Sunday, November 28, 2010

Snow blues -- elsewhere for a change!

When you live in a snowy place you look out to see how others manage when their conditions begin to approximate yours. I'm not sure why. Morbid curiosity, perhaps. Last year's arctic oscillation proved interesting in this respect, with a great volume of snow dumped on mid-Atlantic states (that do get snow regularly, but not usually that much), and on the whole island of Great Britain, which was quite beautifully covered in snow from head (John o' Groats) to foot (Land's End) for the first time in living memory.

Britain's early snow this weekend was illustrated by the Guardian today, including a series of pictures from some old haunts of mine, including a pub on top of the North Yorkshire Moors where my old RAF Mountain Rescue Team would sometimes drink beer and sing songs till dawn, some kind of reenactment of a Yorkshiremen's Valhalla.

Hard to imagine from where I sit today that we could pack fifteen from our team and twenty-five from the Cleveland Team (we called them the "Bonington beards" because so many were hirsute, like their namesake) and raise the rafters like that. But we did.

Those were the days.

(And for this, I get a pension?)

One such night, shorter than some, saw us safely wrapped in our "green slug" RAF-issue sleeping bags by two or three in the morning, after multiple rounds of brew and chorus, not too shabby a craic.

At seven or so I stumbled out of my bag in a fresh gale to find our duty cook, young Eugene O'Grady (of great fame and splendor whose spirited rendition of Danny Boy in a London Irish accent would have the entire team rolling in fits of laughter by the end of the first chorus), struggling to hold onto the roof pole of his standard NATO 12 x 12 green canvas cook shack with one hand, while trying manfully to fry compo-ration sausages with the other.

That was all very interesting at the time, but what was really interesting was that the entire inside of the tent, and indeed of the tent I'd slept in, had I noticed while getting up, was covered in an inch of rime ice, brought down with the winds straight from Svalbard and points north.

So I know first-hand what winter can bring to the Lion Inn above Hutton le Hole. Other than a lock-in with no possibility of police intervention.

Aimee, by the way, loves those old British place names like Hutton le Hole. She thinks they're hilarious. I find them more serious, indicative of previous failed struggles. Like any good fan of Robin Hood and Saxon freedoms, I blame the Norman Invasion for such inanities. That out-of-place le is a dead giveaway. Most of the area around Hutton was "ethnically cleansed" by William the Conqueror in retribution for northern resistance to the 1066 invasion. If the nasty buggers, the root and branch of Britain's aristocracy, had only stayed in perfidious bloody France where they belong, all conceivable wrongs would undoubtedly be righted and Britain would be a class-free society and I would never have abandoned it to come to America and get my rightful education. A thousand years of tribulation, and the Tories can still win power with an Old Etonian like Cameron? I'm sure he's of Anglo-Norman ancestry. He can't possibly be a proper Scottish Cameron.

But I digress. Back to Eugene and the sausages.

There was no breakfast that day. The wind and ice forbade it. Instead we did what the best-trained British military units have always been able to do smartly in the face of adversity. We retreated, to use a hated Norman-ism, post-haste. Like Napolean from Moscow, in perfect disarray. Abandoning our erstwhile landlord and friends at the pub to their silly weather, we struck camp in ten minutes flat, just before camp struck us, rolled our tents into giant snowballs, eight men needed to throw each one into the back of the four-ton truck, and our four Land Rovers then followed the said four-ton, four-wheel drive, military truck down the moors roads like little unhappy ducklings after their mother duck.

By the time we got to the Vale of York a thousand feet lower, the sun was shining, it was a warm sunny Sunday afternoon, the snow had melted, and we wondered why the hell we'd run away so quickly.

Ah, the memories. Wonder how well I'd do clearing the snow on the Great Farm after six hours of drinking and singing and three hours of sleep these days.

I think it would probably kill me dead.

Some of my regular UK farm blogs are also worried about the snow.

