Thursday, September 25, 2008

Hay, Hay, Hay, It's Fall!

Fall is a crazy-busy season.
All summer we've been lying semi-low, keeping one step ahead of parasites and short pastures, but more or less letting things beef up on their own. But as winter starts sniffing around the apple trees and maple leaves, the randy rams and hyper-randy turkeys, we find we have a lot of work to do.

First and foremost is separating the rams and ewes. Autumn frost sets sheepy hormones aflame, and there's been quite a bit of jousting and jumping up out there. We don't want questionable parantages or early season lambs, tough enough to support the little guys when the weather cooperates, so we divvy the flock up. "Boys" in the "down pasture" and "girls" up by the main barn.

While divvying Sunday night, we checked condition and were pleased to note that the flock was healthy and worm free (Yay!). This is especially good news after the worry and wetness of summer 2008.
I've been developing my own mineral mix to help the sheep maintain under the worst of the summer wormload and perhaps the mix has helped some. "The mix", for all you shepherds out there, consists of 2 parts standard sheep minerals and one part goat minerals (Goat minerals have copper which sheep DO need.... but in moderation. Research indicates that Icelandic sheep may have a greater need for copper than more "developed" breeds. But be careful-- Too much can kill them!) To this mineral base, I add kelp, yeast-based selenium/E powder, and flax seeds. I've also been offering the flock black oil sunflower seeds, which they are developing a taste for. Oh, and they've been scarfing apples. A LOT of apples. So, whatever the reason, our flock is in pretty good condition here at the tail end of parasite-worry season-- a happy discovery!

We expected the ram lambs might take the separation hard, but surprisingly, even Connor-- who stuck to his Mama Louise like glue all season, seem quite happy in the "down pasture". And they have been tussling and jousting and acting just as you expect a bunch of rammy youngsters might. Here's Champ, one of our few unspoken-for lambs:

My attempt to get the flock to eat pumpkins last year (EAT! EAT! You know, You're SUPPOSED to LIKE pumpkins!!!!) resulted in a hardy, feral pumpkin plant grown all on it's own. Here it is, with the male half of our flock in the background:

Another big fall issue is hay. We need it. BAD. We always need it, and it is always more expensive than we expected. This year, Dan's been stockpiling a van-load at a time in the hay loft. It's been slow going. But we were were extra lucky this week; a dairy farmer friend managed to arrange delivery of 80 more bales at only $4.00 each! Yay! We were able to borrow her hay elevator which made the storing process about a hundred times easier. The kids had a great time playing in the haypile and even helped load it into the loft.
We still need more-- we ALWAYS need more. But it's a good start anyway.

Fall also means wood. We need it. BAD. (Sense a theme here?) Although Dan's been putting every spare minute into chopping. Spare minutes are few and far between around here and we weren't helped much in the way of windfalls (our best source of weathered logs) so we are still pretty durn low this year. Here's our winter supply so far:

And here's the ATV loaded up with a bit more:

Not much for a wood-heated house. We may have to (gulp!) buy a few cords this year.... um....maybe....

And then there are apples, beautiful rosy apples desperately needing picking. When do we find the time? Well, that's the crux of it.... we haven't. Yet.

Oh, and there's shearing and butchering to do, not to mention the girl's birthday parties! And Holidays.

So that's fall in a nutshell: Busy, busy busy.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Diabolical Little Hearts

Are you sick of turkeys yet?

I'm beginning to be.

The big birds have an eye for misadventure, what can I say?

Today, I had to rescue a turkey hen who had accidentally sat on our single line of electric tape fencing and couldn't figure out that she had to get up and run away. (I rushed into the barn and cut the switch, then gently led her out of the pasture.)

The newest episode in our interminable "Turkeys, What the Heck were they thinking?" drama came last Thursday. I was down at the barn for chores and found our biggest tom-- barely functional due to his heavy poundage-- flopping around beside the grain feeder. "Oh, no." Though I "He's finally gone and eaten himself into the category of total lameness." But he managed to flop around the corner of the barn after the rest of the flock. So I grabbed the feed bucket and resolved to check on him after I filled up the feed and water.

Well.... I rounded the corner of the barn to find the big tom in the tall grass with one of the bronze toms ON TOP OF HIM STOMPING AND PECKING in murderous frenzy! It was too late for the big guy. He was quite dead. What a gory scene. I would never have believed that turkeys--TURKEYS!-- were such murderous beasts! But evidently, behind the goofy gobbles and contemplative looks, the comically enlarging snoods and stately waddles, lie diabolical little hearts.

I couldn't-- couldn't-- salvage another gigantic bird alone (See "Cold Turkey, Hot Day" for THAT story.) The kids were up at the house playing Stratego and waiting for dinner. I dragged the gigantic bird to the lower barn and, with great difficulty, hung him up. It was the most I could do. I had a nasty cold and it was just about dark and dinner was... nowhere yet.

