Monday, November 19, 2012

Cold Weather Grazing

The other morning I was out moving the cows to a fresh break of grass and marveled at their ability and willingness to eat huge quantities of frozen grass.  The morning temperatures here at Cairncrest have been in the upper teens and low twenties, which is chilly enough to freeze the surface of the soil and heavily frost our pastures.  Cattle must have massive bloodflow to their mouths to keep them warm and mobile while munching down pound after pound of ice.  Our cows need just under 30 pounds of dry matter per day in order to fill their rumens and stay happy.  Standing pasture has much more water in it than dry hay does, so when grazing they actually consume more than 30 pounds of forage per day, which is a lot of cold, cold stuff to chew through.

The end of our third year of grazing approaches, the exact date will probably be determined by the weather, i.e. too much snow will fall for the cows to dig through for a fresh bite.  It is possible we'll run out of grass before the snows get too deep as our pasture's fertility is far from optimized and the volume of grass available to our herd diminishes by the day.  Our goal is to make it to the New Year on stockpiled pasture, thereby avoiding many days of (expensive) hay feeding.  Last year we grazed until just after Thanksgiving, but this year our management was tighter and the weather has been cooperative, so things look good for meeting our goal.

Here is a photo of where the cattle were a few days ago.  Note the line in the grass where the cows were fenced and the spot where they have yet to hit.  We're currently moving the herd away from this line, but we'll be back to harvest all that good grass in a week to ten days.  Well, actually the cows will get to do all the work of harvesting... This area was last grazed back in late July/early August.  The regrowth is pretty good because we have outwintered the animals here and all the imported hay has done wonders for the quality of the pasture.  Unfortunately this is only one small section of a much larger pasture, and most of our land in this paddock is not so lusty.

And here is a picture of the herd.  You can see the portable electric fences we use to set-up new paddocks every day or two.  Also worth noting are the water tanks.  We have to remember to drain the hoses every time we fill them this time of year or else we run into issues the next time we go out.  Frozen hoses are a royal pain.

Once it gets even colder we will set the water tank in a "permanent" spot for the winter and leave it running continually, with a drain to siphon the excess off to the little creek at the bottom edge of the paddock.  The agtitated water can then stay open for the cows even when the temperature drops way below freezing for days or weeks on end.

And here is a picture of my favorite cow in our herd, Sable.  She's docile, maintains her condition well, and raises a big calf every year.  I love cows.


Friday, October 19, 2012

My Brother the Goose Whisperer

While the competing views of nature as either bleak waste, red in tooth and claw, or a Disneyland inhabited by anthropomorphic herbivores still shape many discussions of the place of humans in the world, the practical reality is not so simple, as I'm sure you, dear reader, know well. There's lots to say and lots that's been said about the predator/prey relationship, and the strange subversion of this relationship that is animal husbandry. But this is not my interest today. Today I want to write about the unexpected, the beauty and the wonder that abound.

We are well into fall, and most of the trees on the farm have disrobed, leaving their hardened skeletons to chatter at one another through another blustery winter. On several long drives over the past weeks I've been struck by the subtle shifts in foliage that accompany descent and ascent, the confluence of temperature and time that shape the colors of autumn - drop into the Hudson valley, and the trees are two weeks behind, still merry in their reds and aflame in their oranges.

Last spring, out hunting turkey, a bobcat padded through the morning woods, twenty feet from where my brother and I sat. Its gray ears twitched at my brother's whisper, and it turned and vanished silently back into the trees.

I heard little from the coyotes last year, but of late their eerie yips and howls have filled the night, exciting a frenzy in the village dogs and keeping me from sleep with thoughts of our calves. Last week I saw one at midday work slowly through my neighbor's pasture, stalking and pouncing after mice.

But there is something on our farm beside which these encounters and observations pale. It hinges on a relationship between human and animal more profound than that of a skilled rider and his mount. The songs of humpback whales are justifiably celebrated, but here we have a music far more haunting, a music which rings out through the valley, more beautiful than the peels of the Maria Glorioso or a Bach partita, more moving than any aria, a harmony which can only be termed sublime.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

Squash Harvest

Where do we store 955 pounds of squash?

Almost anywhere. 

- Alanna

Friday, September 7, 2012

Lacto-fermented Sauerkraut Redux

Garth and I gave and received utilitarian gifts this year. I was fueled by the irritation of using things not suited to the purpose, and I can't speak to Garth's motivation. So, although we're repeating the same tasks we took up last year, we have gained something from our trials and acquired better tools, which have refined the process immensely. The small things add up. Let me get into specifics.

