Blog Archive

Thursday, July 28, 2011

No alarm, no shower, no cup of coffee, jolts a person awake like peering out the window at 5:00am (long before you actually need to get out of bed) and realizing that a herd of 100 alpacas is escaping out of the pasture onto the property at the Big Farm, and you are the only person awake on the farm who knows this is happening.

With some help, an hour later, they were all contained again, in one pasture or another.  Not necessarily the right pasture, but a pasture nonetheless.  Luckily, no males escaped, and no unchaperoned hanky-panky occurred, that we know of anyway.

A few days earlier, as I was getting ready to leave for a property-viewing appointment, I noticed a cow grazing alongside the driveway.  A cow that should have been safely tucked into the pasture behind the house.

It is heartening to know, for a newbie like myself, that even on a big farm, sometimes unexpected things happen.  Sometimes lessons are learned the hard way, still, even after 20-odd years of farming.

Lessons such as, Blitzer, the electric fence charger, is a marvelous invention, making the whole process of multi-species, rotational grazing even possible... but it doesn't work if it's not turned on.

I'm sure there's a joke in there somewhere, but I will leave that up to you readers.

What's charging you up this weekend?

Monday, July 25, 2011

I am searching for home.

Ever since we moved from our 120-year old home in Duluth, MN to the Minneapolis area in 2005, I have been wondering and dreaming about where our next home would be.

I have rented some amazing places - the townhouse in Burnsville with the deck I filled with potted gardens; the gargantuan, glass-windowed-country-house in Lindstrom where I was surrounded by oak trees and only 5 miles from the farm where my alpaca lived; and lastly, to our tiny, 2-acre rented farmette in Mayer where I am finally experiencing "real" country life - complete with 3 crazy cats, 3 of my five (almost 6!) alpacas and 15 16 chickens.

My friends at the Big Farm have been putting me up (or rather, putting up with me) in their bunk house for almost two months as I traipse all over Monroe and Vernon counties following one property lead after another. That's a lot of traipsing. And that doesn't even include the years we spent "window-shopping" on our travels to Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Colorado.

I'm quite sure my friends here think I have lost my mind. How difficult is it, anyway, to find one property amid a market filled with recession-priced-homes?

Well, it's complicated. Or maybe I'm just too picky. You decide.

I don't feel like I am asking for a lot. Just 5-10 acres (well, 40 if I could swing it...), some nice pasture grass, some trees, a southwesterly-southerly exposure and a view of the sunset.

Park it on a ridge top and sign me up.

Oh, and I want to pay cash for the land.

Most of the properties I have found that offer the right exposure are large enough to be out of our price range. The rest have been on the wrong side of the hill, been ugly, or just haven't "felt right." (Is that a valid criteria to use when searching for a home?)

So. I'm not sure when, or where, I will find our next home.

I'm starting to think it's like being adopted by a stray cat. When we moved to Lindstrom, we had 1 cat. When we moved away from Lindstrom, we had 3. And we didn't go looking for the other two. They found us.

I have a feeling our next home is just going to find us. And when it does, it will be obvious. And easy.

I may, however, need to rent a room somewhere for awhile, lest my friends here think I am never going to leave their bunkhouse.

As I've heard somewhere before, house guests, like laundry, both stink after two weeks.  And I've been here a whole lot longer than that!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

This is not a happy post full of frolicking chickens, cat antics or pronking alpacas. As every farmer knows, not every day on the farm is a happy one, although a good many usually are.

I watched a cria dying today. It was the first time I've seen one that close to death. I've seen a few dead crias, but never one still in the process of leaving.

It was a male, a multi-colored white and brown. The soft, curly fleece on its sides heaved with every rasping breath. The sound he made sounded almost like a human cry - it was difficult to listen to.

Of the two crias born last weekend, he was the bigger and stronger of the two, the other one being a little bit premature and therefore smaller and still struggling to figure out the nursing process. This little guy seemed to have it mostly figured out but his dam lacked a good milk supply, so we were supplementing him with a bottle twice a day.

This morning I held him between my knees as I gave him his bottle. It was easier than yesterday, he seemed more eager to take the milk. He seemed quite strong. The other cria seemed to be getting stronger, too. There was hope for both of them.

Shortly thereafter, a new baby was born, and attention was set to making sure the dam and cria were doing well. When we went to check on the little multi-colored male and his smaller pen-mate a bit later, we found him down on his side, rasping for breath.