Back at the house, I told the kids about the incident. Used to all sorts of odd animal related hi-jinks the kids just said "Really? Oh.." and craned their necks to look out the window at the turkey hanging by the barn. Back to Stratego for them.

Dan, well, I caught up with him as well. "All right," he said, the rush of road sounds loud in the background. "Guess I know what I'll be doing when I get home..." True to his word, he arrived home at 8:30 or so, changed out of his "Perfesser Suit" (Tweedy looking jacket with the leather elbow pads and everything), put on and apron and rubber gloves, sharpened up his knives and spent two hours down by the barn in the dark doing right by the turkey and all of us. What a guy!

He returned with a 32 pound turkey, cleaned and ready for cooling. And so we have a jump on Thanksgiving I guess.

I hope I forget the murder scene by then.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Not a Turnkey Turkey Operation

Well, It was "Turkey Tuesday" again.
Some of you might recall the sudden death and processing of a giant turkey from last week (Cold Turkey, Hot Day). Wellllll... turkeys just loooovve Tuesdays, I tell ya. This week, the entire flock (now down to 12) decided to go a-visiting. They walked a good ways, no mean feet for a bunch of tottering meat-bound heavies, and ended up on the doorstep of "L", the one neighborhood dog who is an unrepentant poultry killer.

Luckily, "L" was tied up.

Unluckily (Or perhaps just stupidly) the turkeys, used to dogs that pretty much ignore them, didn't see anything dangerous in a lab/chow mix straining at it's chain and barking ferociously. They thought it might be a good time to preen and strut and impress each other as young turks so often do.

Well, the chain snapped and, as you might imagine, the birds finally got the hint, scattering as "L" mowed through them, a shower of feathers in her wake.

That was when I got the call from our neighbor. I believe she said "There are a lot of feathers but I don't think there are any bodies around" or something like that.

So off I went. Some turkeys had already returned on their own, they looked winded and grim. Five were still missing. So I spent round about an hour calling and calling and traipsing around in the woods checking out every stump that, from a distance, looked like it just might be a big ol' dead broad-breasted bronze. Please oh, please let there be no dead turkeys, I muttered, not wanting to repeat the whole miserable butchering-gigantic-bird-all-alone scenario of the previous week.

I found no dead bodies. Just one traumatized slate-blue turkey sitting veeeerrry very still in the woods. When she saw me, she got up and headed back home on her own. Another slate blue was in the sheep pasture. "Blinky", as I've been taken to calling her due to her peculiar habit, was in rough shape. Too, exhausted to fight, she let me carry her back down to her buds where she curled up and fell asleep.

I continued hunting about. I got quite good at turkey calls. (Turkeys make a variety of really cool sounds: From the expected gobbagobba to rumbly purrs, sneezy exclaimations, chirps and a beautiful two-note whistle.) But none of this mattered. The turkeys all found their way back on their own.

I brought water and grain over to where they clumped beside the barn, but they were too exhausted to get up and eat. They stayed there all the rest of the day and when I went to close up the barn at 9:30 that night, they were still clumped outside, refusing to budge.

And so... the full moon found me prodding cajoling and carrying-- yes, carrying!-- 12 miserable, shaken and VERY HEAVY turkeys into the barn. So however cool the big fowl are-- and they ARE quite cool-- don't expect a turnkey operation!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Amaranth All Over Again

Last year, our garden was happier, a veritable cornucopia of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers. This year, we've been more than a little preoccupied with sheep, turkeys, chicks, work, house guests, oh, and children-- increasingly busy children.

The poor little garden, already cramped against the side of the house to maximize pasture space, has suffered. But it hasn't been a total bust. The little 15 X 5 foot patch has bestowed a few tomatoes and cucumbers, even some zucchinis pretty much all on its own. Somehow, Dan's eternally-optimistic corn crop is happening. But things are beyond scraggly, things are verging on downright unkempt out there.

Undeterred, last year's heritage tomatoes have traveled through the digestive systems of our free-ranging chickens and installed themselves in brand new places. Likewise for the regal zucchini plant holding court in the sheep pasture. But most impressive of all is the amaranth.

Last year, fresh with spring exuberance, I ordered a packet of amaranth seeds. Amaranth, plant of the Aztec, is both beautiful and practical. The deep red seeds are high in iron and other essentials. Last year's amaranth was on the puny side. We left it alone to drop its seeds, and this year, it rewarded us with extravagant, deep red blooms!

We will harvest these after the first frost and try our hand at shaking the grains loose and serving them up. I'll let you know how THAT goes.....

And next year, regardless of the state of our garden, these hardy perennials will ensure that it'll be Amaranth all over again!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Cold Turkey, Hot Day

This story is not for the faint of heart. Oh, no... it's for those out there who aspire to "earn their chops", "put their money where their mouths are" and "do what has to be done" when "the rubber hits the road." I could come up with a few more cliches if ya like, but basically, I found my homesteading, self-sufficient ideals tested last week. Seriously tested.

