At dusk last night, a coyote family was yipping in a big pack, deep in the woods. Our dogs ran over there barking, and then have continued to bark all night long. Little Blue is still way over there from the sound of his echo as he let’s those coyotes know they are not welcome in these parts. because of the barking, I’ve been up since 2am catching up this blog to my wordpress site.And it’s finally done!
First- check out the progress on our “farmer barn!” Andrew and his dad are rocking it!!
I’ve had a bunch of vegans join my Tumblr, so i want to be clear. I am on your side. I am vegan except if I raised it myself. I am providing an alternative to factory farm meat as a small-scale Compassionate Carnivore farmer. Please respect me and I respect you.
The pig and calf harvest went perfectly smooth and peacefully on Thursday. That morning, we were extremely anxious waiting to hear the ETA from our on-farm slaughterer. I felt all jittery and nervous, sad, ethically challenged, already mourning the change about to come, but finding comfort in their absolute lack of knowledge of what was to come. Three of our biggest pigs were brought into a fresh grassy paddock in the morning, they were elated to turn the roots over and lay in the shade on the cool grass. The evening before, I hung out with the calves, rubbing their chins as they used my back to rub their big heads.They were starting to grow horns and get a bit rowdy and bull-ish (riding and humping each other), so we knew it was time before they might become dangerous with their hormones and heft.
Mike arrived right after I finished chores at 3:45, and with three shots, the three pigs were instantly dead. Immediate and unknown death is what I think we all hope for. Mike’s wife Jen, his youngest son, and nephew Steve were there to help. We’re so grateful for his skills and for their friendship. He used a hoist to skin and gut the pigs as they transformed into pork. We chatted about labeling regulations, how to deal with the various inspectors, the co-ops and whether he could get his braunschweiger into that market, his latest awards for the jerky he specializes in. I collected the enormous livers, hearts and skinned heads. The sun was hot, but there was a slight breeze and occasional clouds drifting across the sky.
Then we headed over to the calves. My father-in-law helped brace me, I clutched his arm as we watched. I didn’t know if the calf harvest would be any different, but with two perfectly aimed shots, the two biggest calves were instantly down. After a few minutes, the electrical impulses left the bodies and they lay still on the grass. From days-old babies coming home in the back of the Subaru, to nearly 300 pound young cattle. They grew so much in just 3 months! I collected the livers, hearts, tongues and kidneys. Jen told Mike to cut out the skirt steaks for us, I didn’t know this but skirt steak is the diaphragm; the muscle that pushes air in and out of the lungs. I marveled at the deep red color; this is not like the veal meat color I’d seen. She told me I should probably remove the fascia and silver skin covering the thin strip of muscle and then google a recipe. I don’t think they are really used to cooking unusual cuts. I found a recipe on the Art of Manliness website – a balsamic and garlic marinated grilled skirt steak served with a warm greek-inspired pasta salad. Andrew had to go pick up our organic grain order before dark, and I prepared the meal. This would be our first taste of pastured veal, and I have really been anticipating it from the beginning of this experiment.
After cleaning off the fascia and silver skin as best I could, there was maybe a pound of meat, and interestingly, it really smelled like BEEF. I was elated! There was this little bit of worry in the back of my mind that veal would be like rabbit, and thankfully that’s not how it was looking! I drizzled a little balsamic vinegar and olive oil on the strips, with some salt, fresh pepper and chopped garlic, then massaged it all together and let it sit for an hour as I went to the garden to collect herbs and couple veggies for the pasta.
Andrew arrived back home, my father-in-law came over from his camper, and I heated the cast iron skillet to medium high. Once it was hot, I laid the strips carefully on the oiled surface and let them sear. When there was a nice crisp on the bottom, I flipped them over and turned down the heat, to let them slowly finish cooking. The smell was heavenly, and we dished up the pasta and waited. I divvyed up the strips between the three of us. Skirt steak from a calf is pretty small, not like a big steak. But as we tucked into our plates, a communal sigh rose from the table, our eyes rolling back into our heads with the pleasure of a perfect bite. This pastured veal skirt steak was beefy, it was tender, it was succulent, it was DIVINE! And this was just the diaphragm!
I looked at both of them and said that this felt like my second “Duck Egg Moment-” meaning, pastured veal is seriously something I want to grow the market for. It only makes sense as Wisconsin is the dairy state, and these bull calves are the by-product of dairy production. If we can give them a happy life outdoors, on pasture, and then they can provide amazing meat? Sounds like a no-brainer.
There is more harvesting coming up. We have a group of 75 broiler chickens to process towards the end of the month when they are about 11 weeks old. A side note- people get all weird about veal because it’s a “baby” cow, but I want to point out that almost all the chicken meat in the store came from even more of a “baby” than the 3 month old calves we harvested. The majority of chickens are harvested when just 6 weeks old. That’s not even 2 months old. Don’t even get me started on how most meat is raised.
Later today we are planning to harvest our own calf ourselves, as we can’t afford to have Mike process our own meat (his skills are worth every penny for the meat we sell to others). I enjoy butchery, but am a bit nervous to be doing the kill/gut/skin ourselves. Andrew is a very good shot though, so after seeing how Mike did it, I feel confident we can do this humanely.
What a pleasure and joy the calves have been to raise, and now that I know just how delicious they are, I am getting the business plans rolling for next year.
Harvesting our own Veal – Cutlet
There’s this joke my mom used to tell about a very special pig. When I became a vegetarian in my teens, this joke really irked me, but now I remember her telling it and smile.
