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Some Help From My Friends

pile of brush and branches
It doesn't look like much, but that pile is about 10' long, 6' deep, and 8' tall! Photo by Keba M Hitzeman

There are many farm projects and tasks that one person can complete on their own. Some of those projects may take longer when working solo, but it can be done. On the flip side, some things need more than one person, for safety reasons, time constraints, or simply because it makes the time pass quicker. Of course, many people may want to help, but they have their own obligations that prohibit helping on the farm. When the stars and the schedules align, it’s incredible to me how much can be accomplished with even one extra person helping.

I’ve written before about projects and their relative priority – fence repairs and haymaking trump picking up fallen branches and mowing. When I do have the opportunity to knock out some of those lower-priority-but-need-done-eventually tasks with a willing helper, I’ll gladly take the help!

Photo by Unsplash/Janine Joles

Once the hot and humid summer was mostly over, and we wouldn’t sweat ourselves to death while working outside, a good friend spent several Thursdays helping me with some projects that had been languishing at the bottom of the to-do list – moving an astounding amount of brush to two specific locations, and turning our lumber storage area 90 degrees. Brush-moving is not exactly difficult work, but it is time-intensive. Cut the brush down, load as much as you can on the tractor forks (making sure it’s balanced and won’t fall off as you round a corner), drive to the drop-off location, dump the brush, drive back, repeat. That’s a lot of getting on/getting off the tractor when working by yourself! This time, most of the brush was already on the ground, so it was a matter of loading, driving, unloading. There were some areas where I could drive the tractor along very slowly as she loaded the brush onto the forks. That was certainly a time-saver, and now, my fields and yards are (mostly!) free of brush and branches.

lumber on metal shelves
Now I can find the right lumber for the job! I still have to sort and stack the short pieces that are piled up nearby. Photo by Keba M Hitzeman

The other project was the lumber storage area in the barn. There used to be a hopper wagon at the front of that area where we kept oats for the horses. We needed a place for the lumber, so we put up some metal shelves behind that wagon and slid the lumber into place. Unfortunately, that whole area turned into a storage nightmare – cluttered, almost no light, hard to reach. When the horses left, we removed the hopper wagon and agreed that the lumber storage should be turned 90 degrees to more easily reach everything. And it just never came to the top of the project pile until now. In one work session, my friend and I unloaded every stick of wood from the shelves (short pieces in one giant pile on the floor, and long pieces in another) and turned the three shelves 90 degrees. It took around three hours, and we were beat afterward!

I find it difficult to ask for help, but I’m slowly learning that it’s safer, more time effective, and more enjoyable to work with someone. I’m less likely to over-do it because I’m watching my helper to make sure they are not overworking. I’ll take more breaks because I don’t want them to get dehydrated. The social aspect of working together can’t be overlooked either – “solving the world’s problems” as some manual labor happens. Perhaps most importantly, I don’t want to abuse these opportunities, so I always think about which projects would benefit the most from extra hands before asking. Sometimes I overestimate how long something will take, and if that thing is finished in half an hour, there needs to be something else to do, which means I think about two or three projects that we can work on. And they need to be projects that my helpers have the skills to work on – if they’ve never used a chainsaw before, I can’t reasonably ask them to cut down honeysuckle while I’m hauling it to the brush pile!

Farming and homesteading can be challenging, but if you have friends, family, or neighbors who tell you, “just let me know if you need some help,” you may find that your challenges are a bit easier to manage. It could take some creativity in scheduling, but the outcome (finished projects) can make that all worthwhile.

What projects have you finished with some help from your friends?

Janine Joles

A New Style Of Selling

Black wool yarn
Hand-spun Shetland wool yarn (image by the author)

This year has been hard all over. I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t been affected by either COVID-19 itself, or the economic fallout of the pandemic. And I’ve been amazed at how creative we have gotten to keep our businesses afloat during this time. My specific example is fiber festivals. I’m holding onto hope that the festival I attend in September (and is the bulk of my income from fiber) will not be canceled, but in the meantime (and thanks to the tireless work by several fiber friends on Facebook), fiber fests have moved online. Some of the “big name” festivals created virtual spaces for their vendors, and two of the festivals I’m involved in have seemingly sprung from nowhere, inviting fiber producers and artists to come together as a community, and salvage what could have been a bleak year for sales.

