Archive for July, 2011

hay and rain

   The temperatures are still blistering, and the number of jobs that need immediate attention is growing.  In the midst of a minor drought as we are, we might suppose that to find five dry days in which to cut and bale hay would be the work of a moment; but no, the meteorologists who cannot promise rain, cannot promise that we will have no precipitation either.  Skeptical as we may sometimes feel about the accuracy of our weather forecasting, we dare not cut hay without the expectation of at least four consecutive dry days, days of no more than a thirty percent likelihood of showers.  With a forecast for dry weather until Saturday, Tuesday we cut Barry’s haymeadow.

  Wednesday evening found us in the field trying to put some almost-dry hay into bales before the arrival of a rogue thunderstorm suddenly appearing in the Thursday forecast.  About sixty bales were either put into Barry’s barn or tarped in the field; this morning amid light sprinkles we got the rest baled and in the barn, stacked cut-side up and scattered with a handful of stock salt per bale to cure them since they were undeniably damp.  We read about salting bales in J. S.’s Salad Bar Beef book, then searched online and found many other advocates of salting damp hay.  We hope to goodness it really works to prevent molding, and more importantly, to prevent spontaneous combustion of the tightly packed hay.  I think if our new barn was to burn down we might resign from farming and go to Manchuria as missionaries.

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   Pools of water accumulate under the cold water pipes in the basement; the humidity is so great that the pipes drip continually, and the toilet tanks sweat puddles.  In the laundry room the floor is hardwood, stained dark now with condensation, making us question the wisdom of leaving this area untiled.  Working in the garden under a sun intensified by haze, one asks oneself repeatedly whether a sane person would be doing this.

   The broccoli has been kept under row covers to protect it from cabbage moths, which lay their eggs on the leaves, these hatching out into tiny bright green caterpillars.  These worms eat little, but are indistinguishable from the broccoli buds in their tight florettes, and are often the cause of a promising dish of broccoli going from the steamer directly to the pigs, as the cook tries to get them out of the house before anyone sees she has almost served them a head of broccoli garnished liberally with firm, juicy pale green caterpillars (the color fades when they are cooked).  Experiences like this one have caused more than one family member of a gardener to swear he will never again eat anything that didn’t come from the store in a sealed plastic wrapper.  A prudent gardener-cook is ever anxious to avoid compromising her reputation.

   So, the broccoli has been kept under a floating row cover, this being the method used by our neighbor Mick, proprieter of Bluebird Farms, an organic market garden farm selling in three cities, to keep his broccoli worm-free.  It probably works, too, for people who get under the cover regularly to weed and check the progress of their vegetables’ growth, but we wonder:  how can cabbage moths be prevented from touching down on the broccoli plants while the cover is up?  What is to keep a wandering moth – and this time of year they flutter around our vegetable and flower gardens like sequins on an opera diva’s evening dress – from landing on a briefly exposed plant and laying a few random eggs?

   We’d like to know, because today when we opened one of our tunnels, what we found inside seemed proof that an enterprising cabbage moth had done just that.  Three plants with leaves riddled with holes, or eaten down to just the pale center rib of the leaf, and everywhere the dark green litter that is a caterpillar’s feces.  Only two caterpillars to be seen, but these large, fat and healthy – for the moment.  The wire pen holding the five replacement Sussex chicks has been shifting over the lawn, and chickens love caterpillars.  Hence it is an easy thing to deal with the two caterpillars we have found; but now we are faced with the usual dilemma we associate with un-row-covered broccoli.  The broccoli florettes look innocent of even the smallest caterpillar, but these larvae are clever at hiding, and there is no way to be sure that the plant is not really a baby caterpillar condo, except by cooking it.  In the end, this is what we did.  Three waterlogged and stiff as sausage cabbage worms are then discovered by inspection and dealt with surreptitiously, the broccoli is doused with ranch dressing, and we eat it, only the cook knowing we are not the first partakers in this dish.

   Mom eats of it only lightly.  Might we not next year just skip the broccoli and raise green beans instead?

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   We spent part of the afternoon immersed in tepid river water.  It was cooler than the air, and we lay in our tubes with the wind moving us over the surface of the water, there being no river current in our backwater.  As soon as we got out we began to sweat again. 

