Wednesday, April 2, 2014:
Snow last week has given way to temperatures in the fifties. The sun has been out some of the time, and the green tinge on south and west slopes of the pasture deepens noticeably in a single day. The cows scrounge for the tender green spears of new grass and leave the brown, high-carbon forage to lie. Question: do we expand paddocks to prevent overgrazing of the new growth, or tighten them up to increase competition and best use of the limited forage? We’ve tried the first (Beth gets fretful about low milk production, and the lactating cows are, after a winter of good flesh, looking a little boney), and our observation has been that the cows just spread out and scrounge some more spring growth; so, tomorrow we’ll close down the twelve-hour paddock by forty percent or so and see if rubbing shoulders with one another increases their root-pig-or-die instincts.
In the garden the winter spinach is growing faster than we can eat it; much faster. The young chicks get some chopped spinach along with their ground liver every day. We eat spinach salads with young chives and slivered almonds practically every night, but it never gets monotonous, it is so delicious. On Friday we’ll make spanakopita. Two long beds of seed onions have been planted and last night received the blessed rain; a row of peas set out last week won’t be enough, and we’ll plant another tomorrow. In the kitchen garden there are short rows of beets, carrots and lettuce planted, with wire panels laid over the beds to keep the dogs from digging them up, a capital offense if Mom finds out about it.
Last Tuesday as the Bishop said the funeral mass for Father Ray Ryland and his family and devoted friends followed his body to the grave, a Consol tug steaming down the Beautiful River between New Cumberland locks and Pike Island rounded the bend above Weirton, West Virginia and grounded gently on the sandbar below Alikanna Creek. There is a buoy marking the bar, and twelve barges of coal overran it before the tug, drawing more water than the giant raft, met the bottom. I don’t know if the pilot was asleep, or distracted, or just not looking. We shoveled the dirt into Father’s grave by turns, old men and young men, women and girls and small children, but mostly his strong, tall grandsons, while the sextons looked on. They said no one had ever filled in their own grave before. I wonder if the river boat pilot lost his job.
That boar had three weeks with Porka the sow before we took him out of there. Last fall he fathered ten piglets on her and we thought the job was done this time, but her gestation time is more than past and there are no piglets. There is more to this game than pouring swill in a trough and counting days; we will seek help from our experts.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014:

   Last Friday the late summer hogs went to the freezer.  These are the hogs we raise on commercial feed up the road with our friend, neighbor and mentor, Barry, the man who taught us how to butcher something big and get recognizable pieces at the end.  Each year for the past dozen or so years, around about July, we pick up three or four  feeder pigs from one or another of the local farmers, pen them in Barry’s palatial bank barn and put as much commercial feed in front of them as they’ll eat.  Used to be that was all there was to it:  we’d keep the self-feeder full, clean the pen and water tank once a week, and somewhere around the first weekend in January they’d be ready, weighing in around two-twenty-five to two-fifty apiece.  We’d make a three day marathon of it, hanging the sides overnight to let the meat set up so it would cut easy.  Squadrons of little kids – in the beginning they were very little kids – would stand on both sides of the nine-foot-long butchering bench cutting meat in chunks for the grinder, while the men cut chops with a hack saw and inside someone scraped casings for the sausage.  It was a good way to learn.

   The last few years the schedule has been variable, though.  It’s a funny thing, but the pigs are getting picky about their feed.  More than once we’ve had the experience of finding that the young animals aren’t eating their mash, or their pellets, just scooping it out of the feeder and onto the floor, building up a bank of wasted feed around the galvanized feeder.  The pigs don’t grow; they just maintain, and meanwhile sack after fifty-pound sack of feed is going uneaten.  After giving them ample time to adjust to whatever we are offering, we’ll switch and try something new.  If it is pellets they are rejecting, we’ll try mash; if mash, then pellets, or our feed mill’s specialty mix.  Eventually we find something that goes down all right and the pigs finally get their growth, but in these cases we end up butchering late, February, or even, as this year, in early March.  We watch the weather anxiously, needing a cold weekend for the job since Nature is our only cooler.

