Life on Hard Hill


Goats Galore

Carol TornettaFrancis

On Valentine’s Day, some couples dress up and go out to a fancy dinner. Some couples exchange candy and flowers and cards and other gifts. Still others go away for a romantic weekend. This year, we went to a livestock seminar at our local feed store.

As the presenter from the county extension office discussed the general benefits and shortcomings of raising one’s own sheep, pigs, and goats, we were watching a baby goat jumping on and off a somewhat disinterested pig. It was a fascinating visual aid. It was difficult to focus on the presenter’s message with so much cuteness and plain joy in that pen, but Mark and I both heard him say “sheep will cut your lawn, but goats will eat all your weeds.” Our heads snapped toward each other simultaneously as we chirped to one another “we need a goat.”

We had struggled mightily the first year on the farm keeping weeds under control, with a resulting infestation of burdocks that damaged some of our alpacas’ fleece. We wanted to decrease the likelihood that this would happen again, but without the application of gallons of chemical with dubious safety effects. So we began the obligatory Google surfing for “goats for sale near me.” As luck would have it, our friends at Blue Mountain Farm and Fiber Mill had an angora buckling available. It seemed both providential, and also too easy.

We set out to find a place on the property to house the goat, and quickly realized that a good goat home could be established in what we called the “run in,” a large, three sided building that, at some time in the past, had housed dairy cows. In our eighteen months on Hard Hill, it had served as an auxiliary, free choice shelter for the alpacas and hens. Its location uphill from the barnyard and house offered more direct sunlight and breezes; the herd often slept there on spring nights while in full fleece, presumably to escape the warmth of the barn.

Colin carries materials

So the shovels and muck buckets and rakes and saws and wrenches traveled up the slope for the goat shed renovation. Over several weekends, braving cold and wind and rains that never seemed to cease, and taking trip after trip to the farm supply store, we had one sunny day, and it was finished. From gates covered with cobwebs and a floor full of horse manure several years old emerged an indoor/outdoor space with a new fence, feedbags, water buckets, and a big sleep platform constructed from recycled pallets from the local feed store and an unused piece of wood siding. Even the hens pitched in to help, by spreading the straw bedding all over the cleaned concrete floor.

The appropriate arrangements were made for us to pick up Francis the Goat, with a little hitch. His mom, Borealis, needed a new home, as she had had medical problems during Francis’s delivery, and was to be removed from the owners’ breeding program. Could we take her? Would we take her? Those were silly questions to ask a family with three rescue cats, two abandoned alpacas, and a rooster who would have been dinner had we not stashed him in our truck that day. It worked out fine for all involved: mom got a safe new home free from concerns for her reproductive health, Francis stayed with his mom and didn’t have to rush his weaning, and he also wasn’t an only goat, at risk of depression without a herdmate.

Goats in SUV

Of course, getting the two goats into the back of our SUV was comical. They did the things that stressed goats in cars do, like pee and poo and try to jump over the seats. They looked out the windows and made silly goat sounds. After an hour on the interstate, we hit Hard Hill safely, the goats moved into their new digs, the alpacas bounded up the hill to see who had taken over some of their space, the dog barked at the unfamiliar pen residents, and the hens jumped into and out of the goatspace at will to eat goat chow (which is apparently delicious to free-range chickens).

And then that night, well after dark when everyone was tucked in for the night, the dog started to bark and bark. Borealis had escaped the pen through an open window eight feet in the air … and we officially became goat herders.

Goats at home

Little Has a Baby

Carol TornettaLittle and Stripe

Since history indicates that chickens have been domesticated for more than 8000 years, it is hardly amazing that a hen can lay an egg, set on it for 21 days, and help it hatch, all without human interference. Those of you who follow this blog will not be surprised that we have had chicks hatch this week here on Hard Hill, nor will you be surprised that our broody hen was Little. It makes perfect sense that the tiny chick left in the brooder at the farm supply store, the little chick no one wanted but us, the pullet that laid an egg in the workshop, survived a cornering by the dog, got lost in no-man’s land behind the goat pen, and countless other adventures, spent three weeks hunkered down in a nest box nurturing eggs. She started with seven eggs, her own and half a dozen laid by her flock sisters, all presumably fertilized by Claude Girouxster, whom we saved from someone else’s dinner table, and hatched two. She’s quite a gal, our Little.

