Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Ashley, who still seemed a bit down after her latest worm episode, has perked right up. She *really* likes Mr. Curious. With a coy look and a "come hither" flick of her tail, Ashley lures him over. Curious's tongue flops out, and he starts with a nasal snickering while nibbling at Ashley's neck. She nibbles back. Her tail flicks again and captures his attention. As he begins his move, Ashley rears up and spins around to give him a head-butt. Life isn't easy for us men-folk.
Mary Kate wants nothing to do with Mr. C. You can see the utter disgust in her eyes as she stands in the corner watching his clumsy advances on gullible Ashley, and she often tries to intervene. She slips between them and gives Curious a solid knock on the noggin quite frequently. Just to make sure he remembers it, she rears up on her hinds (making her taller than I am) before coming down at him.
Buttercup was in a good mood this evening, as she started bouncing around the barnyard like a spring lamb. I reciprocated on my side of the fence, and we went back and forth a few times. Like a lot of other people who've never worked around cows, I was once convinced that they were not particularly bright or charismatic. In Germany, for instance, a common insult is to say "You're as dumb as a cow". I don't think they're dumb at all. They didn't exactly evolve to fly rocketships, but they're very good at what they did evolve to do. Don't ask me what that is though.
I was previously pouring Buttercup's grain ration right next to the hay in her feed trough at each milking, and got a little fed up that she kept tossing the hay out to get at the grain. Now I give her grain first. When she's cleaned out her trough, she steps back and looks at me. I pull the bucket aside, and go to fill up the trough with hay. Problem solved. No more dancing in the stanchion while I try to simultaneously keep the bucket near her udder but away from her hooves.
Buttercup apparently likes to take a Sunday stroll. Exactly a week after her first adventure that inspired my last blog entry, she got out again. This time, it was zero degrees out, with a wind chill of about 20 below. I think the wind rattled the barnyard gate open, so at least it wasn't a result of me being stupid in exactly the same way as last time. I was stupid in a different way, which somehow seems better. I now know to make sure that the latch chain attaches to a point below the hook on the gate.
After milking Mary Kate, Rachel noticed that Buttercup wasn't in her usual spot, and walked around the barn to see if she'd gone off to the other corner of the barnyard, when she discovered the open gate with departing hoofprints. She ran back to the house to inform me, and I went out to inspect. Sure enough -- she had escaped again. The tracks were on the same path as before, so I started my morning jogging routine. As I made it out to the road, I could see her at the top of the rise to the west, merrily trotting along.
Rachel grabbed Henry and followed us in the car, hoping that she might be able to herd Buttercup back in the direction of our farm. I finally caught up to her at the neighbor's house, and followed behind her into the soybean field. It was really blowing there, with little snow-devils whipping accross the field, and drifts that nearly topped my barn boots.
Buttercup saw Rachel and the car, and paused as I walked around to approach her from the other side. She let me approach, and came up to sniff my hand. With a playful bounce, she spun around and sprayed manure all over the snow. Then she turned around, and walked back on her own path right into the barnyard with me right behind her. It was apparently too cold for a Sunday stroll afterall. She did pause in the neighbor's field, long enough for me to take notice and look up to see a pair of foxes sneaking into the brush.
This last Sunday we decided that it might be a nice time to try skating on our pond. Henry and Rachel have some skates from the Goodwill, which were in definite need of breaking-in. Earlier in the week we'd had 60 degree weather which had melted all the snow, which pooled on top of the ice and re-froze quite nicely. I really need to find some skates for myself now, as Rachel really looked like she was having fun. Henry was excited to try his skates, but grew a little less enthusiastic when he wasn't able to instantly learn how to use them.
As I closed up the barn after this evening's milking, I stopped to watch a car pull slowly into our neighbor's driveway. It was dark, and they only had their parking lights on. Someone got out, donned a headlamp, and walked up the driveway towards their shop, which sits away from the house. I grabbed a flashlight which immediately went dead (D'oh!) and headed over to investigate. As soon as I stepped out our front door, the car backed out, headed down the road a bit, and finally turned their headlights back on.
I wasn't sure if anyone had been dropped off, or if the car's passenger had returned while I was in our house. I spoke with the neighbor (an elderly couple who appreciated my effort), and walked around their shop, but found nothing amiss. She mentioned that another neighbor had fought some intruders a few years earlier, and later died of a heart attack a few days after the struggle. I'm a little disappointed that I didn't catch anyone, but it's probably best for all involved that I just scared them off.
Monday, December 15, 2008
Buttercup is a mellow girl, except for the few times when she lowers her horns and chases goats or chickens around the barnyard to let them know who's boss. As with most cows, she's into routine. She follows the same path out through the barnyard to her "cud corner" every morning after eating breakfast and getting a big drink.
With this in mind, I figured that she wouldn't be much of a flight risk when I opened the barnyard gate to drive the truck out after unloading some wood chips in the muddy spots behind the barn. The goats I knew to be opportunists, so I made sure to lock them both in the barn before opening the gate. With Buttercup, I just had to keep an eye on her in case she moseyed over in the wrong direction.
After sequestering the goats, I opened the gate, hopped into the truck, turned the key, and looked out the window to see a large brown and white object slowly moving towards the gate.
I hopped out, not wanting to scare her out of the barnyard, and casually walked over to her, thinking I'd just head her off at the pass. She maneuvered around me, headed out the gate, and made a break for it. Thus began Buttercup's big adventure.
My first thought was that I'd just taken off her halter a few days before, and didn't have any lead with me, but it really didn't matter. I did have some bailing twine in my pocket, so made a loop out of that to slip over her horns when I got close enough. But she wasn't interested in me getting too close.
She took off accross the small field to the west of our house and headed west (away from Hwy 60, fortunately) at a nice trot with me in hot pursuit, wearing my big wool Filson coat and rubber barn boots (I wonder why Olympic runners never wear these things?). I think she overheated about the same time I did, so she slowed down with me about 50' behind her. I wasn't too excited about her being out on an icy road (cars might have a tough time stopping if they saw her), but no longer had any say in the matter. She was going out for an adventure.
