Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Let's Catch Up Shall We?

It's been a while.  Ahem.  Sorry about that.

Things are crazy as ever.  Maisy is better, in fact the vet was out today for a milk sample and some calf wrangling (impressive stuff people.  It was like a real life rodeo in my barn this afternoon.)  He said she looked great - and I had to agree.  Her milk production is back and while not as robust as before it's still more than this family can drink in a day.  (We currently average 2 gallons.  Milking, not drinking that is.)


Carmel finally had her babies - twin boys named Sam and Little.  Unfortunately Carmel is proving a less than attentive mother.  A usual afternoon goes something like this:  Carmel sees food - hay, dropped grain, whatever - and bolts off often leaving her wee babes abandoned in the barn.  This isn't so troubling now as the boys have wised up and figured out how to follow Momma out - but the first few days?  Little crying baby goats tucked in random corners and under wheelbarrows and generally acting pitiful and unloved.


Not cool, Carmel.  Not cool.

Needless to say Carmel's days are numbered here.  The boys are already on craigslist and we hope to find homes for them and Carmel, too.  We're not goat people it turns out.  At least not these goats and at least not right now.

Yesterday we sold Truffles and her baby girls to a lovely woman from Vacaville looking for living lawn mowers.  I am so grateful they'll all stay together - though can I just say?  I'm glad they'll be together somewhere else.

Did I mention we're not goat people?

We've corralled Steer into a stall since Monday and are working diligently to get some weight back on him.  Apparently while Maisy was sick and we were tending her and the many sick babies in our house he lost some weight.  Cows are funny creatures - they lose weight in a hurry and then take for-eh-ver to put it back on.  We thought keeping him close and feeding him a little more of the high protien pellets and grain would be a good idea until we were confident that he wasn't going to keel over in the pasture.  The most likely cause of his rapid loss in condition are roundworms.  Like dogs and cats and other animals cows often get parasites.  In a grown cow it's not (usually) a big deal - their immune system is often strong enough to keep things in check and you'd never know.  In a calf under a year it'll take 'em down in a minute.  After just a few days (and a hearty worming treatment a week ago) he's already looking better.  We'll re-worm in a week just to be sure and then call it good.  All this rest is also good for his injured boy bits.  We still have no idea what happened there but it's looking less inflamed every day.

I'm so looking forward to a time when checking on Steer's bits isn't part of my day.

Seriously.

And finally: the chickens have started laying!  Oh yes - collecting eggs is now part of the barn chores.  What's great is this is a fun chore.  Unlike mucking stalls or giving shots.  There's no downside to looking for eggs.  Our girls are giving about 3 a day which means we probably have about 6 girls laying.  They start off slow - one every day or two and they're tiny.  Think quail eggs. It's hilarious.  I feel like a GIANT while making scrambled eggs in the morning.

It's the little things people.

The sun was out today, the pasture is starting to dry out, I'm finally thinking if I put seeds in the garden they wouldn't drown.

It's looking up around here.

Okay, it's looking like dried mud and pollen dust around here - but that's the way spring shows up in California.



Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Wednesday's Around Here

Heart racing.

Hands shaking.

Anxiety off the charts.

Major avoidance happening.

Not a first date.  (Or last date.)  

Not a meeting with an intense boss.

Not even close.

It's time to give Maisy her shots.

When she's sick (like yesterday) and you have an experienced vet on hand it looks like anyone could do it. A total novice.  A kid.  A trembling pregnant lady.

Then tonight rolls around and she's got her spunk back.  So when Josh goes to stick her in her rump just standing in the stall she jumps away and bellows.  Well that's not how it looked when the vet did it!

New plan: grab her halter and wrangle her into the milking stand, tie her 2 different ways and then use our combined weight to pin her against the wall.  Josh gets the shot in her rump with minimal lurching.  Then it's my turn - I'm by her head so I need to give her the one in the neck.

Gulp.  Focus.

Grab fold of skin.

Place needle against her fur.

Breathe.

Jab the needle into her skin.... Wait.

What?

Jab! Jab!!  JAB!

This isn't how it usually goes.

