Archive for the ‘Farm home life’ Category

November visitors

Tinka, Skeet and Linda

The little farmhouse has been abuzz with visiting friends and family this month.

Bear made his annual escape from San Diego to relax a bit and catch up on equipment projects; my barn-building sister drove out from Colorado with her husband and their dog Tinka to help kick-start the hay shelter construction, and our good friend Liz and her new hubby, both now retired from the Navy and setting up their homestead in Illinois, stopped by on their way to a family Thanksgiving gathering further east.

Skeet the Collie, elder of the Bear and Thistle dog pack, was glad to have another girl dog to share pee duty with, and despite a minor mealtime scuffle (orchestrated unwittingly by the two dog mums who put their food bowls down too close together) she enjoyed cousin Tinka’s visit enormously and welcomes her back any time.  Aunt Linda is one hell of a ball and stick thrower, so it goes without saying (just look at that picture above) that Skeet was a happy girl.

Bandit nearly wriggled out of his dog skin when his favorite guy Bear walked in the back door.  I wish I’d have captured that greeting on video, it was amazing.  Tears me up just thinking about it: imagine the happiness of a dog seeing their favorite someone after a year apart – and of course the dog doesn’t realize his person is coming back – so he was absolutely thunderstruck and obviously very happy.  A wonderful thing to witness.

Bear and Bandit

As for me, I am delighted to have such excellent company after so many months alone; especially glad for the company of these close friends, and my husband, who is my closest friend.


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Aries and Aedan profile pic

My how time flies when we’re having fun!  Seems like just a few weeks ago (was it really May?) my sister and I raised a little horse barn on the knoll behind the Big Pond,  and here it is the end of August already, with days getting short and the list of projects to complete before the seasons turn again getting longer.

Yes, the horses made it here, and they are wonderful.  They are getting along just fine in their new little herd and eating like elephants, like starving, ravenous elephants.  I am already planning to set up another auxiliary paddock to add a week’s recovery to their grazing rotation schedule.  My goodness.

We’ve had plenty of rain, so the pastures have grown well following the cowherd’s grazing.  I failed to document specific paddock rotation dates so I’ve quite lost track of how many times we’ve been around the pastures.  Seems like at least 4 times already. (Seriously, I do keep track.  Four times at about 45 day intervals, starting beginning of May, although some sections got skipped.)   Judging by how everything is recovering, we might make it all the way around twice again before the sward goes dormant.  I’d like to say I’m seeing radical improvement after all the fertilization and hoof impact.  Hesitant to call it that since I’ve never seen these pastures grow through a season, much less grazed, but I am pleased by the density and vigor of what springs back up following a paddock shift.

The closest alligator to the boat these days is getting the cows bred.  Sans a bull, that means AI, and we are closing in on pulling the trigger on the very first Bear and Thistle fertility clinic – a wee bit later than I’d have liked, but I’d rather get it done right and be a little late than dork the whole evolution up completely.

It’s worth an entire blog post to describe the strategy I’ve undertaken, but here’s the very very short version:  1) find an AI technician (check), 2) get quality semen shipped (check), 3) upgrade corral area to add adjacent working alleys, squeeze chute, palpation cage, and crowd pen (nearly done, check), and 4) procure the meds and assorted materials required to undertake a forced fertility regimen, to trigger estrus on all 10 candidates at the same time (check).

Wish me luck.  The AI guy is an old hand at this, and I’ve got my vet’s ear for any technical assistance needed.  I hope to start the 7-day protocol no later than Thursday, which means we’ll be inserting semen on the 5th of September; so if all goes well we should have calves hitting green grass mid-June next year.  I’d have rather have had them born end of May, but I’m not going to beat myself up about getting two weeks behind.  Mid June is just fine, and we can edge the dates up each year until we hit the mark, so it’s all good.