Life at the End of the Road has to take pigs to the butchers Monday, in what may be a blizzard. I'm sympathetic. Trucking pigs anywhere is stressful enough, but having to take them across the Highlands in a blizzard is adding insult to injury, even if you are driving a Land Rover and pulling a proper trailer. And, like it is here in Maine, apparently there's only one day you can take them!

We're lucky that our butchers have always been able to work with us when we've had difficulties.

While Stonehead was up to his thighs already by Friday, with several days snow more to go.

Remember, if in doubt, follow Monty Python's advice, and the traditions of RAF Leeming Mountain Rescue, and Robin Hood and all good Saxon bandits, and the entire nation of France, for that matter,

Run away, run away!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A cat for a hat

I've heard of a bearskin hat and a coonskin hat, but never seen a catskin hat, complete with cat still in the skin.

Disclaimer: No cats were harmed in the production of this blog post.

(One was, however, slightly annoyed.)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Doing Sweet Fanny Adams

Photo: Today's celebratory breakfast, otherwise know as cardiac-emergency-on-a-plate. See below for provenance.

In UK slang (of 25 years ago or more), that phrase (doing sweet Fanny Adams) means doing nothing much at all. Which isn't quite true. We've both been doing things. But we've been doing them at our pace and more or less on our schedule, with large bouts of rest and proper amounts of exercise.

And I am getting over that cold.

So things are in much better shape than they were. We're getting it "sorted," and will be happy enough to go back to work and finish up the semester.

Funnily enough, and speaking of UK slang, my lovely and very American wife asked me yesterday when I came back from my job delivering the meat to the Womerlippi Farm pig club members, whether I'd "got the pigs sorted."

Hah! She's becoming British-ised.

(The reverse of Americanized, spelled with an "s" instead of a "z," of course.)

Funny, that. I wonder where she picked that up? That useful truncated phrase, "sorted" (for "sorted out") was not actually part of the internal lexicon of UK slang I bought with me to America in 1986. I picked it up myself since then, from TV or from visits home. And now Aimee has picked it up from somewhere too, most likely me.

Imitation is the sincerest from of flattery. But now I've written that, we'll know if Aimee reads this because she'll never use it again. She's that kind of stubborn.

So what have we done since our vacation started?

Saturday, as reported below, was largely rest. Sunday saw me drive over to the Bale House to investigate problems with the solar power system. The new occupant had reported difficulties over the last week or so. It took me some dithering with a multimeter to narrow down the problem, and indeed, I went back again on Tuesday before I had it completely isolated, but it was definitely the Cobra 1000 watt inverter, which we installed as part of the general repair after the much higher quality Trace 600 watt inverter was fried because the former occupants disconnected the ground wire.

I had managed to soak this new inverter thoroughly with water during the plumbing repairs, and so I wasn't surprised to see it quit on us. Either the soaking, or the fact that we've been using it to run a small 110 volt pump that draws quite a bit of power, resulted in the control system developing an intermittent fault. When you turn the inverter on now, nine times out of ten or so, it goes to directly to the low voltage override, even when there's a decent battery charge. Of course, I had to prove to myself that the batteries were not actually providing low voltage, which took a full day of sun.

I ordered a new inverter, another Cobra, a bit more powerful at 1500 watts, but I won't throw the old one away until I've taken it apart and looked for water damage or a loose connection.

So that was what I did on Saturday and yesterday morning, which is to trace and solve electrical and electronic faults at the Bale House, including the failed phone line. You wouldn't think that a primitive, off-grid, home in the woods would require that much technology, but it does, for the simple reason that all the power supply equipment, and all the phone equipment and the phone line until you reach the connection on the telephone pole on the road a thousand feet away, well, it all belongs to us, not the power company or phone company.

So we have to fix it if it breaks.

I can't actually remember what I did Monday. Brain fart. Senior moment. Put me in the Aberdare General next to me old mum.

