Sunday, October 10, 2010

Cheers, dear friends

The gentle prodding of a reader awoke me from my blogging slumber. I was amazed to see that I have not published a post to this blog since April! Six months! A veritable lifetime in the ebb and flow of a small farm.

So an update is in order. This is not to say that "I'm back" per se, since blogging still consumes too much of my extremely limited time. But perhaps this is to say, "Hello, old friends. I am well." before we part again on an autumn lane, bound for our own pressing destinations.

I am well. The farm is well. We're enjoying a late summer transition into an easy fall here in New Hampshire. We endured, quite possibly, the most horrid summer, with record breaking heat and humidity and a drought that persists to this day. We lost a chicken to heat stroke in May (May!) when the heat index soared over 107 F. It was right around our "last frost" date when we hit 95 F. Unbelievable. We had perhaps 1/3 the normal rainfall for four months and endured another 95 degree day in September. September! Our first frost day came and went with a whimper since it was still in the mid eighties. Warm. Way too warm. In 2009, I didn't even install our window air conditioner. In 2010, it ran constantly from May until October 1.

And with the warmth came pests: flies, cocci, worms. We had to wildly adjust our "natural" farming practices to the conditions. No overcrowding of chickens in tractors would be tolerated. The heat-loving pests would keep us honest. Leaf hoppers had an early harvest on our potatoes and aphids came on strong in the greenhouse. Worried about our aging well, we stopped irrigating in August. I abandoned the outdoor garden, calling it a complete loss and myself, as a vegetable farmer, a complete failure.

Yet, with the worst farming year in a decade, came some rousing successes. Rain did eventually fall again, and with it came lush green pastures seeded out of our logged land. Clover, fescue, bluegrass and rye now stand at knee height in places, waiting to nourish grazers next spring. My outdoor garden, apparently thriving under benign neglect, gave forth a bounty of pole beans, a full month late. And the corn and potatoes which were lost were replaced with bush beans and carrots and wee onions.

Despite the aphids in the greenhouse (only mildly controlled by released batches of lady bugs), we had a banner year for tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, once again producing more and faster than we could harvest and preserve. The asparagus came on strong this year, so we're hoping for our first harvest in April, 2011.

Lessons learned: There are many. But the big one is that I am going to leave my garden fallow, cover crop it with field peas and oats, maybe pasture some piglets on it for a short time. And take a break from veggies for 2011. They are so, so hard for my engineering brain to understand. The greenhouse will be exposed to the winter and restarted in the spring with "high dollar" items like tomatoes and peppers and things so delicious fresh, it's worth the effort of growing them.

The broiler chicken harvest went off well and we sold some extras to a dear friend who paid way too much for our chickens, all to support us fledgling farmers. You hear that, D? Way too much. Our new layers are slowly coming online and some old favorites have made it past the fall cull and secured a spot in our winter coop. All told, over 120 birds came and went on the farm this year. That's a lot of chickens.

We are up to four goats, three of which are pregnant and due early February. I really enjoyed my first season of goat milk. I am completely addicted to day-of fresh milk and I don't know how I will go back to the old "organic, raw milk from my local farmer" this winter when my does are dry. I made a fair amount of cheese, but not even enough to share among friends. In the spring, with three does in milk, I will be able to be much more generous.

We have plans for piglets in the spring as well. With excess milk comes pork - an old farming truism. I have an half acre I need some pig power on, and of course, we will have plenty of whey and other dairy products to supplement. I hope to get April/May piglets for an October harvest. Two are spoken for, but I might get a third if I have enough friends who are interested.

No lambs this year or the next. I will have excess male goats in the spring (most of the girls are already spoken for), and I hear that properly handled goat is as good as lamb. Well, since lamb is my favorite meat, I will most certainly be the judge of that. But it's time to commit completely to raising our own meat, and male goats, as a "by-product" of milk production, will live well until their time.

We said goodbye to some beloved critters this year: Freya, Jolene's little doeling, and Hobbiton, our found hamster, found greener pastures somewhere else. Too soon. They will be greatly missed.

