Archive for March, 2011


   The coals from the bonfire last night are still smoking in the firepit down by North creek.  The flames only threatened to get out of hand once, and the Toronto cop who buzzed us arrived after what little fuss there was – all on the part of visitors, for our sons never broke their country-bred amble – was over.  “Everything under control?”  The cop, like the sons, gave no sign of agitation; it was the casual inquiry of one who already knew the answer.  Our red flatbed pickup is parked on the brow of the hill, forty feet above the firepit, bleachers of cinderblock and two-inch oak board making of it a grandstand for friends watching the fire.  The cop received his answer in the affirmative with a nod – he is young, with dark hair, not known to us personally, but familiar from town – and backs his patrol car up the steep drive and onto the county road again.  This has really been a courtesy call; we are outside the city limits, as he knows, beyond range of his jurisdiction, but even Saturday nights are far from lively in our little village, and this run up the hill may have been part welcome distraction, part neighborly helpfulness.  It is good to live where the cops are outnumbered by the gas stations (three) and you see them at daily mass in the mornings.

   The bonfire, burned in celebration of the Annunciation, but built without deadline over the last year or so — a sculpture erected of the detritus of all our recent projects, constructive and destructive — stood, until last night, some fifteen feet tall and twenty wide, topped with the bleached shreds of what was our Canaan fir Christmas tree.  The flames, when they reached this, fanned high above our heads, elevated though they were forty feet by the hill, and another eight or ten by the truck and bleachers; the sound of their crackling progress through pitchy needles was like the sizzling of fat in a kettle.  The crackling is oddly punctuated by the sound of running water, coming at intervals through the tossing heat and flame; it is the sound of the waterfall at the culvert, only reaching us as the column of heat, as effective a sound barrier as a stone wall, wavers on the breeze coming fitfully up the draw.

Events like this one are only occaisional here, as anywhere except Disneyland, and, heightening the sense of festivity, with the flames of the bonfire there rise the smokier, roiling flames of kerosene torches, placed on alternate fence posts around the north end of the bee pasture.  A final two are made wtih three-pound coffee cans and placed over the front gate.   The effect is as of another world.

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Last month we ordered the Speckled Sussex chicks for arrival in April; the Cornish Rock crosses didn’t get ordered until last week.   They are due to arrive in early May, and will be butchered in early July; S-4 will be in NM, but the rest of us can process 30 meat chickens, especially if someone gets creative and makes a picker.  S-1 has told us how he made his, and his success with it, and picking is the time-consuming part of chicken butchering.

   The hope is that the Sussex will reproduce unassisted, as they are supposed to do.  Their press agents say they are good mamas, and the two goals we have for the chicken yard this year are: that they be rotated behind the cows and forage more of their feed, as well as spreading manure (the cows’ and their own) on the pasture; and, that they should begin doing what animal life does — producing offspring after their own kind.  It shouldn’t be necessary for farmers to buy their chicks from a hatchery every year, and we’re out to beat the game.  Expect updates.

   Spreading manure is what the girls and I did this afternoon.  The sliding manger is a great invention; the hay and manure of this winter lie in big circles on the pasture, and we went out with the hayrakes we use when we put up loose hay, to spread any hay that is lying too thick for the grass underneath to grow through.  It was very satisfying work, even though tiring, because with every motion I felt I was taking a material step in the improvement of the pasture.  There was one area where for some reason the manger was left for a couple of weeks without being moved, and the heavy mat of hay and manure there gave us a glimpse of just how compacted and impenetrable the buildup can be around a manger.  An hour spent forking the wet, dirty hay over as large an area as we could sling it leaves us with stiff shoulders and an increased determination to use the sliding manger again next winter.

   We began supplying the bees with sugar water a couple of weeks ago, when they were out flying and we knew of nothing that could possibly be blossoming yet.  They left it untouched for about a week, but now they are guzzling it every warm day, and we are into our second batch of syrup, mixed up at the rate of five pound per gallon of water.  There is activity around three of the four hives, the fourth being one that we split out last summer, but weren’t sure was strong enough when fall came to make it through the winter.  Bees are still largely a gamble for us; as Shawn says, they haven’t made it to the top of the list yet.  Still, they are climbing higher, and we haven’t bought bees in years, which proves we are succeeding in raising and keeping bees.  We just don’t always remember to harvest honey.  This year we put it  on the calendar.

   The garden is mostly turned and raked, all but the half bed where the sage and shasta daisies I started last year are waiting for me to transplant them to permanent spots; and the asparagus bed, which got a good blanket of composted manure last fall, and won’t be touched until the spears are up and I can see where everything is.  That bed is really only about half full, and the seedlings I coddled last summer, if they come up this year, need to be moved to fill in the gaps in the garden.

