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!

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!

Deer-proof Fence for the Garden

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Now that this garden is getting going it’s time to protect its precious contents!

We are putting up the same sort of fencing we had at our previous farm, hopefully with some improvements to make it more durable.

We first purchased 10 ft sections of 3/4 inch and 1 inch electrical metal tubing.  The 1 inch conduit is cut into 2 ft lengths with an angle grinder with a thin cutting wheel.  The wood shown above will be used for construction of the gate.

Below you can see a useful tool we purchased for installation of some of the posts for our sheep fencing.  It has helped make this garden fence project much easier compared to our last attempt in CT!  It works like a T post driver, but instead creates a hole.  Beside it is the 1 inch diameter piece that will serve as a sleeve to accept and hold the 10 ft 3/4 inch post.

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Here We have the posts and sleeves in their approximate position along the back of the garden, waiting to be installed.  The large post in the grass will be part of the sheep fencing – no space wasted!  High tensile wire will be brought to that post from the system in the background at the far end of the garden where you can see the gate.  We need the deer fencing to supplement this electric fence, as the deer would still be able to jump over the electric fencing from the sheep side.

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Here Roy is ready to start digging the hole to accept the 1 inch diameter sleeve.

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The sleeve will accumulate a core of dirt inside.  Use a piece of wood so that your hammer doesn’t damage the top of the sleeve when you pound.  You will then have to pull the sleeve back out and remove the dirt core.  This may need to be done a couple of times before you can finally position the sleeve.

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Below shows the dirt core that must be removed to create the hole.

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The sleeve is pounded down into place, and the 10 ft post is easily slid into the sleeve.

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An improvement this time around is that corners will have 2 adjacent posts for added strength when the fence is connected to the posts.

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Here it is!  One side is complete!  A gate will be installed close to the center of this side.  We will also have a place where we can easily open up the fence large enough for the tractor to get back in for rototilling next year.

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Lastly will come the actual deer netting.  We will install 7 ft deer netting with cable ties on these posts.  Just a note – there are different qualities of this netting.  Buy the cheap stuff, and you’ll be replacing it more frequently.  We have found that bunnies still find their way through the deer netting, so we will probably put chicken wire on the outside of that at the base for added protection.  The blueberries will be within this fencing, but I somehow think it will NOT be enough protection should the local bears discover them some day!  But that will be another story!

Build it and they will come!

The title, as some of you might recognize, is a misquote from the famous 1989 Movie Field of Dreams where the lead charater, played by Kevin Costner, hears a voice say, as he stares off into his cornfield, “If you build it, he will come.”  In our case, we are gazing into our meadows and referring to our future flock of sheep, not any ghosts from the past!

Barn building, as you see, is proceeding rapidly, despite sub-zero temperatures, snow, and now, as the ground warms up, a bountious and incredibly tacky layer of mud and boot-clinging clay.  Much kudos is due to our tireless builders who persevere despite all of the above that Old Man Winter has been hurling at them.  I am NOT a cold weather person, having been brought up in the tropics of Australia, and am in awe of those who shrug off frozen extremities and potential frostbite without complaining!

Below you can see our intrepid building team installing the metal roof.  We hope to harvest rainwater from this in the future to supply the barn with water. According to data from the internet, we can collect many tens of thousands of gallons from a roof of this size should we have sufficient storage capacity.

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As well as three large doors for vehicle and stock use, we also have a smaller “people door” installed so that we can access or egress easily.  Behind this door we will build a heatable office/sleeping quarters/storage room/sheep NICU!

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Well, roof installed, large doors in and now they are making a platform for the cupola that the builder has fabricated, that will transform this large shed into a bona fide barn!  Apart from aesthetics, a cupola actually has a function, working as a large roof vent, keeping the barn well ventilated.  This will be important when we have a lot of animals inside, such as during lambing season, though this may require supplemental fans at some point.  Note also the tranlucent sheets spaced evenly across the roof to allow natural light into the barn and decrease the need for electric illumination.

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Something that we did not have in our previous barn was electric power.  We dealt with this in a variety of ways, using gas generators and bringing power by heavy extension cords from almost 200 yards away.  But this time we promised ourselves that we would have power installed, as you see below.

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Running conduit to the junction box

And although we will have the power company and local electrician install the major facets of the system in the barn, we are intending to have a very good friend and retired electrician (also a Deacon, ex-submarine commander, builder, and overall nice guy!) help us to plan the majority of lighting and electrical outlet placement within the structure.

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Electrical conduit ready for wiring

This inside view gives a nice impression of how well the roof and window lighting works.  There is lots of space now, but I imagine this will fill up rapidly!

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Lots of room…for now!

Here is a time-lapse of the installation of the cupola today!

Cupola installed!  As you can see, it gives a nice agrarian feel to the structure.  Zooming in, the second picture shows the weathervane adorned with a ewe and her lamb!

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And until our flock of sheep arrives, our adopted herd of deer (viewed indistinctly below from our front door) continue to enjoy the pastures, even under quite a few inches of snow.  In fact this model of ruminants grazing pastures in the snow will be a model to emulate as we attempt to continue to pasture sheep on the fields for as much of the winter as we can.

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Our first pastured herd!

And finally, I leave you with a distant view of the house at the top of our hill in the midst of our pastures, taken from an adjacent property on an even higher hill!  We thought that we had a good view of the adjacent Laurel Ridge and Ligonier Valley, but this view really “takes the cake”!

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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!