There were two old friends. Steve lived in the country and Carl lived in the city. The city friend, Carl, came out to visit Steve’s farm on a nice fall day. They were old friends and enjoyed getting together to catch up once in a while although neither really knew each other very well anymore. Carl cautiously followed Steve around the farm, getting his nice shoes dirty as they wandered around the barn and pastures. Carl demonstrated what a city slicker he was in the garden when he didn’t believe that carrots grew underground until Steve pulled one out of the soil to prove it.
Steve enjoyed showing his friend around the farm, his pride and joy. He also loved that Carl was so naïve about rural life and country living. With a twinkle in his eye, Steve said- “Oh, hey, did you have a chance to meet Sara yet?” Carl scanned his memory and with a guilty twinge admitted he didn’t recall meeting anyone named Sara. Steve puts his hands around his mouth like a megaphone and calls “hey, Sara! Where are you? Sara… SARA…come here Sara!” Around the corner of the barn a red flash comes flying awkwardly towards them. Too big to be a dog, but what WAS that? Steve crooned “Sara, come here you big beast.” The big red pig hobbled over to stand by Steve’s leg and starts rubbing her monstrous head on Steve’s overalls, nearly knocking over her master. Carl can’t believe it, he’s never seen a pig in person and he never imagined they could be huge while appearing so tame and, well, sweet. Then he notices this pig is standing there, but only has three legs. Carl asks with a bit of caution what happened to this pig named Sara that she is missing a leg. Steve laughs out loud, stroking the beast’s forehead and tells Carl that this is a very special pig.
“See, one day in the early spring, I was out cultivating the field, but it was too wet to be out there on the tractor. I should have known better, but I always get so impatient to begin planting. As soon as I went down the first row, one of the back tires got stuck. I got out to try to get it loose, then I discovered one of the bolts was broken off and before I knew it, the tractor had me pinned to the ground. Not crushed, thank god, but I was thoroughly stuck and had no way to get myself out. I thought and prayed and could think of nothing, so I laid there crying in despair, and had to just leave my predicament up to the Lord. Then I heard a grunting, and what do you know, there was Sara. She was rooting around the soil by my shoulder, trying to loosen it! I took this as a sign from God, and that pig kept at it until I could wiggle out, totally unharmed in anyway. Can you believe it?!? That pig was sent to save me from a long and slow death by god above. A miracle.”
Carl listened to this story with disbelief and amazement. “ Wow, WOW! You were saved by an angel. An angel pig! A 3 legged angel pig!” Steve chuckled and sort of choked up a little, wiping a tear from the corner of his eye. He stroked Sara’s broad bristly back and said “Oh she had all 4 legs then. But that’s not the only story- Sara is a VERY special pig. In the middle of a hot summer night, I woke up to Sara outside my bedroom window, she was shrieking like a hound dog, grunting and squealing, banging around in some sort of insane fit. I’d had a hard time falling asleep in the heat that night, and didn’t want to get up, so I yelled from my bed for her to quiet down, not really sure what she was doing up by the house. She wouldn’t stop though, and fearing she was being attacked by a bear or something, I got out of bed and grabbed my gun to find out what was going on out there. As soon as I opened my bedroom door, the smoke hit me. There was a fire in the kitchen! That pig…………she saved my life again! I was able to get out and call the fire department from my neighbor’s house, so she even saved most of the farm house from being destroyed! It’s it something? She is such a special pig!”
“I really can’t believe a PIG could save your life, and twice! That is really something. She should wear a badge of honor around her neck, be on the road, be a celebrity pig! But, I still don’t get why she only has 3 legs. Did she get injured in the fire?”
“Well Carl, the truth is…a pig that smart, this sweet and who saved my life twice? Well, a pig like THAT, you just can’t eat her all at once.”
I sound like a broken record with yet another “what weird weather we’re having.” Nights are dipping down to 45ish, and daytime temps go up to 80. At least we get a feel of summer during the day!
Cashflow is tight this year, as we are raising a whole lot of ducks who are eating tons of feed (literally) but not laying eggs yet. We’re taking the little bit of extra money we do have to build a winter hide-away. Our old current house is not really a candidate to fix up- in the winter it leaks heat like a colander strains pasta water. So, we’re making a place to spend the winter, one that is cozy and warm. This, officially, is not a habitation we’re building, but a studio or insulated shed. it won’t be fancy, but it is something we absolutely need to get through another Wisconsin winter with our sanity intact. 8 months of wearing snowpants in the house is not an option anymore. I wore mine out.
Andrew’s been designing and organizing the entire construction project. His awesome Dad was here to help, so I could keep my focus on tending the farm. The studio is being built on piers, since we have a rather high water table. Andrew hemmed and hawed over piers vs. a rubble trench foundation. It’s all greek to me. Today the cement truck came and poured the piers. It is very exciting! This is happening! No more snowpants! Winter is right around the corner!
What else has been happening- well, sadly, yesterday was super hot and we had 3 Bubsters (our broiler chickens) pass away, not sure if was the heat or their eating too much, but it seemed to be heart related. One of the three was close to perishing when I found him, I tried to bathe him in cool water to bring down his temperature, but he was wheezing and not able to stand up. I humanely harvested him for us to eat, so as not to waste his life. it was a seriously mixed emotion situation. The two that were already dead when I found them, I gave to the dogs. We could have eaten them, but they had blood in them that had not been able to drain out as in a traditional chicken harvest. Weird farm life realities.