She first stopped at our neighbor's house to the west, where they have a barn with some goats and a horse; she thought it looked like a nice place to hang out, and looked over the barnyard fence for a while, but kept me at a distance. Then she turned around, back towards our house, but left the road to check out our neighbor's property (the one who's extra sensitive about trespassers, of course). It's just a hunting property, so he doesn't live there and didn't see this, fortunately. His property is mostly overgrown farm fields with lots of briars. They don't seem to bother her as much as they did me.
Then through the woods, past a beautiful pond (must be some good ice skating there!), accross a soybean field and accross county line road. She was starting to slow down quite a bit at this point, but still wouldn't let me near her. Finally she paused in another soybean field, nearly a mile to the west, and I swung a big circle around her until I was able to push her back towards our house.
She headed back accross the field in the direction she'd come, crossed the road, and picked up her old path. I grew hopeful that she'd follow it all the way home, which is exactly what she did. She kept her nose down almost like a bloodhound, and even knew to skip the detours.
I've traced it out for all to see above. The red was her departing route, the blue her returning route. I really need to set up our electric fence.
We also managed to rid ourselves of the oil furnace that dominated our basement this weekend. Put up a craigslist add, and after a few false starts, I had a taker who even removed most of the ductwork. The basement is much improved.
I finally got our rail put up near the top of our stairwell, so now we don't have to cringe every time Henry veers a little too close.
Friday, December 12, 2008
One day she was looking particularly bad; she wouldn't stand up, and was shivering quite a bit as the worms really lower blood sugar and make it difficult to keep warm. Hearing stories about goats essentially dropping over dead in such situations caused a little concern, so we brought her inside to lay down in front of the wood stove that afternoon. She immediately perked up, but started screaming the instant I left the room, so I spent the rest of the afternoon working in the living room where she was. I was pleasantly surprised to see that she didn't leave any goat berries for us to clean up. Memphis the dog, however, was quite disappointed.
It was 15 degrees when I went out for this evening's milking. That means frozen teat-dip, but I've figured out that I can thaw it in the bucket of warm water I bring down for the pre-milking cleanup. I also figured out what I think was one of the causes of Buttercup's "dancing" in the stanchion, particularly towards the end of milking. We had left her halter on these last few weeks, thinking it was akin to a dog collar like the ones we keep on the goats. I decided that it wasn't really needed anymore, so took it off to reveal some sores along her jaw where her chewing caused it to chafe quite a bit. She seems to be a little less agitated now.
I've thus far tried to keep this blog on the subject of our adventures in farming, but I think it's time for a rant. Those of you who know me well know that I couldn't keep it hidden for too long. Below are the thoughts that run through my mind on most days.
Everyone who has ever been born is either dead, or will die someday. There's nothing new about that. Not everyone gets to live a long life; disease, famine, violence, accidents, and wars are an unavoidable part of human existence. But throughout most of history, I think most people have known that the potential to live to a ripe old age was always there, even if they themselves died young. Maybe their children would lead long and fulfilling lives.
I think that's changed now. I'm nearly certain that I will never reach "retirement" age, and I'm doubtful that my son will ever reach my current age. While I sincerely hope that I'm mistaken, I'm not really haunted by this thought anymore; I've come to accept it. On occasion I'm angry about it. I'm angry when I think that human greed and ignorance are the two things which have created this situation. But then I remember that human greed and ignorance on this scale are really unavoidable. So it's just something I have to accept.
So what dark and terrible force do I think is going to end our lives so abruptly? It's the coal generating the electricity to run the computer I'm typing on, among other things. You see, making carbon dioxide is the one thing that us 6.7 billion humans are *really* good at. In fact, there wouldn't be 6.7 billion humans if we weren't really good at this. The only reason there are this many of us is because we figured out how to use fossil fuels.
Maybe you've heard someone like Mr. Gore warn of a "tipping point", past which climate change rages uncontrollably due to feedback loops and leads to the end of civilization as we know it. Anyone who warns you about this is either ignorant or misleading in my opinion, because we've already passed it. Our planet is the Titanic, and we've already hit the iceberg. I won't blame you for trying to patch the leak, and will respect you much more than those who claim there's no leak. But I think the odds are stacked against you. Chances are that you've done little or nothing to patch the leak though, as have I.
So here's the iceberg I see floating in our wake. Here's the gash in our hull. CO2 is already at 380 ppb in our atmosphere, and rising something like 2ppb annually. The rate of rise in CO2 is going up quite a bit faster than the rise in our emissions, because all of the carbon "sinks" are collapsing.
Over 50% of the worlds coral reefs are now dead (some figures and anectodal evidence put it closer to 90%, so I'm being conservative here). Coral formerly absorbed massive amounts of CO2, in the form of calcium carbonate, which it turned into rock (limestone). In addition to warming the planet, CO2 has the ability to acidify water. A recently published study from the University of Washington showed that the rate of acidification is now progressing at 10-20 times the previously accepted rate used in climate modeling. Another marine survey has shown that the plankton (which are the basis of all life in the ocean) levels are down roughly 40% from a few years ago. Acid seawater kills plankton. Unfortunately, acidification occurs first near the poles, which is also where the bulk of our plankton live. Much of the oxygen in our atmosphere comes from these plankton. If the ocean goes, our oxygen goes away, and away we go. It's a real bummer.
And just for you folks whom Exxon and Peabody Coal's propaganda teams have convinced that climate change is either a myth or is "a natural cycle", the acidification scenario doesn't involve climate change. It's just carbon emissions.
So let's say that some new acid-loving plankton takes over and saves our collective fanny. It's not unreasonable to think it might. In that case, I figure that climate change will eventually toast our tootsies. If you think that climate change is a "natural cycle", then we'll all be killed naturally. Go warm up your Escalade and keep voting Republican.