It is kraut time. Last year the cabbages we sowed directly were destroyed by slugs, and we had to purchase starts at a nearby greenhouse (thank you Sirkos!). Unfortunately, the starts we did buy were begun earlier than we would have wanted. This meant that last year our cabbage crop was splitting open and beginning to rot before we, or the season, were ready. But this year, with the hoop house Garth built, we were able to start them later in soil blocks and grow them larger before planting them out. It has been very successful. Look at how tight these heads are! The variety is 'Storage No. 4', which we chose because it was developed in Cortland, NY.

Last year, we tried using a sealable five gallon bucket to lacto-ferment the cabbage in. We filled a plastic bag with salt water to weight the cabbage down with. The results were tasty, but the process was touchy, and the container was never the same. I cleaned it twice and dried it in the sun before storing anything else in it, but that just wasn't enough. We had a bag of macadamia nuts - double bagged actually, if memory serves - that took on that distinct cabbagey flavor. I sacrificed the bucket to construction purposes. 

For Garth's birthday we bought these polish fermenting crocks. The design is really sophisticated. Leave a comment if you want me to go into it, but the short story is that they are ceramic, non-porous and highly suited to the task (and significantly cheaper than their German counterparts).

And Garth gave me this huge stock pot for Christmas. Although it is too big to wash in our sink, the advantages are obvious. We could both pound the cabbage at the same time without knocking elbows or wrists. 

And that's just what we did. Well, Garth mostly. We used about 4 cabbages to fill the 20L crock - roughly 35 pounds after trimming - which means the cabbages were around eight pounds each. Garth used the smaller crock for shredded beets with citrus and ginger. We've never tried that before. We'll tell you how it is in six weeks!

- Alanna

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Here is a great little peek into the power of fertilizing.  There are many, many things that a gardener can spend time doing with a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction e.g. tilling, weeding, building trellises, etc.  But in my book ensuring a fertile soil tops the list in terms of important things one should do to succeed at growing healthy and nutritious vegetables.  These two carrots were from the same seed pack and planted into two separate beds on the same day last spring.  And no, I did not take the runt from one bed and the best specimen of the other bed, these are average carrots from each spot.  The small one in the foreground (about the diameter of a dime) actually grew in mechanically superior soil we stripped of sod but otherwise left as it was "naturally".  The much larger carrot in the back grew in a bed we amended with a number of minerals our garden soil is deficient in according to "Albrechtian" principles.  We added calcium, sulfur, phosphorus, copper, zinc, manganese, and boron.  We also added a few pounds of kelp meal to the bed for trace minerals.  And some compost.  The flavor of the bigger carrot was a little better.


Monday, August 20, 2012

How the Garden Grows

These photos were taken a little over a month apart.  The second photo in the series was just a few days ago, and as you can see our garden is at its peak. Those are storage carrots in the foreground and celery and celery root to the right.  Like every year so far, our garden has had some failures and lessons to teach (I'm thinking about YOU slugs, and YOU, flea beetles!), but overwhelmingly the garden proves prosperous and bountiful.  We are set to have an amazing squash crop and it deserves a post of its own.  

I remember dubiously surveying the grassy knoll behind our house sites a few years ago as a potential garden site.  Now, it has become such a routine to walk up there to weed, play, or concoct a dinner plan from what I can pick.  It seems as though this garden has always been. 


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Cheap Excuse

It's a wonder you've stumbled upon this, given the recent drought in authorship. The photo above should explain everything. We've been building a house out of cob (a natural building technique using clay, sand and straw, and hundreds of man hours). This is what our south wall looks like up close before the plaster goes on. With a project like this on our hands we can barely manage to hold our attention anywhere else for long. That said, the farm has not fallen entirely out of our view, as it has yours. Edmund and Garth, with the help of their dad, Lach, have kept the pasture as clean as it's been since we bought it. They have mowed everywhere the cows have grazed. This means that next year we may have the smallest burdock, goldenrod, and thistle crop we've ever had. Edmund and Garth do not enjoy mowing, but until we have a larger herd of cows, a flock of sheep and a few hundred geese, we will need to clip back the main offenders to give the grass a chance to establish itself where the weeds once grew. If we can finish building the house this year, there's a standing chance we'll spend more time moving animals next year than we will equipment. Where would you put your money?

- Alanna

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"If you're going to have livestock, you are going to have deadstock."

