Archive for December, 2013

December, 2013:

   I am not altogether comfortable writing about uncertainty while it prevails.  Problems are neater if you wait until you have resolved them to write about them, the vulnerability associated with the problem already a thing of the past.  I hardly think, however, that this is consistent with our explicit promise not to discourage others by disguising our own weaknesses, so I am forcing myself to take (figurative) pen in hand and summarize the last few weeks.

   Not that they have included anything untoward.  Late fall has hurried into winter, and we have had snow on the ground almost constantly for the last month, a condition that usually doesn’t prevail until January.  The cold has come earlier and dipped deeper into the mercury than usual at this season, and this may be the reason for my unease, or it may simply be the light-deprivation normal to residents in the upper river valley around the winter solstice.  Frequent visits to the barns and pastures is the best cure for nervousness of that kind.

   Having to feed hay, as we have had to do when the snow is crusted over with ice, may contribute to my sense of insecurity, since there is only just so much hay in the barns.  But after all, this is our first year to winter dairy animals at the monastery, and only our second year to winter any stock there at all.  We formulate estimations of how long the standing grass will feed the animals, basing our estimates on how long those pastures fed the animals under summer conditions, but so many factors change from season to season: the animals grow, their state of fertility or pregnancy progresses; warm season grasses give way to cool season varieties, and in cold weather more grass must be consumed just to keep the animals warm.

   Every day, even every milking, means another decision about where, and even whether, to pasture the lactating cows, whose paddocks on the east side of the lane have no protection from wind and precipitation.  The dry cows, on the other hand, have had to go on the tire tank pasture several weeks earlier than we had planned for, where they can get into the woods for protection from the weather but where they are moving at a greater speed over the forage than we had hoped.  Given that the front pasture lasted the lactating cows for almost eight weeks this fall, where in the summer it had provided only four weeks of grazing, we hoped, expected even, that the tire tank pasture, stockpiled over the same period, would give similar results.  The mature grasses eaten in July were replaced in part by cool season grasses growing over the months of August, September, October and November, forage we expected to find more palatable to the cows, and with a higher protein content, hence providing more nutrients.  In the front pasture, once our principle hay meadow, this was demonstrably the case, and the grass that fed the lactating cows in July, now regrown, fed them again over the months of October and November.  On the tire tank pasture, however, where there is less clover, the dry cows seem to be moving across the ground very quickly, although it is difficult to make a just estimation of how hard they are grazing when there is snow on the ground.

  This is grass we had intended to begin grazing in January.  The back gate pasture was intended to last the cows through the month of December, projecting their speed from the rate at which they grazed during the summer months; but nature is in flux.  The calves and heifers got bigger over the summer months; the open (not pregnant) cows were bred, and now must nourish the calves they are carrying as well as themselves.  Two steers came home from the farm west of here where they spent the summer, large animals scheduled for slaughter as soon as the weather turned consistently cold, which it did not until they had shared the dry cows’ diminishing grass for a full month; and more grazing was lost because the cows are unwilling to push through the dense briars we are still fighting on the back gate pasture.

   Hence we found ourselves, at the beginning of December, needing to push the cows onto grass stockpiled for January.  This move, as it happened, coincided with the onset of consistent below-freezing temperatures, when it is more convenient by far to have the animals watering on the spring-fed tire tank, which does not freeze over, but still the sight of our winter grass disappearing so early is disconcerting.  We don’t really know how much grass we need for the winter, any more than we know what weather we will have over the next few months.  We don’t even know enough to wish for one event over another; it is this very uncertainty that is creating my unease.

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   Good events are taking place:  Polly came and checked all the cows and heifers for pregnancy, and found that five of the eight were bred, the delinquents being Daisy and Honey, the two smallest heifers, and Dahlia, the great dog-friendly Friesian who would buff her head on the seat of your trousers and who looked like the bulls painted on the palace walls at Knossos, minus the horns.  That masculine shape, it may be, was partly the result of cysts on her ovaries which prevented conception.  We scheduled her a trip to freezer camp and gave thanks that we’d have one less mouth to feed.  Besides, we were out of hamburger.  Daisy and Honey will be given tail-head scratch stickers and we’ll have another go at breeding them in the next couple of weeks.

