Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A couple of farmers went to a party ...

Beauty and Beau (one month old) on November 5

Why has it taken me so long to tell you about our new milk cow Beauty and her calf Beau? Maybe because I still have a hard time believing that the first Saturday in October we went to a party at another farm, and before the night was over, I had my heart set on this beautiful Jersey cow and her one-week-old bull calf. I've spent a lot of time thinking, I can't believe I bought a cow on impulse! and wondering if I'd made a huge mistake. So, here is the story ...

PrairiErth Farm in Atlanta, IL, was having a harvest festival on October 4, and Mike and I decided to go. We had to do chores before heading up there, so we arrived when the party was already in full swing. We parked our car and were walking past the barn on our way to the hoop house where all the food was set out on tables, and I heard a voice yell, "They're going to milk the cow. If anybody wants to see them milk the cow, come on over to the barn!"

I knew Dave the farmer had a couple of Jerseys, but you would have thought that I had never seen a cow in my life. I got so excited and told Mike that we had to go see the cow! We walked into the barn, and a few minutes later, Dave came into the barn with a bucket, and his 12-year-old son started to milk Beauty the Jersey while her sweet little calf walked around visiting with everyone. Then Dave asked if any of the children wanted to milk the cow, and I stood there watching in amazement as children walked up to the cow and were yanking on her teats while she just stood there quietly chewing her cud. I looked at Mike and squealed like a 5-year-old, "I want that cow!" Mike just smiled at me. "Really!" I said, "I want that cow! Can you believe that? She's letting those children try to milk her!" I went on and on as Mike simply smiled. Then I said, "Honey, you have to milk her!" And he just kept smiling, but he did eventually walk over there and squeeze her teats a few times while I said, "Isn't she easy to milk?" Mike just kept smiling and said, "Yes, she is."

Dave said that Beauty had been sold, but she calved about three weeks early, and the buyer backed out of the deal. The calf was perfectly healthy, but it was a bull calf, and Dave figures that the buyer had been hoping for a heifer calf. Anyway, Beauty and the calf were for sale. I was thrilled that the calf was a bull because we sold our cattle more than a year ago, and there is very little beef left in our freezer, and I've been wondering what I'd do when we ran out completely. I haven't purchased or eaten commercial beef since 1989, and I'm not going to start now.

October 11, the day after we brought them home
I talked to Dave about buying the cow and her calf, but I don't think he completely believed I was interested. But, seriously, how many people come to a party and decide to buy a cow? Mike was probably hoping I was just joking. But I had a terrible time falling asleep that night because I kept thinking about Beauty. I woke up early and went downstairs and made a list of pros and cons for buying Beauty. The "pro" list outnumbered the "con" list by a lot. One of the advantages of buying her would be that she would obviously be great for teaching people to milk. Another thing is that we could make cheese with cow milk. If she produced more milk than we needed, we could get a calf from a dairy and raise it for beef. We could also feed extra milk to the pigs. The only down side is that we'd have to milk her, but on the pro side, it would take less time to milk one cow than several goats. Of course, the goats are going nowhere because I do still love my goat cheese, but I have always loved Jersey cream and butter. I love goat milk, but it doesn't have that "buttery" flavor that Jersey milk does.

So, after a couple of days of deliberation and discussions with Mike, I called Dave and told him that we wanted to buy Beauty. He sounded surprised and happy. He said he had hoped she would become a family milk cow rather than going to a dairy.

It's been two and a half months now, and we are enjoying her and her calf. She has learned to go into the barn every night. In fact, she gets downright loud when the sun is going down and we are not there to let her in. She heads straight to her stall, as soon as we open the door for her. And then I give her a hug every night as she starts to munch on her hay. We are enjoying her milk, which are using for yogurt and cheddar.

