Thursday, December 10, 2009

Brrr, it's cold out there

Well, I WAS going to write about our sweet new cow Mattie, but then we got hit with a blast of arctic cold and pretty soon I was far too busy chat. The boy had the brains to get himself sick this week, or this little tale of woe would be his. Here's a picture of his favorite nurse. She's been sleeping (almost non-stop) by his head ever since he got sick.

Anyway, back to my story...about ten days ago, the farmer's weather report said to get ready for winter. I blithely ignored that figuring how cold could it get. HA! Got me.

A mere 15 hours into the cold some kind of valve failure caused the winterized pipes in our barn to freeze up, not to be fixed until they thaw. 24 hours later the water froze solid in the animal's 100 gallon watering trough. Just about this time our resident water trough filler disappeared down to town for a weekend visit to a friend's house. Good timing him.

That left me to do about an hour and a half of water hauling from the kitchen sink. Let's just say that's a LONG way to haul 10 gallons of water. Or even 5, or say 75. Once I got over that bit of work, I realized we were in this for the long haul and we would be toting water morning, noon and night until the pipes thawed. I tried to view this as an opportunity for exercise. That idea lasted about a day. Tomorrow will be 8.

I wish that waterhauling we didn't include me but it does. We=Me and Steve, and I have to say Steve doesn't whine near as much as I do about this.

When we were just about sick to death of frozen pipes, the boy reappeared from his weekend of fun and went back to being the water sherpa. Thank God! He faithfully hauled buckets for a day and a half until he got sick and put himself to bed. He has yet to emerge. Poor boy. Good thing he has that cat.

Now I bet you can guess who's back to hauling water again.? You got it. Me (and Steve, the tireless mighty man.)

Three times a day, we have been hauling as much water as we can to the big grey watering hole on the side of the barn and the giant blue bucket in the cow stall and to the other giant blue bucket behind the cow stall. And apparently we can't keep up with the demand, because everytime we go out there, most of the water is gone and what's left is frozen solid.

All this hauling water reminded me of what life was like for Ma and Pa in Little House on the Prairie. Remember that one long winter where they just about froze or was it starved to death (hard to say which). I don't remember a single mention of Pa hauling water that whole winter. But he must have and he must have hauled tons of it. (Literally.) Or maybe they just melted snow on the stove all day and invited the cow in for a drink? Maybe there's no mention of it because hauling water was so normal, Laura couldn't imagine talking about it. Kind of like us going to the grocery store or say breathing. But really she should have said something because it's hard work. Though, I do seem to remember that she does mention all the water hauling SHE did when she and Almonzo planted those trees on their homestead. So am I to assume that water hauling only deserves mention if a person does it themselves. Did I mention that I've been doing a lot of it this week?

And just so you know, when it is this cold (11 degrees F early this morning), fashion rules change. Cold requires special attire. Layers and layers and layers...honestly, if I told you how many layers we really have on you wouldn't believe me.

And can you see the frost on Steve's glasses and mustache? Crazy....he was only out there for 15 minutes or so. Brrr...
And speaking of crazy, check out these eggs we found under the chickens last night. Frozen solid. Told you it was cold around here.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Back at last and with tales of woe.

Gosh, we've been busy as a beehive around here. No time for such frivilous pursuits such as blogging. We (meaning Steve and Kaitlin and little bit of me) have been digging and composting and getting new cows (more on that another time) and cleaning up the garden for winter (just in the nick of time, I might add) and all sorts of other smaller projects. One of these projects sounded like such a good idea. But like many 'good' ideas it turned into much more of an adventure (or more accurately--fiasco) than I meant it to be.

This whole thing started a couple of years ago when we bought 4 Navajo Churro sheep and introduced them into our existing and I might add VERY healthy flock of romneys. I had this idea that since we were such a small operation we could do our part to preserve the world's genetic diversity by switching our animals over to the rarer, heritage breeds. (What follows is only a small part of what I get for trying to be noble.)

I started by doing a LOT of research trying to find a breed that would give us what we wanted (yummy lamb) and that would be easy to keep and have nice fleeces. I never really thought about how perfect (and hardy) our existing romneys were. They are a standard breed in a climate like ours--sort of like an angus or holstein cow might be. Here's what they look like (not ours)...
We loved our romneys, they were easy keepers and easy to shear and had beautiful fleeces. Plus they were pretty friendly for sheep. Sheep are notoriously shy, but ours were nice. I could walk up to them and pet most of them without much trouble.

Enter the churros. We bought four beautiful churros from a breeder in Central Washington. Churros are known for their colorful fleeces, and their tendency to have four horns. They lamb easily (and often, sometimes three times in two years) and are known to be hardy. They are also listed on the Slow Food Ark of Taste, which means they are known especially for their delicious tasting meat. With all these characteristics, I thought we'd be a perfect match. Here's what they look like (again, not ours)...

Churros are smaller than romney's..see those delicate little legs of theirs. Since they are so tasty I thought the smaller animals would still be okay with our lamb customers. They are much more skittish than the romneys but I thought maybe we could work that out over time and with love. Ha. That was my first mistake. It's been two years and they are just as timid as ever and those beautiful fleeces are apparently glued to the sheep with superglue because our shearer almost refuses to come shear them as they are such hard work to cut. Hmm. And did I mention that churros are hardy in the desert and we live in the Pacific Northwest. (My mistake again.)

Anyway, back to the real problem. See, my next churro mistake came out of ignorance. We had the romneys for almost nine years and never had wormed them. Our flock came with the place and had been on autopilot for many a year before we got them. We added a ram and away we went. Lots of lambs every year and no problems. We didn't even know that intestinal parasites were a common problem in sheep because our sheep NEVER had them. The churros apparently did.

A couple of months after we got the churros, we noticed the romneys getting thinner. As they approached lambing time, we thought hmm this isn't good. We fed them more and watched them grow fatter tummies and way skinnier bodies. It is harder than heck to get a vet out here that knows anything about sheep. Believe me, I tried. Even the large animal vets pretty much focuses on horses. When the lambs started coming, we had all kinds of problems. Failure to thrive, mamas that were too skinny, a stillborn. I started reading on the internet but didn't really find an answer...probably because I didn't know what questions to ask and maybe because the obvious was just too obvious for me to know.

