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The closest alligator

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There is always something that needs done on this farm.  Every day, every week, every month, a slew of tasks and projects both big and small clamor for my attention, each with its share of overall importance.  But their importance is variable, and can change depending on what else is going on; inclement weather and animal concerns, for instance, can quickly demand a shift in attention.  Last week’s big project might have to get sidelined for something that crops up this week.  It is what it is.

As the sole source of manpower I have to constantly consider how best to prioritize my time and energy in order to get done what really needs done, and still preserve my health and sanity.  Every day I start a fresh page in my logbook, mapping out the daily tasks and what I want to get done for the day, working toward a weekly goal that is part of a monthly goal…which I never seem to meet, but it is what it is.  Aggravating, that’s what it is.  But realistic, too.  Because stuff happens, and seasons change, and goals must change alongside.

I used to fight the changes, the sliding of deadlines, the unfinished projects supplanted by another more urgent.  Now, I don’t have any choice but to accept them.  What’s the use of working on something that was supposed to be finished in late summer, when winter is breathing down your neck and half a dozen things need doing before the first hard freeze?  Or the next rain event?

It brings me back to the time-tested strategy I learned long ago from my mentors in the military, where priorities can change from minute to minute with jaw-dropping speed.  It goes something like this:  when faced with conflicting demands on time and attention, always shoot the closest alligator to the boat.  It may not be the biggest, meanest alligator.  It might not be the one you were worried about yesterday.  But it is the closest one, whose jaws and teeth are inches from dragging you into the water and making a meal of you, that deserves the most attention.  And a well-placed bullet to the head, if you’re interested in hunting alligator.

So the barn remains unfinished, the garden was left in disarray after a hurried harvest and awaits cleanup, the gutters need cleaned of leaves before freezing rains lock them with ice, the now-muddy road around the pond needs graveled, firewood must be split and stacked on the back porch, and a myriad of stuff needs to be put away for winter.  They’re all alligators, but they aren’t the closest one.  Just recently, the closest alligator was the coming two-year-old Suffolk colt whose gelding procedure did not go well; infection and swelling required an additional vet visit, medications given daily for 10 days, and a regimen of thrice-a-day walks.  This while I hosted visitors, yet another alligator vying for my attention.

As the horses continue to devour their small stack of square hay bales stored in the little barn that come Spring will become the broodmare’s maternity ward, an unfinished Fall project now becomes the closest alligator:  erecting the 20′ x 24′ clearspan hay structure in the First Pasture, to fill with 600+ bales of hay.  I wanted it done in September, but September was filled with cattle handling and AI, then October focused on barn doors, laying in round hay bales for winter cow feed, and horse training, and November was visitor month.  December; I’ll shoot this alligator before December’s done, I will.  Before the next one swims up closer.  Stay tuned.  I’m serious.

From grazing to feeding

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

November visitors

Tinka, Skeet and Linda

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

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

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

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

Bear and Bandit

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

Fall grazing

That title phrase is borrowed from a recent Gene Logsdon blog post, in which he talks about bringing in firewood for the winter ahead, and how the onset of winter makes some of us uneasy, whether we know why or not.

I know why the coming months of dormant grass, saturated soils, and frigid temperatures make me uneasy.  Because I’m not ready for it, that’s why.

It feels like we went hurtling through the heat of August just last week.  But of course, August was two – nearly three – months ago.  Back then, I was mapping out all the things to get done by October, and though the list was ambitious, it seemed doable.  Now October is heaving its last breath, and the bottom half of my list just rolls to the right.  November.  We’ll get it all done in November, then.

Meanwhile, the leaves are changing color and falling, and the cows are on their last rotation through paddocks just recovered enough to provide good grazing – most are 8″ at the tallest and some areas much sparser.  Quite the difference from the lushness of May and June.  Regrowth slowed in September and after this time through, will be just enough to regenerate root reserves before growth stops.

It is sobering to see the end of the grazing season fast approaching, knowing that soon I’ll have to serve up hay to hungry animals in all sorts of weather.  Glad to have the hay stockpile; not thrilled with the work ahead to feed it out.

The things that did get done should make me feel very contented, and in any other season than this, they would.  For example, in just two weeks I tracked down 80 rolls of grass hay for the cowherd, hauled them up to the top of the hill, set them on pallets along the hay storage lane, and covered them with plastic.  That was huge.  A lot of work, and a load off my shoulders to finally get it done.  Having enough hay to feed a mixed herd of cows, steers, heifers and calves through the winter is no laughing matter, even here in balmy Kentucky.

The garden harvest has gone very well, too; my shelves are literally groaning with quart jars of tomatoes, green beans, and three kinds of pickles.  There are pounds of chard and edamame in the freezer, bags of dehydrated herbs and cherry tomatoes in the cupboard, piles of winter squash in the spare room, and an overflow fridge out in the shop stuffed with potatoes, beets and carrots.  The abundance makes all the work worth it, and I’m glad to have homegrown food for the winter and beyond.

Still, I am uneasy.  My firewood pile is very small.  I’ve just enough split and stacked on the back porch for the next few weeks, then I’ll have to devote a couple of days to harvesting some standing dead trees, cutting them to length and splitting a mix of large, medium and small for the woodstove.  I wish I’d have had time to get ahead of this resource but I didn’t.  I won’t run out and I won’t freeze, but it’s work that should have been done by now.

