Category Archives: Random Farming Adventures

Blizzard

Well, here’s the official tally after the snowfall:

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15″ of snow today.

15″ of snow is great for snowmen, snowball fights, sledding, and getting days off of teaching school.  It is not so nice for keeping animals fed and watered.  Just walking through 15″ of snow to check on the animals is a serious workout.  I’ve decided I need snowshoes.  Shoe size is 10.5, if anyone would like to make a snowshoe donation.

Here’s things you can’t do in 15″ of snow on top of 1/4″ of ice:

  • Haul more water to the back pasture.
  • Carry round bales with the tractor.
  • Run the tractor, period – 2-wheel drive is no good.
  • Find all of the eggs.

Still, you’ve got to get hay to the animals somehow.  So Lindsey, her brother, and I made hay sleds by bundling 60-150 lbs of hay (depending on the person) up in tarps and pulling them along behind us for the 1/2 mile back to the cattle.  2 trips for me and 1 for each of them did the trick.  Not going to lie, that is a workout.  Got to do it again tomorrow.

I vow to have the hay shed for the animals built before next winter.  That way the hay and the animals are both in the same spot.

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You can have lambs born in a blizzard.  We had twin rams yesterday.  They are fine.  After they were born we forced the sheep into their shelter and locked them in.  They had been riding the blizzard out under some trees.  Sillies.

The worst news is that I think Fitbit has it out for me.  According to mine I took 14,000 steps, walked 6.5 miles in 15″ of snow pulling heavy sleds of hay and/or herding animals for portions of it, climbed 11 flights of stairs, and had almost 2.5 hours of high activity and yet I still did not hit my calorie burn for the day.

I may drop the Fitbit in the snow.  Accidently.

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Saving a Cow

Yesterday we had to assist with a heifer for the first time.  It was a learning experience all around, which I guess is what people say when things don’t go as well as they should.

Like all emergencies, this one actually began its course long before.

This heifer was not supposed to have been bred when she was.  I bought her as a 13-month old last winter and didn’t get back home with her until the middle of the night.  I unloaded her into the pasture with the other females and a loan 6-month old bull calf that was still nursing.  I figured that I would separate that calf the next morning.  I have since figured out that the weaning was about 12 hours too late.

In that small window of time, a number of things had to go perfectly (or perfectly awry, from my perspective).  The bull had to be old enough and physiologically mature enough to do the job.  I thought, obviously incorrectly, that he was too young.  The heifer had to be in heat as well.  She was showing some signs of heat, but it’s really hard to tell on an animal that has just traveled across the country and I attributed what I was seeing to travel stress.  Again, I was wrong.

The next morning I removed the bull calf for weaning and the new heifer settled in nicely with the rest of the girls.

Fast forward 8 months…

The heifer was obviously heavy-bred, meaning that she was due soon.  It was now October.  My thoughts were basically, “Dammit.”

There were a couple of problems I could foresee coming.  First, the heifer was bred 6 months before I intended her to be and although she has good size for a heifer she was not as big or mature as she would have been with another 6 months of growth on her.  Second, the bull calf that impregnated her is not a low-birth weight bull like our other bull, the one I had intended to use on her and that I ran her with over the summer for a spring 2016 calf.  Above-average calf size and young heifers are not a good combination.

So I backtracked to the date of the cow crime, circled the due date on the calendar, and began to watch the heifer carefully.

The due date came and went.

Two more weeks passed.

I began to think, “Maybe she’s not really due until spring and she’s just showing a lot of udder development.”

‘Twas not to be. 

I came home from work to a heifer in the middle of a prolonged birth experience.

The calf was stuck.

First I inspected the calf.  It was oriented correctly, at least the front end.  The front feet were pointed in the right way and the nose and mouth were out of the birth canal.  Sadly, it looked like the calf was dead.  The tongue was still and the calf was not breathing.  The heifer was cooperative, possibly due to sheer exhaustion.

I tried hand-pulling the calf, in rhythm with the heifer’s contractions.  It would not budge.  At all.