So that's the plan. We will raise 80 or so broilers next year, enough for friends and family. Goats and pigs will round out the meat and dairy department. We are trying to secure a CSA for veggies to give us, and our soil, a break. We planted 11 fruit trees this year in the orchard -- pears, plums, apricots, cherries, and apples. They are too young for fruit yet, but the investment is there. And in 2012, my garden should be beaming from its 2011 nitrogen treatment and we will try again

Despite the ups and downs, I continue to be very impassioned by the realities of local farming and the great need for a diversified and humane food supply. More and more, I find my life enriched by this green earth around me and the animals with which I share it. Some day, I will be able to walk away from my lucrative (yet soul-sucking) job and make an honest go of it. Some day soon, I hope.

'til then, enjoy some pumpkin beer and live well, my friends.

Monday, April 19, 2010

None More Goat

Over the rainy and cold weekend, we had some new friends over to the farm to take a look at the goats and our setup in general. I could fill a book with the things I don't know about farming, but I have learned a lot about this particular piece of land. Since my new friends are also looking to buy a small farm, I am happy to share my personal mistakes and minor triumphs about "City Girl Moves To The Country, Buys Goats".

One of the topics that was discussed however is that, apparently, I don't talk about the goats enough. Additionally, when I do talk about the goats, I do not properly convey their cuteness.

So, at the risk of stating the obvious: My goats are cute!

Therefore what follows is a completely content-free post. It's just pictures and videos of goats being cute. Because my readers demanded it. And I deliver.

Brego is my cleanup man. Amy is not so sure...

Freya, meet Brego.

Goats doing what they do best: yard work!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Palace Fit For A Chicken

When we bought this little forested property, we found an abandoned child's playhouse built by the original owners. It was in pretty good shape, only because no one ever tread upon it. We decided to turn it into a chicken coop and with two adults using it several times a day to collect eggs, the foundation started to slip. The original owners had constructed the foundation using only two 4x4 posts and some sort of creative "header" made up of a warped 2x6. The whole coop made the structural engineer in me cringe.

The coop the day we moved in. Abandoned for 15 years.

Right before we got chickens. Not too crooked... yet.

In addition to live load, this baby supported some snow loads.

Prior to rebuild. Right fore is collapsing.

With all the recent rains, the coop was in very real danger of falling down the hill, so we decided to rebuild the foundation. For this project, I uses poured concrete piers, 6x6 posts and a sistered 2x6 headers. Designing the foundation was the easy part. The hard part was lifting the coop off the old foundation to level it and build the new foundation underneath. Lucky for us, our downhill neighbor happens to own everything you could ever need in life. And this weekend, I needed two 2.5 ton jacks. And, of course, my neighbor had them so I was able to borrow the jacks for the heavy lifting of the coop.

Jacks holding the coop up while we rebuild the front right column.

New foundation.

Like all major projects, it took twice as long as it should have, but the finished result is very, very stable. We could not get the coop perfectly level or square because the decade of falling downhill had changed the entire frame. In fact, once the new foundation was in place, we had to rehang the door latch because the whole coop had moved so much. We also added a roost underneath the coop so the ladies can hang out someplace dry on rainy or snowy days. We filled in the base with sand, so they can bathe when the rest of the ground is covered in snow. In short, it's chicken heaven.

Elevated coops are wonderful in the north. The chickens always have a nice place to hang out, regardless of the weather.

Once the pasture clear and logging is complete, we will reseed the grass at the base of the coop and plant some nice chicken-proof shrubs. I am glad to get this particular project out of the way, and glad that our lovely ladies have a safe place to live once again.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Goats Vs Cows Vs Full-Time Job

A reader asked some very good questions and I thought I would respond with a full post so everyone can see my reasoning, instead of hiding a very long response down in the comments.

The first question was why did I choose goats instead of cows or one of the miniature breeds of cows. That is a very, VERY good question and I hope the small amount that I have learned in the last year can help someone else in a similar situation. Initially, I was very interested in mini-cows, Dexters specifically. I did a lot of research and their land requirements are not excessive, they produce 1-2 gallons a day which is completely sufficient for my small needs, and they do very well in New England climates. Every now and then, I see a sale ad on Craigslist and I wax poetic about my cow that never was.

