Friday, March 29, 2013

Red Wing Blackbirds

I heard them for the first time yesterday morning as I was hanging out the laundry. In Shelburne, they filled the field in the early morning, in the early spring, with their call. I loved to be struggling through knee deep snow and listen to them declaring their intentions to raise young in what looked like a forbidding environment.

There are not so many making their declarations in the damp area below our property, but I savor their call, announcing the coming spring.

No robins, yet, and no "cheeseburger" calls from the chickadees.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Chickens and Berries

I've been considering options for protecting our berries from the chickens. I feel like I've made one mistake after another with the berries and I'm reluctant to keep on messing up.

Here are the good things about the current berry plot:
1. All the berries are there with the exception of the raspberries and blackberries.
2. It's close to a place wild blueberries are already growing.
3. Compost was delivered there two years ago, so the soil is better there than some other places.
4. It's at the top of the driveway, so if it looked pretty, that would be a good feature.

Here are the problems:
1. It's difficult to get water to this place.
2. The chickens would have to be fenced out, and I do not want a fence at the top of the drive.
3. The berries do not get as much attention as they deserve.

One thought I've had is to leave the blueberries here, as they will grow tall enough that the chickens won't eat ALL of them. If we did ever want to let other people pick blueberries, this spot is easy to get to, and I do not have to worry about other plants getting trampled.

I would then move the other berries to the periphery of the other gardens. This would be easy enough, I suppose, with the currants and gooseberries. They are not exactly "lovely" plants, but they are a delight to see. The gooseberries need a fair bit of room, and I think the currants would also like that. Also, I only moved all of them last year. I guess I'll partly be experimenting with how often these plants can be moved and survive.

By the house garden, I already am coping with blackberries. I would rather not add much to that difficulty. When I think of the big garden, it seems so bare out in the middle of that field. I'm thinking some gooseberries and currants along one side might look nice and maybe provide a bit of a wind break. I have already resigned myself to fencing that garden to protect it from the chickens, and to more easily allow the cow to graze near it. I could probably devote at least one thirty foot bed to strawberries, and I could move them between the beds every couple of years.

That still leaves the raspberries. I have thought of a couple of places I might like them to be, but none are places I'm willing to put fence. I wonder if I could plant enough that the chickens could have some and still leave some for us- rather like my plan for the blueberries. Maybe, once the other berries are moved, I could but the black raspberries in with the blueberries. And maybe, I could make another row or two of red raspberries along the drive close to the steps. Raspberry canes are not exactly beautiful to look at, but any well-tended garden space has some appeal, and then it would be yet another area I would not need to mow.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Weird Eggs- series post

Eggs really don't all look the way they do when you buy them at the grocery store. I enjoy the variety, so I'm going to start posting pictures. Feel free to add yours!

A dollop of shell on top.

A long skinny egg

Monday, March 25, 2013

Cows and fencing

There was a cyclone fence around our backyard when I was little. I do not remember my parents doing anything to maintain it besides an occasional assault on the honeysuckle. Our dogs sometimes got out through a gate that did not shut well, but we just quit using that gate. Our house in Fort Worth also had a cyclone fence, but it needed all the hackberry cut out and had many gaps due to the pushing of the trees in it. We never quite figured out how to tackle the problems that fence had.

Now, fence has come to mean something much different, although maintaining the same purpose. We put up all the fence ourselves, and we tried to put it where we want it. It is easily moved and restructured. It's set at a height that easily allows clearing around it. And it almost always keeps the cows where we want them. That almost is the important part.

Calves, it turns out, are particularly tricky to fence, especially when you're used to keeping a docile milk cow. Even that docile cow occasionally takes a notion to jump the top strand of fence wire. So far, we have not had to wander off our property to find a cow or calf, but I'm attributing that to luck. We have talked about putting tall woven wire around the perimeter, but it's expensive and time consuming to install. We will do it, but in stages, and starting only in the places we feel certain we want the fenceline to remain. Each year, we've tweaked the fenceline, realizing that the back pasture has quite good grazing closer to the house, or that we want space in the front field for a really big garden space. We want the cow to graze in the orchard, but we don't want fence there all the time. And so on...