Luckily Lindsey and Tyler, a student from our high school, were both around.  I grabbed them for help and brought a set of calf pulling chains, a rope and come-along, and the tractor, just in case.

I tried the calf pulling chains first, sliding them around the front feet of the calf.  I placed my feet on the heifer’s rump to brace myself and pulled on the chains, again in rhythm with the heifer’s contractions.  Still the calf would not move an inch.  The head, neck, shoulders, and entire rear portion of the calf’s body were stubbornly stuck inside the heifer.

At this point, the calf had still shown no signs of life.  My focus now began to solely be about getting the calf our and saving the heifer.

I ditched my gloves, rolled my sleeves up, and stuck my hand in the birth canal feeling around and searching for the source of the problem.  I couldn’t make it to the back legs; I couldn’t get my hand past the calf’s shoulders.  It was too tight.

So we attached the calf pulling chains to the rope and come-along, attached that to the loader on the tractor, and tried to pull the calf out using the come-along.  No movement.

We reset the equipment and tried again.

Nothing.

At this point I’m trying not to panic.  It’s getting really dark.  The calf is obviously dead and not moving out of the birth canal.  The heifer is exhausted.  We’ve got to get this calf out.

So I hop on the tractor and ever so slowly start reversing it away from the heifer.  The heifer starts to slide along the ground towards the tractor.  Tyler and Lindsey basically hop behind the animal and throw all of their strength and weight against the heifer to stop the sliding and provide more resistance.

Finally the shoulders come free.

I stop the tractor and run up to the heifer to feel around inside for the calf’s back feet again.  I don’t want to pull any more without them being in the right position.  If they were pointed down we could really hurt the heifer.  Thankfully the back feet were perfectly positioned.  The calf was in position all along.  It was just a very big calf in a young heifer.

Satisfied everything was in the right spot, I jumped back on the tractor and Lindsey and Tyler took up their positions at the back of the heifer.  This time, the calf finally came free.  I gave Tyler and Lindsey big thanks and let them go.

I inspected it by checking for breath and pupil response, but it was dead and had been for some time.  I quickly turned my attention to the exhausted heifer.

She had me worried.  She didn’t seem to be able to even sit up on her own.  For 15 minutes she would lay still and periodically try to sit up.

I realized that we had her back pointing downhill.  I’ve heard/read/something that cows can’t always. Get up if their backs are pointed downhill, so I grabbed her front hooves and spun her around.  That’s a little harder than that sentence made it sound, but it solved the problem.  The heifer was able to sit up.

I brought her a 5-gallon bucket with water and a kelp/vitamin B/electrolyte concoction we use when an animal is stressed.  She was very thirsty and downed the whole bucket in a moment.  So I brought her another, of plain water this time.  She downed that, too.  So the individual bucket brigade continued.  The third bucket she didn’t finish, so I sat down and waited with her for a while to see if she would or could get up.

After about an hour, she made an attempt.   She almost acted like her back leg was asleep, which would have been understandable.  She laid back down.

Satisfied that she was looking better and was at least fighting, I left her be for an hour as I finished chores in the dark and got a bite of supper.  After eating, I came back to check on her and she had gotten up and moved to the trough we here she was downing more water.

The next morning I found her at the hay. Ring with the rest of the herd, munching contentedly although with a slight limp when she walked.  I thought that the limp was to be expected.

Two days later, no limp.

It appears we have saved the life of the cow, which may have been the best outcome we could have hoped for that day.  The saga will continue for another 18 months, though.  We will attempt to rebreed her this summer and see if she can deliver a calf in the spring of 2017.

Fingers crossed.

***PSA: Don’t put heifers that you don’t want in with bull calves, even if you think the calves are too young and even if it’s only overnight.  If you forget, read the above story again.  /PSA***

Pasture Progress

Well, fall is falling and winter is coming.

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The pear trees are usually the last to change color and lose their leaves.

We have officially made it into December without feeding any hay this year.  Last year we only got to early October and most years we’ve had to start feeding hay in late October or early November.

We’ve been able to do this for 2 main reasons.  First, we’ve fenced in more pasture so that we have more grazing area available to rotate our ruminants onto.  Second, rotational grazing has really begun to positively impact the grass sward in our pastures.