While many elements on the farm are working together seamlessly, so seamlessly that we don't even notice them or call them to mind, there are a few exceptions. For one, this chicken is mysteriously crippled. One evening she didn't put herself into the egg mobile with the rest of the flock and was walking in a daze with her wings dragging on the ground. The next evening we found her lying on her back with her feet in the air. I thought she was dead until I noticed her breathing and saw that her eyes were still alert. Edmund righted her and she got up and walked away from us. I expected to find her dead the following day, but instead found her as you see her above - with her right wing hanging limp and the left one not far behind. I've opened a few books and mentioned it to a neighbor, but there are at this point no firm leads as to what could be going on with her. If you've seen it happen to one of your hens, tell us about it.

The other unfortunate event was that we had two calves born on the same day, to two different cows, but one of them was born dead. No one witnessed the event, but Ed found Juno standing over her dead calf very shortly afterwards. It was a bull calf and he was quite large - larger than the calves that were born weeks ago. That's the only thing that stands out as a possible cause for complications. It's very sad to have a year of energy and effort go into something that is not to be. Thankfully the other calf is a heifer. It would have been extra sad if it had been the other way around. But we are sad nonetheless.

Aside from that, the geese are growing well, the grass is as tall as the weeds, and the days are still getting longer.


Thursday, June 7, 2012

Suckling at Big Government's Teat

If you frequent our blog you may remember that last year we had several incredible rainfalls that flooded our little gully and eroded many cubic yards of our farm.  I don't know whether the torrents that affected our region of upstate played a role in the county Soil and Water Conservation Service securing grants for stream bank stabilization, or whether these things just "come through" periodically.

I do know that last winter Alanna caught wind of the possibility of said grant and added our names to the list of potential projects should the money arrive.  Well, arrive it did, in the form of a crew of guys with weed whackers, landscape fabric, plastic mesh tubes, stakes, and most importantly, tiny trees.  They spent three days working along the 1/3 mile of creek and planted willows, poplars,  red maples, red osier dogwoods - 600+ trees at the final count.

I wonder several things about our new trees.  What kind of mortality will see in the new plantation?  Why did they plant them 8 feet back from the bank when the idea is to "stabilize the stream bank"?  Will they come back and weed whack the grass around the saplings next year (just kidding I know they won't)?

So next time you feel the inclination to complain about the use and distribution of your tax dollars you can think of us because we just received a smidgen of a cent from you and every other American.  I see the potential benefit of riparian tree planting as benefiting everyone downstream of us, so I don't have compunctions about being on the receiving end of this project.  Your tax dollars at work!


Friday, May 18, 2012

Very Grown Up Geese

This is neither here, nor there, but the voracious groundhog that lives beneath our back porch is exhibiting a startling tail that I thought you might want to see. This picture was taken from our dining room table, so it doesn't have quite the same impact that seeing the tail outstretched behind the fleshy beast, just feet away from you, would. At any rate, the tail looks like a rigid, shaven pole that bursts into a pom pom of fur at the very tip. I guess the rats have been grooming him while he sleeps.  

The real reason for me writing is that our geese had their first grown up day today. We let them out of of the hoop house to graze on their own. They kept so close to each other that it was as though they were one animal. They are totally adorable. When I first went out to check on them after about four hours I couldn't find them anywhere. That was worrying. A few more anxious minutes passed before I saw them clustered in the shade. They graze the way cows wish they could. They take a few steps and then land on their bellies, nipping the ends of everything they can reach easily before getting up to waddle a few steps farther. 

Although they are predominantly sweet and submissive now, their goosely powers have already become evident. Garth said that this morning he watched them intimidate a chicken that had come by to examine them. They stuck their heads out and extended their necks like upturned cannons ready to fire. The chicken, though twice the size of one of them, was scared away quickly. 

Will they always move like one animal? Will they rule over the chickens on day? If they do, will they stop there? I don't want to be subservient to another goose. It's happened before and it's unpleasant. At least for now, they are just adorable. 


Friday, May 4, 2012

Chicks and Goslings

Our goslings came this week. They were meant to ship two weeks ago, but the hatchery had an under-hatch and couldn't send them until now. 

This is our first time raising geese. They are so different than chickens. First of all, they are not frantically afraid all the time. They are goofy and clumsy on their feet. I often see them trying to do something and 'oops!' roll over themselves.  This is true despite their being very rugged and hardy. They are ecstatic about eating grass. When I reach my arm down to do something in their brooder they waddle over to my hand, unlike the Black Australorp chicks next door that fly into a panic and huddle together in the corner, leap frogging over each other to get as far away from me as they can. The unfortunate confession I have to make is that I cut one of the gosling's beaks by accident yesterday. I was cutting up some grass into small pieces, and one of them was so eager that it went in for the blade I was cutting right then, putting its beak between the shears. It was so sad. It bled, but that seemed to be the worst of it. 