I ultimately decided on goats for a couple of reasons, but the biggest was that goats are more suited to my land. I have 5.5 acres of land total, and will probably have 3.5 acres of open pasture available after everything is stumped, graded, seeded, etc. My land is rocky, on a slope, and was an old growth forest. I will be applying 2 ton per acre of lime, but it will still be a battle for years to grow good pasture on this acidic soil. I also happen to have two big grazers already competing on my land: the horses. Whatever grass I might grow will be primarily for the horses and then any left over will be for the sheep, pigs, etc.

Notice I did not say goats. Goats are primarily browsers (like deer) and they can and will eat grass, but they do best on browse. The kind of browse you find in a New England meadow which has not been managed for pasture. Goats have a very high mineral requirement and the brush has deeper roots to bring those minerals to the surface. Raspberries, shrubs, pine, etc. Anything they can get to really. And my land, for the foreseeable future, will be growing plenty of browse. Sheep, cows, and horses are grazers and will compete for grass. Goats can eat "the rest of it", the stuff along the tree line or in the darker, less hospitable reaches of the land.

Additionally, goats are smaller and "more manageable" which is a completely subjective assessment, but it works for me. I own a draft horse. I know big animals. But I didn't even want to deal with full-sized goats (which can pull 400 lbs, strong little critters). So I chose mini-goats (which still pull 200 lbs, I am somewhere south of that number. Yes, my 2' goat pulls me around). Mini goats can be housed in smaller pens and are low impact. They don't turn any patch of ground into instant mud (like my horses). They need only a 4' fence, versus a 5' fence for standard goats (cows are easier to fence, by far). Pound for pound, they produce more milk with less feed.

Ah, but how much milk? I think it's reasonable to expect 2 qts a day from a good mini-goat producer, which is not anywhere close to the production of even the smallest cow. Standard goats can give a gallon or more a day. But here's the kicker. With three or four goats in milk, I can stagger the breedings and never be in a dry period. With a single cow, once she's dry, you wait... wait... wait... for milk. If you need smaller amounts but want it daily (which also ties you down to the farm, etc), then more little goats might be a better way to go.

Goats have a much smaller "setup" charge. Ever price a good milk cow? They are completely worth their price tag, but for a first time ruminent owner, I wanted something with less cash invested. Of course, that is slightly cruel to think about, but a very real practicality of farm life. My goats are housed in a little shed, 8' x 10'. I did not have to build a larger barn for them. Also, I milk my goats in my basement. They walk down the stairs of the bulkhead just fine and I can keep my basement cleaner than I can keep my barn. A cow would need a bigger setup and I would obviously not expect them to go down stairs into my basement. The way my land is situated, there is not a really good location for another barn and milk parlor, so even facilities weighed into my decision.
Properly handled goat milk is not musky or "goaty". It is sweeter than cow's milk and has a slightly different texture (the milk is naturally homogenized), but it is definitely as palatable as a drinking milk. So you really don't give up anything there. Goat meat is not really as good as beef, in my opinion, so if you want to butcher the male offspring for your freezer, cows make more sense, and more meat.

And finally, I just love my goats. I am biased since I have never spent a considerable amount of time with a good dairy cow, so feel free to disregard this last item. A dairy animal is an animal with which you will bond heavily. You will spend a great deal of time, twice a day, pressed at her side, smelling her skin, feeling the heat come off of her body, grooming her, caring for her. You have to not only like your dairy animal, you need to love her. My little Jolene, as the matriarch of my goat herd, and the sole milk producer at this time, is by far the most important animal on this farm. I am intensely bonded with her. So if cows are your thing and not goats, please get a cow.

The second question was if I thought I would produce as much food if I didn't work from home. This is another good question and one I consider almost daily. I think the answer is "Yes", if you don't also have another full time hobby, like riding horses. During the growing season, our weekends are usually full of farm work and if we didn't have to also ride 5 times a week or go to horse shows, we could fit it in more easily. But make no mistake, this farm is our life, it's pretty much all we do. We don't have TV, we don't really go to movies. We eat out maybe once a week and that's usually lunch on the way to the hardware store for some project. We very rarely get to go hang out with friends partly because we are rural and far away, and partly because we can't take 6 hours out of our day to sit around and drink beer, as much as we would like to. But we've made the farm our priority, at least for this Five Year Plan, and so we are committing everything we have. It is possible to get an evening away (milk early and then again when we get home) and once we find a good farm sitter, even more time away. I have friends who take very long vacations from their farms with the right farm sitter. It's very doable. We just haven't done it yet. But this year is the year. I haven't had a real vacation in eight years, and I WILL GO ON VACATION THIS YEAR. Just as soon as the kids are weaned, and the pasture is seeded, and the goat paddock completed, and the drainage lines dug, and the outdoor garden planted, and... and... and...

