Friday, October 29, 2010

Hen and Chicanery

Last night at sunset when I went out to feed the cows and chickens I heard the oh-too-familiar sound of a hen clucking in a motherly voice and baby chicks peeping.  There, out in the cold pasture, was Lacey, one of my original Americauna hens, with a clutch of babies. Judging from their loud peeps they were hungry, cold, or both, and one limp body had fallen victim to a cow stepping on it.

The cows had seen me and were jogging toward me to be fed.  I ran to get them some hay to keep them  occupied so they wouldn't step on any other chicks. Then I scooped up an armful of chicks, raced to the coop and dropped them inside, ran back and nabbed Lacey and the rest of the chicks.

It was very cold last night, too cold even inside the coop for these tiny chicks, so I put them in a cardboard box inside a large dog crate and let them stay in my office overnight. Lacey seemed to like this royal treatment and has been purring over her eleven chicks all day.  She has never seemed like the most clever of chickens, but she does seem to be an attentive mother.

This weekend is supposed to be a bit warmer, so I will move them all to the coop if I can devise a way to keep them cozy and safe.  With days so short now they won't have as much feeding time and with temps so cold they will use up most of their energy keeping warm and may not thrive. I will have to provide heat and light.

I don't know whether to be annoyed or charmed by Lacey, this hen who was so determined to raise a family.  She tried to hatch several clutches of eggs unsuccessfully last summer. A month ago I took away her nest of eggs because we didn't want any more chicks, especially with fall coming. She seemed to adjust, then disappeared. I was sad, resigned to the fact that the owl must have gotten her.  But no! She was hiding her nest--it was so well hidden I still don't have a clue where it was.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Golden sunrise a couple mornings ago, birds twittering on the wire.

We have enjoyed a long, sweet autumn.  So sweet, we have been lulled into a false sense of there being plenty of time to prepare.  It is hard to conceive that winter is imminent. But today, a fierce wind blasted in.  Temperatures dropped. Tonight the wind is still roaring outside.  It feels like the beginning of winter.  I can't help but feel a bit wistful.
Pale apricot moonrise, a couple silvery evenings ago, pampas grass swaying in the gentle breeze.

I truly love winter, once it actually gets here. But between fall and winter there is a season of impending that feels  unsettled and a bit melancholy.

I guess it is a sense of loss---loss of the chorus of summer birds and insects, loss of vivid colors - especially my favorite vibrant green.  Loss of ease.  No more lying on the hammock on a warm summer night watching the meteor showers with your sweetie, or running out to the garden to harvest a salad for supper or a handful of flowers for the table, or drinking morning coffee outside on the patio.

At least not for about the next 6 months.

Monday, October 25, 2010

End-of-the-Season Plantstravaganza

The dining room has been taken over by two monster plants!  They didn't look quite so imposing yesterday when they were in Sargent's big greenhouse. Everything was marked down  to rock-bottom end-of-the season prices and I couldn't resist.
The plant in the foreground is a banana tree. (It was only $2!)
I hope I can keep the spectacular  bougainvillea alive through the winter.  I have a brainstorm idea, though--the guest bathroom has a large south-facing window above the bathtub.  That bathroom could be turned into a little conservatory this winter...
It would be a tropical getaway during the long Minnesota winter - especially with these three little citrus trees, a lemon, a lime and an orange I got for $1 each at Lowe's (had been $19.99 each)!
There are a bunch of plants on the patio that must be brought in before the cold front arrives tonight.  One is this brugmansia I purchased at the garden club plant sale last May that finally decided to bloom this week.  Another pink brugmansia also has buds.  And there is a tall braided Oleander, a Mandevillea in bloom, and a fragrant Rose tree.
Now I am picturing taking a luxurious bath in the bathroom conservatory full of exotic tropical plants...this could work!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Say "Cheese!"

