Archive for December, 2011

Tuesday, December 27:

   Dark and cold and no fresh grass and bugs means the hens have just about shut down for the winter.  Even more significantly, Brer Fox carried off most of the flock of Speckled Sussex we started last spring –for “good foragers” should we read “suicidally adventurous”? – and except for seven SS hens, our mature laying flock consists almost exclusively of three-year-old Rhode Island Reds, definitely birds past their prime.  For two weeks the little girls have delivered me a daily egg count of just four eggs.  It is time to cull the flock.

   There are a number of ways to cull a flock, that is, to reduce its numbers according to some criterion or other.  We have read several ways to determine the laying status of a hen, some of them contradictory; we usually do a quick examination of the bird’s vent, and if it is small, dry, and puckered, we decommission her.  Another way is to see if her pubic bones, which are not shaped like those of a beast but have long projecting points to them, will allow you to fit two fingers between them (my fingers – Shawn’s are too big).  Birds whose pelvic bones are close together are assumed to be moulting, or past laying altogether.

   The problem with these methods, and with any others we have ever tried, is that they are not fool-proof.  A hen you are ready to take your oath is out of lay will turn out to have tomorrow’s breakfast egg nestling in  her now-dead innards.  This is very discouraging to the chicken-herder, and if it happens two or three times one is tempted to turn out all the other condemned in the crate and give up culling.  Yet, when one is feeding a flock of fifty and realizing only half a dozen eggs a day, one may be excused for thingking someone is not pulling her weight.  In this case we tend to be less scientific and more sweeping.

   On St. Stephen’s day we went down to the chicken house determined to reduce our numbers no matter what.  We took fourteen, and found eggs in three.  One we turned loose on second examination. In the final analysis we had enough quart jars of chicken parts to fill two canners, and all the backs and necks to cook down for broth and bits, giving us nineteen assorted quarts of chicken, old layers, the best for stewing, and a big bucket of scrappy bits for the pigs.  When the rain stops we will do a dozen more.  Ladies who are only laying an egg-and-a-half-a-week, beware.

   The bill for hen feed should soon assume more reasonable proportions.

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picky pigs

   The four pigs up at Barry’s, which we expected we would be butchering in early January as is our custom, are puny.  At five months old they should weigh in the neighborhood of three hundred pounds, and hang over two hundred, and as they are now we doubt they would hang at one.  We have been observing the slowness of their growth for some time, comparing their size with that of the milk-fed pigs at our place, and scratching our heads over it.  We do that a lot.  Another odd thing they have been doing is throwing feed out of their self-feeder onto the floor; sometimes they’d get as much as half a bag’s worth spread out around their feeder, good feed, dry and sweet, so then we’d leave the feeder empty until they cleaned it up.  And still they were unusually small.

   Someone got creative a few weeks ago and changed the type of feed we were giving them.  They went crazy.  Gobbled it.  You don’t think of pigs, who will eat almost anything, being picky about their food, but we have to guess these are.  What it is they object to in Mr. —-‘s mix we can’t guess, but they are eating the new stuff avidly.  Still, there is no way they can make up the weight in the next three weeks, and we estimate they won’t be ready to butcher until some time in March.  Our home pigs, the ones on swill and milk, should be ready in February.  It never rains but it pours; how are we going to get four pigs into the freezers?

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dry-aging beef

Monday, December 26:

   The good king’s knave would have no footsteps to walk in on this feast of St. Stephen, or rather he would have only muddy ones.  Frosting some nights, the weather continues on the warm side, and the animals in the south hill pasture are churning the barnyard into a sea of mud.

   The steer we hung at the beginning of the month with the expectation that the average temperature would be something less than forty degrees means that the unseasonably warm weather has been no relief to us, but instead a reason to worry.  The first two days after the men split and hung the first of our fall steers were cool enough to chill and firm the meat, but then daytime temps soared as high as fifty degrees, and only dropped into the high thirties at night.  That meant the average was well above forty degrees, and on day five we dropped the sides into Barry’s scalding trough and bedded them in thirty pounds of bagged ice.  Cooling beef you are hanging to age in this way is not ideal, since one of the conditions desirable for aging is that the meat remain dry while it is hanging, but desperate cases call for desperate measures.  Anyway, we only meant to ice it for a short time, until the temperatures dropped, as they surely would. 

