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Archive for May, 2012

Tuesday, May 29:

Our church league softball plays two games back-to-back.  Not subsequently, although we do that too sometimes, but two games simultaneously on a field just larger than a normal baseball field, with infields in diagonally opposite corners.  Center field and second base defy physics to occupy the same space at one and the same time, and a fly ball from one game might not infrequently be mistaken for a high pitch in the other.  The tension infield may be ruptured at any time by two or even three shouting outfielders pursuing a high ball right up to the opposite backstop.  It makes for interesting games.

The little steers on pasture at the monastery are in grass over their heads.  When we shift their paddock every day or two, we have to keep a close eye on them for the few minutes when they are contained neither by the new paddock nor the one we are replacing it with, or we lose track of them in the high grass.  Clumps of raspberry cane dot the neglected meadow, and while we are circling each one individually in search of a strayed calf, there is every opportunity for the animal in question to make good his escape into the woods, where tracking him down would be a feat for Daniel Boone.  This fact makes for a certain stridency of voice when a young cow herd – seven, blonde, and female – gets the polywire reel tangled in the middle of the operation.  Big people close in on the operation in a hurry, not doing a great deal to improve things but making sure everyone knows we’re on red alert.  You have to be careful with those reels; the wire gets wrapped on the spindle very easily.

Baby Belle’s udder is so full she has to swing a back leg out and around it in order to walk.  The birth of the new calf can’t be too long now.  Perhaps a desire for privacy explains why when we went down to milk this evening neither she nor Isabel was to be seen; we tracked them into the pine grove on Jeddo’s run and up the creek into the woods.  They had been turned out of their hillside paddock at midafternoon to find shade grazing along the lane, and made use of their freedom to skedaddle.  D-1, part mountain goat, climbed up the steep hill south of the run and spotted the straying cows, but before we could get behind them they cut south and returned to the barnyard on their own, knowing it was milking time.  Like the outfielders, they show up suddenly in unexpected places.

The corn is up!  We took great care in the planting, four seeds to a hill, hills eighteen inches apart in thirty-inch beds with twelve inch paths between, two scoops of compost in each hill.  The two-inch monocots stand at attention like green exclamation points, up and down the rows.  The old chicken wire we spread over the perimeter of the rows to deter the invasion of any chicken which might succeed in penetrating our outer defenses will have to be taken off soon, probably tomorrow, before the sprouts become entangled in the wire.  Then we will have to be vigilant until the stalks are too high for the hens to scratch out.

Yesterday morning our early cup of tea on the porch was interrupted by an announcement from six crows on the power line.  Thinking to find them mobbing a late owl or an early hawk, we discovered instead their attention focused on something on the ground below them which turned out to be a large tawny fox.  Halfway up the fence line he was stopped to face them down, and there was nearly time to get the rifle and a dark-haired son dressed only in boxer briefs and Justin ropers before the chicken-thief disappeared into the woods behind the blueberry bushes.  Life is not without its little excitements.

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Sunday, May 28:

Bees: 

There are lots of books out there to tell you how to manage bees better than we could do, so we only share our experience here as a point of reference for other amateurs.

We have been into the hives a number of times in the last two weeks, determining the state of our captured swarms and checking the status of our older colonies.  Mostly we have been looking for queens.  Experts find queens easy to spot, giving us the suspicion that there is some magic involved, but we generally ascertain the presence of the queen in a hive by peripheral evidence, usually the number and age of “brood” – larvae and pupae – in the hive.

A colony without a queen has no way of replacing its numbers and will die, so keeping track of queens is important.  The colony on hive stand number one must have lost its queen to a swarm about two weeks ago, and we have been watching anxiously for a sign that a new queen has hatched, established herself, mated, and is laying eggs.  On Monday we examined each and every frame in the hive – twenty frames total –searching for eggs, and found nothing; three days later a second examination showed us dozens of cells each with a bit of white jelly in the bottom, larvae only a few days old.  Always braced for a new failure, now we take a moment to relax.

For the next five minutes we are successful farmers.

Garden:

No rain.

Almost all the seedlings started in the greenhouse are set out now, only the basil and marigolds, which were started late, and a few extra zinnias, being still in flats.  Even these are set out on the timbers that frame the raised beds, where the seedlings will receive full sunlight, getting them ready for life in the garden.  In the home gardens sixty tomato plants and two dozen pepper plants will, if all goes well, supply the raw ingredients for something shy of one hundred quarts of salsa and the same amount of red sauce for pasta and pizza.