Every day for 21 days, she hid in the flock’s favorite nest box in the back corner of the coop. Every day I lifted her off her carefully arranged straw, despite her protestations, and took her outside for some food, water, and fresh air. Every day I took out a few new eggs, freshly laid by the other girls — I never figured out how they got there. She spent about ten minutes away from her charges, then dashed frantically back into the coop and onto the nest, feathers fluffed and wings akimbo. Then, on the evening of day 20, the blue egg contributed by our white Ameracauna hen had showed a crack. I was crestfallen — it was broken, and wouldn’t make it, after 20 days. Poor Little, I thought, she would be devastated.

Stripe

But hens have been incubating eggs for millennia, and it later occurred to me that the crack was from the inside to the outside, and that could only have happened in one way: someone inside was trying to get out! A few minutes on Google confirmed that the egg was pipped. I predicted that we would have a chick by dawn, and come morning, my prognostication was proven correct, when I heard familiar peeps coming from somewhere under Little. I took the obligatory pictures and went to my day job, boring my coworkers with those photos all day long. When I returned home, the chick looked happy and healthy … and two more eggs were pipped. The anticipation was making us all a bit edgy. In the end, only one more of Little’s eggs hatched, a buff colored baby that looks like her “mom,” except I know by the color of the shell that it wasn’t Little’s egg. The third egg that was pipped had cheeping from inside for more than a day, but the chick lost the birth struggle. In what might be seen as cruelty, Little kicked that egg out of the next box, but the nights were chilly, and I suspect she was giving all her support to her living chicks.

We had expected a higher hatch rate, based on internet research, but hey, it was Little’s first time, and our first time too. Perhaps the temperature varied too much in the coop. Perhaps I didn’t take Little outside to eat for long enough each day. Perhaps my candling was not well executed. It’s not amazing that a hen hatched some chicks. What is amazing that she allowed us to be a part of her process, to watch her intensity, and to marvel daily at her chicks zipping around the maternity coop until she shoves them back under wings to keep them warm. Thank you, Little, for once again sharing your adventures with us.

Chick 2

Shearing Day

before shearing

As the days lengthen and the temperatures rise, our alpacas, heavily fleeced after a year’s fluffy growth, begin to look uncomfortable. They sleep outside at night to cool their bodies down; they hide in the old stone barn during the day to avoid overwarming in the sun. Alpacas can succumb to heatstroke, even in temperate climates, so it is in everyone’s best interest to have the annual shearing, the sooner the better now that the likelihood of an overnight freeze is minimal.

Last year, we returned our four-animal herd to the breeder from whom we acquired them, via a rented panel van, on one day of their three-day “shear-a-thon. It took hours to convince our boys to get haltered and step into that van for the half-hour drive. On arrival, they seemed distressed by all the bustle and noise around them, as they had become accustomed to the calm barn and quiet pastures on Hard Hill. When we were loading them back into the van to head home, they jumped out of the van and began to run around the breeder’s property, dangerously close to a busy road. It took a dozen people working together as a walking human fence to gather them back into the van for the trip home. It was a suboptimal experience for all of us, and we vowed to find a better way.

This year, a referral from another breeder brought a shearer out to Hard Hill, so the herd did not have to travel. He called us on a Saturday evening to say he could fit our small herd into his schedule the following evening, if we could provide good cover from the elements, as heavy rains were forecast for Sunday. We agreed. May Day came, and it was cold and rainy all day. Although we had been admonished to keep the animals dry for the shearing, our historic barn lacks front doors, and our boys have a habit of slipping through the gates. By the time we went down to check on them, two had already snuck out into the showers and their soon to be shorn fleeces were wet. We locked the gates, and reinforced them with the movable fence panels we had purchased the weekend before. There was humming and pacing by the boys, but they calmed down, and we went back into the house.

Munch is sheared

Our shearer arrived right on time, around six in the evening. The boys were haltered and waiting, still humming and pacing. Nathan Good and his assistant quickly assessed the space and the animals, and set up the shearing station. The herd crowded itself into a corner next to a doorway, clearly anxious: who were these men, why were they putting weird stuff on the floor of their barn, and were there any injections involved? One by one, Nathan captured a boy and helped him onto a mat, safely restrained him, and went to work. Gordon growled, and Archie pouted, but the task was completed quickly, quietly, and professionally. The alpacas continued to cower in the corner, but it was far easier on them than the previous year. It’s safe to say that it was less stressful for all of us.

