Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Yesterday's Images from the Gigantic Garden

Summer is coming. We hit 100 degrees the other day and I'm feeling it in the mornings when I go to do the chores. The garden is starting to take off. There are seedlings everywhere and every few days I plant more from the greenhouse. Take a peek at some of the things growing in there:

Last year's Christmas tree trunks (the goats ate the needles)
made a great bed edge and trellisses for vining plants.
This border is mainly flowers to attract bees and butterflies but
also contains beans and pumpkin which should vine up the trunks.

Garlic interplanted with peas, romaine, and beets.

This is the west edge of the garden planted with pollinator
attracting flowers as well as tomatoes, pumpkins and fruit trees.

Some of the romaine which is farther along.

The dill reseeded itself from last year and was the first to grow.
Permaculture literally means permanent agriculture. The idea behind this garden is that the soil will never be tilled, allowing the natural buildup of organic matter as plants die and compost and waste is also added to the rows. While this method drives my neighbor a little crazy (he often offers to drive his tractor in to turn the soil for me) it is a mimic of nature. Think about a forest and the thick leaves and waste matter covering the forest floor. That waste matter is going back into the earth and adding nutrients to the new plants that sprout up. It is a habitat for earthworms and beneficial organisms that help build soil.

This year I can already see a huge difference from last year's attempt. The soil is thicker with organic matter, holding water better than before, and that means I have to run the sprinkler a lot less.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Milking Area

Gate to the far left is to the milking stall.
The double gate is where hay is delivered.
The milking area is done. Not perfect but a great improvement over being a ramada with some wire fencing attached to control the goats. It has a total of four gates. Two at either end of the milk stall. One facing the camper. A double gate where the hay comes in. It's been painted barn red to match the Veggie Shack.

There are a few things I'd have done differently if I knew better what I was doing. When we designed the stall for Gucci, we measured her. She was pregnant at the time and about three feet wide. She's only two feet wide now, so she has room to move around a lot, making the milk pail a moving target. She gets a little fidgety. I've slowed that down by adding a heavy duty metal feeder with a top that closes so she really has to concentrate on how to get her food out while I'm milking her. The busier she is, the less she fidgets or tries to swipe my hand away from the milkmakers with her sharp cloven hooves.

Gucci in the milk stall with her metal feeder.
My milk stool (after trying other items) is a milk crate.
It works great!
There is no head gate in the milk stall, which probably is not ideal. I'm making do. I don't like to have to restrain an animal too much as long as I can do what needs to be done without being in danger. I've debated ordering hobbles, which I always have to use on one of my goats. I think Gucci's udder was sensitive in the beginning and that may have been why she kept avoiding me when I touched her. She's really mellowed the past few days. Plus, I'm getting faster and learning the secrets to each teat and how to get the milk out.

The hay area is far bigger than I thought it would be. At present I have six bales stored in there and room to walk around. I keep a tarp over it all to guard from sun or rain damage.

My goat stanchion fits in the milking area across from the hay and I even have a small shelf in there to store tools and supplies. The best part of this whole idea is the concrete pad which can be hosed clean and swept. I love that the most.

Farmer K demonstrating his milking skills.
Today it rained and we milked in the rain and didn't get soaked. Gucci behaved herself and puzzled out how to get the alfalfa through the metal grating in her feeder. She's strong enough to move it around, but not too much. We also added a board with two notches cut in it as a stop that slides in behind her butt with the notches fitting into the existing railings. This keeps her from walking backward and avoiding me when I reach in. At first, I was using a rope, but as you can imagine she can stretch a rope quite far if she leans hard enough on it.

I am reminded that this whole thing is merely an illusion. Cows are huge and powerful. If she wants to leave this spot badly enough, she could ram the gate and break right out. She showed me this when Max the dog got too close for comfort and she whacked the gate on another occasion. I pushed it all back together, but I got the point. The dog is not allowed out while the cow is being milked.

On average we get anywhere from one gallon to a gallon and a half of milk at each session. It depends on when the calf has eaten. This morning we got a gallon and a half. Karma was busy skipping and running in the rain with her bell jingling.

Every day, we skim the cream from the milk and make it into butter using our mixer. It goes quite fast, much faster than shaking the cream in a jar. I'm storing the excess butter in the freezer for baking later on.

