Trying my Patience

I love the Marx brothers. From Duck Soup:

Sir, you try my patience!

I don’t mind if I do. You must come over and try mine sometime.

Today the chickens were out. The milk cows were out too. Did I mention the pigs? Oh, you can bet the pigs were out. Yes-sirree!

You know what doesn’t work when you are trying to contain animals? Let’s make a list of things that don’t work.

  • Throwing whatever is handy
  • Yelling at the animals
  • Beating the animals
  • Yelling at your wife
  • Slamming the truck door
  • Yelling at the kids
  • Running and yelling
  • Standing and yelling
  • Crying and yelling

I think you get the idea. So, deep breath. Flora is in season. She didn’t settle last cycle. Sigh. So she found her way to the bull and took her friend and their calves with her. The bull.

DaBull

We grabbed a reel and calmly surrounded the cows then Julie led the way back to the barn building fence as she went. I followed behind. Before we could go we had to sort out which calves belonged with which group but that wasn’t a big deal. Everybody loves mom.

Just when we thought we had our problems all squared away we noticed three pigs in with the horses. Huh. Pigs. In with the horses. Three of them. Huh. “What do you think, Boo? Did the fourth stay in his pen?” Nope.

The pigs came running to see us. And why not? We bring them treats. They love to see us. But one pig couldn’t negotiate the gate to the horse pasture so I had to help him out. Then they just followed me to their pen. I thought it was kinda funny so I caught it on video. Sorry for the poor quality.

Again, no yelling. No running. No bad words or thrown objects. Listen to the noises they are making. Can you hear the happy in the noises they are making? The optimism? If they only knew…

Chickens were a little more difficult. I moved them to a new location this morning and about 20 of them moved themselves back. It took several sessions and some creative use of extra fence but we eventually walked the chickens back into their enclosure. They were glad to find food again.

I had hoped to catch a couple of roosters for dinner tonight but…well, no such luck. No lost tempers. No bad words. Just Julie and I…me…I…erm…Just the two of us and a flock of Silver Laced Wyandottes. Hmmm. (That could be a geriatric Flock of Seagulls country cover band.)

Since we already had fence in place, and since the cow was obviously open, we then walked the milk cows back to the pasture to hang with the bull tonight. Hopfully that’s all we need because the bull leaves in 13 days.

I find that patience is gained slowly. But I’m getting there. Days like today help.

Reflections at 5:45 am

545am

I have been awake since 5. The alarm clock roused me from a sound sleep. I always sleep better on cold nights. Maybe it’s the feeling of security I get from a pile of blankets pressing down on me.

By 5:45 I have finally gotten myself dressed, got the coffee brewing and have prodded myself to go outside. I beat the sun today. Point for me.

The moon provides the majority of the illumination as I begin my work. I have a busy morning so I moved the chicken house last night. This morning I just need to stand up their fence and fill their drinker.

The white fence posts are barely visible in the dim light. As I pick up each one I am increasingly covered in cold dew. My long sleeved t-shirt and hoodie are not quite enough. But it has to be done. A little after 6 Julie joins me and we finish up just before the sun rises.

We had a rough week on the farm. It seems so much of what we do is just a struggle to keep things alive. I often write about my struggle to express my love to Julie instead of just nagging her to death. When your crying wife says to you, “Nothing is ever good enough for you!”….well, those are the moments you should just shut your mouth and become a little more introspective.

When things go wrong I spend a lot of time reviewing what happened. What went wrong? How can I avoid it going forward? I really want to explore it from all angles, find a solution and bring it to fruition. You might say I dwell on things.

I kicked myself for days when a goat named Shivers died. our nanny goat gave birth to quadruplets including Shivers. We were new at goats and livestock and were just glad to have 16 hooves on the ground, not knowing we needed to wait to see if all 4 could latch on. Not even imaging that we might be better off raising them on a bottle. Never suspecting a massive storm was going to kick up in the night. In the morning there were two baby goats latched on, one laying dead at the edge of the shelter and poor Shivers…shivering…cold, wet and alone. From that moment we were bottle-feeding goats. It wasn’t easy. At all. But with some help from some experienced friends (who must have thought we were idiots (we were (are))) we got them drinking from bottles. But Shivers never ate much. I made her a little sweater from the sleeve of a sweatshirt and we fought with her for a week trying to keep her alive. We even tried tube feeding her. But we failed. She missed the colostrum, got off to a bad start and that was that. Wasted effort.