My friend, the cria's owner, with twenty years of camelid raising experience under his belt, and I, the newbie, watched the struggling cria, both of us puzzled by his sudden down-turn. We took his temperature, it was normal. We were at a loss. It was clear he would not last long.

When I checked on him a bit later, he was still alive, barely, his cries coming weaker now. I would like to say I stayed there in the barn with him, that I held him as he took his last breaths.

I did not.

My presence in the stall would not be a comfort, to him or his dam. It was her place to be, not mine.

When I checked on him for the last time, he was quiet and still, appearing as if he had simply fallen asleep, never to wake up again.

A baby is born, a baby dies. The circle of life, and death, continues.

Friday, July 15, 2011

I'm trying something brave and new today.

I've been inspired by Jess from The Old Nichols Farm. She always has these cool links in her posts that take the curious reader to other cool photo websites offering photo challenges, like Beth's site at I Should Be Folding Laundry (what a great blog name, eh?).  Beth posts a photo challenge every Wednesday called You Capture in which she gives participants a theme for the week and invites readers to post links to their own photos (or blog posts) highlighting pictures of her suggested theme.

Clear as mud?

What this means is when I went to Beth's site this week I found out the theme is Summertime.  The one caveat for this assignment is you cannot look through your existing photos to find those that fit the theme - they have to be taken after the participant reads the week's theme.

So last night as Papa Bear flipped burgers on his parents' grill, I wandered around their picturesque back yard and tried capturing a little bit of the fleeting evening summer light that lingered in spots here and there.

Jazmyn and Belle accompanied me around the yard - well, mostly Belle, the Exuberant One - and provided an interesting backdrop for some of the shots.

I hope you are all enjoying your own version of Summer fun.  Drop by Beth's site and see who else has participated in this week's theme shots!

You Capture - Summertime

Thursday, July 14, 2011

And I'm only half-joking.

I have not had a garden, not even a potted once, since before moving to Lindstrom in the fall of 2008. The first year we lived in Lindstrom, I discovered just how shady it is in the midst of an oak grove.

The second summer we lived there, I was offered a garden spot at our friends' farm where we boarded Brigid.  I poured through seed catalogues, mapped out garden spaces, bought seeds and planned to start my garden under lights - one of my greatest joys of gardening. 

Then I was sent to CO for work for two weeks and, three months later and still in CO, had missed my opportunity to start any seeds at all.  Additionally, we moved at the end of that summer to the Little Farm.

So I had BIG hopes for my garden this summer.  It started off well, with four new Square Foot gardens, a new shelf for my lights, garden diagrams and planting schedules that encompassed seed-starting tasks once/week for about six weeks, ending right at the optimum time to put everything into the ground (and into pots) the end of May. 

I stuck to the plan for about five straight weeks. Sprouts were popping up like crazy, I had over 400 plants growing under lights!

What I failed to take into consideration when planning my gardening season were the following obstacles...

a. We'd be spending most weekends this spring traveling.  Some weekends we spent at alpaca-related events like shows and seminars, some weekends we were traveling to WI to look at land, and some weekends we were off visiting family in other parts of the state. I think we were gone about 75% of all weekends between March and May.

b. Sprouts under lights do the very best when Mama (or whoever the primary gardener is in the family) is there every day to care for them. As much as I appreciate my family's help in keeping them (mostly) watered, sprouts are tender things and they just need extra attention that is hard to generate out of substitute gardeners.

c. Just when my extraneous travel schedule quieted down, I took on the crazy idea that I should split my time every week between the Big Farm and the Little Farm, which resulted in my being gone from home 4 days/week, every week.  Needless to say, once again, the seedlings, still under lights, suffered a bit.  They needed to get in the ground in May. Most of them did not get in the ground until late June/early July.

By that time, some of them were so lanky and sickly looking I did not even bother, they just ended up in the compost pile. The few that remained I worked on shoving in the ground for several weeks in a row every (hot/muggy/buggy) Sunday afternoon as I was desperately trying to get all my stuff together to get on the road for my 4-hour journey to WI.

You know your garden is awful when your {very nice} neighbor {with her picture perfect garden} asks, and not sarcasticlly, while looking right at your plots, if you are going to put your garden in this year?


Like anything in life, that which doesn't get the primary focus suffers.  Except weeds, they seem to really love my extended absences.

What's happening in your garden this week?

Monday, July 11, 2011

I really wish I had a picture of me moving the cows. 

Then again, maybe I'm glad I don't.

