Archive for January, 2013

Icy woods and road

This past Friday morning we woke to a world covered in a thin layer of ice, just as the guessers had predicted.  It made the roads treacherous, prompting school cancellations and late business starts throughout the area; even so, there were a lot of people that had to drive on it anyway, for whatever reason, and by all accounts it was a wicked slick morning on the roads and highways.  My driveway entrance looked like a little parking lot when I got back down from morning feeding, with a half-dozen cars waiting for the salt trucks to come by so they could make it up Wilson Hill.

I was thankful that the only driving I have to do for my job is in a 6×4 Gator up a dirt road to pitch hay to the cows and let the ducks out.  Even my little rough road was cloaked in a sheet of ice, so we slipped and slid a little, and I kept my speeds down with a foot on the brake, especially coming downhill.  I remembered to take my camera with me and tried to capture a little of the magic of the frozen moment.

Ice bud

The forest was beautiful, a palette of steel grays, dusky blues, muted mauves and ochres.  All the branches brushed with silver glistened and sparkled against the dark trunks.

Icy woods

The cedars and pines were tipped in white and drooping gracefully.

Icy cedar

Cows, heifers and steers had icicles dangling from their ears and ate their breakfast on ice-covered ground.

Icy breakfast

And the sunrise up on the pastures was breathtaking.

Icy pasture sunrise

Temps hovered right around freezing all day, so the ice lingered anywhere it wasn’t salted or walked on or shoveled.  I cleaned off my two porches and the walking bridge across the creek using a hoe to chop and shatter the thin sheet of ice into chunks that could be scraped and swept aside.  First time I’ve had to do something like that in a long, long time.

Tonight we have a high wind advisory and thunderstorm watch, wild weather riding in on the approaching cold front.  I’ve spent the day lashing down hay, equipment and firewood tarps, putting away loose objects, and generally buttoning the place up for heavy rain and 40-mile-an-hour gusts.

It’s currently 70 degrees outside, and the shop’s concrete slab floor is sweating.  Too warm for January.  We’ll welcome the return of the cold air.


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Culvert cleaning after rain

We are just over a month past Solstice and already I can tell the days are getting longer, allowing and encouraging more outside work, as weather permits.  Just a week ago I spent a couple of hours cleaning out the restored culvert inlets and ditches on the road up to the hill pastures, following a heavy rain event that washed bushels of fallen leaves downstream to clog anything that impeded the water’s progress.

During our working visit June of 2009 Bear spent days unearthing four neglected culverts along the road up the hill, buried under years of accumulated washout and filled with roots, rocks and impacted dirt.  Drainage ditches and culverts are critical elements of a sustainable dirt road in hilly rain country.  A good road has enough culverts to divert runoff every hundred feet or so, and is graded to angle into the slope so the water flows down a ditch into the culvert, instead of choosing its own course down a tire rut, unimpeded for long stretches, a destructive earth-moving force where you don’t need one.

There is still a day of road-grading to do, once the leaves are all scooped up, to restore the proper drainage path of rain water into the roadside ditch, rather than the road’s ruts, which is just starting to wash out the road.  Two years ago I spent several days on the tractor regrading the steep sections and encouraging the water to flow in the crease between road and hill, into the culverts and away from the road surface.  It is time to do that again.

Of course, I’ll need just the right temperatures and lack of precipitation, so that project may wait awhile for all the supporting elements to coincide.

For now, as I can, I am laying dense grade aggregate on the portions of permanent pasture lanes I’ve established that have begun to demonstrate muddiness from either traffic or low-lying topography.  It is a slow task, one that may take me all winter.  Until you drive across sodded ground repetitively, you don’t know how it will hold up to vehicle traffic when rain events are factored in.  My little gator, with its balloon tires and relatively light weight, isn’t a rut-maker, but the tractor is.  So until I get an initial layer of roadbase laid on my driving lanes, the tractor only crosses fields in the mornings when the ground is frozen.

Road building past pond

Like this morning, when I moved two large round bales of hay from where they’d been stored to where I am forking hay out to feed.  I looked at the 10-day forecast and realized I only had one more below-freezing morning before rain will likely set in, followed by a warming trend.  That means mud.  That means, no driving the tractor up there.  So, I moved two bales of hay this morning.  All good.