We lost a few lambs (both romney and churros) and that got us really worried. I started asking around more fervently. Then right after we lost a few lambs, a mama died. She just laid down and wouldn't get up. We kept the baby alive by bottlefeeding her but it was sure sad to watch her sit day by day by her dying mother with us not knowing what to do.

We still had no vet to come. The mobile vet said he was a dog and cat man and the horse vet said she didn't do sheep. I asked around but wasn't getting any answers. This is the problem with living on the suburban edge of rural.

Then my Australian sheep farming friend Lloyd came for a visit. He took one look at my sheep, pulled down their lips and said "Aw, girl, those sheep have worms. You gotta' treat um quick or they are going to die." So quick like a bunny I hopped off to the nearest farm and feed store and bought some wormer. But cuz this feed store specializes in horsey gear, they didn't exactly have the right wormer and another sheep died. From the wormer or the worms we will never know.

By now I was feeling way more than bad. Lloyd was gone and with him went his 60 years of common sense. All my years in Catholic school/church kicked in and I was feeling REALLY guilty. (As well, I should have been.)

We finally found and applied the right wormer and fed those girls up and everyone got healthy again. The shearer came a couple months later and wondered what the heck happened to our girls. Hearing our tale of woe, he was shocked we hadn't been worming all these years. Apparently, it is normal for sheep and other ruminates to have worms. I guess everyone knew this except us.

So the months went by and we diligently followed the directions on the wormer and gave everyone a dose every month. Each month the sheep became healthier and healthier and things seemed better.

The problem was I started reading about that wormer. Gosh darn, that stuff is nasty. I sure didn't want to give my sheep something that was that toxic if I didn't have to. It was bad enough that the sheep would eat it but my insides got all quivvery when I knew we would be eating the meat too. The wormer said it was safe and that it passed right through in 24 hours; but still, I didn't like the idea.

So, it wasn't long before my next internet quest became the search for a natural worming medicine that worked. Apparently, this is a lot easier said than found. There are many natural worming methods that don't do squat. And there are many more that people promote with enthusiasm but that nobody has any proof that they work.

I kept reading as much as I could and investigated all kinds of methods. Some methods sounded like they would work but they were tricky. If you gave a sheep just a little too much they would die. That sounded worse than the sure shot wormer that came in the tube with specified doses on an oral syringe. I kept reading. I figured with my luck and lack of skill I was bound to hurt somebody and I couldn't bear the thought of anymore of that.

Finally, after I couldn't find any method I particularly liked, I asked a friend in California whom I knew to be both sensible and organically minded. Lots of organically minded folks still use the nasty wormer because getting the natural ones right was so hard. I figured if Hank did something natural, it would work and wouldn't be that hard to get right. Hank owns a goat dairy and makes some of the best cheese and goat's milk soap ever. And he doesn't seem to like to fuss with stuff unless it is necessary.

After getting his recipe via email, I trouped all over town and the internet and finally found all the ingredients. (Already this wormer is much more expensive and way more hassle than the wormer in the tube.) Kaitlin (the wwoofer) and I then mixed the ingredients together in a tub. Using face masks to protect our lungs from the powdery diatomaeous earth, we felt quite satisfied when we were done with our mixing. We put the mixture in a covered tub and then left it for a few days while I tried to figure out a way to make the sheep and goat and cows want to eat it. Another HA!

See those sheep are smarter than they look. They took one whiff of that wormer and walked away...literally...even though I had hidden it in a delicious pile of grain and molasses--their all time favorite treat.

The truth is I tried to turn the wormer into nice little molassesy grain balls that they would love to eat up. What I got was gobs of molasses with all kinds of powdery stuff in a bowl. It didn't quite work like Hank said. I guess I must have done something wrong. Apparently when he does this his goats can't wait to eat their wormer. An hour or so into my molasses mess, I was wishing for his goats instead of my sheep.

After all my fussing around trying to make it right, what I still couldn't figure was why they didn't rush to eat this delicious gooey mess anyway. The bowl was filled with grain. They LOVE grain and they never, ever get it unless it is a special day (like today) when I want them to do something that they don't want to do. Usually the smell of the grain overcomes their good sense and they follow me like lambs. I guess all that garlic powder in the wormer overruled the sweet grain smell and turned them away.

Here's how it sort of went: We let the sheep into the barn by twos and threes and offered them a tub full of my grain/molasses/wormer mess. But see, that is the cleaned up version. What really went on was a whole lot less tame.

Let's just say we spent an awful lot of time and energy trying to get those sheep to eat that wormer. I can't really tell you all the things we did and said and keep a G rating so I am going to skip that part. But you can guess. Just put in your mind, twelve skittish sheep and one bossy goat, two cows with horns and one with none, two baby cows and a border collie who doesn't know what he is supposed to be doing but really, really wants to help. Add a couple of humans who are way too slow for this crowd, a very cold day (think molasses in January) and a barn full of pumpkins and delicious hay. Now let's just say we ended up with a big mess and the wormer is now inside the sheep. And the sheep, well they smell like they spent the evening at Dimitri's.

Since you all are undoubtedly going to be more successful at this than I was...Hank PROMISED it was easy, I am going to give you Hank's recipe and pray that your journey with worms is less adventurous than mine has been. Here's what Hank said and good luck!

Here are two recipes we have been using for 4 years now on our goats. Works great and I am sure it would be effective on other ruminants.

#1: 8 parts wormwood, 8 parts fennel seed powder, 8 parts garlic powder, 1/2 part black walnut powder, 1/4 part stevia, 3 parts DE. This formula is used throughout the year, EXCEPT when the animals are pregnant.

No wormwood for pregnant animals!

Then we use:

#2: 3 parts mugwort, 2 parts fennel seed, 2 parts hyssop, 2 parts thyme, 4 parts garlic powder, 2 parts pumpkin seed powder, 1/4 part stevia, 2 parts DE.

For both formulas: Add in summer 2 parts nettle; add in winter 4 parts rosehip powder.

Either formula can be given as a three day "cure", then we give about 1/4 cup to the animals weekly, mixed in a small grain ration or rolled into balls with molasses and grain..

