Kicking the Hay Habit

As we’ve mentioned previously in our blog, our farm will be strictly forage fed (no grain), and we have a goal of stockpiling forage for feeding throughout the winter when conditions permit.

After a recent ice and snow storm, we were able to turn the ewes out on our stockpiled pasture to test all we’ve read about ruminants seeking out forage beneath the snow.  The ewes happily left their shelter pasture (where we had confined them during the storm) with available hay for feed, and sought out fresh grass and other forages beneath the snow.

A couple of days have passed, and there is still ample feed available for weeks to come.

Here they are, happily munching away at grasses, sedge grass, and weeds that are still available to them after ice and snow accumulation and subsequent melting.

They do have their favorites out there, but after observing them for a while, I was amazed at the variety of things they try as they move along – esp. the stemmy sedge grass!

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Catching up!

Well, its been a while since we have blogged.  When you combine the escapades of 8 children and each of their developing lives, and add in the building of an infrastructure of a farm, it can’t help but be a really busy summer and fall!  But we still try to enjoy ourselves and relax on occasion.  The picture below was taken during such a rare moment; hopefully you can feel at least a modicum of the peace and tranquility of a summer afternoon in the country.

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One of the things that has been consuming us this year is fencing and gates.  There are  creative solutions to both of these, and we have been discovering many alternatives.

Below you see a gate along our boundary fence where we expect challenges from predators; especially coyotes, but also possibly bears.  The gap is about 20 feet, so standard gates are a fairly expensive option.  This alternative is both cheap and effective, and very easy to make.

We took two 6 foot lengths of 2x4s and screwed in insulators along the length at an appropriate gap to insure contact with any decent sized predator. Spanning the gap with 1/2 inch electrical fencing tape completes the gate, and attachment to the adjacent electrified fence completes a pretty secure structure.  The bottom of the 2x4s slide into a wire sleeve, and tension is gained by pulling the top part tight with a piece of baling twine (after duct tape, the most essential farm material for fixing things!) around the post.  This gate is easily opened and closed after removing the electrical contact, and is a great and really affordable solution for any farm with electric fences.

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Our sheep are going to be entirely grass fed and grass finished.  So during spring, summer, and most of fall, it is fairly simple to rotationally graze the flock through a series of permanant and temporary fencing.  But during winter, there are a number of challenges to overcome, such as how to provide shelter.  Although our sheep will be nomads most of the year, providing them a more permanent shelter and a heated water source to prevent freezing, means that we will need to locate them closer to the house for much of the winter.

Below is a small shelter of around 80 square feet we constructed mostly of free wooden pallets (slid down over T-posts to provide a sturdy foundation) obtained from a local recycler. This simple construction only takes about half a day to put together and is completed with cheap corrugated plastic sheets for the roof and Tyvek sheathing around the outside!  This is perhaps not the most aesthetically pleasing structure to grace a farm, but is is easy, cheap and fiunctional!

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Finally our starter sheep flock arrived in August!  We were really impressed with the folks from whom we bought these sheep.  Gibraltar Farm in New York is managed by extremely professional, caring, and giving shepherds, who taught us a lot during the time we visited their farm, and personally delivered a group of 12 ewes to us as our foundation flock.

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The girls (12 ewe lambs born this past spring) can be seen below enjoying the pasture on Morning Star Meadows in the late afternoon.  Lying beneath those amber waves is a large amount of feed that we have stockpiled for them to consume during the winter.

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Our pasture is definitely not an herbicide-sprayed monoculture of one type of pasture grass devoid of weeds, but instead consists of Orchard grass, Blue stem (a warm season grass) and Timothy, combined with clover and a variety of “weeds”, which are mostly devoured by the sheep.  The brown stemmy grass seeming to dominate this field in the photograph is the previously mentioned Blue stem, and can provide a good protein source, although is not as palatable once it goes to seed and browns off in the fall.

During the winter months, we hope to be able to continue allowing the ewes to graze this stockpiled pasture and so we have constructed a “corridor” (below) bordered by electric twine from the shelter area (note the Tyvek sheathing) and the unfrozen water source, to the field of stockpiled grass shown above.

Now we just have to run them up and down between them for a few days to help them remember the route, which is only about 80 yards away.

And finally, on a different note, our other work this summer and fall has been in the garden.  We obtained a wonderful yield of vegetables, as demonstrated by this truckload of butternut squash!  About 25 plants yielded almost 250 lb of sweet orange deliciousness!  We hope it stores well in our cool, dry basement and we will use it during the winter months for all sorts of soups and stews!