Then there’s the horse hay storage structure, still sitting in the palletized box it shipped in, waiting for site prep, footer holes dug and poured, and assembly of the 24′ x 20′ steel tubing frame that’ll be covered by the heavy-duty custom-sewn covering, warrantied to last 15 years.  Once erected, it’ll hold 600 bales of hay for the horses.  Sitting in the box, it’s a long way from being able to hold 600 bales of hay.  Might as well be a box of rocket ship parts out there, as useful as it is to me right now.

Barn doors need built and hung to finish the stall so I can wean the little colt; cows need run through the corral and chute again for annual shots; calves must be captured and hauled to the vet for castration and vaccinations, the yearling colt needs a vet visit for his gelding ceremony; the list goes on, and the weeks fly by, and it is getting cold already.

I shake off the uneasiness but it’s the season for that sort of thing, and it returns.  Maybe I’ll get used to it in a couple of years.

Aries and Aedan profile pic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First year grazing

moving through Lower Pasture, May

This is the happy circumstance I have spent years dreaming of, researching and planning for.  After a decade of preparation, including a great deal of reading and studying, many workshops and seminars, and six years of farm ownership before retirement allowed me to move here, I finally have a small herd of beef cows to rotationally graze and improve the pastures.

It sounds so easy when you read about it and imagine how it will work.  What can be easier than cows eating grass, after all?  But not all grass grows the same; some pasture is quite lush while in other areas the stand is thin, weather factors a lot in how well a grazed area regrows, and moving the grazing herd around a farm in sync with the forage growth cycles can be quite tricky.  So, it is anything but easy.

I suppose this is some of what the “intensive” part of Management-intensive Grazing, or MiG, refers to.  I’m not talking about intense physical effort, although it takes a fair amount of walking to string electric fence every day or every couple of days, and my neighboring cattle farmers would no sooner hike around their fields with an armful of fiberglass posts and reels of electric wire, than fly to the moon.   No, the muscles most used, I’ve found, are between my ears – and as a novice to both the art of grazing and bovine husbandry, I am learning to use them and stretch them beyond what I’d ever imagined.

This is the first year I will have seen these pastures grow from dormancy, and the first full year they will be repeatedly grazed by animals instead of mown.  Last August the herd arrived to the dense stockpiled stand that had grown unmown since spring, and worked their way through it in about 6 weeks before returning to regraze their first paddock assignments.  That was an abnormal grazing situation and there were more animals then, too.  This year I’ll be learning as I go, with some basic grazing concepts to guide me, and the realization that it will take years to achieve what the books and experts make sound so simple.

I have enough animals to concentrate their efforts and achieve the benefits of what’s known as high-density mob grazing, where the herd, constrained to a fairly small grazing area, consume a portion, trample a portion, and leave a portion of the forage standing.  Currently I’m building paddocks sized to last them a couple of days, moving them before they crop the undergrowth right down to the ground.  They aren’t crowded, but they aren’t free to roam and cherry-pick throughout an entire pasture.  Since the cows are highly competitive grazers, this method gets them to eat more of what they would rather leave – grass stems and seedheads, for instance.  They don’t eat everything and they only get it down to 3-4″ before I roll them into a fresh patch.

Concentrating their grazing also concentrates their manure and urine deposits.  This is absolutely critical to the task of pasture improvement.  All my neighbors let their cow herds roam on acres and acres, and they never see much of any benefit from the cows’ fertilization.  It’s just too spread out.  Without a pack of predators to keep their herd formed up in a group and moving together, the animals disperse and nibble here and there, moving quickly through the pasture and depositing most of their manure under the trees where they rest and ruminate in the shade.

This is what the paddock looks like by the time I move them forward.   That’s fescue seeding on the other side of the line, and you can see they’ve cropped most of that down where they’ve grazed.

Lower pasture, just-grazed paddock

Leaving a residual of several inches and a fair amount standing, cleaning up all the weeds and forbs and native clovers, as well as other plants I have yet to identify.  Plenty of plant matter trampled into the soil as well.

Lower pasture, residual

Here is where I take a different approach from many graziers.  For many reasons, but mostly to help manage what is already a burgeoning fly population, I drag their manure either the day I move them or the day after.  I don’t have Joel Salatin’s egg-mobile chickens following my herd to disperse the cow patties and eat the fly larvae, at least not yet (and won’t for some time).  We had significant pink eye infections last fall with outbreaks throughout the very mild winter, and face flies wintered over in great numbers.  Face flies are manure-breeders; their larvae hatch in three days, so if I can disrupt that breeding cycle it will help, I hope, keep their population in check, and lower the risk of another cycle of eye infections.  Doctoring an entire herd of 1,000 lb beasts of prey with a flight zone of 15 – 20 feet at best, is not fun, for either the animals, or the farmer doing the doctoring.

I know all about the drawbacks of spreading cow crap, believe me.  Cows avoid patches of grass near manure pats for good reason, and most of the experts say dragging their pies out just makes more grass unpalatable to them next time they graze an area.  I’m not so sure it’s as bad as all that, and I’m willing to make that mistake if in turn I’m able to beat the flies down to a low roar by reducing their breeding resource.  Chickens would do a better job I’m sure, but I’ve called a moratorium on gaining new livestock until after I get the horses here and settled.

And that’s another blog post.  Heading up the hill now to continue work on the new horse barn.

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