Well, when we left you last week, we were lamenting the fact that our pastures were dotted with poisonous hemp dogbane.  So you can imagine our surprise when we arrived for the talk we most eagerly awaited at the Mother Earth News Fair last weekend and heard, before the talk began, one of the speakers quietly talking about dogbane to the person sitting in front of us!  We were all ears, trying to listen to their conversation, dying to interrupt and say, “We have dogbane!  What can we do about it before our sheep arrive?!  Surely they will all eat it and die!”  And then we heard music to our ears.  Apparently Penn State issued a bulletin last year saying that dogbane is not as toxic as it was once believed to be – that apparently someone mistook it years and years ago for the highly toxic plant (that doesn’t even grow in PA as far as we know!) oleander, and its bad reputation stuck, and that was that!

Previous agricultural publications about hemp dogbane made it a serious “bad guy” for your pastures, advising farmers to spray broadleaf weed killers of various types liberally and often to destroy this weed wherever it was growing.  This was a big oopsie for the extension service!

Our speakers, Shawn and Beth Dougherty, were surprised to find out that hemp dogbane was declared to be so toxic, considering their mob-grazed Dexter cattle had been eating it for years with no ill effect.  They then discovered this 2016 bulletin, and things began to make sense again.  Now here’s the kicker.  Beth and Shawn quote the bulletin on their blog, and others quote from it on forums online, but click the link they provide on their blog, that was active at the time they included it, and you get a website for Penn State Extension service that no longer has a TRACE of information about dogbane on it!  We are not sure of the cause of that article’s disappearance from the web, but that being said, I am waiting to hear from Beth who intends to speak with her contacts at Penn State to get to the bottom of this mystery!

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So we started off our time with the Dougherty’s on the right foot!  We were so happy that we now wouldn’t have to hire in a weed spraying company to search out and destroy all of the dogbane, of course taking with it innocent broadleaf weeds that would be excellent fodder for our sheep.  The pollinators on our property will be happy, too, as dogbane is a favorite of theirs!  By the end of our time with the Dougherty’s we found out that not only did we have the same farming practice beliefs in common, but we also have the same number of children and the same Christian beliefs!  Of COURSE we bought their new book!

Take home points for us from the Dougherty’s talk on intensive rotational grazing were mostly confirming our desire to mob graze our sheep, stockpile pasture, and to now worry less about the weeds and pastures!  We learned that by intensively grazing the sheep, we will heal and improve the pastures.  We also learned more about making use of springs and seepage on our land to provide water for the animals.  By their 20 plus years of experience shared in the talk and in their book, we can hopefully get a jump start on things here and avoid mistakes that would otherwise slow us down!

We also attended talks on the farm business side of things.  A very good attorney from the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund gave excellent advice on what we will need to know to start a farm business here in PA.  Hers seems like an excellent and necessary organization to be part of in these days where small farmers and businesses are under incredible pressure and scrutiny by the state and federal government.

Later in the week we attended a “pasture walk” at a local cattle farm that also practices mob grazing with their Red Devon cattle.  They, too, have been practicing this intensive rotational grazing for 20 plus years, and have converted a conventionally farmed property into lush and healthy pastures with beautiful healthy animals!

We feel so blessed that we have been able to learn from these farmers’ years of experience.  The results of their “experiments” with this relatively new way to graze ruminants (compared with simply grazing the cattle out in a big pasture with little or no rotation), is further support for us to use mob grazing with our future sheep flock!

So what does all of this mean at this stage of the game?  We don’t even have any livestock!  Now that the power company has mapped out the underground electric cables running through the front yard, Roy took time to put up snow marker posts around the homestead to mark where our fence posts will go.

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He’s also drawn a diagram of the property, roughly noting location of the fence lines that will eventually go up to provide the easiest way to break up our land into many small grazing strips.  The “spokes” of the wheel will be further divided across from side to side into grazing strips with temporary electric fencing.  Gates will be strategically located for access to pastures from the homestead and from points around the perimeter of the property.

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Each grazing strip will provide a day of grazing for the “mob.”

Today while Roy took the family to a hunter safety course, I was able to mow the one mile perimeter of the property.  Blue and I took a stroll around on the newly mown path after that, and when Roy got home we did our own Morning Star Meadows pasture walk!  Luckily we didn’t encounter the bear we were warned about!  We are really getting a feel for the lay of the land, the predominant pasture growth on various parts of the property, the patches of plants indicating potential for springs and seepage, and just overall how great the meadows of Morning Star Meadows really are!  And now we know how much greater they can become as we begin to care for them!

I think I’ve kept you long enough for this week!  Let the fence building begin!

An Eventful Week!

This is Roy writing the blog this time.  I wanted to add my $0.02 at the beginning of this adventure in Pennsylvania, although in full disclosure, there are numerous spousal additions and improvements to my somewhat pedestrian penmanship!

Beginnings are often fraught with discoveries, excitement and starting new things.  This week was no different at Morning Star Meadows Farm, as we shifted our focus away from the tedium of unpacking and more towards turning this beautiful acreage into a productive farm.

Luckily, we have one of the world’s foremost fencing companies close by, and today took a trip over to their warehouse and began accumulating the posts, wires, spacers and the other requisite paraphernalia necessary to initiate our first major project ….. fencing our farm!  Although we have put up a lot of fencing in Connecticut, as those who have followed us previously on this blog can attest to, this place will take it to a whole new level with the perimeter boundary fence alone totaling almost a mile, and internal dividing fences likely to amount to a lot more!

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And just to confirm our concern about the necessity of our fencing being secure enough to  protect our stock as well as to contain them,  driving home from shopping a couple days ago we were astounded to see a large black bear bounding across the road about 35 yards in front of the van!  It was so quick and agile as it slithered under the roadside guard rail, making us very aware of how much we need to protect animals (and humans!) on the farm.