The first virtual fiber fest is called Wool And Fiber Arts (WAFA for short), and has only been in existence for less than two months! It’s the most viral thing on Facebook that I’ve ever seen – we’re at over 4100 group members when I last checked today. Ellen Z. (the founder) wanted to do something for the fiber community, herself included, since so many festivals were being canceled. The idea for WAFA was born, and less than two weeks after she put the idea out there in Facebook-land, we had a live Facebook sale. Vendors were scheduled on the half-hour for their live video, and it was a beautiful trainwreck! Some of us were not at tech-savvy as others, some didn’t have a reliable internet connection, some had never done a live video; some had lighting/sound issues. But...we brought fiber producers, fiber artists, fiber tool makers, knitters, felters, weavers, spinners, and more together from all over the United States, along with Canada and Australia (there may have been more countries represented). We worked through the technology issues together, had a lovely tutorial from Sarina on how to even DO a live sale, learned from demos, and of course bought lots of fiber goodies! One of the neatest parts to me? Comments from people thanking the WAFA group for doing this, because they live too far from any festival to be able to attend, and they now had a whole pile of contacts for fiber, tools, and more!

Photo by Pexels/SurenePalvie

WAFA originally started as a sales group but has morphed into an entire community. As the group page states: “Experience the excitement of a fiber festival in the comfort of your own home. Education, guilds, breed organizations, working animals, demonstrations, all followed by a monthly LIVE sale.”

WAFA logo
image used with permission of WAFA

The other virtual festival is through Shepherd’s Talk and is set up as an ongoing sale. There is a virtual magazine that you can click through with fiber-related articles and vendor “booths.” Click on the “booth” and be taken directly to that vendor’s sales site (webstore, Etsy, etc.) to make purchases. Virginia and friends did a fantastic job of putting this magazine together! They decided to make this an ongoing festival until the in-person ones can be held.

Shepherds Talk logo
image used with permission of Shepherds Talk

As disappointing as the festival cancellations have been, for both vendors and attendees, it’s been so cool to be involved in these virtual community sales. And during a time of uncertainty, canceled events, and general anxiety of what the future holds, we “fiber folk” have banded together to help each other, as well as bringing fiber shows to a broader audience, since distance is no longer a deciding factor in attendance.

I welcome you to join the WAFA and Shepherds Talk groups, and happy fiber shopping!

Wool And Fiber Arts (WAFA):

Shepherds Talk Virtual Sheep & Wool Festival:


Building New Lambing Jugs

barn area for sheep

The former horse feeding area, now to be lambing pens!

Now that the sheep have their new pasture fenced in, I'm thinking about what needs to be done for spring. Lambing and kidding will most likely begin at the end of February and continue through April, and the slapped-together lambing jugs I had last spring just aren't going to cut it again. I used a combination of short panel gates I found in the barn and a few of the sheep fence panels for those jugs. Everything was tied together with baling twine, and I'm very glad no one tried to escape because they could have knocked those pens down with one good push! On top of all of that, the large pen where I had these jugs needed to be cleaned out, so the "floor" was all lumpy and bumpy with old manure, hay, and straw, which meant that none of the panels were stable on the floor. Not the best situation at all.

After several brainstorming sessions and some wandering around the barn looking at the available areas, we decided the best area for the new lambing pens would be the former eating area for the horses. Way back when we had horses, my dad built partitions so each horse could eat their hay and any grain ration in peace from the others. We would throw hay down from the barn's main floor through a hatch in the floor, then fork it into each "stall" for the horses. The last horses left a few years back, and this area turned into storage for gates because we had no other use for it at the time.

Lambing jugs are usually 4'x4' – enough space for mama and babies to move around, and small enough to encourage bonding between them, especially if it's mama's first time birthing and she's not really sure what to do with that squalling little thing trying to nurse. The small size also makes it easier for me to keep a close eye on everyone to catch any problems. That's much harder to do in a large pen, or if they are lambing in the field – trying to catch a lamb once it's up and moving is not an easy task!

sheep panel for pens

The lambing jug panels will look just like our temporary pasture panels, just sized to fit the lambing area.

To make things simpler for me when building the new jugs, they will fit the feeding stalls' dimension, which is 3.5' and will be about 5' long. That will give me 8 pens total, plus access to the hay and an aisleway along the stone wall into the main barn. I will make the panels from sheep fence and EMT conduit, just like the 10' panels we made for the portable pastures. I will run an 8' EMT from the ceiling joists into a hole drilled into the concrete to provide some stability for the pens' front, so the sheep and goats can't wiggle the pens out of alignment. Everything will be removable, so if I need larger pens, I can remove a panel and have a 7' pen available. That will also make clean-up much easier once lambing season is over, and everyone is outside on grass – collect the panels, shovel the bedding out, replace the panes, and done!

