Friday, October 28, 2011

Farm Story for October 22, 2011

Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm,

It is hard to believe that our terribly hot summer has come to an end. We had gotten into the routine of watching the livestock lay in the shade while we scurried around to keep water troughs full. We also fed a lot of hay as the drought kept our regular grass from growing. Now it is time to begin thinking about our winter routine. And a big part of that winter routine is also feeding hay. We are very blessed to have a few good hay men who work with us to guarantee that we have hay available. As we’ve been using square bales this year we’ve stored most of our hay in the old barn. The old barn was on the property when we moved here thirteen years ago. There was also a three sided shed in the pasture we use for the donkeys as well as a nice Mennonite-built stable with five big stalls and concrete walkways. We appreciate all of the buildings but the old barn has certainly become a special place since we’ve been keeping it stacked full of hay.

We have mostly used the stable when we needed to house livestock. The old barn does not have a true foundation so that there is a gap between the bottom of the walls and the ground around it. That gap is great for letting a nice breeze through on a warm day but sure lets the cold air in on a nippy day. At lambing season that can be a problem as the tiny lambs nap in the chilly breeze. They are also subject to unwanted visitors. There is no point in trying to keep chickens out. They either wander under the barn walls or hop through the big opening above the half door at the back of the barn. We do not allow the chickens around the newly born lambs as the chickens peck at them, finding the dangling pink umbilical cord a tempting target. Some of the older sheep mothers will stomp and push at the chickens but most do not. We learned during our very first lambing season that it is better to double up ewes and lambs in the stable than to let the lambs risk a chicken attack. Although we’ll occasionally lock up a cow or adult goat temporarily, the old barn is mostly storage.

The dogs have dug out ruts to make it easier for them to slip in and out. Unfortunately the dogs have dug some holes right at the base of two of the doors so that we have to step carefully in and out so as not to twist our ankles. The pits are even more challenging when we cannot see where we are walking because we are carrying big bales of hay in to stack. I tend to be careful the first dozen or so times through the door and then my mind wanders and I trip in the hole, usually falling forward onto the bale I am trying to carry. I am alert for most of the rest of the unloading after a good scare.

Since the first hay cutting in spring we’ve kept the old barn almost totally full of hay. We do have one set of chicken nesting boxes in the old barn where I gather eggs daily but the hens have also gone about making plenty of new nests in the hay. I have found a few and check them regularly for eggs but whenever we are climbing up high to move hay and find eggs we feed them out to the dogs. The enormous Anatolian Shepherds love to climb the hay bales in search of their own eggs. They get an extra treat when they can corner a hen up on the bales. She will scream and spread her wings before jumping down in a cloud of hay dust and feathers. The dogs will jump off of the top of the bales trying to snag the hen in the air. The hen rushes out under the gap at the floor and is gone while the dogs go back to exploring. On a few occasions I’ve entered the barn to find a tumbled down mess of a dozen bales or so. The dogs are large enough to throw a stack of bales off balance and then ride the crashing pile to the floor. We have only had one fatality from these mishaps. I found a dead chicken under a bale pile. Although there is a slim chance it died from natural causes, my best guess would be that it was a victim of many eighty pound hay bales tumbling down.

I like to keep a water bucket filled in the old barn just in case a dog or goat spends much time inside. The scattered falling hay recently turned our bucket into a nice rat trap. The bucket ended up right next to a few bales. Some of the hay scattered from the bales ended up floating in the water bucket. I imagine the rats who had been busy eating the remaining oats out of the oat hay couldn’t tell the difference between the bales they were scurrying across and the hay floating on the bucket. One morning we found five rats drowned in the water bucket. We cleaned the bucket and disposed of the rats but right before bedtime I scattered some new hay in the water. There were no animals inside who needed to drink from the bucket. The next morning there were three more dead rats. I tried again the next night but did not catch any more rats. I doubt the rats wised up so prefer to think we put a good dent in our rodent population.

