30 September 2008

The angels came

Today, the angels came for my Uncle Jim.

The brain tumor that was found earlier in the year wasn't going to go away, although the surgery and radiation did buy him some additional time with his family. I'm really glad we went to visit in the early summer, and got to see him (and everyone else) while we could.

His passing was peaceful, for which we are immensely grateful. He had been struggling with chest congestion for some time, but today there was no trouble breathing, just ... quiet ... then more quiet ... then gone.

He was a good man, with a big loving heart. He will be very much missed.


This morning, Sasha was in her milking stanchion eating the morning ration of hay, and I figured I should try again with the 'get used to me handling you' stuff.

Sure enough, she didn't flinch at all.

So ... I wrapped my hand around a teat. No reaction. Well, no guts no glory ... so I bumped up, wrapped my fingers around the teat, and voila! Milk squirted out!

Yay! I milked a cow!

I pulled off a few squirts of milk, just to get her used to the idea, and left her alone. Soon, we'll be able to gather that milk in a pail and then ...

Does that make us real homesteaders? :)

29 September 2008

Dairy Cow Breakthrough

The cows are in the barn!

We got the fences in place so that we can bring the cows up to the barn at night. We have them in a shared pen for now, and will separate them as soon as we put another row of bars between the two pens (the calf can jump over at the moment, it's too low).

Tonight Sasha was in her milking stanchion eating hay, and let me rub her sides and her belly, and even touch her udder. She didn't even change the rate of her chewing.

We are one step closer to milk!

21 September 2008

Black Gold

Remember this?

Come and listen to a story about a man named Jed
A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed,
Then one day he was shootin at some food,
And up through the ground came a bubblin crude.

Oil that is, black gold, Texas tea.

The Beverly Hillbillies found black gold on their land ... and so have we!

Okay, ours isn't oil. :)

Our black gold is piled up in the most beautiful compost heap you've ever seen, which is right now cooking away beside the garden generating heat and breaking down manure and hay into beautiful organic compost.

The Reluctant Farmer scraped the winter pasture clean a few times last winter and again in the spring, and piled all the manure and waste hay into a big heap. It's been sitting there undisturbed all summer, and today he moved it over near the garden so that we'd have a clear spot to put our hay when it arrives. As he dug into the pile with the bobcat shovel, steam came out and it was clear that we were well into the process of building some nice dirt!

Next year's plans include a greatly expanded garden, but of course, to do that we'll need more soil to plant things in. Looks like there'll be no need to buy bags of peat moss planting soil from Canadian Tire next year ... we've got two big piles of dirt under construction out there, and come spring, they should be in lovely shape.

More infrastructure

Some days it seems like we spend way too much money trying to do this whole farm thing. Actually, most days it seems like that. Well, I suppose we're in good company with every other farmer ... like the old joke goes: When the farmer won the lottery, and was asked what he'd do now, he shrugged and said "Keep on farmin' till the money runs out!"

The latest acquisition/investment is a little two-horse trailer. While we do have a little landscape trailer that has been modified with raised sides and a gate at the back, and it does indeed work for hauling up to 5-6 sheep at a time, it isn't very sturdy, and has shown signs that it is unlikely to survive sheep hauling for more than another couple of years without need for repair. It's going to be reallocated to trash and lumber hauling, which is what it was meant for in the first place.

The Reluctant Farmer is the King of Kijiji Shopping - and he has been watching for a good deal on a trailer for some time now. This one came up recently, and was newer than most he'd seen in our price range ... and was cheaper as well! With some logistical headaches, he managed to pick it up this weekend, and it'll do exactly what we need.

See, with a cow/calf pair in addition to the sheep, we have to think about getting the calf to butcher next fall, and although we could probably prevail upon someone we know who has a trailer, that's not a favour I really want to call in every year. If the cow ever needs the vet, being able to take her there would be cheaper than having the vet come here. Also, when taking sheep to the butcher or the auction, there are some real advantages to being able to take more than just 5 at a go. And then there's Cherub, who always tries to jump out of the little sheep trailer and has to be tied when she's in there for fear of losing her overboard!

Last but not least, The Reluctant Farmer has been working on a plan to take the sheep on school visits. He and Dinosaur Boy's teachers are working out the details, but the trailer would be a really nice feature for this project: the kids can come outside and go into the trailer to visit the sheep, rather than taking the sheep into the school. This reminds me of something I saw when I was very little ... Elsie the Borden Cow was at the local grocery store, outside in her trailer in the parking lot. I vividly remember going into the trailer and seeing this lovely placid cow sitting there chewing her cud ... and I couldn't have been more than five at the time. The little girl I was then would never have guessed that she'd grow up into someone with a real cow of her own!

