One Vibrant, Overwhelming Season

Each year, spring overwhelms us again.

DSC_1521 copy
I have a feeling that it’s the same with most homesteaders. We purge the clutter from our closets and our yards and our fields; rearrange the livestock quarters and realize that, once again, we’ve failed to prep enough garden beds for the coming season. In February and March, we ashamedly purchase all our produce at grocery stores, having exhausted local markets and personal stores.

By the time April comes on, we are already tired, but there is beauty everywhere. There is beauty everywhere, and it is exhausting.

It is easy to feel like you are stepping into the bog of projects. Do too much, and you will sink. Do just enough so that you float until June comes to dry the quagmire.

And so I will get through May, like we all do every year. May season and May day and May poles to marvel at. May we all survive May.

Advertisements

Lambs Spring 2016

It’s been a long time since the last post! The dark winter months are starting to let up and spring is just around the corner.

We’ve come out of lambing doing well this year, despite the rocky start losing 2 out of 3 triplets from our new ewe Ginger.

DSC_1321

Stud Muffin is the father of all the lambs except for the two black ones.

 

DSC_1315

Ginger with her ewe lamb Charcoal.

DSC_1317

Dora with her ewe lamb Mocha.

DSC_1310_2

Louise with her small twins, Lilac and Lavender.

DSC_1328

Cow with her triplets Chamomile, Calendula, and Chicory.

DSC_1371

Thelma with her big twins, currently nameless.

Coming on Fall

The wheat harvest did not go as planned. Mostly, this means that the chickens broke into my hoop where it was drying and decimated my crop. The good news is that this fed them for 3 days. The bad news is that it took me 6 months and 100 sq ft to grow enough feed for 20 chickens to eat for 3 days. Talk about a reality check in sustainability. This is what I try to explain to people when they tell me I should grow grain to feed my animals: I could, but it takes the big guys less time, money, and resources to do the same. We all depend on conventional farming to support our daily lives, it’s just that some of us delude ourselves into thinking we depend on them less.

DSC_0767

The more homesteady aspects of the HeartMoss life are going well: the rabbits and sheep continue breeding, some of the pigs have gone to slaughter while the others have gotten larger, and the chicks we’ve been hatching all year are turning into real full-grown chickens. The pasture has held out this year into November, in striking contrast to last year when we had to start feeding hay at the end of October. Our guardian dog, Puff, is turning into a teenager and sometimes he chases after the sheep and cats like they’re dog friends that he can play with. We’re hoping to get lucky and not have very many poultry problems while he’s in his teen phase. By the time lambing season begins in March, he will be 11 months old and should be capable of fully guarding the sheep flock.

DSC_0775  DSC_0796 DSC_0799 DSC_0793

I’m spending a lot of time away from the farm in order to make some extra money, but it’s definitely a problem when there is so much to do at home.

A few weeks ago I bought two turkeys that were supposed to be our Thanksgiving dinner. Well, I noticed that they seemed a little hennish, and sure enough (through some internet readings) I decided that they were female. So instead of having turkey dinner, I went out and bought a tom turkey to keep them company. This way they can begin breeding and laying eggs in the spring to propagate the next turkey generation. This is the hope, at least.

DSC_0765

The winter garden is going well so far. This year I finally got my low tunnels together. I used large nails as spikes and black plastic well tubing as hoops, then put row cover over the top of it. This is held down with t-posts (a good material) and bricks (which I do not recommend) to keep the tension up in the fabric. We’re growing spinach, lettuce, and kale under these, and it’s growing much faster then if it was in the open air, plus the plants should have protection in January and February from the worst of the winter weather.

DSC_0776 DSC_0777

I can’t wait to see what winter throws at us this year.

Wheat Harvest

Growing grains is one of the most rewarding experiences. I’m not sure if it’s their ancient significance, the sheer height of the plants, or the satisfaction of bundling, drying, and threshing the harvest. It’s certainly not an experience that you can accomplish overnight.

We use whatever variety of winter wheat is locally available and plant in the fall. The seeds can be broadcast sewn over a field and then covered with some mulch to deter the birds. In the spring, it will look like some bright green grass (wheatgrass) has shot up in the field. Very soon, your wheat will begin to get tall and develop the characteristic seed heads.

