Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The peeps at the Big Farm are two weeks old this week, and my girls just turned 12 weeks old. Three months already! Wow. 3/5 of the way to fresh eggs!

You can see they have acquired some new habits, like coming to the back door to beg for carrot shreds. I wonder who taught them that trick?

And taking a siesta under the pine trees.  They dart like commandos from one tree to the next. A good skill to have I think when the tree tops can be harboring hawks looking for a meal.

The girls still all come running from wherever they are across the yard when I call and whistle in the afternoon, at treat-time. Watching them run over to me is one of my most cherished daily pleasures on the days I am home at the Little Farm.

And of course, they are still endlessly entertaining. They're clucking more and peeping less, and their combs and wattles are starting to grow in.  The cats like to watch them and sometimes practice skulking up on them. But the chickens always discover them and give them a sharp warning, which sends the cats away pretending they don't know what the chickens are complaining about.

Meanwhile on the Big Farm, the little peeps are growing up, too.  They have a little outdoor run they can use on the nice days.

Small, black, running objects are really difficult to capture with my itty bitty SD1000 Elph.

They still love to run, and jump/flap their way up onto things. Won't be long before their little corral won't keep them in any longer.

Won't be long before they can move out onto the pasture and into the rotational grazing system.

With this cow, who is supposed to be in the pasture, and not on the side of the driveway. But that's a story for next time.

Monday, June 27, 2011

First, I want to apologize for the delay in writing this post.  For those of you who've been following this blog for awhile (and you two know who you are), you're probably wondering if Boo and Monet are still in full fleece after Papa Bear blew his knee out as we were preparing to shear Honeywiese back on May 17th.

A week after this unfortunate incident, PB had knee surgery to repair the torn meniscus that was causing him so much pain (and inability to bear weight).  Two and a half weeks of recovering later, and after a bizarre but thankfully short-lived heatwave that we spent hosing off the boys at regular intervals and worrying that they might die of heat stroke before we could shear them, we decided to take another run at this whole shearing thing.

PB still could not bend or kneel with his bad knee, but he felt he was now strong enough to work around this obstacle.  We wanted to shear early in the morning to avoid too much heat stress on the boys (and us!) and the only time we could get three of us together at the same time was the Sunday morning before I left for the Big Farm, on June 5th. 

{Just a note of interest - most farms usually have many pairs of hands for shearing day. I recently helped out at a farm that had almost as many people helping as there were alpacas - close to two dozen!  However, we felt with only 2 animals to shear, we could do this effectively with just the three of us.}

Saturday night we locked the boys in the barn with their water but no food.  We had read on many sheep and alpaca sites that it's best to shear them when their stomach is empty - it's more comfortable for them, when they're stretched out in the ropes, and also provides less ammunition for spitting or leaking out the other end (some spit, some scream, some pee, some poo, some do all of this at the same time).  We could have taken them off their water also if it had not been so hot.

Sunday dawned beautiful and sunny.  We moved the ATV (which we would use as an anchor point for one side of the leg ropes), stretched out the tarp, attached the ropes to a fence post and the ATV hitch, got the shears donned with a new comb and cutter, and were ready for our first victim client by 9:00am.

We decided to break PB in by re-shearing Honeywiese first.  If you read about our first attempt, you'll know the shears were not working correctly (we deduced later, being they were the ones shipped on the new unit, they might have dulled in the shipping process) and my having only shorn one animal before, Honeywiese's cut was shall we say, not as handsome as we thought he deserved.

So even though he's our biggest animal, probably close to 200 pounds, and PB's knee was tenuous, we thought it best to re-shear him first.  Aside from the awkward moment of putting the leg loops on the ankles and then pulling the ropes until the animal goes down, never a fun time for animal or human, the rest of the shearing went surprisingly well.  In no time at all, he was all cleaned up and back on his feet.

I think I let out a big sigh of relief at this point. I worried that the un-sedated version of Honeywiese would be a circus.  But in fact, it was no big deal at all.  The rest should be easy.

Next up was Boo (we were shearing coarsest animal to finest, so that by the time PB was back in the swing of things, he'd be shearing our nicest fleece last - and, hopefully, best).  He was very little effort to get over to the shearing area and put in the leg ropes.  The fun began after he was on the ground.

I've assisted alpaca shearers for four years now, and I've never seen an animal fight with his head as much as this little guy.  He's probably only 125 pounds full grown, not a very large alpaca, and very sweet and submissive.  But holy moly that boy can move his head around!  C-baby and I switched places halfway through the shearing because he was wearing her out - and then he wore me out, too!  He also screamed a bit and drooled spit. That doesn't bother me.  But trying to hold his head still so he wouldn't get cut was the worrisome part.

