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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Cheesemaking

Around our house, we don't really make a big deal of Valentine's Day. But this time of the year, Dan is at home more, and we had a lovely day together. So, what do a pair of farmers do to celebrate? In our case, we made cheese. We've seen that our eldest Dexter cow, Lil, has been losing some weight, so we decided to wean the calf and put her in the barn so she could get some extra feed. And since we're going through all that trouble, we decided she should pay us back in milk. Dan milks her twice a day, by hand. Being a Dexter, she doesn't produce gallons like the big black & white Holstiens many dairies use, but it's been more than enough for the two of us.

Dan started out by making some farmhouse cheddar. To make cheese, you need to heat the milk to a pretty exact temperature, and hold it for a certain length of time before introducing a starter culture. I am still amazed that a few minutes or degrees more or less can turn your cheddar into colby. The recipes for many cheeses, for the most part, are very similar. (exceptions are things like Swiss or blue, which require some special cultures.)   After we strained the curds, which are the solids that will form our cheese, we had a quantity of liquid left, called the whey. I decided that, rather than just feeding the whey to the pigs or chickens, we should make ricotta. Ricotta is traditionally a way to make a second batch of cheese from the whey. We did add a bit more whole milk just to get a bit more yield in the end. This time, we heated the milk and then added some vinegar. Again, we strained it, and got ricotta!

After the cheeses drain out through the cheesecloth, there is still more work to do. We mixed in a bit of cheese salt, and then for the cheddar, we put it, wrapped in cheesecloth, into a press. The press uses a spring to put pressure on the cheese, which is in a cheese mold that has plenty of small holes. This way, it presses out the last of the liquid to give you a firmer, harder cheese, which will continue to firm up over the next 60 days as we age it. (This is a food safety requirement for cheeses made from unpasteurized milk.) The ricotta, however, is ready to eat the same day. I mixed in a tiny bit of salt and then crushed up some basil I had dried last summer.

This also solved my problem of what to cook for our Valentine's Day dinner. I decided to make homemade calzones. While calzones may not sound all that special, when they are made of lots of homegrown ingredients, they really can be! (And, for the record, there is no thing as delivery in Tionesta...we literally cannot call any restaurant, not even a pizza shop, and have them bring it to us!) I made pizza dough and crushed up some more basil and oregano. Fresh ricotta and canned tomato sauce went inside, as did the onions we have been keeping since the stand closed, as well as some homemade pepperoni. I added a bit of grated Italian cheese (the kind with sun-dried tomatoes, garlic & basil we offer from Whispering Brook Cheese Haus), sealed them up, and put them into the oven on my preheated pizza stone. They came out crispy & delicious, and I firmly believe everything is better when you use ingredients you've grown and/or prepared yourselves.   The only downside to this delicious feast was the mess in the kitchen.  However my kitchen is almost never cleaned up completely, because I spend so much of my time cooking there, or washing dishes by hand.  

 ...and for those of you inclined to kitchen adventures, ricotta is really easy to make, and can be made with pasteurized milk from the store.  All you need in some cheesecloth & vinegar or lemon juice.  There are plenty of recipes online, and I even noticed it's included in March's edition of the Food Network Magazine.  I encourage anyone curious to give it a try!

 
 

Fall Babies

Although fall is generally harvest time and not baby season, we've had some adorable little ones join our family this month, bringing both happiness and heartache.  Our brood cow Lil usually has a calf each spring, but something happened and we noticed she came into heat around the first of the year.  While that was a bit of a disappointment, she is getting to be pretty old, and things like that are part of life.  We have been anxiously watching her and knew the time was getting close, but we let her stay our in the pasture.  It's actually more sanitary to give birth outside if the weather cooperates, and Lil has had something like a dozen calves without assistance, so we weren't too worried that she would need help. Of course, when the day finally arrived, it was cold and wet.  In the interest of giving the calf the best start possible we decided to bring them into the barn for a few days.  

Dan had walked out to check on her on Wednesday, and sure enough there was a healthy calf on the ground, far up in the pasture.  I was in the middle of canning some Apple Pie in a Jar jam, so I couldn't really drop what I was doing, so Dan and his brother Matt took the truck out into the pasture.  They loaded the calf into the bed and put a lead rope on Lil. She didn't need any encouragement to follow along and kept an eye on the little one the whole way down.  This was the first calf born since our bull matured, and he seemed protective as well, as he also followed the truck all the way down to the barn.  While things like that can be a pain, it's good that he takes to the calves.  We have a large population of coyotes locally, and having the bull keeping watch over the girls and their little ones is actually kind of nice.  By this time, I was able to step away from the kitchen and was bedding down the stall.  We were able to get Lil and her calf in the barn and shoo Bullwinkle back out, so all went well.  The calf enjoyed his truck ride so much I decided to name him Ranger (after the truck).  He's strong and healthy, and since the weather has warmed back up (our high yesterday was a balmy 75!) he and his mama are back out in the pasture with the rest of the herd, and both are doing fantastic.