DSC_9765

As summer progresses, it will dry into a beautiful golden color and stop growing. The seed heads are naturally dried a little bit on the stalks at this point. You know your wheat is ready to harvest when the seed heads begin to angle themselves more dramatically, bending in swooping arcs that will eventually angle towards the ground. Now is the time to harvest, before the wheat falls out of the husk.

DSC_0009

I used a pair of small, sharp hand shears to cut the wheat at the base while holding the middle of the stalk. Then I loaded it into the wheel barrow, making sure all the grain heads were the same direction. When I ran out of space in the wheel barrow, I used buckets to hold the wheat.

DSC_0010 DSC_0015

Then I sat for a long and tied the wheat into bundles called sheaves. This uses twine to bind the stalks together. Then the sheaves are all leaned together to form a shock that further allows the wheat to dry.

DSC_0017

I snacked on the wheat berries all the while, of course. More updates to come once the seed heads finish drying!

Lambs Spring 2015

I thought we were overrun with babies before, but we have more than ever! There are 100 meat chicks in the brooder, future egg-layer chicks hatching from the incubator, baby rabbits on the way, bottle piglets, and plenty of lambs.

The momma sheep have been excellent at their jobs and have really helped this newbie shepherd out. All of the babies have been born without me being there.

We still have two more ewes to go and are staying plenty busy with all the springtime events. The Farmers Market starts in just a couple weeks and we couldn’t be more excited!

Spring in Full Swing

There are all kinds of babies running around the farm, and there will soon be more. We’ve got chicks, piglets, lambs, and bunnies! The piglets have been doing a fine job of tilling the garden. When we first brought them in the whole thing was covered in grass. Now it looks like someone took a tiller to it! All that’s left to do is rake it into beds and get planting.

DSC_9066DSC_9118

Our little herd sire ram lamb is not growing UP much but is certainly growing fat.

DSC_9079

He’s my rolly-polly lamb. We’ve also got two bottle baby ewe lambs in the house, and we’re sure that more are on the way from a few first-time mommas that come from less-than-attentive parentage.

We’ve got a lot going on and will no doubt get busier as April gets underway. It might turn into a blog-in-photos, but I will make sure to get something posted here!

Making Compost

Here on the farm, we use the deep litter method with as many animals as possible. It makes for less work in the short run, but more work in the long run, especially with small buildings that are not mobile and do not allow for tractor access. Deep litter bedding means that as the animals pee and poo in their barns at night, we add enough carbonaceous material to keep things dry and keep the smell down. This creates an active compost within each barn building, generating quite a bit of heat. In the summer time, this means that we use more pine shavings, open more ventilation, and clean the barns out more often. In the winter time, this means we bed down lots of material and let it work its magic.

DSC_8893

Rabbit Poop + Hay = Compost!

The downside to deep litter bedding means that a few times a year, the half-composted material in the barns must be shoveled out.

Each February, we do a thorough shoveling out of all the barns. The bedding is then moved into large piles or into pallet structures, where it will further compost and provide the growing medium for much of the garden. We also may spread some of the bedding back over the pastures, adding organic matter and fertilizer so that the livestock will have thicker, healthier forage.

 

DSC_7658

The mound of compost after cleaning out the sheep barn.

The neat part about the pallet style composts is that the chickens love to climb on the top and scratch around, providing aeration and adding their manure to the pile, thereby speeding up the process.

DSC_8860 DSC_8889

 

Sheep Flock in the 2014-2015 Breeding Season

With any luck, the ewes are all bred up and ready for lambing in April/May. The ram’s aggressive tendencies have not let up, so he is currently for sale and may become mutton. The girls are fat and gaining quickly for the worst of winter. Spotty, Sarah, Helena, and Cow needed a deworming one last time in 2014, but the adult ewes have been looking very good. Over the next few years, we hope to get our paddock system working to the point that we can divide and rotate the flock often enough to allow for once a year dewormings. The lambs, however, often continue to pose challenges for us farmers as their resistance does not develop fully until they’re older than a year (and therefore no longer lambs). Once we get our own personal fecal analysis up and running, it will be easier to monitor that flock’s parasite load and will give us the freedom to experiment with the rotation.

