Sunday, August 29, 2010

Get it while the getting's good

The light is quickly fading, rushing to a place beyond where I can see, feigning shy and tired. We are scrambling to bring in what we can while we can, kicking around in the abundance of all the light and water that has passed through and over our land this summer. The wild animals here are no exception. They feel the present urgency as well as we do. Which is why they are bringing in their harvest too.

This may have been what the predator who consumed two of our chickens saw before finishing them off. Having just posted about our Egg Mobile, you are aware of the safe living quarters many of our chickens find themselves in. What I didn't mention in that post was that three of our chickens, two Dark Cornish hens and one Silver Pencilled rooster, had decided to go it alone. They stopped roosting with the other chickens more than a month ago. I had been in awe of the three of them. They separated themselves from the flock, rejecting the comforts to be found there (reliable portions of grain and fresh water) and were thriving on a completely foraged diet. They drank water from the large tank we put out for the cows. They wandered the fields in a tight little group by day and lay their eggs high in the barn atop a mound of hay. We think they were fond of a roosting in the large lilac bush by the gate to the pasture, but they could have been anywhere. Garth and Edmund found a number of scattered feathers on the path to the barn the other morning. They left one Dark Cornish hen. Will she conform and join the rest? I hope so.

We dug the remaining beds of waxy red potatoes yesterday. We brought in quite a haul.

You can leave them in the soil and store them there until you are ready to eat them, but the soil here is very moist right now. Their tops have been withered for about three weeks. With the scab worsening and competition from other hungry mouths below the surface, it seemed imperative to gather them from the ground now. We are taking the advise of a book on root cellaring and curing them for two weeks before storing them. They are laid out on shelves of an unused book case upstairs. They are meant to sit like this at a temperature between 60 and 75 degrees without exposure to wind, sun, or moisture. I covered the front of the shelf with a large moving blanket. During this time they will repair any damage to their skins and harden off, making them more rot resistant than they would be otherwise. I've never done this before. It is amazing that a potato will heal itself prior to storage if given the right conditions.

And even though we are preoccupied with gathering and storing we are also planting things out. Edmund and I planted 53 small hazelnut trees on Friday. We planted most of them along the western side of our garden on about 4 foot centers. They will grow like shrubs and provide a windbreak for the garden. We planted the remainder along the North side at a greater distance from one another to maximize their fruit yield. If we keep the weeds down around them and fertilize them heavily next year, we may get a hazelnut crop in three years. This is all part of our plan to have living fences that will act both as boundary and as sanctuary, drawing birds and insects far and wide.

Today I plan to plant a cover crop over the beds we've harvested thus far. Either field peas or rye grass, depending on how I feel. These green manures will capitalize on what little light we have left.


Monday, August 23, 2010

Egg Mobile

At the end of May, Garth was the lucky guy at a poorly attended equipment auction who got a fine deal on two sets of running gear. If you are at all like me, you don't know what running gear means. It is basically a metal frame with four wheels and a tongue at the front where a tractor can attach to it. The pair he bought were not fancy, but they were in useable condition. One of them has become the designated wagon for hauling things on the farm and the other is now the 'egg mobile'.

The goal was a chicken house on wheels. We have been using a rotational grazing system with the cows which concentrates their attention (and their manure) in small areas at a time. After we move the cows to a new pasture, we pull the chickens to where ever the cows have just been. In theory, the chickens reduce the fly and parasite population by scratching through the manure and eating the larvae therein. At dusk they hurry back to the egg mobile where they can safely roost all night. We keep fresh water and cracked grains available to them to supplement their diet. We have posted photos of the other pastured animal contraptions we have made in the past, but this one really does permit them to cover a lot of ground and let them have their choice of a wide range of forage.

There have been times when the piles of scrap metal around have felt like an ugly burden, but this was not one of them. When the project was complete Garth was happy to report that the only brand new materials he used were the hook and eye pieces that latch the doors closed. It brings a bit of vaudeville charm that wouldn't otherwise be gracing our pastures.

The chickens have been enjoying the freedom within their routine. Someone props open the door to their place in the morning after the cow chores and they are left alone until sundown when they are closed in for the night. I went to bring them some compost today and found 1/2 of the flock had joined the cows while the other half was pecking around in tall grass near the wagon.

