Spring’s look

It was a very harsh winter, complete with excruciating electric bills.

But all that has ended. The days are warm and bright—we leave the doors and windows open (though screened, to discourage spring’s sudden insects). Hurried trips across icy earth to a frozen car have slowed: I step onto the porch, pause, and breathe deep the sweet smell of spring.

And everywhere we look, well…

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Curing our own bacon!

Good news: We raised our own pigs, on open pasture, and butchered them. I did the butchering with the help of some good guys. Read about that here.

Potentially bad news: We packed the meat in freezer paper, and put it in our chest freezer in the basement. About 175 pounds. That was over a year ago. And there’s still a lot left.

So-far, good news: The meat, as we progressively unwrap it to cure our bacon, is showing little to no signs of freezer burn or other damage! Hooray!

So I’ve been curing our bacon.

I used a basic cure you can find online… molasses, salt, pink salt (yeah, we debated the nitrite thing for a while, but finally decided the “concerns” about it are not really very concerning, and the bacon could likely be ruined without it), Sucanat (brown sugar), pepper. Ya know…

Soaked it (for 7-10 days in a ziplock.)

Smoked it on our bar-b-que grill (not as easy to control heat/smoke as I’d like, but it’s working out)… using hardwood charcoal and MESQUITE!!! (YUM!)

Once it hit about 150 degrees internal temp…

Refrigerated it, then sliced it nice and thin.

VOILA!

Isn't it beautiful?!

Isn’t it beautiful?!

The flavor is unparalleled; and the knowledge of where it came from is complete, and satisfying. Bacon. Yum.

Cooking in the cast-iron.

Cooking in the cast-iron.

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It’s not mastitis, it’s butter!

I’ll break my month-long silence with a post about milk.

We have it in incredible abundance these days; and we’ve not even been giving Gerty any grain! She gets a little bit of lespedeza hay at milking time, and then she eats hay all day. We’re still getting more than a gallon a day (with two milkings per day); and at least a quart of that is cream.

Look at that cream line!

Look at that cream line!

She’s also very obviously enjoying the little clovers and early spring grasses springing up. I do fear, however, that we may soon have onion-flavored milk, once the wild onions pop up around the pasture. Oh well…

I became pretty paranoid about two months ago: I was afraid sweet Gerty might have mastitis. My telltale signs were:

-Tiny clumps in the straining towel when we strain the milk.

-Kicky-ness… she obviously had some tender teats!

I fretted — I read countless blogs and forums, I began revamping my pre-milking routine, and I began worrying that my cow could be ruined.

Well, I was wrong. I soon discovered each of those two symptoms had a very clear explanation. One was due to my ignorance; the other was due to my negligence.

-Tiny clumps:  They weren’t signs of infection: they were BUTTER!!! Gerty gives a very nice quantity of cream (even more when we were giving her some grain during that time). And I realized (through reading it on a forum, and doing a bit of reasoning in my own mind) that the milking process is essentially an agitation of the milk — as it squirts at a high speed out of the teat into the pail. And when the milk is very high in cream, that means the cream is receiving proportionately more agitation than milk that is low in cream. The agitation of cream makes butter. So a scary sign turned into a cause for rejoicing!

Ice cold milk, fresh from the cow!

Ice cold milk, fresh from the cow!

-Kicky-ness: Poor Gerty’s teats were terribly chapped. It was my own fault: we had recently weaned her calf, and I didn’t think about the fact that the calf’s saliva helps protect the teats from the cold, dry winter winds. Gradually, they began to dry out, and the process was exacerbated by my pre-milking ritual in which I washed her udder with warm, soapy water. You know, like how licking your lips on a cold, windy day makes them even more chapped. The only cure is some sort of lip balm (and to quit licking them!). Same for Gerty’s teats. I didn’t realize it was happening, but those teats had become very dry and very cracked and chapped.  :(   So I’ve changed my milking ritual. I now simply brush off her udder and belly, and squirt 3 or 4 squirts of the fore-milk onto the ground or into a strip cup (or into the open mouth of my nearby pup!). Then I milk. Then — sometimes — I use an iodine-based post-dip. I pour it into a tiny plastic cup, then dip each teat in the cup. I wait 30 seconds, wipe it off, and then apply Bag Balm. She healed up completely, within a week!

So things have continued along just swimmingly, and we have a pregnant, mastitis-free cow!

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Putting a two-year-old down for a nap (or, World War III every afternoon)

“Bubby, time to go down for a nap.”

“No, I wanna play.”

“You can play after your nap. Now, set your sucker down, you can finish it after your nap.”

