Friday, December 14, 2012

Mold-ripened cheese success

If you've been around for awhile, you might remember some of my failures in mold-ripened cheese ... like this one ... and this one. They didn't all turn out so badly. One was actually good enough to take to a party, although it didn't look like any mold-ripened cheese that anyone had ever seen. It was at least tasty, and it didn't look like a total wreck.

In October, I attended Jim Wallace's cheesemaking class in Massachusetts, and one of the cheeses on the agenda was Camembert. When I got home, I could hardly wait to try out the ideas I'd learned. And here is the lovely, delicious result!

What was the difference? Well, I had always failed in the affinage -- or aging. I had read somewhere that you could not age a mold-ripened cheese in the same cave with non-mold-ripened cheeses, and unfortunately I believed it. So, I had tried all sorts of crazy ideas ... like aging in my refrigerator (which was obviously too cold, and I knew that, but there was a book that said it would work, so I tried) and aging in a picnic cooler with ice, which meant I had to remember to replenish ice twice daily. I also tried aging in another frig without the proper thermostat control, thinking I could remember to keep turning the refrigerator on and off to keep the proper temperature. Geez! I really can't believe I tried all those things!

Jim ages his mold-ripened cheeses in his regular cheese cave, but he puts them in plastic food storage containers with a cheese mat in the container for drainage and air circulation under the cheese. It is so ridiculously simple that I'm kicking myself for not figuring that out sooner! But as they say, better late than never. And I'm thrilled to be able to make delicious homemade mold-ripened cheese now!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Taking lambs 'down south'

On Friday, we loaded up three of our spring lambs to take to the locker for turning into lamb chops. Anyone who thinks sheep are dumb has never met our sheep. They are ridiculously smart. I think they can actually read minds, or they have incredibly good hearing, and they can hear our conversations a quarter mile away ... in the house!

Jonathan went out to the pasture with their hay just like any other day, but no one wanted anything to do with it. They sensed a trap!

But we did eventually manage to herd them into the shelter area in spite of their reservations.

I was in charge of closing the gate behind everyone when they ran into the shelter area. Jonathan was in charge of standing behind a temporary fence so that the sheep wouldn't knock it down and run out into another pasture entirely. And Mike was in charge of actually catching the sheep and putting them into dog crates on the back of the pick-up. We usually use a trailer, and when Mike suggested dog crates, I thought there was something about the idea that wasn't quite right, but I couldn't put my finger on it.

So, Mike caught the first one ...

and this handsome fellow was watching as his friend was loaded up.

And then Mike caught him. Without another person available to handle the gate between the pasture and pick-up, Mike had to hop over the fence.

And then Mike caught the third one.

And then the third one decided he didn't want to go to the locker.

You see that dog crate? It had a door only moments earlier. The door is now bent up to the point where it is probably ruined. The ram hit it once and shook the whole crate as I saw one of the door's four pins pop out of the hole that is responsible for keeping the door attached to the crate as a door. I yelled at Mike because he was closest, and he stretched across the tailgate of the truck to try to hold the door in place. As the ram hit it again, Mike realized the ram would soon have the door detached from the crate, and he jumped onto the pick-up bed. And it wasn't a moment too soon!

As Mike held the lamb, we brainstormed about how to get him to the locker. We agreed that the ram was able to knock off the door because the crate was big enough for him to back up and get some force behind his head to hit the door. We wound up putting him in a smaller crate, and we put the crate in the cab. Mike turned the other two crates so that the doors faced each other, which we hoped would dissuade the other rams from trying to knock off the doors of their crates. And even if they did try, we were assuming that they would not be able to get out of the crate because when they were end to end in the bed of the pick-up, they were snug enough that the rams would not be able to get out, even if the door was missing.

I was worried from the moment I left the pasture. The last thing I wanted was to hear that our lambs were splatted across I-55. I wasn't even that optimistic about the one in the cab with Mike. What if he busted out of the crate while Mike was driving and then he busted through the window? I have no doubt he could have shattered the window with one hit from his head. Luckily my worst fears were not realized, and all three made it to the locker, and the crates and the truck were still in one piece. Mike said that the two rams in the bed of the pick-up did get a little rowdy when he started to unload them, however. So, he won't be using dog crates again to transport rams. We are just really lucky that the one tried to get out when we were still right there and could stop him.

We have more lambs and goats to take in this Friday, and I'm not sure how we'll do it. Mike is worried about the truck being able to pull the trailer up the slight incline to get out of the pasture. (It's a rear-wheel drive.) Usually we park it on the road, but that's a long way to carry a sheep from the shelter to the road, which is why he liked the idea of using dog crates. Maybe we'll come up with Plan C by this Friday!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Moving day

We recently moved our guinea hogs to fresh pasture. This may not look like much to you, but to a guinea hog, it's a lovely buffet. We always know when they're fed up with their current pasture because they start rooting. As long as they're happy with the offerings, they eat the grass and weeds above ground. This is Julia in the lead. She follows me around like a dog because she was our first guinea hog, and she's rather attached to me.