Pig Processing Day

Warning: this post contains graphic images and descriptions. If you’re going to get offended by knowing where meat comes from, don’t look!

We didn’t get as many pictures as we would have liked because we were so busy dealing with the pigs. Unexpectedly, in just 6.5 months, they had grown from about 3lbs to almost 200lbs.

We held back grain for about 12 hours before the morning of the slaughter. That morning, I put out their grain and Hannah stood ready. She shot Aggie twice with a .22 and I jumped in and slit her throat and stabbed the cartoid artery. Meanwhile, while Gertie was trying to figure out how to dodge her flailing sister and eat her grain at the same time, Hannah shot her too. They were gone fairly quickly, and for that we were grateful.

Next we had to drag the carcasses to the butchering station, cut off the heads, and hoist them up using our truck and a come-along.

It was a long, complicated process. Killing them and cutting the heads off was by far the easiest part of the job. For the first pig, the hoist mechanism didn’t get quite off the ground, which made skinning a bigger job. And skinning a hog is not like any other animal I’ve done–the closest thing I could imagine was that it was akin to skinning a whale.

We cut off the hams and shoulders, and then put the full rib cages, heads, and parts into fridges and freezers overnight.

For the second day of processing, we pulled everything out and began cutting it up. This involved a handy array of knives and manual saws. I will never do pigs again without an electric saw as it was very difficult to saw through bone by hand. We ended up not being able to get through the spine at all, so our chops were a little loose, but boy were they still gorgeous. We did chops, front ribs, spare ribs, baby back ribs, loin roasts, tenderloin roasts, shoulder roasts, shank roasts, sliced pork belly, whole pork belly waiting to be smoked, whole hams, leg roasts, picnic hams, and ground pork. We will try out some recipes before converting the ground pork to sausage.

We had two people for the killing, skinning, and piecing day and three people for general processing day. Yet we still had to take an extra evening to cut the shoulders and bag the hams. The biggest of the hams weighed over 18lbs! We don’t have a pig scale, but they’ve been estimated at about 175lbs live weight. We certainly had well over 100lbs of meat, which will be shared with friends and family in the form of Christmas presents.

Butchering your own pigs is definitely doable, but quite a bit of work. The reward is worth it: there will always be a couple of piglets in my yard from now on.

Goat Processing Day

Warning: this post contains graphic images and descriptions. If you’re going to get offended by knowing where meat comes from, don’t look!

The goats were from our neighbor and intended for meat right from the start. They were excess dairy bucklings who didn’t look like they’d ever amount to herd sires. We castrated them as soon as they got onto our farm, which made sure that they stayed sweet and pleasant to be around. It also made sure that they didn’t start peeing on themselves and smelling like a buck as soon as they hit goat puberty. I bottle raised BBQ, the adorable brown and black kid. Curry, a mostly white goat, came to us already weaned at 30 days old.

Goats are like small deer, and so butchering them is the same. The experience was pleasant the whole way through, which means we will definitely be getting goats again in the future.

First we led BBQ from the pasture to the yard. We tied him to a post and set down his favorite sweet feed in front of him, which he immediately started gobbling up. Then Hannah shot him, he went down, and I quickly slit his throat so that he could bleed out properly.

There was no trauma of loading him into the car and driving him the 1.5 hours to the slaughterhouse, no waiting in an unfamiliar place with strange animals and people. And it was infinitely better than nature’s options: a coyote ripping his throat out; winter starvation; disease. He had a simple life and death at home. Which is all I really want, too.

Next, we hung him up by the tendons like with a deer. Goats you don’t have to tie off the butt as their droppings are tidy little pellets. I skinned and gutted him with ease. Then the carcass was brought inside to be fully washed and cut into smaller pieces.

We did whole goat loins instead of chops as we had no equipment to cut the spine with. Then we had neck roasts. Other than that, we mostly did stew meat and ground goat.

I loved my little goat babies, but I also appreciate the time, labor, and feed I have saved by not keeping them over the winter. Instead, I have a whole mess of goat curry, goat tacos, and goat roast to look forward to.