Friday, December 4, 2009

News flash

We have a new cow! Mattie. I didn't get picture and I don't have time yet to say more but it is exciting. She's a beautiful guernsey and she came with her baby (three week old bull calf) who is oh so cute. More very soon.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Weather wimps and the new agriculture...

I have to admit being a weather wimp these last couple of days. It's been raining and raining and raining and after a few days of it, I decided I was headed inside for awhile. It has been Kaitlin's days off and I didn't have anything pressing to do and besides the boy was sick, so I decided the couch was the place for me.

This is not all bad. I caught up on the lightning strike paperwork (yes, there was a pile of it) and caught up on almost all the phone calls I needed to do--new cows, yes; sheep shearer, no. I wrapped and boxed almost all our far away Christmas presents. I kept the fire roaring so the house could heat up (yes!). But none of these things excited me near as much as finding this blog by a soil scientist who wants to make farming as cool as rock'n'roll. He's my kind of guy. I can't wait to sit down with a cup of tea and read this entire blog.

I get that I am weird but I am still going to like it. Michael Astera rocks.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Back from the dark (and rainy) side of busy

Gosh, it has been crazy busy around here. In a good way, but busy all the same. We've had a wwoofer here for the last ten days and she is keeping me on my toes.

Wwoofing, for those of you who don't know, is a great exchange of energy between people who are farming and people who want to learn about farming. By offering to teach and supervise (and feed and house) someone when they are learning, I get a volunteer who will work on the farm for 25-30 hours a week. Here's a picture of our wwoofer Kaitlin hard at work!
This is our first experience with the wwoofing program and so far, it's been great. Wwoof stands for willing workers on organic farms, and Kaitlin sure fits that description. Just like most wwoofers she travelled here from far away. (Kaitlin is from the coast of Maine.) In case you are interested, you can learn more about wwoofing by clicking here .

So far, in the last week Kaitlin has shoveled manure from my friend George's dairy farm (stinky!), double dug two and a half very large garden beds (which you may remember entails digging a hole three feet deep, adding tons of organic matter and manure and then refilling it), made a biodynamic preparation, finished the property line fence with Steve and mixed up seven trashcan-fulls of chicken food. And that is just some of the stuff she has done. Here's a bad picture of one of the holes she dug in our
absolutely dreadful weather. Seriously, in the last week, we
we have experienced deluge after deluge, a ferocious windstorm and an icy snowstorm and Kaitlin has experienced them all first hand.

It's great to actually be accomplishing THE LIST. Even if we aren't the ones doing all the work. (Maybe BECAUSE we aren't the ones doing all the work.)

Kaitlin is in Seattle today on her day off exploring the city. When she's back on Friday it is on to building compost. And she thought digging holes was hard work!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Hunting Brocolli in the Dark of Night

I just harvested what I think will be our last brocolli of the year. And of course I forgot that it was going to be dark by five, so I was out there by the light of my cell phone trying to pick the teeny little florets in the pitch dark. Whoops.

There was just enough for one last homegrown stir-fry with brocolli, collards, kale, and swiss chard from the garden. Wish Steve would hurry home so we could eat it.

We have been eating absoultely DELICIOUS brocolli from these plants for six months. Prodigious producers, seven plants first delivered way more brocolli than we could eat (big bowlfuls EVERY day). I couldn't think of enough ways to eat brocolli. If anyone dropped by, you can guess what I gave them. The food bank, yep gave some to them too.

After a few weeks of brocolli overload, we found our rhythm. The brocolli produced just the right amount for us to have a brocolli centered dinner a couple of times a week. This went on until the end of September. The more they produced the right amount, the more I fawned over them.

Then October came and the brocolli slowed way down. First it was one dinner a week, and then lately it has been one dinner every 10 days or so. From the looks of the stalks tonight, I think what I picked today will be the end for this growing season. This picture was in early October.

I feel like I ought to have a memorial service for those trusty plants. They really were BEAUTIFUL at their peak. And honestly, I have never had better brocolli. But what is even more exciting, Aidan finally figured out that he liked brocolli so I didn't have to hear the "Oh, Mom, not brocolli," chorus whenever I served it. I don't know if that was because of the brocolli or the fact that he is a 14 year old boy who basically eats anything that doesn't move. Whatever the reason, I was happy to have a happy brocolli eater around.

You maybe wondering what kind of miracle plants these were. I wish I could tell you there came from some amazing organic seed that I bought from a little organic seed farm in Oregon and grew in teeny pots on my windowsill. But, to tell you the truth, I picked them up cheap one day in March when I was wandering through the plant section at Home Depot. The seedling tray had eight plants, one died and the others went on to live a glorious life. Hybrid, non-organic, super producing, delicious brocolli. Go figure!

ps And here's what's for dessert. Gluten free-dairy free peanut butter cookies. Lucky boys scored tonight. umm. They are even good without all the ingredients that are usually in there. Phew, I get worried sometimes when I have to leave too many crucial things out of the mix.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

An Excellent Question

Somebody just asked me why I don't just put a bull out in the pasture with Brigid and let nature take its course.

I would love (really love) to except:

1) I don't feel confident enough to handle a bull, and especially if it escaped.
2) It is hard to find bulls in these parts and even harder to find bull owners that are quick about picking up the bulls they drop off. So if we did get over our trepidation about dealing with the bull, we might be feeding it all winter, and believe me that would cost a lot more than a few visits from the AI guy.
3) We don't have a trailer for moving cows. It seems like we might want one if we wanted control of how long the bull was here.
4) I would feel horrible if my ignorance caused some kind of accident and somebody got hurt by the bull.
5) Having a bull around is WAY out of my confort zone.

I own that these reasons are mostly just me being fearful, but I think somethings are worthy of being afraid of. And in my book, until I know more, bulls fall squarely in that category. If only I could invite Ferdinand for the winter.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Making Progress--Warning--graphic cow description

It always feels good when I can strike one thing of the LIST. This fall it feels like I have been adding more to the list than I have been scratching things off. But today is a good day, a great day because I can scratch off GET BRIGID PREGNANT. (Not personally.)

You see, Andrew came yet again and we now have a bred cow. Or so we hope. Of all the visits, this is the one Brigid hates the most. She kicks and flings her body around trying to stop the process. It still amazes me how coordinated Andrew is. I know this is what he does for a living but still.