   We’re hearing stories like this from other places, too.  Farmers in Minnesota and South Dakota, for example, in Vermont and Kentucky, report animals turning picky about commercial grain rations.  In Pennsylvania one of our correspondents reports ongoing experiments with their own animals, experiments that seem to indicate that, given a choice, livestock will avoid eating genetically modified grains and beans.  Even the rats, we hear, will bypass a bin of Bt corn in favor of a non-mutated grain.  We wonder if the constituent ingredients of our commercial hog rations, undoubtedly including GM corn and soy, are the reason for the hogs’ lack of appetite.  Fortunately our home hogs, Porca the mother sow and her children, are on a diet consisting mainly of garden surplus, fruits and vegetables salvaged from a local grocery store, with a good bit of waste bread from a small bakery in the city, and lots of waste buttermilk, whey and clabber.  Whatever GMO’s are or are not doing to our livestock and ourselves, we’re glad to think that our farm is largely independent of a bankrupt agricultural system.

catching cold

Saturday, February 15, 2014:

   A headache sent us to bed unreflective of the weather forecast, which was in any case too much like all the other forecasts this winter to stand out.  Eight inches of wet snow and half an inch of sleet caught us by surprise, and caught the dry cows out in a pasture without access even to such shelter as the woods provide.  In the morning, icicles fringed the fur along their spines and dangled against their foreheads when we carried bales down to a pasture of smooth white, unbroken except here at the fence, where, judging by the evidence, they had paced all night, unable to lie down for the cold and snowfall.  Farmers can’t afford migraines.

   Blessedly, the dry cows are in good condition, not to be put out by an uncomfortable night, and they tucked into the bales we threw them with the pleasure of animals who must ordinarily rustle their own groceries.  The young pigs are always warm in their hutches, and the lactating cows had spent the night in the barn.  But we were back to temperatures that never saw twenty degrees during the day, and dipped below zero at night, and now the ground was – and still is – wrapped in an armor coating of ice, the cows’ breakfast freeze-dried below the surface.

   It is difficult even to move in this snow.  With each step there is a catch and thrust through the half-inch of frozen crust, and a snag to hold the foot coming forward.  Beneath the crust the dry snow is so cold it cannot compress, powdering under your boot and shifting like the climbing up a sand dune.  Simple chores, like walking down the water hoses to drain them, leave us panting; and our breath, which our scarves force upward, freezes in white rime on our eyelashes.  Ice must be broken for animals to drink, even at the spring tank which last winter never froze, and the slabs of ice piled up behind look like heaps of glass.

   Our low tunnels, stronger this year than any year previous, still collapsed, or rather subsided, under the weight of snow, the PVC ribs laid over to the ground under a thick, wrinkled skin of white.  The broom with which we usually sweep the snow off the hoops can’t break through the icy crust and we are forced to use snow shovels, with the result that we snag two or three holes in the six mil plastic covers.  One tunnel has three broken ribs; interestingly, it is the stronger hoops which have broken, unable to bear the weight when their weaker neighbors gave up trying.  Maybe there’s a lesson there.  When the burden of snow is removed the undamaged hoops erect themselves again, and the tunnels once more protect our winter spinach and carrots.

cold baby lambs

Sunday, February 9, 2014:

   We grew up in Texas.  It gets cold there in the winter.  Sometimes there’s a frost.  Hauling round bales a mile each way in the rain when it’s thirty-five degrees out and you don’t own a winter coat, you find out just how warm a brown paper feed sack can be when you cut holes in it and wear it.  We aren’t sissies.