Deciding where to spend and where to save is always a tough call ... we very much want to get the debts under control and that means not spending on things that can wait, but then again, we are trying to build up our very little farm into something that at least supplements our income somewhat, or something that has the capacity to be expanded so that it could supplement our income, and to do that means getting the infrastructure in place.

It's a hard decision. We know that our jobs are fragile - if the economy goes south, the kind of work we do could evaporate, leaving one or both of us with limited options for standard employment. We love working on the farm, and so we are trying to ensure that if the time ever comes that we want to make this an actual revenue builder, we have the necessary infrastructure to allow us to expand without needing huge infusions of startup cash.

What we are aiming for is that things as they are become easier to manage, and that if we want to expand in the future, we have what we need for a bit more livestock. In the short term, if things are easier to manage, we are freed up to do our paid jobs, because the 'farm stuff' takes less time. Sure we have to fix fences in the spring, but when the cross-fencing is in place and the gates are all where they need to be, moving sheep from one pasture to another is a matter of a few minutes for one person, rather than two or three of us chasing sheep around a huge pasture trying to get them where we want them. As for expansion, if we leased some nearby land we could carry a few more animals without needing more significant infrastructure than what we already have. The heritage breeds that we prefer don't need big barns or huge grain bins or anything like that, but they do need what we already have (or are working on) - fencing, feeders, water troughs, and a barn with room for a few at a time, rather than everyone all at once.

We'll see where it all leads - maybe we'll never be more than 'hobby farmers' who have a few sheep, some chickens, and a dairy cow. Then again, maybe we'll find our way into the local grass-fed meat market, be supplying local handspinners with premium wool and enjoying the food we grow in our own garden.

It's nice to have a dream, anyway. And who knows? If the little girl who was so awed by Elsie the Borden Cow could grow up to have a dairy cow of her very own ... maybe some day this woman with the little acreage will find that she's grown up and become a real farmer, too.

Independence Days Update

Oh my, this is a belated post. We've been too busy doing stuff to sit down and write!

Umm ... no. Frosts are here, it's not planting time. :)
However, seeing this on the list makes me think again about finding something to grow lettuce in on the windowsill.

Lots of calendula blossoms (more on that below). I also have started gathering calendula seeds from the flowers that I left too long (umm ... I did that on purpose! I did mean to save seeds ... just not quite yet. Still, it works.) We had beets from the garden, and the last carrots, and every so often we get potatoes. The tomatoes are actually ripening on the frost bitten vines, so there is still hope of tomato paste for winter! The Boy has harvested more rose hips for me, and I gathered some more, along with yarrow and clover blossoms, the other day.

I dehydrated the last batch of apples, and have cooked up more juice and syrup. The most recent batch of flowers and rose hips are in the dehydrator. The earlier rose hips have been cooked down into juice, and the calendula blossoms that are already dry are soaking in olive oil.

We went to a farm auction and I scored several boxes of canning jars for $15. I've been using them to store bulk purchases of pasta, baking supplies and the dehydrated apple bits I've been putting up.
I consider all our infrastructure work to fall into this category as well, and we've done a lot here: we have a completed hay feeder for the sheep, of a design that ought to reduce waste and keep at least some of the hay out of their neck wool (which in turn increases the value of the wool). The Boy stained the feeder with leftover stain from the house, so it is protected from the elements and should last a good while. We have the barn up and in use: this will help us to avoid frozen lambs for early births, gives us a place to milk the cow, and the whole thing generally makes it possible for us to improve our livestock management. We won't ever make a living from just 6 acres ... but we want to have options, and we want to take the best possible care of the animals we do have.

Managed Reserves
The pantry is getting very full! We need to do an inventory very soon, but that can wait for cooler weather when the outside jobs are done. We continue to watch for our 'staple products' to show up on sale - flour, oil, pasta, canned tomatoes (we are nowhere near self sufficient on that yet), beans and spices. Any time these things are on sale, we pick up a few spares, and into the pantry they go. We never shop for "what we will eat this week" - we just keep the pantry stocked, and eat from there.