Just two weeks ago I was thrilled to find a big hunk of shed off snake skin next to the water bucket. The size of the piece of discarded skin that I found made me believe we have at least one five foot long black rat snake living in the old barn. I am thrilled! We much prefer the snakes to help control rodents rather than to have to put out traps (other than my bucket, of course) or poisons.

Right now the stable is a safe home to twenty two new layers. A friend wanted to order some chickens but only wanted a handful of them. The standard chicken order for newly-hatched chicks that will need to be shipped is twenty five. The fellow ordered Buff Orpingtons but only wanted a few so we bought the remainder once they were two weeks old. The pretty yellow birds now have their own stall in the stable where they scratch in the dirt and practice perching on a few cement blocks piled in the corners. These past few nights they have all appreciated the heat lamps that hang in the center of the stall. We had to move a few hens who had slipped into the stable out because we found that they had flown into the chick stall and were making trouble. There were two young hens who were taking turns holding the little ones hostage while the hens ate their feed and drank at their waterer. The big hens had plenty of their own food and water but I believe they were enjoying being bullies. I noticed one of the hens pecking the little ones on the tops of their heads every time they tried to leave the corner. Those two were swiftly removed from the stable. I imagine they are now picking on someone their own size in the old barn.

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Friday, October 7, 2011

Farm Story for October 8, 2011

Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm ,

Pavl, our white crested black Polish rooster, is getting in trouble again. He seems to have a death wish. In the past I’ve told you about his near drowning and other run-ins with most everything on the farm including me. This week he has been at it again. He has his own little harem in the stable. We had to move him into the stable because the other chickens pull the feathers out of his crest which leaves him with a bloody bare head. We’ve given him an entire stall which is quite large and has a lovely window. He has the company of a few hens and three ducks that have been injured or also get picked on. They are a ragged little bunch but are safe and well tended now. Pavl does not always stay in his stall as he loves to fly up into the stable rafters and then jump down into other stalls or into the main section of the stable. He is ordinarily a happy little man in his own world.

I am accustomed to seeing Pavl sitting up on his windowsill and crowing in the morning or just watching the outside world in the afternoon. He usually peeks for a while and then jumps back into his stall but this week I realized that he has decided to start exploring. I don’t know how long this has been going on but in the past whenever Pavl has gone on an adventure it has resulted in a fight with another rooster, a near escape from a dog or some other episode that has ended in a rescue.

On Monday I went into his stall to feed and water everyone. I always glance to see where Pavl is before I step into the stall as there have been plenty of times when he has been in a foul mood and has flogged me with his huge spurs as I’ve stepped in. This time I did not see him so I glanced up at the rafters to see if he was hanging out overhead. He was not there. He was also not in any of the adjoining stalls. I had not seen him as I walked back to the stable. The dogs walked with me and they did not look either startled to notice him or guilty for perhaps having attacked him.

I walked outside to start my hunt. The first thing I came across was a long gently curved shiny black rooster tail feather. Since there was only one feather I knew it was not necessary to panic. When a dog does grab a chicken there is a big pile of various-sized feathers left behind as the bird pulled away. I continued to search. I found no more feathers but I also did not find Pavl. Sadie, one of the Anatolian Shepherds, was walking with me. She was a few feet ahead of me when she looked up and began to trot in the silly not-quite-a-puppy-anymore lope that indicates silly enthusiasm. Sadie trotted over to Pavl who was huddled tightly in a corner where two sets of pasture fencing came together. He was in a little bit of a dip so I had not noticed him. Sadie distracted him while I swooped in to grab him up. He slipped past both of us. Sadie now realized that we had a chase and became even more excited. I did not need her help anymore so grabbed her by the color and led her to the tractor shed where I could lock her up. She whined as I walked away to track down Pavl once again.

