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Stove dog Rusty and Grace

It’s finally feeling like winter, which around here isn’t usually too brutal, just cold and sometimes wet, sometimes muddy, sometimes a little snow and wind.  All those balmy spring-like days in December were nice, and we’ll have some moderate temps here and there over the next few months, but the green grass has withered on the pastures and I don’t go out without coat, down vest, hat and gloves no matter how sunny it is.

We’re heading into a pretty good cold snap over the next few days and the expectation of single-digit overnight lows certainly adds a bit of complexity to the normal routine of feeding and watering and tending to livestock, as well as household tasks.  I’m better prepared this winter than last, but there are still gaps in my readiness posture.  Like the paltry stack of split firewood out in the little woodshed, which explains the empty spot along the wall next to the stove in the picture above.  It should be filled with wood, but there’s not much wood to bring in; so it goes.

The little EPA certified soapstone stove doesn’t need a lot of wood to keep this little place warm, so I can get by with scrounging as the weeks go by, but it would be nice to have a couple of cords laid in and not have to worry with it.

Maybe next year.

What’s more important than a full woodshed?  A full hay barn, of course, and a good supply of well-covered round bales for the cows – I’d much rather have to cut firewood in the winter than be running out of hay and trying to find some to buy this late in the year.  It’s an example of how I have to prioritize my time and energy, there isn’t enough to get everything done exactly when I’d like to; so it goes.

The stove is cranking tonight, the dogs and Gracie the cat are gathered close, I at my computer table; it’s a familiar winter evening scene full of peace and contentment.  There’s much work to be done this coming week, the list is ever changing as time and priorities dictate, but staying warm and keeping everyone fed is always at the top.

 

A break from the rains

New years day mud ruts

December was a pretty wet month for these parts, although nothing like what folks down South got hammered with.  I tallied nearly 7″ of rain, which isn’t out of the ordinary compared to years past, but with the unseasonably warm temperatures can you say mud.  Wet clay soil without actively growing grass to use and move the water through it, and not frozen nice and hard, simply cannot take much foot or hoof traffic without getting pretty sloppy.  Thankfully it dries out and firms up once the water stops falling from the sky, so the ruts across the non-graveled pasture roads are smoothing out, just a few puddles remain, some boggy areas in barnyard and paddocks that can be stepped around, and the temps are falling too.  A reprieve from muckdom has been granted.

If the forecast is correct, we’ll have about a week before showers move back in; a nice drying out period, much appreciated by this farmer.

The time in between mud and muck is precious and I spend it as wisely as I can, trying to make the most of dry work weather.  Of course, I only get about half the things done on my list each day, but I’ve always liked aiming high like that, it’s how I get stuff done.  This coming week will be busy.  In between the basic chores and household activities, I’ll be spreading gravel, laying in more firewood, catching up on manure spreading, training and handling horses, moving and sorting the bull from the cows and the yearlings back in, and doing some much-needed equipment maintenance.

Thankfully, the days are already getting noticeably longer!

 

Better late than never

 

 

Scotty's back

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane [you aren’t alone]
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry]
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promised joy.

It definitely takes a bull to make calves.  Whether you use his services on the hoof or from a straw, there’s no getting around the requirement to manage the breeding back of cows, or any livestock for that matter.

Raising Devon beef cattle to sell as gourmet grass-fed beef, I wanted a Devon bull, at least to begin with.   Cross-bred beeves would be just fine, there are many advantages and I may go that route in the future, but in the interests of laying the groundwork for producing a consistent product I felt it best to stick with the Devon genetics to reduce variability.  There’s enough variability within a breed and amongst a group of animals, I don’t need any more just yet.

But there aren’t any Devon cattle in my area – this is Angus, Hereford and Charolais country.  No one’s even heard of Devon cattle here, so finding a bull nearby wasn’t an option and I knew it wouldn’t be from the beginning.  I used AI for the herd’s first breeding back in Fall 2013, a lot of work and fuss and effort for not much return, which I also knew it would be, so I kept a bull calf out of the first crop, from my most feminine cow, to use as a home-grown bull.