So here is how the AI process goes...The entire process takes 10 days. During the first visit he sticks the long plastic hormone implant inside Brigid and gives her a shot. Next visit he takes the implant out and gives her another hormone injection (or three, if she is flailing). But it's the last visit, where Andrew really shows his stuff.

First of all, you have to know that he drives around in a mild-mannered white pickup truck. Lifting the sides of topper (there is a better word for that but I forget it), he pokes around in these steamy cold containers that hold the vital juices of all kinds of bulls. You certainly couldn't tell by looking at the outside that he had special temperature controlled vats inside his truck.

We had our choice of Jersey bull--sexed or not, Angus bull or Dexter. Since we knew how she did with Dexter, we decided to try Angus and see if we liked that kind of mix. We knew we wanted her baby for meat, so Angus made more sense than Jersey. Each one of these decisions takes time and research because neither Steve nore I grew up around cows or knows much yet.

Once the decision is made, then Andrew fills the insemination syringe (extra long turkey baster?) with the appropriate stuff. This time it came from a bull named Above and Beyond. We secure Brig in the stanchion and he quickly puts syringe deep into her vagina. In order to guide it to where it needs to be he has to stick his other, very gloved arm up the other hole where you and I just don't want to go. From there he guides the syringe into place and releases it when it's ready. This is happening basically simultaneously. And all the while, Brigid is going ballistic and is kicking at him with both back feet and lurching around in the stanchion. Let's just say he has faster reflexes than an Olympic sprinter.

Andrew is gone in a flash and off to another farm where he will do this whole process again (and again). Last week when arrived at our house a bit late he apologized but said that he had just bred 53 cows that morning. Whoa. That's a lot of kick dodging. No wonder he is so fast.

The rest of the day, Brigid is a bit cranky. I don't blame her. I mean, not to anthropomorphize too much, but it does seem like a VERY invasive process on a non-consenting cow. Poor thing. At least I didn't humiliate her further by taking pictures.

Luckily, she loves being a mother.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Wayward cows and Halloween mysteries...

I went out to my car this morning and found Brigid and Gilly muching on the front lawn. (Happily, I might add.) I thought they finally got up the gumption to jump five feet over the still broken electric fence. But I since was racing out the door, I ran inside to get the mighty man and let him deal with it. (I was late.)

When I came home I found him in the middle of a new project that appeared to be far off the long list of problems caused by this week's lightning strike.

Apparently Brigid and Gilly escaped because a Douglass Fir came down and smashed the fence in the lower pasture. It took two trees with it on the way down. I was just out there yesterday and the tree was standing and the fence was fine. It must have fallen in the night.

Didn't take long for those two bovine high-steppers to wander right through the branches and find their way to green grass. (Confirming their suspicion that the grass really is greener on the other side of the fence!)

A closer investigation found the giant Doug fir next to fallen tree had bad scarring down the entire length of it. Here's an example of the scar....
At first I thought the one tree had damaged the other on the way down but then I looked up a hundred feet or so and saw the same kind of damage running all the way down the tree, way higher than the other tree could have caused. Hmm, this is getting way more mysterious by the minute.

It almost looked like the giant fir got hit by a lightning strike too. Could we have had two lightning strikes in one storm?

But then why would it have taken few days for the smaller tree to fall over? And why would the smaller tree have fallen at all.
The fallen tree was cracked and split in a funny spirally way that this picture doesn't show. It looked to me like the tree was forced apart.
I guess that is a mystery we will never solve.
In the meantime, we are getting a headstart on next year's pile of firewood and the beginnings of a new woodland compost pile out of the deal. Too bad though, we liked the tree.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Update on the cow situation....

So, in case you are wondering, Andrew the AI (artificial insemination) guy made his second trip out here today. And with his usual amazing dexterity, he whipped out the giant implant he had placed inside her last week. This thing is huge--I want to say 5 inches wide (maybe 4 but usually I am pretty good at guessing sizes) and it had a LONG tail. He grabbed that puppy and yanked. In less time than it took for me to figure out what he was doing, he was done and successfully dodging kicks. Then 30 seconds later he was done giving her three shots and sent her on her way with a pat on the bum. I was going to get pictures but I was holding the rope that controlled her head, which meant he only had to dodge her kicks and not her horns too. So, sorry, no pictures.

On Monday, he will come again for the third time and inpregnate (hopefully successfully) her with the goods from either a Dexter or Angus papa. We still have to decide. She's a small cow, but she birthed like a champ her first time so he thinks she could handle the big boy Angus. There are a LOT of decisions a cow person has to make, and to tell you the truth, I don't really know enough to be making them. I'm trying to learn though.

This time (because of that learning curve) we are going to have Andrew back out in a couple of months to make sure the AI process worked. No waiting a year hoping. That was last year's learning mistake!

Because last year's efforts were for naught, and we now are starting over, I decided I didn't want to wait the almost three years it would take to have Brigid's future baby be our milking mama (9 months for the baby to be born, 15-18 months for the baby to grow big enough to get pregnant, and another 9 months for her baby to be born), I am looking for another mama cow. This, of course has me scouring websites and Craig's list and asking everyone I know who knows about cows if they know of a good cow for me to buy. I'll let you know when I find her. Exciting.

Pre-Halloween Spooks

Our big news this week is that our house got struck by lightning. ZAP, BOOM, BANG. Loudly struck by lightning. It raised the hair on our arms and made our hearts beat fast. Seriously, we could feel the electricity jetting around in our bodies.

At first it was kind of exciting, especially since we hadn't figured out that it hit the house. The power went out and we lit zillions of candles and sat around in the dark talking. It's so quiet when the electricity is out.
Aidan finished his homework and did his foot exercises by candlelight. We watched it snowing out the window and marvelled when it is October in Western Washington after all. And then, after all that excitement we went to bed.

About two o'clock in the morning, the power came on (just like the lineman who arrived within an hour of the lightning strike said it would). The blown transformer was replaced and we thought all was well. We went back to sleep happily thinking "Ah, that's done." No eight days without power again (like what happened last year). Six hours, esp when you are asleep for three of them, is a breeze. It was odd though that there was a LOUD cracking noise when the power came on. That had never happened to us before. But we ignored that and went blissfully back to sleep.