[He sets the sticky sucker on the chest at the foot of the bed, and climbs in.]

“Okay, you stay here with mama and go to sleep.”

The phone rings. Everyone converges in the kitchen to answer it. Kate takes it, and I head back to my office. Saylor follows me.

“Dad, tomorrow, Nana’s coming to see me… and Pops is coming later.”

“I know bud. Hey, you wanna jump on the bed?” [BIG mistake]

“Yeah! But you move your stuff off it first.”

“Okay.”

He commences jumping. Moments later—it’s as if she can see through walls—Kate texts me, “Saylor is supposed to be in bed.”

Oops.

“Okay, bud, let’s go to bed.”

“I don’t want to take a nap.”

“I know, but can I explain to you why you need to take a nap?”

“Yeah”

I explain it to him. He doesn’t care.

“Now, do you want Mommy to get in bed with you, or do you want to get in bed by yourself?”

“By Momself.”

“By yourself?”

“No, Mommy.”

“You want Mommy to get in bed with you?”

“No, I want Mommy to get in bed.”

“Without Daddy?”

“Mommy get in bed, but not Daddy, and not Bubby.”

“No, buddy, you have to get in bed. Do you want Mommy to come with you?”

“No.”

I tuck him in bed.

“Now, if you need anything, call for Mommy, and she can help you. But don’t get up, or you’ll get a spanking.”

Minutes later…

“MOOOMMMM!”

I respond.

“What do you need, bud?”

“I need… potatoes.”

“No, you’re not getting potatoes. You can eat when you wake up from your nap. And you can have your sucker when you wake up too.”

“I want some juice.”

“Nope, no juice. Go to sleep.”

“I need some water.”

“Ok, I’ll bring you some water.”

I bring a cup of water, and lift his head to help him drink it.

“Ouch!”

“Sorry buddy, I’m trying to help you lift your head so you don’t spill it.”

He spills it. On his shirt, and on the bed.

“Ohhhh! It spilled! It’s on my shirt!”

“Ok, ok, here, let’s take your shirt off. I’ll dry you off.”

“It’s on the bed.”

“I know it is, it’s okay. I’ll hang your shirt to dry while you sleep. It’s okay.”

I move the pillows to cover the wet part of the sheet.

“Buddy, do you want another shirt?”

“No… I want another shirt.”

I get the shirt and help him put it on.

“I wanna sleep in my bed.”

“What?”

“I wanna sleep in my bed.”

“No you don’t. Okay, fine, but if I put you in there, you’re not getting out.”

He ponders.

“I wanna sleep here.”

I tuck his stuffed animals around him, and 20 minutes later I check on him. He’s snoring softly.

Easy peasy.

Image

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Pure Milk

Taken with my iPhone, so not the best quality, but still…

Ice cold milk, fresh from the cow!

Ice cold milk, fresh from the cow!

Not the best lighting for it, but you can see the cream line. This half-gallon jar of milk is 1/3 cream!

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Frigid milking frustration

The good part first.

Gerty is giving us a really nice yield of milk, and I think it might improve a bit more over the next week or so as she settles back into life at The Ozark House (and, of course, life without her calf). She’s bellowing less frequently, and we’re all grateful for that.

Yesterday, she gave us about half a gallon in the morning milking and 3/4ths in the evening milking. Also, we’re definitely seeing a cream volume increase. Maybe twice as much cream as we were getting before! I’ll do some measuring soon.

Milking has been a bit of a task since I got her back, however, as we were blasted with an Arctic storm. This morning, it was -6 degrees when I went out to milk.

As long as I bundle up, it’s actually not so bad. The most annoying thing is that my breath freezes on my mustache and beard, and my hat kinda gets in the way of leaning forward against the milking stall. The hands actually stay pretty warm, since they’re making contact with the ole’ udder.

However, this evening, I experienced some frustration.

I finished milking, and thought to myself, “I’m going to put a picture on the blog of the milk pail sitting in the snow!” So I nestled it in a patch of virgin snow, but had one more farm task to do before going inside for my camera. I had to give water to the ducks (they’re about 100 yards out in the pasture). Ozark loves to go with me, and protests loudly if I don’t let him. So I did, and I gave the ducks water while he glared at them intimidatingly. We’re a great team.

We trudged through the snow back to the house. Well, actually I trudged through the snow—Ozark bounded joyously across the blanketed pasture. I envy his ease and energy… and fur coat.

So as I closed the gate, I pointed my flashlight back up toward the house, and saw a horrible sight. My wonderful pup had his face buried in his own personal heaven: the milk pail.

pup

I hollered at him, and might have swung a leg at him (that’s a nice way of saying “kicked”). I was so furious. I calmed myself down enough to quickly put him in his pen and stomp indoors.