I can't believe she's going to be three years old in March! Doesn't she have a lovely profile? And she is an excellent mama, too!

York is the handsome boar on the right. He's visiting for a few weeks to ensure that we have piglets in the spring. We saw him breed Julia already, and her estimated due date is April 1.

On the left is Julia's daughter, and she needs a name! Any suggestions? Mike suggested Julia's Child, and when I vetoed that one, he came up with Destiny Child. Not sure I'm too crazy about that one either, but I am very impressed with his creativity. If you have any ideas, I'd love to hear them! It's not every day you get to help someone name their pig.

Monday, December 3, 2012

I left my heart in Shelburne Falls

Since my first book came out, I've done quite a bit of traveling, and although it's fun, I'm always happy to come home to my little homestead on the prairie. Such was not the case, however, when Mike and I recently attended Jim Wallace's cheesemaking class in Shelburne Falls, MA. I had to remind myself that I had a farm full of animals counting on me to come home and take care of them. Otherwise my visit would have ended with a stop at a real estate office! What's so awesome about Shelburne Falls?

I imagine this is what most of America looked like and felt like 50 or 75 years ago. There isn't a national chain in site in their lovely downtown. The locally owned grocery store has a sign out front that says they support local agriculture. Each of the quaint locally owned restaurants have about a dozen tables, and local foods are on the menu. Towards the end of dinner one night, I asked a question about the lavender-maple glaze on the heritage pork tenderloin at the Blue Rock Restaurant, and the chef came out to tell me how he made it. He sat down, and we chatted about his use of locally grown ingredients. As we were talking, a customer stopped by our table on her way out to compliment the chef on her dinner and give him a kiss on the cheek.

When Mike suggested we check the menu of a pub our second night in town, I assumed they would have the usual pub fare -- factory farm burgers and previously frozen stuff that is tossed in a fryer. The West End Pub had a pleasantly surprising menu with locally raised grassfed beef burgers and chili! They even have locally made liquor and beer. Even though Illinois has plenty of wineries, I don't think I've ever seen Illinois wine in a restaurant here. A few restaurants have sprouted up that make their own beer, but otherwise, the alcohol in our restaurants comes from far away.

While at Jim's house, I had my first ever hard cider and wondered why -- coming from a state that grows apples -- we don't have hard cider available commercially in any of the stores or restaurants that I've been to.

We stayed at the Dancing Bear B&B, whose owners have their own farm and served delicious farm fresh breakfasts! When we arrived, Phil asked if we had any dietary restrictions for breakfast, and I sheepishly said, "Well, if you have meat, you don't have to fix any for us because we only eat locally grown, pasture-raised," and as my voice trailed off, he replied, "Oh, that's the only kind we serve." If we had not needed to be at our class by 9 o'clock, I could have really stuffed myself with the delicious breakfast Phil prepared, which included a to-die-for quiche and fresh baked bread and muffins. And because we were totally captivated by the B&Bs food, we did not have the chance to try Mocha Maya's breakfast, whose sign is pictured at right!

Unfortunately, we hardly got to experience the community at all. Jim said that they have lots of world-famous artists and crafts people living there, including a leather worker and a man who ties flies for fly fishing. The downtown certainly had a great mix of little shops. I personally was very interested in the Vavstuga Weaving School, but when I checked their website, all of their beginner classes for 2013 are already full!

Ever since Superstorm Sandy chased us home in a rental car when our flight was canceled, I've been saying, "I left my heart in Shelburne Falls!" So if you live in the northeast and want a great place to spend the weekend, head over there! And if Mike didn't have tenure at the college, I'd be begging on a daily basis, trying to convince him that we needed to move.

Instead, I've been daydreaming about turning our little village into another Shelburne Falls. It's been dwindling for more than 40 years, so I've been told, but why couldn't it become a weekend destination with quaint B&Bs for people from Chicago and St. Louis? Why couldn't the farmers around here grow organic food to serve in small, locally owned restaurants with chefs who can see their future steaks grazing in the fields? Why couldn't we have world famous artisans whose classes fill up a year in advance? It could happen ... couldn't it?

Friday, November 30, 2012

Attending a cheese class

Last month Mike and I headed out to Massachusetts to attend a cheesemaking class taught by Jim Wallace, the technical advisor for New England Cheesemaking. Jim has traveled all over the world attending workshops and visiting with traditional cheesemakers. And people come from all over the world to attend Jim's classes. The gentleman in the light blue sweatshirt pictured above is a chef from Colombia. No, not Columbia, Missouri or Columbia, South Carolina. He's from the country of Colombia in South America! Mike and I flying out from Illinois was not a big deal, as there were several people there who had flown in from other states, as well as a few lucky souls who lived close enough to drive over to Jim's house for the class!