I had enough lye left from my spring soap-making ingredient purchase to make three more batches of goatmilk soap. Lemongrass Oatmeal, Citrus Swirl and Sweet Orange Clove w/tumeric. As we’re short of cash right now, I’m thinking of doing a fundraiser with a “Year of Soap” CSA. I’ll mail you 2 bars of soap every month for a year, for $100. Non-US shipping might be a little bit more. If I could get 20 people to sign up, it would help us significantly! Email me if you might be interested: farmerkhaiti(at)gmail.com
My first farming business endeavor was goatmilk soap, and that’s because I make AMAZING soap. I won’t even be humble about this, it is awesome soap. It’s so silky, yet leaves no gross residue. Goatmilk has a ph level that equals human skin, so my soap does not steal your skin’s natural moisture. It lathers and cleans gorgeously.
Our 3 biggest pigs and two of our calves will be harvested by our professional licensed butcher Mike this week. We’ll be butchering the smallest, Cutlet, ourselves for our own home use. I really am anticipating the first taste of our own pastured veal. This was purposely a home-scale project this time around, but I am extraordinarily grateful we have 4 customers ready and lined up to buy halves. Thank you thank you! for supporting our endeavors to do good in the world! If we all love the pastured veal product, this could become a permanent part of our farm operation. There are SO many dairies all around us with dairy bull calves that have no place to go other than an auction barn. It feels good to know we gave these three beautiful bull boys a wonderful life here on our farm. I’ve really adored raising these calves as an immersion into the world of cattle.
What’s next? I really, really want Scottish Highlands. I chose the calves this year as my birthday present. May I seed the idea of some Highlands for next year, if not sooner? The thing with raising and finishing grassfed beef is it takes years, and every time I pencil out the numbers, it’s a bit sketchy, especially if we were breeding Highlands. But if we bought a few yearlings?
As I sit, an Amish hay wagon pulled by a horse went by, driven by 3 kids alone. I lifted my hand to wave and all 3 waved back. Awww, life in the country. I love it.
I have been eluding to the hardships of this life and work we’ve chosen, because I feel there is this romanticism that so many people (and even corporations) attach to farms and farming. In my writing and sharing, I want to emphasize that it is NOT all peaches and cream. The entrepreneurial learning curve, as well as the new farmer learning curve, has been incredibly steep. Actually being a farmer though, IS absolutely great and gives us an extremely fulfilling life. I mean, for real, we live off the land and we provide delicious food to literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people in various outlets. It’s what I’ve always dreamed of! We run a business from this farm, eat extremely well, and have our basic and primal needs met. So why have I been so frustrated and restless?
The 5 year out question has been festering in my mind. What do I want to do, I mean really want to do in five years? I’ve achieved what I really wanted 5 years ago; I am a fulltime farmer. I spend my days surrounded by our animals, the natural world, our gardens. It’s “multitasking central,” which is my specialty.
What I would want to do, if I could have no worry of financial responsibility, is 2 things: homesteading and raising happy animals.
Being as self-sufficient as possible for our household, and as low carbon foot print as I can be, has been my goal for a long while. I get such pleasure and fulfillment from toodling around with growing, preserving, fermenting, brewing, curing, smoking, butchering. And being around content, healthy and joyous animals makes me extremely happy, especially if I was directly involved in their comfort and satisfactions being met. I also want to have more time to write and do other creative projects too.
Being a business owner, the line of what’s “me” and what’s “the farm” has been blurred over the past 4 years, because we have had to focus on bringing in income to pay for our farm’s expenses, as well as our own. As newbie farmers, we’ve had to focus everything and every penny on making our business work before our own personal desires were filled. That’s part of any business, especially as it starts and grows.
We’re finally at the point now where we have things pretty set up to just farm, not struggle. I am extremely proud to say that! It has been SO HARD, but we have persevered. Now, as we look to next season, we can actually have the luxury of saying “what do I really want to be doing with this one and precious life?”
This year we’ve had a terribly late and super wet spring, which has been a major pain in the butt for CSA gardening. The stress of the way we’ve been doing our CSA shares has really been too much with this fickle climate now rearing it’s head 2 springs in a row. Our CSA program has got to change. We have some really exciting plans for an overhaul and re-invention of how we do it next season. It’s kind of a secret right now, but I am feeling the joy return and the stress lift from my shoulders. Yeehaw!
An aside- my New Farmer Article Series is beginning in the next issue (the August 2014 edition) of ACRES USA magazine! I am so nervous and excited!
It’s been a rather trying season, but awesome things keep happening- and this helps us keep our morale up. This Saturday I’m going to be on Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl’s radio show- 11am on WCCO for all my Twin Cities peeps. AND….The Perennial Plate is coming out to film tomorrow afternoon, and this footage MAY end up in a PBS special on the new Victory Gardens. WHAT??? I know!!! So fingers crossed. My dear husband spent the day getting our kitchen and bathroom revamped and cleaned, so, well, we will see how all of this goes.
I shouldn’t even be writing this, I should be out there mulching. But my back is tired and my thighs ache from bending over to spread hay on the ground around my precious planties. The zukes, cukes, potatoes, winter squash and green bean beds are all set, and I will continue mulching the rest of the garden on Friday.