I just got home from teaching a Cheesemaking Class at the Good Food Store Co-op.  I love this photo taken at the end of the class because it looks like everyone had fun!
Miller is the Cheese Whiz at the Co-op and he invited me to demonstrate how to make fresh mozzarella.  (I know he really wanted Cadence, our farm's most intrepid cheesemaker, but she is in Mexico.)  I had made quite a few wheels of hard cheeses after Cadence left for school, but truth be told, I hadn't tried mozzarella until I was asked to teach the class.  It's not that difficult, however - it is the first cheese we ever made using Barbara Kingsolver's instructions in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. 
The cheese-making action was interspersed with  tasting and learning. Miller is extremely knowledgeable about cheese and had prepared samples of many mozzarella-type  cheeses for  everyone to compare.  The last step of mozzarella-making involves pulling the cheese like taffy and rolling it into little balls. This part was hands-on for everyone.  I am happy to say our  home-made cheese compared pretty favorably with the professional samples.  Better yet, I think we have inspired six new cheese-makers!

Monday, October 18, 2010

More Winter Prep

Weekends mean WORK, at least this time of year.  We have so many  projects to accomplish before winter arrives! Happily, the weather has been very accommodating so far.

Rog built three wonderful new compost bins outside of the loafing shed.  Last year, we realized that siting the compost bins a shovel's throw away from the source would be much more convenient and better for the back than hauling wet animal bedding across the farm! (unless, perhaps you have a front end loader.)  Plus, I plan to move the cow feeding station to the spot where the compost bins are currently so I won't have to haul hay so far through the snow this winter.

We don't ordinarily spend much time this side of the building, but working on the compost bins I got a good look.   I saw that the paint on the loafing shed was peeling pretty badly on the south and west sides. I actually like the texture of weathered wood, but the farm looks so much more spiffy and well-cared-for when the buildings are freshly painted. It was a beautiful day -maybe our last opportunity  - and I was procrastinating my other major project, so I decided to paint. Our strategy is to paint a little bit every year so we aren't overwhelmed with all these outbuildings needing paint at the same time.
Before painting, I power-washed off all the loose paint and dirt.  The windows on the west side needed some repair, too!
Finished! My last significant experience on a ladder  (3 years ago) was not so great--I tipped over and ended up with both bones broken in my right wrist and both bones broken in my right ankle.  So, I was a bit nervous about being way up there painting the peak, but I was extremely cautious and had no mishaps.

Later, when we let the cows back into this yard when we were done, they were absolutely goofy--very curious about the new compost bins, rubbing on them, climbing inside, racing in circles around the yard.  I think it met with their approval.
Next. I tackled the chicken coop. Usually I just change the bedding but this time I totally cleaned everything out -- swept out  out the bedding and took out the  waterers, the feeders, and the nesting box shelves.  I power washed the walls,  floor and all the accoutrements.
(My normal a camera lens is broken;  I need a wider angle lens to capture the entire inside of the coop, but with the telephoto lens I could get  the coop windows, propped opened to let the breeze dry everything.)
That power washer has to be one of my very favorite farm tools. We got it last summer to clean the patio when the chickens decided to roost there every night.  The power washer has come in so handy for cleaning garage floors, barn stalls, lawn furniture, cars and bikes (we live on a dusty gravel road.)   It is great for  blasting the green algae off of the inside of the duck's kiddie pool, cow water tanks and birdbaths.  It is also  invaluable for cleaning the bottoms of your muck boots or shoes after gardening or barn-cleaning... or compost-moving!

What a productive and satisfying weekend.  In addition to these projects, Rog baked a batch of sourdough bread, I mowed the lower pasture, Rog performed music Friday and Saturday nights.  Sunday evening, our friends Tom and Jean came over for wood-fired pizza and we relaxed.

A few more weekends like this and we'll be ready to hunker down for winter!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

How Sweet It Is!