collecting a blanker

Sadly, we had to discard more of the seconds than we had hoped, due to that infestation of burdock seed pods in the boys’ fleece. We had worked diligently since autumn to remove the sticky offenders, which were the original inspiration for the invention of Velcro. But we often let the boys out into the land along the creek that climbs up Hard Hill, and between snowstorms and spring rains, they found a distant burdock patch, under which lay fresh grass to munch, and the seeds stuck to them like, well, Velcro. We’ve learned an expensive lesson about weeds’ drive to survive and multiply. Soon the fleece will be delivered to our friends at Blue Mountain Farm and Fiber Mill, and some weeks from now will return cleaned, carded and processed into roving for me to hand spin into yarn. The best thing is that this resource is renewable, and those alien-bobbleheads now in the barnyard will be in good, warm fluff again before Christmas.

after shearing

Recovering Suburbanites

Carol Tornettasunset spring house

There are undoubtedly as many reasons for homesteading as there are homesteaders. We wanted to be more self-sufficient, eat cleaner, and raise grapes to ferment in our own winery. Since we moved onto the property in the autumn of 2014, we have completed only one annual cycle of planning, planting, harvesting, and preserving. We used the first fall to redecorate the farmhouse’s interior, upgrade exterior lighting, mend broken fences, and purchase some alpacas. During the ensuing winter, where we suffered through a record-setting snow season with wind chills so low schools were closed for lack of working buses, we were outside every single day, moving snow and hauling fresh, unfrozen water for the alpacas. It was challenging, physical work for a couple in their fifties who had spent the last two and a half decades hiding inside the house to avoid the elements. We became recovering suburbanites. Lesson learned.

May finally came, with a few deceptively warm days, and little remaining fear of frost. We built ten raised beds, filled them with a mixture of organic vegetable soil and composted alpaca poop, and in went the seeds: lettuce, peas, carrots, beets, cucumbers, squash, kohlrabi ... We dashed to a local, family-owned nursery, and bought several varieties of tomatoes and strawberries. Into the ground they went. We hauled bucket after bucket of water up the hill. Seems the place was named “Hard Hill” for a reason.

And then we waited. And weeded, and watered. And watered. Successes sprouted, fruits began to set. Then, early one morning, we discovered disaster had struck overnight — some critter, or critters, had feasted overnight. All the lettuce, carrots, peas, and beets were mowed to short stems half-an-inch above ground level, and it seemed too late in the year to replant. We contented ourselves with enormous crops of cucumbers, pickles, butternut squash, and tomatoes, with a few green beans thrown in. It was a boring sort of diet, but we grew it ourselves. Lesson learned.

veggies

We also discovered an agricultural auction just a ten-minute drive from the house. Once June arrived, I went to that auction for eggs (until our hens began to lay), produce, and plants. While veteran shoppers lamented high prices, this recovering suburbanite was amazed by the low prices, and sometimes forgot I had bid x dollars per unit, and the lot contained twenty-five units. This particularly happened in the heat of July, when I settled my auction account and found myself loading forty quarts of ripe peaches into my truck. In the next three days, Colin and I baked peach breads and muffins, jarred peach salsa, peach jam, and peach barbecue sauces, and ate sliced peaches three meals a day. Lesson learned.

A great bonus to our new place was that the previous owner’s brother owned a goat farm on the next hilltop over. We introduced ourselves, learned a bit about dairy goats, and found that their small, family-operated dairy would provide us with a regular supply of extremely fresh goat milk, cheese, and yogurt, six days a week. The chevre was great with all those beets. Lesson learned.

In between the animals and the food and the explorations, I also built a small table, refinished and reupholstered kitchen stools, and sewed valances and table runners. We picked, jammed, and froze berries from the hill. I learned to spin yarn from roving, and started making holiday gifts. The work never stopped. Lesson learned.

This year’s annual cycle looks like it will be much the same as last. The shearer will be out soon to defleece the alpacas, new chicks are on order, the seeds have arrived, the berry canes are leafing out. Leaf lettuce and arugula, started in a hot box in March, are about a week from harvest. The first wine grapes have been ordered from a Finger Lakes vineyard. Recycled barrels are set up to collect water neat the vegetable beds, and a really big fence is going up around it all. The work never stops, but the goal has been achieved: we are reusing, improving our health, supporting local businesses. We are not hiding from the seasons in an air-conditioned sunroom. The work never ends. Maybe that is the lesson.

Gordon, Mr. Congeniality

Carol TornettaGordon at home

Before Gordon the Alpaca came to our farm, we had been warned that he had not been handled a lot, and wasn’t a fan of the halter. But when we saw him haltered and walking on a lead in the breeder’s barn, he appeared a perfect gentleman, so we took a chance. He had such an adorable and expressive face and soft, springy fleece, how could we not?

