We have officially been here on the farm for two years now. In some ways the time has flown by, and in others it seems a lifetime ago. When we began our farming adventures here, we thought we knew what we were getting in to. We had some experience, spent countless hours researching and planning, and had a network of friends and family to talk with if we had a problem. No matter how well you prepare for it though, the farming life can certainly throw some surprise at you!
Growing up I knew I wanted to be a farmer. My biggest dream was to live on a farm, have a big garden, beautiful rolling hills dotted with animals, the smell of flowers in the gentle breeze, as I walk through a perfectly clean barn on a bright sunny day. There are only a few things wrong with the scenario I used to play in my head:
Do you see a pattern here? Not once in all of my day dreaming did I conjure up a picture of me splattered in mud in the pouring rain chasing an escaped dirty pig through the yard and back into it’s electric fence with lightening flashing all around. Reality is quit different from my childhood dreams, but it is also so much more exciting! The longer we are here, the more we realize there are many things we never knew about farming!
Pigs are clean animals
Really, they are! Pigs do not wander around in their own filth as many people think. In the wintertime, our pigs are usually spotlessly clean on pretty days. However, pigs can not sweat. So in the summer time when the temperatures climb, they must find a way to cool down. They do so by taking a mud bath! The cool mud serves two purposes. First it cools the pig, and second it acts as a sun block preventing their skin from burning. You will notice that when the temperature goes back down pigs will seek a source of water and take a bath. They enjoy being clean! In the winter when the weather is very messy and muddy, our pigs do their best to stay clean. Even if it means taking a bath in their drinking water!
We have all seen the movies where the rooster crows at dawn to wake the family up for their daily farm chores. Either the movies didn’t do their research, or our roosters are defective! When we had only two roosters thing were pretty quiet. One was dominant, and the other was ok with that. Our problem began when we started hatching our own chicks. We soon found ourselves with roosters of all ages. As they matured, these roosters would begin to compete for rank amongst themselves. The result, crowing from midnight to 6 am! Now, we try not to keep more than a handful of roosters of a mature breeding age. Typically, we have 1 rooster for every 6-8 hens. At this ratio, we have cut out much of the all night crowing!
During the summer if you find yourself going through a period of drought and you really need rain, cut hay. Ok, maybe this isn’t based on solid scientific facts but it seems to me that every time the weather report says it will be clear and we cut hay…. It rains! So logically I am thinking a good way to end a drought is to cut hay! So next time your garden is dry, cracked, and resembling the grand canyon just go cut some hay.
Get used to dirt
The first spring we lived here I tried in vain to keep the kids clean outside. I honestly thought we could all get through our daily chores without getting messy. Ha! If you want to farm, seriously farm with more than just a horse in a barn stall, you are going to get dirty! Best thing to do is just accept this, go buy a pair of rubber boots and a few pairs of blue jeans and get to it. Throw your hair up in a ponytail, dig out that old t-shirt you haven’t worn since college and enjoy yourself! Chances are no one will see you anyway, and who cares if they do? There are some advantages to being known as “the crazy lady.”
Everyone always associates farms with bad animal smells. One of our family’s favorite movies is Nanny McPhee 2. I love the scene where “the cousins” come to visit the farm. The little boy steps out of the car into messy, muddy, manure covered ground and says, “We’re in the land of poo!” Most people just believe that is expected. While it is true that most factory farms do stink due to the large concentration of animals in small areas, smaller farms and well ran large farms do not have to smell. Using proper land use ratios, adequate bedding, and good husbandry a farm can be pretty near odor free. So it may not smell like fresh flowers in a gentle breeze, but any properly ran operation regardless of the type of livestock raised can maintain a low odor, even on the hottest summer day. Joel Salatin, leading farm advocate and author of many books including Folks, This Ain’t Normal (one of my favorites!) covers this topic, and many more typical farmyard myths.
Lets re-phrase that, deep litter stalls are not a bad thing. I used to believe that a properly cleaned barn or pen was spotless with a single layer of clean bedding on the floor. The more I am learning about natural farming methods though the more we are seeing this isn’t the case. The most efficient, healthy, and productive way of handling stalls and pens is to use plenty of bedding, and repeatedly layer new bedding on top of the old. Then, when you have accumulated several layers of alternating manure and bedding, it can all be removed and used as compost. For more on this topic, I would highly recommend Holy Shit by Gene Logsdon. We are currently using this method in our junior poultry pens. We now have a nice bed nearly 10 inches thick of manure and bedding! And guess what? In a pen of 37 birds there is absolutely no odor beyond the smell of hay and feed.
My Dad came over two weekends ago to watch the kids for us on a cold, wet Saturday so we could get some chores done that required more than one able body at a time. Our list of things to do that day included: Worm, vaccinate and do toenail trims on 14 sheep then band one young ram. Castrate, worm, and vaccinate a boar pig. Move four sheep into a new pasture. And finally, band, worm, and vaccinate a 300 lb. Bull calf. The weather was supposed to be over cast, windy, with a 20% chance of late afternoon showers. I headed outside in a pair of old jeans, hiking boots, t-shirt and light jacket. Things were going smooth and quickly for a while. Had a little trouble with a few unruly sheep but nothing major. All we had left was doing the bull and moving the sheep. We were congratulating ourselves on what good time we were making! Suddenly, a rain drop lands on my nose. Then another, and within minutes a heavy, steady rain. The temperature quickly dropped and the wind picked up. Andrew is holding the bull while I have the unpleasant task of banding and vaccinating. As I am standing to one side with my leg bracing the bull and my head practically upside down trying to fit a band on a wet bull Andrew starts laughing. He says, “Bet you never thought you’d be doing THIS when you grew up!” I can only imagine what I looked like there at that moment with my hair plastered to me, shivering in my saturated jacket with sheep and cow crap down my pants and blood on my shirt (where did that come from?). In that moment I realized how strong my marriage is. If he can love me looking like that, then we’re doing just fine! And no, I can honestly say I never, ever, not once, thought I would be doing that when I was young!
Andrew is not a cat person. He never really has been, sure he has tolerated one here or there for my sake a few times during our marriage. That’s about where his relationship with them has ended. Until recently. Last year we found ourselves over run with rats in the garden, mice in the feed sacks, and moles all over the yard. We had not owned a cat in three years. Andrew agreed it may be time to call in back up. So we brought home our first two kittens Boots and Tiger. They sleep in the feed shed and enjoy their run of the place, coming inside to play with the kids in their down time. Things quickly improved, and we began receiving “presents” on the front porch when they were only three months old. Tiger is no longer with us, but we have since added Milo, Max, Jinx, and Stix to the line-up. Boots has trained them well, and we have not seen a live mouse or rat since last summer! The moles are fewer as well. I would much rather feed a few cats than be over run with rodents!
Some things you just can’t learn from books. You have to live them, experience them, and learn as you go. While our life here doesn’t exactly match what I had pictured in my dreams, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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