The remaining seedlings, another four dozen or so, we have planted in the big garden at the monastery, where they will have to take their chance with marauding deer and rabbits.  Last summer when we sowed that garden to buckwheat, the deer grazed our green manure down to stems.  All conventional wisdom says that the block of corn we planted there last week will be harvested by the deer long before the ears are full enough to interest human appetites, but we had the seed corn left over from our home garden, and thought we might just as well.  More as a psychological comfort than anything else, we threw a loop of electrical fence around the tomatoes, peppers, and corn, and hooked it up to the solar charger that powers the steers’ paddock.  Maybe – not probably – it will deter some form of wildlife sniffing around for a free meal.

The potatoes and onions look very good.

Cattle:

The steers at the monastery seem to have benefited from a day behind polywire in the barnyard to learn what a hotwire is for.  Having spent two months on the far west pasture, which is large enough that they might never have had a serious encounter with electrical fencing, they were a risk when we put them in the paddock at the Franciscans’.  Chasing animals around a big field with no perimeter fence is very low on our list of amusements, and not the way to ingratiate our farm operation with our generous hosts.  The Franciscans might reasonably be concerned for their landscaping if they saw Sirloin and T-bone, as they have christened the steers, skipping through the weeping maples and bayberry bushes.  Fortunately the animals seem to have attention only for the tall forage in their paddocks, and taking breaks in the shade under clumps of overgrown raspberry cane.

As for the milk cows.

Lesson:  when a man tells you a cow is due to calve in a particular month, ask him how he knows.  Did he see her bred?   Does he know for certain that this exact cow was mounted by the bull in the pasture?  Was she artificially inseminated, and if so, by whom, and with what?   Did he make sure she didn’t come back into heat a month later?  Or was she pregnancy checked by someone (not me) who knew what he was doing?  Find out.

This particular bit of advice was available in our dairy cow reference book The Family Cow, by Dirk van Loon, but we forgot about it until about thirty seconds ago.  You can’t teach some people.

The clock never ticks slower on a farm than when you are waiting for the parturition of an animal the breeding date for which is unknown.  Baby Belle, our young second-calf cow, is hanging fire.  She has been bagging up (her udder has been expanding and filling) and growing fat – some of us have felt the calf kick when we were rubbing her down – but the man from whom we bought her said she was due to calve in March, and, folks, it’s May already.

It’s like watching someone blowing up a balloon and waiting for the moment when it goes bang.  She has never come into heat since we acquired her in November; we are not doubting her state of pregnancy, but the waiting has gotten tedious.  It is impossible to plan for new baby bulls and piglets to be milk fed if you can’t predict when your glut of milk is going to come in.  We have now much the same feelings as we have had toward the end of eight (human) pregnancies, that maybe we just dreamed it all and this baby is never going to come.

Pigs:

This one is all positive.  The three hogs in the home pen, which have been fed mostly on swill (cooked kitchen waste) and dairy waste, now number two.  We took the largest hog to the local abbatoir two weeks ago.  Half of the pork came home to our freezer, the other half was sold to one of our friends and regular customers.  Our half is delicious; more importantly, the remaining two pigs are now supported comfortably with virtually no supplemental feed.  That means no feed bill (for the pigs) and the steady conversion of all our food wastes into solid flesh food.  And the profit from the half hog we sold covers a good portion the previous feed bill.

Poultry:

The laying hens are giving us one and a half to two dozen eggs per day, not counting the ones they are stealing that we don’t find.  When time allows we need to cull hens again, putting up the hens which are past laying in quart mason jars, where they will be ready for making chicken pie and soup.  Hens are versatile creatures.  The freezers are so full we have not yet ordered broilers, which are butchered at nine or ten weeks, and take up a good bit of space.  We’ll wait until our summer hamburger feasts have diminished the congestion in the freezers.

The three Pekins and their adopted sister Pasqualle, the Speckled Sussex pullet, love their new house by the pond.

Pasqualle is one confused hen.  The other day she swam across the pond.  We think this may be some kind of record.  Who ever heard of a hen that swims?

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Friday, May 25:

Our church softball team tied eight-to-eight in a game both teams had to forfeit for playing with only seven men on a team.  On our way home the western sky rose up red and solid like a Texas sunset, and a motor yacht ghosted down the river leaving ridged patterns of ripples from bank to bank.  Catalpa trees leaned over the water heavy with clusters of mottled purple and white blooms.  Ohio early summer is hot and dense, and full of smells, hay and honeysuckle and tar.