   The last bay of the new barn is taking second place to the woodshed-cum-equipment barn we are building at the turn in the lane.  Our neighbor, who has a twenty foot right-of-way where barely twenty feet are available, will doubtless object to its construction, but we have made our measurements carefully, and she will see that we are toeing the line.  Relations between us have for twenty-one year had the character of a nervous postman attempting to pat a chancy dog; his tail is wagging, but the dog seldom misses an opportunity to bite.  On our side, we try to have our defenses outlined before an issue surfaces.  The new woodshed will replace a clutter of skids and tarpaulins used to cover our second year’s wood.  A cord of dry firewood is like money in the bank.  Better.

   The orientation and design of the new shed has been a matter of much discussion, not to say conflict, between the men in charge, but yesterday they set out flags to mark where the posts will go, and used pick and shovel and rake to level the thirty-six by ten foot pad.  It is a simple project, and should go up quickly.  We hope so, because we have not yet taken the far bay of the barn off our list for the summer.  The old pigpen is really rather small for several four-hundred pound hogs, and S-4 is determined that the new pigs we buy in August and September will have a concrete pad under them by winter.  The last bay of the barn will also comprise our new feed and tack room, and the stairs into the loft, which is presently only to be accessed by ladder.  By the time the woodshed footprint was outlined and leveled, we were gasping in the heat, and adjourned to a cold lunch, and the dip in the river.  We need rain and a break in the heat.

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heat and hens

   The last few days the heat has been record-breaking.  We wake up hot and grow hotter with each hour that passes, until by about eleven in the morning we are drenched with sweat and moving slowly through the dense humid air like june bugs in warm jello.  We have no days to spare, with July nearly done and the second cutting of hay to take, but we have to stop in the middle of the day and try to rest and cool off.  Nowhere is the temperature really bearable, even in front of the fan, unless it is the cave, a we call the earth cellar beneath the east end of the house, or inside the three foot culvert that carries North creek under the lane.  Isabel knows about this place, and when she is turned out of her paddock at noon, her tongue hanging out to show how hot she is, she moves slowly down the cowpath along North creek, which is really too steep for her – once she fell here, ending up stuck on her back in the creek, and it took all our combined efforts, plus those of Peter R., who was visiting, to get her up again – until she reaches the pool where the creek falls out of the culvert.  She can stand there all afternoon, her feet in the pool, her head in the culvert and the cool air pouring out in an invisible stream, her tail switching casually at the few flies that follow her to this place of refuge.  On hot days like these have been, there may be children in the other end of the culvert,  tossing rocks for the crazy dog Scouter who chases anything, even bullets from a gun, and talking about all the play they are thinking of but can’t accomplish while the heat bars all but the most gentle activity.


   Some things must be done heat or no.  Milking never takes a holiday; it can’t.  You can’t stop breathing and Isabel must be milked.  These are axioms of the same class.  There are other chores we may try to minimize, but which are ever present in one form or another:  we must eat, and therefore we must cook, and clean up before and after cooking.  We must pick vegetables, or they will become over ripe and set seed, and the plant, thinking it has fulfilled its life purpose, will stop setting fruit.  We must care for our animals, giving them food and water and shade.  We must hunt the fox.   

   The last four nights we have gone hen hunting at dusk, locating the out-lying hens, which perch mostly in the ash sapling by the bridge, and fetching them down with a ladder to be confined for the night in the hen house.  We close the hen door on the north side of the henhouse, and in the morning we wait until after mass, that is to say about nine oclock, before we turn them out for the day.  This prevents any early morning raids on the part of our predator, even if it does not altogether protect our barnyard birds; the Sussex are such adventurous birds that they climb up the pasture even to the tree line, and we suspect we are losing chickens to daytime raids, as well as dawn forays.  On a cheerful note, however, the roosting chickens are gradually learning to return in the evening to the henhouse where they wake up: tonight when we went to put them in, only three were in the tree; the others, a careful count in the henhouse showed, were with the Rhode Island Reds on the hen house roosts.  This is a measure of success; and all the Reds are presently accounted for, too.

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heat and chores

   Rain is falling outside, much-needed rain since nothing of significance has fallen since before the last haying.  Now Barry says it is almost time for the second cutting of his hay meadows, since the red clover is in bloom.  We were pleasantly surprised when his horse pasture produced over one hundred bales on the first cutting; nevertheless we have low expectations for the second-cutting yield in the haymeadow.  Our own pastures are brown and rough with weeds the steers won’t touch even when confined to small paddocks.  Shawn clipped the steep pastures with the weed-eater blade until S-3 anticipated he would have heat stroke.