Oh, the things I would do differently today! Geez. But I didn’t know.

There is an endless supply of things I don’t know. Things I can’t know…but maybe should. Do you know what this is?

WhiteSnakeroot

It is White Snakeroot. It is death incarnate and this week it killed a bull calf. I had no idea it was even out there. Acres and acres of it. Anywhere the canopy covers and mowers can’t mow. Steep hill sides and creek banks are covered with it. And I had no idea. The kids and Julie and I now spend our evenings pulling it up by the root and making piles for burning. Bushels and bushels of this stuff. You just would not believe. But it gets worse.

The cows rarely eat it. If they do it’s just a nibble here or there. How do I know? Because I went through the paddocks they have grazed over the last 10 days or so. The grazing pattern is clear. Except for one day. One paddock. One place I left the herd a little too long.

This morning, instead of dwelling on my many failings as a husband and father I was thinking about my calf Curly. I didn’t know I had snakeroot. I didn’t mean to leave them so long, I just gauged the forage incorrectly. And I found Curly laying on his side in a ravine. My mistake. My fault. My responsibility. My loss.

We do everything we can to protect out livestock but it doesn’t always work out. And it isn’t always our fault. But it is always our loss.

This farming stuff can be hard. But I can’t dwell on the bad things.

This morning my fourth child will be baptized at our church and I get to baptize her. She need no longer to fear death. No rainstorm, no random weed, no enemy has a hold on her eternal life. She is free. Born twice to die once. It’s not just another day of working to hold death at bay for a little while longer. This is a day of celebration.

We live in a fallen world, besieged by an enemy who seeks to kill, steal and destroy. It is unfortunate that we lost a calf this week but we will work through it. I can’t dwell on that small loss…letting the enemy steal my joy. I live a blessed life. I get to live on a farm with hills and trees and grass and ponds and streams and chickens and pigs and cows and milk and honey. My children are strong and happy and we have planted the Word of God in their hearts. I have every reason to rejoice!

So I stand. Watching the light grow in the sky and wrestling with my thoughts. Why am I in such a funk? David must have felt this way when he wrote “Bless the Lord, O my soul!” That’s a strange way to talk to oneself. He must have been in a funk too…giving himself a pep talk. “All that is within me bless His holy name!” He has to be rooting for himself.

This morning I spent time reflecting on where I spend my reflection time. My hands were busy and my mind was active. But neither were always productive.

645am

What are you dwelling on? It is easy to focus on your faults…to blame and berate yourself endlessly. Isn’t it better to remember that the sun is rising? That today is a new day? That THIS is the day the Lord has made and we will rejoice and be glad in it. Even if we’re just trying to talk ourselves into it, isn’t it better to talk yourself into life? The sun is rising. My daughter is being baptized today. Death has no hold on her. I will rejoice.

But I will also stay busy pulling white snakeroot in the evenings.

The First Fire

This is two years in a row we have lit our first fire before Sep. 15th. If you would have asked last year I would have said it was unusually cold but now? Turns out I would have been mistaken.

FirstFire

I tend to think of September as a hot month. A week ago it was. On the 9th I came in from morning chores soaked with sweat and still sweating after I got out of the shower and dressed for work. This morning I wore a hoodie to do chores and it was only just warm enough. But September will warm up again. No doubt.

We had planned to light our first fire a week ago when the forecast called for this:

Forecast

But when that weather arrived the house still had so much residual warmth we just couldn’t excuse it. Now, however, the A/C units are out of the windows and the house is a little chilly. And for those of you keeping score, when the 13th arrived 8 days later (today) we hit 41, not 46.

We all slept with a few extra blankets on our beds last night. My oldest daughter stood behind the stove to warm up when she woke up this morning. (The other kids will too but she is the only one up this early.) I think this transition into fall is the best time of the year.

It didn’t take much wood to warm up the back room. It wasn’t much of a fire. Just something to warm the kettle. But it was nice.

