If a Tree Falls in the Pasture

If a tree falls in the pasture, and the farmer isn’t there, does it make a sound? I’m sure it does, but it can also do a whole lot more. And the farmer had better be ready.

A couple of weeks ago, we noticed that a goat or two was regularly getting out of the pasture. Pretty much every afternoon, we would look out in the hay field and see the main breeding buck and one other member of the herd. It wasn’t a real shocker, because he’s the master of escape … and wherever he goes, some other goat (or goats) figure out how to join him. Because the escapees were limiting themselves to munching the high weeds along the fence, and because it was just a goat or two each day, I sort of shrugged my shoulders.

As time passed, however, a larger number of goats would show up in the hay field. What’s more, they started showing up a lot earlier in the day. I asked the Yeoman Farm Children to walk the fence between the hay field and the pasture, and figure out what was going on.

They reported back that it appeared the fence was sagging between two T-posts, most likely because one of the fence ties had come loose. They re-tied it, thinking this had solved the problem.

It didn’t. The next day, the goats were back in the hay field.

The YFCs observed that some of the T-posts were kind of far apart, which can also lead to a sagging fence. They added some posts, and even tied an old tomato cage to the top of the fence in one place, to further discourage jumping.

The next morning, pretty much the whole goat herd was in the hay field. And they’d long stopped limiting themselves to browsing the fence line. They were moving like a roving mob, getting uncomfortably close to the road. I asked our oldest daughter to lock the goats into their enclosure near the barn, and walk the entire fence line of the goat pasture (not just the stretch that borders the hay field), and find the problem.

About an hour later, she reported on her findings. Along the back part of the property, near the ridge, a large chunk of a large tree had come down on the fence. But that wasn’t the worst part of it. “You’re not going to like this, Daddy,” she said. The tree hadn’t just taken out the fence. It had also landed on a goat, which had been right there at the fence. It was a smallish one, and one we’re not milking, so nobody had missed it. But it’d been tangled up with the fence, under that tree, in the sweltering summer sun, for a while. My daughter warned me that “You’ll smell it before you see it,” and that the tree would not be easy to move. We would definitely need the chainsaw.

The chainsaw. A couple of years ago, I invested in a really good Stihl Farm Boss. We’d had a succession of cheap chainsaws over the years, and each one had failed us at a critical juncture. I can’t emphasize enough how valuable a good quality chainsaw, kept in good working condition, is for a farm. When you really need a chainsaw, as in the our current situation, you really need it to get the job done.

When shopping for the saw, I knew I wanted a Stihl (because of their reputation for quality). I was tired of messing around with bargain saws. Even within the Stihl line, I was willing to spend a little extra to get a more powerful model. And when it came to the option of spending a few more dollars to get the 20″ bar rather than the 18″, I didn’t hesitate. I imagined myself trying to clear an especially large fallen tree, and not having quite enough length to do it. How much would those extra inches be worth to me then? I must say, I have not been the least bit disappointed in this saw. I highly recommend it.

The one downside to a powerful chainsaw with a long bar? It’s heavy. Getting a vehicle to where the tree had fallen was a bit tricky, so I set out across the pasture on foot. With the afternoon sun beating down, the saw seemed to grow heavier with each step.

Tree in Pasture.jpg

Note the fence, to the left. Goat (not visible) was alongside that fence, at the base of the tree, when it came down.

Okay, fair warning. This next part is a little (or more than a little) disgusting. I include it to dispel the notion anyone out there might have about small farm life being all romantic, with sunshine and lollipops and rainbows. Sometimes, there are extremely unpleasant tasks that simply must be addressed no matter what.

So, back to the story. My daughter was right about one thing: I did smell the goat (or, more properly, what was left of the goat) before I saw it. But, before I smelled it, a different sense told me I was getting close: I heard it. Or, more precisely, I heard the swarm of flies.

Once I had my eye and ear protection in place, I fired up the saw. I decided to start at the point farthest from the fence and work my way toward the goat. Since the whole tree would need to be cut up for firewood anyway, I figured I’d ease slowly into the most unpleasant portion.

Remember what I was saying earlier about the importance of having a good quality chainsaw, kept in good working condition? Yeah, about that. As I started cutting, I noticed it was taking a long time even to trim smallish branches. Getting through the trunk itself was even slower going. That’s when I realized how long it’d been since I’d used the saw. I’d forgotten how much wear this particular cutting chain had on it. I had a new chain I could put on the bar, but it was in the garage. On the other end of that very long walk across the pasture that now seemed very large.