We also had a litter of kittens born here lately, which has been the heartbreaking part.   The mother cat has successfully raised kittens this spring, but this time, she seemed to just give up on the whole mothering job.  She seemed to do a bit better when I wasn't around (her motherly hormones seem to make her want to cuddle up to me instead of the babies for some reason), so I'd lock her in the house with them anytime I was running errands or working outside.  Still, after two of the four died, I realized I needed to step in and care for the kittens if they were to have any chance at making it.  At that point, there was a black and white one who was very small and runty-looking and a grey tiger one who seemed a bit better off.  I decided to start feeding them and warmed some milk and found a large syringe without a needle to use, since I don't have any baby bottles small enough for kittens.  But the grey one was nowhere to be found.  I couldn't believe the mother cared enough to move it, but it was gone.  I searched outside, and listened for a crying, cold baby kitty to no avail.   I locked her in overnight with her lone remaining kitten, which she ignored all night. Incredibly, in the morning, as I worked to get ready to open the farm stand for the day, I found the grey kitten on the front steps.  It had somehow survived, alone, outside, on a night where our temperatures went down to 22 degrees. Unsurprisingly, it was cold and not doing well at all, but I got some warm milk into it and put it in the kitty bed next to the woodstove.  It's been a frustrating weekend, as I've been feeding them every few hours, but watching the little black and white one fade away.  It really never took to eating from me, and its mother ignores them completely now.  I did the best I could, but it didn't make it.  The grey kitty has a great appetite and bites at the syringe when I feed it, so I'm hoping that it continues to thrive.  It's eating regularly and well, and naps contentedly without crying after a meal.  I know there is never a shortage of cats anywhere, and I wasn't looking for kittens, but since they are here, I felt it is my duty to care for them as best as I can.  Taking care of orphan critters is part of being a farmer, and even though our livelihood doesn't depend on kittens like it does lambs or calves, I'll do the best I can for this little one. So if you see me and I look a bit tired, it's probably from these every-4-hour feedings, which really don't make for a good night's sleep!

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A Day in the Life of a Farmer

What is it like to be a farmer? Here's an example of a typical spring day. This is an actual journal of a real day, selected at random, in this case Monday, April 30, 2012.

Get up. As Dan checks on the large animals, I get up and check the incubator. Pull 13 chicks & 2 turkeys out and take them to the brooder pen, where food & water await under the heat lamp. When I open the pen, I sadly note a dead turkey poult- it looks like it drowned, as its head is still in the waterer. I never have understood how something 6” tall can drown in 1/2” of water, but it seems turkeys manage. The heritage breeds, like our Bourbons, are much smarter than the broad-breasted ones, but still, you lose one every once in awhile. Nature is not kind to the weak or dumb. Then I do the rest of my AM chores- making sure the rabbits, chicks, chickens & ducklings have food and water. Dan tells me to keep an eye on Finni, our Dexter cow- we let her and the new calf out of the barn yesterday, and although everything seems to have gone well so far, it looks like the calf got under the fence into another part of the pasture. If he can't find his way back, I'll have to take care of it.

Household stuff- take mail out to the box, grab newspaper, check email. While I'm online, I place a bulk order for pectin for my jelly & jam making. This should save money and keep my supply in stock for most, if not all, of the farm stand season, so I'm excited to have found a family-owned bulk supplier of the stuff. Head outside to get the load of jeans out of the washer & hang them up on the line outside (I don't have a dryer). As I'm hanging jeans, I'm relieved to see that the calf and Finni are together on the same side of the fence. He must have scooted back through whatever hole he went through in the first place. Before I take the hose away from the washer and take it back to the greenhouse, I decide to do another load, so I put in some sheets and towels. While that is going, I head downtown (to Tionesta, ~5 miles each way) to grab a few supplies. I get brown sugar and raisins at the grocery store, and more peat pots for the greenhouse at the hardware. While there, I talk to one of the owners- she asks what we've got growing in the greenhouse these days, comments about the snow last week pulling the trellis in the garden down, and asks what it's for- beans? No, peas, I reply, too early for beans yet, although we're both looking forward to the warmer weather coming this week. It's real small-town America- doing business and conversation with your neighbors, literally.

I get home and unload the car, then the washer. After the sheets are hung, I drag the hose up to the greenhouse and water any of the flats that look a bit dry. A few I hold off on- if I repot them this afternoon, it actually helps if they are a bit dry. The rhubarb is growing like crazy, and the groceries I picked up are for my Sweet & Tangy Rhubarb-B-Q sauce, so I pick enough to make up a batch. The stems pull out easily, and I have kitchen shears with me to cut off the leaves before I bring it inside- they are actually poisonous! I put on an apron and consult the recipe, then chop up 16 cups worth of rhubarb. Almost everything I do in the kitchen is by hand or with hand tools, and this is no exception. It's just me, the rhubarb, a cutting board, and a sharp knife. After the rhubarb, I chop an onion and then begin mixing the ingredients in the pot to begin cooking down.