We also have a wooden paddock by the cow shed as a more permanent fence and one that does not rely on electricity. This is because electric fence does not carry much of a jolt in winter what with snow and frozen ground and all.

However, when we knew we were building a new cow shed and that we would have to address the fencing around that AND we were confronted with all the bedding in the old cow shed, we took down part of the paddock to make moving the tractor around easier. (The tractor will now be considered in all fence placement.)  Here we are in March with new calves who can simply walk through wire- and we've seen calves do it even when the wire has a powerful punch- and no real paddock to confine them. Also, the opening we made in the paddock for the tractor is so wide that no fence solution we know of will work. Perhaps now is a good time to point out that sinking fence posts in March is, shall we say, challenging.

What are we poor planners to do?

First you get more cattle panels. I'm sorry there is no picture of the panels strapped over the top of the CRV. Suffice it to say that these panels are very flexible and reached from the front bumper all the way down the back glass. We drove the half hour home quite carefully, peering through the grids of the panels.

Next, some bungee cords and ratchet straps come in handy. We also found an alternative use for some wrapped bales of hay.

It's true that the cow is already tearing at the plastic where she can reach it. And it's true that the bungee cords probably will not hold Violet in when she wants the grass that will be growing a couple of weeks before she's allowed to graze. But we'll deal with these problems as they arise. The hay that's messed up by the torn plastic can be used as bedding or mulch. We'll run a hot wire inside the paddock once a little electricity will do some good. For now, I'll just enjoy our funny innovations.

And I'll be comforted that everyone is contained, at least for now.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Math Curriculum

If you're a homeschooler, and your first two children LOVE probability, and your third child delights in the relations between the multiples of 2, 4, and 8, then you may pat yourself on the back, I think, for choosing a good curriculum.

The one we use, just in case you're interested, is available for free online.


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Late Winter and the Chicken Coop

I sometimes feel frustrated when trying to vet an idea online in that an idea that seems good two days or even a month in might be a total bomb a year later. This post is to help anyone thinking about a permanent chicken coop.

First, in Vermont, chickens are pretty limited in outside time in winter. If they land in deep snow, they just sit there and freeze. Extra ranging space must either be sheltered or at least shoveled. If you have been following the blog, then you know our new cow shed is incomplete and the chickens, Violet, and the twins are sharing the shed that was supposed to be for the chickens only this winter.

There were a few days in January that were so bitter that we made sure Violet could get into the shed/barn all day. That means the chickens were confined to their smaller coop area, because otherwise Violet would get into their coop and eat all their food. Bad for the chickens, bad for Violet.

Now Violet and the calves are confined to the shed. The chickens actually began eating the calves' soft baby hooves the first day, so they were once again relegated to their small coop. This coop was never intended to be the only space for the thirty chickens, and it got smelly after very little time. Even really the cold nights last week did not freeze all the water in there, and the wet is where the main odor is. We've put down hay to trap what we can, but it's not ideal.

We did manage to open their outside door, which had been frozen shut and completely impracticable. With the spring thaw, there was enough clear ground that they could happily range outside. Today and tomorrow, we're supposed to get in the neighborhood of 12" of snow. Again, because the March sun is stronger, this snow will not stick around too long- most likely. But spring in Vermont can be a fickle thing; we could have another foot of snow now and again for at least a couple of weeks.

I still think the permanent coop is easier on the chickens. They are easier to train; it took only a day or so before they learned that we do NOT want them going through the people door, which is the door we had been using for them all winter. They are not picking at each other much, though that sign of stress is evident. The red hens in particular are picking at the brahmas and cochins. All the ladies are still laying in the nest boxes, which is much preferable to having to search for eggs in a dirty coop.

