Archive for January, 2013

Saturday, January 26:

Well, to begin with, a traditional farming community has grandmas and grandpas who remember how it was done.  Correction, it has mamas and papas who are still doing it.  Okay, huge advantage, our Mennonite and Amish farmers have been learning how to do it since they were old enough to follow Mother and Father around on toddling feet.

Advantage number two:  they are not paying for health insurance or college savings accounts.  I think.

Further advantage, and this one mustn’t be underestimated:  whatever austerities they practice – austerities from the standpoint of the average American, but not, it may be supposed, from theirs –not only presumably do they do it because they like it, but they live in communities in which everyone else is doing the same thing.

To be a little girl in Amish dress among a bunch of little girls in blue jeans or soccer shorts is to be cute, but a freak.  It feels better if we dress like our friends.

To stay within walking distance or biking distance of your home is no sacrifice if all your friends, and there are a good many, live within a few miles of you.

Doing chores for two or three hours a day – being tied to the timely performance of tasks day after day, forever – is both soothing and energizing, so long as all the people around you aren’t rushing off to somewhere more important or more fun.

Family and friends in permanent close settlements, passing on skills and information.

Distinct advantage.

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small dairies

Saturday, January 26:

Snow made the trip two-hour trip home yesterday from Dalton, Ohio, where the Small Farm Institute held its annual dairy grazing conference, into a four-hour crawl.  The interstate was reasonably clear but the state routes were bad and the county roads were worse.  We had planned to stop at a farm half-way to see some New Zealand crossbred heifers.  Half a mile from our goal we had to turn back; the road was unplowed and very steep, and if we had gone down there we would have had to spend the night.

The dairy grazing conference was very interesting to us, not because we learned a lot about rotational grazing – we did not – but because of the segment of the dairying population it allowed us to see and meet.  We are acquainted with a number of commercial dairymen who have herds of several hundred grain-fed animals and make a reasonable living in return for intense and unending labor; we know the owners of several small organic all-grass dairies of thirty to fifty cows who sell to organic wholesalers and work a second job because they don’t earn a living from the farm.  The men we met this weekend were of neither class.  Instead, these farmers keep small dairies of twenty to forty cows using more or less commercial methods – grain, silage, confinement, machinery.  Most of them are only just beginning to manage their pastures and grazing animals intensively.  Only a few of them receive the higher price per hundredweight for organic milk.  Their farms are notably small, usually less than seventy acres.  Yet, unlike many farmers, they are making a good living at it.  Why is this?  We are still pondering the answer.

Maybe a person would think that the advantage they enjoy is a farm inherited complete with buildings and equipment:   not so, most of the men purchased their farms in the last twenty years and put in the buildings themselves.  Most of them farm with tractors and the ubiquitous skid-steer, not with horses or mules, although these are not unknown.   They harvest a large proportion of their fodder mechanically, their cows being fed in open sheds and lounging barns which have then to be mechanically cleared of litter and manure, like the big dairies we know only on a smaller scale.  Their operations are one-tenth the size of our big commercial friends’, and we might expect that their profits would be commensurately small.  Instead, these small farmers are almost offensively solvent, making capital improvements almost every year “as the money allows”.   Their farms have all the beauty of prosperity derived from cheerful labor.

Nearly all of these farmers are either Amish or Mennonite.

Whatever that has to do with it.

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Wednesday, January 23:

The four steers on pasture at the monastery are thriving.  The last few days of single-digit weather disturb them not at all; thick russet coats of winter fur with a layer of fat beneath are protection from even severe cold.  Bare spots in the snowy grass at the tree line show where they have been bedding down at night out of the direct wind, well fueled with standing forage, snug despite the weather.  When we open out their fence onto fresh grass they don’t crowd forward like animals anxious for a change of diet, but continue grazing where they are, only turning their heads our way.  We turn on the water outside and fill their tank by a hose from the monastery, afterward shutting the spigot off from the inside and walking down the hoses to drain them completely before we coil them.  Keeping water available to the animals is one of the big challenges of winter time.