This year is my “make it or break it” year with veggies. It’s our 6th year of CSA. I love to grow beautiful veggies and I love to eat them, I love to harvest the bounties, love to hear how our members enjoy them, love a gorgeous, lush garden, love taking the fertility from our animals and turning it into healthy soil and nutritious food. But on this scale, growing for 15 CSA boxes a week, I am not loving it. For most CSA vegetable farms, this quantity we do is a drop in the bucket, many of them crank out hundreds of shares EVERY WEEK. All I can say is- good for them. It is just not my cup of tea. Those professional CSA farms are usually highly skilled and highly mechanized. They know how and which pieces of equipment to use in various scenarios, they are not doing it all by hand. That mechanized agriculture is how the probably all of the food in your cupboard and fridge is produced, and there is NOTHING wrong with that. Large quantities of food need to be produced to feed everyone. I think I am confessing I bought into the small scale myth, thinking we could handle doing a small scale CSA, all by hand.
Now, if all we did produce on our farm was vegetables, that’s all we’d do all day. We’d learn and evolve into using more equipment to save our bodies from the treacherous, hard and repetitious work involved with large scale gardening. But our gardens are merely a drop in OUR bucket of the work to do each day. We have ducks, eggs, ducklings, pigs, calves, chickens, geese, turkeys, and a goat to be tended, fed, watered, fenced, gathered, harvested, and there is always soap to make. We are an animal centered farm, and that’s what I love. Weeding in the gardens? Not so much, but it has to be done. Enter mulching.
Last year we got almost 400 bales of hay off our 8 acre hayfield, and in previous years we had a big herd of goats who needed a lot of that hay to eat over the winter. We had to be kind of stingy with our hay stack to last until the next hay harvest. Now, with just one goat, over the winter we used our hay primarily for our duck and pig bedding. Hay cutting time is coming up in less than a month and we realized the other day that we actually had almost 1/2 the bales left.We were so used to having to be stingy with the hay in previous years that we’d had quite a lot left.
Hay is an incredibly valuable commodity on our farm, it comes from our land and it’s chemical free. We could keep storing it under the tarp ( but it’s located where we are planing to build our studio/temporary home), or sell it or…. we could put it back on our land in the form of mulch in the gardens. We’ve never had the luxury of “extra” hay before! I was very excited about this prospect. Not so much in the action of spreading the mulch, which is quite tedious, but I realized today that spreading mulch on every bed just once is far and above better than lamenting about all the incessant weeding, and feeling super discouraged about over grown veggie beds where all you can see is thistles, quack grass and other invasive non-edibles.
So we went to town. The potato beds are thickly mulched, as are many other beds at this point. More to go. When I was starting to homestead in 2004 at my old place (OMG that was 10 years ago!) I mulched my little garden with 100 straw bales. I was a big believer in the Ruth Stout method, and that’s also what my Mom also taught me to do. The soil stays moist and the plants you plant into mulch do better because of that and the lessened weed pressure. I had some slug problems because straw hosts them very well, but that’s better than looking at a weed infested garden, honestly. The only weak point with a heavily mulched garden is with the plants you must direct seed, but you can always mulch and then rake it back to do that. Mulching won’t kill the weeds or completely smother out the really invasive rhizomes, but it will keep them in check and keep the gardens at least sort-of looking tidy. Mulching might just save me this year, and save my love of “large” scale CSA gardening.
I am such a grouch in the mornings. I feel badly for my husband, so I’m going to try just keeping my mouth shut as much as possible until late morning from now on!
Mondays are particularly crazy, as we have to get our CSA produce picked and prepped before the heat of the morning sets in. There is little quantity of produce yet at this point in the season, mostly greens who are very sensitive to heat. On top of that hurrying pressure- it’s starting to get really hot at 8am- we have many more animals to tend, hundreds of eggs to gather and clean, and so many plants to water in the hoophouse so they are fully hydrated before the hotness comes. Egg orders have to be organized. One of us has to take the lead on getting together an email for our members listing what’s coming and reminding them of tomorrow’s delivery as well.
This morning, after we bottled the calves, let the ducks out, I milked May, collected eggs and then washed my hands thoroughly, I started to cut baby lettuce heads and salad mix to hydrocool in a giant basin of frigid water at our CSA prep station now located in the shady side of the hoophouse. I’m so glad we have this set up in there now so all the “greywater” from cleaning the veg can just be used right there to water the plants growing inside the hoophouse. Andrew went to get Belle off the tie out by the field garden and then was going to focus on collecting nettle tops. My arms were deep in the basin of water, swirling the greens around to get all the dirt off, when Andrew rushed in, all in a tizzy. His arms were in the air, and as he said Oh my god, oh my god, his face held a look of wonder and excitement. It wasn’t a scared sounding communication, not the usual one of horror and urgency. Curious, I said what? He said there were goslings, he saw 3 babies!
We have had a flock of around 25 adult breeding geese for 2 seasons now. Last year was quite a failure. We were not set up properly and didn’t know what we were doing with geese yet (we got them right before breeding season began), so we artificially incubated hundreds of eggs. From those hundreds of eggs, we got 20 goslings.That was a miserable hatch rate, and since we have to feed the adults year round, we have to have a better return than that to keep them. This season, we were determined to try to let the mothers try to sit and incubate naturally. We knew there were just as many risks involved, failure wise, but we hoped they would have at least as good of results as the artificial incubation. All the eggs up until Easter time were collected and sold for eating, which helped pay for some of our breeding flocks’ feed expenses, while we waited for the weather to warm for the good broody-weather season.
A month ago, three of the goose moms set up nests and I put covered nest huts over them. The problems with having a large group of breeding adults together soon became apparent as they fought over the nests, the locations, who looked at whom wrong. The broodies would be repeatedly harassed off their nests, it was really frustrating. Every little thing seemed to be a problem within the goose flock. I made the decision to block off the majority of the paddock off from the flock, except the broody, nest-sitting moms. They seemed to enjoy the tranquility and stolidly sat on their nests, while that main pasture had a chance to grow more too. In the upper area, blocked off the pasture, more goose moms started making nests in what used to be the goat shed, but much noisy, violent squabbling ensued over nest locations in the shed as well. So after they began sitting, I blocked off the goat shed as well. We had (eventually) 10 total moms sitting on nests – not too shabby!