I think I just made my point.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Safe Milk

I have been consuming raw cow's milk for about five years. As I mentioned previously, it was getting more and more difficult to purchase the milk, due to the location of the farm and demand exceedingly supply. Some days, I would make the nearly 2 hour trip to find them sold out of the day's milk when I arrived. Now *that* is disappointing.

So I got my goats and now I have one in milk and slowly but surely, I've been able to snatch one or two cups a day from her without too much trouble. Once the kids are weaned, I can expect around 2 quarts of fresh milk daily from just the one goat. Once all of them are in milk.... pure milk heaven. I will be able to supply all the cheese, butter, and milk products my family needs.

A reader recently asked how I prepared the milk and how I knew it was "safe". As a raw milk veteran, I have heard this question many times. But now, instead of discussing theoretical facts (you are more likely to get sick from eating deli meat, per capita, than drinking raw milk), I can talk specifically on how I handle my milk and how I have no problem drinking it.

If you are remotely interested in learning more about the safety and health benefits of drinking clean, properly-handled raw milk, you can start at or read an excellent book called The Untold Story of Milk. There is no question that contaminated milk from confinement cows living in horrid conditions 100 years ago made so many people sick that pasteurization (which reduced child mortality from 50% to 7% in Chicago) was a miracle. But a simple fact remains: if the milk is not contaminated to being with, you don't need to sterilize it. Just like irradiating beef because of fecal contamination doesn't make the meat clean, it just means you are eating radioactive cow shit. Keep the fecal material out of the meat and you don't have to irradiate it. Raw milk from healthy animals does not, in itself, contain pathogens that make people sick.

And really, that's where it all begins for me: healthy animals. I purposely sought out a breeder of dairy animals (not pets) who had a herd which annually tests negative for three terrible zoonotic diseases: CAE (Caprine Arthritis Encephalitis), CL (Caseous Lymphadenitis), and Johne's disease (linked to Crohn's in humans). I looked at milking and production records, but also at biosecurity practices of the breeder, who lectured me as soon as I arrived on the property on how to keep the animals from being exposed to pathogens which can make people sick. I paid handsomely for these goats, but there are no bargains when it comes to your food. If you are considering buying that $50 goat on craigslist from an untested herd, think again. Don't gamble with your life.

Luckily, goats are easy and cheap to test, so I will continue to test for the big three diseases annually. I need to wait until the girls are 6 months old before they get added to the testing cycle.

I feed my goats as well as I can, with fresh hay and organic grains. But I don't feed them as well as they deserve, which is to be rotated on fresh browse and pasture daily. Once the pastures and orchard are established, I hope to do better. My goats have free access to fresh minerals, powdered kelp, livestock yeast, and baking soda. A properly working rumin is the key to a healthy goat. And a healthy goat is your best defense against pathogens.

Since my goat is about 24" tall, her udder is only 7 or so inches off the ground so a normal milk pail is too tall to fit under her. I bought a seamless, stainless steel sauce pan with no rivets or creases inside the pan. This is important so you can properly sterilize the pan. Some people milk into plastic, but I find that plastic scratches and so you can get bacteria in the scratches which is difficult to sanitize. My stainless steel pan is washed with the dishwater once a day and also hand sanitized with a dairy cleaner to remove milk stone.

Once the milk leaves the goat, it becomes my responsibility to not contaminate it. Before I milk, I place the doe on the milking stand and brush her off, hoping to dislodge loose hairs. I then use a commercial udder wash (iodine based) in a bucket of warm water and I sponge off her udder and her belly (both of which have been shaved) with a clean disposable milk towel. I use another clean milk towel to dry her. I then wash my hands thoroughly.

Once the doe is clean, I milk the first three or four squirts from each teat (goats have only two teats) into a strip cup which is designed to help you identify clumps or flakes or other signs of mastitis. Plus, the first few squirts have the potential to contain the most bacteria, so those are discarded. Once we're all ready to go, I place the pan under the goat, grab both teats and start milking.