Make some more coffee- that reminds me, I've got to talk to Dan about putting in a coffee order...we've got a new business partner, Happy Mug Coffee in Tidioute, and we need to get our order in so the coffee can be roasted, packaged & picked up before the opening day at the stand, which is less than a month away now! Stir the sauce, and then find a catalog for Welp's hatchery. I need to call and order the next batch of broiler meat chicks. All goes well, and I should have poultry in the mail next week. The canner begins to boil, so I add the pint jars I'll be using to sterilize them. Stir the sauce again so it doesn't scorch, them go out to get the mail. As I walk to the mailbox, I notice a turkey walking around the barnyard. The turkey hens have a funny walk just after laying an egg, and I see this, so I make a mental note to check the turkey nest in the bottom of the barn later, and if it is empty, to look around for a new one. As I get the mail, I see a white shape in the woods and hear a familiar yowling. It's Whitey the barn cat, whom I haven't seen for almost a week. Although my least favorite of the kitties (because of the constant yowling), I'm glad to see him. Cats are a favorite food of coyotes, and we've had plenty of kitties disappear without a trace, which always makes me sad. But, on the other hand, that means I can let the kittens hang around here. I have 3 kittens right now, I hear them on and off throughout the day as Little Girl thought that the best place to give birth would be in a cubbyhole under the clean towels in my bathroom. They're about 10 days old now, so before too long I'll relocate them somewhere more suitable once they get mobile. Mostly junk mail, but excited to see my renewal of National Geographic has come, and bundled with the newest issue is the back one (last month's) I missed! I had no idea they would send it when I renewed, but thank you, Amazon, I guess. This makes me excited, as we save them and keep them in our library upstairs (we have hundreds, literally) and now I won't have a missing one.

Stir the rhubarb again and clean up the kitchen, doing dishes. (nope, don't have a dishwasher either. On days when I'm canning a lot, I may do 4-5 sinkfuls by hand.) Eventually, the sauce is thick enough to be ladled into the hot jars and put in the canner for processing. Now I can relax a tad and have lunch. As I'm heating up some leftovers, I see the calf by himself, so I walk out into the pasture to see where his mother is. Turns out, she was just hidden from my sight by some trees, and looks at me as if to say “What are you worrying for? I have this under control!” But as I'm walking back, I feel a few sprinkles, so I take the laundry in. Luckily, most is dry already. I decide to eat first, then fold & put away. I eat quickly (I don't even take enough time to finish reading the paper), then fold the laundry. Next is taking the hot jars out of the canner to cool and seal. As I'm doing the second round of dishes, Dan stops in; he'd come to get a chainsaw & trailer for the next job of the day and dropped off the zip ties I'd asked him for.

After he leaves, I head to the barn, zip ties in hand. The net roof of the peafowl pen is sagging, and it is catching the males' tails as they show off. By bunching up the net at the edges, I can tighten it with the zip ties. I've been meaning to get to this forever, so I figured now was as good a time as any. The peafowl are the wildest of the creatures we raise- they go out of the barn if I come into their pen to feed, unlike everything else around here which pretty much runs up to anyone holding a feed scoop. But they are magnificently beautiful birds. I really don't spend as much time just looking at them, admiring them, as I maybe should. It's easy to take things for granted when you see them every day, even things of great beauty. I really try not to do that. After I finish up with the net, I see the water pan is empty, so I grab a bucket and head to the hydrant.

Another task down, and I need to decide whether to clean the chicken coop or transplant seedlings in the greenhouse. I love greenhouse work, but cleaning bird pens is pretty much my absolute least favorite farm activity. I decided to clean the coop, mainly so I could not dread it tomorrow. Manure happens on a farm. I'll clean stalls all day without complaint. Manure powers our farm- it's how the pastures stay so green, and how we can grow amazing amounts of garden produce without chemical fertilizers. I have a deep appreciation for the stuff and its place in the circle of life. It's just poultry manure I find so unpleasant. I don't think that's unreasonable though, as it is either thick, heavy, and with an overpowering, gagging reek of ammonia, or dry and like a fine powder that becomes airborne when shoveled, coating your hair, skin, the inside of your nose. When I clean the pens, it's about a 50/50 mix of both types. I'd cleaned the peafowl & turkey pens yesterday, so if I just suck it up I'll be all done, I tell myself. The other downside to cleaning these pens is that it's pretty much impossible to get the horse-drawn manure spreader close enough. The best way, unfortunately, is for me to shovel it into a plastic bushel basket with handles, then carry the basket to the spreader and dump it in. Between the two pens yesterday, I carried 15 basketfuls, each weighing about 50 lbs, maybe more. Today's job will be a little bit bigger yet.

I dig in and got to work. By basket #12 I need a short rest and something to drink, so I go up to the house. The calf is up and about, but again, Finni is just out of sight. I begin to suspect the calf is stuck, sort of- he's in a small patch of pasture bordered by fence on one side & the creek on the other. It's where he's been all day. The creek there is small- just about 3” deep by 6” wide in most spots right now. But, I guess, scary enough when you're only 8 days old. I walk out with the idea to either shoo him or pick him up and set him down on the other side. He first runs up to me, then turns and starts running up the fence line toward mama. If he stops at the creek, I figure I'll just scoop him up (well, as much as you can scoop up anything weighing 80 lbs) and set him on the other side. Finni looks up and sees the scene playing out. Her maternal instinct must have kicked in, as she starts running in our direction. This is not funny or cute; this is about 1,000 lbs of mama cow, complete with a set of horns which are plenty big and pointy enough to impale a human. I wasn't close enough to see the look in her eye, but I wasn't taking any chance that she just wanted a cookie. I run for the patch of scrubby trees, the closest thing I could get to. She stops about 20 yards away from me, hollers at her kid, eyes me, and moseys back. Although she didn't come any further than the calf, I figured the only critter in potential danger was me, so I leave the calf to figure out the solution on his own and go back to the coop, where it is still stinky, but safe. Basket #19 is the last, whoo hoo! I walk down to the barn and get some pelletized lime to sprinkle on the floorboards, which helps to absorb the ammonia smell. I go upstairs to the hay mow to fill my basket one last time, this time with sweet, clean hay for bedding. I spy something white streak out of the barn as I startle it by opening the door. It's either Whitey again, or else Itty Bit, my prized mouser. I return to the coop and spread the lime & bedding, then grab the waterer. While the feed can wait another hour or two until I do PM chores, it's never good to leave the waterer empty. I put the waterer back, full, and open the coop doors. The chickens pop in from their outdoor runs, both for a drink and for the fun of scratching around in the new bedding.

