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Posts Tagged ‘Suffolks’

Siding on two sides B&T

My field of dreams has had a team of Suffolk work horses in it for many years now.

Although I’ve had a life-long love of horses and have owned a few saddle horses in my time, the use of workhorses on a small diversified farm grabbed my interest hard about the same time I realized that farming was my calling.   Many if not all of a small holding’s pasture, road and field maintenance as well as woodland work can be done with actual horse power; in most cases better (and quieter) than a tractor, with far less negative impact on the land.  Horses also contribute nutrients with their manure, and lawn-mowing can be a side benefit if you are so inclined to set up moveable paddocks where you want grass nipped short.

Yes, they are slow.  If you have 50 acres to plow, mow or till, you can get it done with horses but you’ll need more than two and lots of good weather.  And yes, it is a lot of work to care for, train, harness, and actually use a team of horses to perform useful tasks.  Yes, they do get sick or hurt and need veterinary care.  But on the flip side, tractors break down, guzzle endless gallons of diesel fuel, oil and lubricants, and their weight compacts the soil.  Furthermore, as my dear friend Jason Rutledge has noted on many occasions, you will never find a baby tractor waiting for you in the barn one morning.  Horses reproduce themselves, which is a long-term proposition for the teamster, but then so is everything else about running an ecologically sound small farm.

I can’t really say how I became enamored of the Suffolk Punch breed.  I did a lot of reading and research, and liked what I learned about their temperament and suitability for farm work.  The Suffolk was developed specifically for farm work in 16th century England and became quite popular by the mid 20th century, just before the mechanization of farms brought about the decline in common use of horses for agricultural power.   Short and powerful, with a good temperament and work ethic, the Suffolk.  Not as many of them around as, say, Belgians or Percherons.  A well-trained team of Suffolks is hard to find.

I found a mother-daughter pair several years ago, and set about having them trained and worked during the last few years of my military service, aiming to have a reasonably-experienced team ready to join me on the farm after my retirement in late 2011.  Those mares didn’t work out, to make a long story short.  So I’ve been waiting, and looking, and biding my time, getting the cow herd started and the farm operation up and running.  Getting my first year under my belt.

A little while ago, as Winter passed into Spring, something told me it was time.  Time to get ready for work horses.  Didn’t have any good prospects, wasn’t really eyeballing a particular team for sale, but the need to prepare was very strong.  I’d finally decided on a good stock trailer and purchased that.  Then, when my oldest sister said she’d like to come out in between season jobs and help with whatever project I had going at the time, I thought, let’s build a pole barn.

For the Suffolk horses.  That I hadn’t found yet.

But I did soon after.  Not a trained team, but a brood mare with colt foal at side and her yearling colt from last spring, from a breeder up in New York that is dispersing their herd.  With any luck she’ll be re-bred before I go pick them up; another generation on its way.  Not sure and not expecting how the youngsters will turn out.  There’ll be a future team of workhorses in the mix one way or the other.  Time for all that to happen and unfold.  But the barn idea started the ball rolling, and the barn is well on its way to being built, and in a few short weeks I’ll be headed up north to load and trailer some very nice Suffolk horses back to Bear and Thistle Farm.

Because I decided to build their barn.

Cass and Aedan

High Meadows Cass and Aedan of Bear and Thistle

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Big J’s been out in the Virginia woods for some real-world logging training with the rest of the working crew this month, along with Jason’s young gelding Chain; two beginners learning from the best, both men and experienced workhorses.

He’s posted photos on his FB page, the first of many, I hope.

J turned 10 on Sunday.  She’s in foal to Rudy, Ridgewind Farm’s standing stud; her third pregnancy that I know of.  I bought her and her daughter from a guy in Michigan two January’s ago and shipped them to Jason’s farm for training and, it was hoped, to be subsequently used by a couple of apprentices as a starter team.

They were two big, beautiful Suffolk mares completely herd-bound to each other, hardly even green-broke, and sorely in need of patient, constant handling to develop ground manners, as well as basic training as future workhorses.  They got lots of both, but the pair of young horseloggers needed a team to start their business long before my two girls were ready to pull their share of the load, so the original plan changed.

