Friday, December 28, 2007

Winter Wonderland

As I write, six to eight inches of snow are falling upon Irish Grove.

Our farm has converted itself into a winter wonderland. A fact which did not go unnoticed by Marcel.....

or the kids......

or even Olivia, for that matter.

When it's this beautiful, there's no way you can resist the urge to go out and play.

Here's Marcel pulling a child-laden sled with the PUG. (Pleae don't ask me what PUG stands for.)

We went down to the pond to see if it was frozen enough for some ice skating. On the way there, the PUG got stuck.

Push, kids, push!!
Umm, Armando....?? Just 'cause you're three doesn't mean you can slough off. Gees, what kind of farm kid are you, anyways?

Maybe we should try the other way.

Or maybe we should just walk the rest of the way.
See that open water? Guess ice skatin' is gonna have to wait. Bummer.

Instead, we can just admire the beauty of the creek.
Gosh, that's pretty.
Here's another view:
Winter in Irish Grove is a sight to behold.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

In memory of Dad

A beautiful memorial to my dad was erected today. Right in my front yard, no less.

It has brought with it a mixed bag of emotions. Pride. Sorrow. Wonder. Loss. Gratitude.

I think it's a lovely addition to the farm.

And a lovely reminder of the people, the sacrifices and the hard work that has gone into this farm. We are forever grateful. And we will never forget.

Thanks, Aunt Nancy and Uncle Jim. Your memorial is a fitting tribute not only to Dad, but to our whole family.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Story of Stuff

I don't normally plug other websites here, but as a farmer and environmentalist, and with it being the consumer, I mean Christmas season and all, I couldn't let this one pass by.

With the New Year right around the corner, I opine that it would serve us all well to slow down and perhaps decide our yearly resolutions should be about something a little grander than, say, making it to the gym each week or not drinking soda pop. Not that those aren't good ideas.

I propose we stop and really think about how our own personal actions affect our loved ones, our community, our environment and our future. I know that I, for one, need to do much, much better in all of these areas. Shall we try a little harder?

My answer? Yes.

Please check out:

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Bringin' the Cows Home

Irish Grove has a few new additions. Seven adorable Murray Grey calves that are so cute you just want to squeeze 'em. We bought them from a nice man in Platteville, Wisconsin, and had a fun day of loadin' and unloadin'.

Here I am, trying to let one calf at a time out of the trailer. My brave husband is inside(!) the trailer with the calves, piercing their ears. Who'd have thought we were so beauty-conscious on the farm?

The one to set free is the calf that Marcel has just pierced.

So far, so good.

Darlin', you look mah-velous.

A few calves later, I was still doin' okay.

This one pierced her right ear. Umm, wait a second. Does that mean...? No, it couldn't. Could it?

Okay, only two more to go, and one brings her own tag with her. We can let her out, and then quickly tag the last one. Piece of cake for a seasoned cowgirl like myself, right?


Do you see an oh-so-stylish yellow dangly earring on her? Me neither.

Uh oh, Marcel looks a little peeved.

I mean, he's inside the trailer with those unhappy babies, trying his best to pierce their ears without getting kicked, or butted, or smushed against the side of the trailer. All I have to do, for Lord' sake, is slide the gate open and shut!

Might as well just let the last one out, since she brought her own earring with her. She's a trend-setter, that one. Go on and join your siblings, little lady.

And now it looks like we're going to have an impromptu rodeo.

Lucky for me, Marcel loves playin' cowboy. Look how happy he is!

Aww, anything for you, sweetie. Aren't I just the best?

Marcel may be happy, but this little heifer doesn't want any part of it. She prefers the natural look.

Who knew we'd be into forced piercings? (I'd better remember this day when my kids come home with a nose ring and a pierced tongue.)

Ahh, the beauty of new beginnings:

In the meantime, can you tell which one of my kids is the cowpoke in the making?



or Madelina?

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Method behind the Madness

I realize that I've pointed out my farming inadequacies more than once or twice in this blog, and that my constant self-humbling could become more than a little tiring. But I do often wonder to myself: 1) who the heck do I think I am, trying to run the farm? and 2) why haven't I screwed things up yet?

Well, it turns out that I have a little secret. A well kept secret. A secret that I'm about to let you all in on.