By now, it's 3 PM. I'm sweaty and feel rather disgusting. All I want is a shower, but I look up at the thermometer for the greenhouse and see that it is 105 degrees, meaning I should really go open the other door for more ventilation. That done, it's shower time! Yay! Once I get out, I spy the lone cupcake left on the kitchen table from last week (I made some for a friend's birthday). I figure 19 bushels of manure x 50 lbs or more each = about half a ton of manure moved by hand today. That's certainly enough calories burned to earn a cupcake!

I hear Dan & Matt pull in; their workday is over. Dan is super excited because he's got a log splitting machine in tow behind the van. They got it at work, and it looks to be old and homemade.  It makes the models for sale in front of places like Tractor Supply look small in comparison.  The engine has a crank start, and looks a lot like the Wisconsin engine Dan rebuilt a few winters back. We could sure use a splitter since we heat the farmhouse with wood, and although the engine didn't fire right away, it seems as though it's moved to the top of Dan's project list.

I go inside and return a call to the man who runs Whispering Brook Cheese Haus in Chambersburg. We've been playing phone tag for a few days, so it's good to hear him answer. I finalize our order for raw milk cheese so we'll have it on hand opening day for the stand. We'll go pick it up in about 2 weeks, which works well...if we plan it right, we'll be able to take both our moms out for a meal for Mother's Day. Dan and I also discuss what we think will work for our new partnership with a local coffee roaster, Happy Mug Coffee of Tidioute. Dan and I are on the same page about what we think our first order should look like, but we both have questions, so I'll email the coffee guy tonight or tomorrow and go from there.

PM chore time comes next. Check the incubator again, a few more chicks & another poult. Time to carry feed for the rabbits and chickens, each in a 50 lb bag that must be moved from the stand. My arms scream in protest at the thought, but Dan takes pity on me and carries them for me tonight. Rabbits fed & watered, ditto for the quail, ducks, chickens, peafowl and turkeys. As I feed the rabbits, I notice Finni & the calf are with the rest of the cows, by the pond. He's made the creek crossing, so that's one less thing to worry about. Eggs are collected now too. I don't have as many chicken eggs as normal, but that is OK. I figured shutting them out of the coop for a couple hours this afternoon would have that effect. Next I go across the street, to the woods to check turkey nests. My heart sinks as I see the feathers. We've already lost two hens to nighttime predators this year. I try to be diligent about counting heads in the evenings, and this one wasn't sitting on the nest the last I checked yesterday, but there weren't tail feathers everywhere the last time, either. Back I go, to see if by some chance she escaped. I'm only counting 5 hens...one is missing. But the hen perched on the fence by the gate has about 5 tail feathers left. Bingo! We have a broody hen...and she's alive. I walk up and grab her by the ankle. I carry her off to the backyard and put her in a chicken tractor, one we usually use for meat birds. It was empty, so now it will be a sort of turkey jail. I'll keep her there a few days to a week, until she stops sitting across the road. I feed her and walk away. She clucks unhappily, but she's alive. As I walk away, I see another turkey hen, returning from a nest just beyond the blacksmith shop, so all turkeys are now present & accounted for.

Next, dinner time for us. I'm making a favorite recipe of Dan's, pork chops with caramelized onions. I sear the chops (home-raised, of course) in a cast-iron skillet, and caramelize an onion in another. Then I put the chops in an ovenproof dish and top with a bit of butter, some sage (homegrown) and the onion, then put in the oven for about 45 minutes. Then I slice a few potatoes into wedges and toss with butter, Parmesan cheese and some seasonings. I place those on a baking sheet, and into the oven they go as well. As it cooks, I do dishes. Again.

After we eat dinner together, more business. It's time to sit down with the mushroom spawn catalog and figure out an order. We're very interested in adding edible mushrooms, like shiitake and oyster, to our market lineup. This will be a new process, but it seems low-maintenance, with the possibility of fruitings over several years after the initial investment. Dan has some fresh logs that will be suitable, so we're eager to get this project underway. We talk about what to feature for the May newsletter, which I need to finish and send out in the next day or so. I mention ordering strawberry plants as well, and Dan shows me a part he took off the log splitter motor which will need taken out for repairs tomorrow. By now, it's about 9 PM. Time for bed.

While this day had more completed projects than most, it's really not unusual for us to do so much in a day. Doing as many different things as we do, you have to work hard, but also smart, or you'll never get it all done. And it's always necessary to pay attention to the critters, the plants, and what is going on. It becomes second nature to be alert, as it is often far easier to prevent a problem than to fix it, whether it is an invasion of cucumber beetles in the garden or an issue with the animals. In plenty of cases, like the broody turkey, you can't fix it after the fact. One she becomes something's dinner, there is no undoing. And yes, I do cook from scratch pretty much every night. While it is so easy to say, “I don't have time,” I'm pretty sure I'm just as busy as you. In fact, I know I'm busier than when I worked away from the farm. If I can do it, you can too, it just comes down to a matter of importance- is it more important to be quick & easy, or healthy and sustainable? It's a question everyone has to answer for themselves. Anyways, I hoped you enjoyed a detailed look into what really goes into being a farmer.  It's so much more than just being outstanding in your field.