   And they did, not too much, but enough so that after two or three days we hoisted the sides out of the trough and onto the gambrel hooks again.  A week passed with cooler temperatures, then on December fourteenth it rose to fifty, only dropped to forty-something that night, and by two o’clock on the fifteenth it was fifty-five degrees outside.  No more fooling around; we dropped the sides, sharpened all our Bowie knives, and had the meat cut and wrapped by about eight p.m.  It was warmer, and therefore less firm than is ideal for cutting and grinding, but it smelled good and looked fine, and the first steaks, which we grilled a few days before Christmas, were more than delicious.

   Butchers don’t usually dry-age beef for two reasons that make financial sense – for the butcher.  One is that the meat loses weight in the process of drying, meaning a lower wrapped weight –not significant when they are processing for the farmer, since he will be charged for the original hanging weight, but for retail sales a drawback.  The other reason is that the meat will be taking up room in the locker for twice as long, meaning fewer animals may be processed in the given space.  According to our sources, they are also at a disadvantage in that the US-Duh, as Joel Salatin calls it, requires butchers to age beef at a lower temperature than we mavericks can use, and the results just aren’t as good.  We are fortunate in our neighbor Barry, who has passed on the know-how, and more importantly the confidence, to butcher our own large animals, and who inherited from his father of blessed memory some beautiful old butchering equipment and lets us use it.

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Tuesday, December 13:

   In the Roman calender this day is the feast of Sta. Lucia, an early Christian martyr.  The young Franciscan priest who said mass at seven fifteen was vested in red, and we broke meditation to whisper anticipation of our morning cinnamon rolls, which turned into afternoon ones because the morning was so full.  Normal things, mostly:  laundry and dishes and the daily chore of lighting a fire under the big copper kettle outside and cooking ten gallons of swill for the pigs and chickens.  A trip to the recycle bins, a stop at the library, another to post Christmas cards, and it was almost eleven, and just time enough to roll out the dough, spread it with soft butter, cover that with a thick layer of brown sugar and cinnamon, roll it, slice it, and set it to rise, before the wolves were howling for their lunches. 

   In Europe there is a traditional sweet roll called, we believe, a luciakattern — ? – prepared for the breakfast of this day.  Twenty-some years ago we found a recipe for it, along with a description of the ceremony for its distribution, which includes girls with wreaths of lighted candles on their heads.  Having no girls at the time, we did not have to make up our minds whether to risk burning their hair off, and by the time we had daughters we had already come up with our own traditions.  We are not by nature adventurous about foreign foods, so it was easy to substitute cinnamon rolls for the luciakattern, and we keep the candles on the table, where we can enjoy them without risk to the girls’ coiffures.  Our traditions, festive though we find them, have to fit into the rhythm of seasonal work and the comfort zone of a mother who sees her children taking enough risks to life and limb in the course of our daily farm work without absolutely tempting fate.

   Demands of the university are beginning to wind down and the men were outside for several hours today making room in the big garage for two of the three deep freezers presently lodged in the basement.  Lumber and scrap metal were shifted down the hill, and equipment shoved around.  Electrical bills have been outrageous, and, always slow to respond to stimulous, we are, after hosting furnace/freezer duels in the basement every winter for twenty years, taking advantage of the low temperatures to help ice down the masses of beef and pork we are putting up.  The second of three steers is hanging in Barry’s barn, almost ready to cut and wrap, and if Nature can help freeze it, more power to Her.

   The buck S-4 brought down a week ago is now marinating in a witches’ brew of every spice and sauce in the kitchen, and will go into the dehydrator in small batches over the next few days.  We sorted the winter squash and pumpkins, sadly few because of last summer’s plague of squash bugs, and brought up one that was compromised to cook for dinner.  A single pumpkin, deceptively round and bright orange, was found to be in an advanced stage of decomposition, and the boys launched it off the back of the hill as a sort of wet pinata for the chickens’ pleasure.  Large-scale, long-term food storage requires regular quality checks to prevent spoilage from spreading. 