Shhhhhhh.......listen closely. There is a method behind the madness. And that method is Marcel. That's right, my incredible husband, Marcel.

For those of you who don't know Marcel, he is the only Panamanian living in Irish Grove. Still not ringin' a bell? Well, he has an awesome smile, a laugh that sounds just like Eddie Murphy, the patience of a saint (he's got to put up with me, the poor, poor man), a generous spirit, an uncanny ability to eat huge amounts of food and still stay incredibly thin, and the tenacity to put up with me (did I already say that?).

But more importantly (at least for Irish Grove's sake), he is a master mechanic with a God-given ability to repair even the most mind-numbing of mechanical, electrical, and logistical problems. A common complaint I hear from homeowners is that when you finally repair the roof, for example, the gutters fall off. "There is always something" is the collective sigh ringing out across the country. Well, when you run a farm, multiply that frustration by a thousand.....

.....the auger's broken and we can't get the corn out, the water tank has frozen over and the cattle are thirsty, the blades need sharpening, the tractor won't start, the sliding barn door fell off the track, the raccoons are eating the chickens (again), the electric fence isn't working, the wheel fell off the grain wagon, the lights on the cattle trailer won't work, etc. etc. etc., ad naseum. Marcel is the answer to all this and more.

That is not to shun his inventive nature, of course, because Marcel spends a large quantity of his time at home in the garage, inventing something that will save us time or labor. In fact, I often tease him that he is the hardest working lazy man I've ever met. And while he has jerry-rigged many, many a system that has made our lives around the farm much, much easier, he has also come up with a few ideas that have had me laughing and shaking my head for days.

Like the sweep auger he invented so I wouldn't have to shovel the last 500 bushels or so of soybeans out of the bean bin. It was a great idea, and very sweet considering that he wanted to save me a long day of dusty, dirty, sweaty labor. But when you have an open(!) corkscrew blade whirling around at 50 mph, and the dang thing weighs close to 100 pounds, and I'm supposed to lift it and throw it onto the pile of beans without throwing my back out or getting my hand caught in the auger.......well, let's just say I tried for over an hour to get it to work, mumbled a few choice words that day (in true John Flynn style), and shoveled the beans out anyways.

But that pales in comparison to his now infamous invention: the Chicken Condom. Yes, you read that right, I said chicken condom. As gross as it was, Marcel was being his kind, generous self and was really just trying to accommodate some of our egg customers, who were a little wigged out by the dot they sometimes found in their eggs. You know, that little brown dot that means the egg was fertilized? Well, Marcel set out one day to solve this little problem by inventing a condom for the roosters. He took the tube out of an old bicycle tire, and fashioned it so that there were two looped ends--one to hook around each wing--that then met at the bottom in a sort of 'V' shape that got hooked under the tail feathers. And this is the important part: here is where a flap hung down to supposedly impede the rooster from penetrating the hens.

I soo wish I had taken a picture of it. Perhaps then we could have had it patented. And revolutionized the chicken world forever. Needless to say, I found the condom in our backyard a few weeks later, discarded hastily by that promiscuous, dirty, and very naughty rooster with absolutely no respect for the fact that we have young children that play in that very area. The very thought!!

And so, while I poke fun at my husband for his twisted, I mean, less productive ideas, he is the reason we are up and running in Irish Grove. Marcel is the method behind my madness, the how and the why of it, the safety rope that we depend on, and as the kids say, the one who can do anything.

And that's no blarney.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Harvest Hangover

Well, we're done. The corn is in the bin, Farmer Mark has taken his combine and gone home, and the phones are quiet.

Phew. What a whirlwind.

For six days, my life was dominated by corn. Yes, corn....the plant that has singlehandedly taken over huge tracts of land around the world and intoxicated farmers with its ability to produce those amazing seed heads, each one boldly holding hundreds of yellow kernels.

Now please don't start lecturing me on the evils of corn. I'm an environmentalist, remember? And a mother. I understand the pitfalls of mono-cropping, the stress corn puts on our soil and water, and the damage high fructose corn syrup does to one's body.

But during the past week, I most admittedly fell under corn's spell. I became enamored with its reproductive genius. I basked in its yellow beauty. I reveled in its smells, its abundance, its ability to dominate every waking moment of my life. I was as giddy as a teenager in love. Giddy!!