Obviously there is no way I can share with you everything that we learned in those two days, but I will tell you that half an hour into the first day, I knew it was worth the $375 that we each paid to attend. I've been making cheese for about ten years, and Mike has been making cheese for six. We've read books and followed recipes and tried to figure out why sometimes one thing worked and other times it didn't. We had so many questions about the science behind the curds and whey, and from one minute to the next in Jim's classes, there was one light bulb after another that kept going off in my head as I started to connect the jumble of dots that had been building in my head for ten years! My only regret is that I did not attend this class at least five years ago.

Mike took pages of notes. I took more than a hundred photographs. And by the end of the second day, my brain was so overfilled with information that it was as leaky as the Camembert that was draining! Here are a few highlights --

Most recipes tell you to cut the curds to a certain size -- like 1/4 inch or 1/8 inch -- and cutting curds diagonally is one of those chores that would just drive perfectionists crazy! But for both the cheddar and the toscano, Jim cut the curds into one-inch pieces, but instead of doing those crazy diagonal cuts, he then went to work with this gizmo that he fashioned from a whisk to look like the curd cutters that traditional cheesemakers use in Europe.

I tried using one of our whisks at home to cut the curds for a batch of feta, but some of the curds got too small, too fast, so I think I need a whisk with less metal thingies. And I should probably change the shape of the metal thingies the way Jim did with this one.

From the traditional cheddar class

Jim uses Jersey milk from a local farmer, which is why the curds look yellow. Don't they look divine!

Cheddaring is kind of like French milled soap. You let the curds set up, then you rip them apart and start over again putting the curds in the mold.

After cheddaring, class members helped to rip up the curds to prepare them for putting into the cheese press. That's Mike on the right. Chef Mario on the left has a little video recorder strapped to his head to capture every moment of the class for watching again later!

I have never seen a book that describe cheddaring very well, nor have I seen any that actually have pictures, so this was very helpful!

This is what the cheddar looked like the morning of the second class!

Since getting home, Mike has made two batches of traditional cheddar using tips he learned from Jim's classes. Previously, he had made farmhouse cheddar, which ironically omits the cheddaring step.

Over the weekend, we also made Camembert, a mold-ripened cheese, and Vacha Toscano, a tomme. Pictured here is one of the Camemberts after a few hours of draining. Mold-ripened cheeses had really been a challenge for me. In the past they turned out okay sometimes but not so great at other times. I learned in Jim's class that your success or failure with so many cheeses really lies in the aging -- or affinage -- which I had always assumed was my problem, but I had no idea what to do about it. I got some great ideas from Jim's class though, and I now have some Camembert aging beautifully.

Of the 17 different cheeses we have made in the past, we never made a tomme, but I am really looking forward to making one very soon. Jim's was delicious! Lucky for us, we still have a few goats in milk. Mike and I were saying that we should have taken this class in the spring when we are drowning in milk. We could have come home and started making cheese like crazy!

And this is Jim's cheese cave where he ages his creations. It is in a corner of his basement that stays naturally cool year round. He keeps mold-ripened cheeses in plastic containers to keep the humidity at the higher level that they need for proper affinage.

In addition to being blown away by Jim's class, I also fell in love with Shelburne Falls, MA. It is the most lovely little New England village. In fact, I'm writing a whole separate post about it!

And if you're a cheesemaker anywhere in the world, I highly recommend Jim's classes. He already has them scheduled for next spring. Click here to learn more.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Love is in the air

It's fall and that means one thing on the farm ... breeding season for the mammals. All of the goats are bred that I want to breed for January and February kiddings. The cows keep coming into heat, and we're working on finding them a boyfriend. Provided his DNA testing comes back negative for a nasty genetic disease, he'll be here soon. And now for the pigs --

I sold my boar last winter. I figured it was a no-lose idea. If I decided to stop breeding pigs, I'd have one less to sell, and if I decided to keep breeding pigs, I should buy a new boar anyway to breed to the former boar's daughters. Then as the months went on, I kept telling myself that I should sell all the pigs. Well, you know how my farm reduction plan has been going! So, I decided to borrow a boar from a friend.

Meet York --

He was slightly shy about hopping out of the trailer. I suppose he thought he should play it cool around the new ladies.

But in no time he was ambling around the pasture and checking things out, including the electric fence, which he had no experience with. He quickly learned to stay away from it. He also became a very quick fan of whey, which is a by-product of our cheesemaking.