We read that if you become bonded with geese when they are young they may see you as a threat to their authority in older age and be more aggressive towards you in time. It's similar to raising bulls. The ones that stay under their mothers and are not cared for exclusively by humans are less likely to challenge humans later when they are vying for dominance. This challenges all that I've heard about the mutual affection between people and geese. Whatever the case, if what we read is so, it seems like it's going to be very hard not to become fast friends with them. 


Monday, April 23, 2012

The Ethics of Eating Meat

The New York Times recently ran an essay contest on "the ethics of eating meat", and the six winning entries were just published. They can be read here.  Both Garth and I entered the contest, though neither of our essays were published by the Times, but since I have a platform here I thought I'd share it with all you dear readers.

Small disclaimer - there was a 600 word limit, and that is the primary reason for such a string of statements without further explanation about the reasons I hold the beliefs I do.  Anyway, here it is.

My belief that eating meat is ethical is informed by several concepts I hold about the world, namely, that humans are a part of the world and dependent upon it, that human choices affect the natural world for better or for worse, and that partnering with animals under a rubric of wholisitic management is the best way to achieve maximum health for livestock, humans, and the environment we share.  

By no means are all steaks morally equivalent, and certain parameters must be met for eating flesh to be acceptable. The animal that makes up my meal must have lead a life free of inescapable manure, pain or noise, and had little exposure to fear inducing structures or machines.  Stated in a more positive manner, I eat animals whose living situations enabled expression of the full range of instincts and desires they were subject to in life.  Most slaughter houses do not yet live up to this standard, but some do, and there is a nascent movement that is pressing for industry wide reform.

Human history is inextricably linked with the consumption of other animals.  Building and fueling large brains required the concentrated source of calories that meat and offal provide.  Thousands of generations of meat eating shaped our guts and metabolisms to be optimally healthy with flesh as a component of our diet, and all the vegetarian beliefs I used to propound cannot change this simple fact.

Bad range management is one of the greatest of humanity's failings.  But improper application of grazers and wholesale disruption of ecosystems by poor grazing management in the past is not a reason to foreswear the many ecological benefits that can be gained from good pasture management. I take it as an unalloyed good that streams run clear and cool, the air smell clean, grass grow lustily and green, wild animals have space to meet their needs, that carbon is sequestered and soil made more fertile, and that we all - humans, domestic animals and wildlife, enjoy access to these environmental services.  All of these goods can be affected for the better by grazers, increasing overall carrying capacity and thereby enabling more life, of many different forms, to live.  Partnering with herd animals is the only way to achieve the high level of ecosystem vitality I currently see in a few small areas and easily envision on a much wider scale.  To fully create this type of world requires that some of the herd be culled each year, and cycling their bodies into the larger whole makes more sense to me than composting them or feeding them exclusively to obligate carnivores like dogs or cats. 

I eat meat because I see it as an integral piece of the larger puzzle we need so desperately to solve.  Our healthcare crisis could be dramatically attenuated or even reversed by eating as our ancestors did.  The potential reduction of morbidity and suffering is truly mind-boggling.  Many of our ecological problems could be solved with the help of large herds of ruminants.  The members of such herds can lead truly full lives where they find space and time to act on all their various drives.  Cutting short the lives of some animals that the others in the herd, the range itself, and we humans can all achieve greater health is a difficult choice, but it is one that life demands.  

- Edmund

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

First Calf of the Year

The first calf to drop this season is here! Garth and I were returning from a trip yesterday. We pulled up the road to the farm and from a distance we could see a small black spot moving in and around the feet of our cows. It must have happened within the hour of our arrival because she (I say this lightly because we haven't made entirely sure it's a girl yet) was still wet when we walked up the hill. Garth says this the farthest ranging calf we've had. She bounds all over the pasture, worrying her mother who is confined within the portable fence. Datura groans with anxiety while her calf frolics and hides in the grass. It's nice that human children can't do this to their mothers.

I feel very happy about how easily Kerry cows calve. This is the 6th born on our farm and we haven't had one issue to speak of. It is one of the great benefits of raising a lower yielding heritage breed. I'll take it.

- Alanna

Thursday, April 5, 2012

End In Store

This is the end of the road. I unearthed our last storage carrots from their dank waiting place in the basement. The beets are crying out to be released from this earthly shell. Many of the hundreds of storage onions we still have are pointing green fingers at the sky.