And their coop is dirty. If you already keep chickens, you know how filthy birds are. I can tell this is not an arrangement a bird would make in the wild. I keep a paint scraper in the coop so I can scrape the accumulation of droppings off the top of the nest boxes and roosts. Their water often has poop in it because they perch on the side of the bowl. (We have to use a plastic/rubber bowl in winter to deal with frozen water two to three times a day.) I think we should figure out a different door configuration that would make dealing with the accumulation of bedding easier. The bedding is SUPPOSED to build up in the winter; it actually helps heat the coop a bit. However, the door just gets more difficult to operate, especially now that there's so much cow bedding on the outside of the door. I will also look at ways to give them a little more wind protection without completely destroying circulation. The shed was supposed to be board and batten, but the battens never got put up. I would like to get battens on the whole shed.I would also like to make their outside door different; I would like to be able to open it for ventilation even if there is snow piled outside. I would like it to be arranged such that we COULD tend them from that door if the need ever arose again.

I do NOT like this arrangement for the chickens, but next winter will be different.We can certainly finish the cow shed between now and November, so the chickens can again have this entire sheltered space next winter.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Starting Seeds

I have overcome my fear of starting plants, at least partially. For some of you, this fear may seem laughable; others, I am sure, either buy plants from the garden center or grow nothing. If this second group is like me, they are a little daunted and puzzled by how EXACTLY you plant a seed.

Don't laugh! Many of us never saw it done. We have trouble believing it's really as easy as those gardeners say it is. I mean, look at a tomato seed. Hiding in that itty bitty, furry seed is anywhere from 3 to 150 pounds of tomatoes. It is an awesome thought.

Since I chose to live in Vermont, I have had to overcome my fear of seeds. Way up here, in the cold, cold north, many fruits we prize can only be grown if you start the plants in the house while the snow is on the ground. Yes, absolutely you can buy plants to put in your garden, but you do not how those plants have been handled. Unless you buy them from a local grower, you don't even know if those plants know what Vermont means. Varieties matter, as well, when your growing season happens in the blink of an eye.

It's late, wherever you are, to only just now be considering buying seeds, but it's not TOO late. First, I buy my seeds from a company owned and operated in the land of cold. The seed catalog I like has good descriptions of how the plants function in our climate. They source seed from smaller and larger growers, and they tell which type each variety came from. I pore over that catalog, trying to glean which magic bean will bring me a golden goose. Then, I just take my chances.

Next, I get good potting soil that is compost-based and peppered with some trace minerals. I sprinkle a bacterial and fungal inoculant into each seed packet and give the packet a shake. I get my black plastic trays and put moderately-sized cell trays in. I do not use the tiny or next-to-tiny ones, because I want my plants' roots to have faith that one day there will be more room. I thoroughly wet my potting mix and fill the cells. I poke one to three seeds into each cell or I sprinkle the seeds over the tray and rake them around. Then, I keep the trays moderately warm (except for peppers which I set on a heat mat). Then I wait. Because my potting mix is good and wet to start with (not mud, but still WET) I do not have to fret too much about things drying out. If in doubt, water them. Most seeds will not germinate without a nice evenly moist environment.

Pretty soon, I will see green lifting it's head. For most seeds, that's the time to start moving the trays around from window to window, maximizing the time they're in the sun. On warmer days, I put the trays outside in a cold frame or I set them in the hoop house.

The trick- the thing that kept me from performing this little miracle- was knowing when to start what. It turns out that timing is the main variable when dealing with starts. Tomatoes, peppers, and onions can hang around in a 4" pot for awhile. I prefer that my tomatoes go from a 4" pot into the ground, BUT I do have 6" pots if I haven't timed things well. Squashes, melons, and pumpkins do NOT delight in being transplanted, so I start them only a couple of weeks before the ground is ready; I also start them in 4" pots right from the start. I'm still learning just when each thing wants starting.

Cabbages can go in the ground when it's still not warm outside, so I stat them the same time as peppers, but they go in the ground a month earlier. Onions are the earliest and go in the ground a little later than cabbages, but well before squashes and tomatoes.

