The Cold December Rain

My apologies to GnR for the title.

Contrary to what you may have heard we have had rain in December in years past. During a previous el Niño some years ago my bee mentor took me to check and feed his hives on a warm January 1st. I got so stung up my fingers were swollen like bratwursts. I hardly react to bee stings anymore.

Sometimes it rains in December in Illinois. Sometimes it snows…though not very often. A White Christmas is a big deal.

I have precious little control over the weather as evidenced by the 6″ of rain we got last night, 4″ of which are in my basement as I type. But I do have control over where my livestock are when the cold rain hits.

How do you feel about cold rain? Would you like to have a picnic outside in the grass when it is 36 degrees and pouring rain out? Do you think the cows want to picnic outside under those conditions? Do you think the pasture wants cows on it during those conditions?

What about the pigs? Pigs love mud…don’t they? What about cold mud? What about cold mud they can’t escape?

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I have learned to make a few adjustments to our routines to help our livestock and our pastures do better. This was hard-won information. It cost me a couple of vet bills.

In short, plan for rain in December. Heck, plan for rain in February. And ice in April. Last year it rained an inch every day in June killing all of our alfalfa and most of the clover. The year before it didn’t rain in June at all. Weather happens. We just have to plan for and deal with it.

Let me pull back a little bit. I frequently reference Mr. Salatin in my blogs. I do this first because it is relevant and interesting. I also do this because my readers, generally, know who Mr. Salatin is and have read at least some of his work. Yesterday I was burying a pet in the pasture, standing in the rain on Christmas day. As I was digging where we bury our pets I worried I might find another animal long buried and thought, “Alas, poor Yorick I knew him, Horatio…” Shakespeare is commonly read by our culture…his work is part of the foundation of western society. Similarly, Mr. Salatin’s work is foundational to the current generation of alternative agriculture. This allows me to reference his example as I explain our own position.

We pasture our animals as Mr. Salatin does. We built chicken tractors and a dolly like he uses. We buy fence he uses. We market like he markets.

We work to avoid confining livestock following his lead.

Saying that requires clarification. Mr. Salatin confines his hogs, cattle and chickens. But that confinement is conditional and worthy of reflection. The cattle are, in appropriate weather, confined to fresh sections of grass daily. In winter things change. When his herds were smaller and he first started writing he would use barns and deep bedding for his herds. Things may be a little different now that he has more cattle but for the pattern is valid for our needs.

Please notice I said “pattern” there. It’s a pattern. He didn’t publish plans we could follow. He lives in Virginia. I live in Illinois. He is a genius. I am rather ordinary. But by looking at his pattern and attempting to apply it here at home I benefit.

My cattle were in the barn on deep bedding during the heavy rains, not on our pastures. It wouldn’t do for them to freeze in the cold and rain while covered in mud and manure. They are, instead, warm and dry and eating hay.

I have stockpiled pasture to last us for months but it goes beyond those few coming months. It goes into next summer. If I graze heavily over frozen ground in January and February, piling manure densely on pasture, the pasture will look GREAT in May. If I graze heavily over muddy ground in December my pasture will wash into the creek and the sod will need most of June (if not years) to recover…mostly as a weedy mess. So the cows are in the barn for now.

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This thinking is even more applicable to hogs. Pigs love wet wallows in hot weather. Wet isn’t a problem. Cold really isn’t a problem. But wet and cold kills. Further, pasture won’t recover quickly when abused in December. Mr. Salatin moves his pigs off of pasture and into hoop houses for the winter. I don’t have that kind of space or setup in my hoop house. I have a hog floor.

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But there is a difference. I am currently missing part of the pattern. Salatin’s pigs are dry and out of the mud but they do get to dig. There is a limit to how much digging they can do because there is, ultimately, concrete under the bedding pack. But they can dig. That is missing in my solution.

Right now my pigs have a foot or so of bedding in their covered sleeping area. Otherwise, they have a concrete pad that is open to the sky and sloped slightly downhill. Will this turn into a sheet of ice in the winter? I dunno. I have never kept so few hogs here in the winter.

But right now, in the cold of the late December rain, our pigs are warm, dry and happy with room to run. All this without being concerned about the health of my pastures.

I can do better. I know I can do better. I can fill the runs with sawdust if nothing else. Or used horse bedding. But I have them out of the mud. And that is better for pasture, pig and for pig farmer…even if only a first step.

But I will never have Polyface farm. I will never be Joel Salatin. I can quote him. I can use him as an example and I can adapt his patterns to my needs but I can’t copy him exactly. Nor should I.

Feel free to analyze, criticize and improve on what I do. That is, I think, why any of us write and share. Not to brag, to find better solutions. I can’t solve rainstorms in December but we can put our heads together to establish better patterns…patterns that better meet the needs of our land, labor and livestock.

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With a Little Help

I stopped writing about a month ago for several reasons. The main reason is simple: We are busy. But there is more than just that. Some of it was just the way I felt. The way I feel.

I have written a series of weepy-feely posts and worry that I have been a little too open. Some of that was us dealing with anxiety and a feeling of loss.

I don’t know. But mostly it’s an issue of time.

Yesterday I spent nearly 5 hours shoveling manure. It was a lot of manure. A lot. Why did I spend 5 hours shoveling manure? For the same reason I haven’t blogged in over a month. I haven’t had time to do it.

Two years ago I began remodeling the bathroom for Julie. Merry Christmas 2013! A bathtub. A real bathtub. The kind you can take a bath in. A bath! When grandma built the addition and they installed a bathroom in the house, grandma just put in a shower basin. The kind you can’t take a bath in. Julie wanted to take a bath. So she got a bath tub. But that was 2013. It is now 2015. The bathtub is great, yes, but the rest of the bathroom…well, less so. Needs to be updated. To be brought out of 1967 and into the world of today. Goodbye wood paneling, hello drywall. Goodbye weird ’60’s copper hanging lamp thing, hello recessed LED lights.

But there is no time.

So the bathroom project sat. And waited. And life happened all around us.

I couldn’t get it done. So I asked for help.

We found a guy to finish the remodeling job. And thank God! I come home from work every day and the bathroom is a little closer to being finished.

I wasn’t shoveling manure yesterday all alone. My kids were there. My dad was there. The work was hard and took a lot of time but, with a little help, we got through it all.

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And that’s where we are with our little Friendy. We get a lot of help. Help comes out of the woodwork. It’s amazing. From people we know and love to people we have just met. Sometimes is it hard to say “Yes”. Humbling.

And in that same sense of humility we seek out chances to lend a helping hand wherever we are. Right now I have little to offer but maybe I can make a difference to another parent in the hospital just by listening. Or by saying “Hello”.

I don’t know.

But I know this. Moses couldn’t hold his arms up without help. The widow needed friendly neighbors from whom she could borrow jars. Simon carried the cross for Jesus.

We participate in the mundane part of any miracle. The mundane part for us is chemotherapy…something of a miracle in and of itself. But it’s just us borrowing jars to fill with oil. Once we have the jars, God brings the awesome.

The short list of things I am thankful for – things I consider miraculous – certainly include that we caught the tumor before it spread, that my little girl is doing so well and that we have some of the best doctors in the world available to us within an hour of home. But there is more.

I am thankful that so many people have loaned us their jars, held our arms up and helped us carry our burden.