The most labor-intensive part of cleaning this area is complete – I moved the gates to another location and shoveled out the last of the manure and old hay on the floor. It won't be a quick process to build the panels, but after I get the EMT conduit on hand (and depending on where I purchase it, they will cut it to size at the store), it's a matter of attaching the MakerPipe fittings to the conduit, cutting the sheep fence to fit, wiring the fence to the frame, and putting the pens together. I can do all of that in the barn, so even rainy days won't stop the progress!

How have you repurposed areas around your farm/homestead to meet your current needs?

Pasture Fence Project, Part Two

hammer drill and bits 

Next up is setting all those t-posts. I know many people set them 16' apart, but I am more comfortable with them 8' apart. Even though I'm "just" keeping in sheep, goats, and dogs, I like having the extra insurance of more posts to keep the fence from sagging, or bowing when the beasties decide to rub against it to scratch an itch. Driving the posts went relatively easy except for the five of them that hit solid limestone less than 6" below the soil. That was too shallow to keep the post stable, so we brought out the hammer drill and rock-breaking bits. We also needed the generator to run the hammer drill because there's no electricity out in the pasture! Of the three bits (large spade, small spade, and point), the small spade worked the best. We were able to get three of the posts fully driven into the ground, and the last two were not driven all the way in, but were stuck tight in the gravel we created.

fence posts and fence

Unrolling the fence was quite the chore. I watched a YouTube video on fence installation after I unrolled it by hand (uphill, of course!) and discovered I could have popped the fence roll on the tractor spear and unrolled it a much easier way. I will remember that for the next fence! After wrapping the wires around the wood post and securing that end, it was time for the fence stretcher bar, come-along, and some chains. Another "after the fact" bit of knowledge – I could have saved the money I spent buying the stretcher bar and made my own with some bolts and 2 2x4s. But the purchased stretcher bar has two attachment points to run a chain through, so that is quite helpful. This part is much easier with at least two people! Husband wrapped a chain around a post (you can also use the tractor for this), attached the come-along, and secured another chain to the attachment points. As he cranked the come-along, I moved up and down the fence line adjusting the fence. Eventually, there was enough tension to lift the fence up against the t-posts and finish the stretching process. While it was still under tension, we wired the top fence wire to the t-posts, cut the excess fence off, and wrapped the fence around the other end post. After a heated fight with the come-along, which got stuck and didn't want to release the tension, we removed the stretcher bar. 

I needed a break after all that! I came back later to finish wiring the fence to the t-posts. I'm not a fan of the pre-cut fence pins/clips (I think they are too short to effectively secure the wire), so I have a roll of wire to cut my own. These wrap around 3-4 times on each side to anchor the fence to the post. I also learned that if you can wire the fence with one of the verticals up against the post, it won't slide around as much. It's not always possible, but the more, the better.

sheep grazing by fence

Now the flock has a brand new pasture added to their rotation and are contentedly munching the grass and "weeds." After I had let them in, I found quite a large patch of cockleburrs, which meant I was pulling them all as fast as I could before the sheep could discover them. Sometimes I think they have burr-seeking radar! I went over the area three times, so fingers crossed that I got all of them, but I most likely didn't. That means I will be catching sheep and checking them over to make sure they are cockleburr-free. Burdock burrs are soft and will disintegrate, but cockleburrs stay sharp even when they dry out. If they get some on their bellies, this could lead to hotspots and pain as they move around with the burr rubbing against their skin.

All in all, I'm content with how this fence turned out. It took about a week to complete, working on it 2-3 hours a day. The fenceposts aren't quite straight, but the fence itself is taut and stable. I still prefer using 16' cattle panels, but this wasn't as bad of a project as I was expecting – and it was good practice for the very long dividing fence we need to install next!

What are your tips for stretched fence installation?

Pasture Fence Project, Part One

fence and fenceposts
Not going to get very far without fencing and posts!