Then changed some more, last Fall, when we decided to split up the mother/daughter pair after realizing the 5-yr-old’s temperament – disruptive, flighty, nervous, and protective of her mother – would always  prevent the two from becoming a well-mannered, quiet, dependable team.   It’s a common problem with a pair of horses left to themselves as these two were, and the mother-daughter bond only makes it worse.

Another Biological Woodsman logging with Suffolks in southwestern Virginia took a liking to the bred young mare, an offer was made, and she has moved on to work for him and get him started as a Suffolk breeder.  And I’ll be looking for a big, broke Suffolk gelding next summer to match up with Big J, who is becoming a wonderful workhorse under Jason’s tutelage.

And so the months go by, and the work of training a horse to pull logs out of woods continues, as time and opportunity permits.   I am so very grateful for all the effort and care and experience that is going into this endeavor.   The hope is to have a well-trained team to begin with, when I move to the farm and start working in earnest on all that needs done.  I have a neglected forest to manage, trees to cut for barn timbers, and pastures to mow and maintain, just for starters.  My team of Suffolks will eventually do all the field and forest work, leaving the tractor to scoop manure and compost, lift heavy things, and provide power in the barnyard.  We’ll start slow and small, of course, and having a team trained by Jason to train me as I learn will be worth its weight in gold.

Lessons in the woods - resting is a reward

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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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mel_and_J_in_garden_008GOD SPEED THE PLOUGH
(from an old English cup)

Let the wealthy and great
Roll in splendour and state.
I envy them not, I declare it.
I eat my own lamb,
My own chickens and ham;
I shear my own fleece
and I wear it.
I have lawns; I have bowers.
I have fruits; I have flowers.
The lark is my morning alarmer
So jolly boys now,
Here’s God speed the plough.
Long life and success to the farmer.

 _______________________________________________________

No, that’s not a plow behind that horse; it’s a drag harrow.  And no, that’s not me, that’s Mel driving “the ‘J’ mare” as Jason calls her, working the garden on Ridgewind Farm.   But I stumbled across the poem the same day he sent the picture of Mel and J, and for that reason they go together in my mind.

“God speed the plough, ‘a wish for success or prosperity,’ was originally a phrase in a 15th-century song sung by ploughmen on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Day, which is the end of the Christmas holidays, when farm laborers returned to the plough. On this day ploughmen customarily went from door to door dressed in white and drawing a plough, soliciting ‘plough money’ to spend in celebration. “Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins” by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).

I found the poem on Hollin Farms website; another good Virginia farm worth taking a look at.

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js-first-working-steps

  It takes a lot of time, effort and patience to train two big, beautiful, spoiled hay-eating machines to be actual workhorses.  There is nothing in either of my mares’ life experiences that prepared them for life on a working farm, being around other horses, noises and distractions, or doing anything other than lounging together in a big pasture and having grain and hay brought to them in abundance without any exchange of effort for it.

The transformation is being accomplished slowly, sometimes in small steps, sometimes in leaps and bounds – but it is happening.  This picture of 8-year-old Justice in harness, dragging fresh-plowed garden soil with a smiling Mel on the lines and Jason grinning as he removes the lead for the horse to take her first working steps, shows the progress they’re making and how pleased they are with it.  It choked me up a little when I first saw it, seeing the joy on their faces as they turned to show me through the camera how far they’ve come with the project of making these fine mares into workhorses for Mel and Adam to use.

I can see that horse’s mind working, too, which is the part of all this that I am the most in awe of.  This big, young mare has never done anything like this in her life – suited up in harness, responding to signals on the reins and bit and commands from the two-legged alpha, doing what she’s asked to do – this is as alien to her as walking upright would be, yet at the same time, it isn’t strange at all, and you can see her becoming, right before our eyes, a workhorse.  Two months ago she was skittery and lacking manners and herd-bound to her daughter; now she is much less all that, much closer to the skilled, experienced workhorse she will be in the years to come.  And it is happening because she’s figuring it out, and has good coaches, people who know her potential and know what is required to get her there.

There’s still much to be done and a long way to go.  Jason wrote yesterday that he’d bought a new sulky plow and is planning to hitch the girls between the two geldings they are pastured next to and have grown accustomed to, so they can learn to work by their example, alongside horses that know to move when asked and stop when told and stay still in between.  That should be a mind-opening experience for both of them.

