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Weathering the drought

August 1, 2018

July 2018

I used to be one of those farmers that blamed the weather for our lack of grass in the summer.  Where I live in Northwest Oregon our summers are always dry.  As in no expected rain from July through September and sometimes into October.  Similar to a Mediterranean climate with moist, mild winters and dry summers due to our proximity to the Pacific Ocean.  When we continuous grazed, or even thought we were practicing “rotational” grazing by shutting the cows out of one pasture, and letting them have at a different one, we could expect little to no grass left by the time haying season rolled around in July.  Every local farmer, including us was waiting with bated breath for those fields reserved for hay to get cut and baled so we could let the cows in to “graze” due to lack of grass in the pastures.  Ugh, mistake after mistake, and like interest, each grazing miscalculation compounds daily. But we didn’t know any better. It was just the way it was.  You don’t know what you don’t know. When all your neighbors are out of grass too, you just blame the weather, and never think to look in the mirror.

One day I saw a little ad in the back of the Oregon Farmer-Stockman magazine, the localish farm magazine that had been delivered to our mailbox as long as I could remember.  That ad was for The Stockman Grass Farmer promising a new look at grass.  I bit, even though I am not one much for responding to ads in the back of magazines.  Well, I have to say that was a life changing event subscribing to that little publication.  It opened up a whole new world of ideas, with terms and names I had never heard of before: keyline, MiG, Voisin, stockpiling, stocking rate, Albrecht, portable fence, Savory, campsite, and energizers, and the list goes on.
Gah!  I though my head would explode! It was mind-boggling to say the least, to me of permanent fence upbringing.  There was a whole world out there of grass management just waiting for eager stewards to tap into it.  Right at my feet.  Right on the very same soil, and with the very same grass and ruminants I had been looking at all along.

That was decades ago, and now I feel comfortable with our grazing management to somewhat weather the weather.  I can “see” the soil underneath the grass by looking at the plants above, and I know what to expect even during year like this one.  This year what is killing everyone pasture-wise isn’t so much the dry summer that is normal for our area, but it was the unusually dry spring.  Rain is par for the course during spring in Western Oregon.  Not this year, unfortunately.

We have not had any measurable rain since June 25th  so I thought I should share some tips that have helped us towards drought proofing our farm through managed grazing.  We are not out of grass (yet) because of grazing management decisions we have made. Initially it was hard for me to grasp the severity of the effects of grazing decisions made a year or even months before.  But baby steps add up, and you can make changes even now that will help in the future, even if the rain predictions don’t come true.

July grass – Western Oregon

First off, don’t beat yourself up about the condition of your pastures.  Many of my readers are new to farming and farming with livestock.  Maybe you bought a worn out piece of land, or maybe you just are faced with too much grass and not enough animals (understocking) or too many animals (overstocking).  We have crappy pastures too on our farm, they all have improved under managed grazing, but the poor parts are improving at a slower rate.  You can only build soil so fast.

grazing stockpile July 2018 Paddock shift

I never really thought about how soil was built up, or how pastures could be improved.  If you ask the extension agent or the local farmers, it’s always, plow, seed, fertilize.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Sure that works for a time, and you can’t blame them, that is what they have been taught, and most importantly what they believe needs to be done.  And it does work, especially if you want a monocrop like alfalfa, orchard grass or some type of grain crop.  But it is expensive and out of the reach of most homestead/farmsteads because of the expense of the specialized equipment.  Even if you hire someone to custom plow, and prepare your newly minted pasture it’s expensive and it’s hard to get someone to work up small pieces.   Truly, we get out of custom hay jobs by saying they are too small.  Because they are.  Add in who knows what’s lurking out there in the blackberry thicket and underbrush just waiting to devour the custom guy’s equipment, or tires.  Breakdowns are expensive and nice clean fields are sought after by everyone.  Sometimes you find the junk the hard way. So unless you’re real flush, have a lot of equipment or friends that do, put the idea that a new seeding is the end all of your pasture woes, new seeding also means at least a year out of production too except the chore of babying that new stand of grass. Besides, if you up the fertility of your pastures you will find that the seed bank lurking there is just waiting for the right conditions. Scroll back to the first photo, that field has not been plowed up or seeded since the 1930’s, as you can see there is no shortage of forbs and grasses in each bite the cows graze.  Just mismanagement with continuous grazing, and then management with intensive grazing.

When I started rotational grazing I thought all you had to do was contain the cows in a small area and let them eat the grass down and cover the entire paddock with manure.  But a funny thing happened on the way to my many epiphanies.  Manure wasn’t the answer.  Sure it helps, and we did good by not letting the cows shade up all the time in the woods, or anytime they could find shade.  We needed manure in the pastures, not in the woods or under all the trees in the fence rows.  That is called translocation.  But lo and behold, where we let the cows eat the grass short in one day it didn’t come back very well at all, even with a good covering of manure on the entire paddock.  And that area was affected the next year too from that bad treatment.  We didn’t know it was bad treatment at the time. What we learned from the trees and translocating the fertility from the cows back ends, was that carbon is the soil builder, and the manure and urine from livestock is just a small part of the recipe for soil building.