My current pile of aggregate is frozen solid, so between rain and freezing temps the roadbuilding endeavor is much delayed.  I’m fine with that, as it’s slow, monotonous work, and it would drive me crazy to do it too many days in a row.  There’s always firewood to split, cows to feed, ducks to butcher, and a kitchen to paint.  Spring and house guests will be here before I know it.

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The cutting table 2

Several weeks ago I made the decision to cull one of the little steers, after seeing symptoms of conjunctivitis return to his eyes yet again.  He’s had multiple antibiotics treatments since the outbreak began in September, and had appeared to recover each time but was apparently still hosting the bacterium and was, thus, a carrier.

Back in early December the other steer in his age cohort and one of the heifers had started squinting and holding an eye shut with drainage down the face, so I got antibiotics into them fast and they cleared up fine.  But I knew one of the animals in that little herd was hosting the bug and reintroducing it to the others.  I think it was this little weakling steer.

This little guy started out underweight, and has always been a picky eater, apt to lose interest on even the best grass hay while all the other youngsters dug in with gusto.  Picky eaters can have a hard time getting enough to eat in a herd situation, so my conclusion was his nutritional support wasn’t steady and high, leaving his immune system slightly compromised and unable to build a strong resistance to the bacterium.

All these calves had a rough start anyway, having not been fed well during their crucial development months and practically starving when I got them.  If I could have isolated him and fed him separately from the others, he may have shook it finally and not re-infected anyone else.  But I don’t have the facilities for that, nor do I want to raise “special needs” livestock.  They either do well as a group on forage, or they go somewhere else.

So, this little steer went into the freezer.

I didn’t have any beef in there anyway, and I missed deer season, so I asked my good friend Ben if he would be interested in teaming up to slaughter and butcher a 300 – 400 lb steer, and he was.  I could have taken it to the processor but we were both interested in learning the skill of turning a living, breathing meat animal into food for the table, so we agreed to share the work and each take half.

By the time I’d recovered from my Christmas cold, we had one more week of near-freezing temps before the guessers were predicting this current warming trend.  Just enough time to get him dressed out and hung for a few days, then cut up before the mercury went above 50.  So we got our heads together, got the ball rolling and did it.

He’s the first Bear and Thistle beeve; a little young, so his flavor wasn’t as developed as the 24-to-36-month sale beeves will be, and he hadn’t had a finishing period on “ice cream” grass to pack on the pounds at the end for marbeling and tenderness, but delicious all the same, and a bonus to have a freezer full of beef.

There aren’t a lot of people doing this anymore, killing and cutting up their own livestock for their family’s table.  It used to be common, especially here in the country.  Now, Ben and I could honestly say we were probably the only people in Taylor and Russell Counties that were killing and cutting up a steer that week.  Of course, it was a lot of work!  And messy.  And I’ll admit to deferring on the kill shot and the throat slice, though next time I’ll bring my own rifle and bowie knife and do them myself.  It helps to see it done first.  Thank you, Ben, for getting that part done and showing me how.

We hooked the steer up to a single-tree and lifted it with a truck winch to the rafters of a horse stall in their barn.  First lesson learned was, a steer stretched out is much longer than the deer they had hung in that same spot, so we ran out of vertical room and Ben had to readjust the hoist arrangement.  Anything larger would need a sturdier, taller place to hang.


This was the first time for both of us to skin and eviscerate a bovine.  We had a couple of books to guide us, and our past experiences field-dressing deer, but mostly we learned as we went, working together to remove the hide and carefully releasing the body cavity contents.  I can say this much:  it is easier to field dress a deer, or even an elk.  Cows have so many stomachs!  I had withheld fresh hay since the day prior, but his system was still very full and very heavy.

Getting ready to gut

Getting ready to gut

We pulled out the liver, heart, and pancreas, and removed the rest in one big heap.  Then we finished pulling off the hide, dissected the tongue from the head, and it was time for me to get back home to do evening chores.  Ben and his folks cleaned up, disposed of the guts, blocked in the carcass with hay bales, and we made a date for the following Tuesday to do the butchering.

