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.

 

 

Grinding Grain

My recent post about homemade cereal inspired a reader comment/question about how we grind our grain. I responded to that question in the same comment thread, but I believe the issue deserves its own post.

If you want to get started grinding your own grain, there are several good options. The biggest thing to keep in mind is this: just as with any other tool, your level of investment in a grain mill should correspond to the volume and level of use you’re expecting. But get the right tool for what you want to do.

If you already own a KitchenAid stand mixer, one easy way to get started is to add a grain grinding attachment to it. They can be bought new for under a hundred bucks at Amazon,and I used one on my own mixer for some time. They’re good for small quantities of grain, and produce nice flour, but the hopper is not large at all. It’s a good accessory for producing a few cups of flour or cracked grain here and there, but I wouldn’t recommend it for large scale or everyday family use.

We got our first real grain mill in the late 1990s, when we were learning to take more control of our food supply. (Actually, my very first attempt at grinding wheat involved a blender — and it was a total disaster. Unless you’re simply cracking a cup or two of grain for chickens and have no other options, do not attempt this. It’s like trying to drive a nail with the handle of a screwdriver.) The German-made mill we got is still popular and widely available, and goes by various names. “Family Grain Mill” seems to be among the more common. It looks like this:

and a basic set-up for grain can be had for as little as $130. Or perhaps even less. I haven’t priced them lately, but this mill’s wide availability makes it easy to comparison shop online.

We were happy with the Family Grain Mill, and used it for many years. It was a good, well-built tool that produced reasonably fine flour on the first pass through the mill. It can be adjustable from very coarse to fine. It also has several optional attachments available, for rolling oats or grinding meat or any number of other things.

Another nice thing about this mill: you can get started with a hand crank, and upgrade later to a motorized base if you want. The hand crank is not hard to use, especially for smaller batches or coarser settings, but will give you a good workout on the finest settings. It’s also nice to have in case the power goes out, or you’re trying to live a more off-the-grid lifestyle (or preparing for TEOTWAWKI, but that’s beyond the scope of this blog).

Our biggest problem with the hand crank was securing the clamp tightly enough so the base didn’t come loose while we were really cranking hard on it. Also, some of our countertops weren’t designed so anything could be clamped to them. We had to find a clamping spot that would be both comfortable to stand in and allow the use of one’s dominant hand — and still allow clearance for the turning crank arm. An old table you don’t care about scuffing up with clamp marks usually ends up being the best option.

As we began using the mill more and more regularly, we upgraded to the motorized base. We still had the hand crank for emergencies, but never used it again. The motor was absolutely wonderful. We used this mill for many years, even replacing the burrs a couple of times.

Eventually, however, we outgrew it. Two problems developed: the limited size of the grain hopper, and the mill’s inability to produce truly fine rice flour (fine enough for soaking and fermenting into flatbread batter) on the first pass. With a second pass, we could get sufficient fineness — but that involved standing with the mill and making sure all the flour went down the chute.

With the Yeoman Farm Children now needing large quantities of rice flour on a daily basis, we went shopping for a more appropriate tool. We found it in the L’Equip 760200 NutriMill Grain Mill:

In a word, this thing ROCKS. The hopper has a 20 cup capacity, which we will never outgrow. It’s just as adjustable as our other mill, but produces ultra-fine flour on the first pass. It has never jammed or failed us in any way, and we have used it a lot for several years now. For the money (and you can get them for less than $250 – which is actually similar to the motorized Family Grain Mill), it is very hard to beat this mill. Its only drawbacks — neither of which matter to us — are the unavailability of other attachments and that it is electric-only.

Depending on your budget, it’s still possible that none of the options in this post will work for you. There are cheaper hand crank grain mills out there, and we did experiment with one of them in the chicken coop because we had a large quantity of uncracked corn that we needed to do something with; that mill allowed us to crack the corn enough for the chickens to eat. The problem with some of these is that the long handles and large clamps make them hard to install and use in a kitchen. And I can’t vouch for the fineness of the flour they can produce.

Another option, as always, is eBay. It wouldn’t surprise me if many lightly-used grain mills of all kinds end up there after people have experimented with producing their own flour and then grown tired of the experiment.

As for us, we’re sticking with the NutriMill. It’s definitely an investment, but one of the best that our family has made.