We have a good-sized pasture south of our barn that was our main horse pasture. Once the horses were gone, we would graze the cattle in there to keep the weeds down. After selling the last of the cattle, that area pretty much went to seed. I would bush-hog it once, maybe twice, a year, but it was left to grow a fantastic stand of asters, hemlock, various sunchokes, burdock, pokeberry, grasses, and clovers. Indeed a wild area for the pollinators to visit and the rabbits (and other assorted wildlife) to live. Once we got the sheep and the goats, I wanted to use this pasture as part of their winter forage area. The only problem was that the creek runs through this pasture on its way to the river, and the part of the creek that goes under the fence is in a bit of a ravine, making it hard to sheep-, goat-, and dog-proof against escape. The solution? Run a dividing fence to keep the beasties out off the creek and still use over half of the pasture for grazing. Sounds simple enough, right?

The project fell to the bottom of the Project Pile since we didn't need that area immediately. Once we separated the youngsters from the main breeding flock, it became a bigger deal - young animals eat a lot, and we needed all the grassy areas we could get! T-posts, sheep fence, and a fence stretcher bar were purchased. I waited until the hot and humid days of summer were over, I dug out the fencepost driver and cable ratchet (also known as a "come-along") from the barn, and I set to work.

fence stretcher bar
Fence stretcher bar - note the nice attachment rings!

Setting fence is hard work but is a pretty straight-forward activity. When working with a fence you need to stretch (like field fence or sheep fence), you need to have brace posts at each end to help support that fence. I wasn't looking forward to setting wood brace posts, which involves hooking up the fence post auger to the tractor, drilling each hole, setting the 6" wood post, attaching the crossbar. But if that's what we needed to do, it would get done. However!! At the local supply store, we found a nifty-sounding system called "Wedge-Loc" that uses t-posts to create the braces. They come in 90 degree and 60 degree versions – I got one of each because I have a wood post where the new fence would tie in to the existing perimeter fence. After getting them installed, I'm pretty happy with them. I don't know if I would use them with cattle, but with a few sheep and goats, I think they will hold the fence just fine.

In the next post, I'll get down to the business of setting fence, and explain  what we did when we hit rock!

Paying Attention

livestock guardian puppy
Still a puppy at almost 18 months old

Not everything goes as planned when farming and working with animals, and some may say nothing ever goes as planned. With crops and equipment, it’s usually a straightforward fix – repair the broken equipment, set new fence to replace the one that’s falling down. With animals, it’s not always that simple. You’re working with living, breathing creatures that have their own particular reactions to stimuli, responses that may not make sense to us wrinkly-brained bipeds, but are natural and normal to them. When you add in a level of free-thinking and decision-making that livestock guardian dogs have, those animals can sometimes give us humans a run for our money.

Two of our Great Pyrenees livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) are male, with around five years of age between them. The younger one is almost 18 months now, so still in the “big dumb puppy” phase. He has so much energy, wants to play with the other LGDs (fortunately, the sheep have cured him of wanting to play with them!), and just can’t take no for an answer. When he was smaller than the other LGDs, they would usually growl or snap at him when he was an annoyance, and he would run off for a while. As he grew, he became more rambunctious and less open to the suggestion from the other dogs that he go find something else to do. This is pretty normal in our experience, and from what I’ve heard from other people with livestock guardian dogs, so we left them to sort out the pack order, correcting him when he was getting way out of line. As this method seemed to be working, we kept an eye on them all and let them do their jobs.

We noticed something amiss when Farley’s demeanor began to change. I’ve written about Farley before – he’s the LGD with the bad leg who had been a solo guardian to yearling goats. When we brought him home, he had a kennel for a few nights while he got used to the new situation, and puppy had a separate kennel because he was too young to be left out on his own overnight. Farley and our other Pyr did the guarding, and the puppy did LGD puppy things. Eventually, puppy got to be the same size as Farley, and while Farley mostly wanted to be left alone, puppy was still all play, all the time. Farley began to go off away from everyone else, and avoiding puppy, who of course followed him around the pastures. That started to get annoying, and the grumbling, growling, and snapping began. That progressed to puppy getting up in Farley’s face, seeking him out to pester, and play-fighting that started crossing the line into real fighting. This couldn’t continue, but how do we split them up? The logical option was to remove Farley from the situation, but now that we had a “pack,” we were loathe to separate them.

livestock guardian dog
Farley is much less stressed now that he has his own space and flock

After one fight that was all teeth and no play, the decision was made to put Farley in with the flock of under one year old sheep and goats. Hindsight being what it is, this should have been done when the grumbling turned into teeth-baring. Puppy was old enough to guard (as an aside, LGDs are not considered fully trustworthy to guard stock until they are at least two years old and have gotten all the puppy silliness out of their system. He is not guarding on his own, and the sheep and goats have made it clear they will not stand for any shenanigans.), and the U1 flock could use a guardian. We need not have worried about “what if Farley gets lonely?” because he has never been so animated and lively. In fact, all of the Pyrs’ attitudes have improved. Now that we’ve made the change, it makes sense to me that Farley is doing ok by himself because that’s what he had been doing before we got him and that’s what he was used to. He still has a job to do, his injured leg has improved dramatically (doggy acupuncture – highly recommend it!), and he’s not getting hassled by a now 17-month-old pup.