It was also getting hot out, and I was worried he was going to get heat stress with how much he was straining. We finished him off and watched him try to get up and go back to the pasture. He seemed to be worn out from the whole ordeal.  The rest of the day he sort of hung out by himself (very rare for an alpaca), laying low and just recovering his strength.  I was worried he might have strained his neck, but by the next day he was just fine again.

Since I wasn't expecting such a struggle from that little guy, I was wondering how Monet would do.  I needn't have worried.  He was an angel.  First off, we moved the tarp to the shade, since the sun was pretty high and hot by now. So we were all more comfortable.  But secondly, I barely had to hold his head at all. He lay perfectly still the entire time.  C-baby ogled his gorgeous, soft fleece as it came off and she collected it all in a bag.  I just love this little guy's fleece. Last year we tested him and his AFD was 16 micron. In comparison, a human hair is about 70 microns!  Angora goats need wool 18 microns or less to be labeled cashmere.  So our little guy was finer than cashmere last year.

All-in-all, it was a very successful, low-stress morning, albeit physically demanding. After all of that, I worked on weeding and mixing up potting soil for my garden beds, then jumped in my car and drove 4 hours to the Big Farm, where I've been spending four days/week learning how to tend all kinds of animals - alpacas, horses, cows and 150 baby chickens.  In my "free time" I've been driving all over Monroe and Vernon counties looking at properties for sale.

To say I've been busy would be an understatement.  But then, when isn't a Farmgirl busy?

I wouldn't have it any other way!

Friday, June 24, 2011

My first day on the Big Farm I learned how to drive a skid steer to move large round bales of hay from the field to the barn.  It was my very first time driving a large piece of farm machinery by myself. This week I got to take the skid steer out to move water for the girls' pasture.  Between these sessions I learned a lot of things.

Lesson #1: Going over ruts too quickly will bounce the skid steer so badly you'll rattle the pallet forks enough to jiggle them into a new position on the bar.  This maneuver will result in not being able to get close enough to a bale to actually pick it up, but you will have the ability to slide a bale across the field instead. This will only happen when your friendly farm mentor comes out to the field to check on how you are doing.

Lesson #2: It takes a wee bit of practice to get the hang of the controls.  Many times I've lowered instead of lifted, turned the wrong direction, and tilted the attachment the opposite way I intended.  Be prepared to be patient with yourself.

Lesson #3:  Don't be afraid to ask for help.  When faced with moving G (short for Gehl, the manufacturer of the skid steer) out from behind the rock pile, trapped against a fence, a task that appeared to me to be akin to threading a camel through the eye of the needle, do not just assume that since someone got her back there, it must be possible to get her out again.  Although I succeeded, my attempt provided several minutes of entertainment value to the owner of the skid steer.  The following day, I asked for help.

(This advice also goes for asking someone to remove a very large spider from the tub so you can take a shower.)

Lesson #4:  A fifty-gallon water trough full of water will yield about 35 gallons of water once you move it from the pole building to the field.  This is OK though, since the trough in the girls' pasture happens to be 35 gallons. I don't recommend going too quickly over the bumpy road on the way out there, or you may have to make two trips to get enough water.

Lesson #5: When Justin tells you during your instructional session a week ago not to park G on a hill because she has no parking brake and therefore she will tend to roll, it is best to file that piece of data away in the front of one's brain where it can be easily retrieved.  Failure to do so will result in the startling, adrenaline-jolting conclusion that the now-nearly-empty water trough in G's bucket is no longer heavy enough to act as a parking brake, and in fact, G is now pushing both the nearly-empty water trough and you backwards down the hill towards the fence line.

Lesson #6: Don't assume logical thoughts will occur under the above scenario.  They won't.

Lesson #7: A 66 Kg woman cannot stop a 4000 pound piece of machinery from rolling down a hill. 

Lesson #8: Don't attempt the above maneuver with a full bladder.

Lesson #9: After completing your task and avoiding a major catastrophe with the fence line and realizing you now need a shower and a change of clothes and are probably too shook up to attempt to park G back behind the rock pile where you retrieved her from back when your nerves weren't quite so shaken, it is wise to look for a level place to park her near the rock pile to avoid the above scenario repeating itself.

Lesson #10: Hearing the words 'She's gonna roll,' while standing with the owner of the skid steer and garage that G is now rolling towards because you yet again didn't park her on level ground, is even worse than realizing G is pushing you backwards down a hill towards a fence.

Gratefully, the Radloffs have a great sense of a humor and a lot of patience.  I even heard a story that one of them accidentally let G roll into a creek once.  I felt a little better after hearing that. 