After we get the cow herd bred, focus shifts to laying in hay for both horses and cattle.  Then there’s the Fall frost seeding for all pastures, along with the 1.6 acre finishing pasture that has been cultivated clean all summer and will get sown to a high-sugar grass/clover mix for the slaughter beeves’ last 4 weeks.  Yum.

And now the garden is covering me with produce that needs to be put up, though I’m not complaining!   Was supposed to make pickles, can green beans, and roast tomatoes tonight, but only got the tomatoes roasted.  Wish there were more hours in the day…

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sap drop tree 1 side

Yes, Virginia; you can make maple syrup in Kentucky.

Provided you have sugar maple trees, of course, and the temperatures start see-sawing from cold at night to warm during the day at about the right time of year.

This is it.  They have.  And after helping my friend and neighbor tap his trees, and watching how he boils the sap down to syrup, I jumped in with both feet, catching the last half of the southern sap run.  I put out 30 taps on the 12th of February, and have been hustling ever since to tend the buckets and boil the collected sap in between all the other winter chores and projects.

Which should explain why it’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted here.  Been busy.

I’m not complaining, though.  Fresh maple syrup is good stuff!  Yes, it takes a lot of sap, and a lot of effort, to make a pint of syrup.  But once you taste your very own, crafted from the juice of your own sweet trees, you’ll agree every bit of work is worth it.

Not many folks around here do this.  Even my elderly neighbor, whose grandfather owned this farm, has never tasted Kentucky maple syrup.  That really surprised me.  But the Burgess clan in Russell Springs has been making it for years, and showed me how they do it, which was all I needed to inspire me to go find my own sugar maple trees and get them tapped and running, even if I was a little late and missed the first big flow.  Next year I’ll be ready from the start.

Having seen the functionality of boiling down 40 or more gallons of sap at a time in a 2′ x 4′ stainless steel evaporator pan over an outdoor fire, I went ahead and bought my pan this year, pricey as it was.  Then I tracked down a description of how to build what they call an arch for the fire, out of concrete block, and set that up too.

It rocks.

First boil

But did I mention all the work?  From daily tending of sap buckets, hauling 5-gallon collection buckets through the woods to the road, to filtering the sap, then cooking it once enough is collected, an all-day (and sometimes all-night) endeavor – we’re talking hours and hours, folks.  Then, it has to be finished inside on the stove, boiled to 7 degrees above the temp of boiling water until it turns to syrup, and the little bit left in the kettle gets jarred up.  Lots and lots of work.

The final product, however, is amazing.  Not always crystal clear, unless you buy the fancy filters to strain all the sugar sand out; but maple flavor to make your head spin.  Nectar of the maple trees.  Made by the pint, so don’t think for a minute this is a money-making enterprise, but:  Kentucky maple syrup.  Enough perhaps to last the year and send a little to family.  Makes me feel wealthy as a queen.

Maple syrup

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Warming feet in front of fire

It started with a slightly scratchy throat on Christmas Eve.

I drove up to see a good friend who lives north of Louisville that day, and warned her as I stepped in the door that I was coming down with something and was probably contagious.  She made me a cup of tea with honey, and that was the last I thought about being sick during our visit.

By Christmas night, the scratchy throat was joined by chest congestion, which is not the usual cold progression for me; normally a cold will start as sinus congestion first, then move down into my chest.  This time I started coughing long before the sneezing and nose-blowing stage, which hit me full-force on Wednesday.  It snowed that day, and I stayed close to the fire, crossing off all but the most necessary items from my daily to-do list, and bundling up well for pasture rounds.

By Thursday, my chest was aching and I could feel a deep congestion settling into my bronchial tubes, something I’ve not had in quite a long time.  As an ex-smoker, I expect residual damage and weakness in that area, but since quitting 18 months ago I haven’t had any serious chest colds.  This one would break that streak.  But I didn’t know that yet, so Thursday afternoon I bundled up and got a little exercise, cutting up a downed sassafrass tree at the edge of one of the pastures, to add to my firewood stash.