Now I remember. I bought two new tires and an oil change for for Aimee's Camry. Took all day, too, to get the work done. But it was raining, so it didn't matter much.

Tuesday afternoon was the great annual Womerlippi farm pork product distribution day. I motored in the pouring rain over to Maple Lane Butchers in Charleston, Maine, where I picked up a full Ford Escort wagon-load of assorted pork and smoked pork product. Then I motored back to Jackson, where I stuffed the first pig, all seventy pounds or so, into our own freezer. The second and third pigs then went to the other pig club members in Unity and Freedom. Of course, they didn't drive themselves.

The great annual North Waldo pig tour.

(Don't you love all the wonderfully utopian names of villages and towns in Waldo County, Maine: Unity, Hope, Freedom, Liberty, Union, and my personal favorite, Albion. The reason we have such great names is because the Maine frontier was settled by "Liberty Men," Jeffersonian Republicans, many of whom fought in the Revolutionary War. They bought land from, but hated, the great proprietors such as Israel Thorndike, who made the original Great Farm.)

The pig club members were pretty happy to get their pork.

I was a little disappointed in the quantities: the three pigs came in at 166, 173, and 177 pounds, respectively, which is a good weight for lean pork, but produced much less total dressed weight than last year's four 200 and 210 pounders, for what seemed like about the same amount of feed. And I don't mind eating fattier chops. I quite like them, if they're properly done. But we started a month later, with smaller piglets to boot, and although it seemed like we gave them plenty of feed, we probably fed less total because there were only three and not four pigs and because we fed them for a month less. The numbers will tell all, when I do the receipts in March, for the taxes.

But, slight disappointment aside, the reward for all this piggery pokery was, of course, pork chop and mashed potato and pickled red kraut for dinner. Sehr gut, danke.

And now, today, our own bacon and eggs and tomatoes for breakfast. I haven't had any bacon for four months, since we ran out.

Once you've tasted your own, you'll never go back to store-bought.

Today's job is to trace a clunk in the Camry's suspension, seeming audible only to the female of the species, as well as to pick up our Thanksgiving turkey from our 16-year old Amish farmer.

Thanksgiving, in PA Dutch.

Veilen danke.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Weakened before Turkey Day

And I mean weakened, not weekend. I know the difference, too.

I was exhausted this morning, after the first eleven weeks of the semester came to a close and we made it to our second midterm holiday. This one is for a full week plus two weekends, and unlike the previous four day October midterm holiday, I've manage to protect myself against big work projects, and Aimee seems to be in pretty good shape too.

Which is good, because I'm very tired.

Yesterday we had a SAR call-out for the Unity College team, which was more exciting than office work, for sure, but it came at the end of a period that had seen me do a lot of office work, and not get too much exercise, so to drive to the other end of Maine and bushwack around in the woods and bogs and then drive back cold and wet was pretty hard.

To cap it all I've got another Unity College cold. Not a really bad one, but not much fun either.

So I slept for a good seven hours last night, which wasn't enough. And then today I took another two-hour nap, and woke up very groggy.

By the mid afternoon I was starting to feel myself again.

But rather than get into any big jobs around the farm, which in any case I would have plenty of time to do next week, I just wandered around and said hi to all the critters and took pictures.

Except that durn rooster, Cheryl Roethlisburger Crow. I took pictures of him, but after he attacked me, I wasn't going to say hi to him.

But I did take his picture.

He likes to stand in high places and crow at us. Here he is on one of the pens in the barn. Maybe we should make him a platform on the barn roof.

Haggis and I went to get a gallon of milk. It's funny how he loves to stare out of the window while being driven. Going down to our local store is a fun treat for him.

The sheep were going in and out of the barn to eat hay, through the two doors they now have on the north side. They do seem happy with the overall effect.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Aimee really does hate having her picture taken, doesn't she? But I had finally gotten the battery on my replacement camera charged up. I needed to take a photo of something interesting.