The first reason is obvious.  More land available to graze equals more grass to rotate the animals onto and longer rest periods between grazing cycles.  Both factors extend the grazing season for the animals.

The second reason is more subtle.  Grasses and clovers respond much better to grazing than other plants, so their growth is favored over that of other plants during rotational grazing.

Non-rotational grazing, practiced by most producers, has a negative impact on the health of the soil and the pasture.  The animals are never or seldom moved so they keep coming back to their favored plants, eventually killing them and leaving in the pasture only the plants that they do not prefer.

In management-intensive rotational grazing like we practice, the cattle are tightly grazed and moved before damage to plants can occur.  They eat what they like, trample the rest, and then they are moved so that they area can recover.  Since grasses and clovers have evolved to be grazed, they respond faster than “weedy” plants.  The grasses and clover thicken vegetatively, sending up new growth and runners to improve the pasture sward.  This means that there is a constantly increasing volume of grass available, as long as the new growth is not grazed too soon.

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Sunset comes early in the winter.

It would be nice to be able to graze all the way through winter at some point.  Hay is the single largest expense to raising the cattle and sheep.

However, feeding hay does have some definite advantages.

First, it gets dark early in the winter.  Since we work at school as teachers, we often get home around 4 pm.  In the winter this does not leave very much daylight to move the cattle around in the winter.  It is a definite time-saver to put hay out instead of moving the cattle to new pasture.

Second, since we buy hay rather than cut it ourselves, we are basically importing fertility to our farm in the form of winter hay.  The hay is grown by our neighbors and eaten by our cattle.  Their manure from processing the hay is then deposited on our fields, increasing our fertility.  This is a great substitute for purchasing chemical fertilizer from a bag.  Yes, the hay costs money.  But it is scarcely more than it would take to make it ourselves in terms of fuel, time, equipment, and maintenance and has the added benefit of subtracting our need to purchase manure for fertilizing our fields.

Progress is being made.

Count the Hogs Game

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A farmer has to be able to count quickly and accurately to make sure that all of the animals under his care are present.  The first sign of any issue – predator, illness, injury, birth – is an animal that is not keeping up with the herd.  Once all the animals have been accounted for, the farmer can then visually assess each animal for health and vigor.  Also, sometimes a particular farmer has a 2-year-old who must count everything all the time.  Either way, you’ve got to count your livestock once a day.

It sounds easy, but it definitely takes practice.  Want to try?

See how many hogs you can count in the photo above.

Remember, you’ve got a number of advantages in the photo that aren’t normal for farmers in real-life.  First, the photograph makes all the animals still.  Second, you don’t have to consider how many animals might be in the woods or elsewhere, just how many are in the photograph.

Give it a shot, come up with your number, and then scroll down for the correct answer.

Leave us a comment about whether you were right or not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Voilà!

pigs on a hill #

 

Another Growing Season in the Books

It’s been a ridiculous amount of time since I’ve blogged.  I probably should apologize, but I’m not sure if anyone reads this anyway.  But with a 160-acre farm, a full-time teaching job, a wife, and a young son (oh yeah, that is new, too) I feel like blogging definitely falls on the low end of my priority scale.  You understand.

Good Life Ranch has grown and changed a great deal since December 2012, which is the next blog post down the page.

I’ll try to go through the most exciting (for me) changes and improvements we’ve made, in no particular order.

#1 – We traded our goat herd for hair sheep.

 

St. Croix sheep at sunset

 

Not everyone made it into the picture, but you get the idea.

The goats were great, and did their job of clearing brush well.  So well, in fact, that they ate themselves out of a job.  We were actually able to sell the entire herd to one farm so they all got to stay together as a unit and keep their herd structure intact.

Now that our pastures have been improved a bit through our management-intensive rotational grazing, we decided that hair sheep would be a good choice.  They don’t compete much with cattle in terms of the species of plants they graze, they don’t share parasites with cattle so each becomes a dead-end host for the other species’ worms, and the meat is a lot easier to market than goat.   They are also a dream to shepherd around the property, unlike the goats.  They also stay where you put them, unlike goats.   Want to test a maximum security prison?  Put a herd of goats in there and they will find the potential escape routes for you.

