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Archive for the ‘Winter Farm work’ Category

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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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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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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I must admit, I enjoyed the taste of a winter wonderland at the Farm.  My apologies to all of you in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and Oklahoma who are still dealing with a super abundance of the white stuff and are sick of it.  We only had a couple of inches there in south-central Kentucky, starting the third day, and it was gone by day six.  Temperatures in the teens and low twenties ensured our winter working visit was sufficiently wintry, requiring the donning of insulated coveralls, vests, multiple hats and gloves for all the outdoor work, but thankfully the snowfall was limited.

The cold kept my photo-documentation of this trip to a bare minimum, I’m sorry to say.  It was too cold and I was too busy to set the camera up for self-shots; too cold also, to get the Bear to lend a hand and work the shutter.  So it goes.  I managed a couple of stomps around to take a few pictures of the wintry roads, the house and shop, the icicle-adorned creek, the snow-frosted pastures and pond, but of the projects and work accomplished, nothing.

I’ll do better next time.  But the work got done, pictures or no.  It was a very good Farm visit.

I had hoped for dry weather and lightly frozen ground so I could chop down the summer’s growth on the pastures with the tractor and bush hog – work that should have been done in September or October, but we had fences to build and gates to hang in September, so the pastures hadn’t been mowed since spring.  Not the end of the world, pastures don’t always need mowed to do well; but the cover is so thick and ungrazed on mine, the dry matter left standing at the end of the growing season is too substantial to break down without some mechanical shredding.  I figured a winter mow, though unorthodox,  might work.

I got lucky this trip.  Conditions weren’t perfect, but I did get all but the little 3-acre west pasture mulched down, ready for the rains to work the chopped material into the soil where it can feed my micro-livestock there.  Unchopped, untrampled forage held above the soil by height or bulk, may take several years to decompose, even in Kentucky’s rain-blessed environment.  Soil contact is essential, and the bush hog does a fabulous job of shredding the grasses and pushing them down to the surface for the new grasses to grow through.  Grazing animals would, of course, be the ultimate pasture management tool, but until I’m there full-time, my little tractor must suffice.

It was a good opportunity to observe the wet areas between the ponds, where surface moisture persists in scattered depressions in all but the driest months.  The folks had mentioned standing water in the fields over the years, but I’d not had the chance to assess the boundaries of where this occurs; this trip I was able to see the acre or so of what may very well be permanent wetland that appears to be spring-fed, draining slowly to either side of the crest of the top pasture into the two ponds.  I will stake it out in the spring when we are back, and let it alone to see what it does through the seasons.  It may be an ideal place for a wetland hedgerow of native plants; though it would take some pasture out of production, there is much benefit to be derived from the diversity of another plant community on the farm.

Before I could start the tractor work, though, we had to drain the hydraulic fluid as it checked white and foamy, indicating water had seeped in.  I believe Bobby had left Jack out in the rain last Fall – old tractors like this aren’t weatherproof, and water will get in unless the housing is covered.  So we did that, along with the rear differential, because the PTO wasn’t disengaging properly and we thought it might be a fluid problem.  It was.  The shop manual sent us on a goose chase for the rear differential’s check plug that ended up being a hidden screw on the side of the housing behind the brake pedals, which had to be loosened and moved out of the way to access the screw.  It didn’t appear to have been opened in a long time.  We drained approximately 6 gallons, and the book said that was the capacity; but filling it took only 5 before the fluid started coming out of the check hole.  The front end loader added to the system probably accounts for the difference.  We think it was overfull the entire time, getting filled to the recommended amount without checking the level, which would explain the constant leakage underneath and the PTO malfunction. 

So a day of tractor maintenance, and evenings cleaning and setting up the shop was time well spent.

Heading up to Louisville on Thursday for our flight home, we had no idea that Dallas had received a foot of snow and the airport had cancelled all incoming flights.  With no TV, no Internet, no national newspaper, and just radio news, which focused on the snow being dumped on the Mid-Atlantic but never mentioned Dallas, it didn’t occur to us to call and check before we left.  So back to the Farm we went, and the next morning’s flight was cancelled too, leaving us with a flight out on Sunday at the earliest. 

I confess I was not very upset to have to return to the farm for another couple of days.  My job list for our Spring trip includes repainting the corral panels that have been sitting out rusting for 8 years or more, so Friday afternoon I was able to get them all moved down to the shop, ready for sanding and rust treatment and painting come April.  Saturday was cold and cloudy with scattered snow flurries, but I bundled up in my insulated coveralls and spent the day taking down (finally!) the barbed wire lanes that surrounded the pond and corral.  Posts will get pulled next visit, and mowing should be infinitely easier without the fences and gate setup that was no longer in use and badly situated to begin with.

Returning to San Diego on Valentine’s Day, the captain announced our descent into Lindbergh Field around 5 pm and noted the temperature:  72 degrees.  I smiled, and thought of the frosty fields, snow-kissed woods and frigid temps we’d just left, and of all the good work we got done.  And the little farmhouse, buttoned up behind the gates and fences, with lights that come on in the evenings, waiting for our return.  I can’t wait to get back.