He was in the middle of the barnyard. I tried to calmly walk him into a corner again but he refused to play, weaving back and forth but staying out in the open. I have said before that a chicken has a brain about the size of my thumbnail but it is still enough brain to make a successful chicken. This successful chicken would not be caught if he couldn’t be cornered. And I’ve got plenty of proof that it is not easy to corner any creature when I am working alone. It was obvious that I did not need to waste any more time trying to corner Pavl. I did realize that he was no longer happy outside and was looking for a place to go that was not a corner. I was able to walk toward him and gently guide him back toward his window. He would not jump in let alone look up toward it. He was too busy keeping an eye on me. I realized he did want to go back in but was in too big of a panic to figure out how.

The stable has a large door on each end. One of the doors had a few goats sleeping in front of it so I decided to walk Pavl around toward the other door. When I had him almost there I ran ahead of him and flung the door wide open. It took a few more loops around the barnyard before I was able to maneuver him toward the open door. Just as I realized that the goats were up and heading our way, Pavl made a run for the door. I ran up and slammed the door behind him just barely beating the herd of goats who were hoping to force their way in for a quick rampage through the things they aren’t supposed to climb on in the stable. I ran around to the other door, slid in the stable and opened the door to Pavl’s stall. He took his time strutting in to rejoin his harem. I have no idea how many more times Pavl has gone off on a toot this week. I did notice that he is down to a single long tail feather so it is a pretty good bet that while outside one of the dogs has at least given him a good chase or he has tangled with another rooster.

I probably only lost fifteen minutes or so chasing Pavl around the barnyard but it is amazing how many of these little episodes in a week add up. It is rare that I walk out to gather eggs, simply gather eggs and then return to the house without stopping to do something else.

Little Joey, the stray cat that the children brought home from Apple Island about eight years ago, has decided that he wants to live in the stable. Last winter he had taken to following me out there as I made my late afternoon trip to gather eggs and to feed the dogs. A few days a week he would follow me almost all the way to the door than take a quick turn, jump through Pavl’s open window and meet me at the stable door as I opened it. I often add a bit of canned dog food to the dogs’ dry food and Joey discovered that if he was there as I opened the can I would let him lick at it as I scooped out the dry food. I then got soft hearted and began bringing an occasional can of cat food along. I would lock him in the stall where I do my dyeing and let him have his can there so that the dogs or chickens would not bother him. Now he has moved into the stable almost full time and I feed him a can of cat food there every afternoon. He has found lots of nice places to snuggle up and nap and seems to enjoy stalking the chickens but never risking a chase. Unfortunately, Joey has started walking on my table as I paint my dyes on the wool. He has overturned a few dye jars and tangled plenty of cellophane. I had to lock him in the tack room to do this week’s dyeing after trying just to push him out of my way. Just another little bit of time that I’ll never recapture but all our animal friends are just so amusing. I am beginning to think it is time to put a sturdy screen in Pavl’s window though!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Farm Story for September 24, 2011

Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm ,

Fencing is a wonderful thing and we depend on it. But sometimes it is as much a hassle as anything. This has been a week of fence events. Years ago I learned the expression “If a fence won’t hold water, it won’t hold a goat.” I have repeated that to many folks, most often those thinking about getting a few goats one day.

Many of the fence problems we tend to think of have to do with fencing that allows a creative or persistent animal to escape. The broken 2 X 6’s remind me that this time of year the fellows are warming up for breeding season as they practice using their heads to break through fencing that might keep them from the girls. There isn’t much point in repairing those boards until breeding season has passed as the fellows just smash at the new boards in their way. Fortunately the woven wire fencing behind the boards usually slows them down. I did laugh this spring when I was talking with another farmer about lambing season. I mentioned that we had been lambing for several weeks. He had yet to have his first born. I told him that just proved that he had better fencing than I did.

Al had to take the chain saw to a tree that recently dropped across the electric fencing farther down in the woods. He often checks the level of charge on the fence and if it is not very strong he walks the fence line until he finds a spot where either branches have fallen down or weeds have grown up. This time last weekend’s high winds had caused a huge chunk of old tree on the neighbor’s property to drop down and compress the fence. The wires smashed on top of each other get grounded out so that the fence is no longer “hot”. A good fence clearing resolved the problem.