Moral of the story? Pay attention to your animals! Watch them closely to get a baseline for their typical behavior, which can make it easier to notice when things “seem off” and help you determine the best course of action. I was focused on Farley being part of the pack instead of specific behaviors that showed the pack dynamic had changed. Star Trek told us that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one, but putting the welfare of the individual animal first, be it cow, chicken, sheep, or dog, can lead to improving the welfare of the entire herd, flock, or pack.

Taking Things At the Right Pace

cornfield and treeline 

Have you ever had one of those weeks where one day is fantastic, the next day you just want to punch a wall, and by the end of the week, all of your projects are in chaos, and you’re not even sure which direction is north? That happens to me a lot more than I think it should, but it usually boils down to me trying to do too much in a given time period, aka trying to stuff 10 pounds of excrement in a five-pound bag! Taking things apace is a difficult thing for me, but for my own sanity (and the sanity of those who deal with me on a daily basis), it’s one of the things I’m intentionally working on improving. Total success may be impossible, but I’ll take improvement if it means a calmer mental state.

A dear friend of mine is in the process of moving. They own their current property and have signed the papers on the new farm. There is work to do on both farms – cleaning up, clearing out, moving items from here to there. All the normal bits of moving a household, plus the bonus of moving the implements and animals of a farm. We were texting the other evening about their progress, and I remarked how nice it is that they can “slow move” - they don’t have to rush to leave their current property and get everything to the new property. Especially since they will need to put in all the fences for their new pastures, they can take the time needed to watch where the water runs when it rains, where the shade is in relation to the barn – the little things that can make the difference in having a potentially mud-filled loafing area that bakes in the summer heat or a shaded, grassy area for the animals to rest and graze. Or moving all of the household items in, then having to move them again to repaint. Having done that, I can confirm that it’s not fun!

daily calendar pages

 One way I keep myself from scheduling too much - write it all down!

I was thinking about their slow move as I was moving sheep the other day. The spring lambs and goatlings are weaned, and it’s time to move the mamas back in with the rest of the flock, leaving the weanlings in a separate pasture so they don’t get bred this year. My goats are very friendly, but the Shetland sheep can be skittish at times, even with the Bucket Of Bribery (sheep pellets) in my hand. If I move too quickly, or make sudden movements, they will scatter to the four corners of the pasture and the whole process begins again. Moving slowly and deliberately, I can usually get them to go where I want them to go. It’s much better than moving quickly and having to try, try again after they’ve scattered. When that happens, stress levels rise, tempers flare, and there are usually only two outcomes. In the first outcome, the animals run for the hills, a lot of time has been spent, the task isn’t finished, and the humans are irritated. The other typical outcome is eventually the animals are contained, but the humans are irritated, the animals are now stressed, and what’s left of the day is spent grumping around at how poorly the task was finished. In both scenarios, the humans are irritated! Anyone who has worked with livestock probably has piles of stories about “roundups gone wrong,” complete with irritated humans hollering at each other.

To borrow a line from one of the Star Wars movies, how do we become “one with the force” - not rushing around, taking the time needed to metaphorically (or in reality) complete the fence before we turn the animals out to graze? My somewhat imperfect solution is a write-on/wipe-off book. Each page is labeled with the day of the week and some dividing lines for AM and PM. Morning and evening chores are “hardwired” onto the page. Ideally, I would have one “large” thing or two “small” things in the morning, and the same in the afternoon, but I’m sure we all know how that usually goes. But when I force myself to write down *everything* I want to do, it quickly becomes apparent how much I won’t be able to do because, well, time! If I finish my scheduled items, I can start adding from the running project list. Or I may just take that “extra” time to rest – knit, read, hike, watch This Old House reruns, stuff like that.

knitting a hat

In farming, in moving, in life, pace is so important. I know the feeling of burn-out due to long periods of high stress and high activity, and it’s not a fun place to be. How do you “find your zen” when things get stressful? What have you done to keep yourself centered and moving apace to keep a task or a situation from getting stressful in the first place?

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