Saturday, December 11, 2010

There Has Been Blood

It's been a bloody day.

This is a photo of our three new cows taken a day or so ago. You will note the horns on each of the mature cows. Their horns were 'banded' before they came to us, i.e. a very tight rubber band was attached around the base of each horn with the purpose of constricting the blood flow, eventually causing it to fall off on its own. This is not my favorite de-horning method. I hear that skilled people with wire saws and needle nose pliers can do a very quick and relatively clean job of it when they have to, but the best option by far, for everyone involved, seems to be burning the bud of the horn when the cow is very young. I came to this opinion this morning when I went to the barn. Having greeted the cows and grabbed a pitchfork to begin cleaning up their manure. I was forking a patty when I noticed a splotch of blood on the hay. That was alarming. I looked around and saw many spots of blood until I finally lifted my head to see that one of Datura's horns had come off last night. The left side of her face was covered in blood as well as a large spot on her body where she had nestled her head last night. She was no longer bleeding and all the blood on her body was dry. In fact she was behaving very normally, taking a little grain from the bucket in my hand, drinking water, eating hay and so forth. I was alone on the farm at the time and called someone with more experience who reassured me that as long as she was not bleeding anymore, things would be okay. This was relieving to hear, but it only just takes the edge off of seeing one of your cows covered in blood.

These two roosters look guilty for a reason. Garth and I came to the egg mobile this afternoon to find these two and another mercilessly attacking a fourth rooster. Some male chickens will actually repress their sexuality in response to a very dominant rooster in the group. This was the story with two of our roosters. They had been odd looking hens their whole lives until a few very aggressive roosters were extinguished, at which point they promptly began learning to crow and commanding their own little harems. I don't know whether it's that the cold has forced them into tighter quarters, but three of them had abused and terrified this fourth rooster to the point that he was burying his face in a corner of the hen house with his own blood smeared down the walls. Garth decided he would have to kill both the persecutor and prey or it would no doubt continue. He lifted them gently by their feet and carried them over to the old milk house where they will stay overnight before meeting their end tomorrow.

Deer season draws to a close at sundown on Sunday. We heard from one of our elderly neighbors that there used to be 'old timers' around here that would gladly take the organs from any hunters who didn't want to deal with them. "But they all died," he said "and now everyone just throws them away." Edmund took the heart of a buck this man shot a week ago and I guess word got around. This evening a van pulled up and stopped. Garth recognized the man walking toward our door as one in a group of local hunters. He brought us a bag. In it was the heart and liver of doe he killed this afternoon. So I am happy that we are beginning to fill a hole in the community here, no matter what it is.


Friday, December 3, 2010

Frozen Water

Not a lot has changed here since the last post I wrote. The sky is still grey, shedding snow occasionally like finely grated parmesan cheese. The cows are masticating their hay constantly, blurring their bones from our sight with layers of valuable fat. The water for the chickens freezes every night. Edmund just set up this heat lamp with a timer on it to keep the ice at bay. The extra light may also persuade a few more eggs from the flock. I shut them in tonight and thought it looked so cozy in there. Maybe I am lonely for the Thanksgiving company we just had, but it looked like a sleepover to me. I'm sure they'll be talking long into the night.


Friday, November 26, 2010

Three More Cows

One thing I am feeling thankful for is our three new cows. The third is actually a very young heifer calf, but female just the same. The women outnumber the men again, which is a good thing seeing as we aim to operate a dairy farm one day.