The girls are not terribly fond of him, but I'm sure that will change when the hormones kick in at some point. York will be here for about a month or until we've seen him breed both girls. Pigs are pregnant for slightly less than four months, so hopefully we'll be seeing piglets at the end of March!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Help wanted

You may remember that a few months ago, I said I was going to liquidate the Shetland sheep flock, and a couple months later, I admitted I had sold exactly one ewe lamb. I have since gone through a variety of decisions to sell different species ... and changed my mind more than once. The simple fact is that I don't want to get rid of any of them. But I can't deny that there are not enough hours in the day for us to continue doing everything that we did when our daughters were still living at home. So, if I don't cut back on something, that means I need help! But who to hire?

A few years ago, I read an article by Joel Salatin in which he talked about hiring help for your farm. He suggested that the first employee you hire be someone who does the job that is your least favorite. Because he disliked leaving his farm to deliver his food, his first employee was a delivery driver. If I think about my least favorite job on the farm, I'd have to say it's gardening. It is really hard for me to say that because I want to do it all! But I'm an animal person. I love the livestock. I don't exactly love gardening, but I love the fresh produce, which is why I garden. So, logically I should hire someone for the garden.

Why did it take me so long to figure this out? Because we don't really make money on the garden, so hiring someone to work in there didn't make much sense. But if I think back to my original goals, it was supposed to be a market garden. And with 32 acres, we have plenty of room for a very productive market garden. We just need someone who has the knowledge and desire to do the growing. We can provide the land, the seeds, and the equipment. They could also sell the produce at a farmer's market, which would provide a source of income that we could share.

I don't have all the details worked out yet, and I need to do a bit of research to figure out how to make this work. But it seems to be a much better idea -- and something that I really want to do -- rather than selling off the animals.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

No November madness this year

If you've been following this blog for a few years, you probably remember how crazy things get when the turkeys are processed for Thanksgiving. We have to get up at 3 a.m. to drive the turkeys down to Arthur, which is almost a three-hour drive. Most years we did it a few days before Thanksgiving so customers could have fresh turkeys because some people have the incorrect perception that frozen turkey is inferior. That meant that as soon as we got home with the turkeys we had to assign them to the buyer that wanted a turkey close to that size, then email everyone with the size of their turkey, balance due, and delivery time. The next day, Mike would head out bright and early to deliver turkeys. This year things were different.

It all started in the spring when our breeding turkeys were wiped out within a few days by a predator. We never saw any feathers or feet or anything, so although we initially thought it was a raccoon because the turkeys usually roost in the trees, we think it's more likely that it was a coyote that grabbed them during the day and carried them off. Only one hen had set so far, and as luck would have it, she had decided to hatch a bunch of duck eggs. Who knew I needed to check up on the eggs to be sure she was actually sitting on turkey eggs?

So, it was the end of May, and I was frantically trying to find turkey poults to purchase. All of the hatcheries were sold out of heritage poults, but they did have "hatchery choice" selections available, which are generally whatever is left of a variety of breeds. I assumed that we'd get mostly heritage poults. Bad assumption! Of the 20 poults they shipped us, only three were heritage, and one died within a few days. The rest were broad breasted bronze and white turkeys, which are the modern mutant breeds.

We had raised broad breasted bronze turkeys in years past because some people wanted free range turkeys that were more than 20 pounds, which just is not going to happen with a heritage turkey. I had chosen the bronze instead of white because they are not supposed to get as big as the white turkeys. However, if you raise them as long as the heritage turkeys before butchering, you will still wind up with turkeys that weigh 30-40 pounds, which is completely nuts! No one wants to buy them, of course. We donated one to our church one year for Thanksgiving dinner, and it fed about 60 people.

Because I didn't want any 50-pound turkeys, I knew these big boys would need to be processed sooner, much sooner than late November. So, Mike took them down last Friday. Even at four and a half months, we wound up with several 26 pounders and a 31 pound turkey. If no one buys them, we'll grind up the meat. In fact, we already ground up one of the 26 pound turkeys. We wound up with eight pounds of breast meat and four and half pounds of leg and thigh meat. Yesterday I made hamburger patties with some of the dark meat and served it with gravy and baked potatoes for lunch. It was really outstanding.

I really prefer having the turkeys processed in October also. It is far less stressful. People have the option of driving out to the farm on a weekend to see the animals, visit with us, and pick up their bird. Of course, we can still deliver them if people prefer, but it doesn't have to be the very next day in a marathon drive around northern Illinois.