Carbon?  Yes, trees supply leaves or needles and woody material, and we all know what the ground under trees looks like.  If not disturbed the layer of duff is amazing and all built with carbon from the trees and the microbes and other critters that inhabit the soil.

So what does that have to do with your worn out pasture?  Plenty.

trampled forage 24 hour grazing period

You are growing your carbon/fertilizer right there, unless you are letting your stock graze it down to the carpet stage.  You have the choice of sizing your paddocks small enough to trample the pasture in one day, or if you’re not comfortable with that look, clipping or mowing and leaving the clippings lay.  I know what you’re thinking looking at this photo, I am wasting grass, but that’s not true, I am fertilizing my grass.  Carbon is grass food. Period. Not 16-16-16. Grass or weeds or anything you have growing there will be good fertilizer for future forage.  It’s a total paradigm shift I know to get out of the grass wasting, lawn culture mentality.  But you too will survive the paradigm shift if you get over the idea that uneaten grass is wasted, and that you can cure your pasture woes by planting seed in a worn out pasture like you plant broccoli and tomatoes in the garden.  Sure that seed will sprout and grow, but by about year three if you don’t change your management of said pasture those plants will disappear and you’ll be right back where you were with the Sweet Vernal Grass, Queen Anne’s Lace and Oxeye Daisy poverty plants in your pasture.  They may look quaint to some, but I cringe when I see them. I know that I am letting my pasture slip backwards in succession to less desirable grazing plants.

8/1/2018 regrowth on paddock grazed July 18, 2018

 

Your own hay – the double edged sword

So where to start?

1)    Quit making hay unless you have a solid compost or fertilizing system in place.  If you make hay you are basically mining your soil of nutrients.  Besides that, hay is cut the same time every year, and pretty soon unless you swap hay fields you are stopping succession at the group of plants that tolerate the annual cutting in July or whenever you do your hay.  It’s actually better to buy hay, and bring in fertility from some other farm than to mine your soil, unless you have a solid composting/carbon fertilizing system in place.  I know you’re wondering why we make hay then?  We make hay on paddocks that have gotten ahead of the cows, basically we are skipping a rotation and making hay instead.  If we do that, we fertilize those paddocks that we made hay on with our composted deep bedding to make up for taking away the hay.  Barring making hay, if you absolutely don’t need it, clip instead and leave it lay. Call it mulching your pasture if that makes you feel better, but it is free fertilizer except for the labor and fuel to do the mowing.

2)  Get some grazing animals.

3)  Move them.  Frequently.  Invest a little time and a small amount of money in some temporary electric fencing so you can confine your graziers to small paddocks.  Management-intensive grazing (MiG) is your friend and it’s called intensive for a reason.  You don’t have to move them four times a day (unless you want to) but you should move them once a day at least.  Besides the benefits to the sward, you are moving away from the parasites.  Short grass and slow rotations (3 days) invite parasite problems.

4)  Get creative and think outside the box.  Your grazing animals are tools, use them to enhance your “landscape.”  It’s a chicken and egg thing really.  Do you grow better forage so your animals are healthy, or do you try to keep your animals healthy by spending money on supplements to make up for shortfalls in fertility.  Place mineral boxes and watering areas in weak pasture areas so you are getting the benefit of animal impact and disturbance in those spots.  Of course this doesn’t apply if you’re not moving your animals.

5) Rest your pastures.  Allowing most grazers more than one day on any kind of pasture is the quickest way to no grass when you need resilience the most.  What happens to your pasture when you violate the rule of the Second Bite is that each bite on the plant after the initial first day weakens the plant by essentially taking away the plant’s ability to photosynthesize by removing the leaves.  If that happens enough you can change the dynamics of a pasture to only plants that will tolerate close grazing, which in turn means you lose diversity in your forages, and that starts the downward spiral where you start needing more and more minerals of different kinds to support your stock.  You can also set your pasture plants back by grazing too soon in the spring, or by returning in the rotation before the plants have fully recovered.  There is no set recipe that applies to all farms.  My favorite analogy from the book Holistic Management uses the burros of Grand Canyon as the cast of characters, it’s in the numbers, and they are not interchangeable in this scenario.  Do you think 1 burro going down the trail 365 days to the canyon bottom is the same as 365 burros going down the trail on 1 day?  When you read that, you are inclined to think the first scenario is better, 1 burro can do no harm, right?  We’ve all been taught herds are bad, less will do more.  Well actually that 1 burro in that brittle environment is wearing out the trail and not allowing any plants to recover due to the long rest period required.  However, the 365 burros going down that trail once will of course dislodge some terrain, but that is disturbance that may turn up new seeds, that many burros will most likely distribute a good amount of manure and urine and then they will be gone, leaving the land different but better than they found it.  Rest, rest, rest, the most important part of rotational grazing.