   The hoop house is recovering from the depradations of the cats, who found a bolt-hole and held high jinks in there, pulling down the row covers and even chewing many of the lettuce plants.  We open it on warm days, and the girls have planted more buttercrunch in there, where it should get the jump on the lettuce planted outside the house.  Spinach, beets, and carrots have also gone in, in an outside bed, as well as some white clover and rye covers, but the peas are waiting for Saturday, when we will have a garden seminar, and demonstrate some basics in gardening for interestedparties.  Not to run out of things to do, I’ve left the peas for then, and I’ll set them to soak on Friday night to increase the speed of germination.

   Isabel is up to three and a half gallons a day after her fit of indisposition.  Life can return to normal, but we have had our warning; she is aging, and some day we will have to deal with that fact.  We picked up the Farm and Dairy on Saturday, and we are watching out for a bred heifer.

   Shawn and the boys have put in the three posts for the north end of the barn addition, and the beam to carry the joists.  The wooden members are enormous, and look as though they could weather a tornado.  More would have been accomplished if Isabel’s little spell hadn’t diverted our week.

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down cow

If those words don’t send a chill up your spine, it’s only because you have never experienced for yourself a cow down that won’t get up.   It’s not something your imagination can adequately conjure up for you.  A down cow is a calamity.

Cows do, of course, lie down.  They may lie down for perfectly good reasons, known only to the cow.  But a ‘down cow’ isn’t just any cow who chooses to lie down; she is an animal who, although in all detectable ways healthy and in good condition, simply won’t, or can’t, get up.  She may not try, or she may try and not make it.  Either way, you have from one thousand to fifteen hundred pounds of immovable bovine; and if something isn’t done reasonably quickly, you are going to have half to three quarters of a ton of sick or dying animal.  Because God didn’t design cows to function for long in a supine position; they have to move in order to eat, drink, and even to perform the basic involuntary functions of life, like digesting their food.  Leave a cow on the ground for long, and you have a cow with bloat; for much longer, and you have a dead cow.

So our feelings may be imagined when at six-twenty on Thursday morning, S-3 came in the front door in dirty boots (sure sign something is up) and informed the household that Isabel was down and wouldn’t get up for  milking.  Not quite panic, but a definite depression of spirits.  Because she’s done this once before, and it was an experience we don’t like to remember.

That time four years ago, it was high summer, and the oldest son home at the time was thirteen.  For three of the hottest days of the year, father, seven-months-pregnant mother, one thirteen year old, and one ten year old, lived at the bottom of the pasture, trying everything they could conceive to raise that cow back to her feet, while a (fortunately) very capable seven year old kept the girls happy up at the house, fed them PBJ’s, and made sure the water in the wading pool was never more than three inches deep.  We hauled water, hay, and cut green fodder, sank posts on either side f her and rigged a primitive sling for hoiking her off the ground, constructed tents to protect her from the sun, all but held her hoof and begged her to get up, to no purpose.

And don’t think we didn’t call the vet in, too; we did, almost immediately.  The first thing that seemed to strike the vet was our inconsiderateness at letting Isabel go down at the bottom of the field; our bad.  Then she examined the animal.  But the thing that makes a down cow a down cow is that there is nothing detectably wrong with her; she just doesn’t get up.  So aside from doing the obvious things, like giving her calcium, just in case she had milk fever, and telling us that she was probably overfed, and therefore too fat to get up, or perhaps undernourished, and therefore too weak to get up, there was really nothing constructive for the vet to do.  She left us with good wishes, but not much constructive input.

Hence the three days spent holding prayer meetings at the bottom of the field begging God and all his angels to raise this cow.  Nothing we did was in the least effective; in the sling, she just hung like a sack of wet sand.  We fanned her with folded newspapers, spritzed her ears, and stared hopelessly at one another, for three solid days.  At the end of the third day, she got up.  Just heaved her big old self off the ground, strolled up the hill, and started grazing.  We followed her around for half an hour, soaking up the sight and sound of her as thought it were some beautiful symphony.  And prayed, with all our heart and soul, that she’d never be a ‘down cow’ again.

And then comes S-3 in the front door on a March morning with the news that, despite our prayers, she had done it again.  Argh, argh, and arghhhhh.

This time it was five days.  We don’t know what was the cause.  Again, we had the vet, and, again, she gave calcium just in case it was milk fever — only we’d already done that, with no visible effect — and expressed the same contradictory opinions about Isabel’s state of nourishment.  She also offered us the use of her bovine hip lift, a simple device that clamps onto a cow’s hipbones and gives you something to attatch a winch to, to lift the cow.  We rented scaffolding at our neighborhood contractor rental, borrowed the lift, and for three days cranked that cow up off the ground, got her feet set, and let her down.  She stood, sometimes for seconds, sometimes as much as thirty minutes, but always, in the end, she went down again.  And she was making no effort to get herself up.