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adam-and-j

  The horses have been at Jason’s for a month and a half now; not all of that time in training, of course – work schedules and weather take precedence as they should – but they’ve been getting schooled in all the basics and have really come a long way.  Mel and Adam have handled them nearly every day and worked with Jason on all the lessons so this is a real team effort.  I am glad we were able to get the horses to them well before they were finished with their Biological Woodsmen apprenticeship, so they are part of the girls’ training right from the start.  It will make for a very strong bond between the young horses and handlers, I think.

The weather was cold and nasty as January finished out, so they spent time in the barn, introducing them to bits in their mouths and simply handling them a lot on the ground including mane and forelock thinning.  They discovered J didn’t like being touched on her poll or top of the head, and would fret and shake her head, so that had to be worked through.  Adam is very tall (he makes her look small in the photo above but she’s really a brute) and exceptionally patient, which helped a great deal. 

Next they sacked them out with an old bridle, and put the harness on them.  More bit familiarity, learning to be comfortable with it in their mouths, eat around it, and yield to pressure as a signal.   Jason wrote, “They are getting better manners every day, and we will keep up their handling toward the end of them being productive working animals.”  I’d remarked they were like kindergarten students, to which Jason replied they were more at an elementary school level – such good news to hear. 

Hooves were trimmed the next week, and the horses did very well – all the daily handling had paid off.  On February 5th Jason wrote, “I think they did very well with the foot work.  Having good control on their head and teaching them about standing still, respecting our space and being rewarded for submitting to our handling of their feet is important.  They are tractable.  We will make great horses out of them.”  

They are spending time in separate box stalls during the day, which is making them braver and less attached to each other as a herd, and better animals all around.  School is going well.

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Finding the Farm

pastureentrance

  

In the stilled place that once was a road going down

from the town to the river, and where the lives of marriages grew

a house, cistern and barn, flowers, the tilted stone of borders,

and the deeds of their lives ran to neglect, and honeysuckle

and then the fire overgrew it all, I walk heavy

with seed, spreading on the cleared hill the beginnings of green, clover and grass to be pasture.  Between

history’s death upon the place and the trees that would have come

I claim, and act, and am mingled in the fate of the world.

 

“Sowing” by Wendell Berry

 

Going through some old posts the other day I stumbled upon my original farm-related entry, a first attempt at capturing the thrill of possession just weeks after we had closed the deal, as I was steaming across the Pacific Ocean on the first leg of a 6-month deployment.  Still in shock that we’d actually made it all happen.  Savoring the feeling of groundedness and promise amidst the clamor and bustle of life on a warship.  From March, 2006:

 

This is the last few feet of the road up to the pastures – the heart of the farm. You can see the grassy hill swelling up past the trees, past the gate, and the distant treetops peeking over, marking the far edge of this central pasture.

 

Even now as I look at this photo, I can remember standing there, bundled up in the 30-degree cold, feeling the forest surround me, the quiet winter-hushed Kentucky hills stretching away on all sides, neighbor’s farms well hidden in the adjoining hollows, and thinking how very wonderful it would be to own this. To become related to this place, to follow my dreams, to work as hard as I want, to live my days out here.

 

That morning it was just a shimmering, tantalizing possibility. I had traveled back to this beautiful area with two good possibilities picked out from my exhaustive Internet search, to find my farm. I knew this with my whole heart.

 

And though my husband does not exactly share my passion for the life of a farmer, neither does he discourage it in me. In fact I’d say he respects it very much. He knew why I went there. He knew I would find my farm. And he had already decided once I’d made my choice, we would take action.

 

I didn’t know that yet, that morning. I was just acting on this impulse that has powered me since childhood, and trusting that it wasn’t going to fling me over a cliff and break my heart. Trusting this identity that I am both once again, and finally, stepping into like a pair of well-worn jeans. I am and have always been a farmer. Just never had a farm.

 

And so I walked up this road, and walked the pasture edges of this farm with my camera in hand, the cold January wind numbing my hands and my face out in the open of the pastures. I stepped into the woods, warmed suddenly by the lack of wind, and felt the hush of the bare trees, the forest floor thickly carpeted with fallen leaves, the thin grey winter sun streaming through the branches. I walked for three hours, from one end of it to another. I turned and squinted and tried to estimate how large the pastures were, and I stopped in several spots to imagine a house here, or there – was the sun the right direction? Would it be protected from the wind?

