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.