6)  Lastly, I know this is too late to be posting about this now, since July and August is when pastures tend to go south in this area anyway.  But if that is the case, all is not lost.  It’s better to feed hay now to shepherd the grass, than it is to just give up and let the animals still have a whack at the what little remains.  Ideally still moving and feeding, utilizing one day paddocks is the best, second best is landscaping and feeding.  By landscaping I mean put the stock in a brushy area you want cleaned and feed them there to distribute seed via the hay.  Third best would be just to pick a sacrifice area and feed there until grass regrows and is rested.  What you are doing right now affects the pasture for next year.

I was about to hit publish and saw a gigantic dust devil whirl by the window…six more weeks of dry weather.  I’m not holding my breath that the PNW will get much rain despite the forecast.

 

 

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Walking the Talk part III

May 1, 2018

Miss Jane Butterfield

Sorry to leave you hanging, we finally had a spell of dry days, and computer work just went by the wayside.  When you get July weather in April you burn the candle at both ends.  It seemed just like that we didn’t have to build a fire and dinner didn’t happen until dark.  For a fleeting moment it felt just like summer.

I’m sure long time readers remember me writing that I hadn’t ever eaten one of my milk cows, and that is entirely true.  Partly because I am a big wuss, and partly because most times when milk cows die they are sick.  Often you, or a vet has administered drugs that have long withholding times (possibly off label), or something is not right and you feel a little creeped out about eating the meat.  And sometimes, you find them dead.  It’s a whole different ballgame with beef cows, or at least on our farm.  They live a long time, and then one year they just don’t rebreed, or if they do breed they don’t raise a good-sized calf, and you have a cull cow.  She’s a cull only because she can’t have a calf, or raise a decent sized one, which doesn’t affect the meat at all, but the economics have to come into play, you still have to feed that animal.  Earning your keep is real.

Jane’s situation was more similar to the old beef cow ending. With her reproductive injury she couldn’t have another calf, or rather, shouldn’t.  At eight years of age, she was washed up as a family cow.  In the beef world they say a cow pays for her upbringing after five calves, Jane had six, with one of her twins dying.  So five live calves, we were even on the books as far as I was concerned.  This is where it gets tricky, I have never felt any of my milk cows owed me anything at the end.  Sorry beef girls, but the dairy girls raise a calf, and provide dairy products like milk, cream, butter, ghee and cheese, plus surplus skim milk and whey for pigs, and chickens.  That doesn’t count milk for the barn cats, dogs, and all the manure for the gardens. A family cow is a wondrous thing and the most economical animal on the farm.

I dreaded the decision I had to make.  I’ll be honest, at first I wouldn’t even entertain the thought of putting Jane in the freezer.  My inner wailing voice vowed to be gone the day of the event, and make my husband do the deed.  Quickly dispatch her in the woods and leave her there for the wild animals to cleanup.  One problem with that scenario. My husband DID NOT want to shoot another milk cow for me.  It’s one thing when one is suffering, but Jane wasn’t really suffering.  On to plan B, which was undecided in my mind.

About this time the Eagle Creek Fire took off (eventually burning 48,000 acres nearby), we had to evacuate and make hard decisions.  We could only take so much, and the thought of even trying to evacuate our cattle was mind-boggling.  We turned off the electric fence, turned the cattle loose and took Jory and our dogs and all the usual minutiae.  When faced with something as threatening as a forest fire you quickly realize how silly you are in the scheme of things.  My decision-making process about Jane had become much clearer.

I wasn’t sure about what to do, but I was definitely sure what I didn’t want to do.  I didn’t want to take her to the auction, and I didn’t want to haul her in and leave her at the plant we use for our beef.  I know you’re wondering why not, what’s the diff?  Well, it’s hard to explain to the casual ruminant observer.  For me anyway, my milk cows end up being like a pet, more like a dog if you will.  My beef cows retain their wildness, sure, I could probably hogtie one, or put one in the chute and milk them.  But that is not a relationship, and a relationship is what you have with a family cow.  Good, gentle family cows are solid gold.  Somewhere in all that mulling I decided we would milk her until Jory was of weaning age, eight or nine months, and then have mobile slaughter come and we would put her in the freezer. I slowly came around to the folly of wasting a perfectly healthy animal because of a silly notion that I couldn’t eat her.

I have to say in hindsight, because I didn’t see this coming at all, when I dried Jane up and only fed her twice a day and tended to her basic needs, I was able to create some distance between us. Distance is what I needed.  It started to feel like she was one of my other cows, feed, water, minerals, lather, rinse, repeat.