We woke up to the battery powered alarms we had set the night before and headed downstairs, thinking to reset the clocks and then start our day like normal. Not.

First clue something was off, the toaster wasn't working, and neither were most of the plugs in the kitchen. Hmm. Wandering a little bit deeper into the house we find that the office computer is fried, as is the surge protector and the modem. Hmm, no internet, no computer, no toast. What about the phones? Nope, no phones.

Then we think, what about the outbuildings. So we bundle up and troup out into the snow to see. The freezers are dead but half the electricity is on in the shop so Steve rigs power to the freezers and they are up again. Phew, I won't be having to run the generator on and off all day to keep all our meat frozen. And I won't be having to figure out what to do with three freezers worth of food because the freezers got fried in the surge. That's a relief.

Next stop, the barn. Whoops, the box that is the mastermind for the electric fences is literally BLOWN APART with pieces of plastic laying all the way around the barn. Luckily, all the animals are okay. They are standing awfully close to the fence though. I wonder if they know.

We then check out the 'mother-in-law'--don't ask how that weird building got named, I have NO idea. Hmm, the lights work but the extra fridge is shot and half the plugs don't work. On to the chicken coop.
There the light is blown and a socket destroyed but what is most amazing is the 2 X 4 that the light was mounted on was blown off the wall. This is a 2 X 4 that the mighty man attached--the one whose mythical construction firm I lovingly call Fred Flintsone's Designs because everything he makes is overbuilt. You can bet that there were many nails holding that board on, and guess what they were all bent! Wish I had a picture of that.

The power in the woodshed is gone and in the original (uninsured) cabin behind the basketball court.

We still keep discovering things that are broken. Our insurance adjuster said this was normal for a lightning strike. All in all, we have a lot to fix or replace; but we SO happy that is all we are doing. Things could have been much, much worse.

ps here's some proof of the pre-halloween SNOW!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Spinning my wheels out there.

Not quite sure where the time goes. Last time I looked it was Tuesday and here it is Saturday morning. It was one of those weeks were I felt really busy but looking back at it I wonder what I was busy doing. I did go on a beautiful walk up the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie.

Every other spare moment I had I spent working out in the garden getting it ready for fall. One of my classic gardening mistakes is not planning for the fall when I plant in the spring. It would make my fall jobs much, much easier if all the plants I planned to winter over were in one place, Meaning all the kale, collards, swiss chard, leeks, carrots and parsnips were planted in a chunk.

If I did that then it would be simple to clear away the corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, tomatillos, basil, onions, flowers and such and plant my cover crops. As it is, I am digging a couple of feet here and a couple of feet there and gingerly working around the roots of the plants I plan to hold onto as long as possible. My cover crops (this year: buckwheat, beesom clover and rye grass) get planted in dribs and drabs and never really get all over large chunks of the garden. Here's what they look like just coming up:

See the problem (and this is easily the good news too) is that my garden will happily keep feeding us for months to come and maybe all winter if we don't have another hard freeze like we did last winter. Usually, I can keep us in greens and some veggies all winter.
Right now (just after our first killing frost) we are eating parsnips, brocolli, carrots, leeks, three kinds of kale, rainbow chard, collards, beet greens, argula and a few varieties of hardy winter lettuces that I can't remember the names of. All these greens come from Wild Garden Seeds, which has fast become my favorite seed company in the world. I wish I could buy all my seeds from them. The quality (vitality) difference in plants grown from their seeds is astonishing,

Last year, with its month of bone-chilling in the teens or lower kind of frost, was unusual. Greens will stand temperatures in the 20's, even for a few weeks, but they don't like temperaures under 20. We lost our whole winter garden during that infamous icy spell. We also had an ice dam on our mudroom roof that poured water straight into the house and our pipes under the house and to the barn froze solid. That was a first. Guess it really was cold as it felt.

But anyway, I have been digging away and not making much visible progress. Better get at it. If I don't get those cover crops in soon (as in last week) they aren't going to get a chance to grow.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

No, No, No

It's a day of NOs.

No puppy. The folks who have her don't believe in putting puppies on planes. Probably good for the puppies but sad for me.

No baby cow. Brigid wasn't pregnant then, never had her baby and is not pregnant now. The AI guy is on the way but hasn't been able to coordinate schedules with us yet so that process has yet to begun. (It takes a couple of weeks of shots and implants and such to get that going.)

No butcher. He's full up until December so sweet Gilly has a reprieve until then.

What we do have are plenty of sunsets and gorgeous trees glowing in all kinds of colors.
There's fresh honey in jars and autumn flowers are filling vases all throughout the house. And mighty man has been busy building fences so we are soon to have a new area that will eventually become pasture.

We have a happy dog, a determined cat and a boy who always brings a smile. Life is good.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Puppy Love

If you don't hear from me for awhile, it is because I am lost in puppyland, looking at puppy pictures. After days of searching, here is my favorite. Isn't she cute? And she has the puppy name of my old beloved dog Angie and one of her littermates is named Aidan. Don't you think it is a sign. I do. Too bad she is in New York. Trying to figure out how to make that one work. It is a long way to drive.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The renegade rooster comes home

This week whizzed by in a blur of weather and chaos. Digging up the onions and shallots I found a beautiful leek blossom. Guess I will have to make some potato leek soup tonight to celebrate the big allium harvest. When I was digging out there this morning the sweetest little green frog hopped right by. It was only 3/4 of an inch long and was bright, spring green. So cute.

The biggest excitemt of the week though involved the chickens. I haven't a clue how but one of our roosters escaped from the chicken run. It was kind funny because he didn't have any idea what to do with himself without his ladies. So all day long, and I mean ALL DAY long, he hung out under one of the rhodie bushes crowing enthusiastically for the girls. They, of course, were happily ensconced behind the fence of the chicken run eating so they couldn't be bothered to even try come meet their man.

He tried all kinds of alluring sounds that sounded like he was saying "Please honey, please honey. Meet me under the bush." But nothing was working. He moped and scratched for food dejectedly, every once in a while taking a majestic stroll around the dooryard. In twenty years of keeping chickens I have never heard more racket out of one bird. If nothing else he was impressive in his amorous longings. Here's what a chicken looks like all mopey.