The north polar icecap appears as if it'll be gone within 6 years (this figure keeps being revised to match that pesky reality -- a few years ago they thought it should live at least another 70 years). This alone is evidence that we've tipped. Ironically, the oil companies are scrambling to see what new oilfields the retreating ice has made available. There goes human greed and ignorance again.
So on the off chance that we haven't tipped, I think it's a really good idea to cut your carbon emissions, and I'll respect you more if you do it. Buy a Prius if it makes you feel good, but it won't really make a lick of difference so long as there are 6.7 billion of us around. We would need to cut our emissions over 90% if we hadn't already tipped, so anything short of that is really inconsequential.
If you really want sustainable, it's time to trade in your Prius for a spear and a loincloth. Unfortunately, that only works when there are far fewer than 6.7 billion people, and where we haven't poisoned most of the streams and lakes that were once the focus of subsistence living. We've burned that bridge.
So there's really not much to be done, other than that which makes you feel as if you're doing some good. I guess it's just time to sit back and enjoy the ride while we're all still here. Make the most of your life while you've got it. Enjoy yourself!
Monday, November 24, 2008
For most people, spending an hour each morning and evening *every day* to milk a cow sounds like a nightmare. I have to admit that I was one of those people, and may yet be one again. Maybe it's just the honeymoon phase, or perhaps Buttercup is secreting some mind-altering substance into her milk, but I actually enjoy it. The actual milking time for the cow is 20 minutes, and 10 minutes for the goat (only one is still being milked right now). The rest of the time is used up getting their feed or filtering, bottling, chilling the milk, or cleaning milk pails.
I'm still learning to deal with things like thieving goats and frozen bottles of teat-dip, but haven't found any of it to be unbearable. Mary-Kate is the more rambunctious of the two goats, and has learned that every open gate is an opportunity which can't be passed up. If the opportunity looks like it'll be cut short by an attentive faux-farmer like myself, it only means you have to run faster than the farmer does.
Previously, when I opened the outside door to let Buttercup into the barn, Mary Kate would sneak in to flip the lid off of the garbage can we use for storing grain, inhaling it as quickly as she could before I could yank her away. She has it down to a science now, and can flip the lid off without even pausing, using her front teeth. Being smarter than a goat, I've figured out that I have to close the outside door to the goat stall before I open the door for Buttercup. But sometimes I still have to open the gate to bring water or scoop a cowpie from the goat's stall (Buttercup comes in during the day and steals their hay if we don't give her enough, leaving telltale signs to step in). I had to open the gate twice at this evening's milking, and Mary Kate didn't let either opportunity go by.
Ashley, our other goat, is a gentler soul, but she's not above stealing a few bites of grain. She used one of the open gate opportunities to make her move, and ran for the grain can. I think she saw us using the handle on the top of the lid, and was trying to do the same thing without success by the time I caught up to her. Mary Kate used Ashley's diversion to steal a few bites of hay from the bale we keep outside their pen. Eventually, if I really am smarter than a goat, I'm hoping to have a theft-free evening. Hopefully the goats don't figure out how to operate the gate latches before then.
All the animals seem to like to congregate around the barn during milking time. The cats always show up, knowing that they may get their milk-bowl filled up. The chickens have decided that the barn makes a luxurious coop when it's cold and snowy everywhere else, although I try to discourage this behavior. A couple days ago, I checked on the goat's hay feeder and found an egg sitting in it, but usually they make the trek back to the chicken coop to lay. Although Memphis (our dog) is very mild mannered around the cow, Buttercup is convinced she's a wolf, and lowers her horns if Memphis gets too close. I'm not sure what she thinks of the cats. One day, I held Meowy over the fence while Buttercup came up and licked her, so they must not seem too threatening. Burrito the cat often plays with a wiggling stem of hay in Buttercup's trough while she eats.
With our newfound abundance of milk, Rachel is making more cheese. Her mozzarella is turning out well now (using the "30 minute" recipe which takes about 90 minutes), and she made her first hard-cheese; a round of Gouda which is now aging in our basement for the next 3 months.
The first weekend after we brought Buttercup home, I rented a Bobcat with a trencher tool (looks like a huge chainsaw blade) to lay some water and electrical wire out to the barn. The recommended depth out here is 4 feet, to avoid freezing the waterline. The ditcher worked beautifully for the first half of the 125' run, but the sandy soil started caving in for the second half, forcing Rachel and I to re-dig the ditch by hand. A couple days after I filled the ditch back in, the snow started, and has covered the ground ever since.
Monday, November 3, 2008
Buttercup, our new cow, wasn't particularly happy to be moved to her new home on our farm, and she let me know it. As I was backing the horse trailer up to our barnyard for unloading, we heard some commotion as the truck was being bounced around by the trailer. I stopped the truck and walked back to inspect.
She had managed to crawl under the divider, giving her enough room to turn around and face the back of the trailer. Determined that I wouldn't catch her, she leaped straight out of the horse trailer, right over the closed doors. Udder and all. Still stunned by the spectacle of this incredible flying cow, I was heartened to see that she was heading down towards the barnyard on her own. Maybe she saw the goats and chickens there, and knew that it looked like her kind of place. The gate to the barnyard was still closed though, so she turned around and ran out into our partially fenced pasture, where she could have easily headed for Canada if she so chose.
After a few minutes inspecting her options with me trailing behind her, she turned around and headed back towards the barnyard. Rachel opened the gate, and in she went. Step 1 was now complete. Cow delivered, not running down the highway. That's good.
Next, I had to resurrect one of the ancient milking stanchions that we found in the barn. I don't believe the previous owners ever kept milk cows, so I suspect they had probably sat there for at least 70 years. One still had latches and appeared to be workable. I would've had this ready to go before the cow, but we were really just "browsing" for a cow, and I didn't think we'd come home with one this weekend, or even this year for that matter.
