Thursday, May 21, 2009

My Bad Week Continues

I went out this morning for my regular chore routine, which involves:

Feeding grain to the Charolais calves
Letting the chickens out to pasture
Checking the horse/goat water tank and filling if necessary (it was)
Walking around and acting important

This amounts to a whole 10 minutes worth of "work", so you can see I've got it pretty tough.

But then I checked the egg refrigerator and noticed that the eggs weren't collected last night. That happens a lot when I work my two evenings at Atwood. It's no big deal--really--it just means that I have to stick my arm under hens that are laying today's eggs in order to collect yesterday's eggs. Understandably, this doesn't make the hens too happy. They squawk at me, fluff their feathers up all big and poofy, and once in awhile a real grumpy one will peck at my hand. Hen pecks don't feel too good, so I've learned to hold their heads in one hand while fetching eggs with the other.

Well, as I walked with my egg basket into the dark corner of the barn where the nests are, I noticed a hen cowering on the floor. Her head was all bloody and she was looking pretty beat up. Oh no. She was injured badly enough that I knew it wasn't just a pecking order injury--she had been attacked by something. And when something gets into our barn it's usually one of three animals: a raccoon, an opossum, or a skunk.

Raccoons kill lots of chickens in one night. We've had raccoon attacks that wiped out 20 birds in one fell swoop. The most frustrating part is that they eat only the chicken's brains and neck. They like the blood, not the meat, and so waste the rest of the carcass.

Opossums will kill only one or two chickens at a time because they will tend to sit and eat the meat. They are also a lot dumber, and don't leave the barn once daytime rolls around. Instead they find a dark corner to hang in, where inevitably they meet their demise at the hands of a few unnamed farmers. Ahem.

Skunks usually go for the eggs first, although they'll take a chicken if it's conveniently in the way. I can usually tell if one's around before I walk into the barn because of their signature perfume, but I have had 2 really close calls with skunks in my barn. I consider myself very lucky, because a skunk can accurately hit a target up to 12' away. Yikes.

Obviously we don't want any predation on our hens, but we'd prefer an opossum or even a skunk over a raccoon anyday. When I found that bloodied hen, however, my heart sank. Her head was bloodied, her body perfectly fine. It must have been a raccoon. Which means there will be other casualties.

I walked slowly around the barn and found 4 more hen carcasses. Four large, healthy, young hens...lost. And another dying.

That's the type of week I've been having. A long, crappy, frustratingly bad week. What next?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


You know those lovely cows I've been so enamored with? And how I think rotational grazing is the most awesome kick-butt farming system out there?

Well today I can't stand either one. And the only butt that's getting a kicking is mine.

I'm frustrated. F-R-U-S-T-R-A-T-E-D.

You see, we've been working hard to set up our leader/follower grazing system. What is a leader/follower grazing system, you ask? A leader/follower system is where we take a section of our pasture and divide it into small paddocks. The yearling calves that are fattening for market are let into that fresh paddock first. They eat as much yummy goodness as they can until they get moved to a nice fresh paddock the following afternoon. They are the leaders.

The followers are the pregnant mothers and the bull. Once we move the leaders into their new paddock, these ladies (and one guy) get put into the paddock just vacated by the leaders. They clean up what the leaders left behind, which includes some yummy goodness, but also the less yummy stuff like weeds, alfalfa stalks that have been stripped of their delicious leaves, etc.

This systems allows all of the cattle to fulfill their nutritional needs, but the leaders get first choice at the sweetest, highest energy plants in the paddock, which translates into nice meaty grassfed steers by the end of the summer.

Sounds great, right? Harrumph.

First off, it took us two days and many trips to Farm and Fleet to get the system set up. We had the water tank, but the float didn't fit it. We got the float to finally work, and then the connection was leaky. We got a new connection but then needed longer hoses. Hoses in place, we found we needed another polytape reel for the extra paddock divisions. Trying not to lose my patience, I bought or found what was needed and moved forward. You see, Marcel isn't so sure about this grazing stuff, and I didn't want to show any weakness in the system.

Which in hindsight makes me laugh. Or cry.

Here we are, getting the water tank in place. Ah, the confidence I was projecting. I look pretty convincing, don't I?

Next we sorted the calves at our place, loading the grassfed steers into the trailer and leaving behind the four Charolais calves that we're going to grain feed. We haven't been too enamored of these Charolais so far, and Sunday was no different. They are so skittish it makes the whole group nervous. Because of them, the separating took a lot longer than planned.

