Archive for March, 2013

Friday, March 22:

Thirty minutes before the farm science students were due to arrive yesterday the phone rang to say that the truck would be here to pump the septic tank simultaneously with their arrival.

This never happened when we lived in town.

The ones who arrived early got in before the fat red pumper truck was squatting like a toad completely across the narrow dirt ramp we call our lane.  The remaining two students called in like a space shuttle paging mission control to report an operational malfunction.  When the situation was explained to them they opted to park at the foot of the hill until the tank-pumping operations were completed.  Not that it really smelled that bad.

Our work that day centered principally around the little bulls in the white barn, their care and housing and feeding, but we detoured through the greenhouse to take a look at the tomato seedlings started two weeks ago.  At first I thought we were seeing damping-off, a fungal condition that attacks seedlings at ground level, causing them to topple over like felled trees; maybe a third of the tomato seedlings, which we had sprouted in a warm corner of the kitchen and then moved to the greenhouse so they would get more sun, were supine on the black peat moss.   But closer examination showed that the little stems had folded at various heights above the level of the soil.  It was the translucent appearance of the pale green stems and dark green seed leaves that gave us the definitive clue.

The greenhouse warms up on even the coldest day, soaking up what sunshine there is and storing it in the river rock floor, but the last few nights temperatures have dropped well below freezing and the cold had seeped in.  Frost sensitive summer annuals like tomatoes can survive chilly nights, but they will freeze when the thermometer dips below thirty-two, and that’s what had happened to these.  Blast!  We had enjoined upon the children the importance of keeping the greenhouse door closed.  This was their fault.

Okay, in justice let’s admit that we know better than to expect ten and eight and five years to remember to shut doors every time.  Anyway, maybe they had closed the door and things had frozen anyway.  Anyway, the dogs had cornered a little calico cat on the west side of the greenhouse and in her panic she had catapulted herself through the window behind the door.  It was a small window but it was just possible that the breach was enough to let the temperatures drop too far.

Shucks, it would have been nice, just for a moment, to have someone to blame.

Well, for a mercy half of the baby tomatoes were still alive.  We took the wooden box with its small tubs of soilless starting mix and tiny plants into the cellar to warm gradually, and chalked one up on the Near Miss column.

M. called today, his place is bigger than ours and he’s been working in the ag community longer; it was melancholy solace to hear that one of his first-calf heifers just a week from calving had gotten herself head-down in a tight spot in a ravine and died trying to get out again.  We are very far from wishing evil on our fellow stockmen but there is something reassuring about the fact that other people lose animals too.  It takes a long time to become comfortable with the fact that in interactions with nature success is not defined by a text-book outcome; rather, it is determined by the simple fact of being still in business.

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Thursday, March 21:

Biting cold on the hill when we went up to the monastery to shift the cattle.  Still the spring-fed tire tank is frost-free.   The ground around the tank is getting a bit muddy by this time, but in another couple of weeks we will be taking the animals around to the north side of the hill and their water will come from the roof runoff of the monastery.  Large, three-hundred gallon tanks will sequester rainwater and feed it through garden hose to a moveable tank regulated by a jobe float.  This will follow the paddock and the animals all around the twenty or so acres which comprise the summer pastures.  The ground around the tire tank on the west side of the hay meadows will have all summer to recover before we put animals on it again.

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Wednesday, March 20:

The equinox is upon us; the ice and snow, however, have only loosened their grip, not relinquished it.

Snow fell on us today as we harvested the last of the carrots in the low tunnel and tore out the early-emerging weeds where the protection of a single sheet of six-mil plastic had nurtured them to jungle proportions.  There were two forty-foot by thirty inch beds in that tunnel which have provided us with carrots all winter, crisp, sweet, juicy, pith-less carrots such as we had never tasted before we began to winter harvest; the weeds were so lush today that it was something of a treasure-hunt to find the carrots before we pulled the weeds.  A full wheel-barrow of clover and wild lettuce made half the dinner for the three pigs in the big barn, and they relished it.

There is still one bed of carrots to last us until the early spring vegetables begin to mature.  These carrots are smaller than the others because they had less protection from the winter weather; in fact, the inadequate plastic over those hoops often blew off, allowing the beds to be covered by snow.  We made the mistake, in the first place, of situating two tunnels with no space between them; not only did each block some of the light that might have reached the other, but when it snowed, as it has done many time this winter, the snow piled up in the narrow channel between the tunnels and was very difficult to move.  We had also to be careful of the long bed of garlic planted right alongside the eastern tunnel; we didn’t want to walk on it, but it was almost impossible not to do so when we were sweeping snow off the tunnels.  And we didn’t want the overhang of plastic to artificially warm the soil of the garlic bed in case the alliums should come up early, expecting warm temperatures, and be fatally disappointed.