I formulated a plan. I would use what was left of this chain to cut the tree fairly close to the fence, yielding a smallish log that could be rolled off of the goat, which would allow us to repair the fence. Once that immediate problem was solved, I could replace the chain and finish cutting up the rest of the tree at my convenience.

I thought it was a pretty good plan. I crept as close as I could to the base of the fallen tree, took a deep breath, and started cutting. The saw made it about halfway through when the log began settling. The cut portion closed in on itself, binding the bar and chain. I’d tried to avoid this by making cuts around the sides of the log, but these were apparently not effective enough. Much as I tried to rev the saw, I couldn’t overcome the binding force. I tried shaking the saw, and pushing the log; the only effect was to stir up the swarm of flies which had been busy laying eggs on what was left of the goat. I could hear the roar of their wings even with my ear protection in place. And all that movement of the log of course further stirred up the rotting smell from the carcass.

With the saw stuck firmly in the log, I was out of options. I made the long trek back to the garage, and wasted a good 15 minutes looking for any tools that could help free the saw. The kids had misplaced the long pry bar, and the sledgehammer had also vanished. After excavating a bunch of junk, I eventually found where both of them were hiding.

I trudged back across the pasture, lugging the heavy pry bar and sledgehammer, now finally understanding why so many farmers and ranchers own an ATV. I still don’t think we would use one enough to justify the cost, but I was definitely giving it more serious consideration.

It didn’t take long to work the pry bar into the partially-cut log. By whacking it a few times with the sledge, I managed to spread the log just enough to work the chainsaw free (and, of course, stir up the swarm of flies again).

The saw seemed to have survived its capture by the log, but the chain was not going to be doing any more cutting today. Not only was it too dull, but it was hanging far too loosely on the bar. Bone tired, covered with sweat and sawdust, my nostrils filled with the smell of rotting goat, I decided I was done. Back across the pasture I went, chainsaw in one hand and pry bar / sledgehammer in the other.

Once in the garage, I went to work on the chainsaw. Much as I wanted to flop down for a nap, I knew better than to leave the saw in its current condition. I pulled everything apart, cleaned it up, and fit a new chain to the bar. Once it was put back together and adjusted to the proper tension, I topped off the fuel and oil reservoirs.

Unfortunately, I could not get the saw to fire up. I hoped that the motor was simply flooded from all the struggle to free it, and that the problem would go away with the passage of time. Regardless, it was a good excuse to retreat to a couch in my air conditioned office for some much-deserved rest.

Later that evening, to satisfy my curiosity, I tried firing up the saw again. This time, it came to life almost immediately. Relieved, I put it (and the pry bar, and the sledge) away for the night.

The next afternoon, my body still aching from the previous day’s exertions, I again trudged across the pasture with the saw. This time, I took the pry bar (and chain adjustment tool) with me, just in case.

I decided to retry the original plan, and began cutting far away from the fence. Thanks to the new chain, chunks of log began dropping like I was going through butter. I only needed the pry bar once (but was I ever glad I’d thought to bring it). This time, I stopped cutting the instant I noticed the log starting to bind the saw; it required only minimal prying to free. Within a few minutes, I was down to the fence and making my final cuts (while holding my breath and trying not to smell the rotting goat or suck any flies into my throat). I was feeling such a sense of accomplishment, and was on such a roll, I began looking around for other downed trees I could cut up. The saw made short work of a nearby cottonwood trunk that I’d cut some of last fall.

The remaining task was by far the most unpleasant: putting the fence wire back in place. We would need some twine to tie the fence material to the remaining tree, all the while working around the rotting goat carcass (there’s no way it could be moved). This would be a two person job, and I unfortunately didn’t have any YFC helpers available. The goats would be staying in for at least another day, which isn’t the worst thing in the world. We have plenty of weeds from the garden to toss in for them to feast on, and they could even be let into the backyard for short periods to do additional weed control.

You may be wondering: how will we get the cut-up pieces of log back to the house, to be split and aged for firewood? It is possible to get a vehicle out there, but it’s a long and circuitous route that involves a lot of gates. (It’s significantly more direct on foot.) In the next couple of days, my plan is to drive out in an old minivan. With all the seats removed, and a tarp spread on the floor, it will be able to transport all that wood fairly easily. Between me and the 17 y.o. boy, loading it shouldn’t be much trouble. The circuitous drive out and back may even take more time than loading the wood.