2010 Honey Harvest!  The bee art is a linoleum block print by Cadence.

We have a honey harvest!
I wasn't so sure we would. My bees had several setbacks this year--first they swarmed in May, then I lost my queen and all the brood. I got a frame of brood (the developing eggs and larvae) from another beekeeper and from that my bees raised a new queen, but queens raised this way are not as productive as hybrid queens.
Last week my beekeeper friend Sue helped me check out my hive.  Darn, we found NO honey in the super, the top box of frames supposed to be full of honey intended for the beekeeper.  But in the  deeps, the bottom boxes  with larger frames for  brood and honey stores for the bees,  there were many heavy frames of beautiful capped honey. Sue thought there was plenty for me to remove a couple frames and have a small harvest and still leave enough for the bees this winter.
As the cells of the comb are filled with honey, the bees cap it off with pretty cream-colored beeswax. I removed this frame that was  full of capped honey on both sides and another that was about half full.
Since I don't have an extractor (a piece of equipment that spins the frames, extracting the honey through centrifugal force) I sliced off the thin wax layer and set the frames into a fine plastic sieve fitted into a 5 gallon bucket.  Honey drizzled slowly, very, very slowly, down the frames, was filtered by the sieve and dripped into the bucket.
After two days I got impatient with gravity and I scraped all the comb off the frame, squeezing the honey out of it as well as I could.  This was much faster. And stickier -- by the time I was done, I managed to get the entire kitchen sticky.
After squeezing the honey out of the wax, I washed the  wax in a bowl of clean, warm water;  I can use the wax to make candles (someday!) and I will feed the honey-water to my bees. I didn't wash the sticky frames --I reinserted them into the hive and the bees will clean them up (they never waste a drop of honey)  and start constructing new comb on them.
I was pleasantly surprised to end up with 2 quarts of honey from the two frames!  The honey is a beautiful amber color, and a bit cloudy.  The cloudiness is caused by  tiny bits of   pollen, wax, and propylis suspended in the honey.  I could clarify it by further filtering and pasteurizing it, but heating would destroy all the micronutrients that make raw honey so nutritious.
This honey is most scrumptious that has ever touched my tongue.  I can taste the prairie wildflowers from which it was made!  It is also the most extravagantly expensive honey I have ever tasted -- not counting my time, my cost has been well over $100 per pint.  However, in future years my costs will  be much less and I expect to become a much better beekeeper.  Plus, the value of the bees is much more than the honey they produce-- they also pollinate our vegetables and flowers and provide much enjoyment.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Few Accomplishments

The great thing this October is  that the weather has been spectacular-- summery, sunny and warm. The downside is that such beautiful days lull you into thinking that winter is far off and there is no urgency to getting fall projects accomplished. We know better--we are trying to stay focused and get things done!

Last spring Rog, removed the four most deteriorated barn doors  in order to install new posts and beams to shore up the  sagging barn roof on the north side. After fixing the roof structure, we left the barn doors off all summer and had sort of a porch effect, but we need to be able to close up this end of the barn this winter.  Rog cut off the bottom foot from each door where the wood had rotted away and built new frames  around them.
I painted the doors  and together we hung them (they are HEAVY and  hanging them was trickier than you would think.)
I am so impressed with my husband's carpentry talents!  The barn looks snug and secure now.
While Rog carpentered, I mowed.  We had fenced off most of our front yard as pastures for the cows this summer.  It doesn't quite look like a manicured lawn anymore, but still appears pretty civilized when mowed.  With the cows and poultry doing all the work, I think we only had to mow the main part of the yard three times all summer.
Last year was our first  experience having cows and we fed them by putting their hay in the handy-dandy wire horse hay feeders that were attached to the loafing shed walls. This winter I have decided not to feed the cows inside the loafing shed.  They spend so much time inside then, munching away, and creating waste that must be hauled outside.  Mucking out the barn by hand come spring is back-wrenching, odorous work.

I have been keeping my eyes out  for some item I could creatively recycle for feeding the cows hay outside, but finally I just bit the bullet and bought a horse feeder from Fleet Farm.  The hay needs to be kept up off the ground or else they  trample it and soil it and waste a big portion of it. There is a  trough below the hay rack (intended for grain) that also catches some of the fallout hay and keeps it clean.   I like that this feeder  is heavy and sturdy enough that they won't tip it over, yet manageable to drag to a new site.  It didn't occur to me that LaFonda  would risk getting her horns tangled in the bars, but after a couple meals she has figured out how to avoid getting them caught.
The garden is nearly  cleaned out for winter. I cleaned up the tomato patch and burned all the  tomato debris  in a big bonfire. Rog dug up all the potatoes.  I harvested all the  peppers, melons, eggplants and squashes, including these overgrown crookneck summer squash that are now  more like decorative gourds.  We still have  beets, onions and Swiss chard growing, as well as assorted herbs.

We had to get a portion of the garden cleared out so that  two large trailer  loads of grass  clippings could be  dropped off.  A fellow down the road a couple miles brings us the clippings and dethatched grass from his estate every fall.  It makes wonderful mulch.

Time to Rise and Shine and Butt Heads!