Following the advice of every "homesteading" type book, I was convinced that we wanted a Jersey, a breed which is known for manageable size, gentle dispositions, and the highest butterfat content. Although I'm sure we could've eventually found one for a decent price, they're not easy to find. Shopping for livestock isn't really like going to the store where you can find exactly the brand and size you're looking for. The Jersey we looked at two weeks ago wasn't particularly gentle (she liked to kick when being milked). Imagine trying to milk a mosquito bite, and you'll have a pretty accurate idea of her teet size. There's no way we could've milked her by hand.
You also have to keep in mind that dairys don't typically sell their good cows. Most every cow on the market is there because of chronic mastitis, low milk production, a blown ligament on the udder, difficulty calving, or any of a thousand different ailments.
When we went to go look at Buttercup, I was a little skeptical of her owner's glowing description, but I figured we might at least learn a little more in going to look at her. She's an Amish raised Ayrshire - Red Holstein cross. Ayrshires are a Scottish breed which seem to be moderate in most all respects, and Holsteins (more commonly black and white) are the super-producer breed that makes up about 95% of the US dairy herd. They're big, and they produce a lot of low-butterfat milk. I wasn't particularly excited about the Holstein part, but the Ayrshire breed sounded interesting. The average cow of each breed is 1200 and 1500 pounds, both of which are much more cow than I think would be good for our farm.
Buttercup is quite small; to my untrained eye, I would guess about 800lbs. Despite what looked to me like some rough handling by her owner, she was quite mellow, and didn't kick or fidget in the least when we tried milking her by hand (which I believe was the first time for her). Her small udder hangs high (this is good -- large udders often lead to problems with infection), and her teets are small but definitely workable for hand milking. She looks healthy, so we decided that she fit the bill.
I finally had the milking stanchion ready to go, and it was now well past her usual milking time. After a few minutes of playing chase back and forth accross the barnyard, I decided to make some "fake" fencing with ropes I have hanging in the barn. I figured she wouldn't know if they were electric or not, and might respect them.
It worked -- my ropes funneled her right through the open barn door into the stall where our two goats were huddled in terror. Two furry rockets launched out into the yard, ears and udders flapping madly. As far as they're concerned, Buttercup is about the size of a tyranosaurus rex, and is probably carnivorous. They kept a very watchful eye on her today.
After getting her in the barn, I was able to get close enough to Buttercup to try milking her. I wasn't sure I would be able to get her into the stanchion at first, so just tried milking as she ate a little grain borrowed from our goats. Nothing came out but a few dribbles.
I cleaned her udder some more (warm water is supposed to encourage milk "let-down"), over and over. Still no milk. So I thought maybe I could simulate the small tugs of a milking machine. Still nothing. Rachel suggested that our generator might resemble the familiar sound of a milking machine, so I started that outside the barn. Still nothing. I moved her to the stanchion, and gave her some more grain and hay. Still nothing. I talked sweetly to her, massaged her, scratched behind her ear... and she still refused to let her milk down. After a few hours of this, I finally gave up at 9:00 and went inside to eat my first meal of the day.
I had ultimately milked perhaps one pint from a cow that should normally produce at least two gallons, which means that for all practical purposes she didn't get milked that evening. That's really bad; a missed milking will lead to production losses, and can also encourage mastitis, (a bacterial infection of the udder). I didn't sleep well, and had thoughts of spending all this money on a cow who would now go dry. She'll eat about $4/day in hay and grain, which gets really expensive when no milk is being produced.
This morning's milking went a little better -- 5 quarts. This evening she was up to 6 quarts. I imagine she'll drop a little from her previous production level, but we're pretty happy with this amount. Unless Henry can down a few gallons of milk per day, we're going to have a lot of milk.
Ultimately I would be interested in selling "cow shares" (that's the only legal way to sell raw milk in Michigan), which can be quite lucrative if you can develop a good customer base. I'll have to know what I'm doing, and this is where I'll start to learn. Until then, we'll probably be giving some milk away, dumping some, and perhaps feeding a calf or some pigs with the surplus. Rachel, of course, will be making all the cheese she wants. One big advantage to cow's milk is that it separates into cream (goat milk doesn't) so that we can make butter or ice cream.
Another advantage to cows is that I think it's easier to run a grass-based dairy than it is with goats, who prefer brush over grass (goats eat like deer do -- they prefer to nibble a bit of every bush they can get to). It's much easier to grow and manage grass. All grass diets are much healthier for the cow as well as the people who drink the milk (the dangerous strain of e. coli is a product of grain diets in ruminants, for example), but are probably a little more difficult to manage. In New Zealand, where the people are smarter than us Americans, all dairys are grass based. They don't subsidize corn the way we do here, probably because Cargill and ADM don't write their agricultural policy.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
We all ventured out to one of our pine stands for an afternoon of playing logger, and had a lot of fun. I felled the first tree with a chainsaw, but after that decided to just use the axe. I like to do things the hard way (note that I'm still quite happy to use the tractor if not the chainsaw), so that it won't be such a shock when the economy collapses and that's the only option available. But that will certainly never happen so long the fiscally conservative republicans remain at the helm of this great country.
After felling, limbing, and bucking up all the logs, we hauled them out of the woods and to the house with the tractor, which works well with a 3-point crane and a chain. Here's a video:
Logging is hard work for people who aren't smart enough to use a chainsaw, so we had to take a break in the afternoon and press some cider. Rachel had previously picked the apples on the trees at her parent's house. It was kind of neat to drink cider from apple trees that she planted when she was about four years old.
We had our first frost on the 19th, and have a had a couple more since then. I remember 80 degrees only a few weeks ago, and this Sunday there's a chance of snow. The weather changes fast here.
I've uploaded a few photos of the fall colors. The sumacs (particularly poison sumac -- my favorite) turned red first, and then the sassafras turned yellow. I've been waiting for all the trees to turn colors all at once, but they aren't cooperating.