Apple Drops Galore

Each year we pick up a few bags of apple drops at aunt Marian’s house to help her keep her yard clean. Apparently we have just taken a small portion of the available apples. This year we filled a full pickup truck from one tree. And that was just the start of the drop. So when you wonder to yourself, “How many apple trees do I need?” remember she has three mature apple trees in her yard and it makes this point well: You don’t need a big orchard.

Her Mutsu tree is her prized possession. This is the tree I prune when she isn’t looking. I can usually prune about a quarter of the tree before she gets her slippers on and tells me I have cut too much wood off of the tree. Mainly I try to keep the chimney empty, remove lower and crossing branches and cut out anything dead. The tree is also reaching over to her grape vines so I have been working to shorten its reach over time. She just wants me to remove anything that is touching. So I play this little game. I express my love by pruning her trees. She expresses her love by not staying angry with me.

Mutsu

The Mutsu ripens later in the season. This summer has been cool and the apples are already sweet if you can stumble through the drops to pick one from the tree.

MutsuDrop

The tree by the house is an unknown. She ordered a number of trees through the mail some decades ago and didn’t get what she ordered. I think this is one of the wrong trees but it makes a HUGE quantity of sweet red apples every year and seems to be resistant to fire blight.

HouseTree

When she had her roof replaced the roofers took certain liberties with the limbs overhanging the roof. Since I always start with the Mutsu tree, aunt Marian was out there with me and prevented me from doing anything other than cutting out a specific broken limb. The long limb on the left offers additional shade in her dog pen. You should see all the apples in there! Since the limb points down it focuses on apple production. Go read up on training vs. pruning trees.

Finally there is a Johnny Appleseed tree in the corner of her yard. This tree grew out of a compost pile. It makes a mild transparent-type apple but she rarely uses the apples. It has never been pruned short of when she asked me to cut out dead wood last winter. She was surprised and disappointed how much dead wood was in the tree. I think the tree is just about finished. I may gather a cutting or two. Most of the drops from this tree feed the wildlife that venture into the corner of the yard far away from the dog.

CompostTree

I don’t think I’m exaggerating to suggest that I could fill five or six pickup trucks with this year’s apple crop from these three trees…even just the drops.

that's alot of apples

The four pigs and layer flock, it turns out, are only so interested in eating apples. They can have enough. I don’t know what aunt Marian did with them all. We have considered unloading them in rows in the pasture allowing trees to sprout where we think we would like to have them…but who knows. It is important to pick up the drops to keep the apple pest populations lower. We just haven’t really solved the problem yet. And there are more apples rotting on the ground as I type. Ugh. And buckets of apples in my kitchen waiting to become applesauce.

You might consider planting four smaller trees together in a cluster and work to keep them small. This would give you a manageable amount of apples from a variety of flavors spread across a longer harvest. Dad found a roadside apple tree between here and aunt Marian’s house. Just a volunteer tree but loaded with red, knotty, wormy apples. No sign of fire blight though and a good flavor, though they are not quite sweet yet and it is growing and producing in spite of the fact that it has never been cared for in any way. I should get some cuttings of that too…

15 Favorite Things

Yesterday I shared that I love owning and toiling over the farm. Though sometimes frustrating, I derive a measurable satisfaction from the work.

But have you met my wife?

Julie is loving. Supportive. Encouraging. But not physically strong.

Much of the work in the early stages of our farm requires strength and plenty of it. Lift this, load that, lug it over there. Stack wood, carry feed sacks, load up scrap metal, stack hay, wrestle this piglet. It feels great to be so physically exhausted. I can fall asleep almost instantly…anywhere (sorry pastor Mark!).

She doesn’t love that. She loves me but she doesn’t love all of the work.

BackToPasture

So I try to accommodate her needs. Some of today’s post is exaggerated to make the point but some of it is very real. Please don’t comment that I’m a jerk. I can be a jerk at times. But most of the time I’m a pretty normal guy. You know…a jerk.

Julie recently made a list of her top 15 things that are free and her top 15 things that cost money. Stop reading now and go make that list. Really. Stop. Write down 15 things that you treasure that are free. Now write down 15 that cost money.

Done? Good. Post some of your 15’s in comments. Come on. Hundreds of people will read this. SOMEBODY can share a few things they enjoy. May as well be you.

