Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Growing Up Oxen

I know, it's been quite awhile since my last post.  While spring & summer are always busy times, it seems this year has been even more so.  For the first time, neither Dan nor I have full-time jobs away from the farm, so we've been able to undertake more ambitious projects than in the past.  One we are currently working on is training our first team of oxen!

Oxen are simply cattle trained as draft animals, used for pulling carts, farm equipment, or for logging.  Traditionally, it refers to a castrated male (steer), but any cow can be trained to be an ox.  We have decided to use a pair of girls for our team.  It's hard to justify the care and feed for a pair of steers we would only use on occasion, but we had planned on keeping Maude and Belle anyways, expanding our herd of registered Dexter brood cows to five.  Oxen can be any breed of cow as well, although few modern day breeds are really selecting for these traits (as opposed to selecting for maximum meat or milk production).  It's one reason we really liked Dexters- they are versatile and one of the best homesteading cattle, because they are still considered to be “tri-purpose”- good for milk, meat and draft work.

The first step was to catch the two calves and put them into the barn. Weaning them will make them easier to handle. They weren't very happy or cooperative that night, but were so calm that by morning, Dan was able to touch and brush them without any problem! Our next step was to put halters and lead ropes on them and take them for a little walk. It took just one lesson before they seemed to understand what we were asking them to do. Dexters have a reputation for being pretty intelligent cows, and while this means they are quicker to figure out what you want them to do, it can also mean they can figure out ways to avoid what you want them to do. But so far, our girls have been willing and gentle. So willing and gentle, in fact, that my sister was able to lead Belle from the barn to the backyard while I led Maude in front of them. My sister has been around horses and dogs, but never cattle. Belle was such a good girl, Melanie remarked that it was easier than walking her dog, since Belle didn't want to stop and sniff everything! My sister's reaction to working with our girl was “I want a baby cow! Can you get me one that will stay this size?”

The next step is to introduce the yoke, so Dan carved one small enough to fit our 3 month old Dexters. The trick is getting both cows to walk at the same pace, in a straight line, and stop and go simultaneously. You need them to function as a team, not two separate animals. Again, they picked up on what they were asked to do in short time. We're still working on basic teamwork, and haven't started actually pulling anything around yet, but it won't be long. A good draft team takes years, literally to train to its full potential. Although Dan has trained many horses, working with cows as draft animals is entirely new, although a longtime dream. I know not every lesson is likely to go as smoothly as their first ones, but Maude & Belle are off to what we feel is a great start!  

 

 Belle, front & Maude, rear.

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Irish Blessings

It sure looks like a winter wonderland outside my windows today! We've had over a foot of snow fall since the beginning of the weekend, erasing most of the signs of spring around the farm. Last Monday was a different story, though! The pasture fields were showing the first blushes of spring green, and the sheep & cows were venturing out away from the barn to taste those first green blades.

Another sure sign of spring is farm babies, and we had been watching one of our Dexter cows, Finni, closely that day. She was standing about, all alone, tail straight out. Her udder had been steadily getting bigger for the past week as well, so we were pretty sure labor was imminent. It was a nice day, T-shirt weather, and I was keeping watch on her each time I stepped outside. I hung a load of laundry out on the line and noted she was off in the far corner of the pasture by herself, standing quietly. I did another load of clothes and returned outside less than 30 minutes later. First, I noticed Pixie, Finni's 2-year-old daughter, was up there, too. Then I noticed a small, wobbly little black shape. I looked again, just to be sure, but it certainly was the unmistakable outline of a newborn calf up there! I had not even seen Finni lay down to give birth, and yet mama and baby were both already on their feet. Nature is truly amazing!

When feeding time came in the evening, Finni and the newborn made their way down to the barn. We separated them from the herd and locked them in one of the outbuildings,. We call it the Sheep House, since that's where we put the ewes when lambing season arrives. While the other cows, including the bull, are generally protective toward any new arrivals, we like to give them a couple weeks inside this time of year. With the wild swings in weather, keeping baby inside gives our new arrivals the best start possible. There is also a sizable coyote population around as well, so it's also not a bad idea to keep the babies safe until they are a bit more steady on their feet.

This is Finni's third calf, and it's a girl. Each time, Finni has delivered quickly and without problems and has been a great mother. Many of the larger cattle breeds (especially Holstiens, the big milk cows) require help during delivery, which is not fun for man or beast. It's just one of the many qualities we love about our Dexters. The Dexter is an Irish breed, and was developed to be a family cow. Small, docile, producing enough milk for a family (but not too much), and muscular enough to raise calves for beef, and do great on a grass-based diet. Like many breeds of livestock, they are considered endangered, because all the qualities that make them great cows for the homestead do not make them great in our industrial food production systems. Without small farms and breeders, breeds like these cows would go extinct. So, every time we have a calf born (or a turkey poult or chick hatch), it's reason to celebrate!