The goats needed another worming, so we're without milk again for a few more days while the medication makes it through their system. Hopefully we don't have to keep using the hard stuff like this on a regular basis. The kittens are taking this especially hard. They run outside to lick the grass when I have to toss the milk out.
We're looking at a Jersey heiffer this weekend. That will definitely ramp up the milk production if we buy a cow. Rachel is trying to remain a voice of reason, but I like the idea myself. I don't like the idea of lugging several buckets of water down to the barn twice a day though; I really need to get some water lines installed. Cows also eat way more hay than goats, and may go through as much as 1 bale per day. That gets expensive, so we would likely set up a "cow share" to sell some of the milk. This is about the only legal way to sell milk in Michigan without investing 10's of thousands of dollars.
Rachel is attending a workshop tomorrow on the legalities and requirements of selling milk in Michigan. Most of the speakers are state and federal inspectors, so I suspect it's mostly intended to squash people's ambitions. In most states, the laws were written by the large industrial producers to squash small competitors, and Michigan is among the worst in that regard. A couple generations ago, it was quite common for a farm to sell milk (typically raw) to their neighbors.
Henry is experimenting with new parental management techniques as of late. In addition to the frequently used tools of the tantrum, whining, and pleading techniques, he's recently decided that threatening to "not be with us for a whole year" might be effective. I mentioned that he wouldn't like living by himself in the woods for that long, and he seemed to agree. The least-favored parent at any given moment may also be told that "It's hard for me to tell you this... but I love <the other parent> more than you now."
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
This was enough to make me think that I might hunt them successfully, without the usual investment in full-body camouflage, decoys, calls, and everything else which Cabellas will gladly sell me. It's only legal to hunt them with a bow or shotgun, so you've got to get pretty close (about 40 yards max)
Our neighbor Stan just happened to be interested in hunting in our tree stand, so he and I swapped spots for a couple days. He's got a tent blind set up, which makes for a good spot to sit where the turkeys don't notice you. They were so thick around the blind that he was shooing them away, since he was after deer.
I spent the last couple days out there, a bit in the mornings and again in the evenings. It turns out that the tent blind doubles as a mosquito feeding station when I'm in it. My constant squirming and swatting probably didn't help me lure any turkeys the first night, but it got much better once I came back armed with some mosquito netting over my head. I was so stealthy that a chipmunk came and shared the blind with me for a while, but no turkeys showed up. I did spook a bunch of them the last time I walked out to the blind though, but these ones saw me well before I saw them.
Just to rub it in, the turkeys have been hanging out in our fields as if they were a herd of cows. While I was standing out in the driveway chatting with Jim Wetherbee (whose family owned our farm since the '50s), they came walking accross the pasture in the middle of the day.
We've got a new feature this week -- video! They're posted over in the upper-right hand of the blog, along with the photos. One is of Henry singing his "Burrito the Cat" song, which is how he entertains the cats (and Rachel) while he's sitting in the barn during the morning milking. Youtube's processing darkened it a little too much, but you may still be able to make out Henry holding "Burrito" the cat while he sings.
Another video is of Fergus the Rooster, displaying his new crowing ability. He's becoming a real man now, with all the responsibilities that entails. He's been demanding plenty of piggy back rides from the hens, but gets a little confused and stands on them backwards sometimes.
Our hens just started laying this week, and are fortunately returning to the coop to use the nesting boxes. Rachel was watching as one of them finished her business and stepped outside, giving the "Where is everybody!?" noise. Fergus, down near the barn, heard her, and ran in the direction of her call, pausing to crow a few times until they made contact and were reunited.
Last weekend was a little taste of summer again, with temps in the low 80's. The asian beetles took advantage of the warm weather to crawl into every nook and cranny in our house (they like to winter over wherever it's warm), where we met them with the vacuum cleaner. They look just like orange lady bugs, which is what I thought they were when we first moved here. There's also another beetle called a "box elder bug" which has been showing up inside the house, although not quite in the same numbers as the asian beetles. I'm about ready for a good bug-killing frost, myself.
The fall colors are really ramping up now. No good photos yet, but we'll get some posted. I've also been sampling the nuts that grow on our farm. Hickory nuts are supposedly one of the best tasting nuts around, but you have to find a tree producing nuts where the meat come out of the shells easily. I haven't found any of those yet.
Today I tried cracking open a few black walnuts. While they're not particularly easy to extract from the shell either, they are much bigger, and taste great. Better than regular walnuts like those you buy in the store, as the skin doesn't seem to have a bitter flavor to it. Walnut husks stain quite well, as I now have brown fingertips from peeling off the husks. There's some sort of worm that lives in the husks, but they don't seem to be getting into the nuts themselves.
Our pastures are coming in nicely now. Not all the green is good (there's a good amount of weeds in addition to the clover, alfalfa, and grasses), but I've got to say I'm pretty satisfied with how they're turning out. I don't think we'll have much trouble grazing them next summer, or getting a cutting or two of hay.
Sunday, October 12, 2008
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
This morning was opening day of bow season, so I figured I'd go out and sit in my new treestand and stare at the trees and birds for an hour or two before I had to start work this morning, which is all that would happen if I tried this back in Washington.
About 10 minutes after sunrise, a doe came down the trail I had come in on. She paused about 20 yards away, pretending to eat some leaves while keeping her eyes and ears focused on me, then popping her head up to see if I had moved. She knew something was up, and finally turned around and left.
Another 20 minutes after she left, I heard the sound of a horse. Not sure what you'd call it, but it's the sound a horse makes when they exhale and let their lips flap. Maybe the neighbors were out riding horses, I thought. I turned my head to see three bucks making their way through the woods past me, about 50 yards away (about the maximum effective range of a bow). The first was at least an 8 point, and the two behind him both appeared to be 6 pointers.