My top 15 include piglets. Her top 15 (of both categories somehow) include chocolate. I love cutting firewood and watching the forest transition from thorny weed trees to dominant, climax hardwoods. She likes the warm fireplace in the winter. I enjoy watching the cows graze and stomp the pasture as we manage toward fertility and diversity. She likes to hold hands as we walk through the pasture. I want to make the chickens happy. She wants to talk to the egg customers.

Our goals are not mutually exclusive but they are not entirely aligned either. They are complimentary. Well, some of the time. Other times?

I want a clean house, well-behaved children, a weed-free garden and no toys on the floor. She does too. It’s unanimous so why doesn’t it get done? What does she do all day? I get up early, care for the critters, solve computer puzzles all day and come home to play farmer some more. What does she do all day? Why aren’t the dishes done? She has four helpers! It only takes a few minutes to wash the dishes! I know, I DO A LOT OF DISHES!

These aren’t productive thoughts to verbalize in argument conversation with your wife.

Julie shared her top 15(s) with me this past weekend after yet another …um…discussion(?) about the milk cows that resulted in me selling the cows. (Fast forward a few days, we haven’t sold the cows. I found a willing buyer within 3 minutes but cooler heads prevailed. For now.) You know what is NOT in Julie’s top 15? Milking the cows.

How can she feel that way? I mean, what is her problem!?!? Milking the cows is totally in my top 15.

FloraAndHenry

No. She wants to hold hands as we walk in the pasture and eat chocolate and buy art supplies and journal her thoughts and …I don’t know…do some other girl stuff. I want to hold a rusty bit of baling wire in my teeth as I save the world once again with a miraculous repair like my super-hero dad. Hold hands? I guess but, “Hold hands? In the pasture?! Baby, we don’t have to go to the pasture to hold hands. Anyway, I gotta collect the eggs. Maybe you can hold my hand while I walk down to the birdies. But can you wear your purple rubber boots? I need to cross the creek and count the cows. I should probably build a little fence while I am down there. And I need to move the water trough too.” And just like that we are no longer holding hands as we stroll through the pasture to collect a basket full of eggs. We are working. Like workey-work. Baling wire in your teeth, cow manure on your jeans, broken fingernail, grunt and smell and save the world kind of work. The kind of work that adds to the already massive pile dirty laundry when you come in from doing chores and have to take a shower because the dog is the only one who likes your smell. And, by the way, the dirty laundry has to be put away when it is cleaned. You know, that chore that isn’t getting done as is evidenced by the baskets full of clean laundry sitting on the bed so we have to deal with them before going to sleep but we actually just carry the baskets to the living room every night because we are so tired from gathering eggs, building fence, moving water troughs and holding hands.

farm fashion

Well, something like that anyway.

So she doesn’t want to milk the cows. It’s not on her list.

So I am milking the cows. It is on my list. And it frees up time in her day to accomplish more of the stuff she wants to do.

Milking

And it is important that she have time in her day to explore things she is passionate about…and that I support her in those things. So the dishes don’t get washed after every meal. So there is clean laundry on the bed. So sometimes I stop working and just hold her hand in the pasture. Sometimes we all pile in the car and go to the library. Or to visit family. I separate the jobs that I want to do from the jobs I need to do, we do what we have to and leave the rest for later so we can all play a board game together. Same reason the house isn’t completely spotless sometimes. She had more important stuff to do. Same reason there isn’t a new blog post every day.

Sometimes it is important to her that she help me stack firewood. Sometimes it is important to me that we hold hands in the pasture while eating a chocolate bar and doing nothing else. I have to meet her where she is…to invest in her. To put a deposit in her love account.

All of this seems like common sense…and it is. But you forget that when it’s hot and the garden is submerged under a sea of weeds and the cows are out and the kids are grouchy and you can’t see the kitchen counter and things, generally, could be going better. But that’s life…the life we share. She loves me and likes the farm. I should probably adopt her style of thinking.

And I don’t know what else you could want in a free blog post. This is real life. I’m not here to pick at scabs for an audience. I’m also not here to tell you that farming is easy and the best way to make the world a better place is to buy a $250 American Guinea Hog that you butcher at 60 pounds after 6 months and harvest 30 pounds of meat for $10/pound. I keep it real. This is where I am today. Julie and I are fine. Farming is hard. Marriage is hard. Getting older is hard. But I rather enjoy farming and getting older with my best friend. It isn’t always easy but we’ll tough it out. And I hope you will too.