Yesterday was St. Patrick's Day, the most Irish of all holidays, and Pixie had her first calf (also a heifer, or baby girl!) in the wee hours of the morning, before we got up to do our chores. Dan found them in the morning, near the barn, both mother and baby doing fine. Since Pixie & Finni get along very well, and there is plenty of room in the Sheep House, we put them both together in there. Once Pixie's calf gets a few days older and figures how to use those legs, I'm thinking they will be quite the adorable twosome, bouncing and playing together.

Pixie's calf is especially exciting, not only because she's healthy and Pixie is stepping up to be a great mother, but because she is our first calf born to Dexters we've bred and raised. Our first calves born here were two years ago, when Finni had Pixie and Lil had a boy now known as Bullwinkle. Bullwinkle is the father to both of this spring's calves, and Pixie's calf marks the first calf here to be a second-generation Pleasant Valley Farm Dexter. We're overjoyed at out little Irish blessings, and hope these girls will be part of a long line of Dexters here for many years to come!  

 

Pixie's calf is front and center, with Finni and her calf looking on. 

 
 

Meet Yardie

Pop Quiz! Do you know what the #1 irrigated crop in the U.S. Is? It's something most of us see every day, is grown in virtually every neighborhood nationwide, and nothing eats it.

The answer is grass. More specifically, lawns. More of our nation's water supply is diverted to make the yard look pretty than to grow any other crop. Add to that the pollution from lawnmowers & riding lawnmowers, the amount of synthetic herbicides and fertilizers used, and the fact that so many of those grass clippings go not to the compost pile but to the landfill, and you'll realize that lawns aren't the “greenest” feature to many homes.

Here on the farm, we hate wasted space, and it's always seemed like the yard is pretty much that, but we do keep it mowed so it looks nice for business. We've come up with some creative ways to reduce our mowing responsibilities, though. When we debated on where to house the turkeys, we enclosed part of the front yard as their run. It was the part with the pine tree roots I hit with the mowing blade most frequently, so that was another added bonus! Little did we know that the turkeys would roost in the tree and free-range all over the place, but they do. They also do an admirable job of keeping the grass down near their run in their quest for bugs, slugs and such.

We also employ some natural lawnmowers in the back and side yards. We use bottomless pens, called tractors, to house rabbits, quail and our meat chickens. These allow the critters to dine on fresh grass and the bugs in it, and provide a fresh, clean living space when the pen is moved daily. Although we still mow these areas to maintain a uniform look (instead of looking like a patchwork quilt!), at least the grass is being used to provide nutrition to our animals, and cut down on our feed bill! Spring has arrived early this year, and with it the chore of mowing. Or, at least it seemed so until last weekend. Dan is really good at thinking outside the box, and has solved more than one problem with a single, organic solution!

 

 Yardie, relaxing in the spring sunshine

Our demand for meat has risen drastically in the past year, and so we needed to expand our beef herd. We've also kept a Dexter bull for our breeding program. The problem is that we have a very nice Hereford heifer we will use for beef later on this year, but she can't be turned out with the herd because she is of breeding age. While the pasture has multiple sections, it is in need of some repairs to effectively segregate the cows. Keeping her in the barn on these beautiful, summer-like days, feeding hay, seemed like a waste. The solution? Yard Cow, aka Yardie. Yep, turn her loose on the lawn! Well, not really loose, for now she is tied to a soft cotton rope attached to a stake in the ground. We put her out in the morning and take her back to the barn at night. It has worked exceptionally well so far! Yes, the downside is that there are cow pies in the yard, but truthfully, it really doesn't bother us. At least they are easy to spot, not like the doggie land mines that don't catch your attention until they are all over your shoe! We hope to get a portable electric fence set up for her soon, but for now, I just keep an eye on her to make sure she hasn't wrapped the rope around the stake or anything. I'm also amazed, it's been nearly a week and no one has called or stopped and knocked on the door to tell me there is a loose cow in the yard. (We have folks stop all the time to inform us of our goats' whereabouts when they are in the unfenced hay field.)   We're happy to have such a mild-mannered cow, who really seems to love her new job as the head of lawn management here at Pleasant Valley Farm.

 Yardie, hard at work in the back yard!

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I'll Miss Him

 

 I'm having a rough day today. It's 90+ degrees out, which is just too hot for me...I'll find stuff to do indoors rather than be out in it, but it's hard not to feel like I should be out in the garden or mowing the lawn or doing something outside. But the main reason for my melancholy is not the blistering sun. I know that the trailer will be here tonight to take a cow for processing. And this time, it makes me very, very sad.