I had several acquaintances suggest that I keep her, just to avoid the inevitable.  I know they meant well, and coming from a horse culture I see why they would think I would keep a pet cow around since they kept horses until death’s door, all the while complaining about the expense.  But that type of mindset doesn’t sit well with me.  What no one sees from the outside is what a pain in the a$$ keeping an open cow is, they are dangerous. Spaying her was not an option I wanted to pursue either.  Every three weeks Jane would come in heat, and man, you better lookout or she would be riding you.  She varied a day or two on her cycle but if I went out in the morning and her full 100 gallon water trough (800 plus pounds!) was tipped over and shoved through the electric fence, I knew I had 24-36 hours of ridiculousness ahead.  We had left the hay loader in the field and just hadn’t gotten around to moving it, and that became the object of Jane’s desire enough so that she pushed it over humping it, and injured her udder.  Ugh.  I would love whoever writes the vegan propaganda about dairy cows being impregnated (AI) against their will in rape racks (squeeze chute) come a work here for a day when Jane was in heat.  But I digress, we promptly removed the hay loader and prayed for the udder injury to just be a bruise and not something that would possibly make her ill.  She healed but had a swollen quarter that would have been bad had we been able to continue milking her.

I had planned to not overwinter Jane, but as it turned out, the mobile slaughter guy was so booked he couldn’t get here until recently.  At the end Jane was fat and sassy, open and dry, a true retirement for a cow.  She spent the last four months with Jory on pasture, and she died instantly eating a special treat.  I felt her spirit leave her, in the end I felt silly.  How could I have not wanted to be there?  My regrets?  I cut her switch for a keepsake before she died and she looked silly I thought, maybe a little less dignified.  And I should have not bred her for that one last time, seeing her rib cage misshaped when she was but a carcass, I felt selfish putting my needs for a replacement calf from her before her well-being.  Things play out, how they play out.  I could have done all this a year earlier but I just wasn’t up to the task I guess.

 

“Cuds True”

I heart Jane

I learned a long time ago, with one of my dogs and one of my milk cows to not project my memories of the former on the replacement.  Everyone is different, including dogs and cows.  Jane was not Della, and Jory will not be Jane.  But I am a lucky milkmaid to have had Jane for those 8 short years.  No expectations Jory! Well, maybe just a few.

Walking the Talk part II. What WAS Wrong with Jane?

April 19, 2018

Dickie and Jane

I had high hopes for a long life for Jane when she was born. But sadly, that wasn’t to be.  A family cow is a special part of a farmstead.  I really, I mean really, like cows.  But a milk cow, you spend so much time with them you get real attached.  You might say I love my milk cows, but I like my beef cows.  The beef cows are tame like a milk cow, but they are so much easier to husband, and are on autopilot most of the time, you just don’t have the opportunity to bond in the same way.

The cute calf, Dickie, giving the side eye in the photo above was the beginning of the end for Jane.  At age three, Jane was due with her second calf, she had calved easily as a heifer, textbook actually, so I really had no worries other than the million worries I always have when my milk cow is about to calve.  You would think it would be old hat, but dairy cows tend to make their owners quite anxious at birthing time.  I am no exception, and I have to admit, I have never been able to quash those fears despite all the calvings I have seen, and assisted with.  So much can go right, and so much can go terribly wrong.

On a typical rainy June afternoon, Jane was showing signs of labor, so I promptly put her in to keep her dry, and to make it easy to check on her.  Otherwise she would have headed for the back forty for some seclusion.  She labored on, progressing in a normal way.  Front feet presented properly, and soon the nose, by then we were all relieved, and resorted to taking photos.  Jane was a bottle baby, so she was not bothered by our presence and documentation in the least, we were her herd.  She stalled for a bit, and then laid down, and labored some more and then finally pushed Dickie out.  I noticed she had a funny look on her face, but if you’ve had a baby, you know what I mean.  Normally, unless it was a very long labor, the calf slips out, and the cow immediately jumps up and starts licking her calf off to stimulate it to get up.  But Jane didn’t get up.

My first thought was Milk Fever, but her age, and mineral intake didn’t really match with that diagnosis.  Her labor had progressed normally so I didn’t think she was tired, but you just go through all the possibilities in your mind when you see a down cow.  She was just laying there blinking and biding her time.  I decided that the good cop, bad cop MO was in order.  I went to the house to get Hangdog, figuring she would likely respond to a “stranger” in the barn.  If that didn’t work, next thing was to get the dogs, that almost always will get a cow up when their newborn is “threatened.”  I pulled on Jane’s lead, and my husband jumped at her, hollering, from behind and it worked.  She was a little unsteady at first but slowly got herself up.  Her temperature was normal, so I knew it wasn’t Milk Fever which presents with a low temperature, but I couldn’t shake the look on her face.  But I had to milk, get the calf to nurse, and just make sure everyone was safe for the night.  I set the milk bucket down, and to my surprise Jane guzzled two gallons of colostrum. That was the first time I had ever seen a cow do that, I guess she thought she needed a boost.

Things progressed normally as the weeks went on, but I noticed that Jane seemed lopsided if viewed from the front.  She looked as if she was heavy with calf on the right side, and practically flat on the left, the problem with that was she wasn’t pregnant.  A full right side is normal at the end of gestation, just because the rumen on the left takes up so much space there is no place for a big calf to be but on the right side.  She seemed fine, but I mentioned it to the vet, and he kind of waved me off, “Oh, she’s got a mature figure, they always look like that.”  Okay, but it just kept bugging me.

