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Suddenly green

suddenly green

Well that was fast.

Plenty of rain and several weeks of May-like temps have turned the switch on early, it seems.  We’re told to expect some cold nights and snow flurries before March is behind us but there’s really no stopping what’s going on out there in the woods and fields, ponds and streams, soil and sky.  It’s all awake now.

This verdant green pasture isn’t ready to graze, it’s mostly just a carpet of inch-high new clover leaves, but it sure looks yummy.  The promise of delicious meals to come, and sooner than last year, they were covered with snow at this time a year ago.  We normally don’t start rotating the cowherd through the pattern until late April; it’ll probably happen a couple of weeks earlier than that this time around.

Once again the sap run blew right past me, if it happened at all.  Buds on the maple trees mean sugaring season is over; oh well there’s always next year.  And the next.  It’s scramble time now, to stay ahead of the bunch grasses in the garden rows that didn’t get seeded to cover crops, get the mowers and trimmers ready for action, finish setting up paddocks for horse grazing, and on and on.

Ready, set, go!

Early March feeding hay still

Now that I don’t work at a “real” job and don’t have to show up to work at a prescribed time, these pesky seasonal time changes are not as much bother as they used to be.  The livestock wake up when the sky lightens and settle down for the night when dusk falls, no matter what time my wristwatch says it is.  Same goes for their eating habits, they are accustomed to a regular schedule and there’s no reason to shift it an hour one way or another just because the clocks changed.

But the clocks have changed.  Which throws me off a little in my daily routine.  Instead of heading up the hill at 6:30 am this morning, for example, we went up at 7:30, according to the clocks.  Mid-day rounds usually happen at 1 pm, that’ll be 2 pm now.  Until I get used to the new time, I have to do a little clock math throughout the day just to keep on schedule.  So I leave my wristwatch on what I call “Cow Time” or, more accurately, Eastern Standard Cow Time, which gives me that nice solid reference for when the important stuff, like tossing hay to cows and horses, needs to happen around here.

In a week or so my brain will have adjusted, this little trick just gets me through until it does.

 

Winter’s end

Dragging West Pasture

I had hoped to be posting regularly by now but that habit is taking a little longer to reestablish, no surprise here.  I won’t give up though.  The truth is I’ve not yet built it into my routine; many things, much less enjoyable tasks, get done every week simply because I place them on the map of what I will do and remove any roadblocks to doing them.  And so it must be, will be, with blogging.

We are moving very quickly into Spring this year.  Seems like just last week I was bringing in firewood and starting to think about cutting more, now the stove stands cold in the sunny front room, although it may need to heat the house once or twice more before it’s all said and done.   There are cool mornings still expected.  But the daily dance with firewood is pretty much over for the season, and that’s a good thing.

Up on the hill, the pastures not used for winter feeding are greening, not really growing yet but the carpet of first clover leaves and grass tips starting to produce chlorophyll again make it look positively yummy.  It’ll be awhile before grazing season is officially open, at least on this farm – I let everything get pretty tall before starting the rotation, so the grazers tired of eating hay don’t get ahead of the growth curve.  So the cowherd is still in winter feeding mode, on small sections of pasture eating hay, moving toward the corral so the 2015 calves can be sorted out for their trailer ride to the vet, leaving a nice blanket of trampled hay and manure in their wake.

Just the other morning I accidentally ran over the chain harrow with the gator, which reminded me to hitch it up and drag the West Pasture before the rains hit.  The herd spent most of the winter on those three acres, moving slowly from back to front, adding tons of carbon and nutrients; dragging spreads all that out a little more evenly, fills in hoof prints a little and lifts any large chunks that would smother growth below.  The picture above shows the job about half done.  It’s a beautiful thing to see all the good stuff laid on top, ready to be eaten by the little creatures and incorporated into the soil, boosting vigor and growth of the sward all summer long.

It’s going to be a busy Spring, I have a lot planned this year and the snowstorms set me back a bit on some stuff.  The garden, for instance, still sits just like it did after I dug the sweet potatoes, last crop harvested – tomato stakes still up, nothing pulled out and burned, a mess.  Haven’t started seedlings yet either, which I hope to remedy this weekend.  Last year my veggie starts were early, this year they will be late.  Oh well.

It’s also time to plant a little orchard.  Bare-root trees arrive in April.

And bees, I’m starting a beehive this Spring.  Bees arrive in May.

Then there are the big red horses to train.  With any luck I’ll have one or more of them hooked to some kind of training sled this summer, perhaps a stick of firewood this Fall.  That project goes slowly but steadily, we make progress every day on manners and communication and connection, this is the year to build on that and get them thinking and acting more like workhorses.  No rush to pull anything heavy but lots of opportunity to build skills for both horse and human.

So here we go.  Winter is behind us, the farm is waking up, it’s a beautiful place to live and the work is hard but fun.  I will figure out how to wedge the storytelling into the story doing somehow, it is important and not as difficult as all that.  Just need to work it in like I do everything else.

 

Midwinter update

Turbo in trees on road

I’m not sure where January went, but it went quick.  Now we’re halfway through February and it’s going a little slower, but it’s been snowy and cold and a lot of work.  I think my muse got buried beneath the 16″ of snow that fell during the first storm and decided to stay in hiding until the ground reappeared for longer than a week.  Which means she’s still missing, but dagnabit I wanted to post regular so let’s get an update out here and get back to the storyline, shall we?

Like I mentioned, we’ve had quite a bit of snow here, which is not normal.  The old-timers say this is how winters were when they were growing up, back in the day.  Still, they’re surprised to see it come around again and shake their heads, cluck their tongues and confess to being thankful for being old and not having to be out in it.

I am no stranger to outdoor work in every season, I have all the clothes and boots and gloves and hats I need to stay warm and dry, and I enjoy being with my animals and being out in the woods and pastures, this is the life I had imagined.  I’m in good strength and health and have established routines that work well, don’t wear me out, get the necessary caretaking done in a timely fashion and keep me safe.   It’s a little lonely without another person to interact with but the dogs and horses are great companions, I am not alone by any means, I talk a mile a minute to all of them, they know the sound of my voice very well.

So we’re hunkered down for what may become the normal winter storm season, and I see comments online about starting seeds and getting ready for Spring, and the truth is that’s all just around the corner, I really need to stay forward-looking and not get too comfortable in my hunkered position.  Hunkering is good for a time but it can turn into torpor all too easily.  I don’t want to get run over by the freight train of activity that’ll commence in a few short weeks – it’ll probably run over me anyway but I’d like to at least see it coming and get a running start before I have to jump out of the way and let it barrel past.

A post about hay is in the works, don’t let me forget.  Might be more than one, it’s an important subject around here.  My four big Suffolk work horses eat a bale a day – each –  and the herd of Devon cattle go through 3 – 4 large rolls a week.  Hay is front and center on the menu half the year for the cows and the horses eat it year-round.  Why and what and how and is it any good and can you afford that are all great questions, I don’t have all the answers, at this point I’m just seeing what works and what doesn’t, there’s plenty of time to change course as we go.  But for now I’m hooked on it and don’t feel bad because it’s adding fertility and tilth to the pastures, which need it.

Lots more posts in that subject, let me tell you.

Speaking of hay, it’s time to go serve some more, get ’em all munching and crunching.  I’ll try to get back on a regular weekly schedule here, the pace is picking up fast and I’d like the blog to keep up.

Later, friends.

 

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.

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