Archive for the ‘Farm projects’ Category

New spring grass

We wrapped up calving on April 13 with one last heifer calf I named Jessica Rabbit, then began rotating the newly-expanded cow herd on spring grass on April 26th.  Hopefully next year it will be the other way around, and the calves will be born on tall spring grass to mothers that have grazed for a month or more already.  It worked out fine, though, with six healthy calves born unassisted and no complications.  Two heifers, 4 bull calves.  A good start for the beeve inventory.

April whipped by, with all the livestock caretaking activity.  Now May is nearly gone too, having been filled so far with spring cleaning and preparations for visitors come to help build a little horse barn.  Now the barn building is in full swing, so I need to close the calving chapter here and get back to regular posts, to document what’s going on right now.

Sigh.  Wish I had a ghost writer to log on here and post for me some days.  I post Facebook status updates regularly because they are so quick and easy, but they aren’t the same as journaling here.  So we’ll work on that.

Today is my 52nd birthday.  I hope to get a couple of roof panels on the pole barn with the able assistance of my barn-building buddy, sister Linda.  The weather’s cooperating so far, so off we go…

More later.


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Load of dense grade

With an annual rainfall of over 45 inches a year, you can bet there’s always roadwork to be done on the farm.  Everything from driveways, equipment yards, and steep sections of the 1/4-mile dirt road between the house and the hilltop pastures are all starting to ooze mud and need graveled in places.

In addition to the existing roads, I’ve established driving lanes across and through the pastures at permanent points, which are now in need of road base.  In some places, very badly in need of road base.  Time to get to work.

A little over a week ago, I ordered a full load of what around here they call “dense grade” gravel delivered, and I’m sure it’s just one of several I’ll work my way through this winter.  Dense grade has limestone mixed in with the gravel, which adds a powdery filler that compacts much better than just plain gravel.  It also doesn’t sink in to the mud quite as badly as gravel.

So with the help of my able assistant, Jack the Tractor, I’ve spent several hours this past week spreading bucketloads of road base in variously muddy and treacherous locations.  That enormous $300 pile of gravel is nearly gone, but the mud isn’t.  Time to order more…


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Plumbing the hinge post

We dug 12 post holes in all; four large enough for gate posts, eight fencepost-sized.  Not by hand, of course, or at least not entirely by hand.  The PTO-operated posthole digger with a 9- and a 12-inch auger did most of the work, but Kentucky Jack digs postholeshas its share of rock, which resisted the machine’s auger tip and had to be busted out by hand.  The old-fashioned way, with the tools you see here, and lots of elbow, back and arm grease.  Once the buried layer of rock had been punched through, the auger was able to finish the dig.  I’d say of the 12 holes, only 3 were uncomplicated by a 4-inch layer of rock that lies about 12-inches beneath this area.

A few lessons learned:

1) Lining up post holes is easier said than done.  Check them after they’re dug by propping the posts up in the holes and stringing a line across their tops, if you want the fenceline to be straight.  We measured and flagged every one, but they all had to be adjusted before the posts were set.  Posthole diggers are not precision instruments.

2) Body weight helps when using the spud bar to break rock.  Get the guy to do that part.

3) Don’t even think about digging postholes or setting posts without a spud bar.  Tool of choice, nonpareil.

As for plumbing the posts, the approach varied from the textbook version of using a level since our posts weren’t milled perfectly uniform from top to bottom like store-bought posts would be.  Cedar trees taper and are larger at the bottom than the top – how to plant a post plumb then?  Skidder had the solution, learned from prior experience; a stake laid across the top of the post with a line and plumb bob hung from the end gives a vertical reference through the post’s center.  Viewed from two different angles 90 degrees apart ensures a perfectly plumb post.  Worked like a charm.  I’ll plumb all my posts this way from now on.

farm fence and gates

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Spud bar work

While planning September’s fence building project last summer, I decided early on to try and use materials cut from the property, and knew I’d need tools to peel logs.  I didn’t know exactly what I’d be up against, so I bought an 8-inch drawknife and a short-handled bark spud, thinking what one couldn’t handle the other maybe could.

They were the perfect tools.  I got lucky, really, getting one of each, as the drawknife couldn’t get into the flutes of the cedar logs like the bark spud did, and using the spud alone would have been murderously slow.  But together, between Skidder and I, we peeled logs like we’d been doing it our whole lives with those two tools.  I was very pleased with how they worked out.