 
 

Crazy Busy

Today, the sprouts and I are staying inside. It's snowing or sleeting or something out there, which just seems cruel after the 70 and 80 degree weather of a few weeks ago. But truthfully, it IS still early April, and after all, the barn coat is a much more seasonal piece of clothing than the tank top this time of year in our part of the world. But today is one of those cloudy, grey days where the small greenhouse, our sprout house, just won't warm up much. Right now, at noon, it's only in the lower 60's, since it is barely 40 outside with no direct sun.

For about two weeks now, I've been carefully bringing the trays of sprouts inside each evening, so they don't suffer cold damage, and then lugging them back outside for a day of warmth & light. At first, it was a 5-minute chore, as I had 4 trays and only needed to make 2 trip outside to the sprout house. But those trays were seed starting trays, with 96 one-inch spaces for plants. Since then, the tomatoes, cukes, flowers and more have been transplanted into 3” peat pots, and I already have over a dozen trays to move each time. I have some more things to start as spring goes along, and more things in need of transplanting very soon. A plant will pretty much stop getting bigger if it doesn't have any more space for its roots- it's called being “rootbound”. After transplanting, I'm always amazed at how much a plant will grow in the next few days. You can literally notice a difference from morning to night!

While inside, I have some flats under fluorescent lighting up to help to make up for the lost daylight, not that they are missing out on much today. I have the rest near windows, soaking up the ambient light. I'm hesitant to have many more flats, as I'm quickly nearing the end of the available space to set them inside the house! But soon a few will be empties. Last Saturday, the construction on the main greenhouse was completed! Although the ends have been up, and Dan and I put up the 20' wide plastic for the roof the weekend before, we still needed to enclose the sides. We used more plastic, fastened to boards at the bottom for the sides. This way, during the heat of the summer, the sides can be rolled up and tied, providing for even more ventilation than the windows and doors at the ends could provide. We're very excited to have the greenhouse rennovations completed right on schedule. We've already planted onions, chard, lettuce and beets in the ground in the greenhouse, and we're looking forward to getting our greenhouse tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and eggplants in the ground within the next 2 weeks. Although we know there will be some nights we'll have to heat the greenhouse, it's the only way to really get those crops to mature earlier. If all goes according to plan, we're optimistic that we'll be offering cucumbers as soon as we open this year.

It is spring, so of course we're crazy busy. Besides the greenhouse activity, Dan has already started plowing for the year, so it won't be too long before I'm working some of the machinery as well, which I really enjoy. Chick season is here and in full swing. Right now, we have baby chicks for sale. This year we will have Barred Rocks, and Easter Eggers, plus a few Delawares and Golden Phoenix chicks. Monday should bring our first turkey poults of the season. We're getting lots of inquiries about our Bourbon Red poults, and I do have a few folks who have already reserved poults. The quail have finally started to lay, and with only 18 days of incubation necessary (compared to 21 for a chicken or 24 for goose, duck, peacock or turkey) we'll have bumblebee-sized little quail in the brooder next week. The geese have been sitting on nests for a couple of weeks now, so I think we'll see goslings soon, too.

All our lambs are thriving on the good spring grass, and it's a joy to watch them run and play out in our fields. I'm also watching our Dexter cow Finni like a hawk right now. She is due any day now, and we're again looking forward to having a calf in our midst. We bought Finni to be our family milk cow, and we're once again anxious to have our own farm-fresh milk in the fridge. I'm looking forward to dabbling a bit in making some other dairy products, like butter, cheese and sour cream as well.  ...And speaking of cheese, as opening day approaches, we'll once again make the journey to Whispering Brook Cheese Haus so we can offer their raw milk cheese at he stand.  We've missed all the delicious flavors, too!

We don't have enough room in the incubator for all the eggs we're getting, so I've also been busy trying to use them up making a variety of handmade egg noodles here at the farm kitchen. Dan absolutely loves them, and I'm looking forward to listing on our Etsy store (www.etsy.com/shop/pleasantvalleyfarmpa/) and having them available when we reopen at the end of next month. It won't be long now!

Be sure to check out our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Pleasant-Valley-Farm/121591150986 ...our album “Greenhouse” shows the whole building process!

 
 

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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All Natural

Another busy week here on the farm!  Last week was full of excitement. As I began the early Saturday garden rounds, I heard a soft noise coming from the turkey nest by the old greenhouse.  I knew that the Royal Palm hen had been sitting on a few eggs, but since she was nestled on top of some of the wire onion drying racks and not a hard surface, I wasn't holding out much hope that she'd actually hatch anything.  However, this was the last nest standing, because we've had some trouble with raccoons and such lately, having lost a couple of hens and the eggs in the turkey nests were raided as well.  But as I was getting ready to cut lettuce for sale at the stand, I saw that there was a fuzzy poult with the Palm hen.  She ended up hatching 2 of the 3 eggs she was sitting on! While turkeys would normally sit on a larger clutch than that, because of the location, I took most of the eggs and put them in the incubator.  

