"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Monday, April 28, 2014

Warm Weather Work (Slug Shoes)

Today brought the first real warm weather of the season, by which I mean I'm pretty sure it was over 64 degrees fahrenheit. In any case it was warm enough that I got rather sweaty doing some digging out in the garden.

The potatoes that I planted as an experiment in tubs in the playroom back in january (Spud 'Speriment (Potato Poetry)) needed to be hilled already, which I did, digging up some nice black dirt from the oldest, backmost part of the compost heap, now five years old and covered with grass. I also did quite a bit of transplanting. I transplanted some sage and some thyme from black plastic into pretty, porch-worthy containers. I moved some globe artichoke starts from the greenhouse outside, and I moved the greenhouse tomatoes and peppers into larger containers. 65 degrees notwithstanding, I don't trust the weather enough to move tomatoes outside until June.

After all that shovel work, my back was aching and I needed a stretch. A couple of weeks ago, I noticed the tiny white cobwebby beginnings of a tent caterpillar infestation in the orchard. Tent caterpillars, for those of you lucky enough to live somewhere they don't, are a thoroughly disgusting form of insect life with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Tent caterpillars are one of those mysterious kinds of bug that has some multi-year life cycle, making it difficult to predict when they are going to show up. Like locusts. The lore of my youth said that every three - or five - or seven years there would be a bad infestation. That doesn't even leave much scope for accuracy, but what I can say is that we have lived here for seven years and these are the first I've seen.

This link will tell you more about tent caterpillars and what kind of unholy chemical hell you can unleash on them if you are so inclined (http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/caterpillars.htm). I prefer to walk the orchard on fine evening such as this, and when I see a tent, I bend over and grab a dock leaf, or a plantain leaf, or some other broad and sturdy leaf; fold it into my palm, and squish the little fuckers manually.

It's an unpleasant job, squishing caterpillars by hand. Nobody said homesteading was always aesthetically pleasing. I never promised you a rose garden. However I will say that today, squishing caterpillars in the warm, slanting sunshine with a carpet of dandelions under my feet and the orchard blossoms forming a fragrant cloud about my head was considerably more pleasant than squishing caterpillars was last week, when I was doing it in a frigid drizzle.

Times like this, I sometimes wish I had a boy child, who might actively enjoy such work. When I was small and we lived on a small farm, my father put a bounty on slugs in the springtime. Slugs are one of the many banes of a garden, and my dad didn't like to use chemical control if he could help it. He preferred to pay us kids to deal with them. Many's the dewy morning I was sent out with a salt shaker. Because we all liked to go barefoot in the springtime, we all, of course, often had the unpleasant experience of stepping on a slug.

Even today, I have a visceral memory of that awful, unexpected slimy squash, followed by the grim discovery that slugs just don't wipe off. A squished slug forms a sticky plaque that endures for days. Me and my sister, whenever we stepped on a slug, would emit high pitched squeals and run to the gravel driveway to commence the futile task of scraping our feet. My brother, on the other hand, actually enjoyed stepping on slugs.

I remember him stomping around the garden, about nine years old, defiantly barefoot, squashing every slug he could find. He said he was going to make himself a pair of slug shoes. He covered every square centimeter of the soles of his feet with that thick, sticky, durable, dark brown substance otherwise known as slug guts.

Really, who hasn't stepped on a slug? I pity the child who never has. As horrible as the experience is, at least it means I'm walking on grass. What are those kids stepping on instead, cigarette butts? I'm glad my fingers and thumb know the feel of a mass of tiny caterpillars meeting their doom between them. I'm glad I know that bug guts are greeny-yellow; that spit bugs spit on bladderwort; that buttercups feel greasy; that garter snakes stink but don't bite; and that push comes to shove, I can always make shoes out of slugs.

Friday, April 25, 2014

New Pasture (No More Monkeys)

A couple of weeks ago, during a short stretch of good weather, Homero and the Unofficial Farmhand (hereinafter U.F., also known as Phil, my daughter's live in boyfriend) spent the day fencing in the orchard.

