Archive for the ‘butchering’ Category

Friday, February 15:

We are tapping trees this week.  Two of the boys went out Wednesday with a brace and bit and a bucket of spiles; now on the hill two-gallon pails hang on the southeast side of ten or fifteen maple trees, enough to produce all the sap our backyard operation can process, all our household needs for a year of pancakes and waffles.

It is a feat to scramble diagonally across our steep hills filling five gallon buckets from the sap pails on each tree and trying not to spill too much or fall fifty feet into North creek below.   The dogs think this is an exercise designed for their personal amusement and stay close to us, showing us deer sign and getting tangled up with our feet.  Bridget the sorrel pony knows we are wasting our time and stands at the pasture fence to show us that we would be better employed bringing her half a bale of second cutting clover and timothy.  Despite her, and despite the way our boots are slipping on the thin wet snow and the mud beneath it, we are purposeful, determined:  the trees have something to give us, wild food to be had for the gathering, and we are out here to get it.

The cattle at the monastery are only half-way through the forage in the very large paddock that was made for them last Saturday.  When they are given too much space they browse inefficiently, stepping on grass they would eat if they thought they were feeling competetive.  Nevertheless we are going to leave them in that paddock for another two or three days, there is still so much grass.  We will not run out of forage this winter, and in the spring, if the gods smile, we must consider buying extra steers just to keep the pasture grazed.

The black hog made the great transition this afternoon, from Fed to Food.  The boys brought home a bucket of casings to be scraped and tomorrow they’ll break down the sides into chops, hams, belly and sausage meat.  No more going without breakfast meat on Sundays.  On Thursday the farm science class will learn to scrape hogs’ intestines and make five kinds of sausage.

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There is a scale at which all the operations of a farm go synchronously.

A single person who is used to the work can milk two cows, including walking to the barn, walking up again, straining the milk, and washing the buckets, in an hour – an hour and a half when the cows are freshening.

Two cows produce an amount of manure which can be managed with a pitchfork and wheelbarrow in about fifteen minutes a day; and this is only necessary during those times of the year when conditions confine the cows to the barn.

Two milk cows under rotational grazing can make efficient use of the grass from five poor acres of soil for at least eight months of the year, using it to provide anywhere from three to twelve gallons of milk a day.  We are doing this.  With twenty more acres of mediocre grass you can pasture two steers and make your animals’ winter hay, although for most people it would be more practical to buy winter hay than to make it, unless you have plenty of man-power, in which case four people can cut, rake, and barn two cuttings from ten acres with less than ten full days’ labor.

Rather than feeding steers over the winter, it is both economical and reasonable in the case of a scarcity of farm help to buy inexpensive baby bulls from a dairy operation in the spring, start them for ten weeks on skim milk, pasture them with the cows until the weather turns reliably cold, then butcher them as with the bacon pigs.  Animals butchered in this way are considerably smaller than the two-year-olds more usually raised for beef, but this can be an advantage to the farmer with a small family, a small freezer, or both.  It also has the decided advantage that one has invested only the cost of the baby bull – we usually pay a premium for ours and get them for twenty bucks apiece – with perhaps a few cents in disbudding paste and elastrator bands.  No money or labor has been invested in winter feed for such animals.  It is also much easier to butcher a two- to three-hundred pound animal than an eight-hundred pound one.

A sow and a boar can derive all their protein needs from two gallons of milk a day (easily met by the excess from a single cow), meeting their requirements for carbohydrates, fiber, and minerals with kitchen scraps, hay of reasonably good quality, and waste vegetables, with little or no supplement in the form of purchased grains or feeds.  In the spring, summer and fall four weanlings may be fattened on pasture, dairy excess from two cows, whey from the cheese making, weeds, garden trash and excess vegs, and kitchen scraps, with a minimum of off-farm produced grain.  We are not yet experienced enough in this area to say absolutely that no grain will be required, but there are people out there raising swine on pasture and whey, where the whey is available in unlimited quantities.

A family may very easily raise all the vegetables it can use for an entire year on less than half an acre of land, usually much less.  For our family we aim to produce at least one half ton of potatoes – potatoes are a staple in our family and we usually eat them twice a day,– two hundred pounds of onions, four hundred pounds of tomatoes, seventy or eighty quarts of green beans for canning, and several hundred pounds of winter squash, garlic, cabbage, fruits and berries, in addition to all the fresh seasonal vegetables we can eat.  On top of this we keep winter vegetables under simple plastic tunnels, so spinach, lettuce, and carrots are available to us fresh all winter long.  No special tools are absolutely necessary for this level of production, but because we have one, we do use a rototiller to turn the soil between crops.

The family garden, managed on such a scale as to produce all or most of the family’s vegetable needs for the year, may be planted off-season to produce a quantity of forage, in the form of beets, turnips, swedes, kale, cabbage, and beans, that may provide much of the dietary needs of a breeding pair of swine.  Last year almost half of our twenty-thousand square foot garden at the monastery was sown in August to table beets, sugar beets, turnips and Kentucky Wonders; in November five young pigs were turned onto that garden and fed there until Christmas with only skim milk and a small amount of corn as supplement.  Of course, a breeding pair on maintenance rations consume feed at a much slower rate and would make more economical use of what the garden could provide.  Obviously it makes more sense to fatten pigs for the freezer during the summer and fall, butchering when the weather turns consistently cold so that the carcasses may be hung overnight to firm up for cutting.