I Just Love it

There are days of stress. Days when things don’t go well. For example, cows only get out during a thunderstorm.

But I love it. Every minute of it. It’s just great.

I often write about how greatly we underestimated the challenge of living here because I want to caution readers who haven’t made the leap yet. It’s a lot of work. A lot of hard work. A lot of hard, dirty, sweaty, hot, broken fingernail, stained hands, peeling callous, rip in your jeans, leaky rubber boot, blood mixing with manure and dirt kind of work.

But I love it.

The real challenge for me, as we often relate to our readers, is that I forget that Julie doesn’t always love it as much as I do. And that I love Julie more than I love the farm. (And not just because she is hot.)

Julie liked milking the cows for about two months. Then Julie just milked the cows for another two months, sometimes dragging her feet. Tears were shed. Words were said. So now I’m milking the cows. She has had enough.

And who can blame her? It’s not a lot of fun being hit in the face with a cow tail for a few minutes each morning or smashed between them when they lean against each other in the stanchions.

But I love it.

20 minutes before sunrise...

20 minutes before sunrise…

This morning I let the chickens out into a new area then went to count the cows. The chickens ran and hunted and scratched in the early morning light. I would almost say they played but they were too serious about their work to “play”. They were working. But I think they were enjoying their work.

I enjoy my work.

Even when I’m walking the cows out of the neighbor’s bean field as a thunderstorm begins late at night.

Some of this thinking dovetails with a comment dad left on the blog a few years ago:

Just gotta say, I love putting up hay! I love cutting it, raking it, baling it, riding the wagon or driving the tractor, seeing a wagon full of well cured hay, putting it in the barn, going in the hay mow and smelling summer all winter, remembering which cutting and which field a bale came off of, and planning how I can put up quality hay in the future. I even love trying to outthink nature to get it put up.

Each morning I have to be finished milking by 7 so I can get to my desk on time. Also, pigs have to be fed, both flocks of chickens cared for, cows counted, self showered, eggs packed and children hugged. It’s hard to get it all done but I love it. Thank God for coffee. Gotta go.

Excessive Heat?

LOL. Excessive. Yeah. Like the weather people are scolding August.

“Darn you August! This is well beyond tolerance! How dare you?!”

Captured from WeatherUnderground.com

Captured from WeatherUnderground.com

Anything above 80 is excessive if you ask me. Not only is it hot, it is humid. The high temp is only 96 today but apparently it feels like 115 as you swim through the air. It’s hard on the farm animals. And that heat index only goes up as the day goes on. It’s hard on the farm children. It’s hard on the farmers.

SO. Moving quickly here, the cows are down in the bottom under a tall canopy. It really isn’t too bad down there. We keep a close eye on them and haven’t seen them panting. Mostly they lounge under the trees then go for a swim in the creek as needed. We keep them on fresh ground and it’s amazing the number of toads, frogs, spiders, dung beetles and horse flies out there. Biodiversity in action.

BananaSpider

The main layer flock is not too far behind the cows but aren’t as shaded. The chicken house stays remarkably cool so there are usually hens in and under the house for shade. We keep the drinker filled with cool water and in the shade at all times and offer the chickens as many apple drops as they will eat. Seems to be going well.

The pigs are having a hard time with the heat in spite of being in the shade of the barn. We hose them down a couple of times each day to cool them off and allow them to wallow.

Dad’s horses just stay in the shade of the barn.

Julie and the kids stay in as much as possible. We have so much work to do right now that we really can’t escape the heat. She keeps a fan going in the kitchen as she and the kids put up applesauce. They need to do something with grapes too. And she keeps the dehydrator going non-stop with herbs from the garden. But the garden is a weedy mess and nobody wants to volunteer to fix that problem. It’s even hot at night right now.

picking apples

So we stay in. We read. We play video games. We read some more. We try to do all of our chores before 7 in the morning and after 7 in the evening, only going out to collect eggs and check water during the day, drinking plenty of water before and after each trip out and wash a ton of laundry.

We are so glad we don’t have chicks in chicken tractors right now. Just over a month until we get our first frost. We lit our wood stove for the first time on Sep. 15th last year. We really just have to get through this week but this has been a hard week. I really prefer winter. Ask me again in January and I will probably have an opinion on the excessive cold.