And now?? Now that the harvest is finished, and the corn has been neatly tucked away into the corn bin, or sent off by the truckload to intoxicate someone else??

Now I'm feeling the aftermath of my drunken harvest fest. My house is in a shambles. My yard is a mess. We have yet to return the tractors and wagons we borrowed. My head is foggy. I can barely drag myself out of bed. I'm grumpy with my kids and my husband. I have lost my drive, my energy, my passion.

I'm hungover, d*mn it.

And instead of being a responsible adult and admitting my weaknesses, I'm going to blame it all on the corn. That's right, it's corn's fault. She did this to me.

So let this be a lesson to y'all, especially you beginning farmers out there. Corn has an uncanny ability to bewitch, to dominate, to intoxicate. Plant with care.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Harvest

Thursday night, Irish Grove was a beautiful sight, lit brightly by October's harvest moon. Friday afternoon, the corn harvest began.

I'd love to claim that we time our farming activities by the moon's cycles, but I can't. It was, in all truthfulness, pure coincidence that Farmer Mark called us that evening to tell us he was moving the equipment over the next afternoon. And coincidence or not, that phone call caused the typical pre-harvest scramble that has become commonplace around here.

The first thing that needed to be done was set up the auger.

I was (un)lucky enough to be working by myself as we got started yesterday, and so got to climb up that little ladder you see on the right-hand side of the bin, up the roof to the very top, to take the bin's cap off. Yikes! I'm not a huge fan of heights, and my knees quivered for about an hour afterward. Farmer Bill told me you get used to it after awhile. I hope so.

Next, we had to find some extra tractors. In the year and a half that I have been a farmer, it has become painfully obvious that one tractor is not enough for a farm like ours.

Big blue, she's a beauty, and we're super lucky that my dad put in an order for her before his accident, but she just can't cover all the jobs that need to be done at the same time.

I have an acquaintance who is a new, start-up vegetable farmer. She really needs a tractor. One day, she commented how she couldn't understand why one of the local farmers wouldn't just give her one of theirs. "I mean, they've got all these tractors just sitting around doing nothing. They should share."

That kind of naivety is common. In reality, all of those idle tractors have very important roles to play, depending on the time of year (not to mention they are worth thousands of dollars). At corn harvest, a farm like ours needs at least three tractors. One to run the auger that loads the corn into the corn bin, and two to haul grain wagons back and forth to be loaded/unloaded.

Our farm only has one tractor, hence the urgent phone calls Thursday night to neighbors and farmer friends to see who could be oh-so-generous enough to let us borrow their tractor for the next week. One kind neighbor lent us his old John Deere with dead, never-to-be-resurrected batteries that have to charged with jumper cables every time you want to start it. I do believe our thank-you payment to neighbor Mike will be new batteries for his tractor.

Farmer Bill is always extremely generous, and lets us borrow his loader tractor a lot. In fact, Farmer Bill says yes to most of our requests, although I do remember a stern "no!" from him a few years back when we lived in his rental house and wanted to raise chickens.

Next, I get on the horn to call all Irish Grove farm hands to duty. That'd be me, Marcel, Rob, and Matt. We immediately cancel all off-farm work schedules, and all planned outings. Today we're missing the one Badger football game that we were going to make this season, which is a big bummer. (Go Badgers!)
I call the truckers to push, plead and cajole them into hauling my grain to the elevator. I need to push, plead and cajole because I'm one of about 30 farmers in the area jockeying for their services. As you might imagine, a little butt-kissing goes a long ways.

And finally, I scramble to find someone to watch my kids for the next week.

Usually, that means Grandma, although yesterday my sister Laura filled in, and my kids had a blast playing at her house.

Of course we need to haul the wagons to the corn field, put them in place, and wait for Farmer Mark to fill them up with corn.

Here's Farmer Mark in his combine, although this picture was taken during the soybean harvest:

Here's the auger hopper, waiting to be filled with some more corn:

And here's two happy Irish Grove farm hands, Matt and Marcel:

Irish Grove is in full swing. You just gotta love harvest time on the farm.