I've gotten used to the idea of sending animals to be processed and I don't really get bothered by it anymore. I know that the life we provide for these creatures is a good one, and light years away from the conditions found on feedlots & factory farms. I take pride in being able to offer my customers meat raised without cruelty or inhumane conditions- meat from healthy animals, leading a natural life in the sun and grass. I'm proud of what we do and how we do it, and I know the purpose of the animals when they come to the farm. I don't pretend I'm getting a pet cow, even if I do name them and feed them. I monitor the inventory and make the arrangements with our processors. The process is one I'm totally involved with from start to finish.

So why is it so hard this time? We got a little calf, just days old, two years ago. We fed him bottles and watched him grow. We called him Baby Buzz. He would gleefully run up to people, and like all bottle baby cows, you had to watch that he wouldn't headbutt you trying to get you to feed him. As he grew, he went from the small paddock into the fields with the other cows. As he grew and the heard changed, he went from being the smallest cow to the tallest. Buzz appointed himself the leader of the herd. The girls follow him around, the babies play with him. When Lil went into the barn, Buzz called for her more than Lil's calf from the previous year did- Buzz wanted to know where his herdmate went. And he's still a friendly beast, always sneaking up on you to see if any snacks are to be found. Besides Finni, he is the most sociable cow here. I've been telling Dan that he would make a great ox, because I hate to see him go so badly. But that's just not in the cards. So tonight, the trailer comes, I don't think I'll be there. While I'll help get Buzz into the barn this afternoon, I think, for the first time ever, I'm going to stay out of the barn when they load him up. This time, it's just a little too hard. Dan tries to cheer me up by reminding me that we saved Buzz from his likely fate- veal- and extended his life very considerably. And I know he's had a good one, and that I need more burger for the stand, but...


 Some animals are just special for some reason or another. Some have the ability to capture your heart, and it's hard when they go.  I'll sure miss this face.

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Milking Finni

Last Monday, Dan had to go out of town for work.  He wasn't sure if he'd be gone for the day or for the better part of the week.  While I am very comfortable with all the animals, things always seem to go a bit goofy when I'm here alone.  I admit, I checked outside more than usual just to make sure the horses and cows were inside the pasture fence.  I also knew I had a very pregnant cow in the barn, but since Dan didn't say anything when he did morning chores, I didn't check on her during the day.  At evening chore time, I entered the barn and turned on the lights.  Finni was up, but definitely wet in the back end.  Oh NO! I thought, what if she has trouble, I'm here by myself, she's a first time mom and you never know how that will go, what if she won't take care of the baby,  what if she gets super protective with those horns?!?  So many thoughts went through my head.  Then I looked into the stall.  There was a half-dry calf on the ground already, no help needed.  As I poured water into Finni's empty bucket, the calf jumped to its feet.  I could tell that the calf was strong and by the look of its belly, it had already nursed, so Finni became a mom, and a good one, during the afternoon without any pesky humans around.  I also saw that we have a little heifer, a girl.  I was elated and couldn't wait to tell Dan.  He was just as excited as I, and also relieved that everything went smoothly.  Even though he got home very late that night, he couldn't wait to walk down to the barn and meet our new little girl, who I have named Pixie.

 

Meet Pixie!

 

One of the main reasons we got Dexters was to provide milk for ourselves.  We're not interested in becoming a dairy or selling any milk, it's simply too much on top of what we already do, but we have been excited about doing this for ourselves for some time.   We waited a few days, because the milk is actually colostrum for the first three days, and we weren't interested in drinking that, and it's so important for the calf's health that she gets lots of it for her immune system to start up properly.  So, on Thursday, we set out, stainless milk pail in hand, to see how Finni would take this new adventure.  I love Finni, and think it's awesome that she had horns, she just looks like an old-fashioned family cow.  But I've seen wool hanging from the ends of them when the sheep got too close to her feed outside- she knows just how to use them, and they are pointy!  I remembered how Lil kicked when we tried to milk her last year, all I could think was that this time, there would be danger from both ends!  Why did I think a horned milk cow would be such a cool idea?  So we tied Finni up very short, and Dan agreed to try milking her at first, both because he's milked by hand many times and I haven't, and so if anyone got kicked, it would be him, not me. (Who says chivalry is dead?)  My job was to give Finni small amounts of feed to distract her and keep her calm.  The first day, it was a bit hard because she kept knocking her feeder off of the boards and getting upset when it landed out of her reach.  We fixed this the next day by using a rubber pan that sits on the ground.  We've milked nightly since and Finni has never once kicked.  She doesn't even swish her tail and hit Dan with it, which is another common thing cows do when they aren't happy to be milked.  She has been a perfectly cooperative lady so far.  The only downside has been that we aren't getting much milk, but we had not tried separating her from the calf.  We're planning on keeping them separate for a few hours, milking Finni so we get a decent amount, then letting the calf nurse naturally for the rest of the day.  This way, we'll get milk and so will the calf- we won't have to bottle feed her expensive milk replacer.  We're having fun with this new adventure, and I am thrilled that my little cow has taken to supplying us with milk so gently!