Brooder Health Matters

There are things we apply to our livestock that we just don’t care to apply to ourselves because we are biologically different. For example, our cows can metabolize grass. We can not. But there are lots of biological similarities. Women won’t menstruate if they don’t have enough fat. Cows are the same. And I would love to share my observations about herd behavior in the airport vs. in the feedlot but I’m afraid it would not be well received.

Instead I’m going to talk about the chick brooder. Learning to brood chicks is BY FAR the most important thing to learn as you raise birds. If your chicks don’t get a good start in life, if they are wet and cold and catch pneumonia early on, they will never amount to much and you won’t have a quality product to sell. We don’t raise chickens for the companionship, we raise chickens because we treasure meat, eggs and manure. Any old bird will give you manure but to get the meat and eggs, the bird has to be healthy. To have a healthy bird, you need health in the brooder.

This post was inspired by an article I read about the recent increase in average human height. The article indicates that a lack of infection allows the body to focus more energy on growth. That seems pretty obvious. And that is the reason mainstream livestock production uses medicated feed in high-stress, high-density housing. So what’s a farmer to do if he wants to use the same animals used by the industry but deviates away from medication of any sort?

To raise a healthy Cornish Cross chick to the finish line in 6-8 weeks requires a healthy brooder environment. In February we took delivery of 303 birds, 3 were dead in the shipping boxes. 300 birds went into our brooder, 296 came out 3 and a half weeks later. In years past we have done better and we have done worse. The worse is always our fault…either because we neglected security and a cat got into the brooder or because we were not attentive enough during a cold snap and a group of chicks somehow got wet and died of hypothermia or piled on each other. A dead CX chick costs me around $1.20 and a couple of days of feeling bad and kicking myself. I can’t spare the cash or the emotions so we work pretty hard to keep them alive.

This year we brooded our chicks in the pig nursery in 300 gallon tanks. In a water tank there are no sharp corners for chicks to pile up in. Nobody gets crushed. There are no drafts. The pig nursery is a big, insulated box so cold weather and rain were not an issue and if the power had gone out we could have placed a kerosene heater or two in there and kept the space warm enough. The real trick was keeping enough fresh bedding under the birds to keep them clean, dry and healthy.

brooder health 1

I can’t overstate the importance of fresh bedding in the brooder. CX chicks poop a lot. Like, a lot lot. We used enough sawdust to completely fill each 300 gallon tank over the course of three weeks…obviously we scooped out a large portion of the bedding along the way.

To get started we put 5 or 6 buckets of sawdust and one 5-gal bucket of horse manure in each brooder space. The horse manure gives something for the chicks to scratch and pick at while inoculating the rest of the bedding pack. We are shooting for at least three things. We need clean, dry chicks, we need to feed and entertain the chicks (lots of tiny bugs live in the litter) and we need supplemental heat from the warm, composting bedding. To get this done we would add a bucket or two of fresh sawdust every day. Toward the end we were adding bedding twice each day. Every day the chicks would put down and scratch in a new layer of manure. Rinse and repeat.

By doing this we were keeping the chicks warm with heat lamps in an insulated building in brooders that were completely draft free. Beyond that, the chicks were warmed by the growing, living mass of compost beneath them. All we had to do was make feed available, keep the water clean and add in fresh bedding. Then, as a final benefit, we got three large loads of broiler litter to spread on our garden.

Obviously, animal health is a primary concern ranging far beyond chickens. Calf stress at weaning causes all kinds of performance problems. There are techniques we employ to minimize stress…everything from castrating pigs before they are 5 days old to weaning pigs by removing their mothers, not by removing the pigs. Lead, don’t chase or beat your cattle. Don’t yell in the corral. Keep your mouth shut, learn to read and leverage animal behavior.

So, OK. That stuff is not hard to understand. Is there a human application? Heck yes! Ever seen a politician work a herd of humans?

This is where I get myself into trouble. I’ll side step slightly by saying there are things we should monitor about our own environment and behavior to limit stress and disease. We don’t do this because we are concerned with maximizing human growth potential but, instead, simply because we are concerned with our own health. I want to raise animals without antibiotics and I don’t want to use them either. Not that I am some sort of science-doubting luddite (far from it), but because I would rather prevent a disease than cure it.