I drew my bow on the leader, just as he disapppeared behind some trees. Then buck #2 came into clear sight, so I let the arrow fly, and the deer bolted. It was a long shot, and chances are that I misjudged the distance (arrows have a very curved trajectory compared to a bullet, so guessing the distance wrong by 5 yards is enough to send your arrow into the bushes rather than the intended target). I waited a bit, as you're supposed to do to keep a wounded deer from running rather than bedding down nearby as they grow tired.
Finally I climbed down to see where my arrow ended up. Sitting in the bushes, there it was. It had pink frothy blood on it, indicating that it had passed through the lungs. That's a good sign -- it means the arrow hit the "kill zone", and that the deer won't go far. Now to just find the blood trail...
I could clearly see the soil churned up where the 3 bucks had run off, so started following. And following. The woods here are a latticework of deer trails, but it had just stopped raining, so the old tracks were washed out and relatively easy to tell from the new tracks. As the deer run, however, they might only leave a hoofprint every 10-15 feet, so it's not always easy to know if they've turned on a side trail until you follow it.
I followed the trail as far as I could -- about 1/8th of a mile, where I could no longer find any fresh tracks. Not once did I see a drop of blood, which seemed odd for a lung shot, and made me think that the wounded deer had given me the slip on a side trail somewhere.
I headed back to the house (saw two big turkeys on the way), letting Rachel know about my adventures, and picked up our dog Memphis. She's old and deaf, but she loves deer and still has a good sniffer. In her younger days, she would go nuts seeing one outside our camper, and would chase them through the woods as fast as she could go, letting out yelps of frustration as they easily outran her through the brush.
Memphis and I headed back to the scene of the crime, travelling through a brushy area that I thought the deer may have gone through (but to which I saw no tracks). It wasn't long before
she became "occupied" and stopped following me. I turned around to follow her, and came accross a very well marked blood trail. Memphis had wandered down to the pond, and there, floating about 20 feet out, was a big furry deer back.
I'm not sure why he would've chosen to run into the water. Maybe it makes a good hiding spot (we spooked a fawn hiding in this pond last summer). I've heard of other deer doing the same thing, but never thought it might be a pattern until now. I couldn't see the rack though, until I waded out to pick him up. I phoned Rachel to let her know the good news, and decided to just pull the deer through the water over to where we could load him into the pickup. She met me just as I reached the end of the pond, where she snapped the two photos you'll see in the link for 10/1/08.
Monday, September 29, 2008
Here's a bit of a recent Michigan cultural experience I'd like to share...
A week ago we stopped at the "Main Street Pub" in Vicksburg on our way back from visiting the harvest festival at Tiller's International (it's a school that teaches cool stuff like farming with draft animals). I figured any place that called itself a pub in this day and age must have decent beer, which is rare in Michigan. Sure enough, when we got in, the wallpaper was printed with pictures of microbrew bottles like Alaskan, Deschutes, and dozens of others. Definitely a good sign.
The waitress came to take our drink order, and rattled off their beers on tap, "Bud, Bud Light, Bud Dry, Bud Ice... " and kept going with a couple names that I wasn't familiar with (either that or my hearing wasn't good enough to understand what she was saying). I asked if they had any microbrews. Rachel suppressed a giggle. The waitress paused, with a perplexed look, and said "I don't know what that is."
We've found precious few good restaurants (well -- one actually -- but it's not cheap) by Bellingham standards. I think that every single restaurant we've been in had a TV in each corner. Perhaps it keeps the patrons from inspecting their food too closely. It's a good incentive to grow and cook our own food, I guess.
Speaking of TV, guess what's in the waiting room of the local pediatrician's office? That seems to me like putting cigarette vending machines in the lobby of a hospital.
The harvest festival at Tillers was fun. We've been wondering if there are any like-minded folks in Michigan, and this is the first place we found whole hordes of them. It was a bit like the Bellingham farmer's market, full of organic produce vendors. There were seminars on fermented foods, urban farming, and a demonstrations of sorghum pressing (for molasses) and plowing with oxen.
They also had hay rides with draft horses doing the pulling. Henry could barely contain himself as our wagon drew near. Rachel had to remind him not to destroy the eardrums of our fellow passengers as he excitedly pointed out some other animals on the farm. We had to take two rides.
The previous day, I attended an Amish farm auction, where I was checking out some horse drawn farm equipment. The Amish really seem to be into auctions. There were probably 50 buggies there, most of them full. The women set up a lunch counter and sold baked goods. There was a household goods auction inside one of the barns (attended mostly by the women), while the farming goods auction was all outside, attended mostly by men. Most of the kids under 10 were running barefoot. I bought some bits for a bit-brace (basically a hand operated drill), but decided not to stick around to bid on the larger equipment, which the auctioneers save for last. There was a nice buggy in the auction as well. Doesn't look quite as comfortable as a car, but it might work a little better if gas isn't available.
Our woodstove is now fully installed, and just in time. Today has the feel of the first real day of fall. This last week has been dry, with temps in between 50-80. The next few days are supposed to be rainy, with temps from 40-60.
Last Saturday I started in on my project to fill the little holes that invariably start in a 140 year old stone foundation where the mortar has turned to sand. I was thinking I'd just trowel a little mortar into a few holes to keep rodents out. As with most home projects, this one grew a little bigger than I'd planned.
I started with the obvious places, where mortar was missing (many places have been patched over the years and appear to be sound). Realizing that a stone was loose, I pulled it out. And another, and another, and another, until I had a hole big enough to reach my entire arm into, in pretty much all directons. Whoever built the foundation put nice rocks on the exterior, and filled the interior with the smaller chips left over. They didn't use much mortar in the middle either. I guess it's a good thing that earthquakes aren't too common out here.
Sunday, September 14, 2008
We had originally planned to just live with it until next year, but it's pretty bad. When it comes to the most "ghetto" part of the house, it gives our bathroom a run for its money. The bathroom had several holes in the partially rotted floor (from old plumbing installations) and a resident cricket (now with a girlfriend cricket). The cricket usually hides under the trim near the toilet and sings for me when I visit, but last night he came out for a stroll while I was cutting my hair.
