North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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It’s hard to imagine a homestead farm without fences.  There are so many different husbandry projects happening at once—pigs, chickens, sheep, ducks, turkeys, gardens, cows, crops, etc.!  If the pigs were in the squash patch, the chickens in with the donkey, or any number of combinations, it is easy to see how something would go awry.  Fences help maintain the order that is crucial in a successful agrarian enterprise.

The old saying goes that good fences make good neighbors, which harkens to the days when farmers were responsible for their side of the fence.  Grandpa remembers his dad going out each year, trimming and mending the hedges and fences that bordered the neighbors.  Neither family wanted the others’ cows in their corn or pigs in the yard.  Prevention of unwanted escapes was much better than cleaning up the destructive aftermath.

For centuries, most fences were living hedges, the traditional English model of which involved cutting and laying the hedge every three years.  Stems as big around as a person’s finger were sliced at an angle part-way through to allow them to flex near the base.  These stems were then braided together along the length of the hedgerow.  New shoots would sprout up from the braided stems, and these would be cut and laid three years later.  As the hedge grew, the goal was to make it “Hog tight, horse high, and bull strong.”  Every 100 years, a new variety of hedge plant like elderberry would be propagated in the hedge row to give new vitality.  Counting the number of different plants in an English farm hedge is a rough estimate of how long that hedge has been tended by human hands. 

Hedges and fencerows can offer important habitat for a variety of wildlife, as well as block wind and snow during inclement weather.  In rural Vermont, the ever-present need to pick rock from the sloping fields and pastures became material for snaking stone walls that marked property lines or kept livestock in or out of desires areas.  It was even common in colonial times to simply “fence the yard” and let the animals wander at will outside.  The pigs lived mostly in the woods, the cattle in the pastures, and the chickens where they will, but at least the laundry, mother’s flowers, and the small children would be left alone! 

Fences have also been an issue of contention between farmers.  One of Abraham Lincoln’s legal cases in Illinois before he became President involved a dispute between a cattleman and a crop farmer.  The crop farmer was outraged that the cattleman’s herd had invaded his fields and damaged the crop, and he wanted the cattleman to pay for fencing his fields.  Ultimately, the law ruled that it was the crop farmer’s responsibility to erect fences to protect his property, not the cattleman’s.

The invention of barbed wire changed the face of ranching in the West as wheat farmer’s pushed into the plains.  Huge herds coming north out of Texas to the railroad stations that took the beasts to Chicago meat plants reeked havoc on anything in their way.  All the work into a wheat crop could be demolished in a few hours below stamping hooves.  As the West was settled, cowboys found it harder and harder to make drives because barbed wire fences were going up everywhere.

Now with electric fencing, the barrier is no longer strictly physical.  A single strand of high tensile wire with a pulsing electric fencing system can keep thousands of pounds of cattle inside.  This is because electric fence works as a psychological barrier that requires training young animals to gain their respect.  Our lambs begin in a traditional woven wire fenced pen so they can learn what a fence is (I can see through it but cannot run through it).  They then graduate to an electric mesh fence on one side of a pen.  A nose is zapped, the lambs run in surprise and bounce off the opposite fence.  Once they learn that the “biting fence” does not pursue them as long as they leave it alone, the lambs are safe to be introduced to a fully electrified paddock.

The psychological barrier works as well for predators and other creatures meant to be kept outside of an area by electric fence.  A sensitive raccoon paw soon learns that biting fences are no fun and leaves the sweet corn patch to itself.  Coyotes pace the edge, looking for a way in—finding none, they continue on their way.  But just as the Vermont sheep knew every spot in the stone walls that had fallen over, both livestock and predators know when an electric fence has been shorted out.  Diligence in maintaining good fences is ever present in a farmer’s labors.

One of the first fences I helped put up on our farm when I was about 12 years old was not to keep out wolves or hold in sheep.  Circling our first, modest raised bed garden, it wasn’t even in response to rabbits or deer.  Grandpa’s black Labrador Meg had some funny habits, including making it her personal missions to pull out all the plants in the garden.  Transplanted tomatoes?  Rip.  Half-grown sweet corn?  Rip.

I was a bit of a bean pole then, and I’m sure that Mom and Grandpa did most of the fence post pounding.  We strung the four-foot woven wire around the perimeter and built a wooden gate at one end.  There, now our precious little garden was safe from the marauding dog!  Later, we added chicken wire, to help with the baby rabbits that were lusting after the carrots and beets.

