Returning to Innisfree

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?

Harvesting The New Garden

zucchini potatoes and tomatoes 

When I started this garden, I didn’t have high hopes. Due to several factors, I had not put a garden in the ground for years. There were the raised herb beds (self-sustaining for the most part), and I planted garlic now and again in the raised bed, and occasionally grew a tray of greens inside, but a full scale, planted-in-the-ground garden had taken a back seat to everything else going on in life. We supported, and still support, our local farm markets for the vegetables we wanted. This year, even before pandemics and stay-at-home orders, I felt the pull of growing vegetables again.

So I fenced in a 32’x32’ section of the old pig pasture (which was a 100’x100’ garden before that), did a couple of rounds of tilling, hoed trenches, and started planting. Potatoes, onions, tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, and various brassicas filled the in-ground garden. Jalapeños, poblanos, and more brassicas went in the space available in the raised beds. I put down straw, said a little prayer, and hoped to get something edible at the end of it all.

The weather warmed, the weeds grew, but so did the vegetable plants! Lovely rows of onions, a tumble of potato plants, tomatoes spilling through the cages and needing retrained up the wire. The cucumbers didn’t make it (I think they were too small when I put them in), and the brassicas were enjoyed by some rogue chickens (and a plethora of cabbage worms – how had I forgotten about cabbage worms?!), but the zucchini were oozing in every direction, and the blooms on the peppers started to get my hopes up for a harvest.

close up of potatoes

It took several evenings to get the 3.5 rows of potatoes dug, but I ended up with about 10 pounds of smallish potatoes. The brassicas were a complete loss, as were the poblanos. Did you know that chickens love poblanos?! I couldn’t figure out why I had a pepper hanging there one day, and by the next day, it would be gone. Until I saw the culprit noshing away at one. They didn’t bother the jalapeños at all, so the harvest from that was about 15 peppers from 3 plants. The zucchini? That’s the one plant I knew would do well – I’ve never killed zucchini yet (knock on wood...). They are still blooming, but so far, five large zucchinis. Most of those went in the dehydrator for zuke chips.

I planted about 75 total feet of onion sets. I recently pulled a couple for what I was making for supper – like the potatoes, they were on the small side, but there will be storing onions in the pantry!

close up of tomatoes

The five tomato plants are still producing. I planted what I thought were cherry tomatoes, but; they ended up being grape tomatoes. Such tiny things – only about four cups worth at this point. Good snack, though. I won’t plant those again – back to sandwich size varieties next year. I much prefer a good tomato sandwich to this snack-size variety. Speaking of tomato sandwiches, I had no idea there were so many ways to make the “perfect” sandwich. My way is hamburger bun, greens, cheese (that’s a new addition after a whole pile of people suggested it!), tomato, mayo. One friend puts avocado on hers, some toast the bread or bun...the possibilities are endless!

I learned a lot from this garden. Among other things, tilling ground that has been a pasture for several years is hard work, and needs a proper tiller, not the one-foot wide mini-tiller I have. I would have done well to have spaded the areas as I needed to plant – that would have loosened things up more. The onions and the potatoes were not able to get very far into the soil, and I believe that was the reason for the small size and yield. Second, make sure to have some sort of brassica dusting powder on hand if I want a harvest! Cabbage worms are no joke – they can decimate a plant in what seems like seconds. A third thing I learned was straw is my friend. It was so much easier to weed and maintain the strawed-down areas.

This ground is good and healthy. It just will need a bit of work to soften it. Next year I will spade where I plant to see how that helps loosen up the soil, and I will keep planting root crops to further break things up.

How is your garden harvest this year? Did you have any crops that were great successes, or great failures?

Eau du Goat, Or, What Is That Smell?!

goat profile view
Showing off for the camera...

Goats stink. Specifically, bucks stink. Fortunately, they don’t stink all the time, but when it’s breeding season, grab your gas mask because it’s bad...really bad! It’s currently breeding season for my Kinder goats, so “buck stink” is in the air.

Meet Spock, my Kinder buck. Spock was born in March of 2019, so he’s a young boy, but he is filling out and becoming a fine looking buck. He arrived on the farm in May 2019, did his one-and-only-job very well, with four kids that arrived at the end of February 2020 (I wrote about them in a previous blog). Maybe it was because he was younger, but I don’t remember him smelling that bad last summer. Boy, was I in for a surprise when the does came into heat this year.

