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Fall Forward

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Fall Forward

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The last two weeks have given us only one day of clear skies and many days where the air was considered too hazardous to breath for any extended period of time. Our self imposed deadline of the baby arriving and the one created by nature are still looming with several projects left so smoke or no smoke things must still move forward. That means some days getting work done with a mask and most of the time doing work in fits and starts. It also means constantly revising our to do list to prioritize what can't wait and what can be put off till spring.  The first thing to get taken off the list was a wood burning stove. We live in a large barn that was converted into a house and it doesn't have the most efficient heating system so we wanted to add a wood burning stove to keep our energy bills a little lower for the winter. Luckily we weren't counting on it for heat this winter so we will still have a nice cozy house to spend time cooking, reading, researching, and planning for our first full year of farming in.

One project we did accomplish was getting water and electricity to the pastures closest to the house. This involved hiring an excavator to dig a long ditch three feet deep (keeping below the frost line) from the yard near our house all the way out to the sheep shelters, running pipe for the water and electrical conduit inside the ditch, installing a frost proof hydrant, and an electrical outlet. What we thought would be a two day project turned into more than a week long project. There was one day a pipe burst because of a bad part we were sold, then there was a lot more time spent putting the fill dirt back into the ditch since we were using our tractor and not an excavator to get the job done. It was at the top of our list of things to get done because it means we will no longer have to haul 5 gallon buckets of water out to the pastures everyday and there will be an outlet to hook up a stock tank heater to keep the animal's water from freezing this winter.

My favorite part of getting ready for winter is putting up food. It's exhausting when your 8 months pregnant but when I look at all of our jars of tomato sauce, applesauce, apple butter, sauerkraut, frozen blueberries and pitted cherries and think of all the great meals we will make during the winter months it makes all the late nights worth it. We are still  hoping and planning for some more cabbage and beets from our CSA so we can make some fermented kraut-chi (from Sandor Katz's "The Art of Fermentation"), there is also quite a few apples left in the fridge from an apple truck that turned over down the road from us so more applesauce and apple butter, and if we are lucky enough to get any pumpkins from our very late planting, some pumpkin butter and pumpkin pie. We aren't putting up enough food to get us through the winter but its a small step to becoming a more sustainable farm. We are putting up enough hay to get the sheep through the winter because we don't want to be paying an exorbitant price per bale come January. Matt has loaded into his truck and then unloaded into the shelters three tons of hay and one ton of straw. We are thinking about getting a fourth ton of hay just to be on the safe side and looking into large quantities of grain to make feed for the chickens this winter. Every time we take something off the list we seem to come up with a new sometimes smaller project to add on.

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Why Grass-fed?

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Why Grass-fed?

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As a family we came to appreciate the health benefits (and taste) of eating grass-fed or pasture raised meat, eggs, and dairy products but now that we are trying to produce these foods ourselves we are learning and seeing even more reasons of why animals foraging for their food on grass makes more sense than grain-fed animals. If you are unfamiliar with the health benefits of eating pasture raised eggs, meat, and dairy there is a lot of great information out there but the most concise piece I found is from Eat Wild. There are many compelling health benefits like the meat having lower and healthier fat content and there being no need for antibiotics because the animals are not crammed into feed-lots but the most significant one to me is the higher levels of Omega-3s.  Having worked in a natural food store for years I saw a dramatic increase in people being told by their doctors to take a fish oil supplements to make up for a poor diet lacking in essential fatty acids or therapeutic doses for people suffering from things like cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure. With the population growing so quickly its hard to imagine that everyone taking fish oil supplements to make up for this deficiency will be sustainable long term. Not to mention all the processing they have to do to the fish oil to take the heavy metals out. Eating grass-fed food would probably not be considered a therapeutic dose of essential fatty acids for people suffering from chronic diseases but if everyone was eating more grass-fed foods to begin with maybe we would see fewer of these diseases in the future? This is just speculation, I have no credentials to back this up but after years of reading about nutrition, talking to nutritionists, and people seeking a healthier lifestyle it all seems to lead to people going back to more traditional ways of growing and preserving foods. More grass-fed, less processed, more fermented, and less pasteurized foods leading the way to better health.