And her mum and dad will log onto GFD and get a laugh out of their daughter being camera shy as always.

For a while there I thought I had wasted $20 on a secondhand digital camera. It came with a dead lithium battery and no battery charger. The need for a charger was unexpected, because this is the third Sony camera I've had, all from the same model line, all secondhand, and the previous two used AA batteries. But this replacement has a bespoke unit that needs a special charger. But, of course, a cheap Chinese knock-off charger was soon found online for only $7 and it worked fine.

Only problem I can see: I have a whole clutch of rechargeable AAs now, and nothing much that I can do with them.

It took a couple hours to charge up the battery, and another hour of tinkering to figure out why the pictures wouldn't download -- memory card failures, is my best guess, because it worked fine using the newest such card.

Finally we had it all working, except that for some reason we can't erase pictures from the computer. They have to be erased from the camera menu.

I expect if I were to get a brand new memory card, this problem would also go away.

I don't have much luck with cameras. Because I keep this blog, and because I'm always looking for interesting pictures for college classes in energy and energy efficiency and rural life skills, I tend to carry it with me everywhere. The first Sony camera I had fell out of my pocket into the sheep's water bucket. The second one was poached when I spilled hot coffee on it in the truck because I lost my temper because some local codger was tootling along on the first day of hunting season, looking for his dream buck (dream on, granddad -- or actually leave the road to hunt!) and so like a teenager I floored the truck to pass him at an intersection, and spilled the java on the camera.

So, on Aimee's sage advice, I only buy secondhand units, and, my own contribution to the scheme, I always get the same model so I have replacement parts and hardware such as all those memory cards.

So far so good. Three cameras, less than $100. If I'd bought three new ones, that might have been $1,000.

How long do you think this one will last? The pool is on the left.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Getting it sorted, and the bitter end

That very British phrase, "getting it sorted," or just "sort it," applies to this recent GFD entry.

We've been enjoying brilliant weather thanks to an "omega block." This is a very stable weather pattern for us because the jet stream gets, essentially, stuck.

If you don't like the weather in Maine, the saying goes, wait a few minutes. It's really not quite that fast, but you get the idea. The jet stream generally changes Maine weather from warmer to cooler and back again every few days, with storm fronts associated with most of the changes. But a "blocking high" of sufficient magnitude can hold the jet stream in place for a week or more. In summer this is murder because we sweat and the bugs are rampant. In November, without a blackfly to be found, this is bliss. The omega block twists the jet stream into the shape of the Greek letter Ω. The only Mainers who might dislike this weather would be the deer hunters, whose woods get noisier every day as the leaves dry out.

It's hard to stalk a deer, or even get in to your tree stand quietly, if every step puts out 45 decibels!

But I'm a farmer, not a hunter. Good working weather any time of the year is bliss, but especially this time of year when we need it most but are least expecting it.

The good weather, combined with a relatively moderate workload now and for the next couple of weeks for both the Womerlippi professors, has meant we've been able to do the pig/sheep transition chores easily in the hour or so of daylight after this last week of work, and on Saturday afternoon.

The transition chore switches the use of the main pen of the barn from a pig sty to a sheep shelter, and requires us to 1) get the pigs off to the butchers, 2) remove about a ton and a half of already-begun-to-rot bedding and manure from the pig sty to the compost area, 3) dry and sweep the pig sty (usually it doesn't dry nearly as easily because we get rain and therefore humidity in the fall), 4) repair any damage (pigs being pigs), and 5) put in bedding as well as feeding and watering hardware for the sheep.

This dual-use space works well and has done so for three full cycles now, although the transition doesn't always go as smoothly as it did this year because of our college workload. The farm is set up to require only twenty minutes work morning and evening, with major routines like pig butchering and compost-making occurring at intervals on the weekends or holidays. But we get weekend schoolwork too, and so if, for instance, pig-butcher-transport day occurred on the same day as a midterm grading project, things would not work out well.