The day started out ordinarily enough. I was working from home. Engaged in some sort of work-related phone conversation. The turkeys had been making a bit of noise. Nothing unusual, just the squawks and whistles and "gubbagubbabubba" of everyday life around here. (There's quite a cacophony around here: roosters, hens, guineas, sheep all chiming in about whatever interests them whenever it interests them.) Anyway, I glanced out the window and saw a turkey-- one of our HUMONGOUS white turkeys-- lying suspiciously still in the pasture.

I extricated myself from the phone as quickly as I could. (No, I did not use the time-worn "Um, dead turkey in the field gotta go.") And with pounding heart, I hustled down to survey the damage.

The giant lay flat on his back. Spread-eagled, you might say. He had not been attacked or injured in any obvious way. Near as I could tell, he'd been tussling with the other toms, fell down and couldn't get up. I learned later that giant double-breasted turkeys like this are prone to heart attacks.

Whatever the case, I grabbed those gigantic feet and wrestled the body out of the pasture. The rest of the turkeys gave me quite the wide berth as I hobbled along, half-dragging half carrying the body. They peeped over the fence one last time as we passed from view, and then resumed their regular turkey duties, strutting and pecking and wandering about in a tight little flock.

I set the body in the barn. It was a hot, hot day and already, flies were gathering.

Ugh. What now?

Well.... I thought about it a while. And then a longer while... and then I called Dan. (OF COURSE he was at work, far, far away in my hour of need, and not due for oh, a half a day or so.)

My better half was suitably apologetic about not being around and also suitably sympathetic. But then he threw me a little curve ball: "You can't let all that meat go to waste." He said.

Oh, he was right. Completely, utterly right. What a miserable thing it'd be to raise a turkey-- for meat no less-- and then leave it to rot because it happened to keel at an inopportune moment!

But dressing a full-grown, no-- GI-NORMOUSLY-grown-- turkey without the proper prep and equipment. Well, daunting is an understatement. Also, in our few previous meat-prepping adventures, Dan did the gory stuff. I, um, plucked.

We didn't have a pot big enough to scald the turkey (Scalding is the step before plucking) and anyway, I could not lift it into a pot of boiling water safely. Heck, I couldn't lift it period. Oh, and the kids were due home in less than an hour and I was due to meet their bus (Preferably not while up to my eyeballs in gore...)

I decided, after some research that I'd work on salvaging the breast and legs. And go from there.

So.... that's how I came to be skinning and cutting and hacking away at a dead turkey when, with a screech of bus brakes, the kids arrived home and I ran up the hill to meet them up to my eyeballs in gore. Oh, this self-sufficient farming is the life I tell you!

For those who want a little more information and a little less story: When you come upon a recently-deceased turkey or other fowl, you have to hang and "bleed out" the bird the best you can before attempting this sort of thing. Skinning the bird and removing the breast was relatively easy-- and we ended up with at least 3 pounds of breast meat. The legs were a bit more tricky (this is where the hacking came in) and a bit higher on the gross-awful-Ican'tbelieveI'mdoingthis scale. The meat once removed, must be cooled immediately in a tub of cold water, then can be transferred to the fridge. Cooling should continue for at least a day. Then you can freeze it or eat it. (We froze ours because, honestly, it'll be a while before I care to see THAT turkey again.)

We did waste the rest of the bird. I just couldn't figure out how to remove any other parts in a usuable way. And I was pretty grossed out by then. And the kids had arrived. And there were about a million flies around. And, well, because I couldn't do any more just then. I really couldn't.

Well, that's the whole gory story. In a way, I'm glad I had to do this on my own. It's easy-- too easy-- to leave the hardest things to my better half and if I'm gonna eat it, I really should be able to butcher it. But watch out! Those homesteading aspirations of yours might see you to hacking away at an unexpectedly deceased turkey on a lonely fly-ridden, unbearably hot afternoon.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Isn't She Lovely?

It being labor day, and these little guys and gals being, in part the fruits of one type of labor, I thought I'd put up a couple recent pictures of our lambs.

After all, we still have quite a few of them. (If'n anybody's interested...)

They are really quite grown-up these days, so different from the leggy, little bundles that cavorted about the place in May, with their tight little curls and charming bleats.

Nowadays, the lambs have no time for fun; it's all graze and graze and browse with them. Which brings me to the fall, when the already-failing grass is gone for good and the hay is too expensive and some of these little guys-- the ones that are not sold for breeding or fleece-- will find themselves into our freezer.
This will be a first for us, but the daunting notion of feeding and housing 21 sheep combined with the need to know exactly where and how our meat came to us is making it seem somewhat more doable.... somewhat....