As a long yearling left in with the herd, Scotty did a great job cleaning up all the open cows left from the AI experiment, although I left him in far too long – over the winter – and so their conception dates were as far-flung as the stars above on a clear night.  The results:  this past season we had two calves in July, five in September/October, and one finally showed up on December 11.  All over the place.  Not ideal for raising grass-fed beeves and finishing them right at 30 months.  They’re all beautiful calves though, born without any help, I only had to tag them and retrieve a couple wanderers the first few days, they tend to head for the long grass or woods to hide as newborns and the cows can’t follow them out of the paddock.

Ideally, I would like my calves born after the cows have been grazing good late-Spring/early-Summer grass for a few weeks;  from late May through June would be optimum for this farm, it’s climate and pastures and that sort of thing.  That means I need them bred in August/September.  Ideally, I would separate the yearlings (so the heifers don’t get knocked up), borrow a neighbor’s nice bull for 6 weeks, put him into service the Big Gals, then send him home when he’s done.  Well, even if I were to use a neighbor’s Angus bull, no one around here manages theirs that way, they are not trained to load or haul to a visiting farm, you put your cows in with their bull and their herd or you get nothing.

So the plan with Scotty was, THE PLAN WAS, to find a home for him off-farm, someone with cows they needed to keep bred, and use him just the 6 weeks of the year I needed him.  I had a plan in place that included the discounted sale of a couple Devon heifers in exchange for Scotty’s permanent room-and-board, but that plan did not work as expected.  Another story for another day; the point is, he had to come back for good after only being gone the summer, not just for a few week’s visit.  And I was not in any way, shape or form, set up for that.  And he came back late, because of the late Fall calving.

Better late than never though.  Gotta have calves.  They may not all finish at 30 months, or some may go over and be processed as boneless, we’ll cross that bridge when it comes, down the road.

I’m still setting up what I hope will work as a winter paddock for Scotty the bull, down with the horses, along the woods edge at the bottom of their hillside paddock area.  His service period is nearly complete and as much as I had hoped to be able to treat-train him to hop back up in the livestock trailer, it appears the cows get in there before he does, so I’ll probably have to lane the whole herd back to the corral here in a week or so, separate him out, load him for the short drive to his new digs, then let the herd back out to where they left off with winter rotation.

Spring will bring another bridge to cross:  what to do with him during the summer grazing season.  For now, I’m just focusing on what needs done to get everyone settled before winter finally sets in.   And I’m thankful the cows will be bred.

Weather in motion

Christmas week rain hillside flow

Rain is usually a good thing, if it comes in normal amounts and at regular intervals.  It’s mighty hard to grow grass without it and it’s one of the main reasons I’m here farming in Kentucky, so I’ve learned to work around it, and in it as well.  But most chores are best done when it’s not raining, which isn’t always possible but is sure worth a little planning and time management to try and make happen.  I don’t particularly care to feed hay in the rain, it just gets wet and trampled and wasted, and shoveling soggy horse poop is about as much fun as it sounds.  So I’m pretty keen on figuring out when it’s going to rain.

In addition to just trying to time daily chore runs in between rain showers, I also spend a good bit of time and thought planning out the week’s activities around rain events and temperature fluctuations, for the same reasons.  For example, tractor work on the hill – laying gravel on muddy spots, staging hay rolls for feeding, loading and spreading manure on the pastures – needs to be done when it’s as dry as possible, and usually takes precedence over other tasks.  Everything I do has to be prioritized and those priorities change as the weather changes.  If they didn’t, I’d get caught battling weather and slogging through mud doing critical stuff, which isn’t any fun.

It helps to have an Internet connection, some folks don’t, they just watch the weather forecast on the evening news, compare notes with neighbors, and get by just fine.  Me, I need more info, and I like it updated often.  This little laptop sits on the table in the middle of the house right where I walk through a hundred times a day, with a browser open and The Weather Channel open at all times, refreshed every time I pass by.