After five days of constant racket and no response, I found him standing right outside the chicken run fence begging to be let in. I went to open the door, which usually causes a renegade chicken to run fast as possible in the opposite direction, but he waited patiently and ran inside as soon as he could fit through the opening. Poor guy, guess his plans for freedom didn't work out exactly like he planned.

This morning I heard the ladies complaining loudly after our sex-starved friend made up for lost time. These roosters certainly take their duties very seriously.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Winter is closing in.

The temperature dropped 15 degrees since morning. Strong winds blow. Stepping outside chills my bones. Inside there is a garden stew simmering on the stove--carrots, leeks, parsley, onions and lamb from the farm and a friend's well grown potatoes. Hearty food to feed the soul. I'm sipping jasmine tea with fresh honey from the bees, gathered the last free day warm enough to open the hives.

It's funny how everything can change in a night.

Yesterday I was walking around in flipflops. Today I have on wool socks and three layers on top. Steve's been out working on the fence line for hours, trying to shore it up before it gets too wet to drive the truck out there. Everything around me is saying winter is coming, winter is coming. Prepare.

I love the longer, darker nights, the cool temperatures and drinking tea. But I do miss that last warm day. The one where you lay on the grass and feel the heat rising into your bones, penetrating your very core, The earth's gift to keep you warm all winter long.

Today as I was driving home from town I thought of this haiku:

Gray skies, mountain mists
Leaf sparks dance-red, orange, gold
Winter whispers soon.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Creativity blowing in the wind...

Nobel prizes going to men who worry they don't deserve them and who then challenge the American people to make the promise of this prize come true, 14 year old boys who use down home ingenuity to change their family's life and end up on the stage at TED. It's a good day to remember we have much more power than we think. Click here to watch this inspiring TED video of a now 22 year old man who, at 14, built a windmill that changed his family's life. Wow. If you don't know about TED, after you watch this video you might want to take a few minutes to wander around. There is some pretty amazing stuff in their archives. And while you are doing that I am off to Salem to hear Miss Heidi Mae sing her heart out.


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Why we dig our garden beds 3 feet down!

I just came in from one of my favorite chores--overturning a double dug bed. I love it because it is so easy. Five minutes and a whole bed is done. Double digging, while a lot of work to begin with, makes future digging a breeze. And I like that.

This spring, Becca, my trusty stunt double, went out to the vegetable garden to start double digging our beds. We used to garden exclusively in double dug beds but when we moved out here and quadrupled our garden size we thought we needed to till. It seemed like too much to dig.

But after ten years watching our soil not be as delicious as we like, we decided to switch back to our old reliable form of preparing the soil--double digging and cover crops.

Here's the thing, rototilling is like running your soil through a blender. All the little friendly microbes and soil beings get turned on their heads and chewed up (so to speak). What's on top ends up on the bottom and vice versa. In the short run, rototilling is a quick solution to a big problem. But in the long run it destroys healthy soil biology which is the essence of soil fertility. And soil fertility is what determines how nutritious the food you grow is and how healthy the plants are. Healthy plants have a lot fewer pests and problems. Here's a picture of what soil looks like when it has had repeated rototilling. This guy is getting a shallow turn
instead of a deep dig like the turn of a fork would give. Most likely his soil has deep level compaction.


Ten years of rototilling has created more and more problems in my garden. Even with regular, hefty doses of biodynamic compost, leaf mulch, and all the other lovely soil building things I do, the texture of our garden soil was not improving. It dried out easily and parts of it were like a rock mid-summer--the same parts that looked gorgeous after the rototiller went by in the spring.

When I did the ultimate test of soil fryablity (throwing a fork in the ground and seeing how far the tongs descend), my garden failed abysmally. This isn't surprising, not after what I have been learning about soil health lately. But it took experiencing it first hand for me to really understand the full extent of the damage rototilling was causing to the soil.

Now don't get me wrong...our soil was fine. Way better than most, its just that I have big ideas. I want the best.

Hence my resolution to go back to double digging not matter how long it took us to dig the beds. Becca worked hard whenever she could this spring and got about a quarter of the garden dug. What a difference. Here's what the garden looked like in the beds she dug. AMAZING growth, bad picture. It looks like mayhem rather than a garden but trust me we have been eating out of this patch of garden every day for 6 months and there is no end in sight. Here's a kale plant that was as tall as I was and delicous too.
You may be wondering how to double dig a bed. I'll explain but first let me explain what the term double digging means. It refers to digging at least twice the depth of the blade of a spade, or in some cases twice the depth of the topsoil (that is if you have a LOT of topsoil). We learned to double dig from a great book by John Jeavons--How To Grow More Vegetables. He is THE urban/small plot gardening guru as far as I am concerned. I have had his book since the early 80's. Mine is in tatters from so much use, but you can still buy it new. It's a classic.

Anyway, back to the digging, after years of double digging we kind of have our own system that is reminiscent of John Jeavons but we made it our own and boy does it work. This is what we do:

You will need a spade, a fork, fresh cow manure, and some leaves or other organic matter.

1) dig off the topsoil and place it in a pile near where you are digging but out of the way.
2) keep digging through the subsoils and put that soil in a separate pile (important because you want your topsoil to end up on top)
3) dig about 3 feet down, making a straight sided pit (this is deeper than traditional double digging)
4) layer 6-8 inches of fresh (if possible, bagged if not) cow manure across the bottom of the pit I have tried other manures and in my opinion, it is worth the effort to find cow manure.
5) add 6-8 inches of organic plant matter--sometimes I use leaves, sometimes rotten hay, sometimes things from the garden, my favorite is leaves.
6) layer the subsoil back on carefully knocking any clumps apart with the fork
7) layer the topsoil back on top, carefully declumping as above
8) layer 3-4 inches of biodynamic or other organic compost on top of the bed
9) fork the compost into the topsoil
10) shape the bed into a nice rounded shape
11) plant as soon as possible with either your garden plants or a cover crop

Using this method, you will soon have a couple feet of gorgeous topsoil. Loose, fryable, and ready to grow anything.

I know it sounds like a lot of work, but if it gives you tender brocolli shoots like these every night of the week it's worth it. And then the next season, when all you have to do is lightly turn it over with a fork, then it is REALLY worth it!! If you are skeptical, just dig one bed at a time and see what you think, Bet you will be convinced. This cabbage was more than enough to convince me. Biodynamics and double digging are my garden heros.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Chicken butts...