Both Datura and Lillyvale came with their horns, which is a first for us. Their horns have been banded and we've been told that they will just fall off one of these days. Nevertheless, they are horned now and it is something to be aware of. For instance, the feeder we gave them had spaces big enough for a cow's head without horns, but these two were having a frustrating time trying to eat from it, so we had to open it up a bit. Another thing we have to consider is that they are both daughters of Ebon, the bull we have on loan. He came heaving down the hill the night they were dropped off, bellowing to meet them. Having no idea whether either of the new cows were in heat, we chose to postpone their meeting. We opted to keep them in two groups, the older cows with the bull beyond the top of the hill and the younger cows in the barn on the flats with a small paddock to roam in. This was a great idea, but an electric wire was grounding out somewhere, and when we made it back the house I looked out to see all of the cows running around together on the crest of the hill. The struggle ensued. It was like unravelling a tangled mess of yarn. We found out that Lillyvale, the yearling cow, was in heat and Ebon was hot on her tail. Garth used his genius and their herd mentality against them and within 24 hours we had finally returned things to how we wanted them. As far as we know, she wasn't bred during this fiasco, but Ebon has bred all of our other cows without drawing much attention to himself, so I guess we will just wait to see that she cycles again. Kerry cows have such a limited gene pool to begin with that it would be a shame to accidentally start line breeding them now. It would also be unjust to impregnate a growing cow before she is optimally ready to carry a calf. Bulls don't think this way though, so for now we are keeping them separate.

This is the first heifer calf we have had on our farm. She is adorably sweet, as you can see, and she needs a Celtic name. Any ideas?


Friday, November 19, 2010

Metabolism and Resilience

I’ve ruminated a lot over the last few months on how to build a farm and business that is resilient in the face of the economic changes I see coming over the next few decades. There are many factors that will come into play, and I don’t know which, politics, financial upheaval, or oil supply shocks will precipitate the crisis I foresee. Right now I think a deflationary crash is the most likely in the short to intermediate term, but I also thought the same thing a year ago, and it has not come to pass.

The metabolism of our economic system is cancerous. It mandates that the system grow in order to achieve full employment. Growth means some variable rate of increase in size or activity. A growth rate of 7% per year means the thing measured roughly doubles in ten short years. It has been a long time since the United States achieved a growth rate anywhere near 7%, but it also has been a long time since its economic activity dropped into contraction for more than a few months at a time. Our recent parry with deflation and contraction has in my opinion been staved off temporarily by massive government borrowing. I do not believe that the “pulling forward of demand” such massive borrowing creates is a path to create real wealth or a productive base for real needs to be met. It does, however, keep the wheels of the economy turning at roughly the same rate they have been though, so the more dramatic and wrenching changes are postponed for another day.

In agriculture a metabolism of incessant growth mandates speed and greater and greater production from the same amount of land base. It also imposes a 24-7 industrial mindset on what is fundamentally a biological system, not a mechanical one. Farming following the seasons is easier on all the lives lived therein, but the industrial mindset does not allow for the luxury of down time or breaks. Winter is an obstacle to overcome rather than a much needed time for recuperation and rest. An illustrative example can be found in the cow. Cows fed a mixture of corn silage, grain, a bit of hay, and some fat/protein supplements can, given the right genes in the animal, produce far more milk per acre of land than a grazing cow that harvests most of her feed herself. By providing large volumes of high energy feeds powerful red, orange, green and blue machines enable us to breed cows that produce over 100 pounds of milk per day during their lactations. To achieve that kind of production the feed has to be just right every day, or the cow will crash and not produce much of anything. Modern Holsteins relies heavily on the Deere to provide for her high metabolism. Depending on how the metrics are calibrated this giant amount of milk can be called “greater efficiency” since more food is grown on the same land base and in a given number of labor-hours. The labor input to milk a cow is not dramatically different whether she provides 120 pounds of milk or “only 35” per day. Looking at it through a different lens though, and those “efficiencies” appear less enticing as the costs are accounted for. The equipment needed to grow, harvest, thresh, grind, mix and serve large amounts of grain and/or silage necessitates large capital investments, and a constant stream of exogenous calories from hydrocarbons to run the machines. I now believe whole-heartedly those statistics that are bandied around that claim most food on American’s grocery shelves has 10 calories of hydrocarbon energy invested in every one calorie of food energy.