First cutting hay from three meadows is in the barn, and if the much-needed rain holds off until Tuesday and nothing happens to the equipment, the fourth meadow will be put up too.  Then, bring on the rain.  We are more than a little short on moisture already, and the step-in posts we use to build small paddocks are getting harder to drive into the ground.  The captured seep above the big barn, the one which fills two three-hundred gallon reservoirs and supplies water to all the livestock except the poultry, is running in a steady trickle, but at ten gallons an hour it is little more than we need and we hope it won’t dry up.  The bare patches in the pasture between the clumps of clover, orchard grass, and brome show up white and hard, and the soil temperature there will soon be high enough to drive the grass into dormancy.

Rain is predicted for Tuesday.  From the weatherman’s lips to God’s ears.

In the first years at the Sow’s Ear we cut hay, ten acres of it, with string trimmers.  We raked it with wooden hay rakes, lifted it loose into the truck, and packed it into the loft of the white barn which back then housed goats:  a buck, seven does, and assorted kids.  We cut enough to last the winter, and this fact is used in family arguments as incontrovertible evidence of parental lunacy and a violation of the letter and spirit of the child labor laws.  The experience unquestionably contributes to a universal and deep appreciation at the Sow’s Ear of the marvels of mechanical hay harvesting.

Not that we are by any means a state-of-the-art operation.  The forty-year-old red New Holland Hayliner 67 has all the cranks and fidgets of superannuation, requiring to be lubricated here and adjusted there, scratched and rubbed and kneaded like an old dog whose rest on the porch is disturbed by the arrival of the evening paper.  When properly cajoled in this way the baler will condescend to slouch around the hayfield grazing crackly windrows and pushing out at its hinder end a succession of bales, loose, tight, or of that distressing class, the banana bale, wherein one string is tight, the other loose.  The banana bale is curved like one of those vile white grubs you dig up in the garden, and if not handled with the greatest care will pop open and spray flakes of hay all around.  Banana bales break easily and stack poorly, but we still feel they are to be preferred to the loose hay of our early days, and we crank the old baler around and around the field with a full appreciation of the convenience of heavy equipment.

The long yellow sickle bar mower had to be completely rebuilt when we bought it, all its teeth worn or broken, several harvests ago.  The hay rake is of a similar vintage, but is of that class of simple yet ingenious devices which does exactly what it is designed to do, well.  Revolving rows of teeth ground-driven by the turning of the rake wheels lift the cut hay and throw it to one side, twisting it as they do so into a sort of dry grass vortex, perfect for the rotating teeth of the baler to pick up.  The cranky Massey Ferguson ten-eighty is consistent with the implements, with a worn transmission pad and leaky steering, but it is equal to whatever is demanded of it.  The men tease, please, and baby it into good behavior.  This is about all the heavy equipment we have, and all some of us ever hope to have.  It suffices to bale the thirty or so acres we take hay off, and if it is an inconvenience, it is one to which we have become accustomed.

That said, the man who drives the tractor has an unenviable job, hot, loud, and nerve-wracking.  Farm equipment is dangerous.  We never forget how easily a tractor can kill you; and, vigilant though we may be, it will usually demonstrate its deadly qualities several times in a season on unwary or incautious rabbits or even, occasionally, a couched fawn.  These events we try to keep from the knowledge of the small people, who, accustomed though they are to animal mortality, have their limits.  So do we all, in fact.

The men — -and women – working on the ground, however, have multiple satisfactions built into their job.     We work our way on foot down the hayfield with a long wooden rake, lifting and turning the dry, crackly clover and orchard grass which has flattened as it dries until it lies too low for the hay rake to reach it.  At the ends of the rows, and wherever the tractor has had to turn, the windrows are broken, scattered, or clumped, and it is the job of the person on the rake to walk the field reordering the displaced hay so it can be picked up in the next go-round by the guy on the baler.  It is a satisfying and mindless thing to do, like folding a load of cloth diapers.  The swing of the light wooden hay rake is an easy motion, however many times repeated.  The smell of the drying clover is very heaven.  Sun on sweaty limbs imbues one with a sense of strength and capability.

The two farm pickups come and go with loads of bales stacked by a team of three, one driving, one lifting, one stacking.  The bales are counted as they are picked up, and shared between the landowner’s barn and our own, for this is one of our labor-for-lease fields, our own fields being too small, and much too steep, to be mechanically harvested.

Wherever you are in the field the rumble of tractor, the hum of truck engine, are bass and cello to the brass and woodwind of man-voice and child-voice.  The sunlight glints in flakes from shiny hay stem and fluttering leaf.  A honey bee seen, clumsy and distracted in the white dutch clover, is discovered to have come from a hole high in a wild cherry tree behind the tractor shed, an entrance as busy with incoming and outgoing as the wide double doors of an office high rise in New York City on a Friday morning.  We linger over our rest and drinks to watch and plot for the bees’ capture.  Tomorrow we will break the Sabbath without sin, for hay on the ground is assuredly an ox in the ditch, and when the dew is off the grass we will bale and lift the last hundred bales or so and get them in the barn.