This year we refined this system by adding a new door so the sheep no longer have to traipse through the compost area to get into their new shelter. That was yesterday afternoon's job, right after Open House at Unity College in the morning.

So I spent the morning shaking parents' hands and explaining what job prospects little Johnny might have, assuming he could get through four years of college science, and then to start my afternoon I fired up my number two chainsaw and cut a big hole in the side of my barn, re-enacting a scene from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

This was an interesting experience for me because to get the chainsaw cuts to align well with the studs of the barn, and to not weaken any studs, I cut from the inside out, and so the barn filled up with blue two-cycle engine smoke. Then I sistered in some cripples and a header. By then I needed a nap. (Talking to 17 year olds is tiring.)

After the nap, I made a dutch door, fitted it, and then let in the sheep.

They seemed quite pleased with the remodeling.

Today we'll fix the tractor which has sprung a coolant leak, and then use it to mix the wet manure from outside the barn with the drier stuff from inside, so that both compost faster. Moisture is important for making compost. Too wet and you get stinky anaerobic decomposition, too dry and you don't get decomposition at all.

We may also take poor old Tootsie to the butchers, if they have time to "do" her. We made this decision while driving to school yesterday, although we gave it some thought. We think this would very likely be her last winter. She's just old. And although otherwise sound, she's been barren now for several years, and now lame for five weeks. If she's going to stay lame, she'll not eat well, and things will go downhill from there. Better to take her now, and have it be an easy end, than to let her die of some dread sheep disease that lasts for days in the winter or spring cold.

And if she does get a disease, she can't be eaten, which is a waste.

We have three retired ewes like her, but the other two aren't lame, and it's good to have an older ewe around who knows "what's what," to keep everyone else sensible. Older ewes have a calming effect.

In any case, we wouldn't have freezer space for all that meat. Best to spread them out over time, while we "bring on" replacement matriarchs.

Sad, but sensible. And a necessary part of running a farm.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Appeal of the Poppy

My American students and the employees of Unity College have been wondering why I'm walking around at work with a cheap paper poppy on my sweater.

But I got tired of the American hyper-politicized ridiculousness about service and Remembrance and decided that, durn it, I'm British, I always was British, I always will be British, even if I chose to live in New England not Old, and I would have to have my own, private (if necessary), good old-fashioned British-style Remembrance Day.

Here in the States it's become purely offensive to me how the entrenched the political posturing about "supporting our troops" has become. And how far removed from the simple sentiment of being grateful for service and sacrifice made by others in your name. Stupidity reins on the left and the right, and in the middle the great mass of Americans seem as if they could care less.

So the British Legion's annual poppy appeal has come to symbolize for me how this particular season should be celebrated.

How many British people wear a British Legion poppy this time of year? I'm not sure, but it's probably a very large majority, a massive consensus that cuts across party lines and social, religious, and ethnic classes.

Why do the British wear their poppies? To remember the 3-4 million servicemen of the home islands and former colonies who gave their lives in World War I and II, and to celebrate the service given by everyone who has ever served in the British armed services.

Without which we might easily still be a vassal state of Nazi Germany, or we might easily have been overwhelmed by a Soviet attack, without which the Falkland Islanders would have been forced to become Argentine citizens and probably second- or third-class ones at that, without which Northern Ireland would probably have been reduced to rubble, and without which there would be no possibility of a democratic Iraq or Afghanistan at all.

For myself, I gave what in the end will probably be about ten percent of my life to the Royal Air Force, and particularly the Mountain Rescue Service, and lost only my immaturity, my virginity, which I was desperate to lose anyway, some belly fat (which somehow has now returned to me), and most of both ACL knee ligaments in the process. Out of this bargain, I gained the confidence necessary to pursue advanced studies and work on the most difficult problems in the world, as well as the more mundane but invaluable ability to make or fix just about anything I want to.