Since our example thus far has been the cow, let us continue in that vein. The modern Holstein is large, often tipping the scales a bit under 2000 pounds. The most selectively bred, highest pedigree, can produce over 100 pounds of milk a day in a ten month lactation. Holsteins like this have high basal metabolisms and will “milk off their backs” i.e. use their body’s store of fats (generally easily seen on their backs, hips and ribs), to maintain production as long as possible in the face of inadequate feed. They will literally dump their bodies’ reserves into their milk if the feed quality goes down because that is what they have been bred to do. It is little wonder then that farmers worry about the quality and composition of their feed. But it is circular though whether this tremendous amount of milk and a very high cow metabolism requires all the depreciating iron out in the field, or whether all those colorful machines force the cow to up the ante in order to pass on her genes. I like Micheal Pollen’s way of looking at domesticated plants and animals not as hapless things that we humans have shaped with our superior intellects but as collaborators in this game of life. Cows have decided to take us up on the bargain of providing milk, meat, leather, and draught power in exchange for protection from predators and some food insurance during hard times. Holstiens have an exceptional ability to produce mind-boggling volumes of milk, and this trait made them the most numerous and successful of their kind on several continents. It is as if the cow says to the human, “I will make ungodly amounts of milk as fast as I can in exchange for perfect food every day and a roof over my head.” I think of this as the “confinement bargain”.

In nature animals tend to lactate seasonally give birth in the spring as forages flush with proteinaceous new green growth. Cows can be managed in time to nature’s rhythm, to calve in the spring and then milk through spring summer and fall. In the wild, mammals put on weight in the fall as preparation for hard times to come. Many “heritage” breeds still exhibit this trait since it was not long ago that farmers valued animals that could provide for some of their own winter needs by grazing extra hard during the green months. Dairy animals tend not to do so since they have been selected to pour any surplus metabolic output into their milk rather than onto their ribs and backs.

I want to partner with cattle and strike a deal in which I provide spots to take the edge offof cold weather, protection from predators, feed during the winter in the form of hay, and paddocks of quality grass during the spring, summer, fall, and part of winter. In return I expect milk, and meat. Perhaps someday I will also desire draught and leather, though they are not currently on the table. In my mind this is the “grazing bargain”.

On the face of it the deals described above don’t sound all that different, but delving into the details demonstrates a host of differences. Grazing gives exercise, wears hooves down as they grow, allows the cows fresh air and lets them deposit their manure in a good place for it all by themselves. Confined cows stand or lie all day with no room to stretch their legs, their hooves grow too fast for such behavior and must be trimmed regularly, “fresh” air must be provided by giant fans, and the massive volumes of manure they produce must be mechanically stored and then returned to the fields with heavy machinery. Or at least that is the hope, in less regulated times/places some or all of it goes into waterways. In order to hold up my end of things for a grazing deal I need to invest in land, lanes to paddocks, some fence materials, water stations, and hay. For a confinement deal - land, many thousands of square feet of concrete, manure lagoons and spreaders, grain bins, silos, corn choppers, and so on. Both of these types of infrastructure depreciate over time, but the confinement model does so from a higher starting point and at a faster clip.

We recently put in a water line in one of our fields. By providing water to small areas of the large pasture we will be able to stockpile forage in situ and then have the cows harvest it themselves. That plastic isn’t going to go anywhere for a long, long time though the hydrants may need replacement parts in 15 or 20 years. Once a concrete silo rots out (the acids produced during ensiling eat the concrete away over time) there is nothing that can be done except to use it as hard fill of some sort. Our waterline uses gravity to deliver its goods. Silos demand hydrocarbons to fill and electricity to unload.