The orchard occupies about a sixth of the easternmost side of the property, a section about sixty feet wide by 100 feet long, just big enough for about twenty fruit trees. At last count, we had three pears, three cherries, three plums, two big hazelnut bushes, and four giant old blueberry bushes that aren't doing very well and probably ought to be uprooted and replaced with more apples. This area is also home to my rhubarb plant and to a mess of raspberry canes I got a few years ago from my sister.

And to a whole lot of grass. 60 x 100 equals 6,000 square feet of grass, which at this time of year is a lot of biomass. The grass is about knee high at the moment - fresh and green, squeaky clean and bright glossy green. It looks so healthy I almost want to eat it myself. For years, I have wanted to fence in this area and use it for the ponies - it can't be used for the goats because they would, of course, prefer the fruit trees. My does are big ladies and on their hind legs they can reach a good seven feet high. They would kill all the young fruit trees in about fifteen minutes. But I can't stand to see all that good grass go to waste under the mower blades when it could be transformed into meat and savings in hay over the winter.

This spring has been so very cold and so very wet that we had to wait until a) the ground thawed, and b) the ground dried out a little before I could have the U.F. drive fenceposts. It was just two weeks ago that both those conditions were met, along with the third condition of my bank account having enough money in it to buy T-posts and four foot woven wire no-climb fencing.

Half the fencing was already in place - there was already a fence between the backyard and the orchard. Years ago we realized that if we wanted an orchard at all, we would have to protect the young trees from goats. I say "realized" as though it were a spontaneous development; as though it hadn't taken us six dead trees to come to the aforementioned "realization." Alas, it did. The fence deciding the orchard from the backyard went in some five years ago.

All we needed to fence in was the eastern boundary of the orchard, and the short southern side. That's about 160 linear feet of fencing, plus some 18 T-posts. Fencing comes in a 100 foot roll and it costs about $125 per roll. Six foot T-posts are eight bucks apiece. Throw in the fence clips and I dropped over $300 at the feed store. Even so, the men ran out of fencing about six feet short. I'm not sure how that happened, unless the rolls are short, or unless I am VERY bad at pacing off distance. Luckily, just like any farmstead, there are several bits and pieces of fencing laying around and we were able to find one to fit the gap.

Now every morning when I go out to milk, I also take the calf and the pony and put them into the new orchard pasture to graze. The stupid dairy calf gads not yet learned to walk on a lead and it is a difficult task to get her into the pasture, but she is already filling out a bit about the hipbones. I was nervous she would eat my raspberry canes, and actually it seems that yes, she is eating them. Luckily I have other raspberries in safer areas, and she doesn't seem to care about the rhubarb. Here's hoping that 6,000 square feet of grass is enough to fatten up one shrimpy, gimpy dairy calf by autumn.

Monday, April 21, 2014

What's Wrong With These Pictures?

The pear tree is in full bloom. The sun is out and the temperature is near sixty degrees. This tree ought to be crawling with bees, but I haven't seen a single one. I haven't spotted one - not one! - honeybee yet this year. I've seen yellow jackets, and one lonely bumblebee, but not a single honeybee. 

No bees on the dandelions. 

No bees in the rhododendrons. Usually, these flowers are favorites of bumblebees, with a fair number of honeybees as well. Nothing so far. Nothing. 

It's scary. Colony Collapse Syndrome  has been around since at least 2005, and despite intense research, there is of yet no consensus on a cause. Most likely, it is due to a combination of factors including pesticides (especially nicotinoids, which has been banned in Europe for this reason), parasites, viruses, and possibly GMO pollen. 

This year, we also had an unusually harsh winter and a very late, cold spring. It's possible that many local hives simply didn't make it through. My friends who keep bees say their hives are active, so I know that most bees ought to have "woken up" by now. I wonder what the orchard fruit crop will be like this year with no pollinators out during maximum bloom time. I wonder about the garden. 

We used to keep bees, but when they died in a winter storm (Bad Bee News; Baby Broilers) we didn't replace them. The equipment and medicine is expensive, there is a fair amount of regular maintenance and work to be done which nobody was really excited about, and as it turns out I have a pretty intense allergy to stings. One sting will make an entire limb swell up and itch horrifically for three or four days. 