The needle will. not. go. in.

Josh steps in to take a turn.  Repeat.  Nothing.

What the hell?!

I try again.  I remember my sister's words: you're not hurting her you're just annoying her.

Right.

SHOVE!

In!  Depress the medicine (roughly the consistency of corn syrup, which makes it harder).  Step back and realize you're done.  Phew.  Walk Maisy back to her stall.

Breathe again.

Try not to think about how you'll be back doing it again in 23 hours and 58 minutes.  And for the next 5 days after that.

Then check in on the brand new baby goats in the next pen.  You know, the ones you helped clean up and get to nursing right after birth.

Close the barn door for the night and head in.

Feel just a little bit like a bad-ass farm girl.

It's just a usual Wednesday around here.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Notes on Maisy

Thoughts as we slogged through another long weekend:

When it rains, it pours.  Then it turns into mud.  Then you loose your boots.

Or, in other words, we're not out of the woods with Maisy yet.  Her fever returned along with a worse cough and runny nose.  The vet - who was out of the country - arranged for us to get another percription antibiotic (versus the over the counter one we tried last week) and some Banamine (which is more or less bovine advil).

We wrangled her into our newly discovered head catch, Josh managed to get the shot in (it can cause abortions in cattle so I wasn't allowed anywhere near the business end of that needle!).  It must have hurt like the dickens as she yanked her head out of the catch, backed out and walked around the paddock streching her neck and slobbering.  I wanted to cry.  Or hug her.  But she wanted NOTHING to do with me!  Her temp was down at that night's milking but spiked again this morning.  I could tell she was "off" (that's the technical term, ahem) by how hot she was to the touch and how alternately bratty and then docile she was at milking.

Que the Banamine (we have to keep the fever down while we wait for the meds to work).  We tried to run her into the catch again, but oh no!  She knows what happens there-and no thank you, crazy farmer lady.

Chased her around the pasture (imagine us, in PJs, barn boots, bed hair chasing a cow.  Go ahead, laugh.  You're welcome).  Finally got her back into the milk stand tied her up 2 different ways and Josh got the medicine in her.  It seemed to bother her but nothing like yesterdays shot.  She's back in the pasture eating and walking around and generally not liking me from a distance.

So, normal, for the moment.

There's the update from the farm.  I'll spare you the parts where the new steer calf is having issues at his castration site (ick!) and the irrigation pipe that burst in the middle of my garden.  That's fodder for a whole slew of other posts.

I will leave you with this however: (Because baby goats make everything better.  True story.)


Sunday, February 16, 2014

When It Rains, It Pours

If you live here in the Sacramento Valley you already know, but if not: it rained.  It rained good.  

4 solid days of steady rain meant puddles that could be loosely classified as a small lakes in our backyard.  And grass!  Glorious, chartreuse, tender leaves of sweet baby grass.  Hallelujah!

On the heals of this weekend of magical water we all got sick.  Of course.  And not just kinda sorta sick. Oh no.  The kind of sick where you get in bed and figure you're not coming out.  Ever.  It started with baby boy who was sick all over me Friday night (isn't being a mom fun?) fast forward 2 days and I'm sick, that night Izzy is sick... I think you can see where this is going.

This meant that thanks to the rain and illness it was almost a week before I really spent some quality time with the animals.  I'm happy to report the calves are starting to fill out (they came to us so scrawny!) and the baby goats are growing and spunky as ever. However Maisy was sneezing at her milking Thursday night and her milk production was down.

In the dairy cow world this is a BIG red flag of doom.  After milking her I grabbed my trusty barn thermometer and took her temp: 103.1 which is on the high side of normal - think 100ish degree range for a human.  Not bad, but not great either.  With sneeze, runny nose and low production it definitely wasn't great news.  So I called the vet at 8:30am on Friday (as early as I felt was civilized).

"So I think my cow has a cold," I inform him "what should I do?"

"Cow's don't get colds.  They get pneumonia, then they die."

GULP.  Come again?