 

Our sheep are a bit friendly, as a bonus.

 

#2 – We chose a breed of hog to stick with.

Back in 2012, we were trying out all manner of heritage hog breeds and crosses – we had Gloucester Old Spots, Red Wattles, Mulefoots, Durocs, Tamworths, Hampshires, Berkshires, Herefords…. all have their strengths and weaknesses.

We settled on Large Black hogs.  I trust I don’t need to describes their physical appearance.

Large blacks are good grazers, docile, fertile, good mothers, and very intelligent.  They also have delicious marbled meat that can only be described as “phenomenal.”

They have thrived here for us.  We had a new litter just the other day and the piglets are already roaming all over the pasture following mom on her quest for falling nuts.

 

Piglets! Not large yet, but definitely black.

 

#3 – Our cow herd is growing and thriving.

We have grown from our initial 2 cow-calf pairs into a herd of 17.  We have had a few more animals go through our farm.  Some have graced plates and some have gone to join other herds.

Red poll beef is just awesome.  We raise them for 30 months on nothing but grass of course, and the meat is flavorful and so tender that you really don’t even need a knife on the steaks if you cook them right.  I’ve never had such tender beef before.  I was very nervous before trying it.  Our other meats were very good, but beef on grass only really reflects the character of the grass that the animals are raised on, and I was worried that our still-too-acidic soil would produce off-flavors in the meat.  Not the case at all with our beef.  I’m either lucky or good.  Probably door #1 on that one. 

 

Our herd of cattle and flock of sheep. Our “flerd.”

 

 

A bottle calf. That was a learning curve for everyone.

 

 

Red Poll bull Shuter’s Last Chance aka “Russell”

 

#4 – Back to dogs as livestock guardians.

Even though there is the added chore of feeding them because they don’t eat the same things as the stock they are guarding like llamas and donkeys do, dogs have the advantages of mobility, intelligence, and aggressiveness.  Our new dog, Bubba, is a rescue from a colleague at work, and you don’t mess with his charges.  The first time I picked up a newborn goat kid with Bubba around, he tried to kill my ass.  In front of my grandmother, no less.  Had me down on the ground, big holes in my best jeans.  So now Bubba gets tied to a fence post or tree whenever I have to work with an animal.  But if he’ll do that to me, I now a coyote or a livestock rustler (yes, those exist and strike often around here) doesn’t stand a chance.  Our neighbors have lost animals to both and so far we have not. Bubba did chase a utility company lineman out of the field and the lineman was yelling to his buddies to “shoot the polar bear!”  Bubba is 140 pounds, but still a bit shy of polar bear status.

 

Bubba

 

 

The bane of Bubba’s existence.

 

#5 – Our infrastructure is improving.

We have 4 fields fenced in now, and water access in all 4 with no lugging of 5-gallon buckets for hundreds of yards, which is good becaause I’m getting old.  All told we have around 45-acres of grazeable land now where even if an electric fence is knocked over by wind or a rogue animal the herd still can’t wander off.  

We’ve installed a water tower to gravity feed water to 2 pastures, a solar pump to supply water to the 3rd, and a couple of ponds to collect water for the animals’ use.

 

2 ponds collect water on the hillside

 

I’ve built Eggmobile 2.0 so that the laying chickens can follow the sheep and cattle around the pasture, filling their ecological niche as nature’s sanitation crew.  This version is much sturdier and more maneuverable than its predecessor.  I’ve also built the pigs a Love Shack to keep them warm in the winter and give them a place to make a nest for their litters.  It can be pulled around the farm as needed to keep the pigs moving around the pastures and woodlots as well.

 

Eggmobile 2.0

 

 

The Love Shack for the large black hogs.

 

#6 – I took a Permaculture Design Course and am now a certified permaculture designer and consultant.

This was one of the best courses I have ever taken, and I have been to a LOT of school!  I took the course from a man named Geoff Lawton, who is well-known in the permaculture world, and I can’t say enough about his teaching ability.