When Justin showed me the first week I was out at the Big Farm, he made it look like a piece of cake.  The horses ignored him and his bucket of grain, and the cows followed him slowly but surely as he tempted them with the bucket until they crossed into the new section of pasture.

Today, when I took the bucket of grain up the hill, both of the horses perked up their ears and came running down the hill towards me.

A thousand pound horse running at you is a whole 'nother ballgame than a 50-150 pound alpaca.  You suddenly realize just how small and helpless you are, if the horses accidentally bump you or step on you in their eagerness.

Luckily Oakey and Shelby are nice, good-natured horses, but they were totally obsessed with my bucket, which was actually for the cows.  They pretty much made me a Miss V sandwich all the way back down the hill, across the next pasture and over to the corner where I put down some of the grain for them. 

This is the part where I'm glad I don't actually have a picture, or, even worse, a video.  The whole bob & weave scenario of me ducking out from the middle of these horses, followed by them circling around to cut off my route over and over and over again was not something I had planned on. 

After this slightly unnerving experience, I then had to truck all the way back up the hill again to retrieve the cows.  Mama cow (who is due to birth any day now) is starting to catch on to what the "bucket" means.  I held it out to her and she stuck her nose in, then pushed the bucket down nearly all the way to the ground.  She is one strong mama cow!  I went a few steps and she followed me, and I thought, "Wow, this is great!"

Then she stopped.  So I brought the bucket over to her again.  Repeat scene 4-5 times.

Then suddenly, she decided to frolic across the hill, kicking up her cow-heels and doing a little jig.

If I thought having two well-mannered, halter-broke horses running down the hill on either side of me was unnerving, picture this full-grown mama cow and two almost-full-grown yearlings romping at full speed down the hill beside me.

{Insert thoughts of injury scenarios involving being accidentally trampled by three cows.}

Once mama cow got to the section of electric fence that we had taken down, a light seemed to click on in her brain and she seemed to realize, greener pastures just over there!  And then she hustled right on over to the new section of pasture, a polyculture buffet of greenery goodness just waiting for her to dive in.

The yearlings hesitated at the fence line a few moments, then ambled over as well.

I laid down a line of grain, the remaining bits in my bucket, watching mama cow digging in, then smiled as I walked back over to the fence line where Justin was already putting the electric fence back into position.

I moved the cows. 


Friday, July 8, 2011

Brigid, my very first alpaca, the reason we got into the business four years ago, arrived here at the Big Farm this week.  Until now, she has been living on the farm where she was born since we purchased her three years ago. This week, she moved to WI.

I have not seen a whole lot of Brigid since we moved to the Little Farm last August. Before that, for the two years we were living in Lindstrom, she was only 5 miles away, and I saw her almost every day of the week. I have missed her so much.

This week she has been greeting everybody, even the brand new babies. I love how friendly she is, even when pregnant.

I can walk up to her and touch her, even put my hands on her sides and feel her baby moving.  Not many dams will let you do that. (Or humans for that matter! Not that I'd ever try.)

And she's such a calm and patient mama, too.  Grace had a bit of a struggle when she was born last year, but Brigid was a trooper throughout. Brigid is due this month, so I am hoping she will have her baby on one of the days I am here.

I am so very happy she is here now, along with Grace. 

{Happy Dance!}

My girls are all here! And my boys are all at the Little Farm.  There are little peeps at the Big Farm, and big peeps at the Little Farm. Everywhere I go, whether MN or WI, there is something beautiful to care for.

Life is full, and I am so very, very blessed.

Have a great weekend everyone!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

G the skid steer got the best of me today.  I was trying to assist in moving composting manure from the piles behind the barn into the manure spreader (a new method of turning compost - pretty slick!). 

It was so straight-forward. Pick up a bucket load of poo, move it over to the manure spreader hooked up to the tractor PTO, dump it in, repeat.

Only problem was, getting to the manure pile required driving up over some pretty big ruts to get up onto the cement pad where the piles lay. In the process, one or both front wheels of the skid steer come off the ground.  And when that happens, I temporarily panic, feeling like the thing is going to tip over backwards.

{Note: I'm not worried about getting hurt. I'm worried about damaging the machine and looking stupid.}

Then I regain composure, fill the bucket with poo, turn the machine around, and, with a full bucket, have to go back down over those same ruts, again panicking when it feels like I am going to tip over, but this time, sideways.  After catching my breath again, I have to go over the ruts a third time as I a approach the tractor, this time simultaneously lifting the bucket (which also makes the load less stable) and, without ramming it into the manure spreader, position it over the manure spreader and dump it in.  Then I have to back away from the spreader while lowering the bucket and going backwards over the ruts all at the same time, again filling me with panic as I feel like I am tipping over yet again while coupled with fear that I will slam the bucket down on the manure spreader and/or tip over backwards while it is still lifted up.

