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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

Ice, ice, baby

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.

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.

Beef in the freezer

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.

Skinning

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!

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.

Recovering

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.

Snowy pastures on Boxing Day

I don’t watch TV news here at the farm, so my weather information comes from the internet or the national news on the local NPR station out of Bowling Green, KY.  Sounds and looks like today’s winter storm has clobbered some southern and midwestern states, wreaking havoc and even killing some unfortunate souls.  Road travel was especially hazardous in those areas today.

Luckily, the only road I had to deal with today was the muddy road from the house up to the pastures, and the muddy “roads” I’ve created up there.  My top speed today was 10 mph, and I crawled through the mud puddles, so the hazards were few.  It wasn’t even really all that cold.  Tonight, though, the temps should drop into the mid-twenties.

I took the day off to nurse this dratted chest cold that Santa brought me for Christmas, which means, after getting back down from morning rounds, I stripped down to long johns, stoked the fire, and snuggled into one of the reclining chairs under a blanket to watch documentaries on Netflix.  Very, very lazy behavior for me, I must say.  But even the legendary Thistledog needs to throttle back when under attack by the cold bug.  Hopefully, it’ll exit stage left in the next couple of days.

The rain turned to snow around noon.  Big, swirly fluffy flakes out the front window made me feel like I was in a just-shaken snow globe.  I pulled the blanket tighter around my shoulders and let myself go back to sleep.  The house was warm, the animals fed, and my to-do list could just sit there and not be done, no harm, no foul.  I roused mid-afternoon to fill up the water tank on the gator, and made the afternoon rounds up on the hill.  Snow was sticking to the grass, momentarily, and blowing a little.  Cows and heifers and yearling steers all had full rumens and though wet, were fine.  So back down the hill I went, for a little more down time in front of the fire.

The dogs and I walked up at dusk to shut the ducks in for the night.  It was still snowing lightly, but the snow is melting quickly and everything underfoot is soggy.  We’re thankful the storm path went north of us, at least this time.  Grateful for our blessed location.

Roadwork

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…

Roadwork

The Girls eating hay in December

My little cow herd is doing pretty well, all things considered.  They are all purebred Devons, bought in one group along with a registered Devon bull, a younger unregistered bull, three heifers, and a handful of steer calves.  The bulls are gone now, sold after failing their fertility test, and the two horned yearlings went to a friend and neighbor to fill their freezer next fall.

I’ll tell the whole story of how they all came to the Farm some other time.  It’s a long story and I don’t feel like putting it all together today.  I have work to do outside before it rains, and Christmas cards to write and address, and receipts to file, and then afternoon rounds up on the pasture.  But I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the progress we’ve made in just four months with these cows.

To begin with, here are a few shots of what they looked like back in late July and early August:

Skinny Cow 1

Skinny Cow 2

Skinny Cow 3

this is a skinny cow

Pretty skinny, huh?  [Edited to add:  Actually, these photos are more than a little disturbing to me.  I forgot how emaciated these cows were.]  What is important to note is the lack of fat on the spine, on the hip bones, on the tail head, and in the brisket.  Animals can lose muscle but when their fat reserves disappear, they are on the road to starvation.  These cows were being starved – you can see the pasture they were in was nothing but chewed-down stubble and rank, unclipped weeds.  Their body condition scores were very low 4’s and one of them at least, was a 3, by my estimation.

I took a great big risk on them.  I had them hauled back to the farm and put them on my stockpiled pastures, and let them eat, and eat, and eat.  I knew there might be health issues, and there were:  pinkeye, most significantly.  The little weakling male calf came down with it first during an extended rainy period in early September, then just about all the others showed symptoms within a few days and the job of treatment began.  Their eyes cleared up, then one of them would get a runny eye again, and the conjunctivitis would be back.  It was a tough couple of months.   I joke a little about earning my “Junior Vet Badge” but believe me, it was tough, and I’d rather not repeat it.

I don’t feel we are quite out of the woods yet, either, as I will occasionally see a runny eye here and there.  So I watch them like a hawk and take great care to ensure their nutritional plane remains high and steady.  They all get a generous helping of kelp meal each day, and the younger crowd, isolated from the older cows, are eating supplemental clover hay as well.

I’m pleased to see them come back in to condition like they have.  Those photos just say it all.  Now, as we move into winter, I am focusing on maintaining that good condition, and building health.

Whitey

Hefty

Pepsi Girl

So much better!

Early winter rain

Creek high from rain

Over three inches of rain have fallen here in south-central Kentucky since this weather system moved in on Friday.  On and off, sometimes gentle, sometimes a downpour, and it continues to rain lightly today.  An inch already since sunrise.  The creek that runs in front of the house is running high and fast and greets me with the sound of rushing water when I step outside.  Blessedly, the temps have not been at all wintry – 60’s mostly during the day, and mid-fifties at night – so the misery factor’s been low.  But that’s all about to change.

Falling temps 10 Dec 2012

By early morning it’s supposed to be 28 degrees, and will probably be colder than that down here at the bottom of the hill where the house is.  With everything and everyone wet up on the pastures, it’ll likely feel colder than that to the livestock.  So I’m taking a tip from Sandra over at Thistle Cove Farm and will head up this afternoon to unroll and lay out a couple of worthless hay bales (another story, another post) for dry bedding in their paddocks.  The pastures are just soaked.  The little ones especially may appreciate a dry spot to lay on tonight.  They have their winter coats on already, but that wet ground can suck the warmth out of a polar bear, I’m sure.

Down here at the farmhouse, we’re staying dry and warm, with a small fire blazing since the temperature started dropping, christmas music playing, and a cup of tea at hand.   The little stray kitty is snug in her box of rags and sweaters under the porch woodpile tarp, the dogs are curled up in their usual daytime snoozing spots, and I am doing inside work, until time for pasture rounds.