, because it was three years ago this week that our farm became a vineyard. We started planting our first vines on April 8th 2011 and finished on April 18th. 5,445 vines went into the ground that spring, followed by another 8,469 in 2012. Yep, we got a bit more ambitious with our second planting! By then, I guess we figured we knew what we were doing.
That was not the case three years ago, when our vines arrived in early March. Until the day they were delivered, I had no clear picture in my mind of what they would look like. Both Bob and I were taking viticulture classes online, and so I was familiar with the concept of a grafted vine. But until I saw one, I didn’t get it.
I got my first look at a grafted vine when the back of the delivery truck opened up, and out came the trays of vines. With 25 vines per tray, we had over 200 trays to unload. As they kept coming and coming, I started to get a sense of what we had gotten ourselves into.
To start with, the vines were dormant, so they were nothing more than brittle little sticks about four inches tall. It was easier than I thought it would be to spot the graft point on each vine, where the French wine grape-vine is grafted to an American rootstock, which is more resistant to disease. Looking closely at the vines, I could see that some of the grafts still had greenhouse tape around them! I was worried the whole time we’d snap a graft.
We also had to be very careful so that we didn’t damage the dormant buds on all those little vines. If we let two vines in a tray rub against each other while we carried them, or if we were careless when we set one tray down next to another, we could knock the buds off of the vines. And as you know by now if you follow the blog, no buds, no green shoots.
Once the vines were safely in the barn, our mission was to keep them cool, moist and in the dark to discourage bud break until we were ready to plant, which we were not. It was only early March, so it was really too early to plant them anyways. But we still had a lot of work to do.
Our deer fencing was in place, but we had more than 1,000 trellis posts left to install. It is possible to install the trellis after planting, but it’s hard to operate heavy equipment in a planted vineyard and you could end up damaging the vines. Bob headed up the trellis crew, which used a Bobcat and a pile driver to pound all those posts into the ground.
At the Bobcat controls was Brent, a local cowboy who at the time was also the quarterback of Elkton High’s football team. (He has since graduated and is studying ranch management, but we still see him from time to time).
While Bob was working on the trellis infrastructure, Nathan, who we had just met, was shooting a straw into the ground every five feet in the spaces between the trellis posts. Vine spacing is critical to a successful vineyard, and the straws marked the spot where each vine was to be planted. (This was an effective but time-consuming method of vine spacing. For our planting in 2012, we spray painted some long metal pipes with the proper spacing and used those to position the vines as we planted them).
While all that was going on, we also had a crew installing the water mains for the irrigation system around the perimeter of the vineyard. This involved a lot of deep trenching. If you look closely at the above picture, you’ll see one of the crew members is standing in the trench, which is about shoulder deep on him.
And on April 3rd, we were out of time! Despite being kept in the dark, our little vines started opening their buds. We had wanted to get them into the ground before bud break so as not to risk damaging the delicate green shoots during planting. But as you can see below, the vineyard was not yet ready.
So while Bob and the crew finished the trellis work, I went up to the hay barn everyday and shuffled the trays of vines around to make sure all the open leaves had some exposure to sunlight. Now that they were awake, they needed new energy to survive. Then, I’d close them back up in the barn overnight to keep them warm. On one very cold night, we worried the roots might freeze because they were not yet planted in the relatively warmer ground. So Bob had the idea to snake some heated hoses around the trays and run water through them to create a makeshift radiant heating system.
On the morning of April 8th, we were finally ready to go! All of the trellis posts, irrigation and straws were in place, and we had laid out a green plastic grow tube and a steel pencil rod for each vine. The grow tubes go around the vines after they are planted to shelter them during their first weeks in the ground, sort of like a private little green house for each vine. The pencil rods are used after the tubes come off, to tie up the vines as they grow to keep them straight.