Garth has been attacking every perennial winter weed in the garden with a tool he recently found in the hops barn. It's like a one and a half inch wide knife crossed with a trowel that has one serrated edge on the left. It's entirely useful. I've been digging beds. The wind licks at my waist, scurrying up and under the bottom of my jacket.

It's too cold to plant anything now. Garth planted a variety of things during a week of fair weather that have all been killed or stopped dead in their tracks. We wait, and watch and make progress where we can.


Sunday, March 25, 2012

Garden and Greenhouse

While our garden was quite productive last year, it got off to a rather difficult start. I started our leeks, tomatoes and celery in a soil block mix I'd made months earlier, and it must have developed a robust population of some undesirable fungus, because after a fine start, all of the celery and tomato seedlings drooped and then fell over as their roots rotted away beneath them. We only managed to salvage some of the leeks by transplanting them into clean soil, and I still wonder if it would not have been more effective to simply restart them from seed. Many of them had a single, anemic thread of root, and those that survived took forever to get over the transplant shock.

Fortunately, we had planned on direct seeding as much of the garden as possible. So by April, not long after I'd realized everything I'd started was in the process of dying, I took the first warm days of the year to go plant greens, onions, cabbages and cauliflowers. Unfortunately, last year was cold, wet and overcast.

Most of that first sowing of greens failed, and the few kale plants that made it through were barely bigger than those started a month later. Despite a heavy seeding, the onions came up so irregularly that, rather than the expected thinning, Alanna spent hours consolidating them into some semblance of order. The more refined coles failed to make an appearance from the first planting, and the second planting - emerging into an only marginally better environment - was promptly devoured by flea beetles.

So in order to have a decent harvest we had to buy celery, celery root, cabbage, and onions from a local greenhouse. This was fine, though the cabbages matured too early for real storage, and the onions were a bit leggy and had some transplant shock. It was also less than ideal in that, since we did not have control over the source of the seed or the conditions in which the seedling was raised, we have less applicable knowledge for this year.

Regardless of their origins, it was clear that, in our relatively short growing season, transplants are required to be sure of a decent yield, at least for a few critical crops. And while going to the nursery again might not be perfect, it would save us the frustration of trying to raise seedlings until we had somewhere well suited to it.

We want a greenhouse, preferably a nice, big, used glass one that we can set up right beside our garden. But as other farm and house projects grow, or as we recognize their scope, the day when we will have the time and resources to pursue this appears further and further away.

Separate from all this garden stuff, we had decided to raise geese for meat this year, as an experimental alternative to broiler chickens. Chickens eat a bunch of grain, which makes them expensive and likely less healthy for human consumption. But they grow fast and are relatively easy to process. Geese eat far less grain and far more grass, making them theoretically less expensive, despite the higher up front cost of goslings. But they are harder to process, and we don't know what managing them will be like. The geese will doubtless get a few posts of their own. They relate to the current discussion in that we needed somewhere for them to live, and our old chicken tractor wasn't going to do it.

I'd been reading about portable hoophouses as a shelter for laying hens, and I realized that one could be used not only for brooding and housing geese, but also for starting seeds and for season extension in the fall.

These factors, plus the prospect of a good prototype for future farm enterprises, convinced me to make it a winter project.

I began by making two skids out of pressure treated 2 x 8's. I notched the interior of each skid to give the hoops something to rest on, and I used 2 x 4's and 2 x 6's as cross braces to create a 12' x 16' base.

For hoops I used 20' lengths of 1 3/8" chain link top rail, which I ran through a hoop bender purchased from Johnny's.

Cross connectors and a few more lengths of pipe finished the basic frame.

Constructing the end walls took a lot of fiddling, and they are the part of the house that could use the most improvement, though they will suffice.

The end result is a completely functional greenhouse, which can theoretically be pulled around the pasture by our tractor, though I have yet to attempt this. Last week we started onions, leeks, a few savoy cabbages, brussel sprouts, tomatoes, rosemary, marigolds, beets and turnips, and already we are seeing good germination.

I could not resist planting some greens in the garden, along with some early carrots and a couple rows of peas. It was in the 70's every day, and we had nothing but warm weather and clear skies in the forecast. I would feel too foolish if this weather continued with no plants taking advantage of it. I expect to see kale, miner's lettuce and several other types of greens germinating any day. Of course, a week ago Monday night was meant to be in the 30's, while now the forecast is for 19. So maybe spring isn't here quite yet.


Monday, March 12, 2012

To the Garden, Prematurely

We've had a spell of warm days, with more of the same predicted in the coming week. I've been drawn out to the garden. Pruning raspberries, black raspberries and blackberries was the most obvious place to start. It is alarming how little life is evident at ground level this time of year. A number of honeybees were coaxed outside to explore as I was. They found me more interesting than much of what surrounded us.