As we are trying to figure out how to simplify our lives, this event has me thinking about whether or not we want to start another flock of heritage turkeys. When we started ten years ago, heritage turkeys were critically endangered. There were only a few thousand in the entire United States, and I was really excited about helping to grow their numbers and introduce them to consumers. Today there are a few thousand bourbon reds, which is only one breed. Because they can fly, they have always been a challenge to raise free range. One year, more than twenty of them simply disappeared one day. There is a part of me that is tempted to just order poults every spring, raise them, and butcher them all in the fall. Well, I have a few months to think about it.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Birth and death and orphaned lambs

Shortly after I got home from Iowa yesterday afternoon, Mike came into the house to tell me that White Feather was dead. She was ten years old and one of my first two ewes. Last fall, I had separated her and two other ewes from the flock before breeding season started because I didn't think she needed to be giving birth at age ten. Apparently Storm the ram disagreed, and in April he busted through the wall of the shelter that separated him from the ewes. Although we didn't see him mate anyone, I was pretty sure that the reason he busted through the shelter was because someone was in heat. I had hoped it was his yearling daughter, but apparently it was White Feather.

Four weeks ago on Saturday, we came home from the Homesteading Conference to find two healthy lambs bouncing around the pasture and nursing. White Feather seemed to be in decent shape for her age, although she was anemic. I gave her a dewormer, and put her and the lambs in their own pasture adjacent to the other sheep, so that we could keep an eye on her and give her special feed. We started giving her alfalfa, which I don't normally give sheep, but I figured she needed the higher protein and calcium. But obviously that wasn't enough.

These are our first orphaned lambs, although we did have a bottle ewe five years ago because she got fly strike and was almost dead when we found her. By the time she was strong enough to rejoin the flock, she no longer recognized her mother, so she wound up as a bottle lamb forever. I'm lucky to have Nigerian dwarf goats, which have butterfat around six percent most of the year and even higher butterfat heading into fall. Sheep milk tends to be very rich. I've never seen a percentage on Shetland milk specifically, but I know it is quite high because it was as thick as custard when I made yogurt with it.

It is also a very good thing that I didn't dry up some of the goats, which I was thinking about doing because of my travel schedule this fall promoting Ecothrifty and my commitment to write a book about goats. Mike has been willing to take over the majority of the milking chores. The lambs will need half a gallon of milk a day, and although we do have some extra every day, we don't have that much extra. So, we have started milking one of the does that had been simply nursing her 7-month-old daughter.

I am truly amazed at how quickly lambs take to the bottle. The little ram didn't exactly suck on the bottle when I put it in his mouth the first time, but he was quietly swallowing all of the milk. The little ewe, on the other hand, was violently opposed to being held and to having the nipple put in her mouth. She threw her head back, splattering milk on both of us. But when I put the nipple back in her mouth, she suddenly started sucking a mile a minute! They each took eight ounces last night with no problem.

This morning went even better. The little ewe came up to me and sniffed the nipple but wouldn't start sucking until I put it in her mouth. She sucked so fast that she started choking, but every time she let go of the nipple to catch her breath, she'd grab it again on her own. The little ram started sucking the second I put the nipple in his mouth and didn't stop until he had drained the whole twelve ounces from the bottle. And this afternoon was even easier. They both opened their mouth and grabbed the nipple on their own, although the little ewe wouldn't do it until I was holding her. I can live with that. We all need a little more lamb cuddling time in our days!

I wish baby goats were this easy to switch to a bottle! The majority of them act like you're trying to poison them the first few times you try to give them a bottle. I can't really imagine switching a one-month-old kid to a bottle so easily.

I am glad that White Feather had twins. They are sad enough without her and cry out often in the barn. It is heartbreaking, but it would be much worse if there were only one lamb. At least they have each other.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A new livestock guardian

Protecting livestock from predators is an ongoing battle. It seems like we can never quite get control of the situation. We've had an Anatolian shepherd for eight years, and he was doing a great job the first couple years until we started having problems with packs of coyotes. So, we bought four llamas, and a year later, we got two more. They were doing a great job working in pairs on three different parts of the farm until one of them died. He was 18, which is old for a llama, but alas, his partner was then left in a bad situation working alone, and we had our first sheep loss in four years this summer.

And as you might know, eight years old is old for a livestock guardian. I think Sovalye might be feeling the desire to retire too. When that raccoon got into the chicken house a couple of months ago, he walked in when Jonathan called him, and then he walked right back out again. A couple of years ago, he would have taken care of the raccoon in short order.

You might recall that we also have Porter, an English shepherd, and although he is a great guard dog when it comes to strangers, he only has the urge to herd raccoons and the like, which would be humorous if the coons were not interested in eating my chickens and turkeys.

So, we decided to add another dog to the homestead. Meet Lucy, a Great Pyrenees from Triple Creek Dairy --

She was living in the goat barn when I picked her up, and when we brought her home, she looked rather scared and nervous until she saw the goats. She immediately perked up and ran straight to them. Because she is a DOG -<gasp>- the goats were not terribly excited to meet her, but they are slowly starting to come around. She understands how to deal with them, and if she sees them coming at her, she drops to the ground so they can't butt her.

