Turning the lactating cows into a pasture of about three acres on the west side of the monastery, which is in the process of being reclaimed from eight-foot pokeweed and briars (a pasture informally known as the ‘Calf pasture’, meaning it’s where we feed hay to the young stock when winter weather is really severe), we notice the wide variety of plants — grass, forbs and “weeds” — that make up the knee-high forage which has replaced the poke and canes. Many, even most, would not be considered forage species, but the lactating cows, moving onto it after two weeks in the timothy and clover predominant in the Spring pasture, are voracious, wading through the tanglefoot tearing out great mouthfuls of bitter milkweed, young asters and goldenrod, seedling black locust tops, and bindweed. And it occurs to us, cooling off for a moment in the shade beside the spring tank, that the cows are balancing their minerals like a chemist, and with greater accuracy and precision than the most practiced pharmacist or naturopath. And for us, dining on their milk and meat, the benefits must be similar.
Harvested seventy pounds or so of garlic, beautiful white heads with enough skin so we can brush them off and make pretty braids, with the small ones and broken ones going to the pigs and chickens as natural wormer.
We artificially inseminate our cows as a general thing. This lets us have Jersey fathers without keeping a Jersey bull, a good decision for the family health and well-being, and a must when you farm on monastery land, but it means keeping a nitrogen tank for the semen straws, or rather, in our case, borrowing space in your neighbor’s nitrogen tank and then watching assiduously for signs of a desire for romance on the part of your heifers and cows. The Powley family have shared their tank with us for a couple of years; it is people like these, helpful and encouraging, that go a long way toward making people like us — inexperienced, tentative — feel like we dare keep trying to teach ourselves to farm. Tonight, however, we were hitching up the stock trailer to take two young females — a heifer and a four-year-old which has calved one time — over to bunk for a time with the Powleys’ registered Hereford bull, Timex; we want to see what those genetics will make together.
The oats got yesterday to dry, and today they were mowed by string-trimmer. They will dry on the ground overnight, then tomorrow we will rake them by hand, turn the windrow, and dry another day, or two, if the weather grants it, but then they will have to be ricked on hay-drying racks in the truck lane through the garden, to dry more slowly out of contact with the ground and all the molds that will begin the process of making our oat hay into humus if we aren’t careful. We will probably use saw horses and stock panels to create something between the Polish hay ladders, hay tripods, and the hay fences of Caledonia; the object is simply to keep air circulating through the slow-curing hay until time and weather give up and let us put it in the barn.
(Must they go on griping about all their rain, people in California would vote Republican for rain like that, can’t they think about anything else?) It goes on raining here, well, not actually, yesterday it cleared off in the afternoon and today the sun shone and the milking parlor was a sauna. The box fan that is intended to give the cows some relief from the flies, and, incidentally, to cool me off while I am milking, was sitting on a bench too high for any of the moving air to pass under whichever cow is in the stanchion, and the bars of sunlight falling through the spaces between the shrunken boards of the barn door lay on my skin like hot, wet fur. Sweat drips. No other preliminary could give quite so delicious a savor to the breeze that lifts wet hair from our foreheads on the walk down the cows’ lane to the spring tank, and beyond through the black-locust copse to where a new paddock is already set up for the evening grazing; and the sound of the wind like surf in the trees makes us wonder what we would do, what think, if ever we had to give up this outdoor existence and go back to town life.
Can there be so much rain that the nutrients are leached from the soil? Our cucurbita look insipid and mopey. It has rained almost every day for seven weeks.
After a while, it seems that the rain must be washing the good from the soil — the corn and squash, heavy feeders, look somewhat insipid, as though they’ve been wearing wet socks for too long. Rain, rain, rain — we see the sun briefly, like a doctor poking his head in through the curtain and taking a glance — is the patient still conscious? — and moving on, leaving us still waiting.
The field peas and oats are more than ready to cut, but our sources tell us to make sure the oats are dry standing before we cut them, and anyway we don’t see a forecast for even four clear days. Weeds are rampant in the potato beds and the mangels, and the tomatoes are already showing signs of septoria. And yet, we always need rain, and cannot wish this away even while the onions are being strangled by gallinsoga three feet tall.