We may try again with bees, someday. We may have to. There may come a day when if we don't keep bees we just don't get fruit and vegetables. I hope not. I hate to think about a world without feral bees, but it may be just around the corner. Already, in case you didn't know, the nation's berry, orchard fruit, and nut crops, as well as many other crops (full list here) are dependent on managed commercial hives, trucked all over the country by a shrinking number of professional beekeepers. 
Without those beekeepers - who are routinely sustaining losses of half their hives every year, year after year - we will be a poorer and hungrier nation. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Day in Cheese Season (Okay, Half a Day)

A day during cheese season actually begins in the evening, when I make the decision whether or not to separate the baby goats from their mothers for the night so I can have milk in the morning. Checking the fridge last night, I saw that I had three quarters of a gallon of milk in the fridge, which would be enough to try making yogurt, but not really enough for cheese. Since I have some store-bought yogurt in the fridge, but no cheese, I decided to milk in the morning.

Right now I have two milkers, Flopsy and Polly. Each of them have a single buckling on them. They each threw twins, but Polly's doeling died, and I sold one of Flopsy's bucklings. Every evening, I have to go outside and catch the little buggers. Until recently, I was closing them in the mama barn during the night, but this had a few drawbacks. When Iris kidded, she needed the mama barn for a few days. I probably could have left the bucklings in there with her and the newborns - what harm could they do? However, there is another reason I wanted to find a different place to put them.

When I go out in the morning, I have a logistics problem to deal with. I have to get two babies OUT of the mama barn, and two mamas IN (one at a time, of course), because that is where the milking stanchion is. Once the babies are released, they will instantly run over and latch onto their mama's teat, and I will lose the milk. So I need to get them from  the barn into some other secure location. This other location used to be the adjoining small pasture, and the routine went like this:

- Open the mama barn door, keeping my body between the opening and the does, who instantly try to crowd inside, because they know that's where the food is.
- As the babies come hurtling by me, trying to get outside to their mamas, grab one.
- Shut the mama barn door before the other baby gets out.
- Carry a struggling, yelling baby goat fifty feet across the barnyard to the fence, and throw him over the top into the adjoining pasture.
- Repeat.

But bucklings grow quickly, especially when they are singles and are guzzling down a gallon or so of milk a day. Blizzard, the oldest, weighs about thirty pounds already, and chucking him over a four foot fence isn't easy. Also it is not uncommon that I get mildly injured somehow during the crush at the mama barn door - I've slammed my hand in the door; the mama goats stand up on me and knock me down; the baby goats struggle in my grasp and scratch me with their surprisingly sharp hooves.

the bucklings, Blizzard and Comet
Homero came up with the idea of putting them in the other pasture, with Rosie, at night. I don't know why it hadn't occurred to me. Maybe because until just a few months ago, that fence wasn't secure enough for goats. I fixed the low spots with cattle panels, and now the little guys can't get out. Suddenly milking is easy; I put the babies in with Rosie at night and don't have to think about them again until after I have milked both mamas.

Milking the mamas is another job. Polly, though a good milker with delicious sweet milk, has never learned to jump up on the stanchion. She will poke her head through the bars for food, and I can close the stanchion and trap her, but then I have to lift her hind end bodily onto the stanchion, which is annoying and difficult. Why she won't jump up I don't know; all the other goats do. Then she tries to squeeze her hind legs together and deny me access to her udder. Polly is giving about a quart and a half every morning.

Flopsy has a diminished milk supply on one side due to mastitis a few years ago, but even so she gives almost as much milk as Polly. She is much easier to milk, but all goats that I have ever known will start kicking as soon as they run out of food in the stanchion tray. I must always have a container of grain by my side, and as I milk, I toss scant handfuls into the tray. The idea is to extract maximum milk for minimum grain. Because there have been does in the mama barn recently for kidding, we have had to put the grain up on the highest shelf, and getting a container of it down isn't easy for me. I have to climb up on the stanchion myself, reach up over my head and pull a tote with fifty pounds of grain inside towards me, and try to scoop out a couple pounds without toppling it over on myself or falling off the stanchion. Maybe (and here's an idea that just occurred to me) a stepladder wouldn't be a bad idea.