I was somewhat conflicted this spring, because I wanted to have lots of turkey poults, both to sell and to raise for our own Thanksgiving offerings, but I also wanted to see if the hens have enough mothering instinct to actually rear their own young. With poultry, eggs are taken away to incubators, and breeding stock is selected for characteristics such as egg production, weight gain, feather coloration, etc.  Mothering instinct is actually selected against in many cases, because if the hen defends her nest from humans, then it's harder to collect the eggs to sell for consumption.  Most chickens lay an egg, but never think to do anything further than that.  This is not as true with the heritage breeds, as we have seen Phoenix and Cochin hens successfully hatch chicks, which is just the first step.  We had a Pekin duck hatch out a few ducklings this spring too.  While that was exciting, she just kept on at her normal pace, wandering all around the farm with the drakes, and in a few days the ducklings were gone.  She just didn't call to them and keep them close and warm, and when left to sort of fend for themselves it was not a success.  But our turkey is doing very well.  It's been 10 days now, and both poults are growing and thriving.  She stays mostly in the backyard, away from the other birds, and calls to the little ones to keep them close as they forage around.  At night or during a rain shower, she hunkers down and collects them between her wing and body, keeping them warm and dry.  To me, it's amazing to watch.  She was just a poult herself last spring, one raised in a brooder pen with a heat lamp instead of a mother.  She has never seen this modeled by other birds, yet she knows.

 

Just a day after Father's Day, Pixie's father returned to the farm as well.  The Muirs of Muirstead farm were willing to lend us one of their bulls, Finnbar, again this year.  This is another instance where we do things the all natural way.  Many farms that breed cattle never have a bull set foot on the premises, instead relying on Artificial Insemination to produce calves.  The advantages to using AI are that you don't have to deal with a bull, and they can be very dangerous to work around.  You can also breed your cow to the best bull, basing your decision on any quality you are looking for- milk production, breed show champion, weigh gain for beef, etc.  And doing it this way means one bull can produce many, many more calves than he would be able to otherwise.  As long as the semen is properly stored, it can last for years so you can even breed to a bull that's dead!  The downside to this is that everyone wants to breed to the best, and by doing so the breed as a whole can tend to become very inbred.  The Holstein cow is the worst example of this, as 2 bulls born in the 1960's actually make up 30% of the genetics found in the breed today.  When that happens, it means that if that bloodline is particularly sensitive to a new parasite or disease, it could go a long way towards wiping out the breed.  Inbreeding can also have a lot of other nasty side effects, like genetic deformities, low reproductive rates and shorter lifespans.  

Beef cattle to some extent rely less on AI.  Heritage breeds are also more likely to use the tried and true method of turning the bull out to pasture with the cows and letting nature take its course.   We were thrilled to have Finnbar come again, not only is Pixie a beautiful baby, but he was a pleasure to have around.  The biggest concern last year was that a bull would be nasty, and that we would have to be watching over our shoulder as we went about our routines in the barnyard.  This was not the case at all!  Finnbar isn't aggressive, and while I always keep my eye on the livestock, I don't feel the need to take any more precautions around him than I do the other males, like Rambo the sheep.  And it seems Finnbar had a good time here last year as well.  As the trailer was backing up, he had his head up and ears forward in anticipation of getting out.  When the door was opened, he calmly stepped off and began heading out to the herd.  Our Finni was just coming out of heat, so he was a bit more interested in her, but it just amazed me how calm everyone was- no chasing or headbutting, just some sniffing and then back to grazing.  He settled in almost instantly.  So he will be with us for a couple of summer months before returning to his farm, and we will anxiously await more lovely Dexter babies in the spring!

 

 What a good looking bull!

 
 

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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Rain Delay

April showers are still falling here at the farm, making it hard to get much done outside these days. I've been so excited to spend my first spring on the farm full time and have been anxiously awaiting conditions outside to dry out so we can begin the spring field work prep with the horses. Last year, I have photos of Dan plowing on April 15, with a trail of dust behind him because of the dry weather. This year, it's hard to even take the plants out into the greenhouse without losing a boot in the mud and slop. But such are the realities of farming; I honestly can't think of a job that requires more patience or that is more weather-dependent.  I just keep my fingers crossed that the sun will find its way back, the soil will dry out, and we'll be able to get plowing.  I'm looking forward to trying my hand at more of the machinery this season.

Even though we have yet to plow a round, though, doesn't mean things here have been slow! April is always a busy month. Lil's calf continues to grow, and we've let the pair out in the pasture to join the rest of the herd. He loves the freedom and runs and plays- it's so cute I often find myself stopping what I'm doing just to watch. While we had discussed milking Lil, we decided not to. She's an older cow at 13 years old, and we felt it was best not to tax her body too much with milk production. Most Holsteins have a productive life of just 3-4 years, so this shows what a difference using heritage breeds such as Dexters can make, as this is likely Lil's 10th or 11th calf! However, we still have plans to try milking, as our other Dexter cow, Finni, is very close to calving. So close, in fact, that we penned her up in the barn last night. While I'm sure she would rather be out in the pasture, we don't want to take any chances. It will be her first calf, and we want to make sure it's born in a safe, clean, dry place. It's also easier to keep an eye on her there to watch for any problems. We're optimistic that everything will go smoothly, but it's always best to be prepared to give assistance if necessary.