The two baby bulls we brought home week before last are doing well in the stalls in the white barn.  These are small, dry, straw-lined box stalls where each calf has room to move around freely but from which they cannot reach one another to share germs (see our page on calf rearing).  The top half of the loft door on each side of the barn is open, admitting plenty of fresh air, but drafts are minimized by the deep eaves of the roof and the stacks of hay bales on the north side.  A bucket of clean water and a truss of hay are provided for the babies at all times, and warm milk twice a day.

We are trying on innovation with these little bulls.  Up to now we have followed the recommendations of virtually every source, and against our preference have offered a handful of grain to our calves morning and evening for the first few weeks of their lives.  Only just for so long; after weaning they are grass-fed only, but every book we had, and practically every farmer we asked, insisted that calves should be fed grain when they were young.  To put weight on them, one farmer friend said recently; and, I more than suspect, to medicate them as well, since commercial feeds are routinely medicated and dairy calves are so notoriously apt to get infectious illnesses.  The whole idea is completely counter-intuitive, since if cows aren’t really designed to eat grain, baby cows, which are designed to take their calories from milk, must need grain even less than their mamas do.  I can hardly tell you why we followed this strange advice, except that the calf attrition rate was in the beginning so high that when we finally had a protocol that seemed to work, we were afraid to alter it in any respect.

No longer.  We believe we have a working understanding of the rearing of baby bulls now – not so much as to make failure impossible, but sufficient to be getting on with — and we have asked ourselves why our sources advocate giving grain to baby calves; and the answer we have come up with is that it is cheaper to feed grain than to feed milk – or calf formula.  Were this not so, dairymen would not be feeding cows grain to get milk.  But we have a plenitude of milk, or at least so much that we need not be stingy with the calves.  Normally — that is to say, up until now — the calves have been feed twice a day, at milking time, a half gallon of warm whole milk apiece, and they drink it eagerly.  As of last week we are giving them a third feeding, mid-day, of a quart or more of skim milk or butter milk, with the addition of a good dose of yogurt or whey for probiotics and carbohydrates.  We are watching closely for any sign of scours – dangerously loose bowel movements – as a result of the change in feeding, but so far we have seen no negative results, and the calves continue to take their regular feedings with undiminished appetite.

Why have we not thought of doing this earlier?  The increase in calories may result in larger frames and fleshier carcasses in the young animals, which can only be an advantage in bulls intended for beef.

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Saturday, March 9:

We checked out the auction at the old feed store this morning.  The whole place smelled of cats and rats and mildewed cob corn, and it was packed to the rafters with people who were going to bid much higher for the fence panels, corn shellers, stock gates, etc, than we would ever dream of, so after a quick tour and a mild pang or two we left.

Two sons went to the mill for lumber for the mill shed and siding for the summer kitchen; Papa staked out where the footer for the mill shed will be.  Mostly we mill our lumber but with the mud so deep hauling logs isn’t feasible.  After lunch Papa and the girls took advantage of the beautiful weather to clear all the old bedding out of the chicken house and put in clean cedar shavings, a suggestion we gleaned from the Sisters of Reparation as a way to combat hen lice.  The tow truck came to haul away the old F-150; three sons worked timbers for the summer kitchen, and one collected and boiled another twenty gallons of maple sap.

The old green car may be salvageable as a farm vehicle for going up and down to the monastery; Grandpa is feeling much better and had a hamburger for lunch.  We are safe, well, together, and we like to work with one another; there were steaks and hamburgers, potatoes and braised cabbage for dinner, with a gallon of milk and a loaf of wheat bread; the sun shone today; how much more does it take to make a man happy?

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Wednesday, March 6:

Yesterday Baby Belle wouldn’t eat.  An eager gobbler of oats in the normal way of things, she had to be driven into the dairy at morning milking, where she refused her grain, gave only about half the normal amount of milk, and bolted as soon as the head gate was opened.  She wasn’t interested in the new sweet bales we dropped into the manger, but stood around with the slack-jawed, dull-eyed stare of a toddler with a temperature of a hundred and three.

All day long.