The Takedown

Late yesterday evening, I secured the barn and began walking back toward the house to call it a night. Remember that post over the summer, where I talked about what an important farm tool a pistol-grip spotlight is? I take that thing with me every time I go out at night, and am more or less constantly scanning the trees and fields as I walk. Last night, it proved itself especially useful. As I approached the house, I used the spotlight to illuminate the tall bushes near the back porch. Suddenly, a pair of eyes lit up in the middle of one of those bushes, about eight feet off the ground.

The eyes weren’t moving, and my first thought was that they belonged to a cat. After all, when you have as many barn cats running around as we do, that’s what these things usually end up being. And this animal’s fur even appeared to be the same color as one of our cats. But as I drew closer, something about it didn’t seem quite right. The head wasn’t the right shape. And it wasn’t sitting like a cat.

It looked like a possum. But since its tail was hidden in the bushes, and branches covered a fair amount of its body, I wanted to be sure before I did anything rash. I summoned Mrs. Yeoman Farmer, lit the animal up with the spotlight, and asked MYF if she thought it was a cat. “No way,” she replied. We agreed it was definitely a possum. And I figured it was stalking the barn cats which congregate on the back porch at night.

MYF held the spotlight on the possum, to “freeze” it, while I dashed upstairs to retrieve what may be the most essential of farm tools: a 12-gauge Mossberg pump action shotgun. Back on the porch, I racked a shell of 00 Buck into the chamber, disengaged the safety, and lined the little predator up in my sights from about 25 feet away. One squeeze of the trigger, and he fell through the branches. He was still gripping the branch with that long muscular tail, and at first I wasn’t sure I’d landed a lethal blow. But before I had to waste a second shot, he dropped to the lawn with a thud — and it was clear from the wound that he wasn’t “playing possum.”

Just another night, living in the country, and marveling at the way all these different tools can work together for the safety of our property. And grateful that I’d remembered to give the spotlight a full charge the night before. And invested in a bulk case of 00 Buckshot, so we’d never have to worry about having some close at hand when we needed it.

Boots

We had a nasty winter storm move in last night. There wasn’t much snow, but the temperatures dropped from the upper thirties yesterday afternoon down to about 10F overnight, with winds approaching gale-force speeds. The snow we did get has been blowing and drifting everywhere, and the roads have a good coating of ice on them. Getting into the upper thirties yesterday seems to have melted the snow we got over the weekend…and going into the teens last night turned that stuff into ice. Especially with the winds and the whipping/blowing snow, I’m not venturing off the property today. I’m just glad I brought plenty of firewood in yesterday, ahead of the storm; the wind has now deposited a fairly substantial snowdrift in front of the wood pile.

Unfortunately, when you have livestock, it’s still necessary to venture out to the barn a few times a day no matter what the weather. (But the Yeoman Farm Children are happy that the goats are not in milk right now.)We’re keeping the barn doors closed tightly, and the animals have generated enough body heat to keep their downstairs area in the mid-thirties. The big bonus of that: their water has remained liquid.

But, milk or no milk, I’ve had to go out to the barn. And it’s impossible to express how thankful I was this morning for having made a certain investment: good boots. When we first moved to the country, my temptation was to cut corners and buy cheap rubber boots from Wal Mart. We quickly discovered, however, that cheap boots are no bargain. When you wear boots every time you go outside, those boots take a lot of abuse. Cheap rubber boots literally fall apart after just a couple of months of getting that kind of use. And even before they become completely unusable, they leak moisture; there are few things as uncomfortable as wet socks on a ten degree morning in Michigan.

The solution we settled on long ago: invest in a good set of high quality boots. Yes, they cost substantially more at first — but they easily pay for themselves because they last so much longer. My favorites are made by a company called Muck, and they’re available for sale at most feed stores (the company’s website has a dealer locater that will help you find a place nearby). There are places that sell Muck Boots online with free shipping, but their prices don’t seem much better (if at all) than the local feed store. I’ve never bought these things online. Besides wanting to support a local small business, I also like being able to try the boots on and make sure they fit comfortably. They are a big investment, and I’d be miserable for the next year if they were a little too tight or a little too loose.
Muck makes several models of boots, depending on the application, but all of them are very solidly made and with care should last a full year on the farm. We usually get the Chore model, in either mid-calf or “high” height. The taller ones are heavier, and can make your legs feel tired more quickly after a long day of walking around, but on a cold day with blowing/drifiting snow they are sure nice to have.
When you’re thinking about moving to the country, boots probably aren’t high on your list of things to acquire. They certainly weren’t on our radar. But good boots should be among the very first investments you make. And in our experience, it’s hard to go wrong with anything from Muck.