A dozen free-range chickens may provide six eggs a day on three pounds of corn, or on half that and an allowance of skim milk and kitchen scraps or pig swill.  Careful poultry management should improve this level of production.  Chickens are not the most economical of farm animals – for us, meat chickens are by far and away our most expensive animals, and layers come in second.  Our research into Nineteenth-century farming practices may help us find the key to keeping a productive farm flock without purchased grains.

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eat and eaten

Sunday, November 4:

The Rhode Island Reds which have been devouring whatever chickens devour around here – bugs, none too many this time of year, grass, grain, milk, cooked vegetables – without making donations in the egg basket made the great Transition on Saturday.  Eleven quarts of canned chicken and six of broth put an end to the freeloaders.   Skin chickens for canning; the less fat in the jar, the more likely it is to seal.

Winter is not so far away; the carrots, spinach and lettuce will need covers soon.

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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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Saturday, August 18:

What we are here – here on this website – to do is to catalogue, for the benefit of the similarly-inclined, just how attainable is a family-scale farm, that few acres which, tended by those who live on them, will produce almost unbelievable amounts of food, enough to feed all the people, and all the animals, whose efforts make that farm happen.  Summer is the most astonishing evidence of that attainability.

This is most certainly the time of year when we do the most and can say the least about it; there is no time.

Most of the corn has been eaten or frozen.  Every few days means another ten or fifteen gallons of tomatoes to sauce and can.  The apples at the monastery must be picked this week, or they will begin falling and bruising.  Green beans are on the menu every night, and we can only be glad to see the last cucumber vines succumbing to wilt, as we have eaten and pickled about all we can stand.

Seasonal eating means delighting in it, depending upon it, and getting tired of it, in quick succession.

Everyone is presently at home, and, the sky being open and dry, the men took the second cutting of hay from the meadows today.  There were three of them in the field from breakfast until dinner, and afterward, while some were doing the milking, others went back to the field to cut the last swathes.  If the weather holds we will be baling on Monday or Tuesday.

The freezer and the shelves in the basement must attest to the persistence of our efforts, they and the growing number of cheeses waxed and aging in the dairy refrigerator until we can build a rodent-proof cool box for the cave, as we call the dirt-floored cellar under the new part of the house.   In the best of all possible worlds we would not presently be making cheeses during this so-busy gardening season, but when the last pig went into the freezer we had to choose between making cheese with the extra four of five gallons of milk a day, or pouring it on the compost heaps.  The decision did not require much thought.  There are two young parmesans in the refrigerator, two colbys drying, and a third colby in the press.

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Wednesday, June 27:


We are awake at seventeen minutes past midnight.

We are up keeping a close eye on a kiln we started at just before noon; we will probably be up until at least four in the morning.  When you are pushing something to 2,300 degrees you can’t just go to bed and forget about it.  This kiln has a lot of market pottery in it, and some bowls we made to pay our friend Dan of Windsong Farm for coming out and telling us how to set up the power to run the kiln, and we are anxious that the work should be a success.

No rain.  The pastures are going dormant, the cool-season grasses and warm season alike turning brown and ceasing to grow.  There are about six more paddocks we can make before we have to put the animals in the barnyard and give them hay, keeping them off the forage which their overgrazing would set back.  They will not like to be shut up, even as poor as the forage is at present, but taking care of our pasture now will mean the best chance for it to make up when the rain does come.  The second cutting hay in the meadows is coming on, and although it is still short its quality looks pretty good, so we still hope to have enough for winter without buying any in.

The two remaining pigs on milk are getting very large and will be ready to go to the butcher almost immediately.  This leaves us with a problem to solve:  we have to have a new set of piglets ready as soon as we truck these off, to utilize all our extra milk, buttermilk, and whey.  Our usual provider of feeder pigs will be at the farmers’ market tomorrow, and we will ask him if he has any young pigs coming on.  In addition, we are sending out letters of inquiry to all heritage pig breeders we can locate within a couple-three hours of us.  The Tamworth breed looks like a good homestead pig, and we need a sow and a boar from different bloodlines.  This is liable to run into some money, even buying young animals, as we must. Still, the next step to food security, it seems to us, is to raise our own animals from birth.  The feeder piglets will go in the pen in the big barn, while the breeding stock can have its own quarters in the calf barn, to avoid any unnecessary sharing of germs among them.

The girls took four chicks from under the latest broody hen; a rat got two others, and one more had an incompletely-absorbed yolk sac and only lived a couple of days.  Some tears; mortality is a regular event on the farm, but always pathetic when it is small and fluffy.  Small people want to know if animals go to Heaven, and why God makes them if they don’t.  We hug the small person and assure him that since God is Love, and we love the animals, there must be in them something of God which is immortal.

Hope that’s not heresy, but to tell a child that his love is gone forever is to tell him the Universe is a place of hopeless sorrow.  Better to tell him of the love of God and straighten out fine points of theology when he is older . . . the perfectibility of Man is tied up with the fate of the Universe.

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Sunday, May 28:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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