Now, 14 years and acres of garden later, we pulled out that old first garden fence—rusted, listing, and a little war-beaten by lawn mowers.  A couple neighbor friends came over to help as we wrestled the bottom wire free from tangled quack grass roots and buried fence clips.  Now a patch for perennial crops of rhubarb, asparagus, garlic, and strawberries, the garden no longer needs the old-fashioned metal protection.  Meg has grown old and gray, resigning her urge to enforce her will on unsuspecting garden plants.

We pulled out the old T-posts, rolled up the unruly chicken wire, and opened this little piece of the farm into a new chapter.  We almost left the garden gate—as a memento or conversation piece—but with typical German thoroughness, it all had to come out.  If the old rig had stayed much longer, the weeds would have taken over the fence line enough to be mistaken as a hedge.

From the ancient to the modern, putting in, taking out, and maintaining fences is part and parcel of agrarian living.  I don’t know how the weather does it, but the days you put in fence are almost always the hottest of the summer.  And the days you pull it out are cold and drizzly.  But yesterday’s fence pulling was pleasant enough, and we laughed as we wrestled and tugged on the old worn-out fence with our neighbor friends, who were lending a hand to the task.  Guess good fences still make good neighbors.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453


Good Old Grow It Yourself

Sometimes, life can throw you lemons—a faulty spark plug, a light bulb that burns out in a week, or a new flashlight that continually falls apart.  But when the agribusiness food system creates problems that sting your farm at a basic level, it’s time to get back to good old fashioned do-it-yourself practices (or, in this case, grow-it-yourself alternatives).

Through the years, our farm’s personal battle with the big guns of agribusiness has been in the arena of animal feeds.  Commercially, you can readily find mash feeds, which are ground up so fine the wind will carry it away and neither the pigs nor the chickens find it especially palatable (imagine eating plain cornmeal and think about it sticking inside your mouth).  Alternatively, there are crushed pelleted feeds known as “crumbles” which neither blow away nor cake in the feeder, but these feeds never smell fresh and have been heat treated and who knows what else.  Both styles are difficult to guess their contents because all ingredients have been pulverized beyond recognition.

There was a time when we tried growing our own grains.  We planted winter wheat in the fall—but this served better as a green manure than a feed crop.  We found an heirloom corn that was selected for conditions in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  Our patch grew well, but after counting the volume of harvest (minus what the Sandhill Cranes had snitched), we calculated that most of the hayfield would have to be converted to corn to keep everyone fed.  We needed the hay and didn’t like the thought of plowing that much land under, so we gave up the idea of growing our own field corn.

It would seem (with all the research dollars and land-grant universities) that optimal livestock nutrition should be pretty well understood.  Unfortunately, however, this research has often focused on what industrial waste products can be fed rather than finding the best mix of natural foods.  For instance, in the late 19th Century, cows living in urban areas were fed “slues,” which is the waste from brewing beer.  Piped in still boiling hot, the milk cows had nothing else to eat and seldom lived longer than a few years.  Between the horrid conditions for the cows and the equally squalid conditions for the workers, slues milk was deemed unsafe without a new invention—pasteurization.  The technique saved the lives of many urban babies and the “quick fix” became regulation in many states.  Slues barns were eventually outlawed, but ironically “brewer’s grain” (a dried form of the same product) is once again being touted as a feed ingredient for cattle and other livestock!

Another atrocity, as reported by Joel Salatin in Folks This Ain’t Normal is the commercial practice of feeding chicken manure to cattle.  If they don’t die from eating it, it’s ok…right?  Remember Michael Pollan’s advice:  you are what you eat eats.  And who even wants to imagine what “animal protein byproducts” is.  We were ready to say no to commercial feeds.

Instead, we embarked on the journey of creating our own custom feed mixes through area feed mills that sourced their grains through local growers.  It seemed like a great keep-it-local principle.  We were able to make mixes where you could still see the types of cracked grains, the feed smelled fresh, and there was no brewer’s grain, canola oil, chicken manure, or animal protein byproducts.  Yet last year, disaster struck.

Within five days of feeding our news custom mixed feeds, hens stopped laying and little chickens and ducks started dying.  We tried everything—even sending birds to a state laboratory for testing.  The results came back as “renal necrotizing fasciitis,” which is a problem where the kidneys are being attacked by toxins.