Today I stepped out with a shovel in hand. I aimed to turn a few beds we had planted to field peas. We hadn't touched them since they were sown and the winter had flattened what debris there was left. A scattering of hardened thistles and dandelion roots, and a patch or two of various grasses, were all that stood to offend. The soil was heavy and slick. The sun hasn't had time to draw the moisture out. The tip of my shovel made contact with ice encrusted blocks of soil a few inches below the surface. The air is warm, but winter's fingers are clenched, gripping dark places unseen. I guess I've come prematurely to the garden.

- Alanna

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Shocking Discovery II

Imagine my surprise when I saw this sack hanging between the legs of the steer we castrated months ago. What? To be fair, Garth and I had been remarking over the last two weeks about what a great head he had. We mused about how much grander his head would be if we had only left him intact, letting testosterone mold his forms from the inside out. How astute we were. Testosterone did have a dog in this hunt.

How did we get here? Well, first of all, we've had several equipment failures. People sell banding devices for castrating calves, and the ones we've bought and put to use have failed unanimously. They come with a few metal prongs that you put a small rubber band around. You squeeze the two handles together to open the taught rubber band wide enough to fit around two small testicles. Once on the animal, you leave the rubber band in place and slowly, over a number of days, it cuts off the circulation to them entirely. You are left with an emasculated animal who will not fight with your bull for dominance or breed an unsuspecting young heifer. This is what we want. This is not what we have. In Gonzo's case, one of the prongs of the 'elastrator' broke in the act and Edmund and Garth were forced to find another way. In a pinch they used the resources they had and resorted to tying a very tight band around them. It looked like it would work for a number of months, but apparently his testicles fought back. A thin white line now traces where this band lay. Oh well.

We've been pondering what to do about this. It's a management problem. He's been in with the heifers, but now we don't want to risk him breeding one of them. We could call the vet and pay to have him castrated. Now that he's a larger animal this would be a more involved and painful process. I'm not inclined to put him through that. The only other option is slaughtering and butchering him before it gets too warm. This is likely what we'll do. As a steer he was set for an eventual slaughter a few years from now, so nothing dramatically different is awaiting him. It's just that we thought we had years to watch him grow and now it doesn't look like we do.

We're on the market for an elastrator that works. If anyone has a lead, or an old one from your milking days that never let you down, give us a shout. We could use a quality product.


Thursday, March 1, 2012

Shocking Discovery

One of the defining characteristics of reading or writing fiction, at least in the vast majority of cases, is the strange intimacy that can be fostered between the reader or writer and a character. To experience another person's thoughts, words, and reactions with, and to some extent within them, is a feat which other mediums can skirt, but which none can achieve as fully as fiction.

I often consider this when I think about our animals. It is one thing to attempt to relate to a human - real or imagined - on this level. But to attempt it with an animal seems like a fool's errand. What could it ever really be besides hokum? Wouldn't the act of transferring a creature's thoughts into human language wholly debase them? In part this opinion may have been shaped by a novel titled "Rat," written by Andrzej Zaniewski, read by me as a freshman in college. It attempted just this - to describe the life and times of a rat, from a rat's perspective. In it the rat travels far and wide, doing ratty things. In my dealings with them, rats do not appear to have particularly rich interior lives, and Zaniewski seems to agree with my assessment. If memory serves [spoiler alert] there is an ambiguous hint of self-awareness in the final chapter, but for all the potential symbolic interpretations of the novel, it's pretty rough reading.

Whether this formative experience put me off of it, or whether I simply lack the imagination to bridge the interspecies gulf, I have never felt qualified to attempt to write something from the perspective of our livestock, despite the time I spend pondering how they view the world. So imagine my surprise when I found, tucked behind a hay bale in the barn, a few pages of a diary. I did not write it. Alanna did not write it. Yet it referenced events of the past few days. As impossible as it seems, the entries must have been made by a resident of the barn. When I looked over the pages, put down in a surprisingly tidy cursive hand, I realized that I would never think of barnyard animals with the prejudices I had previously held towards them. I searched for more of the diary, since it seemed to be a work in progress, but found no more pages, though I do not doubt they exist. I offer this transcription of these scant entries in the hopes that they will broaden the minds of all who read them.