This morning, as Andrew walked past the big pasture, he saw one of the 3 first broodies with three goose babies trailing behind her! We hadn’t talked about what we’d do if there were babies, because we’d be already kind of resigned to accept yet another failure, but suddenly we had a decision to make- leave the babies with her, or collect them and raise them up ourselves. She made it an easy decision as she walked them around in the chilly shaded area- these tender little fluff ball babies are soooooo precious we cannot risk them getting killed by predators or by neglect. We don’t farm totally on hope and optimism, we farm with learned smart choices to increase the odds of success. We need these babies to successfully raise up for our Pastured Goose Shares which are already reserved! As a selfish aside, I know goslings raised by their mom will never be as tame and interactive as babies I get to raise by hand. Goslings were my newest love discovery last year and I am so excited to raised them again this year, they are simply the most adorable bird babies ever.
We grabbed a net, and sadly for the momma, collected the 3 youngsters from her. She had an egg still in her nest, which she returned to. If we were just running a nature park, we could leave the babies with her and just let nature take it’s course and hope for the best. But we aren’t, this is a working farm. The 3 goslings were confused at first, but now are happily peeping in the brooder in our kitchen. They are doing the irresistibly adorable “talking” to the sound of our voice and sight of our hands, eating and drinking. I sure hope the rest of the broodies produce babies, any breeding project is an odd mix of naturalism, optimisim and reality. We shall see.
This is a story I wrote about last Tuesday, I hope you enjoy!
We both stir at 4:45am as the boisterous spring bird songs spill through the bedroom window screen. I pull on yesterday’s clothes conveniently left on the floor, and head downstairs to the kitchen. My sleep softened feet feel the grit on the floor, so I slip on my crocs, which are lined with more grit. There’s a pot of water already on the stove, I turn on that burner and place a lid on top to hasten the boil. No matter the morning, I just cannot wait for my first hot slugs of the thick rich brew I call my cowgirl coffee. Having cows now, well calves actually, I finally feel like a real cowgirl. I walk into the egg room to get the collecting buckets and Andrew goes into the walk-in cooler, which is located in what used to be our livingroom, to pull out the assembled CSA share boxes. I tell him I’ll back up the car to our “loading dock” off the front of the house, because I’m better at driving reverse in a stick. Andrew’s often a bit surly and sleepy in the mornings, but this statement of superiority riles him out of his haze and he insists he’s doing it.
While he’s backing up the Subaru, I finish getting most of the share boxes out of the walk-in, and slide the heavy and huge cooler full of duck eggs out as well. Andrew’s got to hustle if our plan for him to get to Minneapolis and back before 9am is going to work. If he can do that, then I can go on the second delivery run and make it there by our noon CSA promise. I’m amazed to watch him pick up the heavy cooler of eggs and carry it to the car. All those eggs inside it I collected, cleaned, candled, packed and labeled, and they came from OUR ducks! I never want to lose that feeling of wonder and pride of being a farmer.
The water is finally boiling and I pour it over the french roast grounds in the mason jar next to the burner. That’s cowgirl coffee, and the smell that rises as the grounds are submerged is almost as good as drinking it. Almost- now I have to wait another few minutes to let them brew before pouring through a strainer into my mug. There are sprinkly sounds coming from the kitchen window, a rain shower has arrived, so I grab my rain jacket before heading out to do chores.
I walk down the rain-slick clay footpath to the hoophouse, where 500 ducklings are peeping with anticipation and thirst. The heat lamp is on in one corner in the younger ducklings’ brooder and I flip the switch off for the day, doing a quick scan across the sea of babies for any casualties. We’ve made it past the most tender age, and not a single one perished in the past 2 weeks- YES! Their little black eyes watch me as I pour water into their big rubber water pan, and the ducklings leap into the bowl in a frenzy. I walk around to the other side which holds ducklings who are just one week older and nearly double in size, what a difference a week makes in a ducklings growth. The girls are all watered and fed, I also bring them some grass to nibble on as well, as we want them to be well accustomed to greens and seeking them out when they grow up to be pastured egg layers.
I go head back to the house to see Andrew off and pour my first mug of coffee. Then it’s over to the gravity box parked in our “driveway” to fill 4 buckets with the adult duck feed. Each bucket weighs about 40 lbs, so I assess my strength and will, versus multiple trips over to the duck barn. In my head I measure the pain of carrying 2 buckets full twice with the efficiency of just 2 trips, versus 4. I muscle through, but my arms ache as I do. As I enter the side door to the duck barn, I am greeted by my laughing ladies, the hungry ducks. They swirl away from me like a very loud school of fish, then race forward to the feeder, after I fill it and retreat. On the other side of the barn, the more mature lady ducks know the routine- we’ve been together for going on 4 years. They come to eat as I pour the feed into their hopper, they are not nearly as skittish. There are quite a few eggs rolling around in the area around their water tub, so i decide to go get the egg buckets and collect them before filling the water tubs- the scramble of hundreds of webbed feet over the eggs might crack some of them. Egg collecting is my favorite part of the day’s chores. It’s the motion that reflects all my dreams and aspirations, a fulfillment of risk, hardwork and lots and lots of tending to these darling ducks.
