16 September, 2015

11 September, 2015

Like God’s Own Mercy

O Brother, Where Art Thou is one of my favorite movies, and it gives the devil the best line in it. He has the heroes apparently cornered, and out behind to rain. “Sweet, summer rain,” he says. “Like God’s own mercy.” As I’m writing this, my little corner of the world has just wrapped up three or four weeks without rain. Things were getting scary dry out there except under the heaviest of layers of fallen leaves under complete tree canopies, where the sunlight never touches except in winter.

We lost an expected month of grazing to the hot, dry weather. We rotate the sheep, goats, and now pigs through three different areas, so that each one gets at least four weeks to recover between bouts of grazing. With the lack of rain, however, the next one in line couldn’t recover in time, so we’ve moved them to what will effectively be their winter dry lot already. They’re not complaining since they have plenty of hay and the area is well-shaded by oaks and the barn, allowing them to beat the August heat. I’d have been happier with them getting some last green forage in, though.

After the weeks and weeks of heat, baking the previous topsoil to dust after the more tender ground covers died, this rain really does feel like mercy. I’m not ashamed, just mildly sheepish, to admit I went outside to let it fall on my skin and listen to what I swear was a collective sigh of relief from the world at large. I swear the trees were smiling if you watched closely enough, and maybe the beech out front will decide to hang onto those last few leaves.

I’m looking forward to seeing one last burst of green before the summer ends, and to finally getting my fall crops into damp, welcoming soil. I’m happy I won’t have to water the grounding rods for the electric fence for at least a few days (the forecast says yet more rain! It feels slightly decadent). I’m looking forward to seeing the pigs wallow in mud instead of taking dust baths, leaving what my friend Elisha calls “mud angels” behind.

The fall rains are such a nice way to round out the year, at least until the weather gets cold and things start feeling clammy. It’s one last burst of activity from people and plants alike before we enter the long dark cold of winter. It’s the last opportunity for animals to fatten themselves up, something less urgent for my domesticated livestock than it is for rabbits, birds, and squirrels…yet the impulse is still there. The goats are growing longer, thicker coats. The hair sheep are getting woolly, and the wool sheep are getting woolier.

Tomorrow will be soon enough to break out the seeds and the trowel, though. For tonight, I’m happy to lie back and listen to the sound of mercy.

7 September, 2015

Hard choices

Last week my beloved Thea started getting violent with the other ruminants. Not in the usual way of a swing of the head or a light bump, but actively trying to harm the others, culminating in an earnest attempt to hurt or kill Ferrington.

There’s a lot I can cope with, and scuffles for rank in the herd are not unusual, but this was something beyond the usual scuffles. So I made the difficult decision to place Thea in a new home, and sent Frankie with her so she’d have a buddy.

I still feel like I need a good cry. I loved them both, and I can’t even stand to look at pictures of them right now. Luckily Gwyn has adapted to the loss of her mother just fine, because I think if she were crying I really would be, too.

There’s a little bit of happiness, though, in that two potbelly pigs have come to stay and be working pigs to till the gardens and learn tricks.

On the left, a solid black pig about two feet high. On the right, a black pig with a white stripe between her eyes, white trotters, and a white stripe on one side of her neck. They are VERY fat, and also frothing at the mouth.
Apparently stressed pigs foam at the mouth. I did not know this.

The pigs don’t have names yet (I need to consult with my animal naming crew on Patreon![1]) and need to lose some weight, but they’re settling in well and finding the shady places, food, and water. The solid black pig is a barrow, a male pig neutered before puberty. The one with white is a gilt, a female pig who has never had a litter of piglets. She may have one later (she’s only 8 months old) but for now they both need to lose some weight and settle in. Future piglets will be intended for food, but these two are here to be pets and garden tillers.

The goats and sheep, by the way, are horrified.
The entire herd of goats and sheep clumped up and staring off to the right of photo where two small inoffensive pigs are located off-screen.

28 August, 2015

Things I do when I’m not farming: learning Welsh

The story of why I decided to learn Welsh is long and political. Suffice to say that some friends of mine and I were talking, and I realized that it might be fun and fulfilling. My brain is kind of like a border collie or a working German Shepherd, in that if I don’t give it constructive work to do it will make its own work. Given that I’ve struggled with depression for more than 10 years now, I really don’t want my brain making its own hobbies.