Monday, September 17, 2007


Meet Lucero, our trusty farm horse. He's a Standardbred--a huge and powerful animal that's as tame as a puppy dog. He also happens to have a pretty intimidating presence about him. Just ask our cows.

Lucero is his Panamanian name. (Hey, we do more than one culture around here.) His real name is Battleborn, or so it was before we acquired him. But we renamed him our 'bright star', which is what lucero means in Spanish.

Lucero is a horse with a past. And that's no small feat for a horse that's only 6 years old. Before he came to Irish Grove he lived in the Chicago suburbs, was owned by my cousin Jeff, and was a race horse...a trotter. Trotters and pacers pull these small carts with small men in them around a not so small racetrack, and try to outrun and out-manuever the others. They are harness racers. And the only thing that differentiates a trotter from a pacer is their gait. When a trotter runs, he simultaneously moves two legs which are diagonal from each other, i.e., his right front leg with his left back leg. Pacers move the two legs on the same side of their body at the same time, with both left legs stretching out first, then both right legs.

Lucero's life as a trotter was short-lived, however, because he was knock-kneed. He was fast enough, but as he got going, his knees would knock together and make him stumble. I know how it is. I was a knock-kneed young kid, too. Thankfully we've both outgrown our affliction. But Lucero earned an early retirement, and cousin Jeff generously gave him to us.

Farm life is a little boring for Mr. Big-City Race Horse, though, and Lucero likes to shake things up once in awhile. So when he gets the chance for a little excitement, he's not gonna let it pass him by.
There go the cows, into their fresh paddock for the week.

Ahh, what a peaceful farm scene.
Uh, oh.....
No, Lucero! Don't do it!
It's not too late! You can still turn back!
Hey...are you sure you weren't a rodeo horse in your early days?
Darned horse. Oh, and if the photos are a little blurry, it's because he was moving so darned fast. Knock-kneed? I don't think so.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Tribute to the Flynn Bros.

Lowell and Donald Flynn

Edward and Anna (Spelman) Flynn bought this beautiful Irish Grove land in 1910. The original farmland they purchased encompased not only the 210 acres at our homestead, but also the land directly across the road, which is similar in size. Edward began his adulthood as a teacher, and earned $18 a month. Once married, however, he and Anna bought our farm on Best Road, built the house that I now live in, and raised 5 children: Donald, Lowell, Margaret, Mildred and Rita.

Great-Grandpa Ed died at a young age, which is unfortunately common for the men in my lineage. When he died, his sons Donald and Lowell took over the farm, cared for their mother, and put their sisters through school. Times might have been different back then, but I find that remarkable.

Our whole extended family owes a great thanks to these two, for stepping up when the times were tough, for caring for the family homestead, and for providing us with a moral compass and strong family foundation. We are lucky to have had them.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Conversations I Never Thought I'd Have......Part I

One nice summer afternoon, we decided to take an easy stroll through a nearby forest preserve. Besides the pesky flies dive-bombing our heads, hence the head slapping above, it was a fine time. Armando got to ride on his papa's shoulders, the girls got to pick wild berries along the path, Marcel got to take a break from projects and more projects, and I got to enjoy a nice walk in a natural setting, which was a common practice of mine before I went out and multiplied.

Well, the hike didn't last long because someone was thirsty, and another one was tired, and Marcel's shoulders were starting to slump under Armando's weight, so we took the quickest way back, which ended up being along the road. It wasn't long before a neighbor farmer drove up, rolled down the window, and started chatting.

I love this about farmers. Farmers are always leaning out their window, talking to someone, usually smack dab in the middle of the road, without a second thought to any possible danger involved. This time was no exception. We were on 'big hill', the extremely inventive name that locals use to identify a particularly steep and curving hill on our road, and our neighbor had parked on the wrong side of the road to faciliate our little chat. It was very nice of him to accommodate us like that, and I don't understand why we kept getting dirty looks from the others passing by.

Soon enough the conversation turned to our four new Murray Grey's, and how we were going to breed them. Up until now, I had always wondered why some of the local farmers seemed to be uncomfortable dealing with me in my new farmer role. I mean, what's the big deal? Women do all sorts of jobs that used to fall squarely in the "man's work" category. But once the conversation turned to breeding, I saw the issue in a new light.