As the herd settled into their new home, Gordon was always first in to investigate any new scene: the century-old barn, the run-in, the weather, the wandering farm cat, the food bowl. He NEVER missed a food bowl. In the almost eighteen months Gordon has been here on Hard Hill, he has added over twenty pounds to his compact frame, not all of which is fleece. These days we often call him “Gordito,” a Spanish term of endearment roughly meaning “little fat boy.” On her last farm visit, the veterinarian’s eyes widened when she saw him; “He got BIG,” she observed.

Alpacas, although curious by nature, are not known to be pleased by human touch, like a dog or cat. They are prey animals in the wild whose first instinct is to flee a stressful or dangerous situation. Not so our Gordon. He is the first outside when there’s a barnyard commotion, sniffing the air and humming his presence. Just a few days after their arrival, the herd had their first visitors — my best friend Jen and her then-four-year-old daughter. Gordon walked right up to the preschooler, bent down, and sniffed her thoughtfully. This simple act allayed our fears that Gordon was inherently aggressive. He likes everything and everyone, except the halter. Why?

Gordon and child

As Gordon’s time with us continued and we struggled to halter, weigh, and give him necessary monthly injections, we realized that our charming marshmallow suffered from significant halter anxiety. When in the smaller pen we use for exams and health checks, Gordon paces and snorts, emits a continuing alarm hum, and tries to escape. He jumps and rams the fences and gates, and he kicks like a ninja. He has pulled the gates off their hinge pins, head butted me so hard it cut my chin, and rammed me into a metal gate with such force I needed x-rays. But he willingly eats grain out of hand, and gives kisses on human faces on command. Someone who heard about his negative antics suggested to us that the only good use for an alpaca like Gordon is as hamburger. We strongly disagree.

We have taught our Gordito to walk to and stand on the scale unhaltered, and to return to the corral from a front yard grazing when directed, with a little coaxing and a few handfuls of grain. We sought advice and handling tips from other alpaca owners, and have had more success getting that little purple halter on his fluffy, white face. As hard as it is to believe that he is overwrought with worry when acting out, and not simply in a homicidal rage, we keep trying. We remind him he is not the alpha male in the herd, and we need him to remind us that he is a beauty and a pleasure all but two or three hours per month. His fleece spins into gorgeous yarn, and he talks to me about his camelid day. Who could say good bye to that face?

Gordon readies for dinner

The Herd Moves In

Carol TornettaThe herd in the snow

We moved onto the farm six weeks before my birthday. Fourteen years before, on a milestone birthday, Mark had given me my much beloved Paton the African Grey parrot. Paton died a few years ago, not ever approaching the average lifespan of a parrot in captivity, due to a dreaded bird illness. Now, with the milestone of moving out of suburbia to our new rural home, it seemed appropriate to observe my birthday with another special gift. After a period of study, we decided: how about alpacas?

During our “review of the literature,” we learned that there were alpacas available that had failed out of breeding programs for a variety of reasons, such as imperfect conformation or unexpected fiber variations, who live out their lives as fiber animals, or pets. Since we were not, and still are not, interested in pursuing a dream alpaca, we elected to pursue this avenue, looking for males with soft, pretty fur. We surfed around the Internet for availability and price, and found a breeder located, ironically, close to our previous home.

I made an appointment to visit the breeder’s farm, and Mark and I drove through the old stomping grounds en route. We learned more about their care from the hands-on perspective of a woman more than a decade in the business. We met a score of adorable fluffy faces, and suffered from cute overload while trying to make the decision on who would move in with us. We decided we couldn’t decide, so we drove home, picked up Colin, and rode back to the breeder’s place late that autumn afternoon. We wanted the light fawn guy, who was pretty and he knew it, but there was a catch. The breeder really wanted him to go with the white one, who had been his best friend from early cria-hood.

herd in snow

The problem was, the breeder told us, that the white one was lovely and had super fleece, but had not been handled much and didn’t like to walk on a lead. She proceeded to halter and walk him; he didn’t seem so bad, so we agreed to take the pair. Alpacas are herd animals, and really must live with other alpacas, to avoid despondency and negative behaviors. In addition, she introduced us to an older pair of animals, also friends since birth that had been abandoned at her farm. The breeder had taken care of them at her own expense ever since. They were nice gentlemen, twelve years old, gelded, and well behaved. One of them was white, and had big blue eyes, while all the others had brown eyes. Blue-eyed white alpacas are most often genetic mutations, and more than 60% are hearing impaired. This boy was deaf, she told us, but he got along just fine at her farm, with the help of his dark brown friend.