Is your brooder (home) a cold, sloppy mess or a warm, healthy environment that encourages development? Do you put yourself (or your children) in situations where you receive verbal or physical abuse (unhealthy workplace or bad public school)? Do you get regular sleep? Do you eat a variety of healthy food or do you eat wheat and sugar at every meal? Do you skip a breakfast now and then to throw your body a curve ball?

Look, I’m a computer guy who pretends to be a farmer. I am not pretending to be a health professional, a nutritional therapist or even a lifestyle coach. But are you aware of the average level of health in your community? Are you above or below the average? Does your shopping cart look like the average shopping cart?

If you need a little help making changes in your home brooder I encourage you to follow my wife’s blog. She regularly (well, maybe not regularly) writes about her continuing efforts to limit household clutter, encourage emotional development and enhance our health. If you have a problem with your chick brooder, feel free to ask.

As the Sun Sets on the Farm

We rode our bikes to the barn to finish up chores just as the sun was setting. It was a small list of things to do, all light work. The dairy cows need a little more pasture to get them through the night, we need to check on the calves, make sure the pigs have water and tuck in the chickens. We have already given the beef cows fresh pasture as we do every 12 hours or so. They mowed, trampled and manured through a tall jungle of giant ragweed today. They also pruned a black locust sapling for me. Looks great.

Shorthorns

The evening air is filled with the noises of cicadas, crickets and the call of a Bobwhite quail along with the soft hum of the bicycle tires on the road. The few remaining barn swallows finish hunting for the day. The breeze is blowing from the southwest and carries the sweet smell of the neighbor’s cornfield. You can still smell a bit of summer in the hay loft in February but that corn smell is fleeting. The neighbors feed corn silage in the winter but that has an entirely different, but pleasant, smell. They will start cutting silage soon and then the corn harvest will begin in earnest. Those tall walls of corn will be gone and we will be able to see our neighbor’s houses again. Fall is coming…and fast.

Sunset2

But tonight we just have a few chores to do. The kids are gone for the evening and Julie and I wanted to be outside together. We park our bikes by the barn and open up a little more grazing for the dairy cows then check on the calves. Not much to worry about with those two, just make sure they have water, a little hay and a clean, dry bed.

BarnBikes2

The SLW pullets are not quite ready for bed yet, though a few are starting to roost. We are still working to train them to roost indoors. They are still working to train us to leave them alone. Who will win?

SLWPullets2

Julie leads the way to the main layer flock. We need to move the birds to fresh pasture tomorrow morning so I take a roll of fence with me. The birds are still busy hunting for bugs and getting a last drink of water before going to bed.

Layers

They need a little more time. I busy myself building fence for tomorrow’s chicken pasture. It should be enough room to last them until Sunday, complete with fresh cow pies to scratch through. In no time at all I have two of the three fence panels in place and decide to call it a day. I am surprised at how many saplings have come up in the pasture this year. A stray bird or two just refuse to roost in the chicken house each night. I find and catch those birds (one in a nest box, one under house, roosted on the running gear) and close up the house for the night. It won’t be long and the birds will be in the greenhouse.

Julie left before I started on the fence as we were expecting the children to come home any minute. She also wanted to get the dishes done so we could just relax together after we put the kids to bed. She and I both have a number of books going at once and are anxious to make some headway. I have to keep my mouth shut and my eyes scrunched to keep the bugs out on the bicycle ride home in near-total darkness.

It was a beautiful summer evening. Cool weather, light work to do. Really, just a chance to stand in awe of the world around us. I get to live here. For a short while this farm is mine. There are times when it seems like too much work, too much stress, too much all happening at once but today I am thankful.

This is pretty cool.

Only the Best For You

It may not be apparent on the blog. It may not really be obvious on the farm. Julie and I have scaled things back a bit this year. In the short term it hurts our bottom line (but not by much) but in the long-run I think it will pay dividends. It doesn’t matter if I butcher 500 broilers or 5,000 (the state-imposed limit). It matters that the food you buy from me is the best you have ever eaten. So good, in fact, that you take pictures of it cooking, post a picture of it on your plate on Instagram and, most importantly, tell all of your friends about the delicious chicken you bought from me. Then you will come back for more and word of mouth will grow our business. You are our marketing plan.