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Hopefully it won’t be as long before our next blog, and we can update you about our continuing adventures as we prepare for our first winter with the sheep!

Round ‘n Round we go

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I guess most people have dealt with large round bales of hay if they use hay in any significant quantities.  They are more dense, larger and much cheaper to buy than the standard small square bales.  Small square bales vary from approximately 25 lb up to a more standard 40 lb of hay in a rectangular-faced block that is reasonably easily manipulated by a single person.  But the large rounds vary from about 800 lb up to almost 2000 lb for the “mega” version.  And suffice it to say they are NOT easily manipulated or stacked.

This summer, the hay in our front pastures was cut by a very nice young local farmer.  The small square bales were stacked in our barn with the help of numerous friends, to whom we are very thankful.  But the large round bales were left in the field as we determined how best to deal with them.  Since there were only ten of them, it was not really worth the local farmer’s effort to transport them to his place.  And the trouble with leaving them in place was that they get wet and degenerate over time, becoming an obstacle to grazing plans and fences etc.

Now, dealing with them usually involves large machinery (i.e. tractor or skidsteer etc.) with all sorts of “spears” to skewer and lift the bales, or “grabbers”, like giant hydraulic hands.  We own none of the above at the moment, so we were considering renting locally, or begging friends or neighbors to lend us such equipment.  Even the lowest cost options involve a variety of wheeled cradles or other such jigs to winch the bales on and off, etc.

So, consumed by thinking about this dilemma, I happened upon a You Tube video solution which is basically cost free, using materials found around most farms.  It does require a robust pulling vehicle such as a truck (we used our trusty Kawasaki UTV) and preferably at least a couple of people with a moderate amount of good ‘ol American, farm-raised muscle, such as our 4 boys and one daughter (aged 14-19).  I think you will agree that the solution was excellent and cost us nothing, so we wanted to share it with the readers of this blog in case you ever need to wrestle with such a problem yourselves.

Below you can see a 4×8 foot sheet of 4-ply plywood.  One of two simple modifications made are two small notches, cut about a foot from the front on each side, simply to hold the chain in place.  The chain runs around the hitch, then through each notch and joins in the center.  At the back I screwed two pieces of 2×4 inch stud as a back stop to prevent the bale sliding off as you move forwards.

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A look at the equipment from another perspective.  Note that the notches are angled so as to prevent slippage of the chain in a forward direction.  Note also that creative farm children immediately saw the opportunity for motorized sledding fun, during summer no less!

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Once out in the field, following hilarious sledding antics with anywhwere from 1 to 4 kids at any one time slowing up travel to the site of a parked round bale, all we needed to do was to tip the bale onto the sled.  We found that tipping and manipulation could be done by one person, although 2-3 made things MUCH easier.

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Pulling the bale was easy, as long as we accelerated very slowly and ran evenly in low gear using 4 wheel drive.  Occasionally a bale slipped off the side and we needed to repeat the loading process, and we quickly learned not to change directions quickly, especially going up or down hills.  Please note that everyone needs to be VERY careful loading and tipping these huge hay bales.  People are killed or severely injured by large round bales too commonly on farms, so please treat them with the greatest respect.  We found that we needed to be especially careful tipping bales downhill as it would be easy to imaging a bale tumbling or rolling downhill through fences and onto roads etc.  So, our rules are that no-one rides on the slide with a loaded bale (front or back) and no-one positions themselves downhill of a tipping bale – any stabilization can be done from the side!

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Once at the barn it was simply a reverse process of tipping the bale off into the appropriate position to be able to cover with a tarp etc.

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Finally, we have 6 bales stacked closely and tarped to inhibit rain penetration.  I believe that we can drag the bales back to the field in a similar fashion when we need to feed them to sheep.

I am now wondering how to actually feed out the hay in some organized fashion, since one bale would probably last about a month with the number of sheep we currently have!

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Hey — Hay!

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Ever thought about what you can do with old moldy hay smelling of cat urine and and laced with raccoon poop,  apart from condemming it to a compost pile or bonfire, that is?  If so, then read on.  If not, read on anyway.  The information may come in handy some time in the future!  The story unfolds oddly and interestingly, as stories from real life often do, which is why fake stories from Hollywood or books have to revert to shallow and fetid tales of imorality to hold viewers attention.

Our cousins from New Jersey recently bought the abandoned farm across the road.  On the property is a large barn built in the mid 1800s.  Part of the detritus of 150 years of living scattered throughout the structure includes a few hundred bales of very old hay–at least 8 years old, as that is the last anyone lived there.  But it is likely that it is much older than that, although it must have been collected since automated, machine baling started using sissal twine to hold the bales together.