I have used the term "intensive rotational grazing" several times on the blog and realized I never really explained what it is or why it's important. Being grass-fed is important for us but the way we do it through land management is as important for the health of the animals and the health of the soil. With a "intensive rotational grazing" system your are moving you're animals to new grass more often, rotating what types of animals you have on that grass, and putting a limit to how many animals you have on any given piece of land. It's more labor intensive than traditional farming practices but you see the benefits in the health of the animals and the soil. The healthier the soil, the healthier the grass will be, the healthier the animals are, the healthier your food will be. Eggs are a perfect example. When we moved our city chickens to the country we started rotating them to new grass every week and we saw a huge improvement in the color, taste, and quality of their eggs. Even some local pasture raised eggs we bought didn't come close to the deep color and quality we started getting in our eggs after starting our rotational system. Here is a photo of two store bought egg's, the first one on the top left is a conventional egg, the one on the top right is a cage-free grain-fed with omega-3 supplementation egg, and then there is our grass-fed rotational grazing egg on the bottom.

So we have seen first hand the difference grass-fed rotational farming has on our eggs and all the lush green grass that grows once we rotate animals onto it but we keep learning even more. One of the best benefits of what some call "holistic grazing" is that it puts carbon back into the soil increasing the soils health and building topsoil. The argument that grass-fed farming could save the planet is made more persuasively at Small Footprint Family but I will leave you with one quote from the article because the claim is so amazing its hard to believe- "Converting just half the U.S. corn and soy acreage back to pasture(for holistic grazing) might cut carbon emissions by as much as 144 trillion pounds—and that’s not even counting the reduced use of fossil fuels for vehicles, machinery, fertilizers and pesticides that would also result." It's astonishing that such a simple idea like letting animals forage on the foods that they were meant to eat and live a more humane lifestyle could result in reversing the damage we have done to the planet. The more we read and learn through experience we are convinced that the path we are on is best for the health of our family, our farm, and the environment.

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Barefoot and pregnant on the farm

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Barefoot and pregnant on the farm

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The 8 week countdown begins. 8 weeks until the baby arrives give or take a week or two and about the same for the first frost.  The first time I was pregnant I had lists of all the things I wanted to do to get the house ready for the baby and lists of the many pieces of must have baby gear that all the books insisted we would need. This time around I am not sure if its because I'm more experienced at having babies or because I am so preoccupied with the farm but we have no lists. We do have about three lists of projects that need to be done on the farm. The possible future projects, the near future projects, and the must get done before it gets cold and the baby turns our world upside down list. We are making some incredible progress for only having been here a couple of months but with each passing week I get slower and need more rest which means the whole farm slows down. We have two different weekends of friends coming out to work on projects and an auger that the boys preschool teacher lent us so I have a good feeling we will get our list done before we bring home the baby and the ground begins to freeze.

Matt has made some progress on fencing, finishing off a second paddock in the pasture closest to the house and also finishing fencing and a gate in the front yard so we can move the sheep to the many acres of green grass near the house, provided we also use a portable electric fence to keep the sheep out of trouble (ie: eating what little we have growing in the garden). We finished a grant proposal for installing a more modern irrigaition system for the whole farm. Right now we have flood irrigation which was a good system when our smaller piece of land was apart of a larger farm and it really did flood the ground with all the water that was needed. Now with all the acreage split up into smaller parcels there doesn't seem to be enough water volume to irrigate the land the way it once did. This funding from two different sources would cover a significant amount of the materials needed and a small part of the labor costs but we would still be putting a large portion of our own money and labor towards the project. The best part of this project is it would allow us to use land that is now sitting empty, expand the variety and number of animals we have on the farm, and we could begin to truly practice the intensive rotational grazing that we are interested in. It might even allow us to grow our own hay someday on one of the small pieces of flat land we have in the back pastures.