We had about 8-10 people on our planting crew, depending upon the day. Nathan was there, as well as George and Brent. And on any given day, a rotating cast of local “kids” pitched in as well. Our biggest challenge as first time planters was digging the holes. I feel silly saying it now, but it took us about four days to figure out how to do it. We started out using a post hole digger, but that takes a lot of strength and effort. By the end of the first day, even the “young guns” said no more of that.
So Bob ran to the hardware store, and the next day we had a bunch of these hand shovels. But those, too, were a lot of work. Too many people saying “ug” and holding their backs.
So on the third day, Bob got serious and brought out the gas-powered augers! And boy, did those dig holes easy and fast. The trouble was, though, that the friction of the auger left the bottom of the hole hard packed and glazed over. We started to worry the roots wouldn’t be able to break through the glaze and would grow sideways or upwards instead of downward. Roots that grow upwards can end up strangling the vine. So as much as we loved them, the augers had to go.
So finally, we settled on what might seem like the obvious solution, the hand trowel. It doesn’t take too much strength to dig a hole with a trowel, and you can use the tip to loosen the soil at the bottom of the hole to give the roots a little head start. If you ever need to plant a small plant, or 5,000 small plants, this is the way to go. Learn from our experience and don’t over think it. It’s just a hole.
And so it went, days on our hands and knees digging holes and putting vines in the ground, one after the other, until all 5,445 vines were planted. It took us six planting days spread out over eleven days due to rain delays to finish the job.
We figured out that things went more quickly if we used a division of labor. I was kept busy getting trays of vines out of the barn and laying them out within the rows. Then we had two people who placed a vine by each straw. The planters (who had the best job) dug the holes and put the vines in the ground. Then the clean up crew followed behind and threaded the pencil rods through the slits in the grow tubes and placed the tubes around the vines. Everyone pitched in to pick up the trays and vine pots at the end of each day.
Looking back on it three years later, there are two things that have stayed with me about planting vineyards. The first is that you will feel your hamstrings! No matter what job you are doing, you will knee down and stand up literally hundreds of times over the course of planting day. On the first day or two, my legs were screaming in pain. But by the end of it, I thought wow, I’m in pretty good shape. It’s the best workout you will ever get.
The other thing I can tell you is that there is nothing you will ever do that is quite as relaxing and satisfying and just plain wonderful as planting. True, we had our struggles. You are exhausted at the end of the day. And there is a lot on the line. But nothing beats digging around in the soil under the warm sun and the blue sky, listening to music while lost in casual conversation or in the zen of the row in front of you. Planting is a time when all things are possible. It is a new beginning. But also the payoff for all the hard work you’ve invested to get there. If you ever have the opportunity to help plant a vineyard, do it. Whether it’s your vineyard or someone else’s, you will always count yourself lucky to have been there and helped when it all began.
At the risk of being a bit too sentimental, I will close with a little poem-prayer I made up and said to each vine as I planted it. It goes like this;
Please Be Fine
So We May Have
Some Very Fine Wine
I can think of little else in life that has inspired me to write a poem.
Ten days after our official “bud break,” we are finally seeing our first fireworks! The little green leaves that have been bound up tightly within the buds are finally starting to open.
I can walk around the vineyard for hours just looking at these little green shoots. They are so delicate and beautiful and no two are alike. With their pretty pastel colors of green and pink, they kind of remind me of decorated Easter eggs. I hope you will indulge me by looking at a few baby pictures:
Along with the excitement of watching these little beauties leaf out, we are collecting some good data on growth patterns in our vineyard. All of the above pictures were taken in the north/northeast end of the vineyard where the vines are leafing out ahead of the rest of the vineyard. This surprised me at first, because this end of the vineyard is bordered by some tall trees that shade the vines for part of the day. But I think the trees also provide a wind break that is warming and protecting the vines, thus convincing them it is safe to open their leaves.
As you move south/southwest through the vineyard, most of the buds look like the buds in the photo above. These buds are awake but their tender leaves are still bound together. Without the protection of the trees, it must be too chilly in this part of the vineyard for the vines to expose their leaves just yet.