Cooked Something New
We must surely have cooked something new since the last time I posted, but I'm not sure what it might have been. Ah yes, The Reluctant Farmer has reminded me ... we had Lambili (chili made with ground lamb). It was awesome!
I did make something new that isn't edible but did involve cooking, so I'll put that here. I made calendula ointment, and it is lovely! Dried calendula blossoms are soaked in olive oil for a good long while (like, a few weeks) until the oil has absorbed the flower essence. This oil is then filtered into a pot and some beeswax is added ... the whole thing is heated until the wax melts, then the finished compound is put into jars and cooled. The wax and flowers give the finished product a lovely smell, and the oil and wax together give a good consistency for ointment. Calendula is used for skin irritations like rashes and scrapes, and mixed with the oil and beeswax it makes a lovely soothing ointment.

Reduced Waste
We continue to use up scrap lumber and building materials wherever we can: The Reluctant Farmer built a new dog self-feeding station out of an old wooden walkway/pallet thing that was lying around and some scrap plywood. The dogs need to be able to eat whenever they are hungry (and the cats and chickens help themselves as well, so we like the food to be out all the time). The eating area needs to be out of the rain and snow, though, or the food gets soggy. We had an old feeder that was repurposed from our generator house ... but the wood caught the water and the feed had gotten mouldy, so it was burned today (in a rather more stunning conflagration than we expected) and the new feeder was put in place. We will be adding a food dispenser to this one, although it's not done yet - most likely the dispenser will be made from an old garbage can.

Worked on Local Food Systems
Can't think of anything in particular to add to this category ... unless hatching out chicks the natural way in your own yard (so that you can eat the eggs they produce - if they are hens - or the chickens themselves - if they are roosters) counts.


We had two hens go broody awhile back, and so they were put in cages to sit on their eggs undisturbed for a few weeks. A little while back, the first hen hatched out a single chick from the two eggs we'd given her to set on, and a week later, the other hen hatched out all three of the eggs she had!

We have four little peeping black chicks out roaming around and pecking at the ground in their mama's wake.

The Boy did notice today that the first hen had been in some sort of fight - perhaps the other mama thought she'd stolen her chick or something. Whatever the cause of the altercation, she came out somewhat the worse for wear: she had some damage to her head and her eyes were stuck shut! We caught her and rinsed her head off, and her eyes opened up just fine once the guck was washed away. She and her baby are back in isolation with food and water ... and peace and quiet. She doesn't seem to have sustained any serious injury, we'll keep an eye on her for infection but I think she'll be okay. Good thing The Boy is observant!

A finished barn!

We have a finished barn!

There is white trim around the edges, and around the windows ... all the red paint is on, and the interior is stained with the 'mistint' that I found (which turned out to be way more purple than it seemed, but, well, the price was right and it seals the wood even if it is a weird colour). The stalls inside have all been built and have hinged gates that latch shut, there are hooks on the wall to hang things, and the sheep halters and the newly purchased cow halter and lead rope are hanging up, waiting for use. The dirt floor has been brought up to the right height and levelled (the Boy stomped it down to pack it a bit), and today we put the last bit of straw we had into the stalls.

We made an effort this afternoon to split the sheep into their breeding groups, but we were foiled by the loose cross fencing (translation: the sheep we wanted to keep separated just pushed their way under the fence and joined their buddies in the other pasture). However, four of the sheep stayed behind - and all four of them happen to be headed to the Big Pasture in the Sky in another week. That was convenient! We rounded them up and took them into the barn, where they are now being guarded by Bob. They have hay and water, and are out of the rain that just started, so I think it's a good way to spend their last week here! They seem quite comfortable, and it's a good test of the barn layout. So far, so good!

07 September 2008

Introducing Gracie

Last week, Dinosaur Boy asked for a Family Meeting. After dinner, he announced that he would like to get a bunny of his own. We talked about the responsibilities of pet ownership, and had a lot of questions for him. How would he pay for the feed? (he will do chores here to help pay for his bunny's share) Who will clean the bunny cage when he is not here? (Dad already agreed to do that job) Is he willing to get a girl bunny, since Charlie is already here and opposite gender bunny pairs tend to do better together? (yes, that's fine)

So, The Reluctant Farmer started looking for a bunny. A very nice lady had some bunnies she wanted to give to good homes and offered one to Dinosaur Boy. I went out after work and picked up Gracie - who is HUGE compared to Charlie! Gracie is part French Lop, and will weigh in at about 10 pounds or more when full grown (Charlie is already full grown and is about six pounds). At four months, she is already bigger than Charlie ... but she is very loveable and happy to be held and cuddled.