I’m learning using the lessons over at Say Something In Welsh, and it’s going really well. Welsh is fascinating to learn, because while it’s an Indo-European language it’s most definitely not a Romance language, so grammatical structures vary wildly from comfortingly familiar to a first language English speaker to “what the hell just happened”. For example, if asked a yes/no question, the words for “yes” and “no” vary by verb and tense — to say yes you might say ydw, do, or oes, depending on what question you’re answering.

A small brown sheep with medium long curving black horns looks directly into the camera.
Oes gen ti ddefaid? Oes, mae gen i ddefaid.
Do you have sheep? Yes, I have sheep.

Welsh also has vowels that English doesn’t, such as “w” (which sounds like oo as in look), “y” (which mostly sounds like English u as in up, except when it sounds like i as in pin), and “u” (which sounds like e as in peek). And after an “ee” sound on the end of the word, a constant at the beginning of the next word may mutate: unvoiced consonants become voiced, voiced consonants disappear entirely. And then of course there’s the infamous Welsh “ll”, which is sort of an unvoiced L.

Trying to learn Welsh, in fact, can give a native English speaker some insight into how difficult it must be to learn English, with all its bizarre irregularities. But I’m having fun with it nonetheless, and measuring my progress by how much I can understand of BBC Welsh language radio podcasts. I haven’t gotten a whole sentence yet, but words are definitely popping up out of the sea of foreign phonemes. I’ll consider myself fluent when I get the jokes.

26 August, 2015

Life Stages: Gwyn, it’s time to stop nursing.

Gwyn, Thea’s daughter, is around five months old. Left to their own devices, a doe will get pregnant again about now and wean the existing baby. But I’ve wethered my two bucks, and Thea shows absolutely zero signs of demanding that Gwyn stop nursing. More worryingly, Thea is scary thin, having poured all her reserves straight into her udder. And Gwyn is huge for her age, nearly as tall as Thea.

Thea and Gwyn, both solid white goats with, um, horn-colored horns, lying down together and looking up at the camera.

Farmers with more land can round up kids (or lambs, or calves) and put them in a pasture separate from their mothers, where they can’t hear or see each other. I don’t have that much land, and having watched goats for a while I’d be loath to do it even if I did. Sudden separation from the herd, even with a group of buddies their own age, is really hard on goats. It’s even harder for mother/daughter pairs, who in the wild would stay together their entire lives.

The solution, in this case, was to put surgical tape over the orifices on Thea’s teats. Weirdly, the addition of tape seems to have caused Gwyn to lose the teats entirely — she acts like she just cannot find them. But day one went really well, the tape stayed on, Gwyn got to stay with her mother but didn’t nurse, and Thea was quite comfortable. This morning I milked her out and discovered Gwyn has been getting a half-gallon of milk per day. No wonder she’s huge and Thea is so skinny!

I’ll be adjusting Thea to being milked once every other day, which should be sustainable for her while providing enough for humans to have milk and cheese. Meanwhile, not-so-little Gwyn is happy and Thea is happy and that makes me happy.

21 August, 2015

Sustainability part 5: human labor

Yesterday I talked about sustainability in the micro level and got into money. Today, let’s talk about another micro-level resource that’s seldom considered: human beings. You can Consolidate Debts here when you want to minimize your debt and earn savings.

As many of my readers know, I’m disabled by chronic pain and fatigue. This means I’m more focused than many on ways to conserve human effort, and if I’m brutally honest it’s at the heart of many of my sustainability efforts. For instance, I talked about conserving the genetics of disease- and parasite-resistant livestock. Not only does this mean I need to use fewer medical interventions, it means I’m spared having to wrestle a relatively large, extremely irate ruminant while I attempt to administer those medical interventions. Having free range poultry means no need to shovel out a chicken coop. Using no-till and biointensive growing methods for plant crops not only sustains and improves soil health and conserves water but also means that once a bed is established we never again have to engage in the heavy work of digging it over.

A guinea hen struts past the camera, head cocked.
Most tilling here is done by poultry, who will pick out and eat weed seeds and grubs while they do it.

Still, it’s unavoidable that some heavy labor is involved. Deep bedding the ruminant stall may mean I don’t have to dig it out weekly, but it still needs to be dug out. I’m lucky to have a group of friends who can be bribed with food and are willing to help with farm tasks from mucking out stalls to rounding up sheep and loading them in the car. Communal labor used to be a major part of agriculture, as neighbors gathered to shuck corn, build barns, shear sheep, boil down syrup from sorghum or maple sap, etc etc. Industrialization has indeed conserved human labor, but it’s also undoubtedly isolated farmers. Another sad knock on effect has been to isolate the vast majority of human beings from the sources of their food.