That is just waaayy too much feeling of panic and tipping over and losing control for this gal.

I didn't mind moving hay bales and water, although even those tasks had some moments of tension, and I learned how to dig and move rocks even though I was also dreading that task. But the constant feeling of losing control on the ruts today was just too much.

Even worse than that however was my disappointment and frustration in not being able to finish, and in letting my mentor down. I thought I could do it.  And maybe in time, I will learn how, when I'm more comfortable with the limits of the machine. But not today.  And yes, I could have forced myself to continue, and been afraid the whole time, and hated every second. I don't tend to learn very well under those conditions, and if I had forced myself that way, I may never have set foot in a skid steer again.

I'm just grateful I'm working with a great team here, people that are patient with me (and my weird baggage) as I step outside my comfort zone over and over and over again.  Something I have never been good at, something I struggle with every day here, as daily I am confronted with learning something new, something I'm not good at, something that makes me uncomfortable, sometimes even looking foolish and stupid.  I'm grateful that there is no pressure to be perfect here, because I am really, really, really not good at that.

I tried my whole life to do things perfectly.  My mantra was (and some days, still is), "I'm not good enough." I would never try a new task until I was certain I could master it quickly and easily.  I would never try a new task that could make me look foolish and stupid if I could not do it well. Doing so just brought to life all of my old insecurities.

Never did I guess that stepping into the steel belly of a machine today would also bring to life all of my old insecurities.  About not being in control. About not being perfect. About not doing things right.  About looking stupid.  About being afraid.  About quitting.  About my ability (or lack thereof) to be a farmer.

I've been told that to be a farmer, you need to know your way around a skid steer.  Perhaps I will never be a real farmer then, if that is the requirement.  Or maybe I'll just have to learn how to do things differently. 

Or maybe, just maybe, next time, G won't get the best of me.

Little late on my Peeps post this week.  The holiday on Monday threw me off schedule, and I didn't arrive at the Big Farm until very late Tuesday night, which meant no post writing that night, either.

So now it's Thursday already, and the little peeps at the Big Farm have grown by leaps and bounds. We call them Black Jumpers, because they seem to love to jump and flap as they race around their grassy yard, protected by electric net fencing. But actually they are called Special Blacks, a dual-purpose bird good for both meat and brown eggs.

Soon their movable coop will be built, and they will go out into the pastures following the cows and alpacas. There they will eat grass and clean the poop piles of parasite and fly larvae. They will be a mobile parasite patrol program.

Meanwhile back at the Little Farm, my girls continue to grow, too, but not by such leaps and bounds anymore. They are not quite full-grown chicken size yet, at just over 3 months, but they are getting close.

They still love to hide under the pine trees and lilac bush, running commando-style from one to another.  And they still come running from across the yard whenever I whistle and call them in for their favorite treat, carrot shreds.

Teeter continues to get stronger each day, too. Papa Bear ordered a wire cage so that we can start putting her outside near the coop during the day. We hope to transition her into our flock when she gets a little bigger and more coordinated.

Until next week, stay cool my big and little peeps!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Our Little Farm here just 30 miles west of the Minneapolis metro is quite full. Until we find a farm of our own, we have no plans to expand our operations here.  We have five alpacas, three of which, our males, which I refer to as "the boys," live here on the Little Farm; (our yearling female Grace is boarding at the Big Farm and our dam Brigid will also be there soon); fifteen laying hens which I refer to as "the girls," and three mostly-house cats.

So how can it be that I now have a 2 1/2 week-old chick in a bin on my kitchen counter?

Being a farmer of any size means sometimes having to make tough life-and-death decisions.  The backyard gardener will often trap rodents out of the garden.  I relented to having Papa Bear shoot squirrels out of the chicken coop.  When our first cria Grace was born, we made the decision to intervene and save her life. Some farmers would not have done that.  As the saying goes, having livestock means having dead stock, too.  I'm OK with that.  All new life depends on a cycle of death, too.  Without death, there is no life.

At the Big Farm I'm helping raise a flock of 150 dual-purpose chickens, most of which will end up in the freezer by winter. Even as I am amused by their antics and tend their daily needs, I am prepared to help harvest them as well. I have not attempted to bond with any of them like I bonded with my own flock. 