We need to artificially inseminate our Murray Grey cows, because we don't have enough to justify the cost of a bull. And our neighbor is being extremely generous in offering to take time out of his hectic schedule to help us. So all of a sudden I'm having a full blown conversation with my neighbor, who happens to be male, with whom I went to high school, and with whom I've never spent much time, about semen. Semen!

The conversation quickly deteriorates from how to order the semen, to how to know if the cow is ready. He started to explain that the vulva will be so, and you can palpate her this way, and stick your fingers in here, and deposit the semen in this manner, etc. etc. By the time he started to tell us that the heifers will be especially tight, I could feel a blush slowly creeping up my face. The horror.

So, I will kindly take back my ranting comments about how silly it is for farmers to be uncomfortable dealing with a woman. I get it, I really do.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Our Herd Mothers

Isn't she a beauty? She is one of our four new herd mothers, the future of Flynn's Irish Grove Acres.

We are in our first year of transitioning the farm from a conventional grain-fed beef operation to an organic grass-fed beef operation. The reasons for the change are wide and varied, but I'll briefly touch on a few of them here.

Today, to be a successful farmer following the rules of the game set out by Big Agriculture, you must "get big or get out". For those of you who don't own land and aren't familiar with farming, 260 acres may sound big. But for conventional agriculture, it is laughably small. We are WAY too insignificant to compete in conventional agriculture, and unfortunately, that's exactly how the big players want it. The only future I can see for a small, working family farm is to specialize in a rare, niche product, and/or go organic. There is no other viable alternative.

On a more personal level, I am a farmer, but I'm also an environmentalist. As a farmer, I see my farm as as a productive entity, as a partner, as a provider. As an environmentalist, I see my farm as an ecosystem, as a lifeline to flora and fauna, as a prairie waiting to emerge from beneath these strange and foreign plants called corn and soybean. Obviously it is pretty difficult to reconcile these two, real, live personas within me. Grass-fed beef offers me an almost perfect opportunity to work the land without damaging it, to take but to also give back.

Finally, I want to raise grass-fed beef because I am a mother, and because I want my children to love this farm. There are plenty of jobs around the farm that would make even the most seasoned farm kid want to thumb a ride to the Big Apple, but it is nothing but fun when we are working with the cattle. My kids love to help switch them from one pasture to another, and think it's hilarious to see them kick up their heels when they are allowed into a new section of the farm. We all love to go see the cows, to watch them eat or laze around. Oh, and I almost forgot: grass-fed beef poop, yep, you guessed it, in the field. Take that, Dad!

Here are my kids--happy as flies on manure--the day we brought our new cows home. You can tell they're real farm kids because they have no fear of those poop-smeared trailer panels.

And thanks to the cows, they are genuinely happy, even after being forced to ride 8 hours in the Big-Ass truck to go get our new mama's. Yeah, that's right. We drove all the way to Black River Falls, Wisconsin for these beauties.

But they are worth it. They're Murray Grey cows, and Murray Grey's are a specialty breed. There aren't too many people raising them around here, but those who do love them. The best thing about them, to me, is that they're an all-beef breed, meaning they've never been cross-bred with a milking breed. Their genetic make-up is focused on bulking up, not producing obnoxious quantities of milk, and, because of this, they fatten easily. This is key to a grass-fed operation, because we won't be supplementing their diet with grains. They will have to survive on pasture and dry hay only, and these ladies are good at producing calves that achieve a nicely marbled meat without grain.

Here's another look at our Murray's en route to their new home in good 'ole Irish Grove.

They were calm and collected the whole way home. Good girls. (Murray's are also known for their calm and gentle disposition, which is another big hit with this mama.)

Even though they are an Australian breed, a cross between a Scottish Aberdeen Angus and a Shorthorn, Murray Grey is appropriately Irish-sounding, don't you think? If not, no matter. They're Irish now, and, if you can't tell, we have high hopes for them.

You'll be seeing more of these ladies, I can guarantee it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

What Type of Vines Grow Beef?

Being the country bumpkin that I am, one of my favorite riddles is: What type of vines grow beef? It's a riddle that's as old as the hills, I know, but I still love it. It's a "groaner", the highest type of humor in the Purnell family.