 

Then I went back down the hill, and sat and talked with Bobby and Alene for another two hours. They took a liking to me, I could tell that right away. They liked that I was in the Navy, and I felt they were proud of that. I told them why I wanted a farm, why it was important to me, and we talked about cattle and sheep and chickens and the tobacco Bobby’s family had raised there when he was a kid. He was born and raised on this farm.

 

I told them I would have to wait 6 years before I could retire and come live there. They spoke about their children and grandchildren in Oklahoma, and their other family in Florida, and made it clear they hadn’t really decided which direction they would move, if at all. They liked living in Kentucky just fine, they said. I told them it would work well if they wanted to stay for a time, to take care of the place. We talked pleasantly, not making any promises, since I was just there looking, like other people had been, and didn’t know if I would be able to make an offer.

 

We talked slowly, and quietly. We talked about the war, a little, and about the economy, and about farming. They showed me the rooms of the house, and I went out with Bobby to look at the shop, and the tractor. I complemented him many times on how well he had taken care of the pastures, and how solid and well-built the fences and gates were. He was pleased to hear that, I could tell. This old man, stout as a barrel, hard of hearing, labored of breath – this man cared for this property as though it were his childhood home, because it was. And I recognized that, and thanked him for his efforts, and I could tell, the deal would be made.

 

And it seemed to make no difference whatsoever to him that I was a girl.

 

I may tell the rest of the whole story at a later date. But now I owe answers to your questions, or I will never be able to catch up.

 

Some of you want to know, “What type of farm is this? Dairy, agricultural … or horses?”

 

Well right now, it’s a low-maintenance pastured livestock farm; Bobby only runs about 25 head of Angus feeder steers on it each summer and has a neighbor cut hay once or twice. There are dairy farms in the area, but dairying is a labor intensive and complex operation, even on a small scale.

 

In a nutshell, my farming will be small-scale, diversified, and follow sustainable organic principles. Bearing in mind I won’t have to pay a mortgage or feed six hungry children with the profits (nor will I have their help with chores!), I will probably start with a small herd of grass-fed beef, a small flock of sheep, perhaps a small milk cow or goat, a few chickens, a few laying ducks, raise a hog for the freezer, and of course grow fruits and vegetables. The main intent will be to feed ourselves and make enough profit on the excess to pay for supplies, vet visits, and such.  Those of you who know me won’t think that sounds like too much work at all. 

 

One of the first things I’ll do once I get there will be to buy my team of Suffolk Punch horses, some basic horse-drawn implements, and learn to work them. This could take several years. (That should spawn a whole rash of questions which I am perfectly willing to answer – please ask!) I should be able to eventually raise an acre or two of corn, and oats, and other livestock feeds, and I will practice rotational grazing by subdividing the pastures into several-acre paddocks, and move the cattle and sheep and horses and chickens between them to maximize the forage health. I will improve my pastures by spreading manure and minerals, overseeding, and managing the grazing levels. The ponds will be stocked with fish, providing yet another source of meat.

 

The double-wide trailer home will be an excellent transition residence while the timberframe-and-log house is being built up on top. I will want a barn and perhaps some outbuildings built up there as well, so I’ll need to be there on scene to oversee the work and perhaps do a portion of it myself. We anticipate that D will remain in San Diego at his job as long as possible, and I will move to The Farm a few years earlier, once I retire to get things started. The sale of the house in San Diego will cover the construction of the buildings and any startup costs I’ll have such as livestock and farm implements.

 

Once The Farm is up and running, my retirement check should cover operating expenses, and in a few years the critters should about pay for themselves…

 

And so the dream began, three years ago.  I am still awestruck at my good fortune in finding this property, having the leverage from our San Diego home to pay for it by refinancing the mortgage (surely couldn’t do that now!), having the support and complicity of my life partner as I leapt off the cliff in pursuit of my life-long dream, and most importantly, in having been blessed with this lovely old country couple who were content to remain in place after selling it to us, and take care of it until I can get there.

 

God has surely smiled down on little Thistledog.  And now the Suffolks are a reality, thanks to good people who were willing to help with a plan to give me a head start with them.  Lordy, I surely could not be more blessed.

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