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Posts Tagged ‘small-scale and sustainable’

We’re pretty happy with how our cows thrive on stockpiled forage, and these pictures show why.  Thick coats, well-padded hip bones, calm, contented demeanor — these are happy cows.  Note that these animals have spent the entire winter out in the pasture, with no supplementation except minerals, eating standing forage saved since last July/August, the only exception being a few days when there was so much ice on the snow that we fed square bales in the pasture.

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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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Monday, September 2:

   We have been praying for rain for days, and now the first drops are making dark spots on the stones of the walk and rattling on the red metal roof of the summer kitchen.

   The summer kitchen has seen much activity in the last week or so, with dozens of quarts of tomatoes being processed, jam made, and lard rendered.  In addition, onions and garlic are drying there, the garlic loosely tied in bundles and hung on the pegs of a market stand, the onions on racks of lumber and hardware cloth, propped up off the floor, with a fan keeping the air — heavy and humid for weeks now — circulating underneath.  Canning is so pleasant there, cooler than in the kitchen and with no penalty for spills:  when the day is done we swill the concrete floor with a bucket of water and sweep it down the floor drain.

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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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Sunday, February 24:

Yesterday was the Day of Destiny for the two pigs up at Barry’s.  They were two of the four we got from F., and they hung at two-hundred thirty and two-hundred fifty pounds, split.  The guys got them on hooks in about three hours on Friday afternoon; on Saturday they started around seven o’clock, and with three of the Fallon boys had both hogs cut and wrapped by three o’clock.  The sample sausage that Barry brought in and fried was of surpassing excellence; tonight we will grill pork chops.

The hams and belly from the black hog the boys killed last week have been brining for a week in a black pepper/brown sugar cure.   To hold them at forty degrees we put them out in the cave on the east side of the house where we store pumpkins, winter squash, and potatoes.  Three times the bacons were brought in, massaged, turned in their brine and put back out in the cave.  The hams require a week longer in the cure, and only had to be checked to make sure the brine wasn’t turning ropy, a sign that bacteria have taken hold.  Today we took the bacons from the brine and washed them; later we will set up a fifty-five gallon drum and smoke the belly for seven or eight hours.  Not wanting to wait that long for a taste, though, we cut a few rashers after Mass and fried them up for breakfast; they were delicious.

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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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Sunday, September 16:

The maple tree at Kenny’s is always the first to turn in the fall.  Today the top of it is washed in shades of peach.  Mossors’ place closes the bottom of the Jeddo’s run hollow like a cork in a bottle, the hills rising an abrupt hundred feet plus trees to the north and south; from there the run flows almost level across a mile of ground that, when Kenny was young, was cornfield, arrowhead-hunting ground.  Now it is cut by state route seven, the cornfield replaced with our village’s one grocery store.  The trees along the river have taken on a jaundiced look, not truly yellow, but with their vibrant summer green gone army drab, announcing their irrevocable judgment that autumn will come.  Goldenrod still froths in ditches and on hillside, more cheerful, but the meaning is the same.

The carrot beds are at the top of the big garden.  That high up the flow from the creek hose is only a trickle; if you lift the hose a foot the water stops completely.  With so little pressure it takes a long time to water the carrot beds, and we have not been as assiduous as we should be, we who have last year’s experience to tell us that carrots need to be watered often.  Yesterday we did what we have known for two weeks we should do.  We took a hose from the collection of damaged garden hoses hanging on the board fence along the drive, closed on end with a fixture, and hooked it up to the creek hose.  Laying it out along the top of the garden, we began drilling holes with a one-sixteenth inch bit and a cordless drill starting at the very end of the hose and working our way back.  At first we spaced the holes about a foot apart; when we reached a point forty feet back, we started over and drilled again, between the first holes.  Crude but effective, it makes a drip hose when laid out along the highest beds, and a sprinkler hose lower in the garden.  We shift it every few hours and finally the carrots are getting properly watered.  We hope they will respond with better germination.

Why didn’t we do this two weeks ago?

Two young pigs are on pasture at the top of West hill, enclosed with sixty feet of polynetting and watered by a hose from the spring a hundred yards further back in the woods, a hose ending in a pig nipple welded to an iron stake.  There was some doubt in the beginning whether these particular pigs were going to settle in well.  They began their lives as confinement pigs and their terror at finding themselves enclosed not by bars and a floor of rubber-coated expanded steel, but by the wooden walls of our infirmary pen on a wood floor strewn with hay, caused some of us to wonder they would be able to make the transition to woodland foragers.  Happily, they have adjusted themselves nicely, turning over a bed of soft forest mould under the side of a fallen tree and snipping leaves from the young sassafrass.  We hope they will thrive.

We have said before that trying to build a farm and learn to farm at the same time, and with no instructor, is like trying to build, without benefit of blueprint, a Boeing 747, at the same time one is taking it on one’s first transatlantic flight – solo.  Now we think a better analogy would be trying to do the above while manufacturing the parts.

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