Saturday, December 19, 2009

Barnyard Politics

I've read a lot of farming books, but some things just aren't covered. I've yet to see a chapter on barnyard politics, so everything I've learned there has been through my own trial and error (heavy on the latter).

First of all, there's a pecking order, both for each type of animal as well as the individuals of each type. Our order is as follows:
  1. Bruce (draft horse)
  2. Doc (draft horse)
  3. Josie (dairy cow)
  4. Buttercup (dairy cow)
  5. Thunder (the ram who thinks he's at #3)
  6. #57 (ewe)
  7. #56 (ewe)
First, let's start with the horses. Bruce is fat. There are a number of reasons for this: He came to us that way. I mistakenly thought that eliminating grain from his diet would cure the problem, but a summer on pasture has disproven that theory. He should be getting worked more, but such is the life of a weekend farmer's horse. Now that he's eating hay for the winter, I have a little more control over his diet, but not as much as I'd like. As the boss horse, he makes sure that he always gets his fair share of the hay, and he gets to define "fair".

My new theory is that if I feed the horses hay at two separate locations, Bruce will only be able to defend one at a time, giving Doc his fair share (as defined by me). It seems to be working, but Bruce is still fat. I did see a liposuction machine for sale on Craigslist last week -- only $1800...

It's important that the animals are fed in accordance with their pecking order, or trouble ensues. If I feed the cows before the horses, the horses nibble our barn as if it's a big gingerbread house. I doubt the barn tastes very good; it's really just the horses' form of blackmail. The chewing doesn't stop until the hay comes out.
When we first bought the sheep, Thunder was still quite young, and couldn't reach into the hay feeder I had built for the cows. He quickly learned to jump up into the feeder for easier access. He's now full grown, but still jumps up into the hay feeder to eat.

One evening I made the mistake of putting hay in the cow's outside feeder before stocking the milking station. It was dark outside, so I couldn't see very clearly. Josie had returned outside, and I chased after her to get her back into the barn. She was using her nose to shovel a bale out of the feeder and on to the ground. I didn't put a second bale in the feeder though. It took me a couple seconds to realize that it wasn't actually a bale she was working on. It was Thunder, now pinned against the slats. He didn't move at all or make a peep. I wasn't sure if he was in shock, or dead, or was still trying to hold his ground. Or maybe he couldn't feel a 900lb cow through his wool cocoon.

Now Josie gets her hay at the milking station immediately after the horses are fed, but before I open the door for the cows or put any hay outside. But all is not well in the barn.

In the interest of producing higher quality milk, reducing e-coli, and improving our cow's health, I've eliminated grain as a regular part of the cow's diet. She was just fine with that, and made the transition much better than I'd anticipated. In the absence of grain, however, she demands gourmet hay. It has to be better than pasture in the summer, and it has to be better than her "regular" hay in the winter, or she won't come in.

The loose hay we put up last summer was her favorite, so that's what I used until it ran out a week ago. Knowing that there would be hell to pay if I didn't have anything to keep her at her trough, we went to the hay auction and bought 50 bales of the softest, greenest hay I've ever seen, which at $8/bale had better satisfy Josie's picky palate.

The first night I served this to her, she sniffed it, reached deep into the trough, and shoveled it out onto the ground. I put it back in, and she shoved it back out again. Hmmmm....

She's since decided that the new hay is alright, but has developed an annoying habit. Legume hay has leaves, some of which typically shatter in the baler and spill out as the bale is opened up. That's the tastiest part of the hay.

Josie likes to fluff the hay up a bit so that the leaves fall out. Then she tosses it all out of the feeder and licks up the leaf bits that remain. When the leaf bits are all gone, she starts craning her neck to reach the hay she just threw out, dancing in her stanchion and giving me fits as I try to milk while protecting the bucket from her dancing hooves.

So now I've added yet another item to the endless list of farm tasks. Build a new Josie-proof feeder that will keep her from tossing out her hay. I'll get to it one of these days, probably after I'm freshly inspired to build it when she puts her hoof in the bucket.