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winter weather

Tuesday, January 22:

For us in Ohio this is real cold:  ten degrees at midday, all the stock water iced over, milk glazing in layers on the milking bucket and eggs freezing in the nest if they are not collected by evening.  Gloves and mittens are inadequate to keep fingers warm while chores are being done; people coming up from the barn stop by the furnace in the basement to thaw their hands and noses.  All the animals are getting extra food to help them keep warm, with the tenderest care going to Arthur the rat terrier, blind patriarch with rheumatism.  This morning he got two whole biscuits with gravy and a cup of hot cocoa, special delivery right to the door of his warm box, which did him some good we know because later he was seen stalking around in the snow east of the house looking for something to mark.  There’s life in the old boy yet.

In these temperatures it requires a little resolve to get us up and out the door for chores; but when the immediate need to water the stock or sweep snow off the plastic tunnels before they collapse has driven us down the hill, we find a satisfaction in facing the challenge of cold and snow, and a good thing too because there are always more chores than we planned on.  Yesterday when we stopped to give an extra quarter bale of green clover hay to the pigs in the white barn we found that Bridget, the sorrel pony, had broken into the hayloft.  She snapped the baling twine loop holding the door shut and was tucked up warm and tearing into a fresh bale of hay.  We drove her back out to pasture and fastened the door with a bungee cord fetched from the garage, then pulled her a few carrots from the low tunnel by way of apology.  Her stall in the lower barn is ample protection even in cold weather, but the dry, hay-filled loft must have seemed like the Waldorf by comparison.

Hay, we are told, is up to eight to ten dollars a square bale at the sale barns and still the feed store can’t keep it in stock.  None of the farmers is selling, even at that price, and we are grateful for the good harvest we had last summer, and for the standing forage in the pastures at the monastery where the steers have still two thirds of the pasture to rotate across.

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This is a story to illustrate just how easy it is to make yourself look stupid, and just how long a country person will let you go on doing it.

I was making up the bed the other morning, pulling up the red duvet and smoothing the quilt that Shawn’s mother made for him forty years ago when I had one of those eureka moments that come out of nowhere when you suddenly understand something that has long been a mystery.  In this case it made me laugh first, then blush.

We have been milking cows for about eight years now, having switched from goats after five years of drinking but not liking goats’ milk.  As you may not know, if you have never thought about it, keeping a cow in milk year after year requires that she calve annually, that is, she must be bred and bear offspring to start the hormonal chain of events which includes lactation.  This, if you don’t keep a bull, means either borrowing a bull, or taking your cow to visit one, or getting an artificial insemination technician to come inseminate your cow.  For those of us without friends with bulls, the last named option is by far the easiest, if you can find an AI guy; you just give him a call as soon as you see signs of heat in your cow; usually things like ‘bulling’, that is, riding another animal, or a drop in milk production, or refusal of her feed, or maybe all of the above.  The technician, comes out within about twelve hours.  If you have Clover already tied up for him, he can usually get the job done in something under fifteen minutes, and if he knows his job, that should pretty much do it.  When you call he asks a few questions, usually about when you saw the first sign of heat, what breed of bull you want, etc.  Our A.I. men have always been prompt to come out, knowledgeable and helpful.  One day when our lead cow, Isabel, was to be inseminated, I got a new suggestion.

“Isabel, is that right?  Jersey, then, and you usually want a Jersey bull.  I’ll bring you a straw from Bowtie, he’s an exceptional Cavanese sire.”

“Cavanese?  Then is he a Jersey?”

“Yes, ma’am, he’s a top-notch Jersey bull.  Cavanese bulls sire small offspring; generally smaller than eighty pounds.  Easier on the mamma cow.”

I had never heard of Cavanese bulls, but as long as it was still a Jersey the smaller animal sounded good to us, so we went with it.  Sure enough, Isabel’s next baby was born without incident, a beautifully formed, medium sized little heifer calf.  In August we called the technician to come out again.