Turns out her cute little sneeze wasn't a sneeze, that's a cow coughing.  Cow coughing with low fever during damp cold weather is pretty much always pneumonia.  Which goes from nothing to write home about to a dead cow in about 3 seconds flat.  Great.

Off I sprint to the feed store for antibiotics and a syringe plus a call to Josh who agrees to leave work for a few minutes to help me stick the cow.  I tell the feed store guy I need to inject 40ccs into my cow and do they have a syringe for that?  They hand me THE BIGGEST SYRINGE I HAVE EVER SEEN and an 18 gauge needle tip.  Gulp again.  Time to put on my big girl panties.  Save my cow.  All of that.

Now here's where is gets fun.  We've done injections before, right after Maisy calved we had to give her some oxytocin to help her uterus contract fully and prevent prolapse.  It was a breeze.  She stood there still as stone and Josh filled her up with the meds, easy peasy.  So we were pretty confident it would go equally well this time.

Not. even. close.  I forgot to take into consideration the tired, sick, worn out nature of my sweet cow that day. Today she was awake, well fed, rested and not pleased to be crammed in a corner with a sharp object under her skin.  She bucked, pulled and shoved against us with all 800 pounds of her pissed off self.

The thick antibiotic was barely dripping out of the needle, which is not what you're going for when you have 40ccs to go.  We got 5ccs in her before giving up for the time being.  I took her temp again, back to normal at 101. (Phew.  Not likely to be a dead cow today.)  I returned to the feed store and bought a smaller syringe and came back home.  After carefully reading the medicine insert it turns out you don't want to give more than 10ccs in one spot.  Phew.  Glad we figured that out.  After dinner we tackled the waiting medicine and now incredibly skeptical cow.

With two halters on her and Josh practically laying on her flank I was able to grab a pinch of skin, jam the needle in and plunge the medicine.  Refill what now seems to be the world's smallest syringe (sob!).  Repeat 3. more. times.

Angels sang, clouds parted, I almost cried in relief.  It was over.

We quickly untied Maisy who was trying to choke herself on the halter and offered lots of oats and petting. I  milked her and let her go into the pasture where she stood far away from me and glared with her angry cow eyes.

48 hours later her symptoms are gone and a disgruntled though mostly healthy cow is wandering the pasture again. All is right with the farm.  Now if only the people would just get better, too...

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Big O

When we set out to do this homestead thing we didn't have a plan.

Can you tell?  It's a little like insta-farm: just add water! around here.  Seriously.



Part of the reason we took this on, all 10 acres, all... let me count... 20 animals was simple.  We wanted to be closer to our food source.  And how much closer can you get than 100 ft I ask you?  Well, I suppose 2 ft... but the smell will make you thankful for those other 98.  Promise.

A lot of it came down to a lack of trust in our food supply: not trusting companies to raise our milk or meat in a humane manner.  Not trusting that those animals were given healthy, high quality food and access to pasture.  Not trusting the prevailing wisdom that non organic/GMO foods aren't bad for us.

Also I'm cheap.  Have you seen the price of organic grass feed beef lately?  Or chicken if you can find it? Ouch!  I rest my case.  Don't even get me started on organic raw milk.  Oh wait, you wanted to know, right?  $16 a gallon.  We drink 3 gallons a week.  Uh, nope.  Not in this lifetime, thanks!  Keeping something in milk has to be cheaper than that, we thought.

So we made plans for a garden (coming soon, like so. much. else.) and chickens and a goat for milk.  Then we went and plumb lost our minds and got a cow and then some other cows and here we are.


But are we organic?

No.  We're close.  That annoying moniker "All Natural" fits us exactly.

Why not?  Let me tell you, friend.  It's a good story.  (Ok, not really.)

What is it they say? Location.  Location.  Location.  It's a matter of availability.

The feed store we use the most is up the road from us.  We buy 90% of our feed and supplies from them.  The hay is not organic and we've not found a source local or otherwise that has it.  So right there we're off the "all organic" bandwagon.  Drat.  The pellets for the chickens and the livestock are organic - which we do purposefully.  Most conventional feeds are made with corn and soy - the two biggest GMO offenders out there.  In an effort of avoid GMOs we grab the twice as expensive bag-o-pellets and feel way better about it.

