Archive for October, 2012

Wednesday, October 24:

Last year at this time we were in haste to develop the spring which now waters the big barn in all but the longest of cold snaps; this year we are hurrying to finish the water system that will keep the steers frost-free this winter on the monastery pastures.  One of these days, maybe, we will run out of big projects needing completion before snow flies.   Most of today was spent gathering supplies for the tire tank we hope to build this Saturday under the west pasture spring; here the water runs fast enough that we hope, by keeping the water underground before it enters the tank, to keep the flow from freezing.  That would mean being able to run the steers on grass at the monastery all winter, saving the baled hay for the milk cows in the home pasture.

The last few preparations for the winter gardens are gradually being made.  The bed is composted, tilled, and raked for planting next year’s garlic; ashes in buckets wait in the barn for someone to spread them over empty beds to be tilled in the spring.  Hoops and sandbags for the high tunnels are spread on the lawn in various states of incompletion.  Every length of row cover or clean six-mil plastic film that can be found is hunted out and examined for holes.  Only the warm weather of the last few days prevents us putting the first layer of protection on the winter carrots and salad greens.

Next to the river the poplars scarcely admit of the season by the yellow cast of their huge leaves, but on the bluffs above the maples are bare and only the oaks keep their foliage; this is shades of russet and brown, with the occasional deep scarlet of a lover’s rose.  Elsewhere the woods have lost their impenetrability, black boles standing out against a carpet of yellow.  In the ditches sumac, blood-red, flashes like a heliograph when it catches the sun, and now is the time to mark out patches of wild asparagus, clouds of ferny yellow, for spring foraging.  Our family news is like the weather, warm and cold by turns; one son has left us to return to Minnesota with his lovely family, while another proposes bringing home as his wife a woman we have long loved and admired.  We are joyful and sorrowful.

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Tuesday, October 23:

The pigs have been turned into the first garden paddock to harvest late beans and graze on the clover we used as a cover crop in the pumpkin patch.  The six steers at the monastery have been moved back to the spring paddock, anticipating the time when freezing weather will make us drain all the hoses and put them away for the winter.  In the three long beds that will be covered with a high tunnel in November baby spinach and lettuce make a charming pattern of light and dark green, like a snapshot of spring in an otherwise autumn collage.

Now the two cows are together in the home pasture.  In the late afternoon whoever is on milking turn trails down with bucket, milk can, and wash water to shift the cows’ paddock and turn them out, one at a time, to be milked.  The cows hurry, bags swinging, to reach the milking parlor before marauding chickens can steal any grain; going back to the paddock they must be led, leisurely, snatching clover or frost-sweetened fescue as they go.  Two cows take an hour and a quarter for our slowest milker, including straining and wash-up.

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lest it appear

Sunday, October 14:

Sometimes on nights when the sky is overcast the two hundred foot flare burning waste gases from the coke plant twelve miles downriver  paints the underbelly of the clouds a flickering orange that can be seen from miles away.  When we wander down to the river the hills on the West Virginia side are silhouetted against a burning sky.

From the monastery chapel worshippers at early morning mass can determine the prevailing wind direction by the clouds of steam rising from the evaporating towers belonging to the nuclear power plant thirty miles upriver.

Traffic on the Beautiful river moves in majestic grace, twelve barges sunk low under mountains of coal, shepherded by one conscientious tug.

Here, wide open sky means that a generation ago the stewards of this land gave it over to be strip mined.

Lest, reading our stories, it should appear that our farm is not in the real world.

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Friday, October 12, late:

Permission has been given to enlarge the garden at the monastery, and rather than employ plow and tractor we have fenced the two pigs S-4 is raising for sale on the seventy or so foot swathe where we want to break sod.  They have begun work immediately, and when we took them some cracked corn at dusk they had already turned a good deal.  A purchased round bale of last year’s hay is enclosed with them, as food, as amusement, as shelter – pigs will burrow into a round bale and nest there – and in the spring it will make mulch for sod potatoes.  The Spanish thistle we saw there this summer should have no chance against the pigs’ rooting.  Until the cold descends in earnest and we grow tired of carrying water in buckets these two pigs will reside here to ready the garden for next spring.

Baby announced her most recent heat with a single moo and a reduction in milk supply and we called the A.I. technician.  This time he was available, and brought what he tells us is COBA’s best quality Jersey semen.  In three weeks we will be on the watch to see whether the breeding took, or she goes back into heat.  She is a good cow and we hope her next calf will be like her.  Isabel, seven weeks after being bred, went into heat again.  If this latest breeding – this time with Angus semen, with the hope of a beef conformation in a high-butterfat milker – doesn’t take, we will milk her while her supply remains up, then dry her off and run her with the steers until June and breed her again.  We would not like to lose her good genetics without getting at least one more heifer out of her.

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Friday, October 12:

Two frosts blackened the pumpkin vines and late green beans up at the monastery before we felt a frost in the hollow.  It was a light one, just brushing the top leaves of the trellised zucchetta and those winter squash vines which were laid out in the open.  Under the peach trees the rampant butternut and Long Island Cheese squash are still green and vigorous, and we are reluctant to cut the fruits while the stems are not dry.

Most of the bean plants have been pulled and fed to the pigs, the best-fed animals on the farm at this time of the year.  Now and for some time to come they will feast daily on plants pulled from the gardens, on frost-burned squash, limp tomato plants and green tomatoes, and unripe watermelons.  When these are gone there will be sugar beets and turnips, and those late cabbages we don’t need for the table.  For protein there are milk, buttermilk, and whey in plenty, now that the three fall steers are weaned.  And the proprieter of the late steers, S-5, who has been raising them for sale, is happy now to be in a warm bed at six a.m., not carrying buckets of milk to the stalls in the calf barn.

