Posts Tagged ‘winter’

We welcome winter this morning after a night of blistering winds and a high for today of 44 degrees which has already passed. Outside the blindingly bright sun belies the frigid temperature as we begin our return toward longer days once again. As high cirrus clouds sail across an icy blue sky I find it hard to believe that today is this blog’s one year anniversary. Although life has had its twists and turns (as it always does), and I have not met my goal for the number of posts over the course of the year that I had hoped to achieve (as I never could), I did at least carry on. Sometimes that is the best we can do.

Last month we finally put Lumpy down, the mama with the swollen jaw who lost her calf last year. The swelling never responded to any treatments and had finally gotten so big that she could no longer eat. Still it was hard to accept; I suppose culls always are. You just can’t help wondering if you did everything you could. In better news, we bought two new bulls at the last sale to increase the genetic diversity of the herd. We have been feeding hay on a daily basis for some time now, the grass in the pastures dying off a little early from the dry fall it seemed. Winter wheat has been planted and now struggles to come up. All the mamas-to-be have been sorted into pastures near the house and barns for the upcoming birthing season. I hope to bring two donkeys onto the farm before birthing begins to help keep the coyotes at bay. Driving on nearby roads I see other herds with some new babies already, brown, white and black packages of bovine adorableness. Although I appreciate the black Angus breed for what it literally brings to the table, at times I wish we had a little more diversity in the field, if only for visual interest…

My middle child is pestering me for her garden gloves. Soon we’ll bundle up and head outside to set out a few pansies around the blueberry bushes. I am tempted to postpone this task because of the wind; our Christmas lights clattering wildly against our front windows scold and warn like crows taking flight. I know myself, however, and one postponement will lead to another and another. Eventually the pansies will not forgive me, and then I will not forgive myself for not just planting the stupid things. So, out into the ripping wind I go. It isn’t that many pansies.

pansies waiting

pansies waiting

Happy Solstice everyone!


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We auctioned off our yearling steers this week. For $1.44 a pound, we loaded all but one of them onto a truck headed for South Carolina. The one that stayed was bloated and required a visit from the vet to intubate his first stomach to relieve the pressure. Most likely he snuck some of the grain used to get them to follow the truck up to the loading area and then ran too much after eating. The man who won the auction didn’t want the heifers so we got to keep all of them as well. This way at least we’ll get to grow one of those steers to full grassfed weight and see what that may mean for this herd, and we’ll breed the heifers. We weighed all the yearlings earlier in the week before the auction; true to the Angus breed, the smallest (Isabel, our bottle-fed calf from last year) was still 560 pounds. So far, these Angus yearlings appear to grow better than other breeds our family has raised.

Our bottle baby seems to be doing alright. He waits at the gate every morning, eager to suck down his morning bottle, but finding him in the evening has been hit or miss this week. Last year we kept our bottle baby up in the pen all the time, but this steer wasn’t acting too terribly hungry in the evenings, so Brad decided to let him stay in the pasture with the others. Quite surprisingly Brad has seen the calf getting to nurse, although it isn’t likely that he gets away with it often. Iris is loving the steer’s tameness and getting to pet him every day.

bottle ready

He trots right up to whomever comes near for nuzzles and scratches behind the ears, until he determines whether or not a bottle is being offered, then in the absence of one he scoots off for something more bovine to do.

feeding 287

We haven’t had any new calves in a while now, and we suspect the mamas may be done for this season. If so, we have ninety live ones, two better than last year from the same herd. Ninety-two mamas out of 101 have given birth (we strongly suspect that 287 is a twin, the most common explanation for abandonment). In another month it will be breeding season again, and we’ll keep turning the wheel…

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It’s funny how twists and turns seem to cluster together. After the twins (who seem to be doing fine, Brad has seen them both nursing, sometimes together) we had an abandoned calf who is now being bottle-fed and, the same day, a mama with retained placenta. The abandoned calf may have been a twin that belonged to the mama with the placenta problem but we can’t be sure. Twins can be a physical cause for the retention of membranes but there are other reasons it could have happened. I was very concerned for this mama, as uterine infection can be extremely dangerous and with a cow’s anatomy it seems almost unavoidable, but after a couple of days she had shed all that she had been trailing and was showing no signs of illness. On we go to the next challenge.

The kids and I, along with a few other homeschoolers, visited a fellow homeschooling family with bees this week as part of our monthly “patch club.” The kids were much more interested in playing with their friends than learning about bees at first but couldn’t resist paying attention when the beekeeper (also a homeschooling dad) opened one of the hives and brought out the queen. We have kept bees before but we haven’t set up any hives at this farm, and we definitely are pitiful amateurs. I had hoped to include apiary mastery in my projects this year but with a slight nod to sensibility I have let that project go until another year. Attempting to grow absolutely all of our own food that can be grown in this climate is a hefty enough undertaking for one year, in addition to all our regular farming chores. And then there will be the chickens, and I haven’t given up on the turkeys yet…

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A few days ago one of our mamas birthed our first set of twins this season, one boy and one girl. The heifer was the definite runt, but (perhaps because of handling the steer) the mama took to her girl and kept kicking her boy off. Brad has been watching them, trying to determine whether we’ve got one to bottle-feed or not. He penned the three of them up together on their second day and tried feeding the steer, fairly unsuccessfully.