So, get a little dirt and a package of seeds. You can even go to a store where they don't know you, you can buy the smallest bag of soil they have and some really trustworthy seeds, like tomatoes or wheat berries. Try it! It's a miracle you can see.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Funny Conversation

Ezra and Jason are of to Cambridge today for Ezra to participate in Spark. This morning, he was listing which classes he'll be taking. One of them is called "The Mathematics of Games".

I asked, "Is that a probability class?"

He answered, "No, it's even more awesome than that!"

If you have a child junior high or high school age, or soon to be that old, you should check into these programs offered by MIT. I have heard only good things from the children who participate.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

How We Handle Calves

First, let me say that this is only the third time either of us have had to deal with newborn calves. Still, the same thoughts influence us each time. Violet is so interested in her calves that it would feel cruel to separate them right away, or even a few days in. This particular post will be about what has happened between us and these two calves in their first couple of days of life.

We tried not to intervene yesterday morning, so besides moving them into the barn, we did not handle them until we felt we really needed to. Then we did that work quickly, but trying not to hurry or startle anyone, and got Violet back with her calves. We went down and watched her and the calves at least once an hour all day long, but only once after evening chores.

During evening chores, we did our best to keep the calves close to Violet. She is much calmer already this time than the first two times we had calves, but she still does not want one of us between her and a calf. The boy nursed while I was milking last night, and I am eager for them to get as much milk as possible. I gave up any teat he was trying to latch onto. He sucked my jacket and wrist and checked here and there to see if I was hiding a teat anywhere. (Perhaps, I smelled a bit too much like Violet and the calves.) I did what I could to get most of the milk, as the calves will not eat as much at first, and Violet's bag looked huge and uncomfortable. Yet, I left some for the one still nursing.

This morning, the heifer was outside the barn, lying in the snow and ice. There are many problems with this. First, she could get quite cold. Second, if she got startled, even a wobbly little calf can cover a surprising distance in surprisingly little time; she was more likely to run away than toward her mom out of the barn than in the barn. Third, Violet was not happy to have her out of reach. Fourth, she's so little. We put up a third spring gate, and before too long, we purchased a cow panel and rigged it across the opening. We REALLY do not want a calf wandering around.

The cow panel also means we could easily lean some old plywood across the opening to block some of the wind. We're having a spell a winter, and it seems just a little more shelter would be good for these scrawny beasts. Mostly, we try to keep everyone outside as much as possible. Since these two were born at an inclement time of year, we're having to figure out just how much extra we need to do to help Violet keep them healthy. We also bought straw to use for bedding instead of old hay. Straw is expensive and most likely has round up in it, but it makes amazing bedding. We really want these guys to stay dry, so we're spreading straw twice a day.

This morning's milking was difficult, but peaceful. The girl calf nursed while I was milking, but she wanted to do it from the same side I was sitting on. I repeat- these two calves are quite scrawny and I was not feeling that my desire to milk outweighed her need to nurse. So, I worked around her. It was annoying and funny and I probably won't let that happen again.

This evening, the boy frolicked about the barn and the girl nursed while I milked. The cow panel meant no one was slipping out of the barn, and everyone was really calm. Calm is what we're after when dealing with cows. Calm is part of the reason we don't separate them at all at first. In a few days, Violet will mellow out some. With these two, we'll probably give them longer than the previous calves before we separate them for even part of the day. It is cold and it will be cold, at least in spells, for another month or so. They're pretty good size, but I want them to have some fat on them before they start spending nights with a fence between them and their mother. My heart tells me it's the right thing to do.

And at some point, it will be too much of a bother. Then, we'll re-evaluate, and most likely, we'll start separating them overnight and milk just once a day in the mornings. We'll just have to wait and see.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


This morning when we got down to the pasture to do chores, Violet was making the special sound she makes when she's talking to a calf. Sure enough there it was just under Violet's nose, on the ice in the pasture instead of in the barn. We quickly put fresh bedding in the barn and went to grab the obviously newly born calf. Except, it had already moved about 10 feet. Except that Violet was still standing where we had first seen the calf, talking. Nope- two calves, one looking pretty normal, one not so good.