In addition to calves, we've had other babies born lately too.  There are fluffy, moving nests of rabbit fur with tiny bunnies inside. Also, the incubator is a busy place this time of year! We've hatched out a variety of fuzzy chicks as well as our first few Pekin ducklings of the year. We also had another batch of Bourbon Red turkey eggs ready this past weekend, and every single one hatched. We're so thrilled with how this has gone. While we definitely wanted to be sure of hatching enough turkeys to supply our farm's Thanksgiving bird orders, we would also like to see if our hens will hatch out poults naturally. One hen has been sitting on eggs for a couple of weeks now, but as I had been collecting all the turkey eggs at that time, I'm quite sure she is not sitting on her own eggs. If the hatch is successful, I'm pretty certain she will be the proud surrogate mother to a nest of goslings! The other hens have been laying in some crazy places, and most of the nests I collect to discourage them from using. I do not want a turkey attempting to hatch eggs on my front porch furniture. Likewise, I don't want them sitting across the road. They found a brush pile which has been heavily used for nesting, but I don't like them crossing the road. It's also in the woods, and the other day, when getting the morning paper, I noticed gobs of white feathers all around. They were unmistakably from one of the Royal Palm hens, and my heart sank. It was a lot of feathers, pulled out in hunks, the kind of evidence of a predator attack. Eggshells were also scattered around and licked clean. I went into detective mode, trying to figure out what had befallen my bird, but I couldn't find blood or body parts (like a wing) nor could I find any animal tracks in the leaf litter. Discouraged, I went to check on the birds near the turkey pen to get a head count. At first, I thought I counted all my Palm hens, but that couldn't be...I thought I must be mistaking an escaped Delaware hen (also white with a bit of black markings). But there they all were, with one looking a bit scruffy from missing feathers. No blood or signs of injury though, and she is doing well. So I definitely don't want a hen sitting for a month in that spot! However, the hens have finally made a nest I'm ok with...it's right next to the house in a secluded spot that should be safe. I hope one of them sits on it. They must all be using it to lay, as I counted 17 eggs in it last night! I removed some of them as it was too many for a single bird to cover, but I'll just try to keep the number reasonable and see what happens.  

We did have a day or so of nice weather last week, and Dan and I took advantage. I got some necessary pruning done on the blueberry bushes, and Dan finished up work early and we did get out into the garden. Although we haven't worked up the soil, there was a stretch that had been covered by landscape fabric over the winter which was weed-free. After a single pass with the tiller, we had a nice stretch of bed to plant. It's pushing the season a bit, but we were excited to get some seeds in the ground. Some garden plants can tolerate a light frost, which is still very likely, so we planted beets, carrots, radishes, peas, chard, lettuce and a variety of other salad greens. We also put in onion sets and some seed potatoes. It was great to get our hands in the soil, if only for an afternoon! We also tilled up a small spot in my herb garden and planted a few strawberry crowns. While I don't anticipate growing enough berries to sell by the pint or quart at the stand, it's something I want for myself. Dan though it was a great idea, so we picked up crowns of Ozark Beauties, an everbearing variety. Most strawberries are June bearers, meaning you need to wait a year for the plants to establish themselves before you can harvest any fruit. But because these are everbearers, with a little luck, I may even have a few berries by the end of summer. I'm excited to see how this goes and decide if I want to put more berries in the garden in the future...perhaps someday I'll even be able to offer strawberry jam!

 
 

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!

 
 

New Arrivals

Lots of excitement going on here at the farm!  We have 3 new Dexter cattle here as of yesterday afternoon.  Mark & Edlyn Muir were kind enough to loan us a few!  We met these wonderful people last fall when we purchased Fiannait from them.  This time, they brought us Finn-Bar,  one of their impressive bulls, for us to breed Finni to.  (So far, they've hit it off quite nicely!) Although Dexters are not tall, he is a beefy, solid, well-built animal, and gentle enough to follow me into the barn calmly when we put them in away from the heat of the day this morning. He gladly followed me, but it may have had something to do with the feed bucket in my hand! As the Muirs sold us Finni knowing we were hoping to milk her in the spring, they were disappointed for us that a calf never arrived.   So Lil also came with them, along with her calf.  They were kind enough to loan Lil to us for the summer so we could have a family milk cow for a time, and the calf is ours to keep as a replacement for the one Finni didn't have this past spring.  It is just amazing to deal with breeders like that!  Plus the cattle are so tame and easy to work with, even the bull, that they are a true joy to have here.  I'm excited to try my hand at milking a cow for the first time ever this evening!

I was also thrilled to check the incubator this morning and find three newly hatched peachicks!  We set every egg the peahens laid this year, but being that these were the very first eggs they had ever produced, I wasn't expecting a great hatch.  Sometimes it takes a few tries before a bird will produce a hatchable egg.   So, I'm just tickled pink with 3 out of 5 hatching!  That's probably all for our first round, but there are more eggs in the incubator, and I'm confident that there are more chicks on the way.

The garden is looking amazing. Saturday we were able to have the first of our green peppers for sale, and more are on the way this week.  I spy some jalapeños and other hot peppers as well.   I see tiny zucchini, yellow zucchini, and crookneck squash, as well as cucumbers, that should be ready for this weekend.  The new crop of lettuce, spinach & other salad greens are going strong, although I may give them another week before I start cutting.  I have green tomatoes appearing on more plants every day. I should have green beans by now, but the deer have been munching on them and the peas, so we'll see if there are enough to pick by the weekend. We often don't have enough hot weather to grow melons properly, but these past couple weeks have been ideal.  Even the seedlings that didn't look so hot at first are thriving. This year, I'm trying 3 varieties of watermelon (2 heirlooms), a honeydew, a cantaloupe, and an exotic French heirloom melon (Delice de la Table) that I didn't have success with last year, but sounded so intriguing I had to give it another shot.   I have herbs sprouting and otherwise just going crazy in those beds as well.  I'm headed back outside to do some more weeding, so among the weeds that took over some of the earlier plantings, I'm hoping to see kohlrabi, pac choi, beets and Swiss chard, hopefully of picking size. 