 

Dan & Finni on our first try

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Our First Calf

Finally, the April showers today are rain and not snow.  It's been a rather cold (and white) beginning to spring so far.  But it is spring, and so we're getting busier every day now!  Last Sunday,  I was hoping for a relaxing day to recharge my batteries from the business of the Farm to Table conference.  It was a nice idea, but as Dan came back from the barn after morning chores, he told me that Lil was unmistakably in labor.  Lil is the older Dexter cow we bought last summer, and we'd been suspecting for a few days that she was getting close.  We had decided to move my horse Sara from her roomy box stall and put Lil in there to give her a safe, clean space for her and the baby.  Sara was moved over by the pen currently holding the sheep with young lambs, on the other side of the work horses.  It seemed to bother Dixie more than Sara, as Dixie had a spell of kicking at the divider wall and in Sara's general direction.  Other than a bit of confusion when it is time to come back into the barn in the evenings, Sara has been fine with the new arrangements; as long as her food is there she is pretty flexible!  Lil also seemed fine with her new home,  the cow that had the biggest problem with being separated from her was Buzz.   He is a Holstein-cross beef cow we've raised up here, and the cow that has been on the farm the longest as of right now.  He knew his herdmate was missing and called to her for several hours before calming down.  While that's not totally surprising, the fact that the noisy cow was not Bernard, Lil's baby from last year, was.  He, however, seemed fine without mom since he's a big boy now and still with the other cows he knows. 

Lil is 13 years old, and has had quite a few calves in her lifetime.  Dexters are known for not needing assistance, and this delivery was no exception.  After the baby was born, Lil right away began talking to it, licking it, and showing all the motherly instinct that you could hope for.  She's a sweet cow, and very used to both Dan and I , so what happened next was a bit of a surprise.  Dan went to pick up the calf to check its gender and dip the navel in iodine, a general practice for any farm baby (iodine helps to prevent infections from manure or anything that might get on the navel).  Lil was not impressed and began pawing the ground, shaking her head, and threatening to charge Dan right into a wall if he didn't leave the baby alone!  We left them alone to calm down, since Lil was in a safe clean area.  When we came back in an hour or so, we "tricked" Lil with a bit of feed and tied her up.  She was not too happy, but we safely found out that we have a little Dexter boy, and he sure is cute!  He's growing by leaps and bounds already in the past week, and Lil has pretty much returned to her normal, friendly self.

 


Lil and calf, less than an hour old 

 

Our newest farm baby, a few days old...have you ever seen such a good-looking calf?!? 

 While I usually don't tolerate aggressiveness from any farm animal, and will happily eat anything that tried to hurt a person, this is one exception I'm happy to make.  We want the mamas to want to protect their babies, and there is simply no substitute for good mothering instinct.  As long as they calm down in a day or two, a little over-protectiveness isn't necessarily a bad thing.  It's far better than the opposite-nothing is more frustrating that seeing an animal (I've seen it here with both goats and sheep) that give birth, then think the baby is some foreign creature to abandon.  Mom won't have anything to do with baby, and it becomes an orphan.  Sometimes you can get another mom to foster it, otherwise it becomes a bottle baby.  While bottle babies can be adorable, they are a lot of work, and any baby is better off if it can nurse it's mothers milk instead of formula.   

While Dan had years of experience with cows, as his family milked Jerseys for years as he was growing up, this was my first experience with a calf.  It's simply amazing to see how quickly they can get to their wobbly little feet, and I can't wait until the weather improves enough that we can begin to let our little guy out to run and play in the spring sunshine.

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How to Use a Whole Cow

Since our last cow processed for beef was at the very end of our season, we had a selection of all the cuts in stock when we closed.  This means we got some of the "good stuff" for ourselves to eat over the winter.  So I treated Dan and myself to some grass fed, farm raised Porterhouse steaks for dinner last night.  For a truly gourmet cut of meat, like grass-fed Porterhouses, I wanted to let the flavor of the beef shine through without overpowering it with sauces or condiments.  Since it's snowing outside, I wasn't in the mood to grill, so I heated up my favorite cast iron skillet and melted plenty of butter.  I caramelized an onion, added another pat of butter and added the steaks.  I topped them with a splash of Worcestershire sauce and let them cook, turning once, until they were cooked to about medium. They were tender, flavorful, and truly didn't need anything else, the flavor was that good.