Every day work is done to finish the summer season and ready us for winter, and still the list of jobs on the black board that covers one wall in the kitchen gets no shorter.  What cannot wait takes precedence over what can, or what must.  Two or three bushels of apples have ripened on the porch which need to be peeled, sliced, and frozen, but these are less apt to spoil than the buckets of green peppers we are cutting – chop, slice, and chunk – to put up in the freezer.  The need to sow a last bed of spinach is urgent, but so is our urgency to get those chickens no longer laying out of the chicken house before cold weather makes butchering out-of-doors too difficult.  There are sandbags to make – these hold down the plastic of our tunnels, low and high – hoops and stakes to manufacture – and still every day people have to eat – at least three times – and wear clean(ish) clothes, and no one can rest well in a very messy house.

Culling laying hens for non-layers is not a straightforward job.  Combs – full and red or dry and withered? – legs, yellow or bleached — vents full or puckered, and so on.  The pubic bones should be at least two fingers’ width apart, but whose fingers?  Mine are thickened with years of pottery and farmwork, and Shawn’s are massive, like sausages.   We keep the hens shut up in the hen house on butchering days until we can examine all the older birds, hoping to find clear and unmistakable signs of their state of lay, but most leave us feeling ambiguous, and we carry a crate of Rhode Island Reds up the hill with doubt in our hearts.  The first six we butchered, we are grateful to note, were egg-less, but another dozen and a half are scheduled for dissolution to lessen the burden of providing feed for them and to make room in the hen house for the fall flock of layers.

Orion climbs over the eastern horizon about midnight now, but we are seldom awake at that hour to see him.

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Wednesday, October 3:

We are cleaning the gardens for winter and prepping the beds of cold-season spinach, lettuce, and carrots at the same time.  Late beans entangled with butternut squash vines ramp across the middle of the garden and catch at our hoe and rake; bell pepper plants, always late bearers, huddle shiny and dark green at one end of a row we are planting to spinach.  We will leave them there until either, 1) frost kills them, or 2) we get sick of freezing peppers.  We can go on planting spinach all winter, so the space will not be wasted.  The zinnias bordering the center path in the big garden are still blooming, but their hot bright summer colors have been frost-burned to the muted shades of ‘seventies décor.

We are watching Baby this week for signs of heat; it has been three weeks since she showed her fertile state by mooing – once – and escaping  the morning milker to race up and down the lane, hiding first in the Park by North creek, then in the pine grove along Jeddo’s run.  Pursued by one red-faced, fuming six-foot son, recaptured, and restored to her paddock, she remained restless all morning, pacing the long fence of polywire and rubbing on everyone who came near her.  We called the COBA technician who lives in the neighboring town but he was two counties away at a cattle show, and we knew we would miss that heat.  We do not mean to miss this one if we can help it and we called Drew, the A.I. guy, to give him advance warning that This Is The Week.  We hope.

Chickens in every possible state of maturity are everywhere right now, and their requirements would be wearying to the little girls if they had any idea that weariness was an option.  As it is, it isn’t.  There are three flocks combined in the hen house:  the three-year-old Rhode Island Reds whose reckoning day is coming; the fall flock from last year, which replaced the thirty-five spring pullets the fox took away; and the five or six young chickens hatched in July in the white barn by a motherly Sussex hen.   These birds receive crumbles and cracked corn in the morning, milk and swill at noon, and are laying abysmally.  Some are deep in moult; others are old and spent, ready to furnish the main ingredient of a pot pie.  A few succeed in evading the little girls and laying in some hidden corner of a barn loft, where they hope to keep their eggs and hatch them themselves like Jemima Puddleduck.

Then there are the broilers, more than a hundred of them, fat and draggled, their pink skin showing through the white feathers because they grow so fast their plumage cannot keep up.  These birds are bred for weight gain and large breast size, are fed a commercial non-medicated crumble and will be butchered around eight weeks; by ten weeks they begin to die of heart failure, their bulk increasing faster than their internal organs can keep up.  We raise broilers in sliding cages, moving them onto fresh grass daily.  We enforce a regimen of exercise, putting their feed at one end of the pen and water at the other so that they have to move around a little if they want to live.

In the small brooder by the hen house nine barn-hatched chickens wait to be introduced to the barnyard flock.  With them and dwarfing them is the young turkey we picked up at auction, a tom which has been kept all summer with whichever was the youngest flock at the time.  There had been another turkey, a female, but she proved delicate and passed into the other world.  The remaining turkey seems to have appointed himself bodyguard to all the young chickens on the farm, and he will get the run of the barnyard when this penultimate group of chicks does.  And finally, the flock of replacement pullets is four and a half weeks old now, well-feathered, and acclimating to the barnyard in a sliding pen, or “tractor”, where it can see and be seen by the mature hens, but cannot be pecked and need not compete for feed with bigger more aggressive birds.  These young birds will not be installed in the hen house until all the old Red slackers have been put up in the pantry for winter soups and pot pies.  These last two flocks are fed a mixed-grain ration, but will graduate to cracked corn and swill when they move in with the older flocks.
And all the chickens on the farm get a significant percentage of their free-choice proteins from the fresh raw skim milk or buttermilk which comes to them daily care of Baby Belle and Isabel.

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