DinnerIsServed

…or in this case rabbit.

However, because we scaled back your friends may just have to wait until next year to buy a delicious bird from us. I have to make sure it is worth waiting for. If I just cranked out large numbers of mediocre birds…well…mediocre birds don’t start conversations. They are just something to eat. Average birds cost less than a dollar a pound so I can’t compete with that market. And I can’t market to the average consumer. I have to raise the very best and cater to those who appreciate it.

After a number of years of raising broilers we have tried it all. One year we butchered 75-150 birds every other Saturday. Think about that. All summer long. And we sold them all! But Julie was tired. She started losing her fingernails from scraping lungs out and her back hurt from standing at an odd position to do the work. Don’t forget that I have a job in town. Julie had to go to the chicken tractors at least twice daily to fill water and feeders but Julie just isn’t strong enough to move the chicken tractors. And we found that the CX birds have a hard time with our summer heat. When it’s triple-digits in the shade they just didn’t do well in our Salatin-style chicken tractors. Switching to hoop-style tractors helped bird health but we also have to be concerned with farmer health. We just didn’t want to go water chickens when the heat index was 112. Just as important we found that customers stopped cooking dinner in the hot weather. Our sales pattern (and this may only apply to us) was to sell birds between Memorial Day and July 4, then again from October 1 until we ran out around Christmas or New Years. Our current schedule produces birds only for those windows. Now our freezers are not filled (or failing) when the weather is hot and customers don’t want to cook anyway.

Broilers

But it doesn’t stop there. If customers don’t want chicken in August, they certainly don’t want pork. Now we try to time our batches of pigs to be out the door by July 1 and little pigs arrive shortly after. Little pigs can manage in the heat well and will be ready to roast and serve with fresh apple cider in October or early November. And you should know that we don’t do large batches of pork. First, I don’t think I could market a dozen hogs all at once but second, and most important, I don’t think I could produce a quality product at my current ability level. So we usually run a batch of four pigs, three times/year. Does that seem like too few? It’s just the right number for our interest, ability, equipment and market. And, fortunately, that’s a lesson we didn’t have to learn the hard way, short of a half of a hog my folks bought for the processing cost after the customer evaporated.

But it’s not just a matter of working to meet customer time preference, it’s also about minimizing our distractions so we can serve you better. Let’s face the facts. If I didn’t have a job, we wouldn’t have a farm. That’s the awful truth. So we have to build the farm around Julie and the kids. What can they manage well? Right now we are focusing on dairy, eggs and pork, keeping each operation small. There are beef cattle on pasture but I manage them almost entirely. The rabbits are gone. The goats are gone. I miss the turkeys. We are focusing on just those three things: the best possible milk for our own table AND fat, healthy calves. The very best egg in the world from fat, healthy birds. Pork the likes of which you have never tasted from animals that are respected and live with purpose. Outside of those three we are educating our children, reclaiming our farm from overgrowth, heating our home with wood, putting up winter stores of food and hay, gardening and playing tag. And we can’t overlook the need for Julie and I to maintain our marriage. That’s more than just saying, “Hi” and kissing goodnight. There has to be time for us to rediscover each other as people. My marriage may seem unrelated to my chicken eggs but you have to know that there wouldn’t be any eggs to sell if my marriage failed.

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I miss having them but there are no turkeys or goats or rabbits this year. We just don’t have the time. As we learn to do a few things well we will become more efficient…streamlined and that will open up additional opportunities on our farm. How many pigs did Salatin raise last year? A lot. How many pigs did Salatin raise in 1995? Eight. (Read under the heading “Hogs for Free”). You want to grow up to be just like Joel Salatin? Start small. And he didn’t just have pigs for the sake of having pigs. He had a job for them to do then he built a market for his products over time. We are taking our time. Our skill is growing. Our market is growing. We are careful not to allow ambition to overrun marketing and husbandry. We want to provide the best for you, ensure the best for our family and do so by limiting growth while we continue to learn.

Does this apply even if you live in town? I hope it does. What are you doing with your time? Are you really working toward your goals or are you just trying to keep up? Or, worse, are you just keeping busy? We have scaled back to move forward. Together.