Bibi with Iris' doling

7:45 Alarm goes off. Get up, wake up kids, pull on a sweater, grab two half gallon mason jars, and head out to the barn. Run through rigamarole described above, plus morning feed and watering.

8:15 Come back inside, curse at realizing I forgot to put on water for coffee. Put on water for coffee.
Realize it's okay there's no water hot because I have to use the Melitta filter to filter the milk anyway. Make a mental note to buy a second Melitta filter so I can make coffee and strain milk at the same time.

8:30. Yell at kids, try to think of something to feed them that I can make and they can eat in less than twelve minutes. Usually this means a banana smoothie and some bread. This morning, I have leftover beef vegetable soup from last night.

8:45. Kids out the door to the school bus. Milk filtered and put away in the fridge, coffee made. Homero and I have a few minutes to drink it and read the morning news.

9:00. Look around the kitchen and realize I have a solid hour of cleaning to do before I can begin the cheese making process, which requires a fairly spotless kitchen environment. Sigh heavily.

9:20. Make a deal with Homero that if he will clean our room, I will make him anything he wants for dinner. He chooses chiles rellenos, which means in exchange for his half an hour cleaning, I have to go shopping, and then spend about three hours cooking, and the children will all complain because they hate chiles rellenos. Oh well; I made this deal.

10:00 Dishes washed and sink scrubbed; put milk to heat on stove. Remember to check recipe for cheddar in cheese making book. Search for cheese making book. Find book under a pile of homework that probably should have been brought to school to turn in. Also find an overdue library book. Check recipe; proceed.

10:30 Check laundry on the line in the playroom to see if it is dry; it is raining hard outside and there's no drying laundry on the outside line. Also no drying laundry in the dryer, which continues, annoyingly, to be broken. It's not dry.

11:00 Add rennet to warm milk. Tell husband proto-cheese needs to sit for an hour and I will go to the store to shop for ingredients for chiles rellenos. He says he's going out to the shop to work. Not cleaning our room? No, he says, he'll do that later. If you think you are getting any chiles rellenos before that room is clean, you've got another think coming, say. Have small spat. Get in the van, notice there's no gas. Go back inside to get money for gas. Kiss and make up.

12:00 Come home with ingredients. Realize I forgot to buy Melitta coffee filter. Roast chiles under the broiler and cut the curds in the cheese. Next twenty minutes: go back and forth between stove top and oven, turning chiles, and stirring curds. Burn fingers. Drain curds.

12:20 Remove chiles to cool. Peel chiles. Salt the drained curds and mix well, then wrap and put into cheese press. Stare lovingly at beautiful cheese press made for me by my husband for mother's day a few years ago. Feel bad that I snapped at sweet husband who made me excellent cheese press. Wallow in guilt for two minutes.

the beautiful cheese press
12:45 Realize I am starving. Eat cold beef vegetable soup off kitchen table, where the kids left it four hours ago.

1:00 Check recipe again. Per instructions, unwrap cheese, salt, turn upside down, wrap again and put back in the press.

1:10 Facebook.

1:30 Turn cheese one more time; crank up pressure on cheese press. Think about writing this blog post. Think about taking a hot bath. Vacillate. Feel vaguely guilty about not writing much lately; wonder who the hell cares if I write or not? Feel vaguely sorry for myself. Decide to write.

1:50 Finish blog post. Take a hot bath.

queso fresco with chives

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Goat Who Wouldn't Kid (When to Butt Out)

Iris, above, is the first goat I bought when I moved here. I was hurting for goats; I couldn't wait. Goats, as far as I was concerned, were the whole point of pulling up stakes and moving from the city to the countryside. It was late summer when we moved in, and late fall by the time I had bought a barn (Home Depot's largest model), put in fencing, and was ready to buy an animal. Not wanting to deal with breeding the first year, I looked for a pregnant goat.