I've learned so much about what different cuts of meat are by being involved directly in the process.  A Porterhouse is a T-bone steak  with a bit of extra tender meat on the end.  Any Porterhouse could also be cut down to a T-Bone, but only a small percentage of T-bones (around 1/5) can be cut to be Porterhouses.  And there aren't a whole lot of either in a single cow; we have essentially a 1/4 beef in our freezer, and that meant only 1 package (containing 2 steaks) of Porterhouses and 3 or 4 packages of T-bones.   That's a good reason why they are expensive cuts of meat; not only are they tender and delicious, they are relatively rare.  In a whole cow, at the size we process, we expect approximately 4 packages of Porterhouses and maybe a dozen of T-bones. In comparison, we'll get lots more of other cuts- around 125 pounds of lean ground beef or 20 or more each of round steaks and chuck roasts. We have a standard way our beef is processed that results in 5 different cuts of steak, 5 kinds of roasts, as well as ground beef, stew meat, and soup bones.  This is the most efficient way that best utilizes the whole cow into sellable parts for us, without resulting in ground beef that is less than lean.  However, it's not uncommon for us to run out of one cut or another (especially steaks) before we have enough freezer space to process another cow, or before the next cow has reached the size we'd like it to be.  

I've learned so much about how to cook the different cuts, because before I had a freezer full of my own beef, I didn't eat a lot of it, and what I did was limited to a few different cuts.  I didn't cook roasts much at all, and I suppose that's not uncommon, because they are certainly less popular than steaks or ground meat at the stand.  I now know that chuck, R.B., and English roasts are all equally delicious when put in a crock pot all day with some potatoes & onions- a true one-pot meal!  The tip roast is my go-to when I want to make a stir fry, cheese steaks, or fajitas, as it slices thinly and cooks up beautifully with great flavor and without being tough.  Round steaks are a tougher cut of meat on any cow, but ours are great grilled after marinating or slow cooked in a skillet with some liquid.  I don't get to cook the other steaks (rib eye, sirloin, T-bone & Porterhouse) quite as often, as the farmer usually eats the cuts of beef that didn't sell as well (or the turkey with the torn skin, the chicken that didn't pluck right, the "cosmetically challenged" veggies, etc...).  Although at first it was a challenge for me to figure out how to cook cuts of beef I'd never even heard of before, there are simple ways to turn any of them into a great meal.  So if you're shopping at a farm selling cuts you aren't familiar with, don't hesitate to ask your farmer what they are best used for. Or, tell the farmer what dish you're looking to cook, and he or she can suggest the cut that will cook best using that method.  At our farm, roasts are lower priced than the steaks, and with a helpful hint on what to do with a particular cut of meat, you may find that a dinner of humanely raised, grass fed beef (or lamb, or whatever) is more affordable than you thought, and certainly better tasting than feedlot beef!


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Happy Fall to All!

Happy fall to everyone!  It has been so busy around here,  I feel as though I've been neglecting my blog.  So here is my attempt to get you caught up with our goings-on!

I've meant to mention that Finnbar has gone home to Muirstead Farm.  He was the Dexter bull we had on loan for the summer.  He is a beautiful example of the Dexter breed; well muscled, docile and compact.  Although I was nervous about having a bull here, as they can be dangerous animals, we had a wonderful experience with him.  I'm always grateful to breeders who value not just production, but temperament as well, and the Muirstead Dexters are joys to work around.  Having Finnbar around for a few months also gave me the confidence that if Dan and I ever expand our little Dexter herd enough to warrant keeping a bull around all year, that with proper care and handling it would be no more stressful than having the other intact males here, like Rambo the sheep or Wilbur the hog.  And speaking of expanding our Dexter herd, we did do just that.  In addition to the calf we'll expect from Finni early next summer, we purchased another cow.  Lil came on loan with Finnbar, so we could have a chance to milk a Dexter this year.  We liked her so much that we chose to purchase her.  She is a former show ring champ and has had quite a few beautiful Dexter babies.  The Muirs have enough of her lineage in the breeding herd they maintain, so they agreed to let us purchase her.  She'll also be due with a calf in late spring or early summer, so we are so very excited!

Today is the first day of fall.  The official first days of summer and winter always seem to arrive a bit after the season starts in my opinion, but fall is right on time.  The leaves are starting to change and the garden is transitioning as well.  Our tomatoes finally succumbed to the blight, but we had a wonderfully productive year anyway.  While we won't have fresh ones at the stand again this year, I have lots of packaged sun-dried tomatoes available and I'm working today on making some more Bruschetta in a Jar with the last of the Romas.   But as I say good-bye to the tomatoes of summer, I'm saying hello to our fall crops.  We've been digging onions and potatoes and last week were able to start picking some winter squash as well.  This week we'll be able to offer acorn, buttercup, butternut and sweet dumpling squash, plus a few pumpkins and a blue hubbard or two.  Later, I'll have some really neat looking gourds (a frost will really bring out their colors) as well as kabocha and giant pink banana squash.  We also tried planting a bit of Bloody Butcher corn, an heirloom deep red corn, this year, so once it dried I'll be excited to try grinding it for cornmeal and see what color we end up with.