I kept Violet at bay while Jason carried each into the barn, and then Violet eagerly joined them. The one still looked VERY bad to my eye. I ran to the house to call our friends who know at least a little (probably a lot) more than we do, but we were quite reluctant to intervene much because Violet is a very good mother and quite adamant about her calves. After the consultation, we thought we would try to at least rub the rough looking one dry. Violet reacted violently, and we regretfully left, letting nature take its course.

The next two hours pretty much sucked.

Then, we asked our friends to come over and help us get Violet out of the barn so we could get a better look at both calves, as now the worse looking one was perking up, but neither had walked or nursed. Our friends brought over colostrum and an extra bottle. We used a little grain to urge Violet out of the barn, and set to work.

One is a boy, one is a girl. They look pretty scrawny, but actually not too bad now. Pictures later...

We rubbed them dry, gave them each a bottle, got them on their feet, and got out of the barn so Violet could come back in. Both calves have nursed some today, but Violet is so engorged they're having a little trouble latching. We'll milk her this evening- that should be exciting! We'll give them each another bottle of colostrum and hope for the best.

They look so frail. It's going to be below freezing for the next week.

Last bit of info- because they are heifer/bull twins, there is a greater than 90% chance that the girl will be sterile. And that sucks, too.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Belated Birthday

In the midst of our illness, Phaedra and Jason had a birthday. Then, Jason left on a week long trip and then we had a late birthday party. I just never got around to this.

So, happy birthday Phaedra! How you've grown!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

What Are You Saving All That Time For?

Advertising pretty steadily tells us we need more convenience, cleaning products to work faster or without us, food that comes ready to eat and requires no clean up, clothes that need no attention, etc. I know this trend has built for years and years, and I see no sense in trying to turn that tide. There are many, many conveniences for which I am truly grateful- hot water on demand, produce in March, light bulbs, freezers, a vacuum cleaner...

Yet- around the holidays, I heard the refrain, "At least I didn't HAVE to cook!" everywhere I went. I wondered at this. Food is a sacrifice we make to honor a "holy" day, even if we are not particularly keen on the historic underpinnings of a particular one. Our family is not Christian, but we mark Christmas as a time apart, a time to honor the light of life in the world, and the food we prepare around that time is an offering. We cook then, and at Thanksgiving, AND when we have company throughout the year, as a way of honoring the little graces in our lives. My feelings on this run strong, so I was baffled why people just could not be bothered.

I have stewed on this for almost three months, and because of that, I've been more likely to see other behaviors in a similar light. For example, I am surprised by the number of things people set in front of children to keep the children from bothering the adults. We adults are SUPPOSED to socialize children, and by merely pacifying them, we're neglecting a duty. They are not "a bother", they're our future. Don't get me wrong; I am not one of those people who spends every waking minute in bliss with my little cherubs. Instead, I have taught them that I deserve space. I have respected their needs for time, but as they have gotten older, their needs MUST be balanced against my mental health. Also, I want to talk to other adults about things that do not concern children, so sometimes, they must "go play". But all of this is actually teaching and socializing them. If you cannot get anything done or talk on the phone or cook dinner because your children are "bothering" you, then you need to fix that, not pacify them with the drug of technology.

Much of life could be seen as a bother- not just child rearing or cooking for holidays. But it's life. Our little struggle against entropy IS all there is to it, so when we give all the bothersome tasks short shrift we should ask ourselves why. Should dinner be easier and faster so we can get back to our screens? When we say we don't have time for hobbies, what have we actually done with the minutes of our days?

There is a short story by Eric Metaxas called "The Monkey People" in which the people of a village give all their daily tasks to a group of monkeys, so that they have more time for more important things like thinking important thoughts. However, the people are NOT made happier by giving up all these bothersome tasks. In fact, they just get more irritable and unhappy. Maybe our medicated culture should reflect and see whether we've given away all the bothersome tasks that might actually bring a sense of purpose and contentment.

Thursday, March 7, 2013


I got my Fedco seed order a couple of weeks back. I ordered fewer seeds this year, because I am learning what I actually want in the garden.