Once we get these particular logs split, I think I’m going to stack them in a special place so I can keep track of them. As I toss them into the woodstove next winter, I will particularly savor the cozy heat. And remind myself why it’s so important to keep a good quality chainsaw in perfect running condition. Always.

 

 

Racing in the Rain

One week from today, the movie version of The Art of Racing in the Rain opens in theaters. I haven’t seen it, so can’t comment on the quality of the film. The TV commercials look good, as does the official trailer.

Why would I put up a post about a movie I haven’t seen, and can’t review? Simple: to encourage all who have seen the ads, and heard the buzz, and who are planning to go to the theater to watch … to read the book first. It’s been my universal experience that I appreciate a movie much more if I’ve first read the book. Movies typically include lots of references that fans of the book pick up on, and will have more meaning for those who have read the story.

And it really is an excellent novel. As you may have gathered, the book is narrated by a dog (Enzo), in the first person, which makes it particularly fun (especially the way he manages to recount events that take place in areas where dogs are not allowed, such as hospitals). I very much enjoyed the story, and thought the canine narration was well-executed and effective. It’s well-written, well-paced, funny, and emotional. I grew to really care about the characters, and about seeing the central conflict resolved satisfactorily.

I’m not at all an auto racing fan, and know next-to-nothing about it, but interpreted the sections devoted to racing as thought-provoking metaphors for “real life” and how to better react to the circumstances that get thrown our way.

Furthermore, as a Seattle native, I enjoyed reading a story set in the Pacific Northwest. Immersing myself in the novel’s narrative and setting was like taking a mini-vacation back home.

That said, I did have a couple of problems with the book — and I hope these issues don’t carry over to the movie.

First off, there’s a little too much Eastern mysticism / Zen spirituality / reincarnation for my taste in some of the themes. I was fine with this up to a point; after all, the narrator is a dog, and at first it seems he simply picked up these notions from watching television. However as the story progresses, Enzo seems infused with his own mystical knowledge and speaks with the certainty of a Zen master.

The other thing that bothered me is that one particular teenage girl — whose “bad” behavior is key to the central conflict — is said to attend Holy Names Academy, which is an actual, real-life, prestigious Catholic high school in Seattle. Her school affiliation is given in a single throw-away line, and is irrelevant to the plot. Why name the school at all (or why not invent a fictitious school with a prestigious-sounding secular name), unless it’s to take a cheap shot at a Catholic institution by associating a “bad” girl with it?

That said, I would emphasize that this an otherwise absolutely wonderful story — and one I’m looking forward to seeing on the big screen. I might even try to read the book again before I go. I hope you have the chance to read it, too.

Classic Month

The First of August is here at last! I celebrated by taking my 1975 Fiat 124 Spider out for a long cruise on country roads this morning.

What’s so special about August in Michigan? And why celebrate by driving to nowhere-in-particular in a classic car? The short answer: because I can. Legally.

But I owe you more of an explanation than that. So, here goes:

Most people with classic cars don’t drive them very much. Even if our cars aren’t show-stoppers or in perfect condition, we want to save them and enjoy them. For those of us in this situation, the state offers a couple of money-saving alternatives to standard vehicle registration: an Historical Vehicle plate, or an Authentic plate.

The Historical option is a plain, current-production, white plate that costs $30 and is good for ten years. No annual renewals, so the cost of registration essentially works out to about three bucks per year. (If you still own the car ten years later, you have to buy a new plate.)

The Authentic plate option is much more cool, and a better investment for those of us who plan on owning a particular car for the rest of our lives. If you can find an actual Michigan license plate that was issued in your vehicle’s model year, you can put it on your classic car and use it. In addition to buying the plate, there is a one-time registration fee of $35 — and it’s good for as long as you own the car.

Whichever option you choose, however, the same restrictions apply. You can’t use the vehicle for general transportation. You can’t use it to commute to school or work, or even to run to the store. You’re only allowed to drive the vehicle to car shows, exhibitions, club events,  parades, and so forth.

Except [drum roll, please] … in the month of August! A special provision of the law allows a vehicle with an Historical or Authentic plate to be driven as much as the owner likes, in August.