Modern dairy cow's bodies are built to produce milk on a grain ration, it's the nature of how modern herd management has changed their chemistry - keeping to that tradition and understanding that we can't always fight biology, we 'grain' our cow.  That means at milking twice a day she gets about 2 cups pellets (which is a feed concentrate) and 2 cups pure oats.  We also choose to use grain as it has a lower pesticide usage on average and is rarely GMO.  The goats also get the occasional toss of pellets (it's conveniently an "all feed" so everyone can enjoy it!).


The grain isn't organic and, again, I haven't found a local source for it.  But why not order it online?  Or drive somewhere that has it?

All good questions.  Ordering online is financially unfeasible for us: it often costs as much as the feed (usually $20-30 a bag) to ship.  As important as being organic is, we also have to be realistic.  Could we drive to other places that may have it?  The Bay Area, for instance, has been suggested to us - yes, quite possibly.  However keeping in mind that we're doing this evenings and weekends around a work schedule, kindergarten and the sheer bedlam of raising 3 kids it's just not practical.  At least not for us, and not right now.

In a perfect world I'd have a field of hay behind us and an acre of beets and an acre of.... oh heck I don't know... magic cow dust...?  Anything that would make it easier to be all organic, all the time.  Not happenin', as my daughter would say.


So have we compromised our morals?  Are we disappointed in the concessions we've had to make?

Not at all.  I've come to approach organic with a different heart.  For me organic has come to mean the whole picture, not just the food they eat.  The  pasture, the food and their life in general make up what I think the heart of organic is about: an animal raised as naturally as possible with as much respect as possible.  This makes up the total of their existence - to me the quality of their life goes a long way to making up for areas that may be lacking in their feed.  And that makes for milk and meat I'm proud to have raised, with or without it being truly organic.


Sunday, February 2, 2014

Farm Kids {Do they do help?}

It's a great question and one that I definitely get a lot.  Do my kids do anything more than make a mess, fill their diaper and generally add to my work load?

No. No they don't.

It's a travesty.  Really.  They're 3 extra animals I get to tend in my non exisitant spare time.  I'm exagerating, of course, and love them to pieces.  But they are worth thier weight in work, that's for sure!

The reason we don't give many chores to the kids right now is simple: they're not ready.  Isabel shows very little intrerst in the barn or animals.  We aren't ones to force anything on our kids - even this crazy lifestyle.  I respect her hesititation, the animals are loud and often bigger than she is.  Point taken.

Jack is just too little.  He would love to do more and we often have him carry about tools, bits of hay or pails of scraps but giving him specific tasks is still a ways off - which you'd expect as he's 18 months.



Abigail shows the most promise but needs much more practice being around the animals.  She has a willing and helpful spirit but lacks the skill and understanding to be useful.


Have you spent any time lately with the 8 and under crowd?  No?  Well the thing about them is they tend to move - fast.   They leap, hop, yell, grab, jab and generally move at hyper speed all the time.  The problem is that animals - cows especially - are flighty.  By which I mean they see very well but have many, many blind spots within their field of vision.  They are hardwired to shy away or run when startled.


You can imagine how often they startle with widgets bouncing around the paddock.  Which makes the kids jump back or holler.  Which makes the animals move away again.  Which makes.... Well you get the idea.  It's a vicious circle currently.


So, no, they don't help much now.  They're learning to move slowly, to have respect, to give space and consideration to these large animals.  When those lessons are mastered I fully expect they will be big helpers in the barn.  I have visions of a pint sized milker.  Of a mini hay hauler.  Even sweet Izzy has requested to collect the eggs.  As the needs change and as we all become comfortable with our new roles within the barn I foresee much help from our free labor. Ahem. Our children.


Until then they are chief cow nose scratcher and baby goat holder.


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Farm-side Chats

Consider this the part where I invite you in, pour you a cup of coffee and we get down to the business of getting to know each other.

Because, really, what's the fun of it otherwise?  And yes, before you ask, I have baked goods.  (A friendship without them is one I don't want to be a part of, thanks.)