For the first week, we kept her in the barn in a kidding pen next to Carmen and her kids so that they could keep each other company through the hog panel partition, but Carmen couldn't beat her up. We let her out whenever we were outside so we could supervise her with the livestock, both for her protection and the other animals.

So far, she has shown absolutely zero interest in chasing any of them. I just love her personality and intuition about interacting with other animals. She has been spending the last few days in an interior pasture where a pig and a few turkeys live.

To help me remember that she was born in 2012, I decided to name her Lucy Burns because this is an election year, and Lucy Burns was one of the "baddest" suffragettes of them all. She worked for women's rights in both England and the U.S., and she was arrested more than any suffragette. She also led hunger strikes in the jails, and when they tried to force-feed her with a tube in her nose, it took five guards to hold her down. She was fearless, which is how I hope my little Lucy Burns will be when it comes to predators!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


A week ago, my baby girl moved off to the University of Illinois to continue working towards her bachelor of science degree in molecular and cellular biology with a minor in chemistry. Our oldest left three years ago, and today she is an electrical engineer in Chicago. That means we are down to one child left at home, and I'm pretty sure that number will be zero before I blink! As much as I love my children and miss them as any mother would, there is also a practical side to them leaving home because we live on a farm.

Years ago, people would say, "That's a lot of work" when they learned about all of the animals that we had and how much food we grew for ourselves. I'd always respond, "Not really," and then explain that there were five of us, so it added up to less than an hour morning and evening for each of us. At the time, it never occurred to me that when my children were gone, it would mean more hours of my time spent taking care of farm chores. It easily adds up to about three hours each morning and evening when one person has to do it all, which is six hours a day! I've talked about this a little in past posts when I was left home alone, but those were isolated days -- not a regular occurrence. Now I have a new normal.

And I am terribly conflicted. It is easy enough to say that we need to sell some of our animals, but it is another thing to actually do it.  To sell animals, you have to do things like advertise them, and it is really easy to procrastinate when your heart really is not into something.

Remember the Shetland flock liquidation I wrote about a couple months ago? I've sold one ewe lamb. I may have mentioned it on Facebook, but I didn't really advertise them.

And I was planning to cut back on the goats. In fact, I have two listed as "for sale" on my website. But I am brutally honest about their shortcomings -- maybe honest to the point that I over-emphasize faults and talk people out of buying them? I don't want them to be disappointed, right?

However, there are only so many hours in a day, and I already have more than enough to keep me busy! And I've signed a contract to write another book, plus I'll be doing a book tour for EcoThrifty this fall.

Of course, we will always have chickens because I love my fresh eggs and chicken meat -- and besides, they don't take much time. And even though I've all but given up on the idea of milking the cows, I love having our own grassfed beef. I do know a farmer who raises organic cattle an hour away, and I'd recommend his beef to anyone. I've even eaten it myself when we didn't have any. It is actually the only beef I've eaten in 24 years that we didn't grow ourselves. Maybe it's the Texas blood in me (I lived there the first 19 years of my life), but I just really like the idea of having my own cattle. And the cows only take about 10 minutes morning and evening to care for.

As much as I love having my own pork, I'm not sure it is such a great idea to have my own breeding stock. If we went back to raising pigs from weaning in spring to finishing in fall, at least we wouldn't have to care for them over the winter.

The goats take more time than any of the animals, mostly because of milking, but it is especially hard to sell the goats! I have spent ten years selectively breeding them to get better and better milkers. Last year, several of our goats were on the Top Ten list for the One-Day Milk Test with the American Goat Society, and Charlotte was #1 for pounds of milk produced. And just this year, I finally had two first fresheners that milked like champions! Agnes, pictured above, freshened last September and is still milking! I couldn't possibly sell her or Alexandria, the doe that freshened in October and is still going strong. I have a number of distinct genetic lines, and in order to have genetic diversity, I need to keep a certain number of unrelated goats. I am starting to understand why parents might want a child to take over a business that they spent a lifetime growing. Even though I've only been at this for ten years, it isn't something that I want to give up! And it isn't something that I want to see dissolve into oblivion as the herd is sold off in bits and pieces here and there.

Then there is the house -- I'd really like to see our house get finished before I die. No, I'm not that old or sick. I'm just losing faith. Eight years after breaking ground, it still is not finished. That's why the blog intro (on the left) still says I'll write about housebuilding progress. Believe me, if anything ever gets done, I will let you know! They quit selling the tile that I was going to use around our bathtub. And I'm not sure we can find the baseboard or the deck railing. We put it out in one of the barns when we bought it five or six years ago, but I don't remember the last time I saw it.