I highly recommend finding someone similar to mentor you if you have the same crazy dream that I have of someday running a farm of your own.

What new skill are you tackling lately?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The peeps at the Big Farm turned one week old yesterday. 

I would have posted this last night but alas, I could get no internet connection.  Sometimes that happens when you live in a valley in a rural location.  This obstacle is far outweighed however by the fact that you are living in a gorgeous valley.  I'd gladly give up a few hours of internet connection for this privilege.

Amazingly, out of 150 chicks, there have been no losses so far.  We don't yet know how many will be male or female yet. In just one week, many of the chicks have fully feathered wings and even tiny tail feathers.  They seem to be practicing flight skills by running as fast as they can across the coop and flapping their wings. Often times the entire group will move together from one end of the coop to the other, reminding me of a school of fish.

This little chick above got a ride into the office with me when I discovered it had a pasty butt. If the droppings dry and paste over the vent, the chick can die. So despite loud protests about it, little peep got a bath.

A handful of peeps got their first taste of the great outdoors today.  We wanted to test the electric netting with a small number, as we were wary they might be able to get through it at this age and size.  They were a bit overwhelmed at first, choosing to hide in the cement block we use as a door stop.

We also found out they will jump through the holes in the netting.  Even when it's electrified.  I also discovered that the tiny little shock you can get from polywire fencing when you're standing up and wearing rubber boots, which feels so benign you wonder how it could ever keep a predator away, grows in monstrous proportions if you happen to be sitting on the ground and then touch the polywire. A lesson I won't soon forget.  Sort of akin to accidentally grabbing that benign little strand of polywire and touching a rebar grounding post at the same time. 

I think our little flock of explorers was a wee bit overwhelmed by the immensity of the real world.  No doubt in a couple more weeks it will be a whole different ballgame.  But for today, they stuck close together, like birds of a feather will do.

What new adventures are you looking forward to this week?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

On June 5th I began Part I of my Big Adventure, where I will be splitting my time between MN and WI, living and working at the Big Farm in Ontario, WI during the week, returning home to our Little Farm in MN every weekend.

That meant I was not home to see the Peeps pass their ten-week mark.  Monday, they will be turning 11-weeks old already, and I will be back at the Big Farm once again,where they just got a shipment of peeps that will be turning one-week old on Tuesday.

Is that enough peep-confusion?  Hopefully the pictures and stories I post here will keep it all clear as mud.

In the ten days I was gone, my own peeps seemed to grow another two sizes.  In addition, they are transitioning from their baby-peeping-vocalizations to a sort of teenager-ish-immature-clucking-vocalization. I really really love their baby voices, but it is also fun to see them growing up into full-sized chickens.

They're big enough now that we don't have to worry so much about the cats harassing them when they are all free-ranging around the yard together.  Kali will on occasion hide in the grass and seem to be getting ready to sneak-attack, but the chickens keep a close eye on her and give her a sharp warning if she seems to be getting any serious ideas in her head. 

They also discovered the barn while I was away.  I'm not sure how the boys feel about sharing their space, but the chickens think they are in heaven.  A whole barn, just for them!  Sorry boys. 

Their second favorite place to hang out is under the pine trees.  I had a bit of a heart-attack yesterday when I went outside to check on everyone and couldn't find a single chicken, anywhere!  Nobody in the coop, nobody in the barn, nobody running around the yard. 

A flash of gold revealed their whereabouts - all tucked neatly under one of the pines near the neighboring field. Whew!  For a few minutes I thought a fox must've snuck in and carried them all away. 

I wasn't sure how they would react to me when I came home Thursday after my long absence.  I knew Papa Bear & C-Baby were taking care of them for me.  But would they remember me?

When I arrived home that evening, I stopped the car in the driveway, leaving all my gear inside.  Before going into the house I wandered over to the chicken coop, calling as I had so many times in the past, "Where are my Chickie Babies??"  It only took a few seconds before the whole flock came barrelling out of the coop at full speed towards my voice.

Have you ever seen a chicken running full-tilt towards you, all full of excitement that you might be bringing some fresh cracked grains or freshly shredded carrots?

It is one of the simple pleasures of life, watching a chicken run.  One of the many simple pleasures that I now enjoy on a daily basis, enjoying life on the Big Farm and Little Farm.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The peeps came today at the Big Farm!

150 little 1/2 ounce bundles of joy are now filling up the old milk house-turned-brooder/coop.

There's almost nothing sweeter than watching day-old peeps. 

Unless it's watching a 1-year old and 4-year old watching day-old peeps.