I kept a standard registration plate on my Fiat for a long time, because I wanted to be able to drive it any time I wanted. I was also kind of proud of the fact that it was a “driver,” and not relegated to a limited-use category. However, as the years went by, and I got the car increasingly cleaned up and refreshed, I found myself driving it less and less. It wasn’t just a question of not wanting to risk “breaking” it. With the arrival of Kid #4 and then Kid #5, I was taking at least one small child (often two) with me on most errands. And even if I were inclined to hook up a car seat in the Spider, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer would strongly disapprove. The car has no roll bar, and no safety features other than lap belts (and it doesn’t even have lap belts in the back seat).

So, last Fall, when I was preparing to put the Spider away for the winter, I decided it was time to get an Authentic plate. I did some research, and learned that my vehicle would’ve used a dark blue plate that was produced between 1973 and 1975. The plate had a “73” embossed on it. Vehicles from model years 1974 and 1975 would need a year-specific sticker added to it.

But how to find one? There are websites that specialize in Michigan plates, and have a nice selection across many years; one in particular that stands out is Mad Max’s Authentic Plates. Of course, eBay also offers a wide range of older license plates. I ended up scoring a really beautiful set of 1975-stickered plates on eBay for about $26, delivered.

When the plate arrived, and I put it on the Spider, I immediately knew I’d made the right decision. Especially with a chrome frame, it completed the vehicle’s “look” perfectly.

License Plate.jpg

And as for the restricted driving? It hasn’t bothered me. In fact, because I’m driving the Fiat less often, I’ve come to appreciate it more when I do have an opportunity to get behind the wheel. It’s also made me more attentive to the schedule of local car shows, cruise nights, and club events. For example, in May, I spent a Saturday cruising rural roads around Ann Arbor (and getting lunch) with a few dozen other Italian car enthusiasts; it was an absolute blast. As Spring progressed, and turned to summer, I discovered all kinds of other shows and events within a reasonable drive of home. As a bonus, Kid #4 is now old enough to go with me to these events, and we’ve both appreciated having that time together.

The bottom line is that I’ve still been getting plenty of time to drive the Spider, and I’ve been enjoying those drives more.

And I’m especially looking forward to these thirty-one days of August!

The Great Cheese Plea

This may be the first post I’ve made from an airport. I’m sitting at the gate at DTW, waiting to board a much-anticipated flight to Seattle. After a four-year layoff, I’m at last able to make it out for the big Seattle-to-Portland bicycle ride. (This is of course the event at the center of my novel, Full Cycle; this Saturday will be the first time I’ve been able to participate in STP since the novel’s publication.)

As much as I’m looking forward to the big ride, I’m especially happy to be able to see friends and family while I’m out there; it’s been way too long. Tonight, I’m having dinner at a cousin’s house. My contribution to the evening: a nice container of goat cheese from our farm.

Or at least that was the plan, until TSA intervened. At the checkpoint, my backpack sailed right through the security screening — but my bag of food was yanked for further inspection. The agent took a look at the cheese, in its plastic container, and said it wasn’t allowed. It’s too soft, he explained. Can’t have anything spreadable.

I replied that I had no idea I couldn’t bring it; I thought all food items were acceptable. I would’ve put it in my luggage if I’d known.

And then I rolled the dice and played the Farmer card. “It’s homemade goat cheese, from our own goats. My daughter made this. I’m supposed to be taking it to dinner tonight at my cousin’s house.”

He looked at the container more closely. “Your own goats?” he asked. It wasn’t so much incredulity; it was more a tone of “Yeah, nobody could be making up a story like this.”

I could sense him hesitating. He stepped away for a moment, and conferred with another agent. The only words I picked up were “homemade cheese” and “own goats”.

He returned with the cheese after that brief conversation. “Okay, we’ll allow it this one time, if it passes the surface test,” he told me. “Next time, check it in your luggage.” He swabbed the surface of the cheese container, inserted the swab into some sort of machine, and got the test results.

Satisfied, he returned the cheese to me. I smiled and gave him a heartfelt thank-you, and then packed everything up and cleared the security checkpoint.

I’m not sure what it was about my Great Cheese Plea that changed his mind, but my sense is that most people have a special appreciation for food that’s crafted at home on a farm. Who could bring himself to toss in the trash something that’d been put together with so much care and attention? Perhaps he sensed that saving my cheese was some small way he could participate vicariously in the life of a farm. I don’t know. I’m just really thankful that someone appreciated our farm produce enough to give that extra consideration. We will certainly remember his kindness tonight at dinner!