At first, I resolved not to tell Kate about it. I spent 30 minutes getting that wonderful milk, and I couldn’t bear the thought that it had been ruined (read my other blog post about another gallon of milk that was ruined).

But for better or worse, I can’t keep anything from my wife, and I told her as soon as I got upstairs. “But,” I said, “We’re keeping this milk! We’re drinking it. I don’t care if Ozark drank from it, we’re drinking it too!”

Kate is wise, and she let me believe that. She didn’t contradict me. She just quietly strained the milk into a container and put it in the fridge.

Within an hour, I had come to my senses and realized three things:

1) I do not want to drink after my dog. I love him. And I do kiss his nose sometimes. But I’m not drinking milk in which he has bathed his tongue.

2) We are already accumulating a lot of milk, really fast. At the rate of almost a gallon and a half per day, we’ll have no shortage of milk. Even after selling to friends.

3) Maybe my animals deserve a treat. As much as Ozark tortures me, I love him. He is a wonderful guard dog for our home and does honestly help me sometimes when I need to herd some ducks or chickens or a wayward calf. Maybe he deserves a little milk. And those poor chickens have tolerated sub-zero temperatures and are still giving us a few eggs! And poor Teacup (cat) spent last night underneath our firewood lean-to. I didn’t know she was there until this morning; I don’t know when she decided to go hide in there, but I’m sure she was freezing. So maybe they’ve all earned a little lactic treat.

So in the morning, while icicles form on my mustache, I’ll offer my wonderful farm animals a rare, sweet treat: Raw Milk. The FDA would be horrified.

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Milking twice a day, OR, I got my cow back, but I’m feeling kinda lazy

Gerty’s back. She’s been gone since the week of Thanksgiving, so it was a sweet reunion.

Our special cow

She was at the farm of some very generous friends who let her be courted by their bull — a very well-bred, pricey bull, at that!

They’re the folks that took Gerty a little over a year ago to let their bull (a different one at that time) breed her. From that union came Sassafras. And dear Sassy was given to our friends as payment for not only the bull-date (we really were only going for the milk anyways), but also for so many other ways they’ve helped us learn how to farm (and mistakes they’ve saved us from).

Does she have a pregnant look in her eye? Time will tell...

Does she have a pregnant look in her eye?
Time will tell…

That said, Gerty is bellowing in the pasture now. I think she misses Sassy. Which brings me to my next point: milking.

Formerly, I had been milking Gerty in the morning only — Sassy would suckle throughout the day, and we’d separate them at night.

Now, I have to pick up Sassy’s slack.

As I understand traditional milking, it is done in 12-hour increments. So twice a day. And the reason, I suspect, milking is traditionally associated with the early morning is that the farmer wanted to be done with the evening milking before dinner… or before he went out to hit the local hot-spots for the rural night-life. So: 4:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

No way. That’s not happening.

Now, I’ve recently learned from some friends who have several milk cows that a cow can be milked only once per day, and that will not harm her. Milk production will be less, but she’ll be fine. Our friends even said the cow doesn’t have to be milked at PRECISELY the same time every day. Now, obviously all these changes will result in lost production. But if a cow is giving 2 gallons a day at peak production, and with lost production, there’s only 3/4ths of a gallon… well, that’s not too terrible for a small family!

But I’m considering a twice-a-day milking schedule, at least for a while. And I’m thinking about doing it at 5:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.

PROS: More milk. The classic milking experience. Umm…. that might be all. I guess I’ve heard that a cow can get mastitis from having milk back up too much (as in, a once-a-day milking schedule), but I’ve also heard other things that contract that.

CONS: 5:30 a.m.

On a final note, our milking friends told us that once their cows wean the calves, cream production skyrockets. We were very happy to hear that… very happy indeed. More butter… sour cream… ice cream…

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Duck disappearance, Pt. 2 – Determination

Back to the duck story.

It turns out seven of our 12 ducks were most assuredly murdered. I found the evidence.

Blood and feathers. Not a good sign, but a definitive one.

Blood and feathers. Not a good sign, but a definitive one.

Needless to say, after two bloody nights, I was in a fowl mood, and I was faced with a decision: would I simply let my farm fall prey to villainous predators, or would I fight back?

My spirit roused, I resolved to lock up my remaining ducks—there were four hens and one drake, a viable combination to grow my flock next spring.

So after lunch, I spent the entirety of a Sunday afternoon finishing my duck enclosure. Dad and I had started it months ago, and I’d left it unfinished, because… well, honestly, the urgency wasn’t there until my ducks started being eaten.