The chicken with its leg lifted is the finest example of the Silver Penciled Plymouth Rock breed that we have. The black and white one in front was supposed to look like that, but is not true to type. The zebra striped one on the right is an extra that the hatchery threw in, most likely a Barred Rock. The two in the rear are Rose Comb Brown Leghorns.

So we have been calling it the egg mobile since its inception in anticipation of brighter days to come when the birds are actually mature enough to lay. We had not filled their nesting boxes with saw dust because we just did not think they were big enough yet. Then one day, about two weeks ago, before readying the barn for Ebon to arrive, I walked past this overturned water tank and noticed... our first egg! We filled their nesting boxes with saw dust in a hurry after that and have been collecting between 2 and 5 eggs a day ever since.

Like the eggs of most young hens, they are small, but they will get bigger as the birds mature. The deep color of their yolks reveal the vitamin rich forage in their diet. Chickens fix beta-carotene in both their yolks and their whites. We cracked 6 of our eggs and two from a dozen that I had bought at a farmers' market for comparison (they are the two with larger yolks). For the record, I have bought many eggs from local farmers that look a lot better than that pale one and we obviously did not know how pallid it was until we had cracked it. The other large one looks better, good even, but in any light, our eggs stand out.

It is very troubling to think of the millions of eggs being recalled at the moment due to salmonella contamination and the scores of sickened people. A revolting inversion of 'farming', concealed at most times, is again revealing its true form on a grand stage. I am sorry to be one of the few Americans thrilled by the prospect of eating eggs right now, but these eggs deserve to be celebrated. Chickens, carry on!


Monday, August 16, 2010

The forest bears fruit

A few days ago, Normandy and Edmund came home from a long walk through the woods, each with a handful of blackberries held in a large leaf. They professed there were tons more to be had and described the route they followed. Garth and I grabbed two dozen pint sized cardboard containers and two large boxes and bounded up the hill and into the woods beyond the gated pasture. Among the trees we found large patches of blackberry foliage but fewer fruiting plants than we had imagined. We waded through their gangly stems and sharp thorns for an hour and came down the hill with only two pints filled.
I have been calling them blackberries, but they are not like other blackberries I have had. They are wild. They offer a fleeting sweet burst followed by a lingering bitterness reminiscent of grapefruit.

Naturally, I poured heavy cream over them, but this wasn't a perfect marriage. The citrusy bitterness cut right through the cream. The cream and these berries were like ill matched dance partners spinning madly in opposite directions in my mouth.

The following day, after a salad bathed in balsamic and olive oil, I threw a few berries into the pool of dressing on my plate. The acidity of the balsamic vinegar was such a fine compliment to their subtle sweetness. If you find yourself with a fickle berry in the future, take it on a walk through the savory side.

These little jewels are ripe elderberries. The bushes are scattered about in one of our pastures. Garth and Edmund harvested two three gallon buckets full. They picked in the pouring rain. The birds had taken about 60% of the available fruit. I am comforted knowing that birds have such good taste.

Garth and I sorted through them, separating the ebony berries from their magenta stems. The fruit weighed in at 2 lbs.

Garth has been talking about making an elderberry mead this fall, but now that the harvest is upon us, he is planning in earnest.
If you have ever made mead, please relate your success or your failure. We are in uncharted waters.


Friday, August 13, 2010

Ebon Arrives

At the table this morning our conversation drifted to bulls as it often has in the last few weeks. I commented that I thought bulls and bullishness were appropriate symbols for the titans of Wall Street. Their size and strength is apparent from a distance. Garth chimed right in with, "yeah, they are hyper-masculine and dumb." Bulls can also be dangerous. There is an old adage that one should, "never turn your back on a bull". They may be large and lumbering most of the time, but if something sets them off, they can move with tremendous speed and power.

So why do we want to put ourselves in harm's way? There is another option, namely artificial insemination (AI) if one is entirely opposed to having a bull on a farm, but it too has complications. Often it takes more than one try for AI to take, somebody has to watch the cows very closely in order to detect when they are in heat, and the cows have to be brought into some sort of headlock or chute to attempt impregnation. These are all surmountable obstacles and we intend to use AI in the future for some of the breeding we do. In fact we've already tried a straw (of semen) on our heifer, but we don't know whether it took.