It was a good deal and I'll never regret it.

Although I would like those ligaments back one day.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A blog detractor

First picture: Hog rearing on a large scale industrial farm.

Second picture: Aimee being cruel to animals on our farm

Interesting. A comment on the blog post the other day comes from a Bea Elliot, a vegetarian detractor of meat-eating. Here it is:

Bea Elliott said...

The human body does not "need" meat to thrive. We can do fine on a plant base diet. These animals - Or rather these small babies that are about to die are being killed for the taste of their flesh alone... Perhaps it's about time you examined your compassionate soul and spared the innocent from your gluttony?

November 8, 2010 5:23 PM

And my response:

Bea, you make four points, near as I can see, of which I agree with two. The remainder reveal some difficulties with your understanding of agriculture.

1) I agree, there's no need for humans to eat meat. What we need are proteins and lipids.

2) We can get by just fine on a balance of the proteins and fats found in some plants.

3) These animals are about to die, to feed us and five other families, about fifteen people. Including several children. These are not heavy meat-eating families. All of us in the pig club buy local food and wholefoods and base our diets largely on that. The Womerlippis tend to eat what we grow in the farm. My wife is vegetarian, so her diet is more restricted -- she has to buy more food than I do. [Explanation, not in my original response: Aimee uses more "convenience" foods and commercially prepared foods than I do, because my preferred diet, with a little meat included, can mostly be grown on our farm.] I eat meat perhaps five meals a week. I don't think this adds up to gluttony, and if you do think so, you are not making careful distinctions, nor are you attacking the most problematic sources of animal cruelty -- particularly industrial farming systems.

4) The main reason we grow livestock is to make use of plants unpalatable to humans, and to fertilize our vegetable gardens. Animals are needed to complete the nitrogen and other cycles to grow plant foods. The two go together. Here in Maine, at 527 feet above sea level, livestock agriculture is the most viable land use. It's also interwoven in our case with the need for compost for our vegetable garden, and in general in Maine, manure is the primary source of fertilizer on many farms. There are plant-based ways to complete these cycles, cover crops and the like, but none are as effective as manure cycling systems. Other key elements also work well, so, for instance our free range hens eat all the slugs that otherwise hurt our plants. But that means one of them occasionally ends up in the pot, like for instance the time a few blogs ago when a hawk tore a whole in one of our hens.

So in general, in northern climate agriculture, and for at least 6,000 years, my British Isles farming ancestors used animals and plants together in ecological combination. This is, to my mind, the definition of the word "sustainable."

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Piggery problem solving

Old photo: (Camera still buggered.) These pigs are a lot easier to handle when they're only this size.

Our general lack of capital, and need to make do with what we have around the farm, has frequently caused exceptional amounts of extra, otherwise unnecessary, work and yesterday was a case in point.

I spent about four hours making a lash-up rig to safely load our three gilts in a trailer for transfer to the slaughterhouse on Tuesday.

We've done this before, of course, but it's never gone that easy. What we need is a sturdy metal livestock trailer. But that would cost upwards of $2,000 which we've never had to spend on one. If I had that kind of extra money lying around, I'd always have several other things to spend it on first.

So we make do.

We've tried transporting them in the pick-up truck bed with the truck cap on, but those caps are pretty flimsy, and strong pigs can put much more pressure on it than seems safe. We've built crates and winched the crates with pigs on board into the truck bed, having determined that loading them via a ramp doesn't work. We learned to put tops on the crates after one pig escaped by rocking his crate until it tipped over. Crates with tops work but it's stressful, to say the least, for man and pig.

We have built our own livestock trailer out of wood and sheet plastic on a second-hand trailer chassis, and that worked very well for lambs, but I twisted the chassis while backing it into the barn, which led to tire blow-outs on the road, and so we never got to try it on the pigs. Luckily the blow-outs happened after the livestock were dropped off.