the heifer gets to nurse


Brad and the steer

At the end of that day the mama was sniffing the steer and seemed to claim him as her own, and he certainly didn’t seem hungry for the bottle, so Brad turned them all back out to pasture so the mama would be less stressed. On the third day the steer was off by himself again so Brad decided to walk him in to the barn, until the mama charged him for taking her baby! So, out they all stayed, and Brad saw the steer getting to nurse too, so we know she has stopped kicking him off. He’ll keep checking them carefully for a while yet to make sure both calves are getting enough milk, then hopefully we’ll be letting nature take its course. We learned last year with our bottle-fed heifer Isabell (most likely an abandoned twin, as we never identified her mother) that the bottle-fed calves never come close to catching up with their naturally nursed mates. And while Angus is a meat breed, the supply-follows-demand biology of nursing should easily keep up with just two calves in a healthy mama like this one. Another lesson in watching and waiting, sitting on hands, resisting meddling and letting nature show us what to do.

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The births have slowed to a trickle now, with days often separating one birth from the next. The seventy-ninth calf has been tagged, and we can only guess and hope for what the final count will be. We heard from neighbors about a mile from here that a surprise feline visitor graced their hidden camera recently. Set up to watch for where turkeys might be crossing for the upcoming season, the camera instead discovered a mountain lion passing through in the night. Big cats such as this have a very large range, and with river frontage connecting our farm to several others this one could easily come close enough to pose a threat here. Ironically our best defense against this cat will likely be the coyotes, whether by territorial behaviors or by feeding her (or him) themselves. With as much coyote sign as we’ve seen all over this farm, I’m still pretty confident that the one victim we’ve had was taken by a canine, but this does introduce another variable.

It has turned off cold again this week, and although it keeps us indoors I am glad for it now rather than later. Already our blueberries are beginning to bud. Cold weeks now give us better odds for dodging a crop-killing late freeze later. Meanwhile I’m finalizing my seed order from Johnny’s and selecting a few fruit trees I hope to add to the front yard. I should be starting seeds already…

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Occasionally the farmer gets a break from the farming. Winter provides the most breaks, even with calving and late-harvested soybeans, and Brad did manage to finish our new bookshelf-slash-entertainment center for the living room. It took three men to bring it into the house, and could have taken four:

It is just over seven feet tall and six feet two inches wide, with shelves for even our tallest books, and compartments designed exactly for the television and the stereo and speakers we are still saving for. Brad built it from barn wood salvaged from his old mill shed that a tornado knocked down a couple of years ago. He trimmed out all the front edges so all the surfaces would be the same rough-cut wood. I was terrified throughout the process of getting it into the house, filling it with all it could hold, backing it up to the wall… waiting for a child to climb its front like a ladder, waiting for it to topple over somehow and crush someone or even just something. It did not; they did not. It does not quite hold all our books, but it comes close, and it is just what I wanted it to be: a job very well done.

Postscript: while I am giving these kudos to Brad, add more for the oak floor you can see in the photo. He installed that too, before we moved in.


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Jonquils are up everywhere. Imbolc, or eimbolg, is a centuries-old Gaelic or Celtic term that tranlates literally as “in the belly,” and refers to the beginning of February (give or take a couple of weeks) as the season of lambing and calving; at this time many European agrarian cultures celebrated the home hearth fire and the gifts of Brighid, Celtic goddess of fire and smithcraft. We also are “in the belly” of winter, the exact midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The days grow longer, the light stronger, and all things earthen begin to quicken. Spring is still incubating, but we can begin to trust that we’ll make it until then. We give this turning of the wheel of the year a passing nod with our modern Groundhog Day, a shadow of the weather forecasting that marked this holiday in the years before meteorology and computer models. In all actuality, no matter what Punxatawney Phil says, six weeks remain before we reach the spring equinox. One thing we humans cannot do is make the earth move faster around the sun.

I heard the coyotes again last night and yelled at them out the back door; either they were too far off in the first place or it did some good, as no calves were missing this morning. Two more new ones, no casualties, and I wonder when the birthing will begin to wane. Our calf birth count is well into the seventies now. I visited them this afternoon while Brad and the kids planted twenty-something blackberry plants, a gift from a fellow market farmer in Chattanooga.

planting blackberries

 The calves butt heads and wrestle, leap and jump and buck and kick, chasing through the pasture.

play fighting

One mama becomes highly offended by my photography; she thinks I am too close to her baby, bellows and blows at me to get me to leave.

angry mama

Another mama follows me down the field road, she on her side of the fence and I on mine. Driving by pasture, cows are somewhat indistinct from one another, particularly the black Angus that we raise. Walking among them the individuals in our herd are far from indistinct, with different faces, fur, habits, even personality.

curious mama

One calf has much lighter brown fur than most of the other calves.


sweet face

Some gather in groups, with one or two mamas babysitting many calves while the other mamas stroll about in search of the best grass. Others are loners. Some hover over their calves, appearing almost fretful; others seem unflappable.

finishing a hay bale

 Next time I’m out I’m going to try to see if the groups always stay the same, or if there is some rotation involved, some shifting of roles from time to time.

loner mama and baby

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