A major advantage of bulls over AI is a tight breeding window. Cattle come into heat roughly every three weeks until they're bred successfully. Because bulls miss less heat cycles than humans they can get a lot of cows pregnant in a short period of time. Since our long term goal is to have a seasonal dairy we want all our cows to calve in the spring and dry off sometime near Christmas. Calving in the spring will only happen if they get pregnant in the late summer or early fall.

All this brings us to our current situation - Ebon is a bull. He's among the largest of the Kerry bulls out there, or so we hear. We have not purchased him, we have agreed to feed him for the winter in exchange for having him here now to breed our cows.

Overall I like the look of Ebon in profile. The second photo is of him and a cow, demonstrating the sexual dimorphism that cattle exhibit. He has a deep chest which means he has plenty of intrathoracic capacity for heart, lungs, and digestive tract. Capacity in these organs is important for animals that harvest the majority their forage themselves. Most modern breeds receive high energy rations and as a result many cattle breeders don't focus on this pretty basic trait. I like that his muzzle is wide as it allows for more grass per bite. I like that he is very masculine - large shouldered, strong necked, broad headed, and, ahem, - well hung.

On the downside I'd prefer he were a little shorter overall. His feet don't track in as straight a line as I'd like to see. And his front feet angle in under his body a bit more than is ideal. But the good outweighs the bad on this guy, so I'm happy to have him here.

I will be doing some more posts on cattle, albeit infrequently. Stay tuned for more on rotational grazing and pastures.


Monday, August 9, 2010

Fall Planting

Though we have not written much about it, the garden has been a great success this year, largely due to Alanna's regular attention. All of us have been wanting to get more involved, so Ed and Normandy turned a couple beds and I planted them with fall greens. The muffin tin above is the very clever method we came up with to keep the seeds straight. BUt more on that later. Here's what else is going on.

The onions are growing well, though we aren't sold on group planting. The theory is that onions can grow right next to each other without impairing their growth, so long as they have extra space around them. Eliot Coleman advocates it to cut down on transplant efforts - four plant can be put in at once - and he is usually a reliable source. But even with generous plant spacing we have noticed a big difference between the onions planted close and those planted in twos or singly. Next year we might try direct seeding as early as possible and giving them more space.

The asparagus we started from seed is bigger and bigger, though we are not yet sure if it will flower. We hope it will this year so that we can remove the female plants now while their roots systems are still relatively small.

It's lucky we planted the winter squash on a bed that will have berries in the future, and thus has ten feet on each side. The two plants have already overrun this buffer and are snaking into the tomatoes and raspberries and down paths.

But they have set lots of flowers and fruit, and if we get a good crop we'll be happy. We are growing a variety called Harris Sweet Meat. They are supposed to look like eight pound green pumpkins, but right now none are bigger then baseballs.

Alanna developed this clever trellis system for the beans. We got them in late, but they should start bearing soon.

This picture doesn't do it justice, but this beet is indicative of what a success this year's crop has been. Eventually we hope to have a root cellar that justifies growing huge quantities of these and other vegetables that store, but in the meantime we're exploring temporary ways of achieving the same thing.

And this is me leveling the bed and incorporating the amendments. Alanna's step brother Ben helped with the planting, and we managed to put in two types of kale, arugala, mustard greens, lettuce, da cheong chae, chinese cabbage, (which I doubt will have time to mature), and radishes. We have never gardened here before, so everything is an experiment this year. Next year we'll have a much better idea about planting times, and we hope the slugs will be less prolific, but on the whole it has been great.

I'll also mention that tomorrow we expect an exciting arrival.

Friday, August 6, 2010

So long, Silo!

Today the silo was taken down by Martin's Silo. Though iconic in many ways, we have viewed it as an eye sore at worst, and useless at best. Silos are used to make silage, a fermented grain used to feed animals in the winter. We do not plan on feeding our cows silage. Creative uses were briefly considered: use the cement blocks as part of the future cheese cave, or root cellar, run water down the walls in the winter and create the first "indoor ice climbing" in Central NY, make it into a Rapunzel-like tower for guest to stay in when they come to visit. In the end, we decided to take cash money for the thing. Yes, that's right! Martin's Silo actually paid us to take it away since they have someone they are going to turn around and sell it to. It's great to know that what we do not need or want is going to be used by someone else.

Below are some photos taken throughout the day. The workmen set up yesterday and took the domed top down, and today the rest came down at an amazing rate. Also, I threw in some cow pictures just for fun.

- Normandy