Now we use that old trailer around the farm only, so as not to have to buy new tires every twenty miles.

The best year was last year, when, after a good deal of difficulty with a crate, we borrowed a sturdy trailer from the slaughterhouse. That worked well. There's still the problem of loading them, but experience has shown that pigs given time to get used to a trailer will go in and out of it just fine, especially if that's where their food is delivered for a few days prior to their slaughterhouse date.

This year I have the loan of another sturdy trailer, only not quite as tall, in return for the promise of ten pounds of pork. Last year's had no top, but it was tall. This year I was able to fit the old truck cap to the top of the borrowed trailer. Then I maneuvered the trailer into the barn and organized temporary rigs to hold it firmly in place, and prevent it from rocking on its wheels, so the pigs can go in and out as they please.

I plan to feed them in the trailer for the next few days to build up their confidence in the thing.

Tuesday afternoon, I hope to lure them into the trailer with a good feed and then sneak around the back, slam the tailgate on them, and off we'll all go to bacon-land. Evil pig-betrayer that I am.

Hopefully all goes well. Wish me luck.

Ordinarily I feel pretty sorry for myself this time of year because I don't have a nice livestock trailer, even a little one like the one seen regularly on Life at the End of the Road.

But reading my regular round of farm blogs this morning, I came across this monstrous episode of difficulty for another pig farmer, Stonehead near Aberdeen in Scotland.

British firearms regulations prevent him from owning a gun. Read the terrible tale of how much extra effort, pain for the animal, and danger, was caused by this situation. I'm no great Second Amendment advocate, and I certainly think automatic firearms sales should be controlled, but it seems to me that every farmer needs a gun to keep his animals safe and to put them down when they get injured.

So, I may not have the money for a nice livestock trailer, but at least I do have my trusty 30-30 caliber rifle hanging safely on its (child-proof, locked-down) rack on the wall of my den, to use in cases like this. That, perversely, made me feel better after my four hour's work yesterday.

Still, reading yet another of my regular blogs gave me another idea. Colour it Green Diary butchered their own pig. They didn't slaughter it. British regulations prevent that. But they got it back cut only into sides, and then butchered and cured it themselves. Here in Maine, we could do the whole process ourselves. Experience has proved that shooting our own animals is much easier on the animal than taking them to the slaughterhouse. And we could process our own pork. We'd need a scalding tub of sufficient size for a whole pig, a scalding table, and a small smoker, but we'd be allowed to do it all, here in Maine. We regularly process sheep at home, whenever circumstances prevent their being taken to the butchers.

But I like the service we get from the butchers. Particularly I like the vacuum-packing/flash freezing process, which makes certain that the meat is very high quality and keeps for a long time. I just found an old package of pork sausage in the bottom of our freezer and ate it. The fat in the sausage had gone a little rancid, but this was after two whole years! Ordinarily, meat wrapped in butcher paper is good for a year, that's all. And the butchers do a great job of smoking and making sausage.

And I'm pretty sure if we explained all this to our pig club members, they'd agree, and want the full packaging service too.

One day, most likely in my retirement, with careful husbandry of finances, I will have a proper set-up: a purpose concrete-and-stone pig sty with a large, sturdily fenced run suitable for a half dozen active porkers, additional woodland runs with electric fencing so pigs get to root the way a pig should, a concrete pad for making compost out of pig bedding without losing nutrients to run-off, chutes from the pigs' sty and a loading ramp specially designed to back a trailer onto, and a proper metal livestock trailer that requires only a swift spray with a hose, and, of course, a "proper farmers" long-wheel-base, diesel, Land Rover to pull said trailer.

Oh, the pork we'll raise then! We'll feed the world. Or that part of it that eats pigs, at least.