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Thursday, May 24:

At five thirty a.m. it is light enough to see your footing on the lane down to the barn, if you happen to be awake enough to look.  I’m not.

The newspaper in the smoker lights reluctantly, reminding me of me getting out of bed.

Two of the swarms we have hived since mid-April, while prosperous, are on the small side, and we chose the early morning hours to unite them.  This is not because the bees are more quiescent in the twilight; they are not; rather, being all at home and not in the field, they are in a better-than-usual position to mob you.  But if you move a hive while the resident colony has bees in the field, the foragers, when they return to where home was when they set out, only find it has been jacked up and moved while they were gone, will not go looking for it, by sight, smell, or any other sense, but will merely fly back and forth over the space the hive formerly occupied as though maybe if they check again it will turn out to be there.  Eventually they will grow discouraged and do whatever discouraged bees do – die, probably – and they will be lost to the colony. So, we move hives while all the little workers are in bed, where we wish we were, and when they set out for the morning’s first foray, the field bees will orient to the new place without any noticeable glitch.  A sheet of newspaper between the two hive boxes will be gone in a day or two, but prevents the colonies from commingling immediately, giving the worker bees time to adjust to one another.  The queen bees are another matter; there is going to be a fight, and only one queen will survive to populate the merged corporation.  May the best Apis mellifera win.

Two hours later the day has really begun and even those of us whose chores wait until after breakfast are up and dressed.  Project number one today is moving two young steers to the new paddock at the monastery, where yesterday we erected a line fence – just what it sounds like, fence in a line – from which we can establish paddocks of polywire on either side.  One of the steers is but newly acquainted with electric fence, and some of us – me – are wondering how we are going to round them up if and when they get out.  The men are aggravatingly soothing.  For now, at least, the steers should be content to stay in their paddock, where the grass is more than belly-deep.

The day is going to be very full, and the rest of the pepper plants have to be set out early if at all.  Seedlings should be planted on cloudy days or in the evening, to avoid their being exposed immediately to burning sun, but this morning is bright, clear, and hot.   The process of setting-out includes raking up the beds, digging holes in which two scoops of good compost are mixed, filling the holes with water, setting the seedlings, mounding the soil around them, and watering again.  In such shade as the hay rake affords D-2 sits with her legs tucked under her like a colt’s, folding cocked hats out of newspaper to shade the little green plants.  With dirt heaped over their edges they should stay in place for the two days we’d like to keep the peppers sheltered.

Sweet corn goes in after the peppers, but we have little hope if it makes that the deer, protected, unlike our corn, by the Ohio Department of Wildlife, will let us have any.

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On this part of the Beautiful river we cut our hay whenever we think we have a good chance of five days without rain – six, if the temperatures are under eighty-five.  Seldom in late May do we have promise of even five consecutive rainless days, but this has been a dry spring, and we brought the last bales into the barn this evening under a cloudless sky.  There is still one meadow drying tonight, but we are not worried.  Tomorrow we will break the Sabbath without sin, for hay on the ground is assuredly an ox in the ditch, and when the dew is off the grass we will bale and lift the last hundred bales or so and get them in the barn.

In the first years at the Sow’s Ear we cut hay, ten acres of it, with string trimmers.  We raked it with wooden hay rakes, lifted it loose into the truck, and packed it into the loft of the white barn which back then housed goats:  a buck, seven does, and assorted kids.  We cut enough to last the winter, and this fact is used in family arguments as incontrovertible evidence of parental lunacy and a violation of the letter and spirit of the child labor laws.  The experience unquestionably contributes to a universal and deep appreciation at the Sow’s Ear of the marvels of mechanical hay harvesting.

Not that we are by any means a state-of-the-art operation.  The forty-year-old red New Holland baler has all the cranks and fidgets of superannuation, requiring to be lubricated here and adjusted there, scratched and rubbed and kneaded like an old dog whose rest on the porch is disturbed by the arrival of the evening paper.  When properly cajoled in this way the baler will condescend to scrunch around the hayfield grazing crackly windrows and pushing out at its hinder end a succession of bales loose, tight, or of that distressing class, the banana bale, wherein one string is tight, the other loose.  The banana bale is curved like one of those vile white grubs you dig up in the garden, and if not handled with the greatest care will pop open and spray flakes of hay all around.  Banana bales break easily and stack poorly, but we still feel they are to be preferred to the loose hay of our early days, and we crank the old baler around and around the field with a full appreciation of the convenience of heavy equipment.