The first couple weeks of milking were disasters and the milk was discarded. I was too clumsy and would end up with milk on my hands or dripping back into the pan. I don't want milk running over my fingers into the pan. Now I've gotten the hang of it, so I can milk directly into the pan without any additional contact. Once the pan is full, I immediately pour the milk through a specialized milk strainer which removes any foreign material like hair or flakes of skin and the milk is placed immediately in a clean glass container and in the fridge.

I then dip the goat's teats to avoid mastitis and depending on her udder condition, I might massage her with some bag balm or other moisturizers. I also take this time to check her over again, make sure there's no heat or lumps in the now empty udder, no weird discharge from her eyes and nose. I give her a carrot and she goes back with the herd.

Easy as pie. The milk is then consumed or used in cooking. I don't have enough milk yet to make cheese or other fermented foods, but that will come soon. I have no doubts as to the health and quality of the milk. I haven't examined it under a microscope or had it tested, but it tastes and smells good and I've had no ill effects.

As a side note, I did unwittingly perform an experiment where I left milk out for four days in a bowl, completely forgotten in a corner of my kitchen. Not only did the milk not sour and start to smell, but when I finally discovered it, I saw it had clabbered. Intrigued, I stuck my head in the bowl to get a good whiff and I smelled... cheese. It smelled like feta. Not sour. Exactly like cheese. I did not try the milk, because you really are supposed to clabber milk by covering it with a cloth to keep foreign contaminants out. But I will try to clabber some milk soon.

People have been consuming milk from their own dairy animals for millennia with very few problems. Like many aspects of agriculture, the real problem arises in trying to concentrate milk production and then ship the product many miles to the waiting population. From goat to fridge to my tummy is a short, and sweet, trip. I also have the ability of being picky with the milk. If a stray hair gets in the milk prior to straining, I can choose to give the milk to the dogs. I know exactly what gets in the milk and since I will get more milk tomorrow, I can be judicious. A little common sense goes a long way.

A little common sense also applies to the dangers of food borne pathogens. I live with someone with a somewhat compromised immune system, so I am very aware of pathogens that make you sick. However, we are much more likely to be killed riding our horses, or even eating raw spinach, than from drinking our milk. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of ground beef are recalled and people discuss the recall over a Big Mac (arguably they are safe since a Big Mac contains so little real beef), but you mention raw milk to people and they involuntarily gag. Hysteria is a little one sided. You cannot eliminate all risks in life and I view the perceived health benefits of drinking our milk far outweigh the possible consequences. To me, life is about living deeply and richly and I feel better when I have my milk. This is my choice alone, however, and I respect everyone's individual choices when it comes to their body.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Hardest Decision

I am a bit behind on posts. We just finished three days of steady wind and rain, dropping an impressive 6" of rain on us. Coupled with the 7" we got last week, we are in official "Wet Spring" territory. Oh, I can't wait for Mud Season to be over.

But the real topic of today is the goats. In my last goat post, I discussed that a dear reader and friend was going to take the three buckling kids once they were weaned and wethered. Right after that post, I took all five kids and momma Jolene back to the breeder to get the kids disbudded. The kids handled the somewhat disturbing procedure very well, surprisingly well... well, let's just say better than I did.

The breeder, whom I deeply respect for her decades of goat knowledge, looked over my doe and then made me an offer. She had pet homes waiting for boys, Jolene was going to have trouble keeping all five fed, I could trade the three boys for an older doeling who was on the bottle. The older doeling would be weaned in three short weeks, leaving Jolene to only feed the two remaining girls, making the demands on her body more reasonable. The boys would be in a good home, not eaten, and the offered doeling is of considerable breeding. Better breeding than any of my other goats, actually.

I didn't have days to think about it because the new homes were open the next day and the boys would go to their new homes immediately. I had to decide then. It took me long hours to reach a decision, loitering around my breeder's farm, weighing the scenarios. I made the decision to make the trade, handed over the three boys, picked up the new doeling, and cried continuously all the way home.

From a purely pragmatic perspective, this was a total coup. I traded three "useless" mouths to feed for a very nice girl, one which would have cost more cash than I could afford if I had to pay for her outright. Jolene would have a much easier time only raising two girls. I would have the potential to get milk from her sooner and expend fewer resources raising goats that were not invested in this farm.