The living room has 140+ years worth of wallpaper, all of it peeling or peeled to reveal crumbling plaster, and an occasional nest of asian beetles. It's kind of fun to play "name that decade" as you peel off each layer.
The living room is where our sole source of heat (a woodstove) resides, so any major projects here need to be done in the summer months. Realizing that peeling the wallpaper down to a paintable surface is a futile effort at best, we decided that it may be worth it to have a drywall contractor replace the walls for us before the wood stove goes in (we have maybe a couple weeks before things get cold). After getting the contractor's estimate, we decided that the peeling wallpaper really could be painted, at least until next summer when we should have time to drywall it ourselves.
While the new paint does calm down the many competing prints of the different wallpapers, it also serves to highlight every bubble, edge, and hole. The paint rollers have a great ability to wet the wallpaper and make it peel up underneath them as well.
Some of you may have heard me gloat about how Michigan doesn't have the perma-drizzle that Bellingham suffers from 9 months of the year, but I think I would take perma-drizzle over our weather for the last two days. We lost track of exactly how much rain we got after emptying the rain guage several times, but I believe we were between 10 and 11 inches over the last 48 hours, as the remnants of a tropical storm, followed by the remnants of Ike rolled through. Toads liked the weather though, and were out in force.
The sprouts out in our newly planted pasture didn't fare so well as every dip in the terrain turned into a babling brown brook full of our topsoil. I think much of it will recover, but it's tough to see $1100+ dollars of seed and countless hours of tractor work get beat up and washed away.
This morning, Rachel and Henry heard a strange noise through his bedroom window. Rachel asked Henry what he thought it was, and he said "That's a chicken -- that's the sound they make when a raccoon is eating them, or maybe a weasel." Thinking that Henry might be right, I ran outside to investigate. Sure enough, the sound came from the coop. Sitting in the middle of the roost was our solitary rooster (recently named Fergus) surrounded by his harem, trying out his newfound crowing ability.
Friday, August 29, 2008
Rachel has been making goat cheese. Thus far she's made a couple batches of chevre and one of mozzarella. The chevre is a nice spreadable cheese, and is fairly quick to make. The mozzarella was an all-day ordeal that nearly killed Rachel, so I suspect she won't be making a whole lot of that. I noted to her afterwards that not many small cheese producers sell mozzarella, and now we know why. There are about 100 different steps (slight exaggeration), for which you have to keep the milk/cheese at a set temperature for an exact time, and there's a lot of stretching involved, as you need to stretch this kind of cheese like you would taffy. The stretching comes late in the process, starting about the time you're completely exhausted.
I've been working on a tile platform for the wood stove, which is nearly complete. The base and frame are made, the tile is on, and I just need to grout the cracks between the tiles and seal it. I'm up to about 5 cords of firewood now, although the last cord and a half are still out in the woods. At least the trees are down and the wood is starting to season a bit.
Fall is starting to show around the edges out here. The poison ivy is starting to turn red, and I've seen a couple maples start to turn. I'm also starting to turn red, as the two trees I cut down last weekend were wrapped in poison ivy. No matter how careful I am, I always seem to get just a little bit on me.
We've got our first 5 acres of alfalfa/grass hay mix planted, and this morning I noticed the first cotyledons poking up through the soil. Hopefully they're not ragweed sprouts. My earlier ideas of mowing the remaining pasture and interseeding is looking like a non-option after some experimental plots, so I think there's going to be a lot of tractor work in our future.
A couple evenings this week we were over at a friend's house (Karla), whom we met through a local foods group. She's just purchased a neat old farm, where I helped mow some of the weeds down in her fields. It was fun to drive the tractor over to her house (about 6 miles, taking 40 minutes). Like riding a bike, you notice so much more than when you're driving a car.
I don't know why, but her fields were absolutely filled with preying mantises. They were everywhere while I was mowing. They look really strange when flying -- like two dragonflies who became stuck together in a head-on collision. The old farm house is in many ways similar to the one we purchased, so we'll now have someone to co-miserate with.
Speaking of dragonflies... about a week ago Henry and I were out walking through our own fields. I noticed a lot of dragonflies buzzing around me, and stopped to look up. I've never before seen so many dragonflies in one place. It was quite literally a large "flock", of perhaps a couple hundred. Dragonflies eat lots of pesky bugs which they catch in mid-air, so I like them a lot. They're like bats in this regard, except they don't poop on everything in our barn's hayloft the way the bats do. I'm thinking the bats will at least let off in the winter; guess we'll soon find out.
Last weekend Henry and I decided that the ponds weren't just for walking around, but were for wading in. They've shrunk a little bit in the summer heat, reaching the top of my thighs now. We used Henry's butterfly net to catch a few frogs, but no turtles or monster water beetles this time. The ponds even have some small freshwater clams. Saw quite a few ducks, more than we saw earlier in the year. Teal and widgeon, I think.
We've learned how *not* to pick watermelons this year. We've picked about 4 now, waiting about a week between each one. Each of them has been just on the cusp of ripeness, but not quite there. New theory is to wait until the vines wither. We have been eating some of the little melons that our friends Dave and Terry gave us seeds for as a little going away present. They're neat little melons with a skin similar to a cantaloupe, with green insides. A great size to eat for one person without leftovers.
Out tomatoes are big this year, and have been for a few weeks now. They just don't seem to be interested in ripening. Not sure if there's some trick I haven't yet figured out, or if we just need to be more patient. The tomato worms have disappeared, having been around for about a week. Looks like the colorado potato beetle which was plaguing our garden is gone too. They seemed to only last for about 3 weeks in July. The japaneese beetles which covered Henry's "4-o-Clock" flowers, giving eachother "piggy back rides", have gone for the year as well.