What then is efficient? Is it to produce the maximum amount of milk in a given year with a given number of labor inputs? Or is it to produce as much milk as possible with as little fossil help as is feasible? I believe both are forms of “efficiency” but would never willingly enter into the confinement model. Pushing the metabolic and biological limit of animals, our own time and physical energy, and the availability of natural resources is going to face ever higher costs and perhaps outright failure when fuel shortages appear. Finding cows that will make as much milk as possible given biological and seasonal limitations is a much more exciting prospect. I want to work with cows that produce seven to ten times their body weight in milk over a nine month lactation. Going into winter I want them to keep some reserves on their flanks for cold weather. I want them to calve every year and readily breed again. A cow that does these things will produce much less milk per acre per year, but she will be far more resilient in the face of losses of mechanical and fuel inputs.

The trick then is to fit a little biological system working with nature into the larger industrial, mechanical, metastatic economy at large. Ignoring the limitations imposed by capital is as sure a road to ruin as ignoring those of nature, and in many cases it is a more direct route. I don’t know how every piece of the metabolic puzzle is going to come together for us, yet I trust that there is a way to make at least the little part of the world within our ken productive, beautiful, exuberant, healthy, and resilient. And here are two recent photos of our cows (and bull) since we like them a lot.

Notice how rounded her flanks are here. That layer of fat will help her go through the winter without as much help from us.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Hidden Riches

This is a house on our property. It was previously the farm hand's house, but as you can see, it is no longer habitable. A couple of weeks ago I saw two hens stepping out through the door. I walked over there and peeped my head in. I saw the familiar disaster that is the interior. I didn't see any eggs, and I turned around. I tried to jamb the door shut but it was impossible.

A few days ago, Edmund heard a hen squawking about having just laid an egg inside this house. He entered and, being more adventurous than I, went into the next room. There in the corner was an abundance of eggs.

37 if you're counting.

As you may have gathered, I hard boiled the eggs and made a most unappetizing egg salad, smashing the whole eggs, shells included. Edmund brought this to the chickens this morning and said that the chickens thought they had died and gone to heaven. They usually just get the shells. This was their Thanksgiving. I hope they don't associate their abhorrent behavior with the enjoyment of a massive feast. The door to the little house is firmly closed now so it would take a power greater than chicken to commence any secret laying again. We have been getting twice as many eggs recently, and now we don't have to wonder why.


Monday, November 8, 2010

A two week grab bag

There hasn't been a morning above freezing in a few weeks now. This has led to a seasonal shift in my pursuits. When not painting, I had been gardening, but with these hard frosts every morning my gardening has been reduced to periodically checking in on our new cold frame.

I trash picked these windows the other day and Garth threw this together. It is not that we expected to garner a great deal of our calories via this contraption, but rather that we were called to build it by the innate romance of cold frames. Here it is coaxing what solar energy is to be had into these sprouts that may be a small salad for the three us us come January.

Without dirt under my nails I have thrown myself headlong into knitting. This is a cardigan with a diagonal button band and cowl neck. Below you will see my unselfish pursuits: a baby jacket with matching booties and the beginning of a hat for Garth.

Edmund and Garth have had a machine rented for the last 10 days. They are digging this trench to lay a frost free waterline for the cows. One of them digs from dawn until lunch and the other won't come in until after dark. I keep the meals coming, and they put them away. Cold days take it out of you, as evidenced by the fact that with time change, both of them were in bed by 7:45 last night.

You'll notice the cows are on the greenest portion of pasture we have available. We have been supplementing with hay bales because the freezing temperatures have taken so much from the forage. Edmund put a hay bale out for them this morning when he let them into a new paddock but they ignored it and went for the grass. So it must not be so bad if it still has more allure than the dry stuff. I am already looking forward to the first flush of green pasture in spring, and I am sure I am not alone in that.

- Alanna

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Year in Pictures

We are celebrating a year on the farm. There are too many memories to share here, but being in a reflective mood, I thought I would post a smattering of events, both large and small, from the year gone by.

This was found stuffed in the bottom of a WWII era rifle magazine, which was in turn inside a case of ammunition.