As the season goes on, I have more and more neat things I've dried or processed.  Something new we'll have this week is dried sage from the herb garden.  I'm also finishing up processing some peaches into a recipe called zesty peach barbecue sauce.  It's more like a hot peach salsa, so I'm thinking about what name to put on the labels as the jars are bubbling away in the canner.  Either way, it's a favorite here at home, Dan especially loves it with ham so I think ham steaks are going to be dinner tonight! (it's great on chicken or pork chops too.)  Then it's on to making the  Bruschetta and possibly, if the rain lets off, I'll be digging some horseradish to prepare and sell.  I might make some horseradish mustard before the week is up too!

 I'll also be cleaning up the brooder pen in anticipation of our layer chicks which are due to arrive Friday. As the seasons change, I'm always realizing how farming truly is a year-round occupation.  While most of the produce arrives within a fairly small window of time, we're always planning and preparing.  In addition to the hens, we're also deciding what kind of garlic to plant now and what we need to do to keep our fields, buildings and livestock in good shape over the upcoming winter.  It's always a busy time here!

 
 

Cow Madness

We're getting ready to have beef for sale again.  We've been planning on offering it for sale for the 4th of July weekend, so that means Happy and Louie will be leaving us in a matter of days.  Although we'll still have Fiannait and Baby Buzz (who's not really a baby anymore except in personality!) it's always sad to see half the herd leave, so we've been looking for new cows.  There is always so much going on at the farm that we just weren't able to get them in the spring when there are plenty for sale, but we saw an ad in a local paper offering feeders.  We contacted the owner and took a ride after we closed the stand on Saturday to check out the calves- one Angus and one Hereford/Angus.  Both are heifers, and black, with the cross also having a white face and small horns.  We were able to have them delivered on Sunday, and after being chased by Ponyboy and Louie for a few minutes upon arrival, they seem to have settled in nicely.  I'm told they are tame enough that they would come up to be scratched or petted at their previous home, so I'm sure our two new girls will be eating cookies or a stale bagel from my hand in no time.

Speaking of cows, those of you who have been following this blog know we got a Dexter heifer last fall in hopes of having a milk cow.  Although the sellers thought she was bred, either she didn't take or something happened, because w didn't get a calf this spring.  However, we're still so glad to have Finni, as she's just full of life and personality.  You just don't get that with the average Angus or Holstein in our experience.   Dan and I had just begun to discuss what to do when I got an unexpected email from the couple we bought her stating that they have a gentle bull for us to use.  They had offered to loan us one when we bought her, so I'm anxious to see how this will work out.  A bit on the nervous side too.  

Breeding animals means being around large, powerful males.  Working around boar hogs or bulls is actually considered a hazardous job in PA which means the farm worker must be over 16 to do so.  Even male horses (stallions) or sheep (rams) can and have killed people.  So it's best to use caution.  On the other hand, I truly believe that the way animals are raised and treated makes a huge difference.  I like to think that my boys are trained by friendship and respect, not fear. My boar, Wilbur, gladly lets me scratch his head.  My ram, Rambo, has charged at me at a full run many times, but always stops.  I'm never scared because I can see by the look in his eye that he just wants to beat the ewes to the cookies in my pocket.  Of the four horses, Ponyboy is the shyest and least aggressive.  (It probably doesn't hurt that he's a mini among big girls.)  But these are my animals and I work with them daily.  However, when we went to look at Finni and the other cows for sale, we walked among the whole herd, including bulls.  All were calm as could be, even in close quarters.  It also helps that Dexters are small and even I could see easily over all of their backs.  And we're dealing with reputable breeders, so I believe it to be a gentle bull, which should lead to an adorable, gentle baby calf!    

 
 

No Recess for Finni

It's still snowing here, and for the most part the animals are well adjusted to the routines of winter.  Mostly.  Every evening, we let the horses and cows outside to romp and drink from the creek while we take care of evening chores.  They all know that when the barn door opens, food and warmth await, so they march in and file into their stalls.  Every so often, one of them wanders around inside a bit before going to their spot, but it's usually not a big deal.   However, the cold can make the animals pretty rambunctious, and lately Fiannait, our Dexter cow, has been giving us quite a bit of trouble when it comes time to head back inside.  The worst part is she becomes the ringleader for misbehaving cows!  Here's a picture of her (black cow on right) and Louie refusing to come inside:

 

Just after the picture was taken, they ran away from the barn door, scattering the sheep and geese calmly waiting to be fed outside.  Dan spent 45 minutes chasing cows around the barnyard last night, and so he decided to take away "recess" for Finni, hoping the other cows would return to the normal routine.  So tonight, while everyone else got to run about, Finni was led down to the creek by Dan for her nightly drink. 