Who are the Purnell's, you may ask? Well, they're the wonderful German-English family that produced my wonderful mom, Marcia! And they're also the ones that add a definite touch of class and culture to my immediate family. I don't mean to diss the Flynn's, of course, but the difference in the two families is quite striking:

A Flynn get-together is a rowdy, loud, winner-takes-all affair, while an event at the Purnell's is a soft-spoken, well-mannered affair. You can relax with the Purnell's, which might very well be dangerous with the Flynn's. The Purnell's will nuture you, they'll give you a sweet hug and kiss, and they'll even tell you "there, there" when you're feeling low. The Flynn's will hug you too, but they'll also squeeze and shake you, slap you on the back, and give you a kick in the ass if they feel it's warranted. The Purnell's are the yin to the Flynn's yang.

But I'm trying to talk about cows, not families, and I'm way off track.

Over the years, we've raised lots of cattle in Irish Grove. The farm originated with milking cows when Great-Grandpa Edward first bought the land. Grandpa Lowell continued milking until his untimely death, and then the tenant farmers, the Brown's, milked until the mid-1990's. (The Brown's deserve their own post.....check back!)

When my mom and dad decided to build a house by the round barn, my dad lost little time in acquiring a small herd of cattle. But this time they were beef cows. Dad loved playing farmer with those cows, and he dove into the work that animals bring with gusto. He mostly raised steers, or feeder cattle as they are called. But with those cows, he proved to everyone, and most importantly to himself, that he was a Hard Worker. And there was no higher standing in John Flynn's world than that of a Hard Worker.

Looking back, I can see that the beef cattle were also, arguably, my dad's most effective parenting tool, and he used them extensively while raising my siblings and me. The cows were used to teach us responsibility, because they needed daily care in the form of morning and evening chores, and they also taught us the perils of procrastination. I can remember numerous occasions when I ran as fast as I could, completely terrified, through the shadowy area between the barn and house--all because I had put off my afternoon chores until late evening in the hopes that someone else would ultimately do them for me. No such luck.

The cows were often used for discipline. Many a long day was spent pitching manure as punishment, usually because my sister Laura was lousy at misbehaving without getting caught. And every time she would get in trouble, my dad would look at me and grumble, "get out there and help your sister", which seemed especially unfair. He would later laugh and say it was prevention.

Last but not least, the cows were effective at teaching us humility. You can only imagine how humiliating it was when we'd hear our school friends, or especially that boy we had a crush on exclaim, "Ewwww! I can't believe you're scrubbing a cow's butt," as we washed our steers before our 4-H competitions at the Winnebago County Fair.

Parenting tactics aside, I can now see that my dad mostly loved his beef cows because they allowed him to feel connected to his past, and because they kept him humbly rooted in the farm. They offered him a peek into the life of his father, Lowell, who died when he was only eleven. They allowed him to measure his success in life by a standard that his father would recognize: Hard Work.

When dad died last year, we sold his herd of cattle. It sounds sudden, I know, but it was actually following his plan for the year. We had planned to switch breeds that year, and embark on our new farm project: raising grass-fed beef. It was, at the time, a relief to have the cattle gone. We were tending to our broken hearts, and to our suddenly difficult task of simply living.

But when we bought 10 steers from Farmer Bill this spring, it felt like we were coming home from a long journey. The cows were back. The barns were occupied. The pastures were happy. And we could breath a little bit easier.

The cows have returned to Irish Grove, and have allowed me to keep alive my connection with dad. And not only him. The daily routines and occasional problems that the cattle bring us tap into a rythym deep within that connects me to my past, my Irish ancestors, my origin.

And I must admit that I have already sent Ana and Madelina, ages 8 and 5, out to the barn, pitchforks in hand, after a particularly tiring day of bickering. Armando, age 2, is safe. For now.

What type of vines grow beef? Bovines, of course.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Rakin' It In

On Monday, I spent 7 hours raking hay. (You didn't really think I meant money, did you?)

Yep, it's hay-makin' time in Irish Grove, and when the hay is ready, it's ready. It doesn't wait around for you to finish the laundry or run a needed errand, and it doesn't care if you have to cancel that scheduled play date with the kids that they've been looking forward to for two long months. It doesn't wait for an empty day on your calendar, or even for the weekend. Gees.