But we got it done, and hauled the Murray Greys over to Mom's pasture. We let the steers into their 'leader' paddock, where they got to rub noses with their mama's across the electric fenceline.

And all was well. For one day, at least.

'Cause on the very second day of grazing, my lovely children were having so much fun running through the tall, lush pasture grasses.......

that they spooked the leader calves right through the electrified backline that separated them from the mama cows.

Oh the joy!, the ecstasy!, the sheer delight that overcame these calves as they were reunited with their mothers once again. It almost brought a tear to my eye.

Almost, but not quite, as this wonderful, joyful reunion undid two solid days of work on the farm. It undid the previous day's work, plus the long day's work of separating the calves from their mamas that happened a few months ago. On a not-so-nice day, if you recall.

By this time I'm feeling discouraged. How are we supposed to re-separate the calves from the mothers in the middle of the pasture? How are we supposed to keep the bull away from those two young, impressionable heifers that he now has access to?

Most importantly, how do we restart our leader/follower system without discouraging Marcel? I need him to buy in to this system because...well, frankly because he's the backbone of this farm. Without his enthusiasm and belief in this system it'll be an uphill battle for yours truly. One that I will likely lose.

Ok. So we need to re-separate the calves, but at least for now they're happily grazing in a nice, fresh paddock, right? Wrong.

When I went to check on the cattle this morning I found two very stubborn, curseword-inducing calves outside of the temporary electric fencelines. They had somehow escaped the paddock.

You've got to be kidding me!

It's not like they were going anywhere, as the perimeter fence would keep them in the field, but the water was in the paddock. And on a sunny, windy day like today, they'd soon be thirsty.

I called Marcel and grumbled in his ear for awhile. He suggested that I take down the whole system, let all of the cows back into the barnyard, and we'd start all over later tonight. "OK. You're right. That's fine. I'll take it all down."


I hung up, grabbed the pick-up truck, picked up Armando from preschool, and proceeded to torture him (and those two darn calves) for over an hour. I even broke the first rule of cattle rusting--never herd cattle alone--but I'd be d*mned if I was gonna take all that work down and accept defeat.

I moved the mothers, calves and bull into a fresh paddock full of yummy goodness so they wouldn't pay mind to the fact that I was lowering the electric fence on one side. I pinned the fence down for a 20-foot opening, and then chased those two stubborn calves around the open field until they finally (finally!) saw the opening and crossed over.

I swear they stopped in front of the opening at least 6 times before they decided to cross into the paddock. And speaking of swearing, I think I gave my 4 year old an education, if you know what I mean.

So there you have it. My frustration runneth over, my rotational grazing system runneth amuk, and my yearling heifers runneth with the bull. And I'd better stop saying runneth, or I'll be talking with a lisp for the re-thst of the day. Laugh.

At least I'd be amused. That's a lot better than frustrated.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Visit Irish Grove Farms!

Irish Grove Farms is participating in the Openfields farm tour on May 24th!

Take advantage of this great opportunity to come and see just exactly what it is we're doing with this lovely farm of ours. We'll tour the pastures and visit the grassfed beef cattle. We may even get a peek at some young calves. You could collect an egg or two, climb up a hay shaft to the second floor of a milking barn, or find out exactly what a round barn looks like on the inside. Kids can feed carrots to the horses and goats; families can bring lawnchairs and a picnic and enjoy our hidden pasture for a bit. Better yet, you could just hang for awhile with the wackiest rookie farmers in the area.

Hope to see you!

For more information and a map of all participating farms, visit the University of Illinois Extension--Winnebago County website:

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Calving Season

Calving season is upon us.

May is the month our calves are scheduled to be born, if the bull did his job right, that is. And how hard is it? All he's gotta do is be a typical bull and work the crowd, so to speak. He doesn't even have to compete for the ladies. He is their only option.

I do believe he did a regular fine job, though, because I saw him all frisky and sly, all coy and cudly; I saw him whispering sweet nothings in the cows' ears and.......umm......maybe I'll just leave it at that. A bull deserves some privacy, doesn't he?

In defense of my creepiness, when the future of your farm depends upon one bull doing his thing correctly....well, I'm trying to say that my spying from the edge of the field had nothing to do with any socio-psychological problems of my own. Really.

Lord help me. This farm stuff can be embarrassing.

Anyways, i.e., how can I get myself out of this awkward situation, what I'm trying to say is that I'm really looking forward to seeing this:

and this:

I love how they play follow the leader like that.

I also love how they strike a pose and act all tough like this guy:

And then, of course, there's this sweet scene:

Oh, dear. Maybe a call to my therapist isn't such a bad idea.