Craigslist, as usual, was my vehicle. I put up an ad saying I wanted to buy a pregnant dairy goat - breed unimportant - and was soon answered by a local woman with a bred Nubian doe. She wanted an inordinate amount of money - $300! - but I was taken with goat fever and I simply decided to lie to my husband about how much I was spending. He has no idea what a good goat is worth, I rationalized. As it turns out, that woman actually runs a well-respected farm and her goats win prizes all over the tri-state area, but I had no way of knowing that at the time. Nor did the pedigree matter to me - she offered me Iris' papers for an extra $50 but I said no thanks, not thinking it would ever be important to prove her ancestry. I'm a homesteader, I said, not a goat breeder.

That was rather a dumb decision, I have since come to understand. For $50, I could have a herd of registered animals now, and each and every one of them would be regarded as quality breeding stock, allowed to be shown at agricultural fairs, and valued at some 25-50% higher than unregistered animals. Instead, I have a herd of beautiful, healthy animals, from good milking stock, and bred for hardiness, but only suitable for the smaller market of people who don't care about registries. It means I sell a lot of quality animals for meat instead of for show.

Nonetheless, Iris has earned her price many times over. That first year, she threw us twins, and one of them, Flopsy, I have to this day. Flopsy, in turn, has given us many kids over the years, including our prize buck. If I were to add up the value of all that Iris has provided in livestock, meat, and milk over the years - something I could theoretically do but not at this time of night - it would be a lot of money. Totally aside from her monetary worth, Iris is a great goat - smart, personable, and attractive.

She is getting on in years, however. A year and a half old when we bought her, she is now about eight. Goats live to something like thirteen, and they can theoretically keep producing until they keel over of old age. Iris is healthy, and she had a year off from kidding last year when we were in Mexico. When we brought in the buck, Paxton, last fall, he went for Iris first of all the does. He bred her within thirty seconds of entering the pasture, so it's clear she is still a fertile animal.

This spring, however, the other two does kidded first. Oh well, I thought, Iris must not have caught pregnant on the first go-round - I'll expect babies in a few weeks. I started to watch her. For a while, I was confused. I had been certain she was pregnant - like the other does, she got thick in the middle and developed a biscuity tail (that means that the skin of her tail got puffy and soft - a sign of early pregnancy). But after the other does kidded, Iris didn't seem to be developing at all - in fact, she was getting thinner. Her udder stayed stubbornly small and floppy. I couldn't figure it out at all and began to doubt she was even pregnant.

Finally, about a week ago, her udder began to fill out, which is unmistakable proof of advanced pregnancy. Usually, when the udder fills, you have only a few days until birth. But Iris' udder got bigger and bigger. Her belly got bigger and bigger. She was so poofy and huge she could barely walk. Her tail ligaments disappeared and her distal spine lifted up. Deep hollows appeared below her hipbones as the babies dropped lower and lower. I started to lock her in the mama barn at night, but every morning when I went out early to check, there was Iris, staring at me - no kids.

I had advertised her kids for sale on Craigslist, and a woman had already answered me with an offer to buy any doelings. She wrote me every day - are they here yet? No, I said, but I'm pretty sure today's the day. Night before last, I locked her in the barn as usual at evening feed, but I forgot to tip the milking stand on its side. I do that so that she won't be able to get up on the stand, stand on her hind legs, and reach the sack of grain stored on the tippy-top shelf, nine feet above the floor. So of course, that's what she did. When I went out first thing in the morning, expecting to see baby goats, instead I saw a lot of liquid excrement all over the place.

In case you don't know, when a goat overeats grain, she gets what's known as overeating disease (Enterotoxemia (Overeating Disease) of Sheep and Goats), or toxic rumen. To you and me, what that means is explosive diarrhea and massive amounts of gas. It's not a joke- goats can easily die of overeating disease - but Iris didn't get enough grain to be in serious trouble. Just enough to cause a lot of disgusting green liquid poo. Just what one wants when birth is imminent. I kept Iris locked inside the barn and bought a new bale of clean straw. I mucked out the poo-covered straw. I moaned and bitched and wailed and cursed the stupid goat. I wanted to beat her, but instead I brought out a pan of warm soapy water and a dozen rags and cleaned her rear end. Let nobody say I don't care about my goats.