The long yellow sickle bar mower had to be completely rebuilt when we bought itith w all its teeth worn or broken, several harvests ago.  The hay rake is of a similar vintage, but is of that class of simple yet ingenious devices which does exactly what it is designed to do, well.  Five circular rakes on a single axle lift the cut hay and throw it to one side or another, twisting it as they do so into a sort of dry grass vortex, perfect for the revolving teeth of the baler to pick up.  The cranky Massey Ferguson tractor is consistent with the implements, with a worn transmission pad and leaky steering, but it is equal to whatever is demanded of it.  The men tease, please, and baby it into good behavior.  This is about all our heavy equipment, and all some of us ever hope to have.  It suffices to bale the thirty or so acres we take hay off of, and if it is an inconvenience, it is one to which we have become accustomed.

It must be said that the man on the tractor has an unenviable job, hot, loud, and nerve-wracking.  Farm equipment is dangerous.  We never forget how easily a tractor can kill you; and, vigilant though we may be, it will usually demonstrate its deadly qualities several times in a season on unwary or incautious rabbits or even, occasionally, a couched fawn.  These events we try to keep from the knowledge of the small people, who, accustomed though they are to animal mortality, have their limits.  So do we all, in fact.

The men — -and women – working on the ground, however, have satisfactions built into their work.     We work our way on foot down the hayfield with a long wooden rake, lifting and turning the dry, crackly clover and orchard grass which has flattened as it dries until it lies too low for the hay rake to reach it.  At the ends of the rows, and wherever the tractor has had to turn, the windrows are broken, scattered, or clumped, and it is the job of the person on the rake to walk the field reordering the displaced hay so it can be picked up in the next go-round by the guy on the baler.  It is a satisfying and mindless thing to do, like folding a load of cloth diapers.  The swing of the light wooden hay rake is an easy motion, however many times repeated.  The smell of the drying clover is very heaven.  Sun on sweaty limbs imbues one with a sense of strength and capability.

The two farm pickups come and go with loads of bales stacked by a team of three, one driving, one lifting, one stacking.  The bales are counted and shared between the landowner’s barn and our own, for this is one of our labor-for-lease fields, our own fields being too small, and much too steep, to be mechanically harvested.   The rumble of tractor, the hum of truck engine, are bass and cello to the brass and woodwind of man-voice and child-voice.  The sunlight glints in flakes from shiny hay stem and fluttering leaf.

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Composing online.

Two days.  Hived two swarms.  Tilled and hoed thousands of feet of potatoes.  Weeded onions, garlic, planted fifty-four tomatoes and twelve peppers (not done), hauled and spread three? truckloads of grass clippings for mulch.  Transplanted three buckets of strawberries, and weeded lots more.  Made cheese.  Made butter (remind us to tell you what kind of churn not to buy, this one is a big pain).  Mowed first cutting hay in three fields, or is it four?  Pricked out or potted up everything left in the greenhouse.  Milked.  Moved paddock.  Lost a softball game to St. Agnes Mingo.

Going to bed.

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Wednesday, May 10:

We never buy garden hose.  We use a lot of it:  our stock watering system, a complicated use of simple technology, is almost entirely above ground, with only the spring itself, the settling tank, and the pipe to the reservoir by the barn, being underground.  The rest is made up of half-barrels, low-pressure valves (look up Jobe floats and Hudson valves), and garden hose.  Miles of it.  But as we say, we don’t buy it; we scavenge it on trash pick-up days.

Let the squeamish log off and take The One Cow Revolution out of their bookmarks.

People throw away a lot of hose.  Often the spray attachment is still on it.  Some of it is shoddy, but frequently when we get it home and test it we find it to be in perfect condition.  What is it about throwing away perfectly good garden hose?  Is it too much trouble to work the backward twist out of it?  Or is some other color fashionable this year?   And why, having condemned the hose, do people throw away the sprayer as well?

We bring the hoses home, cut out the leaky parts, if any, splice them (the parts can be obtained cheaply at the hardware store) and add them to the watering system.  With five or six hoses we can gravity feed water to anywhere in the pasture from the water hog at the top of the hill.  Low-pressure valves plumbed into a half a fifty-five gallon barrel control the water level, and the entire thing can be carried by a single person when empty.  Generally we only have to move a tank less than fifty feet at a time, to keep up with the animals we are rotating around the pasture.  If a system made up of recycled garden hose, half-barrels, and toilet tank valves could be called elegant, this would be elegant.

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