My standard response to cold symptoms these days does not usually involve masking symptoms with pharmaceuticals.  Mostly, I think, because I’m too cheap to spend the money on the stuff.  Unless I’m aching so bad I can’t sleep, I won’t take pain killers; I really don’t like the way antihistamines artificially dry out the sinuses, and cough syrup that either inhibits or promotes expectorant just doesn’t make any sense to me.  Granted, I don’t have to go to a workplace job and interact with other employees or the public, so the snottier aspects of being sick are just between me and my kerchief.

Other than common sense measures like keeping my head and feet warm, drinking lots of liquids, and slowing down to let my body fight the bug, the only additional support I employ is a high-dosage of vitamin C powder dissolved in water, taken throughout the day.  I have found this helps my body’s response efforts and shortens the duration of the cold.  I’ve never done a double-blind study to prove any beneficial effects, but it’s cheap and non-toxic and I figure it can’t hurt.

The major drawback to not masking symptoms with drugs, though, is you have to experience the symptoms.  But they don’t last forever, and my colds move through me much quicker now that I’m not inhaling smoke and toxins on a daily basis.  And usually I don’t find the “I’m sick” stuff – the sneezing, nose-blowing, coughing – to be overwhelmingly decapacitating, just annoying.  But the chest congestion that came with this cold, I swear it nearly killed me Thursday night.

I will spare you the phlegmy details, but suffice it to say, I didn’t sleep much and thought a couple of times I needed to be intubated just to keep breathing.  Heavy stuff.  Worst crap I’ve had in my bronchi in a long, long time.  Kind of scared me, actually, the not being able to breathe part.  So yesterday I took another sick day, and crossed the project of spreading gravel with the tractor up on the hill before it rained off my list, and stayed close to the woodstove all day.  It was crappy weather, mid-thirties, spitting rain:  I didn’t need to push myself any further toward the cliff edge.

So today, I feel much better, and the congestion is loosening and lightening, and my energy is back.  I’m recovering.  I warm my tootsies in front of the stove every time I come back in from pasture rounds, I wear a hat every time I step outside even if it’s just to take the dogs out for a pee break, and for one more day, I left the extra outside projects off my list.

They will get done in due time.  I’d rather be getting better and be behind on my winter projects, than the other way around.

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Splitting hickory

My farm is in Kentucky, but I’m a Colorado native.  A lifetime ago, when I was in my early twenties, I lived and worked year-round in the northern foothills of the Colorado Front Range,  where the snow that comes in October doesn’t stay until April, but the cold sets in for the season and can be serious.  I cooked on a wood cookstove back then, so firewood was a way of life, all twelve months of the year.  In winter it became even more important, as it also provided our only heat.

I’m no stranger to the task of laying up a supply of firewood for winter.  Felling whole trees, cutting them to stove length, and splitting the logs into burnable chunks – these are familiar skills, though I’ve not used them for many years.  (We bought a cord of split firewood every winter in San Diego for the fireplace, but the only work of that was loading and unloading and stacking.)  So I’m pleased to report, I can still swing a splitting maul well enough to reduce a whole log into halves, then quarters, and so on.  A very necessary skill here.

There is really nothing quite like the satisfaction of driving a splitting maul into the top of a 14″ log and splitting it in half in one clean stroke.  Starting a clean split, as in the photo above, that can be finished with a sledge hammer pounding the splitting maul through, ranks a close second.  It takes a certain amount of force and technique, there’s no doubt.  One has to swing the maul with every intent of cleaving the log; head speed is critical.  And aim is even more so.  But when the two collide with wood grain ready to break apart, it’s a beautiful thing.

There are easier ways to split firewood.  I can borrow a wood splitter from friends and probably will, soon.  But it is good to know I still have the skill and strength to turn a tree into firewood, by hand, in a couple of afternoons with the right tools.

This first winter at the farm is my first real winter in 25 years, and I am late in all my preparations.  I’d rather not be splitting firewood in December for this year’s fires.  Glad, though, that I’m able to.

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