I want it all -- beautiful house, writing books, growing our own food, and even a vacation now and then. But at some point, something has gotta give! Writing? No. Housework? Too late -- that's been history for a long time already! Animals? I just can't decide!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Our first farm crawl

What's a farm crawl? I think it's an Iowa invention, but it's becoming an Illinois thing after last weekend! You see, I have these farm-girl-girlfriends from the Iowa-Illinois Quad Cities area, and they had a "farm crawl" last year in September. It was such a success, and they kept talking about it and telling me that I should get together with some local farm-girl-girlfriends and coordinate one here. And that's exactly what I did.

Since April, the four of us have been meeting monthly -- Janet from Eden's Harvest, Cheryl from the Farmer in Odell, and Kat from M2A Farm (Am Too A Farm) -- and planning the North Central Illinois Farm Crawl. Even though we're all within about ten miles of each other, we live in four different towns and two counties, so we had to come up with a somewhat general name.

We created a website, mentioned it on our Facebook farm pages, as well as internet groups related to livestock, and contacted the local newspapers. We cleaned up our farms, put signs on the fences to tell a little about the animals in there, and set up tables with homegrown items to sell.

And then the big day arrived! And we were astonished at the number of people who came to visit our farms! Not only were there people from the local area, but we even had some visitors from Chicago and the suburbs. We're estimating that we had about 300 visitors throughout the day. At Antiquity Oaks, the first car arrived at three minutes before 10 a.m., which was the start time, and by 10:30 when we did a goat milking demonstration, there were eight cars here.

We sold goat milk soap, books, yarn, roving, and sheepskins. And we had tons of fun talking to everyone. The other farms had just as much fun, and by the end, we were all talking about next year!

So, if you want to keep track of our plans for 2013, you can subscribe to the Farm Crawl blog.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Carmen's kidding

 Carmen and Rosie
Carmen was due to kid last week, and even after ten years of goat birthing, it was a unique experience -- starting with the last week or so of her pregnancy. I could see her belly bouncing from across the stall in the barn. And when she would get on the milk stand for her grain, I'd put my hand on her belly and feel the crazy kicking and squirming inside. It had me a little worried that someone might rip off an umbilical cord or otherwise get hurt. You know how us grandmas can be!

Thursday afternoon around three, Katherine came into the house and said that Carmen's water broke. So, I posted on Facebook, "Carmen's water broke! Babies coming soon!" I will never again do that! I wound up spending the next nine hours going in and out of the barn watching her and worrying. But I kept seeing her belly bouncing, so was not too concerned about the kids being okay.

Finally at midnight I decided I'd sleep in the barn. As soon as I walked out there at 12:20 a.m. with my sleeping bag and pillow, Carmen got serious. I pulled out my new camera and started snapping a few pictures. It wasn't too long before I saw a nose and then a whole head. And then ... nothing else. A contraction came and went. Carmen pushed. And there was still just a head.

I reminded myself that the kid looked perfectly fine and was very much alive, and that eight years ago, it had taken about 45 minutes to get a lamb out of her mama after her head had emerged because the mama was running around the pasture. And the little ewe lamb was perfectly fine. Still, I ran into the barn office to get rubber gloves and iodine. I squirted iodine all over my gloved hand and slid my fingers into Carmen to see if I could find a leg to pull on. There was nothing to be found within easy reach. After a few minutes, I decided to get Katherine to help because she has smaller hands, and it was a very tight squeeze in Carmen's pelvis.

I ran into the house and yelled, "Mike! Katherine! I need help! NOW!" Katherine was already asleep and was not terribly happy about being woke up in the middle of the night to help, but she sleepily put on her shoes and headed to the barn with me. It was not an easy task and took a bit of pushing and pulling on the head for her to find just the right placement of the kid's body in the pelvis for her to be able to get her hand in there to find a leg and pull it forward. Once she did that, it reduced the size of the kid's shoulders enough that she was able to pull it out.

The buckling looked huge, and I immediately told Mike to get the scale. I had to know what the little monster weighed! No wonder Carmen had trouble. A few minutes later, she was pushing again, and another black kid started to emerge. This one had both front hooves under its chin and came out without any help from us. It was a doe! And it was equally huge. I thought it might even be bigger than the buckling, which had weighed in at 4 pounds, 1 ounce. As it turned out, the doeling weighed merely three ounces less than him.

Within ten minutes, both kids were walking around on wobbly legs, and five minutes later, they had both latched on and nursed. There was no hint that the buckling's entré into the world had been anything less than perfect. By 2 a.m., I was in bed.
Carmen and kids were the stars of Saturday's Farm Crawl.

