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.


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!


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!    


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!

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