Scientists have known since the 1950’s that humans are changing the environment through the emission of greenhouse gasses.  Global Climate Change is drastically impacting farmer’s everywhere.  Last summer, the Midwest was gripped in a terrible drought reminiscent of the beginning of the Dust Bowl.  Drought not only stunts crops like corn but it can be the perfect storm for other types of problems.  Drought stressed corn (or ears that have been damaged by hale) can harbor certain types of mold that, as they grow, produce substances called mycotoxins.  Poor storage can exacerbate the problem, but it usually begins in the field.

Mycotoxins and the funguses that produce them come in many forms—roughly 30,000 of them.  Some of the toxins are carcinogenic, others attack the lungs, and still others can attack the kidneys.  Tiny trace amounts can be lethal to birds, especially waterfowl, and harmful for all types of livestock.  Tests for mycotoxins are expensive and often yield false negatives because these trace substances might not be evenly mixed throughout the feed.  But their affects can be horribly devastating, as we witnessed last year.

This winter, we were determined to make a difference towards shaking the grip of genetically modified corn and soy in our livestock’s diets.  Heavens, medieval Europe somehow got by without either of these crops!  But instead of going backwards in technology to solve the problem, we’re looking forwards towards new systems designed in New Zealand for feed sourcing.

Many people have heard about the benefits of eating or baking with sprouted grains.  The process releases the inner proteins and makes the grain more easily digestible.  For livestock feed, sprouted grains like wheat, barley, or oats grown to the height of about four inches makes them wonderfully digestible for both ruminants and single-stomached animals as well as packs ten-times the amount of nutrition as the original amount of dry grain.  The animals eat the roots, hulls, sprouts, and all, and it only takes fresh water to sprout the grain.

Sourcing our supplies through FarmTek, we designed a custom “pilot” system that fit in our aquaponics greenhouse that could raise enough fodder to meet the needs of approximately 24 milking ewes.  No other grains!  With a special pressure reducer, timer, and gauge, the system delivers just the right amount of water at the right time to the sprouting grain for optimal growth without inviting molds.

As we soak the grains and fill two trays each day, it is thrilling to watch the little seedlings send up their eager, strong shoots.  If this project proves successful, we can expand with a larger system to become even more feed independent.  While fodder can’t totally replace grains for chickens and pigs, it can be an important supplement—packed with vitamins and full of life.  I know I will be excited to break up the first chunks for my hens or chicks and watch them peck and scratch with glee.  Green fodder all winter—it sounds great!

No plowing, no pesticides, no GMO—we’re moving forward on our mission towards grow-it-yourself feed sourcing for our livestock, right here on our own farm.  Local food really is its own form of revolution and resistance against the pressures and power of conglomerate corporations.  Do you know what you eat eats?  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. (715) 462-3453



Donkey on Duty

Living in the Northwoods within the boundaries of the Chequamegon National Forest offers glimpses of a plethora of wild fauna.  From the elegant sandhill cranes that nest in our fields to the portly beaver trying to dam up the creek, from the tiniest ruby-throated hummingbird to the specked white-tailed fawn, wildlife abounds.  But there are certain types of wildlife that can make a farmer nervous, including foxes, coyotes, wolves, bears, cougars, and other roaming creatures that would be happy to have lamb-on-the-hoof for dinner.

Now, I enjoy all the types of wildlife and don’t mind having wolves in the woods…they can have all the cotton-tail rabbits they want!  But I’m not in the business of raising their dinners for them.  Sorry folks, lamb is not on the menu for the wild canines tonight.  So, the question then is how to create boundaries that are humane for both domestic and wild animals yet keep the sheep safe from predation.

We do, of course, have a rigorous system of electric fences, with high tensile perimeters and Electronet mesh fences for individual, movable paddocks for rotational grazing.  But having a second line of defense is always the best strategy.

There are many traditional methods for protecting sheep in the pasture.  An integral part of the nomadic, pastoral lifestyle was to keep personal watch over the sheep, with a wooden flute to pass the time and a herding dog for company.  While this does sound rather relaxing, I’m afraid that the demands of keeping the farm and the new Creamery & Café running leave little room for lounging with the sheep all day. 

