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And the Windows of heaven were opened.

I’m late blogging today courtesy of a combination of an unnamed monsoon followed by the outer edges of Hurricane Joaquin.

A black rubber two quart feed pan full of water. Tethys the pig side eyes it.
The monsoon filled two quart feed pans in just a couple hours.

The heavy storm a few nights ago means Joaquin is dumping water on ground already saturated. In many areas of my pasture that’s not much of a problem, since pigs and plant roots have created enough soil permeability to allow drainage. In other areas, however, there are pools of liquid mud just waiting to try to suck my boots off. It’s not fun.

Hurricane prep also required us to get the grain out of the feed stall and into the shed so we could open both stalls up for the goats, sheep, and pigs to shelter in. Having both stalls open ensures that large pushy animals like Queen May and Sanglant can’t keep the smaller, more retiring animals out of the barn. The rabbit colony needed a new roof and a wall on the east side, and the piglets needed their house moved and stuffed with straw so they could stay warm and dry.

In the middle of all this the goats broke into the feed stall before it was prepped and ate approximately 25 pounds of grain, leading to horrifying diarrhea and the early attempts at exploration by the juvenile poultry who’d been living happily in that stall.

Never a dull moment, especially where goats are concerned. So the ruminants are on a hay-only diet for a couple days while hurricane Joaquin brings cold, wind, and wet. In the house, we’ve filled water containers and located flashlights and batteries. Now we just wait to see whether or not the power will stay on until Tuesday, when current weather predictions show the last of the storm leaving our area and the sun returning for the first time in a week and a half.

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Things I do when I’m not farming: knitting

Mostly I’m putting this here as a blog post in the hope that it will inspire a vague sense of accountability and I’ll actually finish this thing. You see, I’m one of those knitters who’s really good at starting projects but really terrible at finishing them, which leads to a certain accumulation of forlorn unfinished objects.

My latest project is a shawl, from the “A Handsome Triangle” pattern in Victorian Lace Today. Except that I hate knitting with lace weight yarn, aka “thread” and also shawls knit with tiny yarn are very pretty but basically useless for staying warm. So instead I’m knitting it from heathered brown wool, in fact Fisherman’s Wool from Lion. It won’t win awards for the delicate beauty of the stitches and pattern, but it will be a durable, warm, functional garment. The lace pattern is a little too fancy for me to call it Shaker-esque in its simple, functional beauty. But my preference is definitely for items of clothing that prioritize durability and functionality over, say, the ability to pull the whole thing through a woman’s wedding ring. Much like my beloved Soay sheep, this is a shawl meant to endure and be good at its intended function rather than being flashy and high-maintenance.

Oh wait, you wanted a picture? Here’s part of one half, all stretched out so you can see the lace pattern.

Dark brown sweater-weight wool, knitted into a pattern reminiscent of over-lapping leaves on a vine.

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Let’s call this Training Week. Pigs learn fast.

It’s very much fun to be doing actual training with the critters. Pigs learn really fast, and Tethys is eating cookies within touching distance already, so I’ve moved on to teaching her to recognize her name. This is an easy process: I say her name, then I give her a cookie. She’ll probably have it down by this weekend.

The head of a pig, obviously quite close to the camera. She is mostly black with a white stripe on the left side of her neck and another right between her eyes. Since this is the alt text, we'll pretend the picture isn't a little blurry.
Tethys eating a cookie right by my feet!

Janus is taking a little longer learning to approach, but he’s getting there! The difficulty of pigs of course course is that while they’re smart as hell, they’re not naturally inclined to listen to human voices and watch human faces like dogs are. Selective breeding makes an enormous difference in animal behavior, really, and nothing will make that more clear than playing training games.

The Soays present an even bigger conundrum: I’m still looking for an easy reward that they find meaningful. The ewes Lady Jane and Gwendolyn are easy: they want me to go away. So I walk up as close as they’ll let me, stand for a moment, tell them “Mamogion da!” (Good ewes! In Welsh) and then turn and walk away. I’ve successfully halved their flight distance using this and grain. The wethers however are much more human-social, yet not big on cookies.

The back of a little brown sheep's head, showing off the elegant sweep of his black horns. He is eating pelleted grain ration from a black rubber dish and studiously ignoring the animal cracker in the center of the same dish.
Reuben says cookies just aren’t that interesting.

They are enthused about the little bit of sweet feed they get, but it’s really difficult to use that in discrete chunks as a reward. I may end up making little wodges of oats stuck together with molasses and baked dry to try. Even if the sheep don’t eat them, the goats most certainly will, so they won’t go to waste!

Meanwhile Sebastian is learning to target and touch my open hand, which is a necessary first step to teaching him to lead with a halter instead of his current behavior when I try to lead him, which involves bracing his legs and becoming immovable.

A mahogany red goat with black horns, black stripes on his face and white poll, ears, and nose stretches up to touch my my hand with his nose.
Sebastian will target all day if your hand smells of cookies.

Sebastian has really mastered cookie Zen, which means he gets to move on to things like targeting and learning to wear a harness. His half-brother Sanglant is still really struggling with the idea that to get the cookie, you shouldn’t try to get the cookie. Every fiber of Sanglant’s curious and determined goat brain wants to treat my hand like a puzzle toy, but he’s finally beginning to back off and accept that only through patient waiting will cookies come to him.

The one thing I don’t have pics of, because I need to enlist my husband, is teaching Ella the American Blackbelly ewe to do classic obedience healing. She’s been offering it voluntarily for a few months when I have the grain scoop, so I figured why not work on putting it on cue? Hopefully I can get pics in time for Friday’s post!

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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.

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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.