Was it hard work?  Depends on what you consider to be “hard,”  but yes, we worked up a sweat.   Was it slow work?Peeling posts  Again, it depends on what you compare it to.  We caught on pretty quickly and learned how to position the logs against a sturdy picnic table, and let the tools do most of the work instead of our backs.  The last couple of rails I peeled went much faster than the first two.  We weren’t putting up hundreds of feet of fence, so peeling the logs and rails by hand wasn’t a show-stopper for the limited amount of time we had; I’d say it was neither slow nor fast – just right.

Alene and Bobby got back from their trip to Oklahoma two days before we left, so Alene came out to the shop one morning to watch me finish peeling the last of the rails.  By this time I was getting pretty handy with my little drawknife, and thought I was working along at a pretty good clip with very little wasted effort, but I guess that’s all relative, as her only comment was, “You’d think there would be an easier way to do that.”

I just smiled and kept peeling.

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fence posts almost

Building a fence out of your own trees isn’t the easiest way to do things.

 My li’l ole fence out front along the road has garnered many compliments because it looks damn nice, and really stands out among the pressure-treated, milled lumber, commercially-installed versions in the area; but its true beauty in my view is its humble, local origin.   And that it was built by my own hands.  From my own trees.

Most folks around here probably think that viewpoint’s a little off.  Too much work, nicer materials right down there at Lowes; why go to all the bother.  I admit, it would have been much easier just to call someone out and pay them to slap something up.  It would have met the minimum objectives as well, which was to keep vehicles from driving up to the house and shop building, thus making the place more secure.

But it wouldn’t have been a thing of beauty, or have the potential to last 25 -30 years like this one will, or given me any of the satisfaction I’ll feel every single time I lay eyes on it and remember how we built it from cedars and hardwoods cut off the hill above. 

Arguments for saving time and effort aside, I’m just not interested in paying someone to do work that I enjoy doing and can do well myself, especially on a project that designs itself as it goes; nor am I at all keen to buy mass-produced, trucked-in, chemically-treated materials when I have raw materials in abundance in my own backyard.

Sounds a little pious, perhaps too idealistic, I suppose.  I will readily admit that this commitment to doing my own work and using my own materials as much as possible has its drawbacks, not the least of which is the multiplication of effort and time in any project equation.  But I’m pretty stubborn, and not afraid of slow, hard work, and so I accept that building something from scratch means doing things “the hard way” with hand tools, sometimes, and a great deal more effort than needed with “modern” methods and commercial materials.

I may not be able to take this approach every time.  The porch, for instance, was built with pressure-treated lumber, after much thought and deliberation about the pros and cons of using non-treated lumber in that climate for that type of application.  But my pasture fences will need to be non-toxic, in the big scheme of operating a certified organic farm, and so this small section was a test bed for my ideas of how to use locally harvested, untreated posts in the Kentucky soil without compromising on fence longevity.

What I didn’t know before Skidder and I took that first walk up the hill to survey for materials, was that I had a good number of mature eastern red cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana) at their climax of growth potential, having been overtaken by taller hardwoods and fairly begging to be made into fence and gateposts before their wood began declining as they lost the battle for sunlight, water and nutrients.   And while this tree is not a true cedar, but a member of the juniper family, it does have superior rot-resistance – especially in the red heartwood – not as much rot resistance as black locust, but more than any other hardwood species I might have had to use.

We took four 8 – 9″ gate posts and nine 6 – 7″ fence posts off the south-facing hill just around the corner from the shop.  I believe I felled a total of eight trees, for the posts.  One was quite large, leaving me a lovely 10-foot timber that will make some fine slabs for sign-making and bench-building.  Skidder pulled most of them down the hill by herself while I cut.  We worked furiously in the morning rain, thinking it might go on all day and wanting to get the logs down to the shop so we could peel them inside.  But the rain stopped as we finished, which wasn’t a bad thing. 

Next:  peeling with spud and draw knife.

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Fencing crew and fence

September, nearly over now, was stacked to the rafters with doubled-up activity; a month that should have been two, in all fairness.  It goes that way sometimes.  I dove in headfirst beginning in early August, planning the Farm trip and project, chasing endless details that shifted priorities like dune edges in the wind, trying, as they say, to keep my eye on the biggest alligator closest to the boat.