We've had the two bunnies in cages next to each other, allowing them to get used to being together. They've been out a few times and there has been a little bit of fur flying as they get used to sharing the house, but overall, it seems to be going very well. Gracie herself is so gentle and loving (with the people anyway, she's still not quite sure what she thinks of Charlie), we are glad she's joined us!

A Barn

A little while ago, The Reluctant Farmer came up with an idea for building us a barn. If we built a lean-to structure on the back of the shed, we could have a sheltered spot to deal with sheep who are lambing, or are sick, or need to be dealt with ... and of course, a barn means a place to milk a cow. This wonderful idea of his is what made the acquisition of our milk cow a workable plan. :)

To make this plan into reality, The Reluctant Farmer invited his parents to come for a visit and help out with the construction (my father-in-law was a farmer for a long time, and is quite handy with this sort of thing).

This weekend, they built us a barn!

The frame rests on heavy posts that have been sunk into the ground. These were tied together with 2x4s to ensure everything was square, and then the serious framing began. The bottom part of each wall is made with heavy 2x10 lumber that was lying around here, leftover from house construction, I suspect, which will stop anyone from kicking a hoof through the wall and will give us places to anchor eyebolts for tying halters to and such. The walls and roof are sheathed in plywood, and the roof will be shingled to match the shed (more or less). As I have always wanted a red barn, I'll be going to pick up a bucket of red paint tomorrow ... and we'll paint both barn and shed a proper barn red, with white trim.

Inside the barn (which is 18' by 14') we will have a central aisle with pens on either side: next to the shed are the pens for Sasha the cow and her calf (who will have to be stalled separately at night so that we can have Sasha's morning milk), and on the west side will be three small pens for sheep. It'll be nice to be able to pen up the sheep who are likely to have lambs, and be able to do all that lambing 'stuff' out of the wind and snow! At the far end of the center aisle will be the milking stall: Sasha's pen will have a gate that lets her into a slightly elevated area where I can sit outside the stall (protected from hooves by a sturdy fence rail, but still able to reach in and do the milking). We're still finalizing the interior layout and the best way to set up fences and gates around the outside of the barn to make getting critters in and out simple ... but I can already tell, this is going to make a major difference in our lives.

Three cheers for The Reluctant Farmer and his step-dad, who made this happen!

01 September 2008

Milk Cow Update

Sasha the milk cow and her calf, Darth Vader, have lived with us for about a month now. When they first arrived, they were okay with people being near them, but were really quite skittish. We spent lots of time just standing near them in the pasture, wandering around and picking rocks or just being nearby and talking to them. We tried taking them hay cubes, but they had never seen them before and didn't realize they were food, so that didn't really work. Long grass pulled or cut from the ditches was a big hit though - it didn't take long for them to walk up to you and eat it right from your hands.

After a little while, they would let us scratch their foreheads (the flies are awful and really do bother them especially around their eyes and at the base of their horns), and eventually they figured out that hay cubes are yummy ... we call them cow candy.

The Reluctant Farmer has been diligent about visiting them daily and helping the cows to realize that the bucket holds the hay cubes. They now come running if they see you with a bucket, and will eat the cubes right out of our hands. They are willing to be scratched all along their heads and often on their necks as well, although if you move suddenly they'll still bolt and run. They'll come to a call though, if they think you have cow candy, so this is a huge step forward.

This week, my inlaws are coming for a visit and to help with the construction of the new barn. My father in law lived or worked on a farm for much of his life, and I'm very interested to hear his input on keeping a milk cow and how to best design the interior of our little barn. We've measured out the space and put stakes in the ground to help envision the layout, but there's nothing like first hand experience to give perspective to a plan.

I am hopeful that once we have barn pens and a milking stanchion in place we can get Sasha and Darth trained to come up to the barn at night, and we can start training Sasha to stand in the milking stall and be handled ... then it's just one more step to milking! Darth is still nursing, so Sasha is still in milk, and I'm hopeful that we will be able to start the milking routine before the spring calf arrives. It's early to know yet, but she's calmed down so much already, I'm really quite hopeful that we'll be able to do the remainder of the training sooner than I'd initially thought.

Independence Days Update

Suddenly, it's turning into fall! How on earth did it get here so quickly?

Nope ... I think we may be too late for planting things now. I do have hopes of some indoor lettuce plants for winter though, so I'll need to put some thought towards the container I want to put them in.

