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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Welcome, noisy pest control

This past summer we added two new varieties of critter to the Manor of Mixed Blessings: rabbits and guinea hens. The idea behind the rabbits was a more reliable supply of meat than poultry, and the idea behind guinea hens was improved insect pest control, but sometimes it doesn´t really work so we hire a local pest control expert to do the job perfect. New residents quickly learn that rodent control Tampa is necessary when living in Florida, and having a reliable company to handle an infestation is crucial.

People will tell you that guinea hens are noisy, not nearly as bright as chickens, and prone to strange panics. When my guinea fowl were younger, I was quite smug because they were quiet and relatively well-behaved residents of the Manor. Clearly, either my guinea fowl or my husbandry skills were superior.

Gentle Reader, nature will make liars of us all, and smugness is unbecoming in a farmer. The guineas hit maturity and the summer began to shift to fall and oh dear.

The first crisis for the guineas was that leaves began falling from the trees. Every time the wind blew and leaves cascaded down, the peaceful air of the Manor was disrupted by the alarmed shrieks of guineas, who would immediately bolt for cover. The chickens usually went with them, I guess on some sort of general Poultry Solidarity Principle.

Just when the guinea flock became accustomed to falling leaves, temperatures got cold enough that I shifted to my cool-weather hat and coveralls. This was the occasion for more alarm, because evidently recognizing people no matter what they’re wearing is not a guinea strong suit. The chickens seem to have no problem with it, but guineas? No, not them. For pest control problem you can visit rodent control services skokie il and ask for some tips.

They’ve also had severe problems learning where the door is on the run they sleep in. When we go out in the morning to let them free range, there’s often at least one or two (this is an improvement, previously it was the whole flock) who will relentlessly beat their heads against the wire trying to get out of the pen. The pen they entered through the door they now cannot locate. The strange disappearance of the door provokes more piercing calls of alarm, because when you’re a guinea being separated from the flock is the Worst Thing Ever.

The Second Worst Thing Ever is to not have a black chicken to follow around. I’m not even sure what that’s about; it’s just that they’ve latched onto “black chicken” as their savior. There are three of them in the flock, and the guineas get incredibly distressed if they can’t find one to follow around. It’s a mystery.

They haven’t been all bad, though. They eliminated an infestation of Japanese Beetles in the corn patch, have eliminated poultry losses to aerial predators, and the one that Sid the Wonder Dog killed when it decided to play in the dog fence was freakin delicious. At this point I’m severely tempted to buy a batch of French Guineas, which have been bred for meat production, to stick in the freezer in lieu of spare roosters.

Thanks to the Pest Control Company – Hubert Moore Exterminator for providing their knowledge for this post.

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Dealing with Unexpected Thanksgiving Guests

I almost forgot to tell y’all this story. On Thanksgiving Day the husband and I went out to do the chores in the morning and discovered two black vultures had locked themselves in our chicken pen.

The chicken pen is normally left open at all times so that the poultry who sleep there can get in and out to free range at will. The day before Thanksgiving had been cold and drizzly, and we’d tossed some leftovers into the pen so the chickens and guinea fowl could get a good meal and stay dry. Among the leftovers was a chicken carcass, which is probably why we ended up with a pair of vultures.

They were beautiful and by far the calmest of the birds who have gotten trapped in our chicken pen. Once a juvenile Coopers Hawk got in there and couldn’t get out because our three game roosters were taking turns beating the crap out of him. Another time a crow got in and then, despite the vaunted intelligence of corvids, couldn’t figure out how to go out the door he’d just come in. Both the hawk and the crow were upset and panicking, although admittedly the poor hawk had reason to panic what with the roosters trying to kill him.

The vultures on the other hand were very mellow. They didn’t get upset until we got within about eight feet of them. The rest of the time they hung out, preening and exploring and pecking things. We opened the door for them and left them to it, and they continued to hang out on the ground right next to the open door. They preened, they took dust baths, they pecked at the empty feeder. I was starting to feel guilty because here it was Thanksgiving and they’d been locked in all night and might be hungry, so I found them the rib cage of a rabbit carcass we’d roasted and tossed it in to them. They thought food delivery was pretty good.

A few hours later, however, their idyll came to an end when our flock of guinea fowl discovered them and ran them out of the pen. Six guinea fowl are, apparently, able to terrify two young vultures into submission. Who knew?