This was no small blip in our farm schedule.  Last week was spring break at the university where Shawn earns his weekly envelope, and at which two of the boys attend classes, and we had planned that the week off would be spent setting posts for the barn we will build this summer.  Instead, most of our time was being spent playing physical therapist to a cow.  And not only physical therapist, but caterer and chambermaid, and you can believe us, cleaning up after a cow that can’t move out of her own messes is no picnic.

But, in the end — that is to say, last night at eight thirty — SHE GOT UP!  On her own — no hip lift, no winch.  She got up and stayed up for an hour and a half.  And this morning, she got up again, and let us milk her; and she kept getting herself up all day, while the guys finally got to set those posts, and at the same time monitored her progress.

Each of these experiences makes us a litte more real farmers.

For more information on how we deal with a “down cow”, see our dairy page.


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   Being Catholic is a little like belonging to a fraternity.  On Ash Wednesday, the Catholics are going around in public with big black smudges on their foreheads; now, who else can do a thing like that?  And  it’s a fraternity with no side, because anyone and everyone is welcome.  Ashes and scapulars are like the club handshake.  I really like it.

   Yesterday was glorious, with a clear blue sky of the kind that seems to have extra depth, somehow, and afternoon temperatures in the fifties.  The sickle bar mower is getting reassembled, and the flower beds around the house were raked and clipped and cleared.  The boys brought down about forty gallons of sap, and we got about another gallon of syrup, making about four gallons all told.

   Never boiled syrup?   Spiles, the little taps you put in the trees, are cheap — about a dollar fifty each, I think — and you can use plastic milk jugs for sap buckets, by cutting a hole in the side of the jug just under the cap.  A bucket of this kind is pretty safe from bugs getting in, and won’t collect rain, but has the disadvantage of holding only one gallon of sap, which means you’ll always find it running over when  you come to empty it.  We usually use food-grade two- or five-gallon buckets, collected from helpful restaurants in the area, and even these are sometimes running over, since we really can’t spare the time to collect sap more than once a day. 

   Long, long ago we boiled sap in the house, which meant that the indoor atmosphere was about as liquid as it could stick, and we used up a week’s worth of propane per gallon of syrup.  Then S-2 built us a large firebox in the back of the house, next to the woodshed, of dry-laid cinder block lined with firebrick, and we bought two large stainless steel pans, about eighteen by twentyeight by eight inches, which fit neatly over the firebox.  The pans belonged, before we purchased them, to an amateur mechanic who used them for changing the oil in the succession of vehicles he disembowelled in his garage, but we cleaned them carefully, and they might have been designed especially for sap pans.  Add sap, kindle fire, and keep a close eye, because as the sugar becomes concentrated, the boiling point goes up,and by the time your syrup is almost ready, it is just about ready to burn.  We usually bring it in the house when it is approaching the syrup stage, and finish it on the stove where we can keep an eye on it.

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   But it’s trying to get there.  The rain last week washed away all the snow, for a while;  it also nearly washed away one of our drain pipes, and had Beth crawling into a blocked culvert that was overflowing on Jeddo’s run, to see if any of her children had been washed in there and plugged up the pipe.  Her imagination tends that way; at least the boys got a good laugh out of it. 

   We got another couple of gallons of syrup last week.  If we were sedulous about checking the buckets, there would be more syrup, but we have to compromise between farm and schoolwork, outdoor and indoor, Euclid and Ford F-150’s, so we lose some sap.  Snow fell again today, so we should get another flow when the weather warms again.  We keep this up until the sap gets cloudy, or until other things crowd it out.

   The warm weather means Isabel gives us about four gallons a day,  a half gallon more than in extremely cold weather.  Anticipating the day when we dry her off before she calves, giving her a six-week rest period, we are making lots of mozzarella and butter to put in the freezer, and freezing buttermilk in ice cube trays, then bagging the cubes, since the turkey poults will arrive after Isabel is dry and we will need raw milk to stave off coccidiosis. 

   S-6 is lying on my computer arm to tell me it’s time to nurse and go to bed.  Goodnight.

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jonah day

      Sunday, February 27:  The kind of day that makes  you think you’re doing everything right.  Today was really beautiful, a spring day a month early.  A jacket day, with the sun coming and going behind clouds white with grey hearts, and the shapes of trees standing out against the sky making you wonder why you never noticed them before.  S-6, who is three years old, seems to be getting over his periodic fevers of the past few days, so we took him to mass, only making sure he didn’t get down and visit with anyone.  Pancakes for breakfast with some of the new maple syrup. 