Yesterday, I saw the funniest thing. Well, at least, I thought it was funny.

When I looked out the kitchen window when I was cooking dinner I caught sight of a chicken butt disappearing through the back fence. That fence is just a simple cedar rail fence, easy enough for a chicken to hop through. But what made me laugh was the way the chicken hopped up on the rain and leaned way over the rail. Hanging on with its chicken toes, the entire bird was head down on the fence rail. Looked just like a gymnast doing a trick on the high bar. All I could see was its rump feathers tipped straight up in the air as it hung, almost suspended in mid-air.

Wonder if that was as fun for the chicken as it was for me?

Chickens are better than Netflix, ever so entertaining

Friday, October 2, 2009

Quiet, quiet morning

It is perfectly quiet here this morning. No roosters crowing, no sheep baaing, no cows mooing. The only sounds I can hear are the gentle noises of the fire coming from the woodstove.

I always wonder what makes the difference between mornings. Why are some so quiet and others so raccous? I try to take the cue from the animals and adjust my day accordingly. If they are quiet, I allow a little extra space for quiet in my day too. It's nice.

Today, I have a long list--apples and more apples. Plus the last of the peaches and nectarines to process. But for now, I am going to let this quiet soak into my bones. There is plenty of time later for activity.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Just a little cow update...

It is Wednesday evening, there are no new baby cows and I haven't reached Andrew the AI guy yet--our schedules are exactly opposite--hopefully I will get him tomorrow. And I didn't call the butcher. All that worry and no action. Such is life in a busy week. Tomorrow, I vow, tomorrow I am going to get to the details.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Cows on the brain...

I woke up this morning thinking about cows. Well, more truthfully, I was thinking about what to do about cows.

You see, we have Brigid the mama cow who is dreadfully late having her baby and I am beginning to think she might be experiencing a hysterical pregnancy. I need to call Andrew the AI guy (that's the artificial insemination specialist in cow lingo) and see if we can get him out here to see what is what. My problem with calling Andrew is that then I will know that she isn't pregnant and that it will be almost another year before we have a baby cow and fresh milk again. The thought of that makes my heart go thump. I have been so excited about this calf.

I think I just don't want to know the truth. I keep giving Brig the benefit of a doubt and waiting another week. This is sort of like the parent who doesn't want to face the facts about their child flunking out of high school. Denial doesn't do anyone any good at all.
I gotta call and I gotta call on Monday.

Just for the record, Brig sure looks fatter than when he was here last November and stuck his hand way up in there while she was kicking about as fast as she can kick! And let me tell you, that guy has lightening quick reflexes.

Anyway, after pondering the Brigid pregnancy dilemna, I moved onto Gilly, her baby. He'a a big fat oaf of a cow. Big and fat, that is, for a dexter cow. They are much more petite than the usual cow which makes him the perfect size for us. He's happy to hang with people, cows or sheep and has even made friends with the goat. He's always in a chipper mood and is ever curious about what is going on the other side of the fence. Gilly is just a great guy. He's the kind of guy you would have for a drinking buddy. You can tell him anything and he never tells a soul.

I really need to call the butcher regarding Gilly. But he is such a sweetheart. He eats raspberries straight out of my hand without getting a bit of cow spit on me. He lets me scratch that hard spot right between his horns without ever flicking me with them. He follows me wherever I go and I don't even have to bring food. He's my baby and he knows it.

Gilly will be our first cow that we raised from day one, much less had butchered so that call is a big deal. It's on the board for next week too. It takes the butcher a long time to get out here because of hunting season so I need to get on his list. Sigh. Guess I should be glad for the list.

Once I got done fretting about Gilly and the butcher, I only had Joey the Jersey steer calf to worry about. Only, he's no worry at all. Growing like a fat little piglet, he has a plump round belly and there's barely a rib in sight. Which after knowing him as a four day old is reassuring. He was one scrawny little guy when he first arrived. Our job with him now is to love him up, feed him a couple times a day and wait. I figure the more love we can pour into our food the better it is for all concerned. So far that theory holds. We'll see after the butcher comes for Gilly. But in the meantime, I love watching Joey bounce around the fields chasing bees and butterflies. The only thing odd about Joey is he still thinks Gilly is his mother.

I know I sound like I anthropomorphize everyone around here. It's true, I probably do. It's just that my animals ARE like people to me. They have personalities. They respond to my emotions, and I respond to theirs. I love them and I know they love me too. It might make me less of a farmer but I can't help it. I talked for the cats when I was five. So did my mom, maybe it is genetic.

Anyway, getting back to the cows. The problem is what to do about Brigid and that hysterical pregnancy situation. It would be fine to have the AI guy out again and get her pregnant for real this time. But I don't want to wait nearly a year for fresh milk again. Raw milk from your own cow is the BEST. And if you do it like we did--milking once a day and keeping the calf with the mom--it isn't even so much work. About a half an hour a day, maybe an hour if you have a cow that gives more milk that Brigid does. That's not a bad exchange for all the peace and relaxation milking provides. I swear, milking is better stress relief than a massage. And it's free, if you don't count buying the hay.

Here's a picture of me milking Brigid last winter when Gilly was a medium sized little guy.

Thinking about Brigid's new baby makes me excited to make kefir and cheese again. If she isn't pregnant (which is the rational conclusion any logical person would have come to by now), I don't want to wait another year. This thought led me to the shocking realization that I have been nursing fantasies about getting a new milk cow, a bigger one with a bigger udder. A cow that gives more milk.

I feel so disloyal. When we were looking for Brigid we knew nothing about cows except that they were BIG and had brown eyes. I read about breeds and got all interested in Dexter cows because they are known to be good for small holdings like ours. Dexters are small cows that give a managable amount of milk, produce just the right amount of meat for a small family and are good at pulling. (Not that I could ever figure out how to get Brigid to pull something besides me when I naively think I can lead her around.)