One day. One fine day.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Hay there

Sheep eke grass and eat apples last fall

I've been spending time with the sheep, watching their feeding habits. There are inherent trade-offs between winter confinement needs and summer grazing in any livestock operation, and our operation is not made easier to figure out by being of such tiny scale.

This is the very tail end of the grazing season here in Maine. The sheep are more and more confined to two paddocks. The non-breeding half of the flock, this year's ewe lambs and the three retired ewes, are in the North Paddock. The four breeding ewes and the ram are in the Back Forty. They only get moved on occasion, particularly to eat apples, of which a few remain on a handful of our many trees.

It would be better for the grass to have them all in one small spot, a sacrifice area, close by their winter shelter which is the barn, but we don't have the fences for that yet, nor the money to buy them yet, and I haven't seen a huge need to provide them sooner rather than later.

In any case we need to have these two groups, not one. We prefer not to breed yearling ewe-lambs. We notice that they don't fill out fully until the fall of their second year, and so although they can be bred the fall of their first year, we don't allow this. This means we need more space than we otherwise would each fall. We would either need two sacrifice areas, and two substantial winter shelters, or we have to accept some damage to one of our paddocks.

The grass has long stopped growing in all our paddocks, and any graze that can be used is highly unlikely to recover before spring, so if the sheep find grass at all, it has to be from an area they overlooked before. They spend considerable amounts of time wandering their paddocks looking for such areas. And the graze gets reduced to a very thin layer indeed.

High pressure. Not optimal.

We don't allow this to happen in the spring. Then, with the ram gone and lambs coming, we do confine them yet further to the North Paddock, allowing the Back Forty to grow a thick sward before it gets used again. And I do notice they finish up a lot of weeds and previously unpalatable plants this time of the year. But still, it bothers me that this, our largest paddock, gets so much hammer.

Since this area has a lot of deciduous trees and legumes, fertility doesn't seem to be a huge problem yet. It grows back fairly well each year. But it won't do so forever.

If I had a few extra hundred dollars to spend on fences, I would, but at this point in our married life, a few hundred dollars would go towards an additional trip to Britain to see my ailing mother in hospital, not the fences. The fences will have to wait.

Hay, on the other hand, is abundant this year in Maine, if of uneven quality as always. The other day, I counted just under 200 bales in our barn. But I also sorted it by quality, and have been experimenting with feeding the different kinds to see how best to use it.

We have about 20 bales of thick brown stemmy stuff that the sheep will eat only if there's nothing else to eat. That stuff is getting used for pig bedding. If there's any left this winter it will be used for sheep bedding. But we'll need some eating hay to go with it.

We have 120 bales of two-year old hay that they will eat fairly happily.

The 30 bales I just bought last week from one of our local Amishmen don't seem to interest them very much at all so far. There's a lot of red-top in there, which I'm guessing is why. We'll have to mix this in with better stuff.

Finally, I just used the last of about 20 bales of this year's hay from a different Amish farm that I thought were put up too soon. And they probably were shaved pretty close, in terms of moisture content. I expected them to mold. But they were also packed very tight, which seems to compensate a little, and so they haven't molded yet.

And the sheep are eating this very much more eagerly than any other kind.

These are 80 pound bales. They cost more than any other hay we've bought this year, at $3 a bale, but we get 20 pounds more, and it all gets eaten.

So I plan to go back to that farm and get another 30 or 40 bales. One bale of middle quality hay feeds our flock for a day in winter. The way we feed, what the sheep don't eat becomes bedding, which is piled up as deep bedding and becomes compost. We expect, and need, some waste of fodder to make bedding. This isn't a waste of money because straw is hard to come by and expensive in our region.

There has to be some bedding hay and some eating hay given each day, so if I get a few more of these very high quality 80 pound bales, I'll be able to make best use of any lower quality bales remaining by mixing the two.

What a lot of thought, and finessing of variables, particularly nutrition, soil fertility, cost, breeding, bedding and manure management, has to go into the care of a tiny flock of sheep!