So far, we've made mozerella, haloumi cheese, yogurt, and buttermilk biscuits. The milk goes into cereal, macaroni and cheese, and anything else we need milk for. Some even goes into our friends' refrigerators. There is more than enough. It's the best milk I have ever tasted in my life and well worth the effort.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Half is Better...

Back in the days before electricity and fancy electric shears, people used hand held shears to get all the wool off their overgrown sheep. When we first started looking into having some sheep, I said no way would I have a wool sheep. No way. No how. Never.

I mean seriously, who the heck wants to shear a sheep? All that wool crusted with hay, dirt, filth. It has to be sheared once a year. Then if you want to do anything with it, it has to be cleaned and carded and spun, etcetera, etcetera.

But then I saw Muffy all overgrown with years of wool (and filth) on her body, and I fell in love.

And I got a wool sheep.

Never say never.

Last year, Angelica and I sheared her with scissors because that's all we had at the time. The feed store didn't sell sheep shears except for a rusty antique one hanging on the wall for like $80 that I doubt would cut through anything. So, we made do and we got all that nasty wool off and got a bunch of blisters on our fingers to show for our effort. Muffy was looking pretty dapper for an old lady sheep when we got through with her.

This year, I started with scissors. It went badly in the way that a haircut goes severely wrong and you have to live with it until it grows out. I stopped. I went home, got online, and ordered some old fashioned hand held sheep shears because they're way less expensive than electric ones and I don't like to run the generator too much. They came a couple days ago and today I finally got the chance to use them. Since it takes me about an hour to milk my cow (50 minutes today; I'm getting faster) I didn't have much time.

It takes two people to get Muffy to walk anywhere. Thank goodness my neighbor, Manny, dropped by for a visit. He was shocked by her rather un-sheeply man strength. She's good at digging her heels in and just stopping. I got behind her big, wooly butt and pushed while he tugged on her flashy pink collar. She cannot be bribed by food when she knows I need to take her to the stand. I don't know why. She lives for food. Food is the be all and end all to her existence.

We got her up there. She fell half off. Then we got her up there again. Then she laid down! Bear in mind she must weigh like a thousand pounds. I hugged her upper body and hauled her up. Then we shoved and shoved until we got her head in the lock. Whew.

She called to her family for help with her deep, manly sheep voice, "BAAAAAA!". They BAAed and BAAed back to let her know they missed her. Then I gave her some corn and she remembered that food is life.

My neighbor hightailed it out of there. He probably knew I might ask him to cut off some of that nasty wool. Smart man.

I had about an hour before I had to pick up my kids from school. That's just enough time for an inexperienced amateur farmer (me) to shear half an overweight sheep. Half is better than not at all, right? Maybe if I milk fast enough tomorrow, I can finish the other half.

The Bell

The bell has been worn by many animals at the ranch. First, it was Big Momma's. Then when Tsica became the assertive tyrant of the goat herd, I put it on her to warn the other goats that she was charging them, aiming to knock them out of her way, or away from her food, or just to knock them because she could. Eventually she asserted herself so much that she didn't need to ram other goats anymore. She just makes a growl and they clear out. Gucci wore it for a while when she was on her walks. Not for any other reason than she is a cow and it's a cow bell. It kind of bugged her. So then I passed the bell on to Baby Cow (the Black Angus steer) but he outgrew his collar and walks around naked.

Now the bell belongs to Karma. It's big, but I figure she'll grow into it:

Monday, April 9, 2012

I Lost My Calf

This morning was productive. I did all the chores in record time so I could sit down and milk my cow. Milking a cow takes time. Some people are very fast at it. Most people use a machine. I don't have an electric milking machine, but I have two hands and a lot of patience. Good thing. I need it, the patience that is.

Gucci is a good cow. Very good. She gets ticked off at me, I won't lie, because I know she knows I'm taking way too long. But for the most part she just looks back at me with those big brown eyes and waits. On average, it takes me about an hour to milk her. I did some research online and the lowest time I've heard is 30 minutes. I've improved. When I first started a few days ago, it took me an hour and a half. I'll be up to the thirty minutes soon. I will, I will.