Or watching a full-grown adult with his very first day-old peeps.

I'm not sure which was more entertaining. 

All I know is, I'm happy to be around peeps again.  I miss my girls something fierce. 

Tomorrow, girls, tomorrow - I will be back home again tomorrow!

Cheers -

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Every day one of the first tasks on the Big Farm is to check the water in the cow/horse paddock.

If the water is low, Little Man likes to help fill the trough.

This involves stringing hoses together from the hydrant in the pole building out to the paddock.

Moms, don't worry - we turned off Blitzer (the electric fence charger) before taking Little Man out here to help.

I have heard a rumor that there are several good "oops-the-electric-fence-was-still-on" stories (none involving small children) but you'll have to confirm that rumor with Justin.

I'm guessing in most cases, "Oops!" was not the exclamation used at the moment of contact, but again, this is a rumor you'll have to confirm with Justin.

Watering the large female herd of alpacas living here is a whole 'nother ballgame involving a skid steer, a fifty and a thirty-five gallon trough, a lot of swearing, and a close call with a fence and a garage.  More on that story at a later date.

On this particular day, Little Man and I finished the job with no mishaps or property losses.  A good start to a good day.

Cheers -

Friday, June 10, 2011

This week I began Part I of our Big Adventure. 

This means I'll be traveling back and forth between WI and MN a lot this summer, splitting my time between our little farm in MN, and Kinney Valley Alpacas in Ontario, WI.

Because this might get confusing to readers, I will start referring to events and experiences happening at our home in MN as the "Little Farm," whereas events and experiences that occur at Kinney Valley will be referred to as the "Big Farm." 

I thought about calling it the "Funny Farm," since we all laugh a lot here, but I think that would convey something entirely different than my intention.

The Big Farm covers about 170 acres and runs between 150-200 alpacas at any given time.  Plus a few cows, a couple of horses, and soon, starting next week, about 100 baby chickens (more peeps!!! YAY!).

Compare this to our Little Farm, where we have two acres, three alpacas (five with the girls who are boarding at other farms), three spoiled (mostly house) cats and fifteen new laying hens. 

I thought I had my hands full at our little farm.  Mowing the grass has become a near daily occurrence with the rains we've had this spring. Then there's the daily chores - feeding and watering the chickens and alpacas, moving the fences for the boys to graze a new section of yard, scooping dung, moving the chicken coop daily.  Oh, and those seedlings still under lights waiting to go into the garden beds (egads!).

But all of this pales in comparison to what happens at the Big Farm. 

Already this week I have experienced:

Painting fences

Driving a skid steer (my first time) and moving about 8 or 9 round bales of hay from the field to the barn

Painting fences

Moving 700 pound round bales of hay around in the hay barn, by hand

Painting fences

Preparing 500 pounds of alpaca fiber (fleece) for shipping (this involves a vacuum cleaner, towel, and a lot of bags of fleece to tie shut)

Painting fences

Moving the cows, the horses and the big 100+ herd of female alpacas

Painting fences

Hosing down a group of hot, pregnant female alpacas

Painting fences

Watching a newborn cria (baby alpaca) taking its first breaths of air

Painting fences

In the 95+ degree heat (35 Celsius) plus humidity, even the small tasks soon sap the life out of a person. The larger tasks become grueling tests of patience and fortitude.  In addition to the heat, my allergies have been acting up since I arrived here, and the gnats seem to love  me, even while leaving the other folks here mostly alone.  The heat has been making it difficult to sleep, and my day starts pretty darn early now that there are pregnant girls to check on and cows to move before my normal work day begins.

Despite these challenges, I have been thoroughly enjoying myself.  I picked this farm as a place to spend a summer learning primarily because I love the Radloff family, some of the most welcoming, endearing, hard-working folks you'll ever have the privilege to meet. 

They have been raising camelids on this farm for over 20 years, starting out with llamas, then later, hand-selecting their first alpacas from a farm in Chile (five of their original imports are still living today). 

Although their son Justin now runs the business, the entire family is involved, and it's common to see three generations working side-by-side on any given day, with Justin carrying the wee-est of the bunch, his one-year old daughter, on his shoulders as he makes his rounds.

But as picturesque as this farm may sound, farm life is not always pretty.  There is manure and blood and sweat (and tears), joy and heartache, birth and death. Life gets real here very quickly. The kids are not shielded from these realities. 

But I can think of no better way to acquire a respect for the earth and the animals making their way upon it, than to have a direct hand in caretaking a piece of land and a pasture full of animals. 

And I can think of no better way to spend a childhood, or a life, tending a farm, no matter how Big or how Little.

Here's to a new Big Adventure!
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