“That’s Isabel, is it?  Jersey semen again?”

“Yes, sir, same as last year.  This year’s calf was a nice little one, no problem in parturition, so we would like to use one of those bulls you used last year, I forget the word.  It means “throws small offspring”.”

Just a slight pause on the other end of the line.  “You mean ‘Cavanese’?”

“Yessir, that’s it, one of those.”

Every year I had to ask that question.  The Cavanese bulls were a great thing because a smaller calf is less likely to cause its mamma trouble in birthing, and every year we asked for them, but for some reason I never could remember that word; at least, I knew the reason:  it goes back to that one year in college when I thought I would major in biology, and before I figured out I would rather be dead in a ditch I had picked up on the fact that scientific nomenclature was always Latin, or at least when it wasn’t it was Greek, and “Cavanese” didn’t sound like either.  The right word, I thought, should be some form of Latin for “small babies” or something.  Every year I had to ask for the word again, and every year there was that small pause before the technician supplied it.  I guessed that somehow it was hard for other people to remember, too.

Until that morning smoothing the maple leaf quilt and the red duvet, when unbidden the word came to my mind, “cavanese”, and I thought, oh, that’s the word, the A.I. word  I can never remember, and as I thought it I heard it in my head, “Cavanese — calvin’ ease.”

The internet, consulted, readily pulled up images for “Cavanese”.  I found myself staring at half-a-dozen postage-stamp photos of an approximately six pound, long-haired, bug-eyed lapdog.  “Calving ease,” on the other hand, brought up farm and ranch businesses, books, and products.

And the A.I. guys had never told me.

“Calving ease”, lady.

Or did I want semen from a small, long-hairedbug-eyed lap bull?

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fresh carrots

Thursday, January 10:

Pulling carrots in January is more than a way to put fresh vegetables on the table.  Bridget the sorrel pony crowds the gate when she sees someone in the garden; she knows we know she’s entitled to one of the big carrots and all the small ones.  The black spotted pigs in the calf barn keep up a steady squeal until a few tops are dropped over the wall into their pen.  The bulk of the carrots, of course, go up to the house where they are topped and washed for the table; in the morning the laying hens will get a pound or two of fresh carrot greens with their morning feeding of skim milk, oats and wheat.  It all comes home again in the shape of eggs and bacon.

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Wednesday, January 9:

The temperature was above freezing today and the sun came out, so the men split three truckloads of wood this afternoon and replenished the woodshed.  The lane is a sheet of rotten ice over ruts of yellow mud running with snowmelt.  Although the thaw means fencing the cows off the pasture – again – it does at least reduce the size of the snow drifts piled up against the sides of the tunnels, high and low, making it easier to remove two or three sandbags, pull up the plastic covers and get a sieve full of carrots, or to squeeze through the keyhole doorway into the high tunnel where the spinach is and get enough leaves for a salad.

Forecast says the temperature will get up into the sixties on Saturday, but I hope not.  Let the ground freeze and stay frozen until the beginning of April, say I, so that the cows can be fed in the sliding manger out on the pasture without damage to the sod, not in the barn where nutrients will pile up and leach away where they can do no good.  In the big pasture at the monastery there is no such problem; low stock density and plenty of room mean we can give the steers enough space to graze without excessive wear and tear on the forage.  And the steers love it; although they accepted the two bales we threw out to them for a Christmas treat, they have no trouble pawing down through a foot of snow to the good, nutritious standing forage stockpiled in that pasture.

Would we had another hundred such acres.

We are gearing up for the beginning of our spring semester of Practical Farm Science by pulling out all our seed catalogues and laying out plans for the gardens in 2013.  More feed for the pigs is a high priority; we will see how much of the big gardens we can plant in late summer to mangels, beans, and turnips, and we want to order all of our seed at once to save on shipping.

Our spring workshops on fermented whole grain bread baking, seed starting, and maple sugaring promise to keep our weekends full over the next couple of months – see our Classes page for dates and details.

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