The dogs. Need I say more?

Trappings of the previous owner's life, discarded

The shell of this house we now call home

Our celebratory purge and bonfire on the winter solstice

Planning our houses for all of January while the snow blew sideways

The largest farm purchase to date, with the exception of the farm itself

Apple trees were planted and watered

Cows with their calves

Garth, drinking water from a Roman looking vessel in the garden

The bull arrived

The hens, abundantly satisfied with their lives

Creatively moving the timber frames into the barn for the winter

The calves having a love affair with their new favorite treat, kale


Friday, October 22, 2010

The bunker silo

This is the new frontier. You are looking at the site of the former bunker silo. At one time it was around 50 feet of silage covered in plastic, held down by tires and retained by walls on two sides. When the cows left and the goats came the bunker silo moonlit as a dump. Now the goats have gone and we have arrived, abhorring dumps and loving clean pastures. We hired people to excavate the foundations of the houses we are building and were amazed to watch the ease with which their machines moved massive amounts of dirt, so we asked them to bulldoze the bunker silo for us. What they unearthed is not pretty.

I may have mentioned the prevalence of bones and trash among the few deposits of gold we found here - aged goat manure teeming with scraps of metal, plastic bags and bailing twine, bones of all kinds and even needles and animal medications. Well, here we discovered the mother lode of contaminants. The old scraps of plastic were dwarfed by large torn tarps and giant balls of twine. I found glass bottles of insulin along side 1/2 gallon containers of ice cream, broken glass and worn out tires. There were large pieces of twisted metal as though someone blew up a car. The most distressing and ungodly finds were the piles of packaged meat. They had been rotting anaerobically for who knows how long. Some of them were torn open revealing swaths of grey and sulphur colored ooze amidst the bones. It smelled as you would expect it to. The irony was that their safe handling instruction labels were still quite legible.

That is one of the packages of meat on the left, above the triangular rock.

This tarp exhibits the lethargy and pathos that only some rubbish can. It feels good to make progress here. We are finding what was lost, namely beautiful and rich soils under years of neglect and disinterest. One day, we might even turn our cows out onto it, feeling confident they won't ingest something that could prove fatal. For now, we'll keep our gloves on and keep at it.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Oh What a Beautiful Morning!

Having been away from the farm for several weeks, being back these past few days has made me appreciate what a beautiful spot this is. I especially love the morning light, and have a few pictures to share. One morning this week, I looked out the kitchen window to see a beautiful rainbow to the west. It looks like it ends right where our waterfall is!


Sunday, October 10, 2010


The garden has been feeling and looking its age. The tomatoes plants were no longer ripening their fruit. They were sizing them up only to split them before they took on their color. I was pulling hard on the roots of a cherry tomato that had grown over a large mass of basil and the heavy smells from each of them was enough to make me think twice about what I was doing. How can this be bad if it still smells so good? But they had clearly had enough, so I continued. The beans were scaly and brittle. We began ripping those out about a week ago and planting rye grass as our winter cover.

In watching this season pass into the next we have all received a new surge of fervor about enlarging the garden and have dug more than six new beds for a spring planting. After turning a little manure into the beds we had planted this year, I am impressed with how far the soil has come. It is absolute bliss. My shovel just sinks into the dirt and what I turn over is not sewn tightly together with gnarly roots. It falls to pieces with even a mild suggestion. What will it be like in two years? Five?