So ask away good friends.  Post questions in the comment section and I'll be back to answer them in a day or two.

In the meantime I'll tackle a few of the questions that I get a lot.  So settle into the arm chair, refresh that cuppa-joe and imagine we're two buddies yacking away the dreary afternoon.

What made you decide to start living a farming lifestyle?
I can honestly say I'm not sure.  I think it started when I planted that first garden and just didn't feel like I was done.  My sister had moved from the city to a more rural section of our hometown and was getting chickens.  I was intrigued.  Then she sent me the book The Self Sufficient Life as a gift.  It painted a picture of a lovely bucolic lifestyle full of hard work and honest living.  It apparently appealed to the Amish in me.  Or the Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Whatever.



Is it as fun/rewarding/hard as you thought it would be?
Yes, and No.  Maybe.  (Pause while I add a large pour of Bailey's to my coffee.... Ahem)  It's about to get real here, people.  It's. Hard. Work.

We bought a pregnant cow and watched and waited as her due date came, and went.  And then went some more.  She was a whole month off.  That kind of mix up could give a girl heart problems.  Then her calf died in the birthing process even after a lot of coaxing and working and arms-in-a-cow-vag moments.  It was heart breaking.  Part of the investment in our cow was the hope to sell/eat her off spring thereby recouping our cost.   Instead we added a vet bill.  It was a hard drinking night if there ever was one.  Only I'm pregnant.  You can see my troubles.

But Veronica, you say - (sliding an apple fritter onto my plate, because really, how hard can life be with an apple fritter nearby?)  You have baby goats!  And chickens!  It can't be all bad, right?

No, it's not.  The chickens practically take care of them selves and while we're still not getting eggs (they'll be fully grown and ready to produce in the next month) - they are proving to be easy keepers.  The goat kids... oh those sweet little downy bleating piles of hope.  They make it all worth it.  So glad we're not goat eating people or I'd be all about the kale and vegetarian options right now.

So yes, it's hard work (look for a post soon on barn keeping featuring POOP! The Constant Companion!) but fun and rewarding and occasionally full of baby goats.

Now your turn, what deep dark farm related secrets do YOU want me to spill?


Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Road Home

I stood at my back door today and looked out over the back acreage - the prairie as I like to think of it. Past the orchard is the wild, untamed portion of our land.  The dry grass stands knee high and bends and blows gently in the wind.  I was taking a break from the kitchen to survey the yard, my loud unruly children and the vast expanse of earth past the line of trees.



In that moment I could understand the pull of the field, the untamed, the wild.  Why people left homes and family and cities behind and crossed the mountains and then went further until they carved out a homestead, a farm, a town from the nothing that had greeted them.

The wanderlust of our ancestors whispered to me across the ages.

I stepped out into the pasture to check on the animals and as I filled a bucket with water a gentle breeze kicked up, brushing my hair across my sun warmed cheek.  I looked out over the place we had carved out from nothing, the fence posts and barbed wire and mesh that blood and sweat and hard labor had put up and felt satisfied.  At peace.  The empty land behind my back called to me, begging me to tame it, turn it into something, till it under.  It was the whisper of promise.  Of possibility.  



The pioneer in me ached in response: the land was a siren and her song was spellbinding.

It was a moment of transcendence, of standing in the moment, in that field, and knowing down to my bones there was nothing else I would rather do, no where I would rather be, than looking out over my land.  Surveying my animals.  Tending my children.

There are so few moments in life that captivate so completely.  That speak in such silent volumes.

I was blessed that day with understanding.  It can be a mystery even to myself what would make a soul choose this life when there are so many other, easier, paths.  The part of me rose up to answer the wind over the grass spoke a truth: there is no other path for me.  This is the only road home.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Trump Card

So today I was going to tell you about the chickens.  The Great Chicken Toss and other boring things like feed and coop maintenance.

But you know what trumps chickens?  Goats.  Tiny little baby goats.

Every time.


I rest my case.