Carmen's kids are all named after operas, and Mike suggested Figaro for the buck, so I decided to check out the Figaro opera for female names. The doeling will be Countess Rosina Almaviva, which I'll call Rosie for short. And I may leave off the Countess on her papers because otherwise, I won't have room to add her sire's name.

Rosie will be staying here as a future milker, and Figaro will be sold as a future herd sire ... although it is really tempting to keep him too!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Bridget's new heifer

Yes! After having three bull calves in the last two calving seasons, we finally got a heifer! This is little Ciara, which is Irish and pronounced like kee-ra. The plan is to keep her, so she can be our future milk cow.

On Saturday morning, July 28, Katherine and I were doing chores, and when we took Chaffhaye out to the cows, Molly and Bridget came running up right away. Molly's calf wasn't far behind. As I stood there admiring the little bull calf, I saw something small and black moving in the distant grass. I gasped and moved quickly to position myself to see around the cows, and sure enough -- there was a little calf!

Katherine and I jumped over the gate and went running down the hill. The little calf walked towards me, and I got one stroke under the chin, when the little darlin' took off like a rocket running across the pasture! She ran smack into the electric fence and got herself terribly tangled in it. Katherine rushed to unhook it at a juncture, as the calf was bawling like crazy. I had almost reached the calf when she freed herself and took off running towards the western fence. I yelled at Katherine to run faster and cut her off before she got herself tangled in that one.

Finally we got her turned around and slowly pushed her back towards her mama, who was happily munching away on the Chaffhaye. Once we had her reunited with Bridget, we were able to get close enough to figure out the gender. She is a shy one though, so we'll have to work on socializing her. I'm not sure if she's polled or not, but her head doesn't look as round as the bull calf. Daddy was polled though, so there is a 50/50 chance that she will be naturally hornless.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Water, water ... nowhere

Somehow the goats opened the gate today and came into the front yard.
And they quickly found everything green!

How long has it been since we've had any measurable amount of rain? I'm not entirely sure, but it's somewhere around seven or eight weeks. We are officially in an "extreme drought," according to the Drought Monitor. I've gone through all the usual stages of grief -- denial, anger, bargaining, and finally acceptance. There is still a part of me that is angry, but the logical part of my brain keeps telling me to just settle down. Acceptance is probably the most difficult thing for humans to learn.

This morning, we sent nine goats to be processed. They were wethers from last year that didn't sell. I had hoped to sell them this year, but most people don't want year-old pet goats, even at a discounted price. They want babies. The plan was to butcher them at the end of summer if they still didn't sell, but at this point, they were eating grass that is far too valuable for future pets that will sell for the cost of a few bales of hay, which they have already consumed. It wasn't that long ago that I said I could never butcher a goat, and it certainly was not easy bringing the boys into the barn last night, knowing where they would be going this morning. But I have to think of the welfare of all the animals out there. Unless there is a good reason to keep one, it has to go. And I really need to sell the sheep, or we will wind up with a freezer full of lamb and mutton by fall.

Carmen is pregnant and due to kid in 2-3 weeks. She really loves the weeds in the driveway.
It has been so easy over the past ten years to take for granted all of the beautiful, lush grass that grows throughout our summers, as well as the nearby hay fields. I had always thought that our animals would never go hungry. This summer, however, those pastures are rapidly turning brown. And the surrounding hay fields are dieing. I normally need about 800 bales of hay, which we start feeding towards the end of October or early November, depending upon the weather. But we need to be feeding hay now -- at the end of July! I was able to find 240 bales of alfalfa, and you don't have to do any math to conclude that it isn't nearly enough to last until next spring.

Finding no other alternatives, I decided to buy Chaffhaye, which is haylage. There wasn't a dealer within 100 miles of me, so I bought a truckload and can sell some to other people if they find themselves in a bind, unable to find hay for their animals. If no one buys any, I'll have plenty to feed my animals for more than a year. Yeah, that was pricey, but it's a good answer. I've heard more than one livestock producer say you should always have enough hay in storage to last for two years.

The garden isn't doing very well, but we've been able to keep everything alive. We aren't planting anything new. Although we're assuming we have a good water well, I don't want to take anything for granted because there are some people around here whose wells have run dry. The last thing I want to do is haul water from town. I've noticed a new water truck driving down our road the last couple weeks. Towards the end of next month, I'll plant some seeds for lettuce and other greens to overwinter in our low tunnels, but I'm not planting them until this horrific heat is passed.

Our pond is drying up, which is simply a constant reminder of our new reality. Every bit of dirt that you see in the photo above and below was covered with water two months ago.

I hope the crack willows don't die. They are accustomed to growing in the water, so I imagine they have pretty shallow roots.

On the bright side, we now know where all of our buckets disappear to!

But the sobering reality is that the situation is not expected to get better. The Drought Outlook shows the drought continuing through October at least.


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