Agriculture must be healthy and sustaining for the human beings it serves. While there’s no going back to pre-industrial agriculture while still feeding everyone in industrialized nations, the choices we’ve made to produce that food have been questionable at times. We’ve reached a point where agriculture at the macro and micro levels can be dangerous to everyone it touches, from farm withers exposed to pesticides to consumers eating fish contaminated by bacteria from manure run off to the Chesapeake Bay with its dead spot fed in part by excess nitrogen run off from surrounding farms.

A crowd of goats and sheep chews their way into a stand of brush.
We certainly don’t need to do any bush hogging here.

Yet calls for more sustainable agriculture practice often fail to resonate, perhaps because they often center livestock. It is very difficult for many people to relate to a chicken, no matter how nasty, brutish, and short that chicken’s life is. Framed with human beings at the center, sustainable agricultural practice becomes more relatable, which in turn may lead to pushes for legislation that supports and subsidizes more ethical practices the way we currently support and subsidize industrial ag.

Meanwhile, down here at the micro level, me and my friends will be shoveling out this goat stall.

20 August, 2015

15 August, 2015

10 August, 2015

Planting for Fall

It’s still quite warm here in the Virginia piedmont, but nonetheless the days are growing shorter. That means time to start thinking about all kinds of cool weather crops: the ruminants are getting hormonal, soon my rabbit buck will no longer be heat sterile, and it’s time to start getting fall crops in the ground.

Due to some unfortunate fencing failures in late spring, the goats demolished the garden. On the one hand the relentless destruction of everything we planted was incredibly discouraging, but on the other the garden got a fallow season and we’re starting with a blank slate.

Cool weather crops we can put in the ground now include the delicious and useful peas, greens such as kale, collards, and lettuce; hardy root vegetables such as beets and turnips; and over-wintering crops, among them grains, garlic, leeks, and old-fashioned multiplier onions I want to establish in a permanent location.

The peas will be done shortly after the first frost, but after a light frost the collards will be at their most sweet and delicious. The over-wintering crops will grow a little and then slumber the winter away, while root vegetables will hang on until the first hard freeze. Kale and leeks will keep going all winter with a little care, as will lettuce if I decide to plant it. Nothing beats the winter blues like a fresh salad, after all! Fresh greens also make a nice treat for the goats and sheep, who will be on dry lot all winter so we can reseed the grazing areas and let them recover from a long productive season.

Farming even on a small scale like I do it requires a split vision, constantly assessing the needs of the present while simultaneously planning at least one season out. Here at the tail end of summer that means monitoring hormonal livestock to ensure the males survive the breeding season and preparing garden beds while making sure female livestock gets adequate nutrition to carry a pregnancy to term and raise healthy offspring and we have a solid plan for what to put in the beds starting early next month.

If a fox hadn’t relieved us of half the poultry flock earlier this year we’d also be looking at selecting roosters for slaughter. As it is we’ll up the grain ration for ducks, geese, and turkeys, to get them nice and big by the time the holiday harvest rolls around. There’s also a pile of guinea keets and Old English Game bantam chicks in the brooder. The Schaumburg pest control at http://www.bigfootpestcontrol.com/ have proven themselves incredibly useful in controlling insect pests, and we find that OEGB hens make some of the best broody hens and mothers. Next spring when these birds are grown up, we’ll stick them on nests of full-size eggs to increase our flock size.

23 July, 2015

Catching up

What have I been up to?

Well, I’ve been writing for the Piedmont Virginian’s blog. My most recent piece is about my current service dog, Xita.

I’ve had to pare down the goat herd due to my health issues, and am shifting over to low-maintenance breeds of sheep that are more appropriate for the pasture we have (as well as being way less work than dairy goats). I successfully crowd-funded a starter herd of Soay sheep, and last weekend a friend and I drove down to get them. They’re amazing little perfect woolly jewels, observe:
Two small and mildly wooly reddish-brown sheep, one of whom is looking at the camera. They are elegant and slightly deer-like (if deer grew wool), but only knee high.

I am especially smitten with my ram, Saltmarsh Ferrington:
A dark mahogany brown ram with massive curling horns and distinct white eyebrow markings deliberately poses for the camera.

Unfortunately our garden was destroyed by goats this year, so there won’t be any vegetable harvest until the fall crops have been planted and gotten a chance to thrive.

Meanwhile, I’m finally dealing with the Veterans Administration trying to get them to admit that the Navy broke me and they should be giving me money. Fun, only not.

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