My family pretty much only eats peas fresh, and no one actually wants to shell enough peas to make a pot of them. That means we will just plant sugar snaps, and probably almost all of them will be eaten before they even make it into the house. I will freeze a few quarts for soups, but I'm only planting about 30 feet of peas. I also decided that the taller peas do actually taste and produce better.

By August, we've been a little tired the past couple of years, and the green beans have not been picked as thoroughly or as often as they deserve. However, I canned green beans last year, and the children are gung ho to have more for next winter. Everyone has agreed to help me keep them picked and then to help me get them processed. I am still planting fewer; I think we all get overwhelmed when confronted by so many green beans. Once we have one successful year of harvest past us, I think I can plant more. Green beans are another where I think the taller ones do actually grow and produce and taste better. Also, ten foot tall green beans that reach across the path to twine with other green beans make a magical, shady place in the garden.

I am only planting three varieties of tomatoes. I like Amish paste tomatoes, Rutgers, and one or two RED slicers. I am also only planting 20 plants. I'll also plant a couple of watermelons and a dozen pepper plants in the green house. Most of the peppers will be King of the North bell peppers or early jalapenos, as these are the types we eat the most of. There will also be a couple of cayennes and a paprika pepper for some variety in the salsa.

I started onion seeds, and they were looking great. Nico knocked one tray off, so I ordered more of those seeds. I also went to a refresher on Bionutrient food production and realized I probably started my onions too early. So, I'll wait a bit longer once those seeds arrive, and then I'll compare my results.

I am planting fewer kohl crops this year. I'll do a whole row of rutabagas, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. No one in our house seems to particularly care for broccoli or kale. I keep thinking I might plant a little kale, because it IS so tasty sauteed with pine nuts, onions, and raisins. But maybe not.

Carrots and beet will get more attention this year. I've grown just a few every year. The carrots actually did well least year, but I planted only enough for fresh eating, because I had had no luck the previous two summers. Last year's success makes me feel more confident. Same thing for the beets.

There will be a little chard, some sunflowers, some spinach, a little celery, some celeriac for storage, two 60 foot beds of winter squash, a couple of summer squash plants mostly for the cow's enjoyment, a few cucumbers, and then of course potatoes.

The potatoes I ordered just this past weekend. I am getting three varieties, and I think I did a better job ordering the right amount for the space I'm planting.

I'm not planting any corn this year.

I am planting more cover crops. Some I'll plant soon and let them grow until it's time to put warm weather things in. A few beds will be planted directly in cover crops and devoted to soil building this year. I'm hoping to build humus this way and use less compost.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Due dates and bovines

You know, the new cow shed still looks pretty much like this:

It is further along, but not much. The big difference is that there is snow everywhere. When it snowed a couple of weeks after this picture was taken, we decided for our safety, we would make due with the current shed. We thought we wouldn't have a calf until April, which would mean probably at least a couple of windows to roof the new shed without the slipperiness of snow.

The problem with the old shed is that it gets wet, especially in the spring. We were building this one with the intention of not having another calf confined in the wet shed. We even filled half of that shed with chickens, so there isn't really all that much room in it at this point for a couple of cows.

Last week, as I followed Violet out of the paddock, I noticed her nethers looked extra big and swollen. I glanced at her bag, but it looked completely flaccid. When I said something to Jason, he reminded me that we weren't expecting a calf until April.

Then, my dear friend was visiting from Colorado, and she said something about the view of Violet from the rear, and I mentioned how Violet isn't even bagging up (swelling associated with milk production). I glanced again at said bag, and I thought it looked more swollen than a couple of days before.

Monday morning, Jason said, "Did we get the dates wrong?" as he followed Violet out of the paddock.

We double checked and sure enough that April calf is due March 15. There's still a lot of snow on the ground. There is no chance of roofing and siding that new shed in the next week. And maybe, the calf really won't come until April; the last two calves were born pretty far from the due dates. But Violet sure looks ready. All her girth has settled closer to the ground. She's cut way back on how much she's eating. She just wants someone to stand beside her and brush her. Then there's all that swelling.

I'll keep you informed!