We've been harvesting beans as we go, collecting enough for a meal ... we continue to get eggs (although the chickens are hiding them somewhere, so we have to do egg hunts on a daily basis) ... and more lamb will be up for harvest in a few weeks. Given the frost of last night, we'll probably be harvesting potatoes and beets soon, but I hope to leave them in the ground a bit longer if I can.
The Boy went out and harvested berries for me: he picked a whole bucket of rose hips and some bunchberries.

This was the big job this weekend: we have apple preserves of all kinds! We have apple butter, apple sauce, fruit leather, and dried apples. We also have juice (lots and lots of it), some sweetened with honey and some plain (which is marvellous mixed with Sprite). I made syrup from the rose hips and bunchberries (not the thick syrup to pour on pancakes, the thin syrup for flavouring things).

The Reluctant Farmer got the dirt base ready for the barn, and we fenced in the last major chunk of pasture with barbed wire. The cow and calf have been turned in to work on the extremely long grass (it's not been touched for oh, four years now, so it is very wild). The sheep have been rotated to another pasture, and we'll be splitting them up into breeding groups very soon ... we better do it soon, or we'll be too late. :)

Managed Reserves
We continued to add to our pantry, with dehydrating and preserving. We also got the wine rack installed in the house and the empty bottles stored there, as well as the new bottles of home made wine. I tasted the white grape honey wine (technically called a melomel) and it is still quite undrinkable, as is the cranberry/white grape/honey wine. This is not uncommon - they take quite awhile to age to drinkability. So, those are sitting on the rack awaiting their time. The honey/currant/maple syrup wine though ... mmmmmmmmm. It is almost ready! That one is resting on the stairs for a month or so and will probably be wonderful by then. I'll definitely be making more of that!
We've mostly been making progress on our inedible reserves - sorting through extra kitchen items, clothing, fabric and other supplies. Dinosaur Boy took a liking to a couple of pencil cases and a lunch box that The Boy no longer needed, and has taken them for his Grade One school supplies. I was so pleased to see him happily re-using things. :)
Soon I need to do a proper inventory on the pantry and see what we have and what we need.

Cooked Something New
The Reluctant Farmer is our chief cook these days, and he is really willing to experiment. He made a fabulous casserole the other night with rice and hamburger and red peppers and tex-mex spices ... there was almost a fight for the leftovers! The apple dumplings were also new - just biscuit dough wrapped around apple halves filled with sugar and cinnamon, but absolutely awesome. The syrups from the berries are new ... they add a nice flavour to water, and I'm thinking they'll be very good added to tea. Oh, he also made a lovely soup from the broth I made up from the bones we saved from our barbecued meat - a bit of milk and some garden vegetables and we had a wonderful cream of something soup.

Reduced Waste
The usual, really ... we are reusing everything we can, composting all the compostable things, making broth from the bones of our meat before disposing of the bones, and recycling wherever we can.

Work on Local Food Systems
Oh, I did mean to do up a price sheet for our lamb this weekend ... but with all the other jobs, that just didn't happen. That's up next. So, sadly, nothing in this category just now. Oh, The Reluctant Farmer did mention that he had done some research into the government programs available to small farm startups ... that probably counts.


It's harvest time.

Theresa, from Pondering the Myriad Things, had a hard frost the other day ... and we got one last night, too. Of course, I thought about covering the plants ... I even went so far as to put the support hoops in place ... and then before bed, I forgot. Today the pumpkins look very sorrowful, and the tomatoes look a bit weary, but they seem to be okay. We have a tarp over the main tomato bed and blankets on the potatoes and pumpkins.

One of the people I work with has an apple tree in the yard, and she brought me two huge bags of picked apples and four bags of windfall apples on Friday! I have spent the weekend processing apples ... we have juice (litres and litres of it), dried apples, fruit leather, and we ate delicious apple dumplings on Saturday afternoon. I still have most of a bag of the 'good' apples to work through ... and this is after feeding half a bag of the windfalls to the sheep! Some of the juice is in large buckets on the kitchen floor fermenting into cider - it's an experiment, so we'll see what it does.

Needless to say, we are exhausted. It's been a busy long weekend here - I processed apples from the time I got up on Saturday until after 9 pm, and we have also been trying to sort through the things in the basement, clear up the outside, and get the fibre room into useable condition. It's a huge job - but you can't make good use of your stores if they are disorganized, and we have more stuff than we need, so we are winnowing out the excess while we are at it.

More details in the Independence Day Update ... coming up next!