As I head back to the duck barn with the egg buckets, I stop and think maybe I should just go feed the pigs quick. They are learning about electric fence and have had a rough couple days, and doesn’t food always make you feel better? Heading towards their paddock, I hear them in their shelter grunting and groaning at each other as they try to attain that most perfect sleeping spot, but they hear my footsteps as I approach and all come racing out, like clowns from a circus car. I open the nearest 55 gallon barrel full of soaked organic buckwheat and oats and scoop the headily fragrant slop out. The pigs squeal with excitement and jostle for the best position at the feeders as I pour out the sourdoughy smelling fermented grains.
Now it’s time to get eggs, and in about a half hour I have collected most of the eggs and filled all the water basins. I have to get the first eggs cleaned as soon as possible so the shells don’t stain.The ducks are happy having breakfast, drinking and bathing before they go out to pasture. We converted a tiny little closet of a room in our house into our state licensed egg room, it’s outfitted with plumbing and a big stainless steel 3 compartment sink. I lower the buckets into two of the sinks and run warm water over the eggs to loosen any debris. The egg collecting buckets have drainage at the bottoms, so the eggs don’t sit in the rinse water at all. I inspect and clean each and every one carefully and any rejects go to the pigs.
300 eggs later, it’s 8am and time to give the calves their bottles. I start by mixing their milk formula powder with hot water, then fill the 3 bottles and head down to the calf pen. Our 3 gorgeous boys are toddling about, peering through the fence for the first sight of me and their breakfast. As I get nearer, they dance in place restlessly, picking up hoof after hoof as they weave back and forth, unsteady as 2 week olds. I line up the bottles along the fence opening so they are propped in place as long as I hold them tightly against the fence. The calves suckle on the fluorescent orange nipples hard, a foamy lather forming around their lips and dripping down onto the soil, which our pup Belle happily laps up quickly. The bottles are emptied rather quickly, and then I remember I have to go milk my goat May. This is a new routine since her daughter went to her new home last week, and I’m now the only one to collect her bounteous milk. May calls to me when she sees I’m heading her way. I slide into her hut, carefully holding the gate behind me as she always tries to push past me and out. Once she knows there’s no chance of that, she sticks her head in her grain bucket and assumes the position: all four feet squarely set and spread apart with her full and engorged udder lowered. I place a little bucket below her and squat next to her and start capturing the milk in her 2 teats with my fingers- if I think about it too much, she’ll get impatient and dancey. Whizz whizz, whizz whizz- the abundant milk streams out in a lovely rhythm, rapidly filling the bucket half way full. I put the bucket up on a table, out of reach of the dogs, which I’ll fill up at the evening milking and then give to the pigs. What an amazing and bountiful goat- she gets a bit of grain and then I tether her out to be our brush hog where she fills up with browse and grass all day long.
I let the ducks out, smiling with pleasure to watch them racing down the path to their new paddock. I collect the late eggs and bring them into the house for cleaning.
Finally, finally, the crappy weather has passed and spring has arrived. Spending the days outside has been sorely missed, and so we’re outdoors as much as possible now; working. Time to catch up on lost time! Last year around this time we had a fresh foot of snow delivered by mother nature, so I am extremely grateful that’s not the case, it’s just a bit soggy, that’s all.
Lots of exciting things have happened in the past couple of days. We unleashed our new and improved duck paddock system, which is much more extensive and I think will allow us to rotate the ducks even better and easier this season.
This is one of my very first ducks, named Milky Way. She’s an Ancona, and if I did the math right, she’s now 6 years old. She is still laying big blue eggs, although she doesn’t lay many each year now that’s she is 6. Originally she had black spots on her feathers, but as she’s gotten older, they’ve been disappearing. Her feet are still mottled black though, and her bill is a lovely grey blue. She’s an incredibly calm duck, we’ve even used her to “nanny” groups of wild youngsters, teaching them to not freak out when they see us coming (khakis tend to be very high strung and excitable.)
We also moved the ducklings from their brooder space in the hoophouse to their new digs in the other side of the duck barn. They had to be relocated because they had outgrown the enormous brooder, and we have another group of duck babies due to arrive on Wednesday! The moving of ducklings is really hard to explain- like I said, they are spazzy, and to try channeling that wildness is nearly impossible. We’ve boxed them up and literally walked them over in previous times, but it’s more stressful for them and terrifying for our eardrums. We decided herding them was the best way this year. Half of the group ran out and started racing in a spiral, much like a school of fish. It was sort of funny, but then they all started running at the electro-net (which was not electrified) I’d set up to guide them over to the barn. They were still small enough to basically run right through it, although a bunch got tangled and stuck, and those who didn’t RAN in all directions. Panic mode! Andrew ran one direction, I ran the other, we herded the crazy ducklings like cattle dogs and finally got them routed to the final destination and in they went. Pheeew! Then round two, which didn’t go quite as poorly, and they finally joined their sisters.
The garden work has begun in the spring garden, our field garden. It’s up on a high point and the soil was very nicely prepped and fertilized by the geese and heritage chickens we pastured there last fall. The first round of “coldies” have sprouted and now with the sun, they are growing! We’ve been transplanting thousands of onion plants, a red variety that came from Andrew’s mom’s trip to paris last year, and a Sweet Spanish Utah. Last year we had a terrible onion crop and I plan on this year going much better. I cannot wait to start our CSA deliveries, we have so much growing and it is all going to be so beautiful and delicious! Soon, soon!