Feb. 20th - The tall one came in this morning, like he does every day, but then he opened the other door, and a whole bunch of other cows came in. The tall one rearranged a bunch of gates (I swear, sometimes it seems like this is all he does) and the other cows came into our section of the barn. They'd been away for months, so I was excited to see most of them, even though a couple of the older cows used to pick on me, but it was soon clear that little had changed. Everyone really only cares about who's dominant and who gets to be first in line to the hay feeder. Even Mystery, who I used to be really close with, kept head butting Sable in the ribs. I understand doing it once or twice to establish hierarchy, but after that it's like, 'Okay, you've made your point, can we please give it a rest now?' But this evening I did have a nice talk with her about 'Inception,' which I finally saw last week. She didn't like the ending, but I thought it totally made sense.

Feb 21st - The tall one gave us a new bale today. It was a little better than the last one, but with all the extra cows in the barn, I basically had to wait until lunch to have my breakfast. I've got horns and the other cows don't, so I could push them around if I wanted to, but I'm not going to be a jerk just because everyone else is. The calves had to wait outside with me, and even though they're really nice, they aren't much for conversation yet. They still spend about half their time frisking about like they were still two month olds, even though they're closer to a year. Grow up already.

This afternoon the tall one came back and separated us into groups. He is SO ANNOYING! It's like, I understand that it would be too crowded if we all stayed here in the barn, and yes, it probably is past time for the calves to be weaned, but you can't expect us to be happy about dividing us up when we've just got back together. Also, it's totally unfair that he can touch the fence and not mind, but whenever I do it hurts like the blazes. Maybe his boots keep him from grounding. I'll have to think about it more.

Feb 22nd - The tall one gave us a bale of good hay. I love him! So that was a good start to the day, but things went downhill from there. I generally try to be a calm cow. 'When something angers you, look within yourself and breath before speaking a word.' That's what my yoga instructor always says, and even though I haven't taken a class since I completely tore up my hip flexor doing Warrior 3 last year, I still think of those words all the time, and I try to live by them. But whenever the chickens come into the barn, I totally flip my lid. It's not just that I'm shocked (and yes, a little disgusted) by what Werner Herzog termed as "the enormity of [their] stupidity," it's also that they're so close to the ground and quick, I can barely see them when they're underfoot. And this afternoon when I was bedding down to ruminate I felt something crunch against my stomach. I didn't even need to stand up to know I'd lain on an egg, and there's no way to get that out of my winter coat. I haven't yet, but I'll get one of those buggers on my horns soon, and then we'll see who's clucking.

Feb. 23rd - The shorter one gave us a bale of good hay. I love her so much. Sable and Juno and Gonzo came down yesterday, but today it was just Gonzo. The calves don't seem to mind, and I was getting tired of their mooing, so it's fine by me. But Gonzo somehow went through the fence, so he's back, at least for the time being. He's too small to be really pushy, but I still wish he would go back up where he's meant to be.

Feb. 24th - The good news is that Mystery got to stay down here with me. She's seeming more and more like herself every day, even though she did mount me for no reason at all this morning. The bad news is that Vona also got to stay. I've met Kerries like her before, and they are the worst. She thinks because her great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents came from Ireland, she should wear a crown of shamrocks and prance around like the queen of the Emerald Isle. Sometimes she speaks with a put-on accent, which is frankly embarrassing, and she spends so much time humming 'Danny Boy' that I'm going to lose it if I hear it one more time. Worst of all, it's completely rubbing off on Gonzo, who's constantly talking about Guinness and how much better Guinness is in the 'motherland' and how he'll go there once he's old enough. I just refuse to engage. It's pathetic. He'll probably party and end up putting a hole in the fence on St. Patty's day. I hope he's out of the barn by then.

Feb. 25th - I CANNOT wait for the growing season to start up again. Sure, it's more work to graze, but the food is so much better, and at least it's something to do. Vona is completely insufferable. The tall one was listening to Sports Talk Radio while he was working on something or other, and I don't care about sports AT ALL, especially not basketball, but I still spent an hour listening. Even I have to admit that Jeremy Lin is a pretty compelling story, but I'd really rather be outside plowing through a foot of clover and orchard grass.

Feb. 26th - I'm thinking maybe I should assert my authority. Sure, I'm a little small, but I do have horns, and now that Juno's gone, someone has to fill the void. I could be a way better boss cow than Juno ever was. I mean, we all like food, but she ONLY liked food. I could lick any cows face, and they would usually lick mine in return - it's just common courtesy - but try to go near Juno and she'd be all, 'Do you have better food than what I'm eating? Do you know where better food is? No? Okay, I'm going to head butt you.' It was pathetic. It worked, but everyone hated her. I think I could be a much better leader. First order of business: no references to Ireland. Just kidding. But Vona and Gonzo are the worst. Anyways, I should eat something and ruminate for a few hours. Mystery and I are planning on attending a poetry slam down in Oneonta. I know it's going to be terrible, just a bunch of skinny kids in dumb glasses spouting off whatever asinine rhymes come to mind, and there'll be nothing good to eat, so I'll end up putting down a whole plate of cookies, but at least it's something to do. Here comes the shorter one. Hopefully she'll give us some good hay.