   After giving him a three-week vacation with long-suffering Porca, our breeding sow, we took the boar on the long walk a couple of weeks ago.  We hoped, for a variety of reasons, some more reasonable than others, that his meat would not be tainted with “boar smell”, a very strong, rangy ammonia tang; and in that hope we are disappointed.  A small piece of boar’s flesh fried in a skillet in the kitchen will not only set noses burning all over the house, from cellar to loft, but will taint the skillet for the next use.  This is not insuperable:  chops cooked outside are delicious, the smell staying outside where they were cooked, and most of us can enjoy chili and other seasoned foods made with ground boar, provided that the initial cooking of the meat be done in the summer kitchen, and the rendered fat be carefully drained away.  But some of the boys won’t touch it under any circumstances.  We are reliably informed that one traditional use for a rank boar is in uncooked, highly-seasoned dried sausages like pepperoni and salami, and toward that end we have saved the intestines of the two steers now hanging on singletrees in Barry’s barn and are making sausage casings.  The making of dried sausages is an experiment we have long wanted to try in any case.

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   The sheep and short yearling calves are on the white barn paddock, which is small and grazed seldom, making it a natural sacrifice paddock.  This means that we will hold them there and on the wooded hillside above for the winter, realizing that they will do some damage by grazing the grass too short and cutting up the turf when the ground is muddy, but preferring this to letting them graze at will on the five acre south hill pasture where they spend spring, summer and fall.  Additionally, since we feed them hay spread out on the paddock, they will be adding fertility and carbon to the white barn paddock, which, given a good long rest in the spring and early summer, may actually benefit by it.  We don’t know how much damage to expect they will do there, as we have not wintered sheep before.

   Daily thought must be given to the feeding of each animal – how much, where, what kind – as factors such as the cold, and their state of pregnancy, come into play.  Pigs are fed twice daily, one feeding usually being grain-based, either mash, corn, or  bakery waste (courtesy of the monastery), the other being mostly vegetables, thinnings from the low tunnels, cull potatoes and squashes, and whatever our super market salvage gleans.  Dry cows get a new section of grass daily; the lactating cows twice daily, or, in the evening, hay in the barn if the weather looks fractious.  Their ration of grain has gone up to five pounds daily, less than one percent of their body weight, but still more than we would like, but while the pastures are being renovated we have to supplement as necessary to maintain sufficient milk production.  Actually, as far as we know the all-grass dairy farmers in our neck of the woods dry off their animals in December or early January when yield drops below a certain level and the thought of going out in the cold for milking gets really unattractive, but we would not willingly do without our milk.

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Monday, December 2, 2013:

   The first significant snowfall of the year blanketed our valley the day before Thanksgiving.  Temperatures around thirty-two degrees meant a layer of ice between two layers of wet, compacted snow, more difficult for the cows to feed through than a deeper layer of fluffy white stuff would be.  While it was falling – it snowed for most of two days – we supplemented both the lactating cows and the dry cows with square bales, which they ate with appreciation; when the weather settled, cold, but without precipitation, we left the dry cows to their own devices and supplemented only the mama cows.  This morning, finally, temperatures above freezing are rotting the ice over the stockpiled pastures, and we turned the lactating cows onto a new paddock; the enthusiasm with which they turned from baled hay to ice-crusted standing grass is a lesson in cow nutrition.

   Although their production has dropped as winter approaches, the cream line in the bottle has remained a constant two-to-three inches, further testimony of the high food value of judiciously stockpiled pasture grass.  Thank you, Eastern Ohio Grazing Council, for your absolutely indispensable information, example, and advice – may many such farmers-helping-farmers institutions spring up around the globe, to the benefit of everyone.

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