The winter squash plants were the only things I was still attached to. They are an heirloom squash called 'Sweet Meat' rumored to be long keeping. To keep them the full six months after harvest they need to ripen fully on the vine. We read that they cannot ripen with temperatures below 50 and the thermometer has been hovering there on the warmer days despite my fond encouragement. We picked the first of these in September to measure its progress. It weighed 14 pounds and was a pale yellow inside. We waited at least three weeks before trying another. The second one weighed in at 25 pounds and was deeper orange, but still not where we hoped it would be. The forecast began calling for a frost followed by four days with lows in the 40s and highs in the upper 60s. I really wanted those extra four days, but they changed their tune yesterday and began predicting a widespread freeze with a low hitting 31 between 4:00 and 8:00 am. We decided to pick half the squash and leave the rest to ripen without competition. At 10:15 pm last night Garth checked the temperature. It was 30 with a clear sky. We had to go for the rest. With a headlamp and the tractor Edmund went up the to garden and we followed. We hunted through the crunchy foliage for the rest of the squash and loaded them into the bucket of the tractor. The ground sparkled with frost.

The thermometer read 22 degrees this morning. The squash plant itself looked like the wicked witch of the west in her post melt phase. I am grateful Garth had the thought to look at the temperature last night.

You are meant to cure them for two weeks inside at a temperature between 70 and 80 degrees. Our house is a solid 52 degrees most days, so no luck for them there, but at least we have them in now. The one we opened a week ago is quite good. We have incorporated it into every meal apart from breakfast and we still have one half of it untouched. If you visit us this winter I am sure you'll have some if all goes well.


Tuesday, October 5, 2010


A few months ago a young forest management specialist stopped by to offer us his services. We declined, but it was a pleasant day, and Ed and I stood in the driveway talking to him for a while. Eventually the conversation moved from proper timber harvest techniques to our plans for the farm.

"You guys have a tractor?" he asked.

"Yeah," said Ed.

"What kind?"

"A Kubota."

"Oh, wrong color!"

His John Deere cap announced where his allegiances lay, and the phrase he used referred to the distinct hues the major tractor companies use to distinguish their products from one another. There is Kubota orange, Ford/New Holland blue, Case/IH red, and of course John Deere green.

But the more I look at modern tractors, the more I am struck by how much, at least around the base of the loader, these proud colors are obscured by the warning labels that are pasted everywhere, like an overseas letter posted with the remainder of twenty different rolls of stamps.

This warns that leaving the engine in gear will not stop the tractor from rolling - the parking brake must be engaged. I met someone who had this happen, and his tractor went through a fence and ended up in a gully.

This is an obvious liability thing. The step is broad, almost a platform, and the fender has this great handle so perfectly placed that it invites having a friend or sibling ride along.

These warn of hitting electric lines with the loader, of dropping a load back onto the driver, and of rolling the tractor. I recently read that rolling tractors is still the leading cause of accidental death among farmers, despite state subsidized programs to retrofit old machines with rollover protection systems.

This one strikes me as counterproductive. I hope my tractor always starts, but if it doesn't some morning I will now be tempted to go online to find out how to short across the starter terminals.

The first two warnings - don't carry people in the bucket, and take pains to not get crushed by the bucket - are fairly commonsensical, though they are notable for their creative use of the hapless silhouette warning label man. The third label is terrifying. Perhaps it is well known in certain circles that hydraulic hoses can leak with such force that they can inject fluid deep enough into flesh to cause gangrene, but it was news to me.

This is the ultimate tractor warning label, in that it is both obvious and foreign; it is obvious that an exposed drive shaft spinning at 540 RPM and powered by a 70 horsepower diesel engine should be treated with care, but it is foreign in that almost all such blatantly dangerous situations have been removed from American life. It also has warning label silhouette man meet his most gruesome end.

As a novice to farming, these slight dangers have been among the most interesting aspects. It is not just a matter of whether I am foolish enough to drive my tractor, bucket upraised, into overhead power lines. In college all I had to worry about was crossing the street. Since then my riskiest activity has been driving. (And my car doesn't have a loader on it, so I couldn't hit the overhead lines if I wanted to.) But this morning our bull fell behind the cows, and when he saw them eating in the new break of pasture he got excited and galloped the last twenty yards. I could only stand and watch and wonder what I would do if he ever ran at me.

Unfortunately, he doesn't have any labels at all on him.