   Some days are so scattered and without form that they make poor reporting.  Many people moving in many directions may accomplish much without leaving anything particularly changed from what it was the day before.  S-1 is home with his beautiful wife and children, to add to our pleasure and to the accomplishments of the day, yet we look back on a day difficult to account for.

   The various farm vehicles were maintained, and the strange dinging in the van was investigated.  There was, of course, the marathon clipping of the south hill pasture.  A quick trip to the feed store is never as quick as is expected, but now we have replenished our stock of dairy sixteen – an item our next cow will not be taught to expect! – of sweet feed for treats, and of cracked corn, which is all the layers need in the summertime when the leaves and bugs are succulent, and which makes good calling feed when we scatter it around our feet with the classic “heeeear chick-chick-chick-chick!”  One trip out yielded half a dozen old tractor inner tubes, which were patched by S-5 for float trips down Yellow Creek.  With gasoline so expensive, we need to cut down on our driving errands.

   S-3 is making a training yoke for the young steers, and this afternoon he showed his cousin how to work it with the hand chisels.  By evening she had removed much of the excess cherry wood from the top side, and the lovely red grain is beginning to be evident.  When one has time and a medium, the making of things beautiful is reflexive, not reserved for items of significance.  The same cousin, visiting for the latter half of the summer, also helped tie up tomato vines in the lower garden, where the beefsteaks are higher than a woman’s head.  We sucker as heartlessly as we can make ourselves, and the path is scattered with branches for which there is no room in the tomato patch.  The leaves disarranged by our work will use tomorrow’s sun to reorient themselves, and the ruffled look the plants now bear will be combed and neat again.

   We encounter one fat green tomato worm, finding him not, as is usual, by the bare tomato vines which are his mark, but by the thirty or so white wasp larvae which stand up on his back like fat spines.  These parasites mean that we will leave him in the garden, not feed him to the chickens as we would if he were not so adorned; the wasps which will hopefully develop from the white larvae will, in their turn, lay parasitic eggs in other horn worms.  The sphinx moth which is the mature form of these large caterpillars is interesting and attractive, and when we meet one we admire it and treat it courteously, but we are nonetheless determined against the larval form.  They seldom visit our garden in large numbers – we do remember one year when we found as many as twenty or so, but this is unusual – and are one of the few things we know which will eat tomato leaves and vines.  Not even Isabel on a garden-raid is inclined to eat them; she mostly just knocks them over and steps on them.

   After dinner, chicken and squash and potatoes eaten in a dining room so hot we drip sweat as we eat, some of us head out to a hillside where we can range in high-powered guns without disturbing neighbors.  Shawn goes down to milk, and Mom and S-5 move Isabel’s paddock over, then run hose up to the high water hog and pump it full from the spring tank.  We are supposed to get rain sometime tonight, and are making room for it.  It arrives while we are still up on the hill, and the gusts of relatively cool air and rain are intoxicating; Isabel in her new paddock eats steadily as her tan hide darkens from the spine down. 

   There is one less Sussex accounted for when I close up the chickens.  Is it wrong to curse a fox?  I ask instead that God protect my chickens.  Of the thirty-five pullets we turned into the hen house two weeks ago, thirteen are left.  We can’t consider this success.  What will the harvest be?  Tomorrow we will lurk again with guns when the roosting hens come off in the morning.  How canny this predator is!

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   Not an owl.  Not a hawk.  Something long and low and sandy-colored, something glimpsed in the barnyard at six a.m., after the night guard with their 22.’s have retired to bed.  Something that killed five birds and left them uneaten in a circle roughly twenty feet in diameter.  Something that is hitting the chickens early in the morning as they are coming off their roosts.  We guess it is a fox.

   For four nights we have come out very early in the morning, like three o’clock, to lie in wait and catch the fox, or whatever it is, in the act of slaying chicken; and for four nights running, nothing has happened.  No sounds, no deaths.  Seems like our fox can see us, or smell us, or maybe hear us.  Seems like he’s as crafty as a fox.  Last night he managed to get away with a turkey, our last turkey, who was a ground sleeper; while we were looking east, the predator, whatever it is, was coming out of the west. 

  We are quite fed up.  At this rate, we will soon have no birds whatsoever.  This animal has got to go.  We have set out a caged chicken as bait, and are taking turns staying awake to hear her cackle when the fox comes close.  Then, we hope, we will look out the window in the bright moonlight, and make short work of this animal which seems to have appointed us its private poulterers.