Never Gets Old

If you were to ask which one thing about living on a small farm never gets old, I would answer immediately: watching mother hens hatch and raise their own chicks.

The overwhelming majority of our birds come from a hatchery; trying to breed and hatch your own on a large scale is an enormous headache (and crap shoot). That said, we enjoy raising egg-laying breeds that haven’t had all their mothering instincts bred out of them. Every once in a while, one of them will surprise us by sneaking off to a dark corner of the property, making a nest, and hatching out a brood.

I recently noticed that our egg production was dropping somewhat. The nine-year-old had been put in charge of gathering eggs this spring, and I suspected that he wasn’t looking hard enough. A couple of weeks ago, I made a thorough search of the barn, to see if he might be missing something.

Of course, it didn’t take long to find the huge cache of eggs which had gone ungathered. An old box had been overturned, with the open side facing a wall. By all appearances, it looked like just an old box that someone had forgotten to take to the burn pile. Upon closer inspection, however, I found a very broody Buff Orpington hen inside — and, under her, about a dozen and a half eggs. She’d removed most of her breast feathers, so as to bring her warm skin into better direct contact with the eggs. When I tried to pick her up, she moved very little (unlike a non-broody hen, which would’ve run off squawking at first touch), and simply let out some deeply disapproving clucks as she tried to peck me.

I hoped that I’d caught her in time, and that these eggs were still good, so I took all of them into the house. As much fun as it is when mother hens hatch their own chicks, the process is too unpredictable to waste a lot of eggs on — especially because this hen was in a place where other hens could be adding fresh eggs to the ones she’d been incubating. I cracked a couple of the eggs, and they were seriously bloody – like they’d been incubating for a long time.

Not wanting to kill any additional developing chicks, I tested the rest of them (one at a time) to see if they would float in water. A handful of them sank right to the bottom and went on their side. That’s usually an indication of a fresh egg; some other hen(s) had likely climbed in and added these to the nest recently. I put them aside for our potential use.

The rest of the eggs either floated, or stood up on end. I took these to the barn, returned them to the box, and placed the hen (who hadn’t gone far) back on the eggs.

Then we left her alone, and waited.

This past Sunday morning, when I went out to the barn to do chores, she was off the nest and lying in the middle of a walkway. Her feathers were puffed up, and she was spread out like she was trying to cover something. A little yellow-and-black chick sat in front of her, seemingly oblivious to the low “come hither” clucking noises she was making. I nudged the chick toward her, and it quickly vanished into the puffy feathers. As she welcomed it under her wings, I could see a couple of other little ones shifting around. Much as I wanted to see how many she had altogether, I thought better of disturbing her.

That evening, she was leading three little chicks all around the barn. Monday morning, I had trouble locating her at first. As I continued looking, I grew concerned that the barn cats had swiped her chicks. To my relief, I found she’d made a temporary nest in the goat separating area. She was again puffed up, giving reassuring clucks. I knew, without looking, that all was well.

Every day since then, she’s led the chicks to a different part of the barnyard. Tuesday morning, they were out very early in the goat area. It looked like she was teaching them how to forage.

Hen with chicks 2019.jpg

Last night, she had them on the lawn behind the house. They were still browsing the lawn when I came out this morning, but eventually moved back to the barn.

No matter where she decides to take them tonight, I do know one thing: this entertainment never, ever gets old.

Anyone Have a Break for Sale? (UPDATED)

We’re wondering if anyone out there has a break for sale. Because, when it comes to bringing in this year’s first cutting of hay, we haven’t even been able to buy a break.

You’ve no doubt read or heard stories about the sopping wet weather that has inundated much of the country’s grain belt this year. Many of the commercial corn-and-soybean farmers were very late getting into their fields to plant, if they managed to plant at all, because the ground had been so wet.

We’ve had many of the same problems here in Michigan, with an unusually wet Spring, but not with the same degree of impact as on the prairie; I think that’s in part due to the smaller amount of row crop farming that is done here. Some people here do grow corn and soybeans commercially, but it’s not the kind of wall-to-wall immersion that we saw in Illinois.