We were pondering the very significant effort needed to control weed growth at the same time as we were lamenting the clay content of the soil here and how hard the soil compacts when it is walked on.  Somehow weeds can grow in this soil, but weeding implements have a really hard time penetrating the baked pottery passing for soil in much of the garden.  We had additionally decided that we needed to significantly increase the organic matter in the soil.  Previously, we had used the composted manure and hay from our winter sheep feeding, as well as broiler chicken offal and anything else that acumulates on a farm.  But since we are just beginning here, we don’t have anything accumulated for such a purpose.

We had used some of this hay to cover the grass seed we spread after the earth moving had denuded a large area around the new barn.  Robin made the creative leap to using this hay to mulch the garden, and at the same time helping to clear out the old barn for our cousins.  So we piled up 10 bales in the back of the UTV and trucked it across the road to our farm.  Now to properly mulch, you have to use a very thick layer of hay, and we had no idea how much we would need until we started.  Some 40 bales later we were done — exhausted, but done.  Now, in addition to helping with weed control, a thick cover of organic material will importantly promote retention of moisture, while slowly composting into the soil.  We are using water accumulated from our roof in a large plastic cistern (see previous blog entry) for the garden and it is both time intensive and physically demanding to apply it to the large garden, so reducing the amount of time and effort spent watering is another great advantage of mulching.

Below you can see the piles around the blueberry plants.

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Below is the view of about half the garden giving an impression of the thick coating of old hay with the plants peeping up from their cozy beds.  The strawberry plants are in the foreground.

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This is the view facing the other direction from the center.  In the foreground you can see the buternut squash, then cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes (adjacent to the cattle panels), and potatoes with white flowers on top in the background, maybe 75 feet back.

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A close up of the butternut squash ensconced snugly in about 3-4 inches of compacted hay (we layed down the hay in  flakes from each bale that you can almost visualize in this photo.)  Any weeds poking up from this probably deserve to live!

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So with all this old and apparently worthless hay, we have:  increased our organic matter in the garden, as this composting hay will be tilled in next year; conserved moisture and thereby our precious water resource, as well as our backs; and finally, hopefully reduced our weeding to almost zero (of course that’s not saying a hay seed or two might resurrect after all these years and sprout, but then we’ll just cover it with more hay!)  Isn’t nature (by which I mean God!) wonderful when you decide to work with it rather than try to beat it!

Spring has sprung!

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Things are really moving along here at the farm!  After many, many days of rain – 50% more than average for our area – spring is bursting out all over – as are “springs” throughout the pasture and along most of the back roads here!  Pollen is flying and people are sneezing, but we aren’t complaining!  We’ve waited so long to get things going here!

The rain catching system that we mentioned in a previous blog is finally in place.  Yes, it would have been nice to have had it set up during the recent spate of torrential downpours we’ve had, but be that as it may, it is up and ready now – just in time to water our garden as it gets going!

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Above you can see an IBC that we resurrected from the farm.  The previous owners had used it to store extra water for themselves.  When it was empty, it blew around the place quite a bit and has some dents and holes.  We are really anxious to see if the repairs Roy did with Fiberfix Rigid Patch hold!

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In back you can see above where Roy has drilled the downspout to attach the fitting to divert water into the IBC.

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And here (above) you can see how Roy rigged up a PVC pipe attachment to the bottom hole of the tank.  We didn’t have the original fitting for this old IBC, so it took some time and modification to make something fit!  A faucet has also been attached to allow us to run a hose to the garden.

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And as for the garden, it is planted!  Much smaller than our previous garden, it will be packed with food soon!  Our tomatoes will be growing along the cattle panel you see running between t posts.  The nice thing is that that same cattle panel will be used in the winter/spring to make jugs for lambing in the barn!  Horseradish and rhubarb acquired from a local farm’s excess are getting established nicely too!

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We really miss our amazing firepit from CT.  On a bit of a whim I had the boys and Roy dig this one and line it with shale and brownstone from the property just before Mother’s Day.  I think they finished the whole thing in half a day!  It’s functional, but the stones aren’t permanently fixed, so Finnley likes to go in and steal one of the smaller ones and bring it into the yard from time to time!

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The concord grapes that were here from before needed a serious cutback over the winter.  I am so pleased that they are coming back strong!  I think Finnley likes to knock new shoots off of this, though, so hopefully it will take off soon so he doesn’t destroy it!  Having that Lab around is seriously like having a toddler roaming around again!