Jane and Reese

The next pregnancy (her third) seemed okay, labor started normally but progressed to a hind feet first presentation.  Not ideal, but okay if the cow is able to push out the calf before the umbilical breaks you’re okay, otherwise the calf takes a breath and breathes in amniotic fluid.  I went to get the OB chains, and by the time I got back she had delivered another whopping big bull calf.  And she was still lopsided.  It bugged me, but I had no idea how all this was interconnected.

The fourth pregnancy went along well, and about a week before her due date Jane headed to the back forty one morning.  (Not really, just the most secluded corner of the 10 acre field she was in.) By afternoon I noticed she hadn’t come down for water, so I went looking.  My mind awash with those fears, and feeling of stupidity for not getting the signal when she headed off to the corner.  She had another week to go, she had always calved on her due date. There she was in the corner next to an old fir stump with huckleberry bushes growing on top.  Her favorite place to rub, that stump under the shade of an alder.  But, she had bit of bloody mucus, so I knew then I should have been paying more attention, she was in labor and it was stalled.  I called the vet and brought her down to the barn, a slow and painful walk for her I imagine.  When the vet arrived, he immediately set to work, and sure enough there was the calf presented correctly, but just right there in the birth canal…hmmm.  The calf was a stillborn bull.  The vet’s normal course of action after pulling a calf is to check for another calf to maybe help explain why labor didn’t progress normally.  He fished around and found another calf, and at this point we all figured it was dead too, but as the calf came out we all thought we saw a flutter of an eyelash.  You always hold out hope for a live calf.  Hooray, he was alive! We named him Reese.

At this point I brought up the lopsidedness as the vet was here, and could see what I was talking about.  He agreed it wasn’t normal and did an exam and found things awry inside from a partial prepubic tendon rupture.  That explained her not rising after the birth of her second calf, and as the vet explained to me in detail, it also caused problems with her uterus being obliterated by her full rumen (if you can imagine a bale of hay inside a cow, that is how much forage material there is in a cow’s rumen at any given time) at term.  Basically, due to organs being out of place, her uterus couldn’t help get the calf in a birthing position before labor was to begin.  Jane’s future looked bleak.  Any calf she would have in the future most likely would have to be pulled.  The question was, breed her for a fifth time?

After this ordeal, regrouping was in order. Now in hindsight this is where the selfishness started to creep in, I was on a mission.  Regrets came later.  The vet thought maybe one more calf would be okay, he wanted me to be aware of all the possible bad scenarios that could arise from breeding Jane again.  But he thought Jane would weather it okay, but the chance of a live calf was iffy.  So began my quest for a bottle calf to raise.  Holy crap!  The feelers I put out brought in a calf that wasn’t even born yet to the tune of $3K.  I know I like Guernseys but that is just too much to pay for a day old calf in my opinion.  Too many unknowns, and for that price I could get a proven bred cow.  Too. Much. Money.  I found others in my price range but they sold too quickly.  So I kept looking, and finally decided to go the sexed semen route with at least a 90% chance of a heifer.  The problem there was my AI guy adamantly refused to use sexed semen on a cow.  Only heifers.  So I found another one that actually would procure and store the semen for me.  Boom.

I had decided to give Jane a long rest before re-breeding so I could get her back on to spring calving. I had the semen purchased and was ready to go.  I called the AI guy to give him a heads up, and made arrangements to call at the first sign of heat.  He was coming from downriver quite a ways and needed to make plans asap the day he was to come to breed Jane. Just like clockwork, she came in heat, I made the call and began fretting about his long drive.  As it turned out, he had been to my farm many years before with a mutual friend who neither of us had seen in a decade or more.  He was about to give up on the drive here and then he saw familiar landmarks, and all was good.  She was at the perfect stage, and he was a master.  Three weeks later, there was no signs of heat from Jane…thank you Jason!  So much for sexed semen only working on heifers.  I should note here while we are in the old wives tale territory, Guernseys have a reputation for being hard to settle, and that has never been a problem here either with AI or live cover, with any of my Guernseys.

So with Jane pregnant with possibly a heifer, I was even more worried when I found out Jane’s due date was smack dab in the middle of my vet’s two week vacation.  And her being so heavy on one side was telling on her physically. She had trouble going down hills without slipping, and her right hip was starting to jut out more.  Then her ankle on the right side started to give out on her.  If you can imagine carrying two of your kids on one hip, that was about what Jane had to deal with.  Guilt was starting to creep in.  What have I done to this gentle giant in my quest to get a daughter out of her?

Next: part III – Jane’s final lactation and winter off, and how I came to terms with the ending.

 

Walking the Talk, Part I

April 18, 2018

Smith Memorial Presbyterian Church, Larch Mountain, Oregon

Gosh, where to start?  I haven’t blogged for so long, I’ve about forgot how.  Thanks to all my long time readers that have emailed or left comments asking if I will ever blog again.  I appreciate you thinking about me, more than I can say.  I think about blogging again quite a bit, and I have good intentions about putting all those thoughts in my head down on “paper.” But, it seems time just slips away from me these days. I was sort of hoping Instagram could fill the bill, but I know it doesn’t in any in-depth way, especially since to post on Instagram you’re texting instead of typing.  Good brain exercise to switch back and forth, but I am a much better typist than texter, so that pretty much ensures a short post on IG most days.