I get about a gallon and a half each time I milk. Think about that. Three gallons a day, every day. I've heard a Holstein can give 12 gallons a day. That's a lot of milk, cheese, and butter. I do share Gucci with her baby, Karma. Karma comes to milking time with me and supervises. It's better with her there since she keeps her mom calm. She also tends to nudge mom's udder so Gucci isn't so bothered that I'm milking her. Not that I believe she's fooled into thinking it's her calf taking the milk.

So it was a good morning by then. Good milking; got my gallon and a half. Then I decided the cows ought to go on their usual walkabout. Since the calf came, Gucci hadn't been out to browse and the weeds looked in need of a haircut. So I let out Gucci, her calf, and the black angus steer. I didn't think much of it as they were all staying togther and happily eating. I went off and did some more chores, planted some Italian green bean sprouts from the greenhouse, swept the big goat pen, pulled some weeds in the garden and fed them to the sheep and chickens.

It was starting to get hot then, so I figured I better head home. When I went to find my cows, one was missing. Karma. Gucci didn't seem at all concerned. She meandered around nipping off weeds and greens. I walked about and searched, but Karma was nowhere to be found. I walked for thirty minutes. I put Gucci and the steer back in the corral. Gucci watched me (I swear she was grinning--that this was all some sort of planned cow trick).

I walked the front part of the property. I walked the back. Then the front again. And the back. Again and again I searched. The neighbor boy was over painting the milking area. He watched me too. I think he was in cahootz with the cows. He doesn't say much. When I asked if he'd seen the calf, he shrugged and gave me a grin that seemed to say, 'Seriously lady, how do you lose a calf?'. Then he went back to painting. I think one of my purposes in life is to be entertainment for the neighbors. Scored on that today.

It's times like these that I realize I'm not really a farmer. Real farmers don't lose their animals. And they can milk a cow with four good teats in 30 minutes flat as opposed to my three teat cow taking an hour.

I went to enlist help from my guard dog, Max. He and I searched and searched to no avail. (He's better at chasing feral cats than finding anything else). Then he figured I was walking around way too much in the heat and went to rest on a cool patch of dirt while I kept looking.

Eventually, I found the little calf curled up and napping in the corner of the property, completely unaware that she was lost. I hauled her up and brought her back to her mama. I think she needs a bell!

Thursday, April 5, 2012


kar·ma  n.
1. Hinduism & Buddhism The total effect of a person's actions and conduct during the successive phases of the person's existence, regarded as determining the person's destiny.
2. Fate; destiny.
3. Informal A distinctive aura, atmosphere, or feeling.

Last night when we went to do the chores, we found Gucci waiting for us near her new calf. The little one was still on the ground, still wet and a little slimy from birth, so we must have just missed it! Gucci was very attentive, groaning and licking, licking and groaning. We did the chores and let her take care of business. The little one was shivering, so I headed in armed with a towel and helped out, rubbing the calf dry. Which of course, Gucci immediately undid by licking the baby all over again.

I snuck a peek to see if we had received a girl or a boy. Girl! Four perfect teats and a pretty white patch on her forehead and one on her side. I named her Karma.

We looked up how long it should take a calf to stand after birth and it said anywhere from ten minutes to two hours. With a little help after about an hour and a half, Karma stood on wobbly legs. She fell and stood a few more times before she got the hang of things. We hung around long enough to be sure she knew where the milk was.

This morning we showed up early to check on her. Karma was up and moving, following her big mom everywhere. I had read that a dairy breed cow will make far too much milk for a calf to drink up, and that milking should begin 12 hours after birth to keep the udder relieved of pressure. And believe me, it looked like there was some pressure going on. It was the perfect time to try out the (almost done) milking area. I got Gucci in there and gave her a flake of food and some grain. She happily worked on that while I hosed off all her baby muck and washed her udder thoroughly. I used a solution of water with bleach to disinfect the teats and bottom of the udder.

I have never milked a cow until today. It was much easier than a goat. Her udder was full and the milk came right out. She didn't kick or fuss or seem to care much at all about me. I got three quarts and figured that was enough for the first try. Gucci headed back to her baby who was happy to receive her and finish off what I had started.  
This is Gucci's udder last night.

Karma having breakfast this morning.

Gucci having a rest with her baby nearby.
Farmer K and Karma