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Here you can see Roy finishing up a LONG stretch of fencing around the perimeter of the first part of pasture we plan to graze.  YES!  Our sheep have been born at their home farm in NY, and we have deposited to purchase 10 ewes, a ram, and a wether (castrated ram) as a companion to our ram when he’s not “working.”  We have a bit more fencing to do before we start subdividing that area into strips for mob grazing.

And speaking of pasture…we have been watching ours GROW with all of this rain!  We purchased a second hand stand on zero turn mower for keeping up with things until we have enough sheep to graze.  As we were contemplating our hay source for the winter, I kept looking at hay growing all around us.  Seemed a pity to just mow it all.  So yesterday I put out a feeler on Facebook to the locals to see if anyone was interested in harvesting our hay in exchange for supplying our winter needs since we don’t have hay harvesting equipment.  Seemed so silly to buy someone else’s hay and mow all of this down.  Hate to waste food, after all!  A very kind young farmer responded positively to our offer, and I can report that both parties of this agreement are quite pleased!

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Farm fresh eggs again (and a lesson in Aussie chook-speak!)

What a nice surprise to see on the Facebook page for Freehling Farms last night that they had a flock of 6 month old Australorp pullets looking for a home!

We were all ready for our hens to arrive next week.  We had ordered red sex linked 4 month old pullets a month or so ago from the farm that were to be ready in May.  Sex links are what we have always had.  They are reliable egg machines – a cross between 2 egg laying breeds that results in all female chicks being either solid red or black, depending on the cross.  These hens would have been hatched and raised elsewhere and would have had their beaks trimmed.  This wasn’t our first choice, as we want these hens to free range, and having a stubby beak doesn’t help them with foraging (but does minimize pecking damage to other chickens when hens get bored.).

What were these Australorps?  I did a quick search and found something that immediately sparked my interest – they were developed in Australia, making them bona fide “chooks” – the Aussie slang for chicken!  It just seemed logical that we have Aussie birds!  But would they be as friendly and reliable as what we were used to having?

After some quick reading and comparing, I was happy to see that yes – they are friendly, excellent layers (averaging 5 eggs per week, same as the sex links.)  They do well in winter and are great foragers!  And though they were a bit more money, they are 2 months older (they’ve consumed a lot of chicken feed in those 2 months, which accounts for some of the cost difference) and therefore are already laying!  They also breed true should we ever want to introduce them to Mr. Australorp some day!  The Livestock Conservancy classifies this heritage breed as “recovering.”

The girls were a bit nervous when they entered the chicken tractor.  They crowded in the corner.

Have you ever watched chickens?  They are so much like a group of ladies at a social event.  And if you add in that these are “Australian ladies (AKA “chook sheilas),” I imagine that some of the conversations would be like this – accent and all!

Strewth girls, waddya think about these new digs?  

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Dunno, Madge, just can’t get me ‘ead around this green stuff!

Oh ya silly sheila, that’s grass!  I ‘eard the new owners sayin they’d like us to eat it and some things called grubs and worms in it!

Eh, what’s that Gladys?  Did you say eat – I’ll try just about anything once anyway!

Oy everyone, dja notice that Bev dropped an egg in the corner?  

Bev, watya doin?  

Oops, sorry all, just couldn’t ‘elp meself with all the excitement and such going on.  

Maybe if we all sidle away they won’t notice!

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Bugga!  It kind of stands out don’t it?  

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If anyone else feels the urge, why don’t we jump up and use those brown boxes up there?  At least it will be a bit more discreet!

Bev – no more social faux pas’ like that.  And Madge – stop ya bloody scratching OK?

Well I nivva!  Who made you the bloody queen of the hill, Gladys?!

And so the conversation keeps going!  I’m sure we’ll be able to eaves-drop on a few more conversations in the future.  We’ll report on that soon.

Celebrating Earth Day!

Our EarthMinded™ package, ordered appropriately on Earth Day, arrived today!  We will be harvesting rain from the roof of the house and collecting it into a cistern to use to water our new garden (more about that garden and the fencing project to follow!), thereby conserving precious ground/well water for our home use.

IMG_7449 If all goes well with this project, we will be doing the same down at the barn for water useage there!

As for the garden, this morning I went outside to find 3 guilty looking deer just over the hill from said garden.  Glancing over at the garden, I had my suspicion as to what had taken place early this morning.  One of the posts was bent, and much of the netting had been pulled down. There wasn’t a single hoofprint in the garden, so we are thinking the deer tested the fence, making a mess of it, but didn’t make it into the  garden, thankfully!  Roy has mended the fence, and hopefully the deer have learned their lesson, but I won’t be holding my breath!