All day I hung about, waiting. I brought a book out to the barn and sat down in the clean straw and read and waited. Iris was in serious distress, but I couldn't tell if it was labor or just intestinal distress from the diarrhea. Her udder continued to fill, and by four or five in the afternoon it was tight as a drum. That is an indication that the goat ought to kid within a few hours. I was waiting for the string of goo - which is, just as you probably guessed, a long string of mucus depending from the vagina. Once the string of goo appears, you want to see kids on the ground within an hour. No goo was forthcoming, but Iris was acting like a goat in active labor.

A goat in active labor will scratch at the ground, making a nest. She will often lay down and get up again, stretch, and yawn. Usually, she will stay standing until the final stages of labor, when she may lay down to push. She grunts and curls her lips in a very distinctive way. Normally, goats kid quickly, and the entire process ought not to take more than an hour or two from start to finish. I called the vet at 6 pm, because Iris had been getting up and laying down, stretching and rolling for about four hours. I was pretty certain that the kids were malpositioned.

The vet said it was time for me to go in and see what I could feel. Was the cervix open or shut? What was the presenting part? I put on some of my husband's thin black nitrile gloves, soaped up, and lay down on the wet straw behind Iris and inserted my hand.

I'm no expert. Over the years, I've had to pull kids several times, but until yesterday I'd never gone in before the water has broken. I would not have, but the vet said it was time. When it comes to birth - caprine or human - I am a big believer in standing back and letting nature take its course. I think we most often cause nothing but trouble when we interfere with a process honed by millions of years of evolution. In this case, I felt that her cervix was wide open and that I could feel the bag of waters easily, but that there was nothing firm inside it. I could feel no fetal part at all - not hooves, which would have been normal, nor a muzzle, nor even some blank wall of side or hip. Just an empty, squishy bag. Clearly, there was no kid in any position to be born.

I called the vet back and said "I think I better just leave her alone for a while. There's nothing I can do, those kids have to come around on their own."

Now, if any mothers are reading this, they may remember - as I do - that when somebody puts their hand inside you when you are already in labor, it provokes some serious contractions. My pelvic exam made poor Iris go into some hard core labor. Maybe that's what did it - I don't know. But in any case, Iris must have been busy while I was inside the house for a couple of hours. When I went back out at about 8 pm with a flashlight, there were two newborn babies on the ground. They had obviously been born mere minutes before. They hadn't yet stood up. I ran back to the house, yelling for Homero and the girls, and brought back clean towels and iodine.

The kids were both a little bit worse for wear, due to the long hard labor. The little girl, brown and white spotted just like her mama, had inhaled amniotic fluid and was snuffling and snorting. I didn't have a syringe to aspirate the fluid - not that I really knew how in any case. I briefly considered placing my mouth over her nose and aspirating old-school, but decided she'd probably live without any heroic measures. It seemed so, because she was the first one up, and managed to nurse without any help from me. Her brother, black with brown points and a white cap and ears, was the worse off between the two of them. He was shaky and weak and it took him a good half hour to stand up. A healthy baby ought to stand up within five minutes. I held him up and let him have at the teat; I knew that with a belly full of milk he'd be just fine for the night.

I don't like to see babies born late at night - the normal time seems to be early in the morning. I always wonder how they will figure out nursing without being able to see, but I realize that is a primate's prejudice. The little kids can smell and feel their way to the teat even in perfect darkness.

This morning, the babies were doing just fine. They had become all fluffy, as kids do when they are healthy, and both were standing and nursing without assistance. I think we are going to keep the little girl. I need a new doe - in another post I will detail my thinking on the health of the whole herd, but for the moment I'll just say I'm delighted to have a good looking spotted doling. The lady who wanted to buy a doling will just have to wait until next year.