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Lots of places in the country are cold and covered with snow; not here, in San Diego, and not at the farm, where it’s raining and 50 degrees, but lots of other places.  Dallas got a White Christmas this year, for pete’s sake. 

But I can pretend, and be glad for my current climate.  So while the men-folk are out with the horses and dogs on the pond, cutting ice and hauling it to the ice house, I’ll get the pie dough made, start the bacon and eggs and cranberry muffins for breakfast, and prep the potatoes for this evening’s ham feast.

Speaking of food, I made a beet-and-carrot soup last night that is sure to become a Christmas tradition.  Photos and recipe later; it was delicious!

Merry Christmas to all, stay warm out there!

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Jason sent this photo from southwest Virginia, where they are pretty well snowed in.  They’re hauling hay up the hill to the horses on this “pony” grader, as well as plowing snow with it, obviously.

Those aren’t ponies, though; those are Jason’s Suffolk geldings, Tong and Wedge.   So why’s this thing called a pony grader?  I had to google that… and the one pertinent result was from the History Trust of South Australia’s website

Very light and small graders were used in areas that bigger machinery could not access. They were made entirely of steel and could be pulled by a ‘light’ horse – hence the nickname ‘pony grader’. The graders were considered particularly useful on steep narrow tracks, where turning was difficult. For this purpose it could be used with two ‘light’ horses. These graders had only two axles and four wheels, the front wheels are much smaller than the rear wheels. They had a work capacity of 2-3 kms an hour. Unfortunately because of their light frame, the small graders could not work in rocky terrain, and they only operated effectively if the soil was moist. This limited use of the graders to two or three months of the year.

I would have a great deal of use for one of these on my farm, with my long, steep road up to the hilltop pastures that requires regular grading, and plans to build access roads around and across my pastures as time and energy permits.

Won’t have so much use for moving snow with it, though.  Was just telling Jason that my area there in south-central Kentucky only gets a few snowfalls each winter, of the several inches variety, and the snow melts quickly.  That’s a blessing in many ways, as getting chores and work done with snow on the ground is always more difficult, and sometimes impossible. 

I will have to find a different excuse for hunkering down by the woodstove in the middle of the winter, then.

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cutting-hickory-trees

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before we left the farm for Virginia on our last visit, we took Bobby up to the pasture edge to mark a couple of hickory trees to cut for firewood.  He’d talked about wanting some hickory firewood the entire time we were there, and although there are many trees already blown down that would make perfectly good firewood, by gum it was hickory the old man wanted.  Said his daddy burned hickory and it was the best firewood ever.  Needed a couple of years to season, so he wanted to get some cut right away.  Even though we haven’t put a stove in the little house yet, and they only use the fireplace if ever the power goes out.  And he has a stack of oak all put by.  Still, he wanted to cut some hickory, and I like to keep him happy, so I said I was sure there were a couple that could be culled for such a purpose.

Rather than leave him to decide which trees to cut, I said we’d go mark a few for him.  He couldn’t understand why I cared about hickory trees, said they weren’t valuable as lumber, no one would buy them.  To which I replied, I have no intention of selling any of my trees for lumber; I’m building a barn and a house with them, thank you very much, and a good saw log is a good saw log, whether it’s hickory or oak or poplar or maple.

So we drove on up and started around the pasture edge, and I asked him to point out any hickories he saw.  Bobby knows his trees, that’s for sure.  Can tell them apart by the bark, at a distance even.  We came up alongside three trees growing close together right at the pasture edge, which he said were all hickory but the one in the middle was a shagbark.  Well shagbarks are good nut trees, one of the best, and this one was growing straight up and had about 14-inch diameter already, but the other two were right next to it and sharing water, sunlight and nutrients.  Cutting them would leave the good grower to prosper by itself.  So we marked the ones on either side, and I said they’d give him more firewood than he would know what to do with, and vetoed his suggestion to cut the huge leaning hickory at the corner of the field, pointing out the three good saw logs in its lower trunk that may someday take their place in the bents of my big barn.

A week later they had a couple of days of good weather, and Alene emailed me that he’d got them felled and was busy cutting them into stove-length logs.  He dropped the first one right into the pasture, but the second one he felled into the woods behind; I would not have, I would have directed it out to the pasture as well, it was only leaning a little.  No telling what good saplings were crushed as it fell, but it was only one tree and he drug it out with the tractor by its butt onto the pasture, so minimum damage was done.

I don’t like that he doesn’t wear any safety equipment when he operates his saw.  He’s a careful old man, and seems to know his limits, but he does things the old way, especially if there’s much money or trouble involved.  You won’t catch me running a saw without chaps and a helmet with a faceguard and ear muffs, and I could buy all that for him but I doubt he’d wear it.  He cuts up quite a few trees and branches that fall across the paths and into the fields, so it isn’t like he wouldn’t get some use out it, but he’s a stubborn and tough old country boy.  Reminds me a lot of a hickory tree.

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