The much bigger problem for us, and for others nearby, has been harvesting hay. We’ve lived here since late 2007, so our first hay harvest was in the spring of 2008. This makes the 12th year we’ve been bringing in hay from our five-acre field, all assisted by the same local farmer who has the necessary specialized equipment. Most years, the first cutting is getting ready to harvest by the end of May, and we’ve managed to bring it in by mid-to-late June (depending on our farmer friend’s availability). This has set us up well for a second or third cutting most years.

Not this year. Bringing in hay requires a certain window of dry weather. You have to cut it, allow it to dry in the field, and then rake / flip it until it dries completely. If you’re lucky enough to get dry, hot weather (especially with a stiff wind), it can be ready to bale after as little as a couple of days. But we haven’t had anything like that this spring. There was one brief window in mid June, with perfect haying weather, but we only saw a handful of farmers actually take advantage of it. Why? The forecast hadn’t initially showed the weather would be so good, and few wanted to chance getting the hay rained on.

Rain is indeed the big worry. If the hay gets soaked while it’s lying on the ground, all the previous drying is of course lost. You can hope for another string of warm weather, but there’s a limit to the number of times you can flip the hay. Eventually, the structure of the grass becomes unstable and it crumbles into an unbaleable mess. And if it keeps raining, so it stays wet long enough? It’ll start to rot, or mold.

After putting it off and putting it off, and not being sure which weather forecasts we could trust, and whether any of the forecast “scattered thundershowers” would actually hit us, we and our farmer friend decided to roll the dice and cut hay on Tuesday of this past week (July 2nd). That very evening, after a beautiful sunny day, one of those thunderstorms scattered its way straight into our hay field.

Our farmer friend has been doing his best to get back over here and flip / rake the hay, but the rain has just kept coming. Thursday morning the weather was really nice, and gave all indications of being a perfect day; we hung two loads of laundry out to dry, and the nine-year-old and I enjoyed cruising to a car show in my classic Fiat with the top down. Then, Thursday afternoon, while we were visiting family a half-hour away, a thunderstorm dumped two and a half inches on our property. There’d been no rain at all where we’d been, so coming home and finding everything absolutely soaked was a very nasty surprise.

We’d initially hoped to bale on Friday, but that was now of course impossible. Our farmer friend came over to rake / flip the hay, to start drying after its Fourth of July soaking. Then, not thirty minutes later, this was the scene:

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You can see the hay field in the background, on the other side of the animal enclosure near the barn. Looks like a partly-cloudy day, right? It was indeed, when he began running his tractor. Actually pretty sunny. But look closer. See the stream of water gushing from the barn’s downspout? That’s how hard it had begun raining right over our property. A concentrated rain cloud had come out of nowhere, and had begun dumping on us. As I snapped this picture, our farmer friend was hightailing it out of the field. Adding insult to injury, he later discovered that one of the wheels on his rake was busted.

The weather on Saturday was largely cloudy and humid (not great conditions for getting hay to dry), but at least it didn’t rain. Same on Sunday. When we got back from visiting family on Sunday, our friend’s rake was parked in our front yard, looking repaired and ready to hit the field again.

But, at this point, who knows how good that hay is going to be. It’s been sitting in the field for nearly a week. It’s been rained on (and soaked) multiple times. I suppose we’ll know more later today, when he gets out there and works with it. My big concern is that it sat wet for too long, and is getting rotten or molding.

At least from here on out, the weather is supposed to be pretty good. Here’s hoping that the harvest can still be salvaged!

*****UPDATE (8:10 PM)

It wasn’t the best-quality hay we’ve ever had, and quite a few more bales than usual were so wet that they needed to be put aside for additional drying, but we did manage to get everything into the barn this afternoon. Soon after I put up the original post, our farmer friend stopped by with his equipment. He raked the hay into final windrows, and then around 1:30 or so began baling. One of the Yeoman Farm Children rode on the hay wagon and stacked bales, and another YFC helped me unload each wagon in the barn. I’m a bit fuzzy on the exact number of bales we got, but it’s solidly north of 400.

Given that hay is currently fetching $10 per bale at the local auction, I feel a lot better about how sore and exhausted I feel right now. No, we’re not going to sell any of our harvest (even at $10 per bale), tempting though it may be at that price. What I’m feeling good about is NOT HAVING TO SPEND $10 per bale to feed our sheep and goats this coming winter. Yes, that price will probably decline in coming weeks, as more farmers manage to bring in their hay. But, still … given how screwy the weather has been, I bet the price remains significantly higher than in past years.