You all know this post is about Jane and the fact that she is no longer with us in the sense that most people are comfortable with.  I’ve got some regrets, and have also felt some relief in the last week, so I feel all of you that have “known” her since she was born need a clearer update, with more details than a headstone.

I’m going to back up a little further though, and explain just how far back eating our own beef goes.  By the time I was a kid in the late 50’s and early 60’s the church pictured above was used as barn/storage building on our farm.  At the time this church was built in 1908 the majority of Americans lived on farms or small rural areas.  In those days living on a farm meant you lived an intentional, practical life.  There were no buzz words/phrases like sustainable, regenerative, energy-efficient, holistic, buy local or organic.  People just lived in the most efficient manner they could muster. Doing without was a real thing, not just that you might miss a television show, or a shopping trip with a stop at the coffee drive-in, it more likely meant you were going without a meal.  Most of these small farms and farmsteads raised animals for meat, milk or wool.  When the animal in question had got to the end of its useful life, it would end up on the table.  In my neck of the woods, cattle were the farm meat animal of choice early on in the settlement days, there was a steady need for oxen for logging, & milk cows for dairy products for the logging camps, plus the sheer size of cattle helped keep them safe from predators.

As the youngest child of older parents, I grew up around a good number of older people who still practiced the old frugal ways.  For comparison, my husband who is the same age as me grew up in the suburbs, and had very young parents.  Despite being raised fifteen miles from each other, we were exposed to completely different things as we grew up.  His folks owned a meat market, they ate fresh steak every week, we owned a farm, and ate beef every week, but definitely not steak, now it’s called nose to tail eating, but in my mind, it’s just eating what you grow, and growing what you eat.  Ask my family how frugal I am with bacon, wink, wink.

Some of my fondest memories are from my early childhood when a family friend, “Butch” would come over to help with the fall beef slaughter.  The butchering took place in the church, and my dad would swing open the big door on the east end of the church, ready the block and tackle, and wait for the field killed steer or two to be brought in from the field.  It was not a gruesome, awful thing, it was community in the finest sense, and the tasks at hand were carried out with skill born from learning from others that had come before.  I was fascinated with the entire process, from the kill to the final hoisting of the quarters.  My mouth watered just thinking of the liver dinner we would have the next day once the animal heat was gone.  It was a treat to have fresh liver.

I am sure it might turn some off to think of butchering in a church, but that church had ceased to be a church for a long time.  After the building’s church duties were done, school classes were held there for a time because the nearby school had burned in a forest fire, and then finally after decades of storing hay and farm equipment that building was taken out by the Columbus Day storm.  For me butchering in a church was just the way it was, I grew up thinking all things are important, and are alive and have a spirit.  The trees, gardens, and creeks that surround me have a spirit that can be felt if certainly not seen.  As it was, I wanted to see Jane’s spirit leave her body, and be able to be free of her maladies, and to do whatever it is that spirits do in an unencumbered way.

Next:  What WAS wrong with Jane?

 

Garden Plans

March 22, 2017

Last year I made some drastic plans to change-up our gardens as a way to reduce the workload while still growing our entire year’s food.  I pretty much stuck to that plan of just planting half of each outside garden space to make a true 50% reduction.

Garden 2016 half planted, half summer cover cropped

Basically it was a sound idea, resulting in a decreased workload and about the correct proportions of various vegetables for fresh eating, and preserving for the winter months.  Over the course of the season I discovered it can use some tweaking.  We’re proceeding this year with about the same expected harvest outcome, but in a different configuration to lessen the workload a bit more.  I’ll be dropping some crops or changing the amounts of what we grow for other reasons too.

My practice of over-wintering root crops in the soil has come back to bite me big time via insect pressure, namely the dreaded carrot rust fly.  In years past we had been able to avoid the pesky critters by timing our plantings to avoid the biggest hatch times.  But a couple of mild winters and we now have a full-blown population of carrot rust flies.  Last year was the first time in many years I didn’t plant any carrots, parsnips or beets for the house cow, or to hold over for seed saving.  My goal was to not provide the carrot rust fly a leg up by providing winter feed and habitat for them. House cow roots for winter may become a thing of the past here, unless we decide to build a very large root cellar or a walk-in cooler for winter storage.  I don’t really see that happening for such a low value home-raised input.  We had the hardest winter in a long time and Jane came through in very good shape with not so much as one root vegetable.

Weather is playing a role too in our garden plan changes.  Two successive springs and summers of warm and very dry weather lulled me into thinking I actually lived further down in the valley and could grow marginal crops outside.  Crop failure is a way of life if you garden or farm, but it is still a little (okay a lot) disheartening to have crop failure.  Last summer was cool, closer to our normal summers of yore, but you have no way of knowing that when you gamble on seed or plant stock purchases.  Live and learn, I wasted money on sweet potato starts, and tried to replicate previous successes with C. moschata squashes outside.  Huge failure.  Especially when you consider that I was so confident about growing those two crops outside that I failed to utilize greenhouse space that I had open.  What was I thinking?