Andrew plowed our first keyline on contour around our hayfield before the rain came, and then yesterday he planted the first installment of native fruit trees and bushes- black cherry, highbush cranberry and serviceberry. We have a bunch of hazelnuts and chestnuts coming soon. It’s going to be amazing to watch our very own food forests growing. Eventually they will become sources of food for our pigs and pastured birds.
As I review information from the main permaculture leaders, I’ve been a bit disheartened. I love the concepts of permaculture, but the dudes who are the experts often are full of ego and machismo. Lots of guys arguing over details, who thought of what, who met who, blah blah blah. Then today I heard a podcast called Permaculture Voices, episode 13 had an interview with Darren Doherty. He’s been working on his own version of regenerative agriculture, a combination of techniques from many sources and his own experiences His focus is on agriculture, not just self sufficiency. Right up my alley. He’s working on “The Regrarian Handbook” and I cannot wait to get my hands on a copy. Meanwhile, we will focus on doing our own best here, developing systems that work for us and our land, learning from our own experiences, and growing our farm business to suit our needs as well.
Last winter (did I just say that? WHOA! Winter is finally OVER!), I came across this series of articles about raising pastured veal. I hatched a plan. All I had to do was convince my husband it was a good idea.
The facts are that cows have to be impregnated and bear a calf to give milk, the calves are taken away from their mothers, and the male dairy breed calves are often treated as a waste by-product of the dairy industry. This has always bothered me and was part of the reason I was a vegan in the first place. Most often these male calves are sent to a livestock auction, sometimes still wet from birth. They are usually purchased to be raised for veal, aka baby beef, which in theory I don’t have a problem with- most animals raised for their meat are technically babies or rather young when they are slaughtered. The majority of meat chickens, for instance, are typically slaughtered at 7-12 weeks and pigs are raised just to 6 to 9 months of age. What most everyone deplores about veal is how the veal industry raises their product; the calves are individually chained in a dark and tiny stall so small they cannot turn around, let alone interact with their calf buddies or stretch out to rest. The darkness and what they are fed- an iron deficient formula is what leads to the “desired” white veal, and only an absolute ass would find these methods used to produce white veal acceptable. Most people had no idea about these practices used by the veal industry until it’s deplorable practices were exposed by animal rights activists. Now veal is looked down upon by nearly everyone. I’d say it’s right up there with foie gras, where a duck or goose is force fed enormous quantities of a fat inducing grain slurry to produce an engorged fatty liver. I’ve never had foie gras, and would never eat it, but I have had pastured goose liver from the geese we raised last year. It was delicious, but nothing at all similar to what I’ve read foie gras is like.
I have had a bee in my bonnet to get cows. I have ever since my friend and mentor Angelica got her first Highland cattle, and we had some of the beef. OMG delicious!!!!!!!! I wanted to get our own Highlands, but they are expensive and we also have zero experience with cows. Most people who raise Highlands don’t sell super young babies, they leave the calves with their mothers and sell 600 pound yearlings for $600 or more. That’s a whole lot of cow, and for us the investment in something as huge as that, one we didn’t have any experience with, which might turn into a nightmare because we don’t know what we’re doing with cows, was a reason to to shelf that idea.
But, when my birthday came around last week, I secretly hoped Andrew was going to surprise me with a Highland birthday present. As we planted our onions and leeks before the rains last week, we talked about it. He admitted he’d found some Highland heifers for sale on craigslist, not too far away. They were a 4Hproject and so they were used to being handled, haltered and led around. My heart soared! He’d looked for them for ME! But being practical farmers (we’ve learned slowly how to be practical and real) we talked about all the ramifications. Where would they go, how would we transport them, what happens if they get out, what’s the plan for a bull to breed them, where would we overwinter them, when would we actually have beef to eat if we bought these heifers? Too many questions and uncertainties, not enough sense, and we knew it. To top it off, when we went back in the house for lunch, the ad had been removed- they were sold. That was a sign.
When we went back out to finish planting the thousands of alliums, we talked about the veal idea. Could we introduce ourselves to cows by raising pastured veal? Our friends had a dairy (where I briefly attempted to work as a relief milker for them, but totally failed) and their seasonal calving season was almost finished. We’d mentioned to them that were possibly interested in buying calves from them before, but then chickened out when the first bull calves were presented as an option. After examining the details of the expensive and unknown Highland project though, we contemplated and talked again about getting a couple of bull calves as our practice run with raising cows. The potential calves would be a much more manageable size and would bond with us as they grew. I texted Heidi at the dairy to see if by chance, they would still be open to the idea. And she said yes, they had 21 cows to freshen still, so likely would have 10 or more bull calves coming along soon. If we changed our minds, they would just go to the auction. Andrew and I reviewed the pastured veal articles I mentioned above, set up a spacious calf pen, and got ready for the text that the bull calves had been born.
So then 3 days ago, we brought the three calves in the picture home. We did indeed load them into the back of our Subaru, where I sat with them and made sure they did not fall over as we went around the curves in the road. I leaned in with my arms surrounding their warm bigness, inhaling the scent of calves; a little like cream and beef combined. I’d noticed something similar with my goat babies over the years, but this aroma was more pleasing, more promising.
Our three 4 day old calves made the trip home very well, I think the lady who was driving behind us in her white mini van was quite intrigued with what we had in our back window! As we pulled into our driveway, the three dogs surrounded the car excitedly sniffing the unfamiliar aromas. Since the driving paths were still soaked and mucky, we couldn’t drive down to where the calf pen was situated, so I stayed in the back of the car with two of the calves, while Andrew picked up the largest one to carry him down to the pen. Like a shepherd holding a lamb, he embraced the calf around his legs and held the calf’s torso to his chest. The calves were all extremely docile. Half way there, I watched as he had to kneel and put the peaceful calf’s feet on the ground, to rest for a moment. This biggest calf weighed about 100 lbs, not so easy to carry anywhere!