From a personal perspective, however, I was devastated. Not only did I go back on a promise to a friend -- that the boys were hers -- but I went back on a promise to myself and to the goats. When I ventured into breeding, I promised that I would be responsible for all the lives I brought into the world. Collateral damage in the milk industry is all the unwanted males, not unlike the laying chicken industry. I promised those boys that they would never be sold on craigslist for $25 so some stranger can come, hog tie them, and carry them away, terrified, to be butchered in a strange place. Male goats, in this economy, are often only good for food. If it came to that, I would put them down myself, after they had lived a summer and experienced the joys of the sun, the grass, and living a life. Some breeders opt to put the males down at birth. I consider that a waste of a life. Let them live, and in growing, let them then feed my family so they are not forgotten, or wasted. I won't pretend they never existed.

Anyway, I did not sell the boys on craigslist, but I also did not personally vet their new homes. I trust my breeder not to lie to me, that they were in fact good homes. And there's no way she would make the swap just to later eat the boys, so I do know they were destined to be wethered and turned into pets.

Jolene grieved for three days, while still attending to her girls like the wonderful mother she is. And I grieved with her. I grieved for my friend who was so excited to meet the boys. I grieved for the always painful separation of mother and baby. And I grieved for my personal loss of innocence in how to raise animals on the farm. Sometimes the best decision is the hardest decision.

A startling reality of farming, one I had not fully appreciated, is how expendable 50% of the population is. I work in a male dominated field, in a slightly misogynist country, and despite my strong feminist roots, I harbor a lot of my own prejudices. But on the farm, girls rule. Of the 40 something animals I currently keep, only three are males. Only one is intact and actually fulfilling his biological imperative: the rooster. Brego and my one male dog are attractive, useless animals. Even my hamster is female.

I have since followed up on the boys and they are doing well. They took to the bottle just fine and went to their homes. Their new people were so thrilled and excited to raise them. They will be ok.

Introducing.... Katja!

As for the new girl, she is exceptional. As a bottle baby, she views me as mom and took no time in being cute and adorable and wormed her way into my broken heart. All three girls will be registered, tattooed, and spoiled rotten.

First born girl - Adalaide!

Second born girl - Freya!

Jolene and Amy along the bottom. From left to right - Freya, Katja, and Adalaide.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Off Balance

If you are looking for some happy sunshine, best look past this post. I've been busy and Spring is sorta kinda happening, so life has been pretty good. So I've been coasting along -- la, la, la, la, la -- with my biggest worry being how soon can I start drinking my goat's milk.

My readers keep me on track though by sending me news articles in the mainstream media about our impending food crisis. The little signs are everywhere: disappearing bees, antibiotic resistant staph, deforestation, pesticide runoff, unusual growths linked to GMO foods. There's a groundswell of support for the local and Organic movements, but there's still so far to go.

Here's a couple of articles to zest up your day:

EPA officials said they are aware of problems involving pesticides and bees and the agency is "very seriously concerned."

The pesticides are not a risk to honey sold to consumers, federal officials say. And the pollen that people eat is probably safe because it is usually from remote areas where pesticides are not used, Pettis said. But the PLOS study found 121 different types of pesticides within 887 wax, pollen, bee and hive samples.

Um, yea. Probably safe. Forget that we are going to lose crops to lack of pollinators, the food the pollinators produce is toxic.

And here's some fun about antibiotics in our meat:

Experts estimate that up to 70 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States are given to healthy food animals on industrial farms to grow the animals faster and compensate for often crowded, unsanitary conditions.
You know, I used to think that eating sustainably and ethically raised food was trendy or expensive or a fad. But now, I feel like we must eat this way if we are going to find our way through to correcting the balance.

From front-page politics, to our food supply, we are so out of balance. Whatever happened to moderation? To thoughtful, rational discourse? To solving problems holistically, with an eye to longevity and the future, instead of "Me, Now"? Instead of maximizing production in our food system, how about we maximize health -- human, animal, and plant?

I feel... trapped. On my very small farm, I spend all my time caring, nurturing, observing, experimenting, improving. While the world comes crashing down around me, I plant my seeds, I feed my chickens, I milk my goats. What more can I do?