I spoke about re-configuring our outside growing space in an earlier paragraph, I will still be planting half of my outside space, but to lessen wear and tear on me I am going to spread out my plantings to allow for more mechanical means of weeding.  More specifically I will be tilling between my planted rows instead of hoeing.  I know, I can hear the gasp now.  Tilling!! I know all the arguments for and against.  And I know my soil and my own limitations.  I am nothing if not practical.  It is not practical for me to deep mulch, build raised beds, hugelkultur etc.  It is practical to use equipment I have, and cultivate my soil to grow our food.  I know many people who do use the alternative methods, and while it satisfies their conscience to garden that way, I know (because they tell me) that they do not grow enough food to take them through the winter. They instead rely on the store or possibly a winter CSA (that all utilize conventional cultivation methods).  So really, it comes down to the old NIMBY thing.  In our area it’s usually people bitching about commercial logging while living in their wooden houses, sort of hypocritical don’t you think?  It makes no sense to me to complain about tillage and then support that very thing by voting with your dollars. Keeping with the practical theme here too, I will be doing this tilling with my tractor instead of spending thousands on a walk-behind tractor.  Not that I don’t want one, but it is sort of redundant for eighteen less inches of tiller width.  Make it do, or do without.

And like any gardening year, this will be an experiment.  Wide fallow areas between rows may not work, but I won’t know until I try it.  At this point I am more interested in continuing to garden on a somewhat large-scale as I age and finding the best way to do so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making Our Own Weather

March 15, 2017

Greenhouse fluctuations in late winter

 

The winter that wouldn’t end has ended, at least for us here on the west side of the Cascades.  A winter like those of my childhood, one that surely has made us wake up and take notice. It’s been a while since we had such a winter that stretched from early December to the end of February.  We had plenty of firewood and hay which are the big, money-in-the-bank farmstead worries that keep me up at night, but the winter garden was toast or actually frozen.  When kale dies here in the winter you take notice.  Our cool maritime climate is just that, cool, but not so cold. This winter was a different story.

We just started seeding transplants last week, later than some folks in our area and earlier than others.  It’s taken me a while to figure out the timing that works for us.  I had to learn long ago that using lights and getting an early start just didn’t coincide with our late winter/early spring weather.  My plants would do great with the lights and then when they were ready to go outside (because I started them too early) the weather just hadn’t warmed up enough for planting outside or even in the unheated greenhouse.  So now I wait until we have enough daylight and start the seeds then.  Hurry up and wait just never works out well.

I realize some of this won’t apply if you don’t have some sort of greenhouse or outside starting area for your starts.  I have tried and failed many times to start my plants in the house and besides the mess, the plants just don’t do well, I think mostly because of the light factor, low humidity and watering needs that exceed my dislike for wet floors etc.  But maybe some of my heat mat real estate tips will work.

first round – March 9, 2017

Another thing I have learned over the years too, is that while I might like to be frugal and not spend money for things that I don’t think I need, while making do with re-purposed items, I had to redefine my needs with another template besides frugality and possibly being off-grid. Namely how much time do I really have to fiddle around with cottage cheese containers, dixie cups and manure hot beds in order to start plants.  Turns out, not much, plus I don’t have the space, and it’s a $hit ton of work to move plants and replenish your hot bed frequently, I already move enough manure by hand, adding to that chore load is not in my wheelhouse.  And it’s more than that, size matters ( I think) to the plant when it comes to containers.   Plus, who doesn’t want more bang for their buck, if I am going to plug-in a heat mat, I want to utilize that space as efficiently as possible.  That is being frugal.

I won’t lie, it is an investment to buy a heat mat or two, trays and inserts to fill them, but it is our year’s supply of food and I’ve had some of my flats and inserts going on twenty years now.  So I think streamlining your seed starting is a good way to go.  My goal is to start a lot of seeds, and stay out of the store.  I am not a casual gardener.  I’m in it for the long run.

So here is my home garden transplant system essentials and how I use them to the best advantage:

Heat mats – the most common heat mats like these are made for the 1020 trays (10″ x 20″) and come in several sizes depending on your needs. Hydrofarm is the brand I use, and they have lasted for many years as long as I store them flat in the off-season.  They provide heat to the bottom of the flat, that is best for quick seed germination.  Quick is what you want to avoid problems with seeds rotting, fungus attacking, etc.  Since the heat mats only raise the temperature to 10 degrees higher than the ambient temperature I need to provide some sort of clear plastic cover to provide a mini-greenhouse effect until the seeds germinate, and I also place the mats on sheets of rigid foam insulation to ensure the flats are getting the full benefit of the heat mat.  Remember I am starting these in our unheated greenhouse. If you shop around, you can find better prices online.