The last time I checked our hive about a week ago, the bees hadn't touched the "super" frame, which is where they make the honey comb that we get to keep (the lower two frames are for the bees to live on through the winter, and the upper frames are for us to steal). So I figured this year was a write off, spent in building up the hive strength rather than in getting honey. However, I noticed today that the neighboring property to the west is filled with goldenrod that's just now coming into bloom. Checking the front of the hive, I noticed a lot of good little bees coming back with goldenrod-colored pollen. Maybe they'll fill up the super after all.
Speaking of the beehive, we have a toad who lives on top of the hive, underneath the "roof" board I set on top. I've seen him there for the last month. Last time he had a little friend with him. I always set him down when I open the hive, and last time he stuck around so that I could set him back up on top when I was done. Not sure what sort of bugs he gets up there (I don't think it's bees), but he seems awfully happy.
Saturday, August 2, 2008
Yesterday evening we went to the St. Joseph valley tractor show, which is held about a mile from our house. Loads of neat old old tractors, including steam tractors. In true midwest style, everyone was driving golf carts or riding mowers around the grounds. That's apparently how midwesterners maintain their ample figures (heaven forbid that anyone should have to walk!) There was also a swap meet, where you could buy lots of junk that people found in the back of their garage. A few of the items for sale were actually tractor related.
One thing which surprised me was the number of restored "antique" lawn tractors. To me, these riding mowers have all the aesthetic appeal of a pair of dirty socks, but then again there's a lot of things I still don't quite understand about the midwest.
After a number of weekends cutting, splitting, hauling, and stacking firewood, I'm up to a grand total of 3 cords. Only 5 more to go! Ugh. I can only imagine how much fun this would be cutting everything by hand (without a chainsaw, that is) like the people who lived in this house for the first 75 years probably did. Maybe we'll just move into our chicken coop if it ever comes to that, so we won't need so much firewood to heat it. The chickens can just move into our house then.
One thing that's pretty neat out here -- there are tons of amphibians around. One morning this week, while picking potato beetle larvae out of the garden, I noticed no less than 6 little frogs (they're the size of your thumbnail) sitting on just the potato plants. It's nice to have help in keeping the bug population down. Every time I go into our basement now, I can find toads and salamanders, who all seem to be quite happy down there. Also helpful on the mosquito front are myriads of dragon flies. Today I was looking at the barbed wire top strand on one of our fences. I noticed about a dozen dragon flies sitting on it, each spaced about 6 feet apart, waiting for a little unsuspecting bug.
Earlier this week, our neighbor Stan invited Henry and I to go fishing with him for bluegills. I seemed to catch only undersize fish (this is normal for me), but everyone caught lots of them, and we ended up with about a dozen keepers. They're quite tasty, but I know it's best not to research what's actually in them. The state of Ohio (which is next door) has come out and said that there's not a single body of water in the entire state where it's completely safe to eat the fish, primarily due to mercury pollution from coal burning power plants.
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Milking a goat is interesting. Imagine taking a cheap little squirt gun, and using it to fill a 2-liter pop bottle twice a day, *every* day. That's a lot of trigger squeezing. Only squeezing a teet isn't quite as easy. Your forearm will get *really* tired. Ashley has smaller teets, which take some special care. Squeeze it the wrong way, and it just sprays all over your hand instead of going into the bucket. Tonight, Mary Kate decided that we weren't good milkers, and let us know this by putting her hoof in the milk pail just was we finished. Suffice to say that our dog Memphis got to drink a lot of milk this evening.
I spent much of today clearing out the black cherry from the fence rows around our barn yard. Apparently, goats love to eat the leaves, which are toxic. While I was cutting these down, I realized that I really need to remove the rusty old fencing, which will be a fun project. Trees have woven themselves through the woven wire in a number of places. And just for fun, there's a little poison ivy hiding in there, ready to keep me itchy for another 3 weeks (that's how long my last itchy session lasted).
The weather has been hot and humid lately. Like living in a bathroom where someone is always taking a hot shower. We had a bunch of rain on Saturday, but I managed to get out and seed in one of our pastures before the rain really hit. I just seeded into mowed weeds, but there seems to be enough bare soil that I think I'll get good germination.
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
This last weekend was a mad rush to brush out all the fence lines for the fencing contractor who started this week. Our new brush hog (basically a big lawnmower towed behind our tractor) made this job much quicker, and is really a lot of fun to use. Unfortunately for me and the local phone company, I've discovered that obstacles (such as... a phone service box) are most easily seen just as they pass under the mower.
I've also discovered that poison ivy can get to my skin through clothing, and takes a long time to wear off. Par for the course, I guess. Alas, my dream of being among the lucky 30% of people who are immune to the stuff have been shattered. At least I know enough not to use it as backwoods toilet paper, which is more than can be said for one member of our family.
Mullberries are all over now, as are blackcap raspberries. I find that I'm easily distracted by these when I'm clearing brush.
Deciding where to install our permanent fences is a tough decision, and I'm certain I'll regret some of our placements. If only our property were a nicely cleared square of pasture, it would be so much easier.
Running fences through the woods means 1) lots of work to clear out the trees 2) trees will fall on the fence and destroy it, and 3) our animals will probably hide in the woods when I'm looking for them.
My other option would be to run them along the edge of the woods. I think this is actually worse, as all the trees on the edge lean out into the pasture, ensuring that all of them will eventually fall on the fence.
Another conondrum is the type of fence to use. I'm going with woven wire and a barbed top strand, because I don't trust electric fences. A high-tensile electric fence would cost half of what a woven wire fence costs. I don't trust electric fences because I read too much chicken-little hogwash about our energy future. I want my fence to work when the reliability of our electrical grid here in Michigan starts to resemble the grid in Baghdad. Of course, I'm still going to be using electric fencing for all of our temporary partitions, as doing so with permanent fencing would cost tens of thousands of dollars.
So later this week, with our fencing up, we can start looking at some real animals (something beyond the chickens, barn cats, and bees we have thus far). First in line will probably be a Nubian dairy goat.