As you can see, Spock has a lovely beard. It usually is a beautiful grey/white/black mixture. Right now, the white and grey are a not-beautiful yellowish hue, as is his nose. I can’t think of a delicate way to put this, so here goes. His beard and nose are now yellow because he pees on himself. There you have it, folks, the secret to goat love. Urine. While a “why do goat bucks smell” search will yield oodles of information and anecdotes about stinky bucks, the short story is that bucks spray themselves to attract the does, who find it irresistible.  

(As an aside, I taught junior high and high school for 20 years. I remember Axe body spray. If you’ve ever been around a young human male who uses a product like that, I see an astonishing similarity. Some days, my eyes would be watering as the kids would change classes.)

As if this weren’t enough, bucks also have scent glands near their horns that are triggered by testosterone. The combination is a heady brew that sticks to my clothes when I walk anywhere near his pasture. When I have to enter the pasture, Spock will come up for pets and neck scratches (he is very much a friendly and calm little guy, but as with all male animals, I keep a close eye on him), leaving me to smell like buck for hours. And that’s after washing with handfuls of soap! The smell does not go away quickly.

goat with mouth open
Spock definitely thinks he's all that. He may be all that, but all that really smells!

I am incredibly thankful that Spock is the only stinky boy I have – the Shetland rams develop an odor when their breeding season begins in September, but it is nowhere close to the near-visible cloud of goat buck smell. My first ram, Sven, had a slight musky odor to him, and my current ram Marcus, has no smell that I can notice, but that may be due to my olfactory system overloading on the reek that is Spock.

Smells are part of life on any farm. Tractors, seeds, inputs (I’m not a fan of the smell of fertilizer!), animals, plants, they all have distinct smells. Some only happen at certain times of the year, like goat breeding season or corn on a hot summer night, and some are more constant, like tractors and the wooly smell of sheep. As much as it may make me gag a little right now, I know the smell will go away once breeding season is over, and it also starts the anticipation for next spring’s goatlings. That’s worth it, but wow, does he stink.

What are your favorite/least favorite smells around the farm/homestead? Is there a smell that has stuck with you (figuratively!) over time as particularly nice (or not!)?


Chicks, Cleaning, And Canning

chickens and chicks outside
Golden Buffs join our motley crew of free-range chickens

Time flies when you’re having fun, or in this case, when you’re working through the farm project list. These last few weeks have been filled with lots of “getting ready for winter” activities to make life better for humans and beasties, along with some cleaning up and clearing out of items no longer needed on this farm. That last part makes life better for me because I don’t have to move those unneeded things around!

Speaking of beasties, we got a batch of chicks from one of the Ohio hatcheries at the end of July. Our laying hens are getting up there in age, and egg production was beginning to drop, so instead of waiting until April or May of next year to get chicks in, we decided to get a late summer batch. I’ll be feeding them all winter while they grow, but hopefully, they will start laying once spring comes. I had heard good things about the Golden Buff (aka Golden Comet, depending on who is selling them) being a good chicken for pasturing/free-ranging, so we got two dozen of them. They’re not even two months old and are already ranging around with the older hens. They are active little chickens, they stay close to the buildings (well, at least right now – we’ll see if they get more adventurous as they grow), they know me as the Food Bringer, and they all go in the coop at night. I like them a lot so far!

Cleaning and canning have been the other two big-ticket items on the list. It constantly amazes me how I can cut piles and piles of brush in the spring, and have to do it all over again in the fall. It simply doesn’t end. Ever! More honeysuckle to cut down, more trees growing next to buildings, more spaces that have grown up that need cleared out. I had to start a new brush pile to handle all the debris that has accumulated in little piles here and there. I’m glad the temperatures are dropping below the 80 degree mark – makes it much easier for me to work outside, although I now need to be mindful to not overwork myself on any given day.

Food preservation has been going well – the shelves are starting to fill up with a little of this and some of that. We have an orchard nearby where I can get peaches and apples. A friend gave me a box of pears from her family’s orchard. I had the onions and jalapeños from my garden, but had to buy some local tomatoes to put up salsa. Zucchini went into the dehydrator and also the freezer. Another friend has a pawpaw patch at their home. I went picking there the other day and tried my hand at a pawpaw butter recipe I found on the internet. Didn’t turn out too bad! Being on Facebook helped a lot to find “tried and true” recipes and sources for local fruits and veg. Each time I stand in my kitchen with canning supplies all around me, spatters on the stove, sink full of pots and pans to wash, and a load of food debris to take to the chickens, I am very thankful for both the ability and means to preserve my own food, as well as the abundance of local foods I have to choose from to do so. I’m also thankful for the availability of grocery stores and the variety of fresh, frozen, and canned foods on the shelves.