   But five degrees is too cold for baby lambs, maybe.  They were born around milking time, and the ewe wasn’t having anything to do with one of them.  The little ram lamb was clean and dry and walking well; the ewe lamb, on the other hand, was hunched, damp, and uncertain on her legs.  We didn’t wait too long before we brought her up, but her body temperature was already dangerously low.  There wasn’t any fight in her.  Fortunately, the good folks at Silo Fence Farm in Minnesota, who are also our valued in-laws, are lamb experts, and on their advice we learned just how good a thing for hypothermia is a bucket of warm water.  Hotter than you would bathe a baby in, and dunk the lamb up to her ears.  Hold her in it for ten minutes or more, rubbing her to get her circulation going.  Then hoik her out, rub her dry (this will require multiple towels), sit down in front of the woodstove with her wrapped in a blanket and offer her a bottle. Raw fresh cow’s milk with a little sugar in it is what the Minnesotans recommended; we added an egg to the milk because of our experience raising baby bulls – the albumin acts as a binder to slow the passage of food just a little, or so the theory goes.  It works for us, anyhow.

   Pretty soon the little girl was exploring under the furniture in the playroom.

   Meanwhile her brother, mama’s good milk notwithstanding, is finding the barn a little too cold.  We who were cold in Texas when it was thirty-five degrees don’t have any idea how cold is too cold for a baby lamb.  Ewe and ram lamb are in a cozy stall with eight inches of hay under them, but at two o’clock the children bring up the ram lamb to all appearances in the last stages of expiring – limp, almost non-responsive.  A finger inserted in his mouth finds it very cold.  Into the bucket of warm water with this one; he seems to be having spasms.  His eyes are rolling, and breathing is hard to detect.  After ten minutes we take him out and dry him but his mouth is still cold, so a fresh bucket of water is prepared and he gets another ten minutes, after which he is still alive, but only just.  We’re not beaten until we’re beaten, though, so we dry him as well as we can, being now soaking wet ourselves, wrap him in blankets, and deposit him in the lap of whichever girl child is in front of the heater.  Infifteen minutes he is guzzling warm milk from a pink baby bottle.

   Love those Minnesota medicine men.

cold water

Sunday, February 2, 2014:

   In sub-zero temperatures one of the biggest challenges is keeping water in front of the livestock.

   Stock tanks freeze.  Even the ones with de-icers in them need the ice to be broken out.  The creek freezes over and you have to keep a pick hanging on the woven wire fence so whoever feeds the sheep and young cattle can break out chunks and make a hole for the stock to drink through.  You have to hang the pick on the fence because if you set it down it’ll freeze to the ground and then you may not get it up again until spring.

   The little girls make sure that there are holes in the ice that nearly covers North creek so the hens and ducks can reach water.  The sow must be watered twice a day, when she gets her breakfast and dinner, because although the spring tank continues to run – you can hear the water under the ice, still running down the overflow pipe – the pig nipple in the sow’s pen has a long stem to reach through the side of the barn, and when the temperature drops much below twenty the stem valve freezes.  In the tire tank pasture there is always running water, even if there is only a six-inch hole in the ice for access, at which time we stick a boot in and make the hole bigger.  But the real time-consumer is getting water to the lactating cows.  They do not have a source of constantly running water, and filling their tanks means running hoses from the frost-free spigot on the retreat house.  You have to take your glove off to attach the hoses, and the water feels warmer than the air, which it is, by a long shot, but then your hands are wet and the water that sprays on your coverall freezes and makes them stiff.  After you fill the tanks you have to – quickly – detach all the hoses and hang them on the arbor to drain, pulling each one straight on the slope behind the barn and walking its length twice to be sure it’s empty because if one of the hoses gets ice in it how are we going to water the cows?

ten below

Sunday, February 2, 2014:

   In sub-zero weather you have to suit up for chores like an astronaut going on a spacewalk.  Flannel-lined blue jeans, two pairs of socks — the inner one cotton, the outer one wool — three layers of shirt and sweater, insulated coveralls, chore boots, two scarves, hat, glove liners and gloves.  Then, if you keep moving, only your fingers and toes freeze, unless your scarf comes down and then your nose and ears get nipped, too.  Having learned something with the last really cold snap we ran a lane fence up to the machine shed and spread some hay for the dry cows.   Step-in posts don’t drive into ground frozen to the hardness of triple steel.  We got a hammer and poker from the workbench in the barn and pounded holes an inch deep in which to balance the fence posts, hoping they would stay in place when the wind got up, but not knowing for sure, and our fingers froze so we didn’t care too much either.  Stripping off gloves and jackets to milk at ten-below testifies to our innate optimism, since reason didn’t really back up the assumption that we wouldn’t freeze to death before we could get them back on.  Our fingers froze to the strip cup and milking bucket, and so did the first zings against the stainless steel when the cows, after prolonged massage, finally let down their milk.  Milk chilled so fast that the streams churned grains of butter in the bucket, making the milk hard to filter when we finally got it up to the house.