Meet Chocolate Chip.*  She and her sister Ice Cream* were born to veteran momma Truffles this afternoon while I was running errands.  Sometimes being a farmer is hard, like when your cow has a horrible birth that ends in a dead calf.  Then sometimes you go to a craft store, geek out on ribbons, decorations and fancy paper and get goat kids, too.  It's a crap shoot.

When I pulled up to the house I noticed something small and black in the paddock next to Truffles.  Hey I thought  we don't have anything tiny and black out there...  I wonder what that is?... OH MY GOD IT'S A BABY GOAT!

I may or may not have abandoned my own kids in the car to go check.

Ahem.

There were in fact two little bitty things running around.  Well, wobbling.  And bleeting.  Oh the little baby goat cries, they just melt your heart.

We moved momma and babies into the barn with a warming light as well as food and water.  Then we all stared at them.  Mainly we were wanting to see the kids nurse successfully but in their wee confused state they tried to nurse anything and everything but the teat.  Some long hair on Mom's tummy.  Her front leg.  The barn wall.

It was cute, is what it was.  Stupid cute, but still.

We are happy to report that before we wrapped up barn chores for the night we saw everyone get a healthy drink in.  Phew.  Now I can sleep tonight.


And as a farmer, that's no small thing.

*Names have not yet been approved or confirmed by the girls.  Fair warning that they may be named Barbie and Sprinkles by morning.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Where It Began {Or It's All the Book's Fault}

So it all started with some chickens.  No, wait, it started before that, with a book about chickens.  And goats.  And cows and gardens and orchards and sustainable living.  It's the book's fault.

So anyway, we used to have this house in a rural part of southern Buffalo where I put in a pretty decent sized garden (about 200 sqft) and then looked around and, well, wanted more.  I wanted those darn chickens but the county had rules against them.  Poultry tabled.  End of discussion.  Move forward a few years.

I have more books now.  With more advice.  Longer lists of plants and animals.  Helpful diagrams.

It's now a full blown obsession.

However when we arrived in California (from New York) the first and only priority was finding a house with walls and a roof and a generally short drive to work for Josh.  House: found.  Downside?  It had a postage stamp of a backyard.  No, really.  30 ft long and maybe 6 ft wide.  Plus it was shady, with poor soil and no drainage.  It was a suburban swamp yard.  No where for chickens.  No sun for even a lonely tomato.

So, to fill the time I had another baby (that makes 3!) and read.  (Notice a theme yet?)

Fast forward another year and Josh finds an amazing, dated, run down, large house a mile from us on 10 acres.  With a barn.  (A barn people!  Animals live there!)  A chicken coop and lean-to that looked perfect for a ride-on mower or black widows.  Whatever.  It was heaven.  It was also ugly as hell.

Lease signed, paint purchased, we were ready to make this place our own and start living the country life.

Now pause for another pregnancy (if you're keeping count, that's 4) and just about all projects ground to a morning sickness induced halt.  

My mother (wise woman that she is) decided that if I didn't do something -and soon!- I would never get this farm thing going.  How right she was.  Finishing up the house was put on the back burner (where it still remains, which is why only half the trim is painted and most doors are still missing their knobs.  But I digress.)  Mom swooped in with her sister and cleaned out the large chicken coop and run while I chased small people and sipped tea and bemoaned my womanly fate as only the newly pregnant can.

After the coop was cleaned my mother insisted we go get chickens.  Right NOW.  Because, you know, that coop didn't clean it self and she wanted the satisfaction of seeing a fluffy chick calling it home, thank you very much.  

Off we went - the feed store is helpfully just up the block and they had a very generous selection of ridiculously adorable feathered creatures.  Now I had read books, remember.  I knew that I would need a chicken per person plus one to keep my family in eggs.  That makes 6.  (I can count!)  My mother had not read the same books.  She had not seen the helpful diagrams.  She was overcome by cheeping and downy feathers.

I now refer to that day as The Great Chicken Toss.

But that is a story for another day.  Today's story is about how one family, well read but otherwise unprepared, began the great adventure of traditional living.  It started with a book.  And a house found on Craigslist.  Who knows where it will end.

So far, though, the middle part is pretty awesome.