   The spring tank on the back of the barn is running at a good rate, and the floating thermometer reads just at forty degrees.  S-3 and 4 plumbed the new pig nipple through the back barn wall, only to find that the instructions for theuse of the three-foot length of pipe heater we bought to keep it from freezing warn against flexing the element or wrapping it around the pipe.  As the extension for the nipple is only eight inches long, this leaves us with almost two and a half feet of element we have to find something to do with.  We have had no experience with electric pipe heaters, but are pretty sure that if we don’t use one on the galvanized metal extender it will freeze.  We are also thinking of floating a stock tank de-icer in the spring tank if it looks like freezing in January or February.  The use of these gadgets will be worth the compromise with technology if they help keep running water in the pig pen for the bulk of the winter.

   The moon is past full, standing out brightly against a slate-blue early morning sky and setting two hours after sunrise when no one is looking any more.  At five o’clock this morning it poured over our frosted fields in a silver wash like snow.  Isabel steps painfully over the barnyard where the pocked mud is frozen hard as iron, and we could use a few inches of snow to cushion her footing.  The sliding manger, really just a roofed hay-rack on skis, is pushed around the pasture to ensure even distribution of waste hay and manure; it too will be much easier to move once we have a base layer of snow on the ground.  The hens don’t like snow, and put themselves to bed early in this cold weather; eggs are getting scarcer.  It’s about time to eliminate the remaining three-year-olds, and put up some canned chicken and broth for hot soup on cold days.

   Some chores are full of satisfaction.  The Rube Goldberg chicken house door closer — sixty foot of string through a series of staples and eyebolts, with a  wooden handle at the end on the woodshed — gives a most satisfying thump when you yank it.  This, we consider, is an appropriate application of technology.

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Sunday, December 11:

   Finally the temperature has dropped below freezing and the mud which people have been bringing in on their boots is turned to iron in the barnyard.  We dropped an aquarium thermometer into the spring tank to see how close it was to freezing too.  Someone had left the cover off the tank, and still the temperature of the spring water was forty-three degrees; we put the cover back on and will check it again tomorrow.  Our goal is frost-free water in the coldest weather; we’ll settle for half that in cash.  

   The steer we split and hung last week is half-cured.  The cold weather removes any worry about aging it, and it is to be cut and wrapped on Saturday.  This is a long and weary job, made less so by camraderie and cinnamon rolls and coffee, and will probably take all afternoon.  The morning is reserved for deer hunting, and goodness knows why, with four hundred pounds of beef already on gambrel hooks in Barry’s barn.

   We have been enjoying our winter carrots; the lettuce in the low tunnel is good, but there are a lot of waste leaves, probably because of all the rain we have had.  Perhaps too the low tunnels don’t provide enough barrier to the cold, since the pocket of air between the plastic cover and the spun-bonded fabric is so much smaller.  In the high tunnel the lettuce and spinach seem to be doing well, so we will hold off harvesting them until we have used up the produce in the low tunnel.

   At five in the morning the full moon makes diamonds on the frosted grass.

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Friday, December 2:

   Hooray for Mr. Coleman!  We have begun to enjoy our planted-for-winter-harvest carrots and lettuces and they are excellent.  Winter gardening is like rotational grazing in at least one respect; it is better to do it badly than not to do it at all.  Even though we got poor germination when we planted them in the summer, there is quite a lot of produce out there, and we have high hopes that it will last us into April, when the early lettuce should take over.

   Today, our second in the field, S-4 bagged a six-point buck, about #140 before field dressing.  S-3 spotted the fox (he of ill fame) but forebore to shoot him because it is deer season and the woods are full of hunters, legitemate and otherwise.  He was, one, unwilling to scare away any deer that were coming his way, and, two, unsure what the game laws dictate with regards foxes.  Mom was incensed; she won’t sleep well until she has a fox fur collar on her Carhartt jacket.  Three sons took turns hauling in the dressed carcase, and it is hanging in the garage waiting for tomorrow to be turned into jerkey.  The timing is a little awkward, as tomorrow was the day we had set aside to shoot and split a two-year-old steer, but, gather ye rosebuds while ye may.

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