We also put together a design and order for a hoop house that is on our must be done before the ground freezes list.  This will allow us to have a good space to winter the chickens in, it will provide some much needed fertilizer for our garden, and be a good place to begin vegetable starts in the spring.  This is one of the more exciting projects on the list, most of the other projects are about building winter shelters for farm equipment and straw. That and bringing in and moving another ton of hay into the shelters to feed the sheep this winter.

It's a daunting list but one that will be well worth it once spring arrives and we'll be ready to really start farming full time. It feels crazy to be doing all of this when we are about to have a newborn but it also feels like it's just the way it was meant to be. I was born during a time that my mother moved back to her parents farm in Missouri and spent the first part of my life and then every summer after that at on their farm until they sold it almost a decade later. Spending so much time on my grandparents farm and having such beautiful memories of my childhood have really informed who I am today.  A huge part of those memories are of my incredibly strong, fierce, loving, hardworking, and capable grandmother. She raised not only her own children on that farm but a had a huge part in raising several of her grandchildren on that farm.  She is who I think about when I start freaking out wondering if I will be able to handle all of the responsibilities and challenges that we have taken on. She was an anchor for me growing up and continues to be to this day, many years after she passed away. Here she is on her farm and her beautiful smile.

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The New Normal

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The New Normal

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( Photo by Mike Hipple)

After months of packing, getting settled into our new home and starting a dozen farming projects all at once we were excited to take a break and throw a farm bbq and camp out.  It was partly a birthday celebration for our son Harlow and his buddie Cam whose birthdays are a day apart , a 4oth birthday celebration for Farmer Matt, and a way to share all or our hard work with friends. A farmwarming. There was a maze cut into our cover crop of wild oats and alfalfa for the kids to run around in, lawn mower rides, water fun to keep everyone cool,  and of course lots of delicious food brought by our friends and grass-fed beef hamburgers from Heirloom Cattle Company. It was a happy accident that we planned the party on the same night of the Perseid meteor showers.  So the evening was spent sitting around a beautiful fire pit our neighbor Cletus made watching shooting stars while the wee ones slept in their tents.

(Photo by Mike Hipple)

(Photo by Mike Hipple)

(Photo by Mike Hipple)

(Photo by Mike Hipple)

Everyone enjoyed a huge breakfast spread the next morning while the kids played in the maze for the last time and then started to pack up and say their goodbyes.  The family and I spent the rest of the day catching up on sleep and giddy at how much fun we all had and how well our first big event on the farm went. Less than 24 hours later a dark column of smoke appeared across the valley in Cle Elum.  For a moment we were just in awe of its beauty and how fast it was taking over the sky.  The colors were constantly changing and it covered the sun in a way that made it look so small with barely any power to illuminate the sky anymore.  The smoke moved quickly and soon we saw flames on the horizon near the wind farms on Hwy 97.  It was time to start planning but for what we weren't sure. The areas that were being evacuated were so far away from us and the fire still looked far away. Eventually we did evacuate when the smoke got too thick.  We packed some travel bags, boxes of family photographs, and anything we couldn't live without and left for a hotel in town. It was our dog Lulu's first night sleeping indoors and she seemed upset about being away from her sheep.  Matthew and I spent the night listening to the scanners hoping the fire would not spread to our road.

Early the next morning Matt went to see if they would let him back on the farm so he could check on the animals and feed them. It feels weird to say we were lucky, the word doesn't feel quite strong enough, but after listening to other peoples homes being consumed by the fire all night its the first word that came to mind when we found out all of our animals were alive, the house, and even the pastures were untouched by the fire.  All around the valley in almost every direction there are houses and pastures that were devastated by the fire. No homes on our small stretch of road had any damage and most of the fires that were in our area are now contained or at least smoldering. The fire is still a powerful force in the Cle Elum and Liberty areas and they have fire fighters from all over the state working around the clock to put it out.

