Archive for the ‘steers’ Category


Cheese making has many permutations.  There are enough curds in a ten-gallon cheese that we can steal some for the chickens’ daily protein ration and never miss them.  Whey goes to the pigs, except the quart we’ve reserved to backslop the next cheese.  Now the cheese cabinet is nearly full, it’s time to buy in a couple of extra calves and take the burden of milk processing off the cheese makers.

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dry-cure beef

It always happens.  We get a perfect forecast for hanging beef, forties daytime, low thirties at night, so we kill and hang a couple of steers with a clear ten days of good weather, and immediately the moderate forecast is supplanted by a heatwave, the temperatures skyrocket into the fifties and we have to drop the sides into the hog-scalding trough and ice them down.  And you can’t hold beef wet that way for long, so we end up cutting and wrapping early.  Not that it spoils the beef to get it in the freezer after only a week of hanging, but it throws our plans off-schedule and supplants whatever we were going to have done in the intervening time.  Thank the Heavens that when the thermometer rose over Thanksgiving weekend we had captive assistants in the form of all our family, every one, and we got the beeves cut, wrapped and in the freezer in record time.  And we had steaks for dinner that night, fabulous with Jessi’s onion-bleu cheese sauce, baked potatoes drowned in butter and sour cream, and fresh greens from the high tunnel.

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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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   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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Thursday, August 29:

   The young calves and the sheep are together again in a paddock at the bottom of the south hill pasture.  For two weeks we have been moving the sheep across steep hillside where ragweed, asters and lemon balm offered mixed forage for sheep, but nothing for the little steers and the heifer calf; now at last they are back with the steers.

   Some of us are particularly glad because we will no longer be moving two paddocks in the home pasture, on top of the two at the monastery:  one in the front pasture for the lactating cows, where the whole herd passed in June and the regrowth is green and lush, and one for the dry cows on the back of the monastery hill, where the grass is coarse and fibrous and there is still much cane to be trampled down.  In total, there are now three paddocks, with a total of four moves, most days, because the lactating cows get a new paddock after every milking.  This sounds like a lot of moving fence, and it is, but because the paddocks are small, the time involved is not more than we can manage right now.

   Actually, it is sometimes the part of a job which would seem to make that activity a cert for the scrap pile – like walking a quarter mile out to the dry cow paddock and back, twice a day, to watch for one of the heifers to go into heat – that ends up contributing the greatest benefits.  The top of the monastery hill gathers in breezes like a seine gathers in fish, and each one passes through our sweat-soaked hair.  Sun on our backs and the feel of the ground coming up through our boots, damp and soft or dry and sunbaked, tells us about the weather, the condition of the forage, whether the cows need to be moved to a shady spot, and the expectations for autumn regrowth.  The long swing of legs in boots is different from the shuffle of sandals across the kitchen floor, and the difference is welcome to our feet and hips as the sight of the distant horizon is welcome to our eyes.

   And the pause, hitched up on the top of a water hog, while a small stock tank fills for the spring steers, is not a taking-out from work time, but a built-in moment of alertness and meditation and relaxation.  There is a feeling of accomplishment when one tends animals which is satisfying on a level not like the satisfaction of a perfect baking of bread, or a thick layer of rich black compost spread across a garden bed, or a cheese knocked out of the hoop and set to dry on the cheese rack.  All these are good; together they are very good.  Variety:  it is a nourishing thing, like Hopkins’ pied beauty or Whitman’s praise of the labor of hands.

   The tide long ago turned on the basement shelves, and the neap tide of empty jars has become a spring tide of full ones, of salsa – over forty quarts in the last two evenings – and sauce, peaches, a bumper crop, jam of several varieties, something like twenty quarts of honey, more than dozen old laying hens, ditto broth – food for many occasions to come.  And we are just getting started; the tomatoes are only half in, and the green beans for canning won’t start for another week or so.  There is cider to be put down, as much as we can squeeze out of the small, sweet apples that grow in the south hill pasture.  There will be beets to pickle.  The onions and garlic are drying in the summer kitchen before we braid them and hang them in a cool corner of the basement.  And in the cave, the small, dry, dirt-floored cellar under the east end of the house, there will be winter squash and pumpkins on long shelves of plank and cinder block.

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Monday, June 24:

   The old truck is painted a toothsome blue, and spun a trench in the gravel as it came up the hill from the barn tonight.  A hot, hot day, with some of us still working on the Massey Ferguson, that cranky old man, and some of us working with hoe and rake to get another planting of sweet corn in the ground.  In the normal way of things we might have put in the corn with the Earthway seeder, but this was being squeezed in between hills of winter squash, and we had to do it the hard way.  Two pickup loads of grass clippings are being spread in the big garden and on the raised beds, thus to conserve moisture and hold down the weeds.  We have practiced deep mulching for so many years that when we have to pull weeds more than once or twice we start to feel put upon.

   The sheep and steers have a loop into the woods so they can get out of the sun; we try to include a tree in every paddock at the monastery so the cows have some shade, too.  We are finding we have to throw out a bigger loop for each paddock now; as the grass matures, the fiber content goes up, and the cows are more selective about what they will eat; consequently, although each paddock has more forage in it, a smaller proportion is utilized by the animals.  This is reflected by a thinner cream line in the milk as well.  All good; by giving the animals what nature untrammeled by man would have given them (less a few packs of wolves) we are confident they will give us their best as well.

   And the forage they trample is our future soil, father of the next season’s grasses.

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Saturday, June 1:

   So much happens this time of year.  The haying was last week, not going off without a hitch, but done now and no major glitches.  We cut on Friday, hoping the forecast of dry weather would be prophetic.  Instead, we got temperatures in the sixties, breezes, and rain on Sunday and Monday; only two tenths of an inch, but enough so that on Wednesday the cut grass was still just a little damp.  More rain was forecast so we baled anyway.  We got about a hundred and stacked them in the big barn loft cut ends up, throwing a handful of loose salt over each as it was laid down.  Salt cured in this way they should be fine, but we’ll be keeping an eye on them for the next week or so to see if they start to heat up. 

   The rain didn’t materialize so we were able to finish at the monastery on Thursday afternoon; when we got to the last field up the road, however, we found one of the tractor’s front tires had broken a pin bearing.  Still, rain was forecast, and, not to be caught out twice we turned all our forces into the field and pitched hay by hand, hauled it in the pickup to the crippled tractor, fed it through with a pitchfork, and got about sixty bales done before dark.  Next day it still hadn’t rained, so we made another fifty or sixty bales the same way and called it quits.  Today the men worked on the tractor, built a roof over the milking stanchion on the south side of the hill, and tinkered with their beautiful antique pickup, a 1949 GMC FC-150.

   The garden is in a prolonged state of being planted, planted and tilled and manured and weeded and trimmed and planted some more.  Soon we will be eating sweet green snap peas.

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