Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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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. 


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.


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!


Surprise Publication

I truly enjoy blogging here, and I get excited when people mention that they read my blog.  Knowing I have "fans" motivates me to post something when I otherwise wouldn't bother.  I am still thrilled to see my name on the LH homepage list of most popular blogs.  That being said, seeing your own words on the printed page is a bit different.  

We subscribe to a number of farm-related organizations, and most send out monthly, bimonthly or quarterly publications.  One such organization is the Purebred Dexter Cattle Association, which sends a quarterly publication out to its members.  We joined over the winter after purchasing our Dexter cow Fiannait, whom I posted about when she arrived last November.  I was pleased to see our names in the spring issue on the list of new members, but the summer edition I received in the mail this week was even more exciting!  Mark and Edlyn, who own Muirsted Farm and have been a wonderful couple to introduce us to these awesome little cows, had read my excited posts about visiting their farm and Finni's arrival.  They had commented on my posts and complimented me on my description of the breed, which I though was pretty neat since I am still such a newcomer to Dexters.  I was unaware that they had submitted them to the PDCA Journal, and I was absolutely stunned to page through my copy over lunch and see my name in bold print on page 27. It turns out my posts Waiting for Wednesday and She's Here had been published as an article!  So thanks to Mark and Edlyn, and thanks to everyone else who reads.  

 Other Dexter-related farm news- we are doubling our herd of Dexter brood cows to two!  We were given the opportunity to borrow Lil, a proven champion Dexter cow, to milk over the summer.  We were also given the option to provide her with a new home, and we're so excited to be able to bring her into the Pleasant Valley family.  She and Finni are both expected to have calves in late spring or early summer of 2011.  Finni was bred by a wonderful Dexter bull named Finnbar, who has been with us for a good portion of the summer.  However, we have to return him and that will be happening before too long.  Although I was more than a bit nervous about hosting a bull, he has been nothing but sweet and gentle and I'll miss seeing him in the pasture outside my kitchen window.  We were very fortunate to be able to host him for a few months and I can't wait to see what a newborn Dexter looks like next year!


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 can be so hard to be patient sometimes!

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