She didn’t have a temperature.  We know because we took it at evening milking, while she shimmied around, annoying S-4, who was milking.  Outside in the early spring sunshine her eyes were somewhat squinted, but not weepy or mattering; the cut on her ribs is closed and dry, but not hot, and seems to be healing nicely.  Her stomach was rumbling and turning with the usual upheavals of a ruminant, but she wasn’t passing any manure, although we saw her hump her back and strain.  We called the vet, who didn’t sound worried but said she might have a displaced abomasum.  For us novices:  that means one of her stomachs is in the wrong place, and it happens sometimes, especially to Jerseys.  Sometimes it’s a pretty big deal, and can even require surgery to put it right.

Turns out that due to too much back-and-forthing on Monday, and even more due to the fact that Mom and Dad had forsaken their responsibilities for a date in the city, no one had put hay in the cows’ manger that night.  At three Monday afternoon when the stalls were cleaned the manger had held only a half-bale or so from that morning; the next morning the manger was completely empty.  Baby, it would seem, after a good feed of grain at her evening milking, had had no roughage to fill her rumen, and sometimes this is enough to let the abomasum float up out of its place.  Or it may only be enough to give the cow a solid day of belly ache.

This morning Baby ate all her grain and then ran out to the manger and got her head down, making up for lost time, so we guess she just had a belly ache.  Tonight her milk production was almost up to normal.

Chalk up one more to experience.

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sick cow

Tuesday, March 5:

One thing after another.

Baby is refusing to eat, except a little sweet feed and a few mouthfuls of hay.  In the last three milkings her production has dropped from around twelve pounds a milking to ten, then seven, and now five.   Polly is coming in the morning, if the snow isn’t too deep then.

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Saturday, March 2:

We took Poppy back up to the monastery after her pregnancy check, and shifted the young animals around to the west side of the soccer field.  They are making good use of the stockpiled forage and their condition is much better than that of the milk cows, who are on hay, demonstrating the superior food value of standing fodder.  Grass that is cut, cured, baled, and moved (several times) cannot compare with mature grass that has been frost-cured standing in the field.  In the cutting there is loss of nutrients; in curing, there is further loss every time the grass is wet and dried again, as with heavy dew or rain; in baling there is much shattering of leaf and resultant reduction of food value, and the tight packing of hay in bales encourages mold and consequent loss of quality; more leaf is lost every time the hay is moved.  Seeing the difference in condition of our various animals brings home these facts in a way that merely reading or hearing them cannot.

This is wet season, the late winter winding down into early spring, longer days loosening the hold of the frost in the earth.  The barnyard is a sea of mud and muck in which you may lose a boot if you don’t take care.  Rain and snow make a pond in every hoof mark, all running together and running over and seeping in where not wanted, under the door of the dairy, under the wall of the lounging stall, into the holes in old chore boots.  This is the time to visit a farm if you want never, never to be tempted to live on one.  The compost bins, sodden with a winter of snow and sleet, full of stall sweepings and undigested orange peel and coffee grounds, bleed peaty brown water with a sour smell.  Where the winter cabbages were abandoned to the snow when we took their covers to protect a row of carrots, now rot sodden, limp bouquets of bleached cabbage leaves, answering unequivocally the question we asked when we chose to leave them in the garden, rather than feeding them in December to the pigs:  are cabbages winter-hardy on this stretch of the Beautiful river?  The perennial borders hang in dejected clumps of black sage leaves and leafless catmint and only the hopeful or inquisitive can find the blunt tips of daffodils pushing aside clumps of frost-heaved mould.

The stores of plant food, for animals and for humans, are growing thin.  In the basement the rows of full jars which weighed down the shelves in November — tomato sauce and salsa, green beans, sauerkraut,  jams, chicken, pickles — are giving way to rows of jars upside down, clean and empty, awaiting next summer for fulfillment.  The root cellar holds only seed potatoes now, and for the first time in several years we are reduced to buying potatoes; we plan an even larger potato patch and vow it will never happen again.  In the cave the last of the winter squash and pumpkins are breaking out in spots like a rash; we will eat what we can before they spoil, and feed the rest to the pigs. Braids of garlic festoon the kitchen and storage room, but the there are no more onions.  God willing, this year five hundred row feet of copras and yellow Spanish onions, assiduously weeded, should yield the three hundred pounds of onions we eat in a year.  Even in the freezer, where there are still ample quantities of sliced pie apples, you must dig for the frozen corn and okra and bell peppers which are growing scarce.  Of meat, however, there is a generous plenty, and the garden tunnels are still full of carrots and salad greens.

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