Andrew returned to get calf number 2, and I attempted to carry the last and smallest baby. Small for a calf is like 60 pounds. I can carry a 50 pound bag of feed like nobody’s business, but this calf felt SO heavy. He wasn’t jostling or impatient luckily, just heavy, gangly and a living being. I made it down to the calf pen after mimicking Andrew’s calf-carrying-rest half way there technique, and then summoning my most intense inner strength to get it done.
In the pen, the calves moved about slowly, investigating the soil and each other, and then the brown and white guy we named Osso started having a gleeful ramble; he leaped and clumsily gallumped about, ran into the fence a few times in his exuberance, and just was so happy! It was a bit muddy though, and I’d also read that the first week you want to keep your calves calm, especially right after transporting them, so we moved them into their bedded hoop shelter. Trying to move them on their hooves was like trying to push your drunk friend through a door, into the house. The calves not only weighed a lot, but they didn’t really have much coordination or whip-smartness. They were more like an honest-to-goodness newborn than any farm animal I’ve ever experienced.
Our three beautiful calves settled in and took a nap until bottle time at 7pm. We didn’t really know what to expect, I’d read calves are greedy nursers, aggressive and slobbery. Our friends at the dairy had said the transition might take away their appetite. I’d read they were as fragile as kittens, so I was generally terrified about whether they’d just die from stress.
But so far so good. They are voracious, and just as Sandra Miller says in her article, a toddler mentality stuck in a body the size of a Great Dane. It’s really something totally new to us, and I just adore them! Osso, Bucco and Cutlet will live here on the farm, being bottle fed and then transitioning out to pasture as their rumen function kicks in in a few months. The plan is to harvest them before winter, but as this is an experiment, we will go with the flow. Sandra Miller harvests her veal calves when they reach 300 pounds. We may grow ours larger, keep them longer. We don’t particularly want to overwinter cows yet, but it’s a possibility.
The thing is, they ARE ridiculously cute, but these are not pets. They are going to live the best life we can give them, and then they will be harvested. If they’d gone to the auction house, who knows what they’d endure and how they’d be raised. I think this is a much happier solution for them, and possibly something amazing for us and our customers as well.
The other night, I thought I got up and saw the eclipse. We’ve been on a really weird sleep cycle with midnight and 3 am duckling tending; monitoring, feeding, watering. I stay up late to do the last check, and then Andrew gets up for the early morning check. When he crawls back into bed usually I am fast asleep, but on the blood moon night I woke up and he told me (I think he did, maybe it was part of my dreaming) that he saw part of the eclipse. As I fell back asleep, I dreamed I got up without my glasses on and stared out the crystaline window at the eclipse happening and was frightened. Someone shared some crazy religious preacher’s rants about this blood moon signifying the end of the world, and maybe that got into my subconscious.
Then THIS morning, I got up at 6am and as I looked out the window, I thought I must be hallucinating/dreaming again. There is SNOW all over the place! It had just finally all just melted! Give me a break!
I did the mid morning rounds and let the ducks out and then collected the late eggs. The snow was just pouring out of the sky- wet, heavy, wind-whipped snow. I went over to check on the pigs and see the shelter Andrew had made for them yesterday (oh we moved them outside 2 days ago, and it has been pure hog heaven over here- didn’t blog about it, whoops,) and only 3 of the pigs were by the trough. Now, they have about 2 acres of land to traverse, but I wondered where the other 13 pigs were. The shelter was empty, and my heart raced as I worried over our ultimate fear, the pigs getting out. With my clumsy big yellow boot galoshes, I climbed over the 3 foot high hog panel and set off into the pine forest to hopefully find the other pigs. As I crouched under a snow laden pine bough, I saw them. They looked confused, like they were searching for something. They saw me, and started making their way over. Philomena, the big black pig with white spots and 2 different colored eyelashes came up first. She was talking, there is no other way to describe it. Huff-grunt-bellow communicating. I called to the other pigs and they came over, trotting in a line. They were all soaked and cold and shivery. I went into triage mode and looked around for materials to block the wind and snow so their shelter would be more cozy. It’s hard making things for pigs because they are so strong and destructive, but this didn’t matter right now. These pigs were cold and needed to get warmed up FAST. We’d given them a couple of broken up bales of hay for bedding, but they were now soaked. Cold and wet bedding = potential hypothermia.Trudging through the snow over to the 200 bale hay stack, I pulled down 4 bales and one by one lugged them over to the pig shelter. I opened them and fluffed the hay up, covering the pile of shivering pigs. I found a metal xheet panel to block the main wind and blowing snow, and wired that up. Brought more hay and arranged it around the pigs to ensure everyone was well covered. They grunted and groaned as they all got into place. I hate being cold, and I could tell they did too. Pigs exude a lot of heat though, so a pig pile was their smartest move. They’ve been practicing this skill since day one, luckily it comes naturally to them! For the past 3 hours, I’ve been going out to monitor their progress, and they stopped shivering, but stayed in their pile, in the shelter until just now. Andrew brought them hot water to go along with their soaked grains and goatmilk, and they all got up and ate. Wheew.
I really hope this shitty weather ends soon. The one and only bright note about snow versus rain is that it’s a much more gentle method of moistening the ground for the spring vegetable seedings I did last week!