Removing the liver

Removing the liver

That gave it 4 days to hang, or dry-age.  Normally you want to dry-age your grass-fed beef for two weeks.  The older animals have more collagen in their tissues, which needs the enzymatic activity of aging to break down and tenderize.  I was hoping this young steer – I can only estimate, but I think he was just under a year old – wouldn’t need as long an aging period.  Anyway, 4 days was all we had of sub-40-degree daytime temps, so that’s what we got.

Hanging and chilling

Hanging and chilling

Butcher day started early.  I’d already loaded my maple butcher-block-top work bench into the back of my big truck to take over, along with two boxes of tools and miscellany, and a couple of coolers of ice.  I arrived at 9 am, and we hustled on over to the barn to split the carcass so we could transport the halves over to Ben’s basement where we would do the cutting and wrapping.

Last quarter to cut 2

Again, this was the first time for both of us to cut up an animal of this size.  Books and illustrations make the cuts look simple and easy.  They are not.  We’ll need to do more butchering to hone our skills, and I’ve ordered an instructional DVD to help with identifying the anatomy sections and where the major cuts are made.  It was confusing at times, but we persevered, telling ourselves that even gooned-up cuts can be made into ground beef.  We cut a lot of great-looking roasts and steaks out of it, though, despite our lack of skill and experience.

Lean grassfed bottom and top round roasts

Lean grassfed bottom and top round roasts

The hand saw I bought did not work as well as it should have – it seemed bent, and the blade wanted to drift sideways in the cut, which bound it up and made sawing very difficult.  We used an 18-volt battery powered sawzall with ultra-sharp 9″ blade to split the spine, and it worked well for a lot of the other bone cuts, too.  I was disappointed in the hand saw performance.  And of the three knives I knew I needed – a boning knife, a long cutting knife, and a meat cleaver – I only had a boning knife.   I used a vegetable chopping knife as a cleaver which worked, but the blade was not intended for whacking through bone so it sustained damage.

Cutting rib steaks

Cutting rib steaks

I will add to my arsenal of knives soon.  Good cutting tools are essential to this craft.

From start to finish, it took us a little over four hours to cut 220 lbs of beef carcass into steaks, roasts, ribs, and burger meat.  I finished cutting up my round roasts the next day, as well as boning out and grinding about 25 lbs of meat, most of which I made into hamburger patties.  Of great value to both of us were the many large bones left over, as well as trimmings, to simmer into stock.  My final tally of edibles that went into the freezer looked like this:

15 steaks –   13 lbs
9 roasts   –   28.5 lbs
Ribs        –   9.5 lbs
Brisket    –   5 lbs
Ground beef   – 12 lbs
Hamburgers   – 38    (5-oz patties)
1 lb stew meat
9 large packages soup b…ones
3 large packages meat trimmings for stock
5 lb liver
1.5 lb heart
1 lb tongue
12 oz sweetbread
I must admit, I don’t yet know what I’ll do with the heart, tongue, brisket, or pancreas (sweetbread).  But I’ll figure it out.  They are all good-looking pieces of meat.  The hamburgers are some of the best I’ve ever eaten.  Delicate flavor, just the right amount of fat.  Absolutely gourmet.  Steaks, the same.  Not as marbeled or flavorful as an older beeve would provide, and smaller too; but so, so good.

I already have a couple of good sausage recipes I’ll grind up more of the round roasts to make.  It is a great feeling, a joy, in fact, to have filled my freezer (and that of my friend) with a bounty of grass-fed beef from a steer that needed to be culled, having done all the work ourselves and knowing exactly what we are eating.  Not a project to undertake lightly, but not excruciatingly difficult, either.   In fact, I thought it was a whole lot of fun, and I’m looking foward to doing it again – when I have room for more meat in my freezer!

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Standing water on hilltop pasture

Standing water on hilltop pasture, 30 December 2012

This started out as two posts:  Outwintering, and Slow-draining Soils.  There is much to say about both.  But because these two subjects are, right now, my greatest challenge, and so interconnected and related, I could not separate them.  So let me begin.

Until such time as I am able to achieve the ultimate in managed grazing, which is to have stockpiled forage to rotationally graze as much as possible throughout the calendar year, I will have to feed hay during some or all of the winter months.  This grazing year was a complete anomaly, starting late with a hungry, starving herd of animals on summer stockpiled pastures and doing my best to make the forage last as long as I could, without compromising either herd health or pasture condition.