If you are unfamiliar with it, permaculture is a discipline that uses ecological principles to benefit humanity and the environment.  Basically learning how to accentuate and accelerate natural processes in order to create security and an abundance of food, energy, and health.  I highly recommend looking into permaculture.  If you’re reading this blog and not a blood relative of mine, you’ll be interested in it.  If you are a blood relative, you may still be interested.  Because it is interesting.  🙂

I am now able to use my knowledge to create and design properties for people who would like to create a little slice of food-producing, energy-producing, waste-reducing, health-increasing, happiness-inducing oasis on their property.  If you are interested in doing something like that, get in contact with me.  I’d love to help you make your dream come true!  

Geoff Lawton doing his thing.

 

#7 – Lifestyles Lane is ready.

Thanks to the help of our intrepid interns, we now have quite the impressive array of structures back in the village.  I believe I have posted about Haiti, Cambodia, and the urban slum.  We also have India, China, a refugee camp, Moldova, and a Maasai round house.

I am indebted to all of our interns who gave so generously of their time and energy to help us build all of this, so I feel the need to credit their effort by listing them here.  They are:  Cameron Day, Alexa Zanikos, Grayson Middleton, Catherine Alvarez-McCurdy, Katie Black, Annalise Carington, Julian Cross, Dana Eardley, Meredith Prentice, Sam Abney, Jacob Klein, Riley Francis, Allison Vigil, Rachel Seidner, Trevor Antrim (twice!), Bianca Lopez, Mariana Vazquez-Walter, Alex Cohen, Sarah Elizabeth McLaughlin, Emma (King) Fife, Tyler Swank, Hannah Kavy, Laura Prentice, Gabriela Castanon, Jake Weeth, Joy Rathman (twice!), Mackenzie Despain (twice!), Judah Oechsle, Grace Herndon, Abigail Land, Brianna Vitt, Sarah Gonzalez (twice!), Savannah Gonzalez, Liam Day, Caitee Nigro, Nicholas Ochoa, Avery Riester, and Isabella de la Rosa.  Muchas gracias a todos!

It’s been a great couple years.  I will put more effort into keeping this blog more active.  Please ask questions and give feedback in the comments section.

Drought

Dry Creek living up to its name.

See that creek there?  It’s usually more like a small river.  Couple feet deep, 60 feet wide.  Flows and everything.  Now it’s reduced to unconnected pools of standing water.  Even those are evaporating fast.  We have 3 other creeks crisscrossing our property.  All of them are dry.  We have 2 wells.  Both of them are dry.  We have 2 ponds.  One is mud and the other has a few inches of muddy water left.  And we are lucky.  On the ridge above us they’ve been out of water for a lot longer.

I’m sure everyone has noticed, but it’s frickin’ hot.  It’s bone dry.  Basically, going outside is like stepping into an oven.  Man, I’m sure glad I have an office job where it’s air conditioned and I don’t have to go outside and haul hundreds of gallons of water everyday.  Oh, wait…

I don’t remember the last time it rained.  I know it hasn’t rained at all since we came back from San Antonio.  That was a month ago.  I’m not sure when the last rain before that was.  We’ve had dark clouds, thunder, lightning, and high winds, but no rain.  Mother Nature’s a tease.

We planted corn, squash, and beans a month ago.  About half up it courageously sprouted only to wither in the blast furnace we called June.  We probably won’t get any flour corn this year.  We’ll try planting some more squash if it ever rains again.

All our plants are struggling.  The corn that has sprouted (and every other farmer’s around here) looks like garlic – it’s short, pale green, and thin-leaved.  We lost the blueberry bushes we planted.  I’m lugging water to the apple trees every other day, but I think we’re going to lose at least one of them.  The hundreds of little pawpaws, redbuds, and Kentucky coffee trees that did so well in their first year are about to go belly up in year two.