   Beethoven in Pittsburgh with Manfred Honeck and    Vogt, and the drive home westward into a sun that was still above the horizon at six o’clock, furthering the illusion that spring has come, which it has not.  Home to baked chicken and roast potatoes, and everyone turning out to collect maple sap in the dark, thirty gallons and some of the buckets running over.  A day designed to create the illusion that if you just order your life according to the right principles, God will smooth your path and strew it with roses.

Monday, February 28:  Baby is misstng from bed at six a.m., an unprecedented event; search reveals him tucked up with the girls, who enticed him with promise of stories, when they were wakened early by thunder.  Pouring buckets of rain, and soon the buckets are coming into the basement.  With the ground frozen, the rain has nowhere to go, and some of it decides to follow the foundation of the house down, and shoot in through the cracks in the tiles with the force of a hosepipe.  Four months of firewood coming into the basement has left the drains clogged with wood chips and dirt, and before we can get them open, the rain is pouring across the floor.  We can see it rising.  Wade in – the water is cold , being melted snow as well as rain – and scoop out the trash with our fingers, until we see the water begin to swirl down through the grills. The basement is saved, but the day hasn’t even begun yet.

   Son three still isn’t up from the milking, and the water in Jeddo’s run is over the road, pouring in a wide brown shoulder over the lane, churning down to meet North Creek , tear along the low side of the pasture pulling pieces out of the bank, and spill under the barbed wire boundary fence to go wash out Kenny Mossor’s little footbridge.  The other boys are called, and Mom runs on ahead, convinced that the missing milker has been washed into the culvert, resulting in the overflow; before he makes his re-appearance, she has climbed in under the waterfall to see if his legs are protruding from the lower end.  Also, groped in the wash over the curb of the road in an attempt to see if his cold fingers are there in the water among the wedged sticks and flotsam.  Much mirth from the male two-thirds of the household, especially the missing son, who appears bearing various articles careless people have left where the rain could wash them away.  Offspring take a cold wet ramble of discovery and exploration for an hour before they can be induced to come in and get a hot breakfast.  After such a beginning to the day, how can schoolwork compete? 

   The rain petering off by lunchtime, people go out to do noon chores, and remain out to put up hotwire fencing Bridget, the sorrel mini, and Isabel, off the pasture, which is beginning to thaw.  We rotational graziers have to prevent our animals pugging up the pasture, even when it means putting up hotwire over, and through, a creek in spate.  About three-thirty, time to see about dinner, Mom goes downstairs and discovers that one of the chest freezers is full of thawed meat, and about two inches of bloody water.  Investigation reveals that said freezer has been shut off, or almost off, but investigation cannot s.  discover how it happened.  Sorting through the meat – some still frozen, some thawed but still cold, and some not cold at all – and cleaning the freezer, takes and hour and a half, and dinner turns out to be stew in the pressure cooker, starring  some of the inadvertently thawed meat.  Serendipitously, the mystery of how the freezer got turned off is solved when S-6, who is three, volunteers to show Mommy how he can “climb up on the freezer and slide like a fireman down the pole” – a lally column situated at the end of the freezer where is the temperature dial.  This skill has been taught him, it turns out, by D-2, age six, with whom he spent a happy hour Saturday afternoon practicing it.

   Dinner late, older boys late for carpool to a swim date.  Batch of mozzarella which should have been receiving attention during the freezer-cleaning process, is almost ruined; too-acid mozzarella melts away to a white liquid fit for nothing but feeding to the pigs.  Likewise, a pound of butter has churned its life away for approximately an hour longer than necessary, reducing it to a fluffy mush which nothing can rectify, and it also goes to the pigs.  Well, it was a good day for the pigs.

Tuesday, March 1:  The sun rose in a glorious blue sky, and the frozen ground meant no slipping in the mud left from yesterday’s monsoon.  The river is six inches from flood state, and the surface, a half mile broad, is littered with all the broken branches the winter had left in each small tributary.  The mill bridge to Brown’s Island has on it the eight-foot long iron slabs which they lay out when they want to hold the bridge down more firmly to the riverbed.  They lay these out at close intervals down the center of the one-lane bridge, so that the tractor rigs carrying rolls of extruded steel can straddle them.  We read the state of the natural world on the face of a steel mill.

   S-3 and Mom prune fruit trees up the hill.  They haven’t been touched for several years, and there is lots to be done, more, in fact, than can be done in one pruning; it will be two or three years before these trees are tamed.  Lumber for the flat bed being built on the old red pickup must be bought at the lumberyard, as it has to be pressure-treated wood.  There is a rusty sickle-bar mower on a scrap heap going the back way home from the lumber yard; we leave a note for the homeowners that we would like to negotiate for it.  The parts we just bought for our sickle bar mower set us back a bit, as each small piece – blade tooth, guard, even rivet – carries a price tag in dollars and cents.  This old mower, scrap metal to some people, is spare parts to us.

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