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.