A couple of days after the fire started there was another large flare up in the Cle Elum area and more evacuations.

During this whole ordeal we had neighbors checking in on us offering help and advice, the boys new preschool teacher came down our road with her horse trailer looking for us to see if we needed help loading the sheep, and even one of the local land management authorities who we have been working with called to see if we needed any assistance. So in addition to feeling incredibly lucky, blessed, fortunate, or whatever combination of those words could possibly come close to describing how it feels to not have lost everything, we also have a new sense of community. Our friends in Seattle didn't forget about us either, we had dozens of phone calls and messages offering help, moral support, and also help in finding some of the best online resources for the progress of the fire. So we would like to give a huge THANK YOU to everyone that helped out in all different ways, near and far.

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School of Rocks

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School of Rocks

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We knew it was going to be challenging to start a farm from the ground up while raising two, soon to be three, small children at the same time but it is more challenging then we could have ever imagined. In exchange for 14 hour days full of household chores, animal chores, and larger projects like fencing and irrigation we get the luxury of time. When we lived in the city we juggled two different work schedules and tried to work opposite schedules so we could afford childcare.  We didn't have many days off together and we definitely didn't share all of our meals as a family. We haven't gotten to the point where we can get much done as a group on the farm but we have found a couple of things that work.  Out of necessity we decided to move the chicken tractors together.  We had been grazing the chickens on the grass in the front yard but once the sheep had cleared out some taller grass in the paddocks we just fenced we decided to move the chickens out there and move the sheep onto new pasture. This involved using the tractor because moving the chicken tractors by hand more than several yards is a back breaking experience. So with one child on Matthew's lap while he drove the tractor and one child with me keeping the chickens moving forward we slowly made our way at .7 miles per hour. Then we hit a bump in the road. We were almost to our destination when we hit a large rocky area that was  impossible to get the chicken tractor over. We got out our digging bar and small shovels and got to work. Who knew that two little boys would think digging rocks out of the dirt was just about the best thing they could be doing? They would have done it all day if it didn't start to get hot but there is plenty of more rocks to move and we even have a need for them because there is a long section fence that doesn't meet the ground where the land slopes so they also helped me move the small ones and alternate them on either side of the fence to keep our animals in and the coyotes out.

With one chicken tractor move under our belts we decided to try it again but this time we were moving the chicks. I would like to say it went smoother but the chicks were much more challenging.  They seemed determined to get squashed underneath the tractor. Harlow, our 4 year old, was a huge help moving a box of turkey pullets along and keeping them from tipping over while I used a broom to keep the the chicks moving along and we managed to keep them all alive and unharmed.  We have a long way to go before we can actually spend a significant amount of time doing work together but we're slowly getting there at about .7 mile per hour.

At the end of the day when all the animals and boys have been put to bed we collapse in our chairs outside to enjoy the cool air and lately we have been watching as thunderstorms move across the valley. The last one was so tall (35,000 feet) that they could see it on the other side of the Cascade Mountains in Seattle. Here is one of our pictures of that storm.

Cliff Mass has some great photos and things to say about the mammatus clouds on his blog.

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We're in love with a girl

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We're in love with a girl

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and her name is Lulu

We had been searching for a Llama to guard the sheep for weeks but all of the leads were dead ends.  Then we started contemplating the idea of a puppy but with a baby on the way we were worried it would be too much to handle. Everything we read about the Great Pyrenees breed seemed to fit exactly what we needed. They are an older breed that has been used for hundreds of years by shepherds, and also good with children and a family dynamic.  We found a breeder in Spokane that had three female puppies that had grown up in a barn with sheep and chickens. So we made the leap of faith that this would be a better decision in the long run and we haven't regretted it for a moment.  Her first day on the farm was full of trepidation, mostly on the Sheeps part, but soon she was a part of the gang.