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The other major (and a little bit scary) discovery we made while cruising around the pastures on the UTV was that our fields, from a distance, pure and verdant, upon closer inspection (with a bit of Googled plant identification) is rampant with toxic plants!  We have a very toxic weed called dogbane (a hemp plant that would be great if we needed to make rope, and would be awesome if we had an apiary, as pollinators love the flowers, but gets its name because it poisoned dogs!) as well as enough milkweed to feed Pennsylvania’s entire population of monarch butterflies!

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Incidentally, and as an aside, I have always thought that the person who named “butterflies” was dyslexic.  Butterflies do not look like flies (although they do fly), and they have little to do with, as far as I can tell, in appearance, smell, or predilection towards, butter!  So my contention is that our naming expert really intended to call them “Flutter-byes”, as I contend that this is much more apt name, that actually has some relationship with their penchant for “fluttering by”…. but I digress!

So, now we have to find out how to rid ourselves of these toxic plants without disrupting the growth of all the other lush, safe-to-eat plants already there.

And in addition to these adventures and discoveries, we are trying to fall into a rhythm at the homestead.

Firstly, we had our struggle to get enough water.  After a great deal of time, patience, and $$, we now have a much deeper well and 3 cisterns in our basement to provide for the water demand of our family.

Our family’s wifi demand is still unmet, with rural DSL being extremely slow and unreliable!  I guess Verizon figures us country folk don’t need true high speed internet, so they run the signal way out to the boonies on copper until there is only a trickle of internet coming into our modem.

The boys and I began to erect an Amish style clothesline so that we don’t have to burn through electricity to achieve what God already provided for with all the lovely sunny and breezy days we are experiencing.  Although it sounds nice and tame, this is no tidy suburban clothesline!  This is a 125 foot line spanning two 12 foot posts sunk four feet into the shale and clay of the Pennsylvania hills!  We will wait to post photos of this until completion, and perhaps until the recovery of myself and three of our boys, who are now using muscles not tested for a few months, but will need to be honed for the upcoming fence work.

All in all, though, we are all feeling more at home.  The sauerkraut is fermenting in the crock, its frequent “burping” providing a familiar background sound intermixed with the chime of the old clock, running once again after a lengthy time in storage.  We have had our first real dinner party – only one guest, but it still counts!  School is humming along for the children at full speed.  And there is also a continuing education for Robin and me as this weekend we will be attending (after a Saturday morning stop for freshly made Amish donuts just down the street from our house!) the Mother Earth News Fair at a nearby conference center, and next week will be doing a pasture walk at a nearby cattle farm with the county conservation district people.  Lots of learning and networking, planning and hard work.  The awesome beginnings of something great!

And so it begins…again!

Well today was a very fun and exciting day for Morning Star Meadows Farm! Roy and I attended a one day workshop focused on raising and marketing sheep and goats run by Penn State University.  Luckily we only had to drive about 40 minutes to the venue – a sheep farm that dates back to the late 50’s. While much of the material covered included things we already knew, we were able to network with people and get a feel for shepherding in southwestern PA.  For example, we found out that the Amish will do a great job building our barn, and that killing weeds with a propane torch along the fence line could be a new, fun, and probably somewhat dangerous hobby for the boys!

The MOST exciting thing that we learned more about, though, is that this area just received what amounts to a $3.5 million dollar grant to help reclaim areas impacted by the coal industry into agriculture. With the work they have done thus far, they are realizing that there is a real need for more lamb in this area, and they would like to spend the next 3 years helping new shepherds get going with their farms to hopefully double the amount of lamb available, connecting consumers to farmers, farmers to farmers, farmers to slaughterhouses and meat cutters, and in the process, taking care not to flood the market and depress prices. This is coming at just the right time for us prior to our setting up our infrastructure here.  It also helps confirm our decision to raise sheep again – but on a larger scale this time around!

Today was also fun because last evening this toy tool was delivered to us,

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and when we got home from the workshop, we were able to take a ride or 2 or 3 or 4 around the property!

Now we can get down to doing some serious work around the farm before the snow starts flying!

What a different perspective we had of the property as we buzzed around at the bottom of the hill out back!

The amount of pasture is truly awesome, and we can hardly wait to have it dotted with sheep!  As for now it is regularly dotted with deer!!

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Our next few weeks will be spent acquiring fencing materials from an excellent fencing company that just happens to have its roots and main headquarters about 20 minutes from here!  That will save us a lot just on shipping charges alone!  Roy has already planned out the fencing pattern, and soon enough he will be digging in posts and we will see what it is like to work with soil that isn’t full of rocks like back in North Stonington!

The first fence line will go around the homestead.  That will keep Blue from wandering back down to the neighbors he already introduced himself to within a day of moving in!  The next fence line will go around the perimeter of the property, which from our calculations will amount to about a mile of fencing!  Once that is in place, we will run fences radially from the top to the bottom like spokes in a wheel.  Those areas will then be further divided with temporary fencing to provide small grazing areas.

Our goal for our farm will be to intensively graze the sheep for short periods in small areas, moving them to new areas on a daily basis during the pasture’s growing season.  This farming practice is referred to as mob grazing, and it is good for the animals as well as the pasture.  Our lambs will be grass fed and finished, so pasture health will be of utmost importance to us.

We also plan to stockpile pasture, saving pasture for winter grazing vs. cutting it and storing it as hay.  This will save us on haymaking equipment, and we will just buy enough hay to cover the coldest, snowiest months of the year only.

And so we begin the next chapter of our farming adventure!  We hope you will enjoy keeping up with our story!