Below is some footage of an intelligence test we recently administered to Henry and Bilbo, cleverly disguised as a game of keep-away.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The William Arbuckle company of Toledo, Ohio makes some fine stuff! Our "Tiffin" corn sheller is probably over 110 years old, and still works wonderfully. Their corn shellers are such a pleasure to use that 5 year olds who typically prefer to lounge around in their underwear will jump at the chance to operate one.

Armed with a bushel of field corn from our garden and my experimental plot, we set to work, and now have a couple gallons of shelled corn to make our own cheese puffs with.

One evening I decided to bring the camera down to the barn with me for milking time, where I snapped this photo of warm fall sunlight streaming in through the windows.

It's a very pleasant place to be, with the cows munching their hay to the sound of milk streaming into the pail. There's the occasional protest from one of the barncats being molested by Bilbo in the corner. I can hear the horses chewing on the barn, hoping they'll annoy me enough that I toss them some hay to make it stop.

Since I've taken that photo, things have changed. It's much colder now, and not quite as pleasant.

Michigan has four very distinct seasons, and winter just arrived this week. I like them all, but some a little more than others. Winter has a sort of austere beauty around here. The leaves are gone from the trees, and I can suddenly see through the woods that seemed so dense until now. The wind makes a whistling noise once the leaves are off. It reminds me of the wind in the sailboat rigging when we lived aboard our boat in Bellingham. It's often snowing, but so far it's been just a few scattered flakes, each a perfect star. They don't accumulate, but seem to disappear as they hit the ground.

Rachel did a fine job of announcing winter's arrival, saying "It's 22 degrees, and I'm going outside to use the outhouse!" I wonder if she'll make the same announcement when the temps go below zero again.

The barnyard, despite a load of wood chips, had grown very muddy over the last few weeks, especially after being churned up while I extended our water line to the horses' paddock. It's not a problem anymore though, as the mud has all frozen. It's nice that the wheels on our poo-cart no longer sink into the mud, but they don't roll over this frozen stuff too well either.

Our barn seems to produce its own barn-cats through spontaneous generation, as evidenced by the appearance of "Coon" the kitten late this summer. She's a true barn-cat, as I rarely see her outside the barn at all. She survives on a diet of second-hand chipmunks left by Meowie and Burrito, along with some milk donated by Josie.

A trip to the vet this week revealed that she's got pneumonia, so she gets to play house-cat for a week while she's on antibiotics. She now lives underneath the woodstove.

While bow-season didn't produce anything for me this year, firearm season went pretty well. The bucks, as I'd anticipated, grew careless. I had a 40 yard shot at a 6 point buck who was busy making a scrape. He ran away as the smoke cleared, just as healthy as ever. I guess there was a little too much brush between us.

Later in the evening of opening day, I spotted a nice buck running along one of the trails I've cleared with the tractor. This time the shot went where it was supposed to, and he was down within 50 yards.

Our local library hosted an astronomer a few weeks ago, and Henry was quite excited to go out and sleep under the stars after seeing his presentation. We loaded up the backpack with sleeping bags and found a nice cowpie-free spot out in the middle of the pasture.

Henry saw his first shooting star, and I was amazed by how many airplanes there are flying over our house at any given moment. We lasted until 1:00am, when Henry announced that he couldn't sleep any more, at which point he ran for the house and spooked the horses who thundered around the barnyard and terrified him.

There's an old play-house in our woods which I had promised to bring up to the house for Henry. I was going to do it with the tractor last summer, but never got around to it.

This year I finally had the time to bring it back, but was able to load it on to our stone-boat and drag it back with the horses. It's not in the best of shape, but should last at least until Henry loses interest in it. Inside is a "witch's kettle" made from the top of an old cream separator.

I managed to find an old Oliver 99 walking plow at the auction in Topeka, which is perfect for the smaller space of our garden. We harnessed up the horses and went to work. I worked the lines while Rachel steered the plow. The plowing went very well once I stopped staring at the plow and paid attention to where the horses were going.