Making hay can be a complicated and unforgiving process, especially for beginners like us. The alfalfa's gotta be at just the right maturity to ensure a high quality, highly-nutritious product for the cattle. That is when the plant is in the budding out stage, right before the flowers bloom. And that can take about 28 to 30 days from the previous cutting.

This is what the hay ground looks like about one week before it's ready to cut.

That's our barn in the distance. And that's Mom's round barn alongside the hay field. Very cool, eh?

Of equal importance to proper plant maturity is the weather. I have to italicize weather, because I can't emphasize enough how important it really is. From the day you cut the hay to the day it gets baled, it is really important that it doesn't rain. Rain causes the alfalfa leaves to wilt and yellow, and could even cause the the hay to rot, which is obviously undesirable. It also delays baling. The longer the hay is exposed to the elements, the more nutrient loss you will experience. So, depending upon humidity levels, and the amount of sunshine and wind present, you will need about four full days of dry sunny weather for the hay to properly dry. Finding that four-day window can be challenging and frustrating, especially during the spring and fall cuttings.

Aha, good weather on the horizon? Cancel all plans, dump the kiddos at Gramma's, and get busy!

To mow hay, you need a tractor and a haybine:

These two machines will be connected via the PTO, which incidentally does not stand for Parent-Teacher Organization. PTO is short for Power Take-Off. The PTO is a handy-dandy device on the tractor that basically enables all of your farm implements to do their job.

When you finally get everything connected properly and you've said farewell to your lovely children, you get to work mowing the hay. Mowing hay may look easy, but it isn't. You've gotta look ahead to watch where you're going, and behind at the same time, to make sure you've got the mower positioned just right. If it's off, you could either leave a swath of uncut hay bobbin' in the wind, mimicking you're novice abilities, or you could cut too narrow a swath, meaning you'll have to make numerous extra trips around the field, wasting time and diesel fuel.

The swaths are called windrows, and look like this:

See those tufts of alfalfa on the corners? That's proof that yes, we are rookies, but also that corners are especially tricky.

Hay must be crispy-dry before you bale it, because it is going to be stored in close proximity to other hay bales. Any moisture present will start to decompose the hay, causing heat to build up in a very tightly packed space. And if that happens, you have a pyromaniac's dream-come-true, right there in your very own backyard or barn. Poof!

So, the next step is raking. Once the top 80% or so of the windrow feels crispy-dry, you rake the hay, which flips the alfalfa over and fluffs it all up nice and pretty. Many people hear us saying we have to rake the hay and think we mean by hand. Fortunately no, even though that is how it was done before all these fancy machines were invented.

Our hay rake looks like this:

It's called a Gyro-rake, and we connect it to the tractor, again via the PTO, which will spin those little pitch-forks around and around. The forks throw the hay against that white gate, where it then falls to the ground in nice little fluffy rows.

After I spent 7 hours rakin' hay on Monday, the field looked like this:

And this:

Can you see the difference between the flat windrows above, and the nice fluffy rows? Now the air can really get circulating in there, to quickly dry the remaining damp hay.

Oh, and one more very important thing: you never, ever rake the hay if it's going to rain. This may come as a surprise to most of you, but occasionally the weather forecasters are wrong! I know it's hard to believe, but sometimes our four-day-dry-weather-forecast miracurously turns into thunder clouds looming in the distance. If that happens, it's better to let the hay lie there, and turn the other cheek. Rain will cause the hay on top to yellow, but the bottom leaves can stay green and fresh if you're lucky. (And if you do rake before rain, you may also be subject to a gruff lecture and once-over from Farmer Bill. Which is not pleasant. Which I experienced the first time I tried to make hay.)

We don't own a baler, so we have to call ahead and make sure the local guy can come before we dare think about raking. This time around we had contracted with some local fellows who will bale it and buy it. They are large hay brokers, and deliver hay to dairy farmers in Wisconsin. It pays less, but it also saves us the hassle of storing and marketing the hay ourselves. When they bale it, they make it into large squares, which look like this:

They then load it up onto a semi-trailer, and send it off to some very lucky cows.

To quote Irish Grove's Catholic mass, "Happy are those who are called to this supper." Or in this case, happy the cow that gets to chaw away on this good ole' Irish Grove green stuff.

And we get to "relax" for another 28 days. And counting.