A week has gone by and there were definitely moments we were worried that she was going to bond with us more than the sheep, but she now spends most of her days and all of her nights with the sheep, happily even. She is far from full grown and we are not sure how she would hold her own with a coyote so everyone is still locked up at night.  We are hoping in the future we will be able to leave her and the sheep to roam their paddocks and not need the gates and electric fencing to keep them safe at night. This means we will be able to use the pastures farther away from the house, but it also means we have more fencing and irrigation projects to start.  More to add to the to do list but its exciting to be able to utilize more of the land and see our plans become reality.

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Animal Farm

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Animal Farm

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This week has been full of thunderstorms, double rainbows, and getting to know our 13 Icelandic Sheep.  They were a little worked up after making the long trip from Whidbey Island in a little trailer Matt had made for them. We were also a little nervous not having found a Llama to guard them so we made one of the horse shelters as secure as we could and breathed a sigh of relief when we woke up in the morning to find them all there and ready for us to let them out on the grass. They are warming up to us a little bit but still a little camera shy.

The chicks and turkey pullets have doubled in size since we got them just a little less than a month ago. Between them growing out of their watering trough and having lost one turkey during the triple digit weather we hoped they would fair better outside in their chicken tractor with some added protection from tarps.  They seem to be enjoying their extra freedom and rolling around in the grass. They are also learning how to use a water feeder with nipples, which we had to switch the older chickens to also because so much of the water was getting tossed out when we have a windy day in the valley.

We have also adopted a young rooster from one of the Seattle Urban Farm Co-op members and although he has grown much larger than our hens they still spend most of the day bossing him around. He is a dapper young man with some of the most beautiful plumage I have ever seen. He's been slowly working on his rooster crow and what once sounded like a dying seal now sounds like the real thing. His first call of the day is usually around 4:30 am.

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Don't fence me in

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Don't fence me in

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The sheep are coming in less than a week and Matthew has been working long hours making our fencing more secure for the sheep and putting in new fence posts and gates. The fencing will be an added security measure to keep the sheep in their pastures along with the temporary fencing we will use to practice more intensive rotational grazing. It is also a way to keep the wee ones out of the two ponds. Luckily there have been some calm, not too hot days to make the long days easier and of course some little helping hands.

It all started with the first new fence post that the gate secures to alongside some impromptu sculpture that the little hands made when they were tired of helping.

Then came the all important H-brace, three wooden posts and wire, that create an anchor for the rest of the fencing and also attach to the gate.

Once the H-brace was finished and he secured the pasture fencing to it, he attached the end of the fencing to a bracket he made that was hooked on to the tractor's bucket and pulled it tight against the old fence posts. Then all that was left was to secure the new fencing to the old posts. So simple, right?  I'm glad my job was just to explain it to people.

The week would not be complete without some pictures of the napping Chicks and Poulets. I love it when they sleep in a heap, when they sleep in pairs, but especially when they fall asleep in their feeder(which we didn't get a picture of but trust me it's adorable).

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Blank Slate

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Blank Slate

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We are starting out as farmers with only a small amount of experience and working with a large piece of land that has almost no infrastructure and very few trees. Working with this blank slate, both the land and ourselves, is one of the most exciting parts of this new venture but also the most frustrating. We don't have a rhythm to our day with set farm chores or an exact idea of what we will produce or how we will sell it to people.  What we do have is an enormous amount of ideas, future plans lists and current projects lists, and his and her stacks of farming books to read. I will let you guess which one is mine and which one is his.

Here is a short list of plans we have for the farm-

  Current                                                                                                Future

Reinforce fencing for Sheep                                            Build Sauna

Three new gates to separate paddocks                           Build High Tunnel for Garden

Finish second Chicken tractor                                        Winter Chickens in Tunnel

Start Turkey tractor                                                          Build Barn

Plant late summer veggies                                                Find a breed of Pigs

Amend soil for healthy spring garden                              Build Pigs a Home

When I make lists one of my favorite parts is crossing off the things I've done so I will share with you a couple of the things we have accomplished. We had a work party with friends and planted 75 saplings, Built a Pond and Culvert so we could drive a tractor to the back pastures and for future irrigation plans, and tilled our first garden and planted alfalfa and wild oats in it to enrich the soil.