Not only does the hourly forecast help me predict best times and temps for doing stuff, but their little radar app called Weather in Motion is really helpful for tracking storms on their way through.  Really helpful.  It’ll show the past couple of hours of cloud and precipitation activity, and then predict the next couple of hours, which is not always 100% accurate but it sure is close.  Sure is better than not having any idea whether those dark clouds massing on the western horizon are heading over the farm with buckets of rain, or will veer north instead.  Sure is better than heading up the hill on the gator with a couple of dogs to do chores and getting caught in a downpour.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve used this wonderful technology to duck the worst of the weather, it really is a powerful tool.

This morning I’m looking at the hourly forecast and it’s telling me to expect scattered thunderstorms beginning at 8 am.  I usually head up before it gets light, starting around 6:45 (in a few minutes, I better get dressed!) and spend about 2 hours feeding and watering and caretaking the horses.  The radar shows a front moving southwest to northeast, on a track to the north – nothing dead on, just a possibility of getting something from the lower edge of it, so that’s good to know.  I’ll wear rain gear anyway and keep an eye on the sky but won’t be wondering if it’s going to dump rain, it should just be cloudy and feel stormy but stay dry.  Dry is good, especially for the critters that eat hay, and the farmer gal that brings it to them.

Getting back to the story

Moon over pond christmas eve

The story continued from where it left off here two years ago, of course; the storyteller just lost her muse, then her voice, and then too much time passed and she lost the writing habit.  It happens.  Facebook made it easy to post pictures and quick updates for friends and family, and the longer thoughts and observations suited for blog posts fell by the wayside.  Wow, two years.  That’s a long time not to write.

Getting back to the story gets harder the longer you go without writing anything, it’s tough to know where or how to start – do I just jump back in or play catch up?  I guess if I’d lapsed a couple of months, I could do a quick synopsis and move on.  But two years?  If I tried to capture even a quick screenshot of all that’s happened since December 2013 I’d never get past the edit screen, which is why it’s taken this long to return.  So we’ll just step back in the road and start walking, and I’ll backfill any big holes as necessary to keep moving forward.

Whew.  There it is, I’ve done it, I’m back.

Tomorrow is Boxing Day.  It is supposed to rain some more, with record-high temps here – 74 degrees.  The solitary bat hunting mosquitoes at sundown tonight got me thinking there might be some hungry fish in the pond, brought to the surface by the unseasonable warmth.  I missed a lot of good fishing days this Fall, I might take a break from chores and chill out for a few minutes with a pole and a bucket tomorrow, see what hits the hook.  My freezer needs some fish.

 

 

The closest alligator

footer holes

There is always something that needs done on this farm.  Every day, every week, every month, a slew of tasks and projects both big and small clamor for my attention, each with its share of overall importance.  But their importance is variable, and can change depending on what else is going on; inclement weather and animal concerns, for instance, can quickly demand a shift in attention.  Last week’s big project might have to get sidelined for something that crops up this week.  It is what it is.

As the sole source of manpower I have to constantly consider how best to prioritize my time and energy in order to get done what really needs done, and still preserve my health and sanity.  Every day I start a fresh page in my logbook, mapping out the daily tasks and what I want to get done for the day, working toward a weekly goal that is part of a monthly goal…which I never seem to meet, but it is what it is.  Aggravating, that’s what it is.  But realistic, too.  Because stuff happens, and seasons change, and goals must change alongside.

I used to fight the changes, the sliding of deadlines, the unfinished projects supplanted by another more urgent.  Now, I don’t have any choice but to accept them.  What’s the use of working on something that was supposed to be finished in late summer, when winter is breathing down your neck and half a dozen things need doing before the first hard freeze?  Or the next rain event?

It brings me back to the time-tested strategy I learned long ago from my mentors in the military, where priorities can change from minute to minute with jaw-dropping speed.  It goes something like this:  when faced with conflicting demands on time and attention, always shoot the closest alligator to the boat.  It may not be the biggest, meanest alligator.  It might not be the one you were worried about yesterday.  But it is the closest one, whose jaws and teeth are inches from dragging you into the water and making a meal of you, that deserves the most attention.  And a well-placed bullet to the head, if you’re interested in hunting alligator.