The most interesting thing we’ve noticed so far is that the buds on our cane pruned vines are opening well ahead of the buds on the cordon pruned vines. (If you are not sure of the difference between the two pruning methods, check out this earlier post on our cordon vs cane pruning experiment). At first we thought this was because most of the cordon vines are in a cooler part of the vineyard than the cane vines. But then we took a look at the vine in the above photo, which we pruned to have one cordon arm and one cane arm.
And sure enough, on the very same vine, the buds on the cordon are lagging behind the buds on the cane. The two buds in the above photo are from the cordon arm of the vine. As you can see, the leaves haven’t even begun to separate. The photo below is of a bud on the cane arm of the same vine. It’s not as advanced as the buds along the tree line, but you can see its leaves are starting to separate.
We won’t know until harvest whether the slower bud break on the cordon arms is a good thing or a bad thing. For now, it means less exposed green tissue should we get a spring frost. And that’s good. But if the cordon vines continue to lag throughout the growing season, that could mean a later harvest for their grapes than for the grapes on the cane vines. And if we are scrambling to pick our grapes before heavy rains or migrating birds ruin our crop, that delay could be very bad.
And so, it is a bit like The Tortoise and The Hare, but with grape vines. Will slow and steady win the race? Or is a quick start the key to a strong finish? I predict more than a few sleepless nights before harvest as I ponder those questions.
For those of you who may have worried through the night like we did that we’d get frost in the vineyard, I am happy and relieved to report that we did not. Temperatures were actually quite mild throughout most of the night, hovering around 40F. But at daybreak, they dropped a bit. The warmest part of the vineyard dipped to 37F, and the coldest rows went down to 34F. That’s dangerously close to frost, but still in the safe zone.
Meantime, the little buds are awake, but they seem unwilling to open their leaves until the sun comes out. The dogs and I found just one lone bud in the entire vineyard this morning that is starting to separate its leaves. Is this bud brave or foolish? Time will tell. I am further intrigued by this bud because it is in a part of the vineyard that is shaded at times by some nearby trees. I thought this would have delayed the opening of the buds there, but I guess sun exposure doesn’t mean very much on an overcast day.
According to the forecast, today is supposed to be warm and sunny. So far, it is not. We’re also supposed to be free of frost worries for the next week or so. Yet looking at all those reluctant buds, I have to wonder if they know more about forecasting the weather than we do.
There stands in our vineyard a powerful fan that most people assume is there for cooling. It’s not. It’s there for warming.
Should we get an overnight frost now that our buds have broken open, our strategy is to build a huge bonfire out of the piles of stumps we’ve accumulated in the vineyard and power up the fan to mix the warm air from the fire with the cold night air to hopefully boost the temperature enough to prevent the vines from freezing. A thirteen acre vineyard is a lot of ground to cover with just one bonfire and one fan, but our hope is it will be enough to keep the temperature from dropping to 29F, the point at which green tissue can be damaged.
We had to deploy our “stumps and fan” strategy twice last spring, on the nights of April 30th and May 1st. We were at least three weeks past bud break by that point and our vines were fully leafed out. We knew the forecast was calling for freezing temperatures overnight, so we set our alarm to go off every hour on the hour so we could check the weather. At 2am on both nights, the thermometer said 33, and we were out the door. The dogs had a blast. They thought we were camping! But for us humans, these were very tense nights. The temperature dropped by a full degree or more per hour! We knew we’d get dangerously close to the dreaded 29 degrees.
We took turns throughout the night driving the rows of the vineyard with a thermometer in hand to check the air temperature. The upper ten rows of the vines consistently were the coldest by two to three degrees. You always hear that it is darkest before dawn but in our vineyard I can tell you it’s always coldest right after dawn. As the sun came up we literally watched the frost form on the ground and spread like an oil spill through the coldest rows of vines.