I was able to utilize every acre of stockpiled growth, and move the cow herd back through about 15 acres of regrown pasture before the growing season ended, grasses went dormant and I deemed it time to stop grazing around the end of October and leave what cover remained to protect the soil until Spring.  Without a loafing shed or permanent feeding area set up yet, and limited areas suitable in terms of slope, wind protection and vehicle access to outwinter the herd, I picked several spots to set up as “sacrifice” paddocks this winter.  They’ll get way more than their share of manure and hoof impact and will need some serious renovation come spring, but I believe it is better to do that to a relatively small area than visit serious damage far and wide.

I knew from my limited periods of observation during short working visits to the Farm in previous winters that there were areas in the central part of the pasture that held standing water after a rain event, and drained slowly over a period of several days.  I also knew from having performed soil quality tests, that my pastures are a clayey loam, with not a lot of organic matter, and the root profile of the sod does not penetrate very deeply.  Knowing that the pastures were reclaimed from invading forest by bulldozer some 25 years ago and had been seeded and maintained as tractor-mown meadows without animal impact since then, I also accepted the fact that the topsoil was probably thin, mixed with subsoil, and compacted.

So, when I went to set up my winter paddocks I skirted what I had identified as the low, wet area between the two ponds, and fenced the highest summit-like areas, maximizing proximity and orientation to forest edges for shelter from the west/northwest winds.

Feeding cows round bales of hay in ring feeders set in open fields is standard outwintering practice in these parts.  Most feeding areas I’ve seen on neighboring farms are not even on high ground.  I thought my carefully-chosen locations would work very well.  And they did, for a few weeks, until the December rains came and saturated even the highest spots.  Dormant grasses don’t move water.  Two inches of rain in two weeks is not absorbed or utilized the same way in December as two inches of rain in, say, September, even on the best soils.  And my clay soils hug water like they never want to let it go.

The cows and a small area of soil around the failed feeding areas suffered for a week or so until I came to my senses and realized the pugging damage and ankle-deep manure/mud was not worth the convenience of having them self-feed out of a ring feeder.

I won’t post a picture of the destructive impact caused by eight full-grown cows around a ring feeder on wet, slow-draining soil.  Trust me, it’s ugly.  It made me sick to my stomach to see, and I wracked my brain trying to figure out first how to prevent it, then second, how to mitigate the muck once they had stomped through the sod and worked the area into 8″ of sloppy mud.  Finally, the light bulb came on, and I realized what a losing proposition those ring feeders are on unfrozen ground in this climate.  At least, for a farmer like me.  I know what happens to soil structure when it is churned into mud, and it’s the exact opposite of what I’m trying to accomplish on these pastures.

And the cows aren’t the only problem – driving the tractor in to fork another bale in makes mud ruts in a hurry, too.  I was trying to limit the tractor moves to below-freezing mornings when the ground was stiff and frozen, but the timing didn’t always work out.

So, I am hand feeding now, forking the hay off the rolls, which are set on end in a staging area, into the dump bed of my little 4×6 Gator and delivering it, gently, to the paddocks.  And it is better, much better.  I can move the piles around which distributes not only the hoof impact, but the leftover hay that becomes trampled-in carbon to feed the soil.  With the Gator I can haul and dump huge piles of hay in just a few minutes, and fork out the excess manure pats to stockpile in next year’s garden area.  It is more hand work.  It takes more time.  But the ladies are eating better, I’m able to keep a closer eye on their condition with the twice-daily interaction, and best of all, the pasture area they are feeding on now looks excellent.  The sod is somewhat trampled, but not broken.

Hand fed cow

Next year I hope to graze a little longer into the winter, but I’ll still need a winter hay feeding strategy.  I think for the long-term an idea like this permanent central feeding station that would integrate with pasture rotations would be ideal.  It’s a matter of finding the right location, as it is quite permanent; but it could also be roofed and serve as shade and a rainwater collection point.  Not something that can be thrown together at the last minute but certainly worth planning for.

Meanwhile, the cows have learned the new feeding routine and don’t seem to miss the mud.  And I sleep better at night.

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