bucket of pawpaw fruit
Very thankful for my friend and her pawpaw patch

And I need to get the garlic in the ground – we’ve already had light frosts the last two nights! I’ve been buying garlic from friends of ours and saving out the largest cloves to plant in my raised beds. Growing garlic is fun to me – you put it in the ground in the early fall, it starts to grow a little bit, then just holds on for the winter. Come spring, the shoots green up, and by summer, you have garlic ready to harvest! I usually cover mine with some straw or leaves. Since the leaves aren’t falling quite yet, I guess it will be straw this time.

garlic cloves
Garlic cloves, ready to plant!

Lest anyone think that these are the only things I’ve been up to, never fear! There is still fence to install and fence to repair (and even some fence to take down), people and beasties to care for (including myself!), fiber and pottery, walks to enjoy, stories to write, winterizing to complete, and I’m even planning what to grow in next year’s garden!

How are you planning for winter? Any projects that need finished before the snow flies?

Even Burdock Is Useful

close up of bee on burdock 

A trip to the garden the other evening to harvest potatoes led to a learning experience that I wasn’t expecting. As I’m turning soil to bring the last rows of potatoes to the surface, I slowly process the hum coming from the perennial garden on the other side of the fence. Straightening up, all I see is a giant mess of weeds in the center part (the weather turned hot, and except for the area around each of the perennials, the maintenance stopped)  – chicory, aster, some jimson, ragweed. And burdock. Lots and lots of burdock.

Chances are, you’ve had an experience with this member of the Asteraceae family that was the inspiration for our modern hook-and-loop (brand name “Velcro”) fasteners. The plants (at least on my farm) can grow over five feet tall, and the leaves at the base can be three feet in diameter. After flowering, the heads turn into those horrible, clothes-grabbing, fur-tangling seedpots. I’m convinced that those burrs are magnetic and/or heat-seeking, especially when it comes to getting caught up in animal hair and wool. I’ve walked pastures over and over in a season, and just when I think I’ve found all the burdock plants and removed them, the dogs or sheep will walk by, and I’ll see burrs on them that weren’t there before. It’s completely maddening, and I cut them down or pull them out wherever I see them around the farm. It’s a never-ending job, but it beats pulling them out of wool and fur after they are already attached.

bee on burdock

I looked around the weedy area, thinking about getting the machete out to cut everything down, and still hearing the humming. Then I saw them – pollinators!! Once I saw the first honeybee, I could see them everywhere, along with a variety of “bumble” bees, wasps, tiny bees and flies, butterflies (lots of Monarchs!), and moths. No wonder I could hear something with so many pollinators out there! There were some on the white and purple asters, but the vast majority were feeding on the burdock flowers. I stood there for at least five minutes just watching and learning that this much-disliked weed is a useful pollinator plant. There are many other flowers and plants blooming right now, but with so many options on one plant, the burdock certainly presents itself as a pollen and nectar buffet. The longer I watched, the more I was convinced that my “hack and slash” campaign against nature’s Velcro would have to wait until they finished blooming. That would only take a week or two at the most. And with no animals waiting on this area, nightmares of burr-laden wool evaporated into the cool evening air. This unintentional pollinator habitat was safe.

Later on that night I was thinking about how there got to be so much burdock in that pasture-turned-perennial-garden. We concluded that it was due to having pigs in that area for a few years. As they rooted, they stirred up the soil (and well-buried seeds of all the weeds that ended up growing), and with the lack of attention this year, well, the burdock and friends had free rein to shoot for the stars. I’m guessing next year will bring more burdock, but now that I know what can happen, I will be more intentional about where I let it grow. Our perennial bushes are around the perimeter of this garden and there will be a hugelkultur raised bed off to one side, leaving several areas in the center available for burdock to do its thing. Under careful supervision, of course!

burdock plant and flowers

I realize that burdock may not be a typical plant grown for pollinators, especially on a farm with wooly and furry beasts. Still, it seems to be quite useful as just that, and also fulfills one thing I love – it needs no fussing for germination and growth! With careful management, burdock might end up as a tended perennial around here. And those are words I never expected to say!

What plants that are regarded as weeds or nuisances have you left to grow around your farm/homestead? I’ve also read that burdock can be used as food – have you eaten any parts of burdock?

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