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Chicklets and Poulets

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Chicklets and Poulets

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We received a call at 5 am this morning that our chicks and turkey poulets had arrived at the post office.  We knew they would be arriving in a small box and that they will have been without water or food for 24 hours so before anyone had coffee or breakfast we rushed down to our local USPS where our friendly postal woman Diana was keeping them safe on a table with boxes full of other peoples chicks. This is our fourth brood of chickens but it still feels like Christmas morning anticipating their arrival and getting to hold our fuzzy little feathered friends for the first time. The kids got to help me free them from their tiny box and put them in their new home, which is an old watering trough for the horses that used to live here. Our farm family now includes 25 Bard Rock Hens, 5 Roosters, and 8 Bronze Turkeys.

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City Chicken, Country Chicken

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City Chicken, Country Chicken

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As we move ahead getting our family settled at the farm we also have 1 dog, 2 beehives, 10 hens, and one adopted Rooster to  trek over the mountain pass and find new homes for. The beehives have been nestled into a corner of an old horse corral. The dog has found at least a dozen new napping places, but the chickens need a whole new home. Their old city home was a part of a garden shed that could not be moved and wouldn't be practical for the rotational grazing we are interested in practicing on the farm.

We need a new kind of home for them in the country, one that's more mobile and easily moved to greener pastures every week or so. Something inexpensive that we can easily replicate because we are also going to have a new brood of chickens and turkeys coming at the end of the month. We need a Chicken Tractor. We originally saw some at a slide show and lecture that Joel Salatin gave at the Mother Earth News Fair. We liked the concept but we wanted something with a little more space for the chickens to roam around in and perches for them to roost. There are a lot of Chicken Tractor designs out there but most of them are too complicated and expensive and we eventually will need to build a half a dozen or more. We finally found one on Rainy Creek Pottery and Poultry Farm's website. They used inexpensive livestock panels to create a hoop and wood to create a lightweight sleigh like base and door frame. We had some salvaged wood to make the nesting boxes and perches, then all that was left was to put their feeder and water in there.

Now our City Chickens are officially Country Chickens

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Icelandic Sheep

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Icelandic Sheep

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We recently took a trip to Alderwood Ranch on Whidbey Island, run by Katie and Randy, to meet their flock of Icelandic Sheep and see if its the breed for us. We have been researching the Icelandic sheep for awhile because it is one of the oldest breeds of Sheep and has many traits that we are interested in. Its a hardy breed that can withstand colder weather which we were worried about with our lack of windbreak or buildings on the farm right now. They are good mothers, also known for prolificacy, typically having twins and triplets. The main reason we are interested in them is that they are tri-purpose which means that you can get milk, meat, and fiber from them. We don't have much infrastructure on the farm yet, besides a couple of horse shelters, so we won't milk them right away but that is an adventure we can save for the future. I don't know how long we will be able to resist having fresh milk to make our own butter and cheese with. The first ones to greet us upon our arrival were Toto and Piglet, the Wether Rams (castrated males), they are used as another form of protection on the property besides the two Llamas and the Icelandic Sheep dogs that the Alderwood Ranch breeds. Randy said they sometimes put the Wethers in with the isolated Rams to keep them in check and calm them down a bit. They loved hanging out near us while we chatted about our plans but most of the Sheep kept their distance with their lambs in tow.

We learned a lot about the breed and ended up rethinking our whole plan on how to fence the farm. Which we better get started on pronto because we have 8 Icelandic Ewes coming to the farm in less than a month! The plan is to bring in a Ram this fall, so hopefully by spring we could have a dozen or more little lambs frolicking around the farm.

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