It's hot and humid here, but the chance of rain looks fairly low for the next few days, so Dan is out mowing hay.  He mowed some a few days ago, so hopefully it will dry out enough later today or tomorrow to get it into the barn.  We had hay in by the beginning of June last summer, but this year it's so far been next to impossible as we need 3 rain-free days in a row, and June hasn't cooperated much!  I like to help with the horse drawn equipment, so I'll probably be raking hay, as well as driving the haywagon again when we load it.  

Another pig left us this morning, so we'll be making sausage by the end of the week to have fresh sausage to sell this weekend.  I'll also need to make a seperate trip to Hirsch's to pick up our beef, which will be available for the first time since last fall.  Plus I have more vinegar to bottle, and more bottles should be delivered tomorrow.   These is so much ripening and coming in that I may need to get another table to the stand before the weekend to have a place for all of it!  What a great time to be home on the farm!

 
 

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!    

 
 

Even Critters Get Spring Fever

For what seems like forever, the farm has been blanketed with snow...unbroken white all the way to the tree line. With a week of spring sunshine under our belts and temperatures breaking 60 today, it's quickly being replaced by more spring-like footing- mud everywhere!  Although the pond in the pasture is still frozen over, it won't be for long.  I can see the outline of the water shading the snow and ice yellow.  I'm guessing in a day or two there will be open water.   For now, the ducks are swimming in a rather large puddle between the house and the greenhouse.

We hope to be in the greenhouse, starting vegetable seeds, before long.  Another box of seeds arrived today in the mail.  Even though I placed the order and know what's inside, I still rush to open it.  It's like holding a box of promises.  Each packet whispers another secret, another color, another taste.  I can't wait to be elbow deep in trays and potting soil.

I swear, even the animals get spring fever.  Although the doors remain open all winter, the chickens don't venture out if there is snow on the ground.  Today they were looking for buried treasure in the exposed mud.  A couple of the Phoenix hens need to have their wings clipped again, as they are spending more time loose than in their outdoor run these days.

Last night, I let the cows and horses out while I cleaned up the barn and put feed in the feed boxes.  As I was scooping our home-ground feed out of the barrel, I looked out the window to see the cows racing through the pasture.  The animals generally go to the creek and drink and then mill about the barnyard until the door reopens, but last night the cows raced through the pasture, turning around the island of trees and brush halfway up the field.  Fiannait led the way, her heels kicking up higher than her ears in what looked like bovine glee.  Louie, Happy and Baby Buzz weren't far behind.

Our five little lambs are doing well.  They seem to be in a constant state of joyful motion; jumping and frolicking as much as they can in the pens.  We can't wait to let them out so they can  play in the great outdoors.  That will come soon, we hope in the next couple of weeks if the weather cooperates!

 
 

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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White Stuff Already?

We've had a few good frosts and freezes here, so I've accepted that the peppers and basil and such are done for the year.  However, I was not ready to wake up this morning to 2 inches of snow on the ground!  Even with the wet ground, as I write this at 5 PM I can still see snow around the bases of the outbuildings.

The change of weather, especially the cold and wet combo, is hard on the critters too.   We still have 3 cows out in the field, and the smallest is only about 5 months old.  He was looking hunched up, like he was cold, so we decided to bring these cows in out of the weather.  The 2 older cows, Happy & Louie, have been with us since early January, so they spend a good amount of time in the barn earlier this year.  Little Buzz, the baby, hasn't been in the barn before, but was a bottle baby when we bought him, so he had been used to being handled too. Once we got them to come through the gate from the main pasture into the barnyard, Happy took off at a run and went straight into the barn with the two boys right at her heels. We shut the door and then had to put collars on the three of them  Although none of them walked right up to us, we had them tied in their stalls without too much trouble.  In no time at all, they were happily munching hay and enjoying being out of the wind and rain.

Even with the weather turning nasty, there is still a never ending list of things to keep us busy here.  More animals inside always means more stalls to clean!  I spent a bit of time with Ponyboy, our Miniature stud colt, grooming the piles of burrs out of his tail. Dan and I have been painting & reflooring the pantry and are in the process of putting everything back where it should be.  Our house is over 100 years old, and anyone who has lived in such an old place knows the Old House Dwarves...Dusty, Drippy, Mousy, Drafty, Damp and some others I'm sure I have yet to meet!  So winterizing as best as we can afford is always an ongoing project as well.  Also, in my expanding quest to be as food self-sufficient as possible, I ordered a pasta making machine and had a chance to use it yesterday.  I was very pleased with the results and spent time today bagging up the noodles that didn't get used for last night's dinner.  I hope to spend more time with it and even have some for sale in the near future in the farm stand.  Being in the kitchen sure beats being cold and wet outside these days!

Despite the cold, I'll be in the stand as usual on Saturdays until November 28th.  Our pasture raised lamb was processed more quickly than anticipated, so if you are interested, stop by or give us a call as we have very limited quantities this year. 

 
 
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