The duck pen is in the pasture, near the pond. It’s a bit rough, but it seems to be predator-proof.

across the pond

Happy-ish... I mean, they'd probably be happier if they were swimming. But that's not an option right now. They'd be much less happy if they were being slaughtered by a raccoon or opossum or coyote. So this is a good compromise.

Happy-ish… I mean, they’d probably be happier if they were swimming. But that’s not an option right now. They’d be much less happy if they were being slaughtered by a raccoon or opossum or coyote. So this is a good compromise.

It still needs a gate latch, and a little patching of a few gaps, but overall, I’m fairly proud of it.

Annnd…

One of my ladies began laying eggs just a few days after I locked them up! Now I don’t know—it could be that several of them are laying. But either way, we get a single duck egg every day.

That's a duck egg at the top, and a chicken egg at the bottom.

That’s a duck egg at the top, and a chicken egg at the bottom.

The only problem is that their pen isn’t really protected from the cold, and so when it’s very cold outside, the egg freezes and cracks. Also, these Khaki Campbell ducks place skittishness above every other quality, including motherhood. So they flee for their lives anytime I come near (or inside) the pen, which means they inevitably step on and kick the poor egg lying cold and alone on the floor of the pen.

But we have been eating, and enjoying, our duck eggs. In the eating, there’s no discernible difference from our chicken eggs (of which we’re now getting one or two per day). But there’s a deep satisfaction in knowing I have been victorious over my carnivorous foes. And the taste of that victory is rich and sweet.

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An Intermission: Ozark Ice Storm

Before I conclude the story of our Mysterious Duck Disappearance, I thought I’d share some of the wintry beauty to which we have been subjected today.

Dogwood Ice

Who says dogwoods are only pretty in the spring?

Who says dogwoods are only pretty in the spring?

Frozen fescue Frozen Fescue 2

Winter makes dead grass elegant.

Winter makes dead grass elegant.

Our majestic pines stand defiant against the weight of winter ice.

Our majestic pines stand defiant against the weight of winter ice.

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Duck disappearance and patience, Pt. 1

I went out to feed our 12 ducks the other morning, and there were only 7.

There are only two possibilities: they either got eaten, or they decided to fly south during the nastiest weather we’ve seen yet this season. I didn’t see any blood; but we had rain and snow the previous night, so I figured if there was any, it was gone.

Now, these are true free-range ducks. They do what they want, and that includes refusing to go into a little house for shelter at night. For a while, they went in there voluntarily. But they’re very skittish—a trait attributable to the breed (Khaki Campbell), I understand—so if they saw me approaching the shelter to close the door, they would run out. So I had to do it after dark, and had to turn out my flashlight as I approached. Only the light of the moon would guide my hurried steps as I rushed the door before any could slip out.

It was super stupid.

I was in the process of working on a better shelter, nearer the pond, when they just quit going in the shelter altogether. And I got pretty busy and couldn’t finish it.

So now they just do what they want, which typically means nestling down in a relatively exposed place at night. Suicidal instincts.

Also, these are the most annoying ducks you can imagine. We originally purchased them for eggs—Khaki Campbells are reputed to lay up to 300 eggs per year—but we only discovered later how loud and skittish this breed is. They’ve gotten a little better lately, but for a while, I couldn’t get within 15 yards of them. And in the morning, they do this terribly loud “QUAAAAACK, Quack Quack Quack Quack Quack Quack.” Once I feed them, they mostly quit. But I think the neighbors hate me. And I think the ducks are laughing at me.

Is he laughing?

Is he laughing?

We did butcher 3 of the male ducks, as they seemed unlikely to ever lay eggs. I was going to butcher 4, but one of them got away from me on butchering day.

I don’t know if there’s a point to this story, but if there is, it might be that I’m growing tired of tasting the fruit of my haphazard farming style. We love raising food, and we want to work towards making our farm more streamlined and sustainable. But my lack of preparedness in certain things has just caused needless frustration.

We’re moving closer to buying the farm, and I have lots of dreams about ways to grow and develop this place. The Creator just seems determined to teach us patience, and I seem predisposed to be slow at learning it. As day after day slips by in which my life does not yet look exactly as I have idealized it, I am seeing that only when I cherish the process of growth and give thanks for the less-than-ideal days am I reminded of all the Goodness. My son; my wife and the baby growing inside her; this beautiful place; a freezer full of food and a cow giving milk; our generous, loving family; devoted, good friends. I may be a lousy farmer, but I am undoubtedly a blessed one.

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