Beau is growing up so fast, and he is starting to get darker like his mama. Here's a picture of him on Dec. 10. We separate him from Beauty every night and milk her in the morning. The two of them are together in the pasture during the day, so he can nurse as much as he wants during that time. He will probably become beef in late summer as the grass starts to slow down. And at some point, we'll have Beauty artificially inseminated so she'll have another calf.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

We're looking for a few good farmers

A few days ago I noticed that a farm house three miles from us had become a pile of rubble, and last night, it was a fire. A very old farming couple lived there. I met the woman once when I knocked on her door to tell her that one of her pigs had escaped and was in the field across the road. She moved slowly and looked like she was at least in her seventies. I felt terrible not being able to offer to help her get the pig back to his pen, but we were on our way to an appointment. I don't know what happened to the couple, but their house is now ashes.

According to the government, the average age of farmers in this country is almost 60. That's absurd for an average working age! That is the average age of retirement for many professions. Yet I know plenty of farmers in their 70s. Since we moved out here in 2002, we have seen many farm houses torn down -- at least one every year or two -- along the roads that we travel most commonly between our house and the Interstate, which is only 12 miles away. That's actually a very high percentage of the houses being torn down because there wasn't more than one house every half a mile or so. Now there are even less. Because most of Illinois has been turned into corn and soybean country, a single farmer can farm a couple thousand acres, so the number of farmers keeps shrinking.

But the problem is that we don't eat corn and soybeans. Although some of the corn and soybeans are used for livestock feed, a lot of it is sent to a lab and turned into non-edible things, such as ethanol and styrofoam packing peanuts (corn) and biodiesel (soybeans), as well as non-nutritive food additives, such as corn syrup, corn starch, soy lecithin, and things you can't pronounce like sodium carboxymethylcellulose. Back in the 1950s, Illinois was the fifth largest vegetable producing state in the nation. Today we import 95% of our food from other states and other countries. We have some of the best, most fertile land in the country, yet if something happened to our transportation system tomorrow, most of the state would be starving within days. Even if that never happens, the cost of transportation is going to keep climbing, and someday it will be considered absurd to eat lettuce from California or asparagus from South America. This food system is not sustainable.

Illinois needs people to grow food for people living in Illinois. The problem is that getting started in farming traditionally has not been like getting started in any other profession. You had to inherit a farm. And with today's land prices, that isn't going to change any time soon. But there is an alternative. Incubator farms are starting to pop up for those who want to farm but don't have the cash to buy their own land. I've actually been thinking about this for a few years. Why don't we form a partnership with people who want to farm? We'll provide the land, equipment, tools, etc, and they provide the labor, and we split the profits. I didn't actually do anything to find potential incubator farmers, though, because I didn't have any faith in my idea. I thought, who'd want to do that? Well, as it turns out, lots of people want to do that!

In his book, Fields of Farmers, Joel Salatin said he is doing exactly that. The reason that his farm has grown so large in recent years is because he has former interns staying on at Polyface as partners. Joel now rents several farms within a 30 minute radius of his farm so that new farmers can work them. When I attended the Acres USA conference last December in Springfield, IL, there was another farmer there who was also doing the same thing. He did a session on the nuts and bolts of having new farmer-partners working on his farm.

With our children grown and no longer living at home, we have 32 acres here (and another 67 acres that I need to tell you about soon) that is too much for us to utilize to its fullest potential. It seems wasteful and somewhat stingy to simply use this as my oversized park when it could be used to grow organic food for people while giving new farmers the experience they need to be able to eventually go to a bank to get a business loan to buy their own farm.

So, that's the plan for 2015 and moving forward. Earlier this year, we created Antiquity Oaks LLC, and our main goal moving forward is to be a farm that educates new and aspiring farmers, whether they want to have a market garden, grow mushrooms, produce honey or maple syrup, or raise animals for meat, milk, or fiber. In addition to having classes and internship programs, we will have partnership opportunities for those with education and experience who want to start their own farming business.