Like any good special education teacher, I accepted the deaf alpaca and his buddy too. We gave the breeder a deposit, selected a date for her to visit our farm for a pre-delivery inspection, and headed home, in a mixture of excited awe and stunning disbelief. What just happened here? We bought four large animals! We don’t know anything about livestock — they are so cute it hurts. Is out barn big enough for four of them? I can’t wait to make yarn from their fleece. And so the internal conversation continued, through the unexpected pre-Thanksgiving snow, the barn clean-out, the fence upgrade, the online search for appropriate halters, the trips to the farm supply store for feed and bowls and water buckets.

Then we passed our inspection, and in between snowstorms, around dusk on Pearl Harbor Day, they arrived. The breeder and her associate convinced the foursome to jump out of the van, and into our corral, one by one. The boys were frantic from the travel, and insecure in the new environment with the approaching night. We stayed in the barn with them until it was dark, showing them the hay feeders and water buckets, and just watching with amazement. We gave them their new names: Archie, Finn, Munch, and Gordon.

When the alpacas were still alive and within our fences at daybreak the next morning, I knew Paton had given his approval.

herd first night

The Ladies Get a Rooster

Carol TornettaClaude the Rooster

We went to visit another alpaca farm on an unseasonably warm March afternoon, where we were introduced to the world of Suri alpacas, the ones who look like they have dreadlocks. Their fiber is different from that of our huacaya alpacas, which have a sort of spongy, fluffy fleece, reminiscent of a sheep’s wool. I was fortunate to receive a gift from the farm’s owner of some suri roving to handspin. She had explained that suri fleece is most often spun into lace weight or fingering weight yarn, so this will be a challenge for me. I’m not sure these old eyes can even see lace weight yarn.

In addition to the nearly four dozen alpacas of various ages and colors, we met the farm's two Great Pyrenees, who have always worked as livestock guardian dogs, and never been inside a house. They had stocky frames and resembled fierce, dusty polar bears, not like Miss Vina, our Great Pyr, who was SUPPOSED to become a LGD, but is more like a big, white rug. Vina was somewhat smaller than our hostess’s dogs, and more lovey than fierce. However, while Vina certainly does her share of barking and patrolling while she is outside, she seems most interested in protecting her humans from those dangerous leaves falling from the tall oaks, and the sketchy-looking sparrows on the deck rail. I asked the owner if she had trouble with predators at her farm; she laughed and said “not with the Pyrs around.”

The farm also had several small poultry houses with attached runs, populated by a variety of layers and five or six turkeys. When I gushed over the Lavender Orpingtons, the owner remarked that she had three Black Orpington roosters as well. “Do you want one?” she asked. “They’re going into the freezer tonight.” After a few beats of astonishment that someone I just met was offering me something we had wanted for some months, and for free, I said “Yes!” She let me into the appropriate run, and urged me to select a rooster. They were gorgeous guys, with glossy feathers and haughty struts. I picked one up. He didn’t struggle very much, so I walked around the runs with him, petting him gently. The owner returned from the alpaca barn with a fruit crate for us to contain the roo for the ride home. He didn’t love it, but he settled down in the back of my SUV.

We finished our visit, and headed home with our new, rescued family member in tow. It wasn’t the first time we had taken in a needy animal: several cats over the years, a dog, although that didn’t work out, and two of our alpacas. The nameless rooster, who looks, in my mind, rather more like a Black Copper Marans than a Black Orpington, was not well-received by the thirteen ladies who already inhabited our coop. They squawked and pecked, and didn’t share their evening scratch with him. We had to put the ladies in for the night, and set the still-unnamed rooster in the isolation pen in the coop’s entryway. Come morning, we found him alive and well, perched on the top rail of his private accommodation. We gave him his own ration of scratch before we let the ladies out to join him. While they were all sizing one another up in the morning light, Colin offered a name: Claude Girouxster. It was ridiculous, but it stuck, and was even applauded by local NHL fans.

They all free ranged for the day, and come evening, the hens had settled themselves onto their roosts for the night … and Claude was with them. We hadn’t planned to leave him with thirteen angry ladies overnight, alone, for a week or so, but it seemed like all was well. And it was. The second morning, Claude led his ladies out into the foggy dawn, and everyone shared the scratch. It’s good to have a black oil sunflower seed with a friend.

Welcome home, Claude.

Claude with his Ladies







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