So when I saw the ad for a Dexter/Kerry heifer who was pregnant by a Dexter bull and about to give birth, I thought perfect. And she was. I even loved her name. The only downside with Brigid was she wasn't halter broken (now there is a story for another day) and she was more than a little wild. We've tamed her (mostly) and we love her to bits but all the things that made her so attractive a couple of years ago as a first time cow owner, make me long for a different cow today.

I want big, I want milk, I want babies with some extra meat to sell.

See, I like making cheeses and kefirs and yogurt. Right now when (if) Brigid's milk comes in, with the way I want to milk her, we don't get enough milk to make all the things on my list. I keep dreaming about a pretty Jersey or Guernsey cow who'll give me oodles of creamy white milk full of butterfat. My friend Jacqueline has a Jersey/Brown Swiss mix and she has cream frozen in chunks in her freezer. That's enough to give a girl serious cow envy.

The problem is we don't have enough space for too many cows. So I have to think about this carefully. How much is making more cheese worth to me? Is there room for two mama cows around this place? These are the questions that kept me in bed. And so far, I don't have any answers. Only a list of cow chores. Guess I better get at them.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Scary Noises and Chicken Nightmares

It was a bad sound that woke me. A chicken screaming in the night. Sending a jolt of adrenaline through my body, that was a sound I would be happy never to hear again. That sound makes my heart wince because I know exactly what it means.

My chickens have fantasies. In their minds they not the pampered domesticated pets that they are. They dream of being free. They imagine that they know how to care for themselves. They feel the ancient DNA of their wild ancestory beating in their hearts. I think it is this feeling that makes them rash. A feeling that says they are safe when they don't return to the coop at night. The coop where they are locked up tight and are free from predators. They fly up into a tree or a brushy bush and roost, still as stone. In the morning they hop down and return to their usual chicken behaviors of pecking and scratching and running to the coop with that certain look of urgency that means an egg is on the way.

The problem is that if they are out of the coop they are likely targets for raccoons and possums and sometimes even coyotes to snatch them in the dark. We know that happens when we hear that horrible scream.

See the thing about chickens is they have NO night vision. Not a bit. The second the sun goes down they are down for the night and no amount of convincing can change their minds. They don't have rods--the part of eyes that allows people and animals to see in the dark. Predators tend to have extra rods so they see even better in the dark.

Without rods, chickens are sitting ducks (or well chickens, if you want to get technical about it). Wherever they go to bed is where they stay until first light cracks the dawn and they can see again. And this is fine if they go to their beds and their people come and shut the door to the coop. But if they remember that tiny bit of wildness living in their hearts and roost on a branch, things don't always turn out so well.

Chickens can find an amazing number of ways to die. I have seen chicks peck the wrong thing and drop dead 30 seconds later. A bout of diarrhea can leave a chicken dead in a couple of hours. All kinds of things eat them--hawks, dogs, coyotes, bobcats, cougars, possums and raccoons to name a few that we have seen. They have strokes and die on their roost. Sometimes they even fight each other so brutally that one will die of peck wounds. Keeping chickens is not for the faint of heart. They are so easy to love and just as easy to lose.

All in all though, I think the fun of chickens is well worth the pain of occasionally losing them. They keep me entertained every day. I love looking out my window and watching them do their chicken business. They can always make me smile. About the only thing they do that drives me crazy is poop on my back stoop, but that really is my fault if I let them run around the yard. Where else are they going to go to get out of the rain?

We keep heritage and unusual breed chickens here. Old varieties that are prized for their genetic diversity and interesting characteristics. I like having these kind of chickens for all kinds of reasons but most of all because many of them still have personalities.

For example, I love the white orphington who always seem to be first to the food and tried so valiantly to be a mama this summer.

I also enjoy the gentle black and red speckled girls who prefer a worm over any kind of food. They hang back when the grain is passed out but rush out the coop door towards the compost pile to dig and scrape their way to the worms. We even had a couple of them be successful at hatching chicks this year. A very exciting development.
She has that look about her...

One of my favorites is the cuckoo maran who lays chocolate brown eggs (rather unreliably I might add). And I love the black minorcas which lay a beautiful white egg and have the prettiest black plumage with a little white patch right where their ear would be if they were human. Plus they are just the cutest little chicks I have ever seen.

I suppose to be honest, I'd have to say that if I think too closely about chickens, there are plenty of things to get disgusted the fact they only have one hole down there and everything (and I mean everything) comes right through it. Or the nitty gritty of eggs, I won't even go there.

But they are so sweet and I have such fun watching them hunt and peck and chase each other. I really could go on and on because I love my chickens. So, on days like today, when I have to mourn the loss of one of my little friends, I like to remember the happy moments because I know that invariably, if I keep chickens I will be dealing with death.

If you want to know more about chickens and chicken breeds, check out McMurray Hatchery. I could spend hours on that website debating the merits of my next batch of chicks.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Who's been eating them apples?

There is a mystery going on in our orchard and I can't quite figure it out. Somebody has been eating my apples and leaving half eaten apples on the tree. The apple looks like it was snapped in half. Literally. Here's an example of what I picked off the tree this afternoon.
We've never had a problem like this before. Occassionally a bird will peck at an apple or pear and leave something that looks like this:
Or a slug will nibble one near the ground. But we've never had apples that are bit right through the core. A deer is the obvious culprit, but we have a good deer fence, and the orchard has never been bothered by deer.

Still there is no denying the facts. Yesterday when I went out to pick this box of apples for making sauce, ten apples were eaten in half. And the fence was bent over and wound up into the branches of the walnut tree. It would really surprise me if a deer could have jumped through that mess, much less made it. It looked more like a bear sat on the fence on his way over the top. Don't ask me how the walnut tree branches were threaded through the weave of the fence.

And this all happened yesterday. I was out there the day before eating apples and checking on things and everything was fine. No halved apples and a perfectly intact fence. hmm.

We have been seeing oodles of fresh bear scat all around the place, in the woods, in the blackberries, on the hillside above the road. Looking at that fence made me wonder...could a small black bear crawl over the fence? They do love apples.

I looked all around the trees scouring the orchard for scat. Didn't see any. But still. What else could bend down a six foot high fence and mangle it like preztel baked into a walnut tree. Something big must have done that.

Either it was our friendly neighborhood Bigfoot or our busy local bear. Guess I ought to be glad whomever it was had the courtesy to leave me some apples. They sure taste good!