Monday, February 13, 2012


My mother recommended the book Eating Animals several times over the past few months. I had been aware of the book when it was published, but I felt little desire to read it at the time. I knew that the author, Jonathan Safran Foer, was a vegetarian, and I knew the book was more concerned with factory farming than with husbandry. I assumed that nothing in the book would be news to me, that I would agree with it about factory farming, and disagree with it in a couple of other areas.

Not to brag, but these predictions were pretty dead on. But I nevertheless truly enjoyed the book. It is well written, and it is more Socratic than polemic in its approach to the morality of eating animals. An early example - Foer discusses whether we should be more accepting of eating dogs and cats. Even when he describes the atrocities of factory farming, he does so in a straightforward manner, often letting the words of slaughterhouse workers stand on their own.

Where do I disagree with the book? It does not go into great depth concerning the supposed health benefits of a vegetarian diet, and this superficial treatment in no way altered my views on what constitutes sound nutrition. I also would have enjoyed a more nuanced examination of two aspects.

The first is the ability of well managed pasture to sequester carbon, and the role this might play in offsetting the supposed environmental impact of raising ruminants. The second critique, which I believe applies to virtually every discussion of diet in relation to land use, is the failure to consider the productivity of land in the long term. What I mean by this is that, while it is certainly true that raising a year's worth of vegetarian food requires a far smaller area than raising a year's worth of animal products, this does not take into account inputs. While even perfectly managed pasture, at least here in the eastern portion of the country, will require some mineralization to stay balanced, the required inputs are miniscule compared to those needed to keep a piece of cultivated land productive.

But the book is worth reading in that it relentlessly asks questions of us that we should be asking ourselves. The food choices we make, as much as we prefer not to think about it, have profound impacts in the world. The fact that we do not see these impacts does not make them any less real, and does not make us any less culpable. Even if you, like me, think you know all about this, I would still recommend the book. If nothing else it is a visceral, rather than simply intellectual, reminder of the unsavory truth.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012


In the middle of this, my second winter tending chickens, I've been reflecting on a few changes made since last year that have offered more happiness for myself and for our flock.

In late August I purchased fifty pounds of an organic, locally grown wheat from the Gianfortes (check them out because they are really wonderful). It had been a wetter and wilder growing season than anyone would have lked, and the wheat I bought hadn't dried properly. I stored 25 pounds in a bucket with a lid in our pantry, and froze the other 25. The 25 pounds in the bucket had too high a moisture content and slowly molded.

The upside is that the grains still have enough energy within them to sprout, so I've been transforming this loss into an ecstatic pleasure for the chickens. Those apples above are unfortunate victims of an overactive refrigerator that decided to blast everything one night while we slept. I had them frozen for months, thinking I would bake something and decided to get real the other day. The chickens decimated them gladly within minutes.

I've taken up the practice of scraping the roosts and the floor clear of poop when I enter the egg mobile. There is a long running argument in my head about whether or not this is a waste of my time. The clarity I've found is in the word agriculture. This little arrangement - this house, the birds, the feeding, the watering, the cleaning, the egg collecting - would not be happening were it not for me (we) and our human interest in this relationship. I don't poop on the floor, and I don't like walking in poop in the floor. So, I've become content to let this action be a reflection of my values and let the chickens keep theirs. It feels great to have a clean house, even if it is a chicken house. I collect most of the refuse into a 5 gallon bucket that I empty into a large feed bag when it's full. A few handfuls of saw dust keep the odors down, and we intend to compost it in the spring with the manure we collect in the barn from the cows.

These are the incredible tools for poop scraping.

The dance begins again.

Apparently I am not the only one who sees the value in chicken manure. A mouse (or rat?) has now found my stash and ripped into it. What a (un?)fortunate fellow.

Lastly, I hammered some long nails into the vertical posts of the egg mobile and cut their heads off with our bolt cutter. Now I can plunge the occasional mushy vegetable from our store onto this spear, and the chickens entertain themselves at length in the pecking.

They escort me to the gate most days. Even though the bucket was emptied before them, they can't help but hold out hope for more. They're never rewarded in this, but I enjoy their company.

- Alanna