So again I ask myself, why is it that I now have one of those 150 chicks in a bin on my kitchen counter?

I pulled this chick out of the coop at the Big Farm last Tuesday, where I found her laying on her side with the entire flock running back and forth over her.  I thought for sure she was dead. Dead chicks in a flock this size and age are not uncommon, although there has only been one other loss in this flock so far.  It's best to weed out the weak ones, for the good of the flock.

I set her gently in one of the boxes the chicks first came in, and set the box in the shade. It was so light, this box holding one fragile little life.  I expected a few hours later she would have passed peacefully on.  When I later checked in the box, I was very surprised to see her still alive. I moved the box again into the shade, as the sun had now moved, and left for dinner.  When I came back near dark, the sun had set, the temps had dropped, and I again expected to find her gone. She was still alive.

Now I faced a quandary - I had not accounted for her surviving. By all accounts, half-dead, trampled, hot sun, cold night, she should be dead.

But she was not.

I decided to take her box inside for the night. I still did not expect her to live, but I cut the bottoms off a couple of paper cups and put some water and chick crumble in for her. She was so weak that when she fell over, she could not right herself.

By morning, I was positive she would be dead. 

But she was not. She still looked sick, weak, and pathetic, with poo and pine shavings stuck to her feathers from the many times she had fallen over. But she was alive, eating and drinking.

What was it about this little bird? Why had she not died yet, despite the odds?

By Thursday morning, I was wondering what I was going to do with her for the weekend. I needed to head home, back to MN, a four-hour drive away. I knew I could not ask the folks at the Big Farm to watch her. They were busy enough with hundreds of alpacas and the rest of the flock to tend to.

I decided to take her back to MN with me.

After packing the car, I placed her box gently on the passenger seat beside me and we set off for MN.  I checked on her every half hour or so.  She was sitting upright fairly quietly. Every so often she would try to move and tip over, getting stuck, peeping loudly. I would reach in and gently set her on her feet.  After a quiet ride, and about 30 miles from our house, she began peeping loudly.  This was the most noise she had made in the two days since I had found her.

When we got home, I carefully brought her inside, and set her up in a plastic bin that we had used as a temporary brooder when our chicks were babies.  She seemed so small and pathetic in that large space, so vulnerable and frail.  She began pacing the edge of the bin and peeping loudly again.  She was distressed.  I figured she was strong enough now to realize she was missing her flock.  So I grabbed a small mirror out of the bathroom and set it in the box near the corner, beside a soft paper towel folded into a spot for her to rest.

As we got ready to settle into bed for the night, she seemed to calm down as well, huddling into the corner next to the mirror.  As I made my last rounds of the night, checking that all the cats were in and all the doors locked, her distressed peeping had changed to quiet, contented-peeping noises.

We all went to sleep and didn't hear her again until we woke up Friday morning. All day she was in the bin on a chair next to the table where I work. Whenever I left the room, she would peep loudly. She still tipped over frequently, getting stuck on her side.  Late in the afternoon, Papa Bear helped me give her a bath, to get all the crusted poo off her feathers.  We dried her with a hair dryer.  I cleaned out her brooder and put in a layer of absorbent pine pellets, and remade her bed in the corner by her mirror.  She seemed to be getting stronger.

It is now Saturday, and she is stronger still. She has not tipped over on her side at all today. I've seen her stretching both of her wings a bit, the first movements of her wings we've seen. She's eating and drinking, and preening and resting in the corner on the paper towel by the mirror.

I have no idea what I am going to do with her. She may never get big and strong enough to join a flock, even if a flock would accept her. I am enchanted by her personality, her contended peeping, her warning peep when she sees something new, her loud peeping when we all leave the room, her tenacity of will to not give up despite the odds.

This is a peep that should not still be living.  But here she is. A mystery and a gift.

And even though being a farmer means making the tough choices, weeding out the weak for the good of the flock, I cannot help but be inspired by this little chick, who is defying the odds and clinging to life.

Papa Bear came up with a name that seems fitting to me - Teeter, as in Teeter-Totter. No matter how many times she goes down, she always comes back up again.

It may not be fair, this coddling of a weak, sick bird.  Perhaps she should have died, or been culled. I struggle with this even as I take great pleasure in watching her fight her way back to health. 

I don't know why you came into my life little Peep.  And I don't know what I am ever going to do with you. All I know is, I am glad you are still alive.
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