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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
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
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
Laura Berlage is a
co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café.
Posted by Ann, Laura, and Kara
@ 11:41 AM CDT
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,
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
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
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
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
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
Laura Berlage is a co-owner
of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. (715)
Posted by Ann, Laura, and Kara
@ 12:58 PM CDT
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
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. northstarhomestead.com
Posted by Ann, Laura, and Kara
@ 04:08 PM CDT
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