So the barn remains unfinished, the garden was left in disarray after a hurried harvest and awaits cleanup, the gutters need cleaned of leaves before freezing rains lock them with ice, the now-muddy road around the pond needs graveled, firewood must be split and stacked on the back porch, and a myriad of stuff needs to be put away for winter.  They’re all alligators, but they aren’t the closest one.  Just recently, the closest alligator was the coming two-year-old Suffolk colt whose gelding procedure did not go well; infection and swelling required an additional vet visit, medications given daily for 10 days, and a regimen of thrice-a-day walks.  This while I hosted visitors, yet another alligator vying for my attention.

As the horses continue to devour their small stack of square hay bales stored in the little barn that come Spring will become the broodmare’s maternity ward, an unfinished Fall project now becomes the closest alligator:  erecting the 20′ x 24′ clearspan hay structure in the First Pasture, to fill with 600+ bales of hay.  I wanted it done in September, but September was filled with cattle handling and AI, then October focused on barn doors, laying in round hay bales for winter cow feed, and horse training, and November was visitor month.  December; I’ll shoot this alligator before December’s done, I will.  Before the next one swims up closer.  Stay tuned.  I’m serious.

From grazing to feeding

Last rotation West Pasture 5 Nov

A very short three weeks ago my little herd of Devon cattle was grazing the last of the sweet fall regrowth in the West Pasture, heading down range toward the Lower Pasture where the winter feeding rotation has now begun.

Once I make some culling decisions and reduce my cow numbers, the late summer regrowth should last longer into November.  Ideally, we’ll end up with just enough cows, heifers and growing steers to graze on reserve growth and improve the pastures well into the winter months, feeding hay at the end of the dormant season and long enough into spring to let the new growth get a good start.  For now, I’m just observing, and learning, and contemplating what changes can and should be made, while I keep everyone fed.

Last year’s winter feeding strategy was a 1.5 acre sacrifice paddock on as high a ground as I could find, where I fed them hay, managed the manure load by carting away excess to start the garden, and hated the mud when it rained.  That area was heavily fertilized, received a well-distributed layer of carbon as the hay was fed out (there is always some left uneaten), and was also, unfortunately, beaten to a pulp by animal impact.  That’s why it was called a sacrifice paddock.  Left alone, in the spring the damaged turf grew mostly weeds, the weakened grasses overtaken by opportunistic, stronger annual plants.  That paddock is now renovated, sown to a high-sugar grass mix, and will be my finishing paddock for fattening the grass-fed beeves just before slaughter.  Another post, I promise, on how that was done and how it is doing.  So far, it looks very promising, heading into winter with a good first growth which the deer are enjoying immensely.

This year I’m trying something different.  Without a permanent winter feeding station, where I might feed round bales of hay on concrete surrounded by well-drained gravel access paths for the cows, and not wanting to confine them to another sacrifice area, I’m going to rotate them around the entire pasture complex, in large paddocks – several acres each – to spread them out and lessen the destructive impact of their hoof action, and feed, as before, to evenly distribute the carbon and manure and traffic.  This year I have a hay wagon that will hold enough to feed the entire herd in two feedings per day, one in the morning and the second in early afternoon.

Hay wagon

I am still hand-forking hay from round bales set on end, which is not as laborious as it might sound, especially since I started placing the bales on pallets to keep the bottom edge free as the roll unwinds.  Believe it or not, I find forking loose hay from a round bale into a wagon, then forking it out in piles for the cows, easier than lifting and toting and tossing square bales.  It takes longer, but I’ve learned to use very good pilates-inspired body mechanics so it does not strain my back, wrists, elbows or shoulders.  I call it Farmer Tai chi.  My cows call it pizza delivery.

They are eating well so far, going through three rolls in a week, on average, with very little waste.  And I am happy with the improvements in my setup and delivery system, which should make the winter feeding much less of a chore, and easier on the pastures.

Cold November morning feeding hay 2

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