It took two or three days for the damage to the vines to become apparent. And when it did, it was heartbreaking. The tips of all of our green shoots in the affected rows turned from green to grey and finally to black. Once the tip of a green shoot is damaged like that, the shoot can’t grow anymore and it will die along with the grapes it would have produced for our wine. About 15% of our vines suffered damage during those two frost nights last spring. But the rest of the vineyard did not frost. We like to believe it’s because we were up all night burning those stumps.
There are other strategies for fighting frost in the vineyard. Some grape growers use smudge pots that burn heating oil. They spread them throughout the vineyard and burn them like we do our bonfire to heat the night air. The advantage is there are lots of them, so you can spread them out. The disadvantage is there are lots of them, so you have to spread them out. And, we don’t like the idea of pots of heating oil possibly tipping over and getting into our soil. So we’re not doing that.
Some vineyards have an overhead sprinkler system for irrigation that can be turned on in cold weather to protect the vines by encasing them in ice. I know that sounds crazy, but if you think about it, water freezes at 32F and vines are damaged at 29F. So if the vines are inside a layer of ice, they are actually insulated from the colder air. Our irrigation system is a drip system that is low to the ground, so that won’t work for us.
But we do have one more trick we plan to try this year to protect the top rows in the vineyard. We noticed on those frosty mornings last year that the frost would creep into the vineyard from the higher ground of the horse pasture across the farm road from the vineyard fence and down into the vines. That showed us that the air flow pattern on our farm goes from the high ground to the low ground. So Bob had the idea to hang a plastic curtain along the vineyard fence when it frosts to stop the airflow. The idea is to block the cold air from the horse pasture from spilling into the vineyard to hopefully save the top ten rows from frostbite.
We don’t know if anyone has ever tried this before or if it will work but we could find out as soon as Tuesday night. The forecast calls for 33F overnight, and that’s cold enough for us to light the fire, crank up the fan and hang the curtain. Then, we’ll all spend a long cold, night around the bonfire, taking turns stoking the flames and driving the rows to check temperatures. We’ll also toast a few marshmallows and look at the stars. And I will spend at least some of the night in a huge dog pile on the ground with all of my dogs. Fighting frost is cold, exhausting work, but it’s also kind of fun. And it’s something fun to think about the next time you open a bottle of wine.
It’s official, we have Bud Break in the vineyard! We started noticing isolated buds that were showing signs of opening a few days ago, but while the buds were awake, their leaves had not yet started to separate. But as of this afternoon, March 29th, we have universal Bud Break throughout the vineyard. All of the tiny buds are awake and some are even starting to unfurl their first leaves.
Bud Break is the single most exciting day of the year for a wine grape grower. It’s the official start of the new growing season, and of the vintage you will harvest about 180 days hence in the fall. And if this year’s Bud Break is any indication, 2014 is going to be a spectacular vintage. The dogs and I discovered our first open buds during a burst of sun that somehow managed to shine through our endless rain. And just as I was framing up a shot of a cane full of vibrant buds with Murphy seated in the background, a rainbow appeared in my camera lens! I snapped away, not sure if I’d capture it or not. But I did. I don’t know if I did it justice, but I hope there is enough there that you can appreciate the magic of a sudden rainbow on such an auspicious day.
The rainbow disappeared as quickly as it appeared. The time stamps on my photos tell me it lasted less than 32 seconds. Just that fast, another wave of storm clouds rolled in over the vineyard. The dogs and I barely got inside before the next cloud burst. Quicker still, the excitement of Bud Break is starting to make way for anxiety. The forecast calls for two nights next week in the low 30s, which is cold enough to damage our little green buds.
Many of you saw the post a few weeks ago about Floating a Horse. Our vet, Dr. Gene Koo Kang, had come to the farm to float (file down) Buck’s teeth. We had planned to float Leah’s teeth that day as well but backed off when we became concerned her arthritic front legs wouldn’t be able to hold her up while she was under sedation. In order to do the procedure, we decided, some kind of support system would have to be rigged.