Over and out for tonight. Time to join the rest of the family for our evening rosary. We’ll be offering it up in thanksgiving for this wonderful harvest.

Moving Up and Out

Near the top of my list for things that can’t be beat about country life: fresh eggs, and home-grown meat. Today, our new batch of little birds took a step forward in providing the new year’s supply of both.

We got our baby birds pretty late this year. Our local grain elevator organized a series of group purchases from a Michigan hatchery over the course of the spring; we waited for the very last of these. One big advantage of the group buy is that we all get a low per-bird rate — and no charges for shipping. So, we almost always go that route now.

Why did we wait so late? Like much of the country, the weather has been awful here in Michigan this spring. I simply didn’t want to put the birds out too soon, and have them suffer chills. When we first started farming, we were usually in a rush to get birds started … and we typically lost a number of them to cold or wet. With experience, we’ve come to appreciate the value of warmer spring temperatures for getting birds off to a solid start.

The downside to starting late is, of course, the final product isn’t ready until later. And that’s fine with me, actually. Our new pullets won’t start laying until November, but it’s not like we’re relying on them for our only eggs; these will be simply taking the place of some older hens that we’ll be retiring to the soup pot. We have some yearlings that will continue supplying eggs in the meantime. (Hens lay productively for about two years; we like to replace the oldest half of the flock each year. And we raise a different color of chicken each year, so we can tell which ones are oldest and which still have another year of productive laying.)

The Cornish Cross meat chickens will be ready to start butchering in late July, which I suppose is a bit later than I’d prefer, but we still have several in the freezer from last year that we need to eat. The new ones will give us a nice supply of fresh chicken for the grill in August.

That leaves the turkeys. I want to be able to butcher turkeys shortly before Thanksgiving, and a June start translates into a bird that’s big but not too big at that time.  If we start the turkeys early in the year, we have to butcher them early and freeze them — or let them grow to a monster size in November.

You’ll notice I mentioned three different types of birds: pullets, Cornish Cross meat chickens, and turkeys. Conventional wisdom says to brood separate types of birds separately, and there are good reasons for this. And we used to do it that way, when we were raising larger numbers of each type. This year, we’re only doing 25 meat birds, 10 pullets, and 5 turkeys; we’re not selling to the public, and that’s plenty for our family. However, there’s no point running brooder heat lamps for 10 birds or 5 birds. And we only have one brooder, anyway, so doing separate brooding would require three separate orders (or building separate brooders, which I’m not really in the mood for). I prefer to take my chances on the little pullets getting trampled by the larger birds, or the turkeys catching a disease that the chickens carry (but are immune to). And you know what? It’s worked out perfectly fine so far.

The birds arrived about a week and a half ago. For the nine year old, this is one of his favorite days of the year; he thinks it’s a blast to drive with me to the grain elevator, hold the box of cheeping birds on his lap as we drive home, and them help put them into the brooder one at a time (dunking each one’s beak into the water for a drink before releasing). We ran a 250 watt red heat bulb to start, in part because the weather was still surprisingly chilly for June. Once things warmed up, and the birds were well established, I swapped the big bulb out for a 100 watt incandescent. (We laid in a good supply of these before the government banned their sale. It’s nice having a bulb that can produce some heat, but not too much.)

Today, graced with fantastically sunny weather, the birds took their next step: the outdoor pasture pen. Last year, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer planted roughly half of the space available in the garden; I ran chickens in a pasture pen in the other half. This year, we traded. MYF worked up and planted the wonderfully-fertilized portion of the garden that I used last year, and I have moved my pen to the portion she used last year.

Here are this year’s birds, all set to go to work (you can see part of this year’s garden off to the right):

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Because the weather is so nice today, and because pullets are too little to fly out of the pen, I’m leaving half the lid open this afternoon (note there are two pieces of plywood stacked on the right side). This evening, I’ll move one of those pieces over, to close the pen up.

For now, the birds are a bit disoriented — but are beginning to explore their new surroundings. In addition to their high-protein feed, they’ll have lots of weeds to supplement their diet. They’re already starting to peck at these. We’ll give them a few days to clear those weeds out, and then we’ll move the pen to a fresh patch.

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I can hardly wait for fresh chicken on the grill!