Seedling trays and inserts – I use the 1020 mesh trays sometimes called Daisy trays.  You can also buy 1020 trays without drainage slots if you are starting your plants indoors or may want to water from beneath.  The tray size is fixed but the inserts come in all sorts of sizes, I use the 200, 72, and 48 the most.  This size tray also can house eighteen 3.5″ pots, the size I use for potting up tomatoes.  Shown above is my frugal side rearing its head.  I don’t always want 200 hundred starts, so I have cut some of my trays in half so I have some homemade 100s in the size want.  This leaves the other half of the tray open for a larger size. Confusing? To make efficient use of my heat mats I need to group seeds together that have the same germination times.  Slow starters like celeriac, celery and some herbs and flowers may take 3 weeks or more on the heat mat to break the soil, you do not want them in the same insert as something like a tomato or bok choy that takes about 4 or 5 days.  Home garden needs might warrant that I plant 50 celeriac, 50 celery with my homemade 100, and then I use 4 six packs to fill the other side of the flat with something like kale which I can then remove as soon as germination takes place, then that open half flat can be used for another succession of any fast growing green or brassica.  Note here – brassicas kind of rule Cascadia where I live, so in your area it might be something like okra or … .

sugar snap peas

Essentially, moving my seed starting outdoors to the greenhouse actually gave me more leeway and freedom than one would expect.  No mess, and more room for experimenting with new varieties. While the environment is a little less controlled than an indoor setup, many days the heat mats are off due to solar gain, so we are actually using very little power.

Always seed more than you think you need, plants die, plans change, and stuff happens.  Seeds are cheap insurance for your garden.

Set in My Ways, or So I Thought

February 3, 2017

It’s been a long time since I have seen such fervor surrounding much of anything since the wave of electric pressure cookers has swept across the kitchen landscape.

instantpot
When my slow cooker gave up the ghost last summer, I bought an electric pressure cooker, specifically an Instant Pot.  I have not looked back since.  However in that time I have been chided, and praised equally.  People either love or hate the idea of this small kitchen appliance. I did not “sell out”, rather I have a new outlook on cooking that I’ve haven’t felt in years, decades to be exact.  I am a reluctant cook.  I would rather be outside, doing anything.  Instant Pot, thank you, cooking is kind of fun now. I’ve convinced a few farming friends (men) to get one and they love it too.

A good friend of mine has had an electric pressure cooker for a good many years, and she loves it, and always raved about it.  Dinner would be ready when she got home from work, and if she had to work late which was often, the smart electric pressure cooker would switch to the keep warm setting after the cooking time was completed.  No! I don’t want a hot meal waiting for me when I come home from a long, trying day at work.  Said. No. One. Ever.  Stop that you damn pot!!!

I have to admit I was a little skeptical while she raved, but she kept on raving and posting about her delicious meals.  So over the years an idea was planted, and I did some research.  I too was chiding myself.  You don’t need this said the little voice.  I already have a stove top pressure cooker, I have a slow cooker, I have good stock pots, and a cast iron collection that would boggle your mind.  But, I wanted this new pressure cooker.  So the struggle in my mind went on for a long time.  I am not a gadget person.  How many people do you know that don’t own a Kitchenaid mixer?  Be truthful.  Not many I bet.  Well, I don’t own one.  I bake bread, I bake pies, I bake just about anything, I do not own a stand mixer.  It would just be a waste because I really don’t bake that much, and as much as I want one just to look at the colors, that would be a colossal waste of money for me.  Plus I couldn’t pick which color to go with my Fiestaware anyway, so that’s that. Just not into kitchen stuff. But an Instant Pot isn’t just another gadget that will languish in your kitchen.

Six months in now, I find that I am using the Instant Pot more and more.  I don’t see myself ever making a cheesecake or something like macaroni and cheese in an electric pressure cooker.  There are a few settings I probably will never use, maybe.  But who knows.  Where it excels for me is cooking meats, bone broth, beans, potatoes and sweet potatoes.  Soups and stews are a close second.  The sauté function is nice, you can brown your meat, remove the meat, add your mirepoix, cook that a bit, add the meat back in, a cup or so of liquid, close ‘er up, set the timer, or function button and bye, bye.  You can leave.  (And I don’t know about you but I am that person who has blown the weight off the stovetop pressure cooker when cooking beans while I got distracted :p) When you come back you have a meal, or the makings of one.

The bone broth is a work of art every single time.  BIP (before Instant Pot) my broth making sessions were always hit and miss.  Too cloudy, too smelly for hours on end in the kitchen, (cue vomiting sounds, sorry it just isn’t appetizing to me) mostly due to the fact that I am a reluctant cook.  I’d boil it a little too much, and the results were just not consistent enough for my liking.  I’m into nuances of a field to table meal as much as any bona fide foodie, but wow, Instant Pot you take the guesswork out of it.  Consistent to die for broth every single time, and no kitchen smell.  I’m in heaven.

So if you know of anyone who is busy, likes to make great meals for their loved ones, and is open to try new things I would highly suggest this as a gift.  If that someone is you, don’t wait.  The Instant Pot has truly been a gift to myself.