   It has been cold.

   On the credit side of the ledger, the grass is holding out, and so is the hay, so far.  The sheep, calves and pony get three or four bales a day, and when it drops below ten degrees or so the lactating cows get hay, too.  The dry cows got a round bale for the duration of the really low temps last week, and finished it out today, in the drizzle of a thirty-four degree heat wave.  There is still almost all the trashy stuff behind the lane for the dry cows to trample and graze – probably two weeks’ pasturage, maybe more – and then all the grass north of the Mary garden and the soccer field.  The lactating cows are two-thirds of the way over the hermitage pasture, and may be there another three weeks; then they can go behind the soccer field with the dry cows.  With the hay we have still in the barns, we should make it to April 15 at least, and, hopefully, still have some bales to put out when they go onto green grass and need something brown to slow down their GI systems.

what are the odds

(our answer to another person concerned about GMO’s in the food supply)

    Good thoughts.  I think BIG-ness is a characteristic of many of our problem systems today.  Leaving aside the three-thousand words with which I might be tempted to defend (or obfuscate) this statement, I draw your attention to studies in Austria and Russia, among other places, indicating that genetically modified grains were associated with infertility in lab rodents, and not just a little infertility, either, but extremes of non-reproductivity.  Maybe one would overlook this in feeding a pig for slaughter — if one assumed that the fertility issues would not apply to the consumers of the pork — but in animals intended for breeding (dairy cows, etc) it is a serious issue.

    As for scientific studies, the day is long past when I could look at the “results” of a study and consider it information on which I could base an opinion, let alone a decision in favor of one or another courses of action.  Our society generates studies the way a road-kill coon generates maggots in July.  For every definitive study to demonstrate X, there is at least one to demonstrate, definitively, negative-X.  Moreover, studies are expensive things, even when the methods are bogus (after all, the researchers’ salaries must be paid, mustn’t they?), and they aren’t usually funded by unbiased philanthropists.  I may be cynical, but I make the assumption that behind every study is an investor with something to gain by the outcome.  The citrus growers want us to believe that a day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine, and Kelloggs wants us to think eggs for breakfast will give us heart disease.  To heck with studies, say I.  Your premise that people ate local foods for the first few thousand years of man’s tenure on the planet, and imported and/or processed foods (I exclude natural processes like fermentation and dessication) only recently, and that (I infer) people who believe in a provident God may be justified in assuming that what He makes most available (not what Kroger makes most available) is probably good to eat, I agree with.

   In the area of GMO’s and infertility, ask around and then get back to me:  can you find anyone whose chickens are laying well?  if so, ask them 1) how old the hens are, and 2) what they are feeding them.  In a couple of years of asking around, I have not found one person whose flock has laid well in the second year, and almost no one who is satisfied with even the first lay.  Mine have been increasingly unsatisfactory for three or four years, despite many efforts to improve all areas of their care:  new, light and airy hen house, covered in winter for warmth, lights in the winter, sprouted barley in the winter, more food, new breeds, etc.  They lay poorly or not at all.  Last September when I butchered forty laying hens one and two years old, there were NO eggs in any of them, and partially formed eggs in only two or three.  If you’ve ever butchered layers,  you know that fifty percent of them should have had eggs in them.  What is this but a fertility issue?

   My advice would be to avoid GMO’s.  I’m ordering chicks this spring from a hatchery that feeds no GMO’s, and growing my own feed this summer, supplementing with sunflower seeds, sorghum, and other things Monsanto has not extended its long arm to grab.

    God bless –



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