So Bob, who loves rigging things, went to work. He found an old piece of leather on the farm and cut slits into it so he could thread cargo straps through it to make a sling. Then he hung the sling from the top bars of our vetting stanchion and cushioned the leather with a saddle pad. Finally, he dragged the whole thing into the soft dirt of the arena to eliminate any risk of Leah slipping on the barn’s concrete floor.
Everything was ready and waiting when Dr. Kang returned to the farm this weekend to vaccinate the herd and hopefully float Leah’s teeth. He thought the contraption looked good, so he and Bob carefully walked Leah into the stanchion and secured the sling under her belly. We had no idea how she would react to the sling, but Leah is a very good horse. She remained calm and cooperative the whole time, even while Bob ratcheted up the cargo straps to tighten the sling around her.
Then came the moment of truth. It was time to sedate Leah. Now, I am sure slings of this nature have been used throughout the equine world before, but we had never seen one used or done it ourselves. We wouldn’t know if the sling would work until Leah was sedated. So Dr. Kang gave her the injection. And we waited to see what would happen.
And do you know what? It worked! As we expected, Leah’s arthritic front legs stopped working just as soon as the sedative hit her. If not for the sling, she would have collapsed inside the vetting stanchion. Instead, she just slumped into the padded sling and seemed about as happy as a horse can seem when it’s hanging from a sling. We were all greatly relieved to see the sling working without causing Leah any worry or pain.
With Leah comfortable and secure, Dr, Kang was able to take a good look at her teeth. It had been a while since her last floating and most of her back molars had sharp points on them. Pointy teeth, like the one in the right foreground of her mouth in the photo, can cause painful sores in a horse’s mouth. Bob noticed a calloused spot on Leah’s tongue, likely caused by one of the points.
Leah hung in there (pun intended, just this once) while Dr. Kang floated the points down with power tools. A chin stand and his assistant, Payton, supported Leah’s head while he worked. If you’ve never held up a horse’s head, it’s hard to appreciate just how heavy they can be. The head and neck of a horse make up about 10% of its body weight. Leah weighs in at about 700 pounds, so her head a good 70 pounds! And she’s a pretty small horse. (Buck’s head/neck probably weigh about 110 pounds).
Because Leah’s teeth had been neglected for a while, her front teeth, or incisors, were horribly overgrown. In fact, her teeth had gotten so long they sometimes stuck out further than her lips when she reached for a carrot. When a horse gets this long in the tooth (not a pun, that’s what that means), it can’t chew its food well enough to release the nutrients. So, even if the horse is eating, it’s not being nourished. For Leah, her overgrown teeth have been making it hard for her to put on weight no matter how much we feed her.
To correct the problem, Dr. Kang used a hand file to file down Leah’s incisors, top and bottom. It’s precision work. He had to get each row of teeth even and the two rows filed down to just the right height in relation to each other so that the top teeth and bottom teeth close over each other in a smooth bite. It took a lot of patience and elbow grease, but when he was finished, Leah’s teeth looked beautiful. Not being so long in the tooth anymore, she might even be able to pass for a younger horse, which I am sure will please her, because she has her eye on Twister and he’s just a three-year old.
An hour after Bob and Dr. Kang led Leah into the stanchion, Shella led her out. She emerged relaxed and not at all traumatized by what had just happened. Shella took advantage of Leah’s relaxed state to give her a quick bath, and then Leah was turned her out in her pasture, where she spent the afternoon grazing in the sunshine, finally able to grind all of the important nutrients out of the spring grass with her newly floated teeth.
And so, I am calling it a job well hung (OK, one more pun. Last one, I promise). For those of you tracking the vineyard, no bud break just yet. Our freezing temperatures overnight seem to have slowed down the buds a bit. I haven’t noticed much change over the past few days. But it’s supposed to warm up to 70 degrees tomorrow. So there is still a good chance we will see green leaves before the end of March. More soon.
Dispatches From Our Farm and Vineyard in Southern Oregon