Each morning is more beautiful than the last this October!  Taken from the little orchard hill:, jet-trails, weedy fence-line,  and one young apple tree.
The cows have been  unusually frisky in the mornings lately, too.  While I was photographing the sunrise, they were playing butt-head. As I walked down toward the barn for a new vantage point they figured it was breakfast time and they raced toward me joyously, leaping and kicking up their heels, with surprisingly unbovine-like grace. Someday I hope to get a photo of  them leaping like that, but usually I am too focused on not getting run over by them to take  pictures.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

People vs.Dogs vs. Coyote Traps

When we moved here  two years ago our Aussie rescue dogs, Nutmeg and Cocoa, were overjoyed to go from being urban pooches to being farm dogs  - with 10 acres to explore,  track rabbits and chase squirrels!!
We spent a lot of time, effort and money trying to to keep them in the yard, however. There is a  fence around the pasture,  encircling about half the perimeter of our farm, but they can squeeze under almost anywhere. We installed wireless fencing around the back yard with radio collars but they endured the shock to go out into the woods after a squirrel - and then were unwilling to  come back into the yard. We tried putting up a plastic garden fence with electric wires at the top and bottom, a totally ineffective effort. I guess they have figured out that shocks are only a momentary discomfort.

Finally we just gave up on the dog fencing.  They learned the approximate boundaries of our land and never bother the neighbors or their livestock.  Most of the time they stay in the yard, responsibly protecting the chickens and watching over the farm. They do cross the gravel road to check on the rabbit situation, however and we worry about cars, but we are apparently poor dog trainers -- Nutmeg, especially, is totally recalcitrant when it comes to rabbits.

We had come to a guilty acceptance of the risk of our dogs crossing the road. But then two weeks ago, our farmer neighbor's son stopped by and mentioned that in order to protect the pheasant population, they were inviting a trapper to trap coyotes in the ditch and the adjacent prairie, so we might want to keep our dogs tied. I asked him what kind of traps? "Snares."I asked him when he would be trapping? "October through March." Six months!

I looked up info on coyote traps and called a trapping supply dealer and learned that the snares are baited,  attractive to all canines, and generally fatal to both coyotes and dogs.  It sounds like a horrible death -- as the animal struggles to get away, the snare tightens around its neck and strangles it.  Even being extremely vigilant, at some point in six months our dogs are going to get out, no doubt. If they smell  a good, stinky bait smell, they are going to investigate it.    My heart was in my throat.  I dearly love these dogs and am sickened by the thought of them getting into one of these traps. (I am also sickened by the thought of a coyote getting into one.)
We brainstormed with all our dog trainer friends - what about a shock collar --not recommended, especially since  the electric fence failed to contain them.  Could we get some of the coyote bait and  do some kind of aversion training with it?  Should we build a  kennel?
Finally, we decided our best option was to install a metal garden fence around the back yard. Rog was skeptical, but it had worked to keep our dogs out of our garden so I thought it was worth a try. It is affordable (compared to chain link fence) so we could fence in a large area--a size that would be paradise for normal dogs not used to running on 10 acres. Plus it is easy to install and move.  We got 350 feet  of fencing; by  incorporating our buildings, patio fence and cattle gates we could enclose a 100 x 200 foot area.
I spent a sunny afternoon last week pounding in the stakes along the  perimeter of the back yard with a sledge hammer and attaching the fencing. My goal was to finish it before Rog came home from work, but I didn't quite make it.  My  arms and shoulders were  very grateful when he got home and took over the last stretch.

We attached garden fencing to the bottom of the cattle gates to deter the dogs from squeezing under.  One of our patio gates opens into the dog yard so when we let them out at night or in winter, we can  just open the house door and they can access the yard (we know, we are kind of lazy and wimpy.)  We still have to figure out a dog -proof closure for the front gate to the patio.
The fence has  been up for a week now with significant success. Each time the dogs figure out a way out, we figure out a way to confound them. This weekend we will tackle all the vulnerable-looking spots.

Curiously, Nutmeg and Cocoa somehow seem to have intuited our concern about leaving the property.  Although they have gotten out a few times, they have stayed in the yard and have not once attempted to cross the road. We are also working very hard on getting them to respond more obediently by providing lavish praise and tasty treats.  They are not very happy about being restricted, as you can see by their expressions in the top photo, but all the extra attention and treats must be some consolation.