   Isabel has been needing to be turned out of her paddock after lunch, and allowed to do what she likes until milking time at six o’clock.  Not all of her paddocks can be laid out to provide shade in the hot part of the day, and she needs to get out of the sun and its accompanying threat of sunstroke.  This is a variation on the rotational grazing of our books and magazine articles, which have said little about shade requirements.  We imagine this will become part of our regular routine, and hope it won’t have too adverse an impact on our pasture impovements.

   The four new steers seem bright enough, but three of them have developed lumps on their faces.  Another question.  Are these just abcesses, with which we are fairly familiar, or something else?  One calf has a lump the size of half a baseball on the side of his head.  We have lanced smaller abcesses, but this looks like lancing it would require something on the order of Madame Guillotine.  Or is there something else wrong with our calves, something serious?  The sick-in-the-gut feeling we get when our animals are not thriving twists in our stomachs.  Fortunately, while we are still waiting for a return call from our friendly dairyman, the lumps subside on their own.

   Keeping animals requires flexibility as well as iron discipline.  And writing about it keeps us up too late, so we are on our way to bad.

   God grant we may find the danged fox and let it know what we think of its activities before we run out of chickens for it to practice upon.

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   At dusk we walked down the hill intending to pick up any outlying chickens and lock them in the chicken house.  The Sussex are not mixing well with the Rhode Island Reds.  This is common when new birds are introduced into a flock; they are pecked and tormented, sometimes even to death, by the older birds.  If only a few new birds are introduced, they can come in for a lot of unwanted attention from their flock mates.  We have always introduced our new flocks en masse, and the sheer number of new birds means that no one chicken usually gets too much abuse before the old hens forget or lose interest.  But this year, for some reason, the Sussex are not settling in as they should.  Maybe the difference in breed is partly responsible for the continued uneasiness between flocks.  Whatever the cause, the Sussex are not venturing into the chicken house in the evenings to roost, and in the last week we have lost five. S-3 thinks they were killed by a hawk, which would mean a daytime raid, but an owl could have killed them, we suppose; at any rate, I want them to live in the chicken house, and lay in the nesting boxes, or we lose too many eggs.  So, as I say, we walked down the hill at dusk to put them in.

   Only, when we reached the spot where our two creeks meet, the dark was not so dark as it had seemed from the kitchen window.  The dozen or so birds perched on compost bin and brick pile saw us coming, and we only caught four or five.  Another seven were perched too high in the apple trees for us to reach them.  We crossed the little bridge and climbed the hill to check the steers’ watering trough.

   More hose is needed to allow the tank at the top of the hill to gravity feed down valley where the steers are pastured, so we run a hose up from the spring tank and use the jet pump.  It must be primed before use, and while I wait beside the blue half-barrel I watch the mysterious rise of thousands of fireflies all suddenly sure that this is the moment for them to break upon the world.  Like myriad fire lanterns they drift upward in an ambling, unsure flight.  They look like fairy kind.

   Leaning slightly against the downhill pull of the hose, I wait for the water to flow.  Eventually, raising the end of the hose to my ear, I feel more than hear the passage of air forced out of the hosepipe by the rising water; the hose sags in my hands, then spurts into the tank.  The yearling steers stand beside one another a few feet from me, nose to tail, and blow out breath in a bored, bedtime sort of way.  The spring steers are together at the top of the paddock, away from these two; perhaps all animals like to segregate. 

   Shawn is a blur of paler shadow when he draws down the hose to fill the tank for the dairy cow in her private paddock.  She is older, and much heavier, than the steers, and the more level land of the lower pasture is reserved for her use.  The steers, on the other hand, graze high, a one-in-one grade, more productive, until this year, of rocks than of forage.  How transformative of land is the periodic passage of large herbivores.  These, as the grazier says with relish, eat, step, urinate, or defecate, on every square foot of their one-day paddocks, thereby trimming, fertilizing, and lightly tilling it while getting their own living.   Already, in the short time we have been managing our grazing land, the hillside, formerly rock, briar, and thistle is clothing itself in grass and palatable weeds.  We look at this change with more wonder than pride.

   There is a degree of darkness which transforms all but the most skittish hen into a mild protest.  Six birds are perched on the compost bin, and we lift them without ceremony and shove them through the cleanout door into the hen house.  King, the young male dog, is out of earshot, or divines somehow that we have his chain, and does not come to our call.  We had hoped to leave him on chicken guard duty, but decide that what is difficult is unnecessary.  We have children up the hill we want to see.

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