The animals are pretty unhappy.  We’ve made more shade shelters for them and moved some into the barns. We’ve moved the cattle and goats underneath the trees.  We check water 3 or 4 times a day instead of twice.  But we can’t make the grass grow.  Check out our pastures:

The grass literally crunches when you walk on it.  If you kick the ground, the dust flies.  We’ve got about 10 days worth of grazing left, then we’ll have to resort to feeding hay in order to buy enough time for the rain to come and the grass to regrow.  In the meantime, we’ll have to keep using city water to bring to the animals.  That’s not a fun haul.  The creeks we usually get water from (knee-deep little tributaries of the large creek) are bone dry:

One of our “permanent” streams.

The weatherman has predicted a 40% chance of rain tomorrow and a 50% chance on Monday.  The weatherman has been wrong for weeks though.  We need a significant amount of rain so if you know any rain dances or chants, now’s the time.

What I want to be doing at this time tomorrow.

Tagged

Field Trip Day

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Mrs. Sue Dillery brought her Environmental Science class to the farm today.  We taught them about how we farm differently from many people around us.  Today we got to teach the students about rotational grazing, generating fertility, using portable structures to move animals around on the landscape, using the animals’ natural behaviors to the farmers’ benefit, aquaponics, permaculture, and our Lifestyles Lane simulation.  They also got to sample naturally grown chicken (lots of comments about how great and different it tasted).

Thank you Mrs. Dillery!

New Old Truck

New Old Truck

New Old Truck

We needed a different truck.

We bought our current truck from the previous owner of our property.  It’s a 1997 Silverado 1500 with over 150,000 miles on it.  That’s all well and good, except in the last 2-3 months the transmission has decided that 2nd gear is superfluous, the doors have decided not to open from the inside, and the brake lines won’t hold fluid.  So basically, Lindsey declared it a death trap.

The new old truck we got today actually has more miles on it, but it’s newer and in much better shape.  It’s a 2004 GMC 2500 HD 4×4 diesel with a crew cab.  It also is loaded.  It should have everything we’ll need for the farm and family – room for 5 full-sized people, towing package with Reese and gooseneck hitches, 4×4, and nice tires.  Lindsey is a big fan of the seat warmers.  I looked it up, and this truck cost $48,000 when it was new.  The blue book on it is still over $20,000, and we got it for about half that.  We got a really good deal on it because of the miles, but mechanically it’s in great shape and it should last us a good long while.  (Knock wood)

Thanks to Mom and Pop for help with the down payment!

Lindsey’s singing a song as we speak:

“Geoffson got a real sweet ride.
Geoffson’s truck got doors that open from the inside.
Geoffson got a real sweet ride.”

Cody and Savannah’s visit in pictures

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2012 Good Life Ranch Goals

  1. Produce, raise, and wean 2 healthy Red Poll calves.  Add any heifer calves to herd.
  2. Produce, raise, and wean 6-10 healthy Kiko and BoKi goat kids.  Add best does to herd.
  3. Lease or buy and resell a Red Poll bull to rebreed cows and breed heifers by September.
  4. Sell Apollo or trade him for another registered Kiko herdsire.
  5. Clear fence lines in preparation for fencing in the side field.
  6. Produce, raise, and sell at least 25 turkeys for the Thanksgiving market.
  7. Attract enough new customers to sell 10 special orders of poultry.
  8. Complete the Haitian dwelling – walls, roof, and basic kitchen.
  9. Complete construction on at least one additional Lifestyles Lane dwelling.
  10. Build new raised strawberry terraces over the old bed.
  11. Purchase 6 poultry electronets and an appropriate solar energizer.
  12. Buy a new farm truck – 4×4, gooseneck hitch, Reese hitch, and flatbed-equipped.
  13. Secure the greenhouse panels with bolts, nuts, and washers.  Fill in holes with insulation.
  14. Lime the front field to return pH to appropriate levels.
  15. Eliminate the bunch grass and Johnson grass from the front field.
  16. Attract 8-10 quality interns and give them a wonderful internship experience.
  17. Make the EggMobile mobile.
  18. Create a shade structure to rotate around pasture with the ruminants.
  19. In late summer, seed cool season grasses into front and side fields.
  20. Build a large worm bed from which to draw fertilizer for the garden and protein for poultry.