 

In this picture, she's waiting for her turn at the open water hole, since most of the creek is frozen over.  She wasn't happy, but got her drink and was led back inside without incident.  The other three cows, or the Three Stooges as they were known tonight, still acted like knuckleheads that were afraid to come inside anyway.  However, as we finished up chores, they decided to come inside without being chased.  So we'll see...either Finni will stay on lead rope probation for a bit longer, or we'll let all four cows out a couple hours early, so they can run around in the snow and be a bit chilly, a little hungry, and ready to come inside when they are supposed to next time!

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She's Here!

I’m happy to say Finniat has arrived safely and is adjusting well to her new home.  She arrived safely Wednesday morning.  We had moved some things around so that the trailer could be backed right up to the barn door.  We weren’t sure how well she would lead, and no one ever wants to get into a tug of war in the muddy barnyard with an overexcited cow.  The phone rang, and Mark, who was driving the trailer down for us, let us know everything was going fine and he’d be there in half an hour.  He was able to find our farm without any problems and back the trailer into the space between the silo and the milk house.  I can’t back the lawn tractor with a small cart on it, so that is always impressive to me!  Because she’s not very tall, there was no sign that there was a little cow in the trailer until the doors were opened, and there was Finniat, looking very calm for all the excitement of getting on a trailer and moving to a new place without any of her herd mates.  Mark untied her and led her off the trailer and right into the barn with no more difficulty than taking a large dog for a walk.  It was great!  We had the chance to ask him any other questions about Dexters that had popped up since we’d been at their farm, mostly about rebreeding her in the summer.  I was totally amazed when he mentioned the possibility of loaning out a bull, as trailering our cow and her calf or expecting someone else to milk her just didn’t seem like the route we wanted to take. We had though about taking the cow to the bull, but working it the other way around hadn’t crossed our minds! So if anyone is interested in Dexter cattle and is looking for a reputable breeder, especially one who would take the time to answer any questions from those new to the breed, I would heartily recommend Mark & Edlyn Muir at Muirstead farm in Union City, Pa.  It has been a real treat dealing with them.

 

So Finniat is here, and we decided it would be best if she spent the first day or two in the barn.  That way she could get used to us and her new home before turning her loose in the field with the other animals. It really is better if your newly bought cow comes back after you open the barn door that first time! Our beef cows, Happy, Louie & Little Buzz, must have smelled her, as they came in to the lower part of the barn and were mooing back and forth to Finniat.  She greeted them as well.  So we hope to get her out this afternoon and take advantage of the beautiful, sunny, warmer-than-normal weather we’ve been having.  In the meantime, we’ve been down to the barn, checking on her, like new parents.  What is there to check on?  We make sure she isn’t tangled up in her tie rope, hasn’t spilled her water bucket, and hasn’t slipped her halter off and gotten loose and made a mess of the barn, but mostly just that she’s still bright-eyed and has a healthy appetite.  I think she loves seeing me come into the barn, as I’m a sucker and I feel bad she’s all alone inside, so I take time to pet her and talk to her a bit, and then give her another armful of hay and offer her an animal cookie.  She’s still not sure about the cookie thing yet, but I’m sure she’ll come around once she tastes one. The hay is definitely to her liking though, so I think we’re off to a good start!

 
 

Waiting for Wednesday...

Farmers are generally patient people.  There is a lot of waiting from the time a seed is planted until you can eat the results, and depending on the animal, it can be a very long time waiting for the arrival of a baby!  But sometimes even patient farmers get excited about an upcoming event...that's why we can't wait until Wednesday, when our newest member of the farm family will arrive.  Her name is Finniat and she is a Dexter cow.  We purchaced her yesterday and we are beyond anxious for her arrival.  We would have brought her home with us, but we don't have a stock trailer and so had to make arrangements for delivery.  I am grateful I have Veteran's Day off from my day job, or I would be sorely tempted to stay home and use up vacation time!