Added complexity sprang from the background of an increasing workload at the squadron, fueled by end-of-fiscal-year deadlines and requirements.  It really wasn’t a good time to be away for 10 days, but the timing wasn’t flexible for what needed done.  And so we got it done, and done well, but my reporting of it languished horribly.

Thank you Jeff, for checking in to see if all was well and asking for an update.  I am long overdue.

The fence and gate in the picture above are not the whole story but they represent the satisfactory completion of what we set out to do this visit:  make the property secure for the periods of time we will not be there.  It is good we stuck with this objective, as Bobby and Alene made one more trip out to Oklahoma while we were at the Farm, bid on a house while they were there (telling us nothing about that as usual, until weeks later when their offer was accepted) and have finally, finally, decided to move completely out of the area.  Apparently Alene’s desire to be closer to her kids and grandkids won out over Bobby’s preference for remaining in rural Kentucky.  And so it goes.

My sister found time to travel out from Colorado to help me with the fence and gate project, five working days the likes of which I’d not experienced in quite some time.  We were determined to have both gates and at least a section of fence up before she had to leave, and worked like monsters from dawn to dusk – my gratitude is unending for her contribution of time, talent, and extraordinary effort.  Lord knows I could not have gotten the job done without her help.

For the fence and gate posts we found good-sized cedars in abundance on the south slope just up the road from the shop; I cut and she skidded, earning the nickname Skidder in my post-trip photo captions, and so Skidder is how you’ll know her here.  She brought her camera too, so we were able to capture most of the project from start to finish, from laying out the postholes to hanging the gates and building a log rail fence from my own trees.

My better half pitched in with the breaker bar on some of the gnarly holes – Kentucky has more than its share of rock – and helped me punch the six postholes for the stretch of fence alongside the road; but his major contribution was culvert maintenance, both on the road up the hill and at the driveway entrance to the state road, where July’s flash flood had washed things out and nearly buried the culvert to the creek. 

(One of the great surprise discoveries about my husband is his affinity for running a shovel.  You wouldn’t know it to look at him, you’d think he’d be allergic, but he’s taken on this culvert maintenance thing with an impressive level of initiative, for him.  I do not argue, I praise.  And happily go about my building projects, asking for an extra hand only when absolutely necessary).

The house and shop now has an alarm system installed, with a loud siren that goes off when it’s activated, as well as a monitoring service that calls the local Sheriff as well as my cell phone.  We accidentally tested that feature when Derril showed the folks how the system works; he set it off without calling the monitoring company and a cruiser with a big burly deputy showed up in five minutes.  Nice feeling, that.  I apologized and assured him we would call first next time, but it was good to know the response will be there if and when it’s needed.

I will have to make a quickie trip back out mid-October, once the folks have moved out, to set up the inside timed lights, set the alarm, make sure the gates are all locked, and transfer the electric service over to my account.  Since it’s a rural electric coop, I have to apply for membership in person, and I didn’t get that done this last trip.   Bonus for me:  the leaves will be turning, a sight I’ve never been there to see.

I mentioned pictures and this report is only a snippet of all the fun we had; you can see them all on Flickr by clicking on the “more pictures” link at the right, at the bottom of the B & T Farm Photos strip – then select “sets” on the top of my Flickr page, and look for “Farm gates and fences.”

I’m also going to rework the farm website’s  project page (see A Farm of My Own: Bear and Thistle Farm, at right) and post a detailed description there with photos, as it was a huge learning experience for me and I was delighted with how all the tools performed.  This blog post would be enormous if I were to lay it all out here.

More to follow, then.

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Just updated the Farm Projects page with a summary story of our visit in April ’07 to install an aeration windmill on the Big Pond.  It isn’t the most in-depth story, but I failed to blog about it at the time or write anything down shortly afterward, so I’ve only got two-year-old memories to go on, along with some pictures captured from the video I took while we were there.  My handycam batteries ran low just as we were getting ready to drive the blade section up the hill and put it on the tower;, which was too bad; that would have been a wonderful documentary of the really exciting part of the project.

Next story will better documented from a previous blog post, our pasture renovation project the following August.  I’ll work on that this week and try to get it up before I fly home.

Four days left to scramble all the loose ends together here at Camp Lemonier, get my weekly reports and tasks assigned to helpful folks who can keep them running while I’m gone, and then the long flight home.  We’ll fly to Kentucky during the second week I’m back, to visit and work at the Farm, then a half-day’s drive to Virginia to meet my girls, and Jason and the crew.  I’m beside myself with anticipation.

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