If you know anyone who is looking for that type of opportunity, feel free to give them our contact information!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Trimming the boar's tusks

(or Vet Visit, Part 2)

A couple of days before the vet was supposed to come over to do the goat ultrasounds, someone on one of the pig Facebook groups posted a picture of a large gash in her leg. It was caused by her boar turning his head at the wrong moment, and his tusk sliced through her boot, her thick sock, and into her leg! Then several other people talked about similar experiences. All of them had sweet, docile American Guinea Hogs who just happened to turn their head at the wrong moment!

Although Henry's tusks looked scary, I never thought he would ever hurt one of us with them. He is so incredibly docile! But after seeing those pictures and hearing several other people say the same thing had happened to them, I decided that I was incredibly lucky to already have an appointment with the vet who was coming to the farm in a couple of days! So, I emailed and asked if she could trim Henry's tusks when she was here.

The vet said we needed to put him in a small space where he couldn't get away, and she could more easily work with him. Confine? Everyone around here is free range! After wringing our hands and saying to each other that we didn't have such a place on our farm, it finally clicked! We put him in the horse trailer! Then, while we were waiting for the vet to arrive, I tried to get a good picture of his big scary tusks.

I was disappointed that these pictures did not do justice to the tusks!

But here is a picture of the vet sawing away at one of his tusks ... look at the size of that bad boy! It's even longer than I'd realized!

Yep, that could have done some damage if he'd turned his head at the wrong moment. I was surprised at the dust that was created as she was sawing on it.

Once the tusk was cut off, she used a dremel to smooth off the sharp edges. And in case you are wondering, Henry was sedated for this. He may be sweet and docile, but I didn't expect him to lay there and let someone cut off his tusks. It's hard enough for me to sit in a dentist's chair and let them work on my teeth, and I know they're doing something that's ultimately good for me.

The vet said Henry's tusks shouldn't need to be trimmed again for a couple of years. While she was here, I also mentioned to her that several people online suggested simply giving a boar a few beers (one beer per 100 pounds, to be exact) and then using bolt cutters to snip off the tusks. She said the problem with bolt cutters is that the tooth will sometimes wind up cracking all of the way down to the root, so it's really better to use the obstetrical wire to cut the tusk. Although she didn't comment on the use of beer as a pig sedative, I don't really want to risk my hands on it, so we will be calling her back next time Henry needs a trim.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Vet visit

We don't have a full-time large animal vet anywhere near us, which is why I always wind up driving the two hours to the University of Illinois vet clinic in emergencies. However, there is a traveling vet that comes through here, and although it would be $140 to have her drive here just for us, if I can coordinate her visit with another nearby farm (or two or three), we can reduce that cost considerably. And that's what happened a couple of weeks ago. A farmer friend of mine was having the vet come to her place to trim her boar's tusks, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to get an ultrasound on a goat that was being sold to Texas to make sure she was pregnant.

So, here's Marie on the milk stand, enjoying some grain, with no idea that the vet is about to put that cold ultrasound probe on her belly. It went totally fine though -- after Marie's initial shock -- and we learned that she was pregnant with at least two bouncy kids! So, Marie is now in her new home down in Texas.

Since the vet was going to be here, I also decided to get an ultrasound on Vera. She was two months pregnant and already huge. I have only ever had three goats look pregnant at two months -- Vera when she had quintuplets last year, and her mother Coco, the two times she had quints!

If memory serves, this is just a picture of amniotic fluid, but that means the goat is pregnant! Unfortunately, with Vera being two months into her pregnancy already, the vet couldn't get a good view of all the kids at once. She could see three at one time, but she was hesitant to say that there were more than that because it's tough to know when you're seeing the same kid or a different one each time you move the probe a little. So, I guess we'll just have to be surprised at the end of January when Vera kids. If she does have five in there again, I just hope that they come shooting out as easily as they did this last kidding season. Mike was home alone and said he could hardly get them dried off fast enough.


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