So, what is a Dexter cow and why do we want one?  Although Dan grew up milking Jersey cows, we aren't really interested in becoming dairy farmers.  However, we are interested in having milk for personal use and to make our own cheese, butter, yogurt and other yummy dairy products. We did research on the wide variety of breeds available to find one that we felt would fit our needs best, and we fell in love with the idea of getting a Dexter cow.  They are the smallest non-miniature breed of cow and are celebrated as a tri-purpose animal, having qualities for beef, dairy and also as oxen for draft animal power.  A cow will be between 36-42" in height at the shoulder when she is full grown, making for a small, manageable animal.  They have the highest output of milk per pound of feed consumed, and are docile and easily trained.  They originated in Ireland as a family, backyard cow for milk with the ability to process unwanted offspring (usually males) as beef or to train them as oxen to work the field.  Dexters are becoming more popular in America as a homesteading cow, and luckily for us we found breeders of these amazing little cows within a reasonable driving distance of our farm.   We had a lovely time talking with the couple that owns the farm and really learned a lot.  They had several cows for sale and we got to meet the whole herd.  Dan was most interested in the practical concerns of buying a bred cow that would be producing milk in as short a time as possible.  All the cows were bred for the spring, so that didn't make the choice any easier.  I had an idea that I wanted a black one (the most common, but not only, color) and one that had horns, just because I like the look and think it lends an old-time appearance to the animals.  When I contacted these folks by email ,they stated that they had bred cows for sale, but that all but one was polled (naturally hornless) or dehorned, except one.  While standing in the middle of the paddock, discussing bloodlines and general information about the girls, one cow came up to me a couple of times, sniffing my outstretched hand as though she were curious and wanted to greet me, on her own terms. The other cows tolerated our presence, but didn't go out of their way to investigate us. This friendly little cow was among the ones for sale, and was the one that had horns!  So of course, there was no question in my mind she would be the one we should buy.  Although Dan looked over the other cows closely, the horned one was named Finniat and will be coming to live with us. She will be having her first baby this coming spring and will be our hand-milked family cow.  So now I feel like a small child that knows Christmas is coming really soon, but isn't quite here yet...it can be so hard to be patient sometimes!

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Our First Beef

While we knew it was time to send our first farm-raised beef cows for processing, Dan and I did a lot of thinking about how we were going to process them.  The butchering facility is more than happy to cut, wrap and freeze the meat for you, but of course they need to charge for their time and effort.  While we have gotten quite efficient at processing a pig or two or three ourselves in a day, a whole beef is a LOT bigger! So we debated both the economics and what we thought we would be able to handle, plus logistical matters like refrigeration.  In the end, we decided that we would have Hirsch's cut up the beef we would be selling to the public and do the other, which was going to our personal freezer and to Dan's parents, ourselves.  The first half, which was for Dan's parents, we had the help of Dan's father, Tom, who is a professional meat cutter as well as Dan's brother, who has been helping us out a lot these days.  With the help of a book devoted to processing meat at home and his years of experience, we got it done and Tom was able to take it home when he returned to Chambersburg.  We decided that we would do our own, just the two of us, and since we aren't picky, any mistakes could be wrapped up as-is or ground into burger.  

Half of a cow, even cut into 2 pieces, is a big thing to haul in a 4 door car like mine, but somehow we got it situated and home.  Thank goodness for old bedsheets to keep the seats clean!  While not all the steaks were picture perfect, we were really proud of how it all turned out.  Dan and I got everything cut and wrapped that first night, and cut the meat we wanted to grind for burger cut up and bagged into the fridge.  Beef needs to be run through the grinder twice, unlike sausage, so we let it sit in the fridge overnight to break the work up over two days.  80 pounds of meat takes some time to grind twice and package, and we were hungry for dinner after all the cutting and wrapping the first night.   What to cook?  Steak, of course!  I had heard that some consider pasture raised meat tough since the animals move around much more during the course of their lives, and there is a lower amount of fat marbled through the meat, which some think detracts from the flavor.  I cooked our first steak simply, in a pan on the stove with just a bit of cracked pepper and Worcestershire sauce.  It was by far the most tender and flavorful steak I have ever eaten, and was really something to feel proud about producing ourselves! Not only was it delicious, we could also feel good about the conditions the animals were raised under...I really believe you can taste that the animal was raised in a natural, low stress way, without chemicals and with respect for the animal's needs. After packaging the burger the second night, we were able to relax and reflect on a big job well done.  I would never believed myself capable of doing anything like this even a few short years ago, but it really is amazing what you can accomplish with an open mind and the ability to be ok with a less than perfect outcome if necessary.  A few mangled steaks will still taste great and gave us a wonderful amount of practice and the confidence to do it again ourselves.

The majority of butchering is done, we've gotten a good start on the field corn harvest, and most things are winding down for the winter.  While my mind has been turning to all sorts of things I consider winter projects, my time as a full time farmer has also come to a close as I was called back to my away-from-the-farm job beginning today.   I'm happy for the individuals that rely on our non-profit agency who are able to better themselves by reaching educational goals with our help, but I sure hated to hear the alarm clock and leave my beautiful farm on a sunny late fall morning.  My time here was a great beginning to what the farm can be for my husband and myself, and I'm sure I will be finding ways to make it a success and spend as much time as I can here.  How that will shape up for next summer, I don't really know yet, but if nothing else, my layoff time showed me the possibilities of being here! 

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