If a human is not available for guarding, then there are a variety of animals that can be of service to the flock.  A favored choice is guard dogs, especially the Great Pyrenees, with its thick, white, mop-like coat.  These hip-high dogs live with the flock full-time and look remarkably like the sheep themselves!  But, when defending against wolves, more than one dog is required.  Wolves are wily enough to send a scout at one end of the field to distract the guard dog, while the other members of the pack attack the sheep from the opposite side.  At least three, if not more, guard dogs must be on the lookout for their flock.  One of the problems with this model, however, is that recent genetic decoding proves that all dogs are direct descendents of wolves.  The instinct to herd and guard is only a thin veneer away from the instinct to hunt, and we have heard some terrible stories about guard dogs turning on the sheep—ensuing in a heartbreaking and bloody mess.

What about other four-legged creatures?  Another option is llamas, which stand tall above the sheep and keep watch, as well as spit and stomp.  Llamas are known for their character edge (as well as lovely fleeces) and serve diligently for smaller predators like foxes and coyotes.  But a Vermont sheep farm where Kara interned found that the llamas did not stand up to a pack of wolves—retreating to the barn and leaving the sheep to their fate.  Wolves prove a formidable foe!

This brings us to the animal that became the protectorate of choice on our farm—a donkey.  Donkeys are tall, like the llamas, and come with radar-big ears and alert eyes.  With strong teeth and hooves for stomping, kicking, biting, and throwing, they face their natural predators with a ferocity that proves their adeptness at surviving in rugged, desert landscapes.  There is even a YouTube video of a donkey “kicking ass” against a cougar!  The donkey’s tremendous bray also alerts predators of its presence and alerts us of impending dangers.

Not all donkeys are created equal, however.  For guarding purposes, it is important to have a standard-sized donkey.  While miniature donkeys are as adorable as Eeyore, they do not have enough strength and size to defend against predators, and the ride-able mammoth donkeys are too big and slow for the job.  About the size of a horse, standard donkeys are agile and formidable.  Alongside size, however, the next important trait is character.  A petting-zoo caliber of donkey is unlikely to turn suddenly battle-fierce, whereas donkeys who are wild rescues (or close to those roots) have learned what it takes to stay alive.  And wild donkeys, by nature, are the standard size.

Our guard donkey Belle came into our lives quite serendipitously.  We had just decided that a donkey was the right match for our farm and were voicing this idea to the folks at the feedmill, when someone spoke up, “I just might know someone who has a donkey looking for a home!,” jotted down a phone number, and suggested we try giving these folks a ring.  Just the other day, they had been at the shop and mentioned the donkey.  It turned out that this family had a donkey after all, as well as a few horses, and were in the process of moving to a new location, where the donkey would not be able to join them.

Belle was known for her feisty personally.  Even the ferrier, who trims her hooves several times a year, will remark at how she bucked and resisted his care as a teenager.  I think they call it stubborn, but the trait may also be attributed to her wild-rescue parents.  Either way, coming to our farm was like coming to donkey spa, with lots of space to run around as her paddock followed that of the sheep.  Because she is the only equine on the farm, Belle adopted the sheep as her clan—braying as each new lamb is born and taking her job of guarding seriously.  Nothing bothers Belle worse than when she cannot see her sheep—that and the threat of predators.

My personal theory is that donkeys attained their name from their bray, which when you really listen sounds much more like DON-key, DON-key, than hee-haw.  While the words stay the same, Belle has shown us that there are different brays for different circumstances.  There is a bray for “I’m hungry, will ANYBODY feed me?”  There is another for “HELLO!  Someone is driving their ATV around the edge of the field and I can SEE them!”  And there is yet another one, all to its own, which means, “DANGER, there are PREDATORS!!!”

The last proved its worth one evening when Belle sounded her alarm call.  Apparently, the sheep knew that all the bellering was to warn of an impending attack and flocked tightly together in fear.  We dropped whatever it was we were doing in the garden and rushed out to the field to let the sheep into the barn, managing to just get Belle in as well as a wolf circled the edge of the perimeter fence, looking for a way in.  It was a close encounter!  Subsequently, the wolf tracks have moved from running right past our back door to diverting around the farm altogether—evidence that this natural, harmonious way to set boundaries with the local wildlife is working.

So, next time you’re over for a visit, I’m sure we’ll have our donkey on duty, and she’ll probably proclaim an audible announcement of your arrival.  She’s out there working to keep everything in order, just like the rest of us.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café.

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