Our much-needed but torrential rain has caused another fence problem. The rain came down so fast that the rushing streams carried leaves, sticks, hay and other debris over the bottom wire of a few fence sections. That must be fixed by walking the fence with a hoe and pulling away the wet muddy mess. We know what spots to check for that so once the rain clears we give it a quick clean out.

Now this week we’ve had a few funny fence problems. I’ve mentioned before about the horned goats who push their heads through a hole in the woven wire fencing and then find they cannot get their horns aimed at the right angle to draw their head back out after they’ve snacked on whatever looked better on the other side of the fence. We have a few perpetual offenders who get stuck. They have learned that once they are stuck it is best to just sit down for a while and wait until they hear the house door open. The moment they realize one of us are coming out they begin to bawl to get our attention. They have so much confidence in us that as soon as they see us coming their way they quiet down and simply wait for help. Well, at least three times this week I’ve had to help a polled (hornless) sheep get her head back out. It seems she can wedge her head slowly through by wiggling all kinds of directions but when she goes to withdraw her head the sticking point is the bony orbits of her eyes. It is one thing to help a goat wiggle its tough horns around but it is just not a good thing to squish and pull on one’s eye sockets. It is a slow process and I usually end up with a slightly-smashed finger or two as I try to protect the eyes while gently pulling the welded wire that makes up the fencing.

On Tuesday the little gal managed to shove her head through a space in the cattle panel that “tightens up” one of the sections of board fencing. I noticed her as I walked out to gather eggs. I patiently attacked the problem while a few of the goats either watched my work or shoved on me for some special attention as I was squatted down trying to gently angle her head so that it would fit back through the hole. I just couldn’t get it. The sheep was not helping. She kept pushing forward as I was trying to gently pull her back through the hole. When I went to the other side of the fence to push her back through the hole she insisted on pushing even farther forward. This is common sheep and goat behavior. In fact, we learned long ago that if we wanted a stubborn goat to go forward we simply had to push on its forehead as if we were forcing it backwards. It would fight us and end up going exactly where we wanted it to go.

Since it was Tuesday and I had a class to teach in the afternoon I gave up on manipulating the sheep’s head back through the stiff wire of the cattle panel. I walked into the stable, lifted the enormous bolt cutters off of their spot on the wall and nipped the wire. The wire is stiff enough that I still had to bend it to get the sheep’s head out but she was finally free, I pushed the wire back to its original place and went on to gather eggs. These are the things that make a simple chore turn into a half hour event.

We’ve also had a problem with one obnoxious goat forcing her way through a bit of loose wire fencing to get into a stall that is now holding bales of hay. She gets in, nibbles for a while but then cannot go out the same hole she came in as the wire that she pushed out of her way to get in is now pointing her direction and threatening to shred her should she push back out. I’ve opened the door and removed her many times over the last week. I did try to repair the bit of fencing but that didn’t seem to work. That very evening Al found her and a few friends all wedged into the hay-filled stall just chomping away. This is the exact hay that they are fed in abundance daily but it seems more appealing when forbidden. So I had resolved to fix the fencing the next day. I went about my daily routine, having forgotten about the hole. At the end of the day I had a kid in the barnyard bawling for its mother. I realized that she may be inside the stable so went to find her. She was in the hay stall. She began bawling at me. I went to open the door next to the hole in the fencing but it would not budge. I had to go around and open another door to let her out. That is when I discovered that she had knocked several bales down. I shifted a few around so that I could let her out. That is when I noticed that one of the bales had tumbled down at an angle that it blocked the hole that she had been using to push into the stall. I left that bale just where it was and, until we feed out all the hay in that stall, will let it be the repair for the gap in the fence.

We work regularly to keep up with our fencing and are never surprised with the funny predicaments we find ourselves and our creatures in. It is just another one of those challenges that are part of the farming life. I guess it keeps us from becoming lazy or complacent. It would just be easier if the biggest fencing problems did not pop up on a nasty rainy day or as the result of trees coming down in one of our famous Carolina ice storms.

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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Farm Story for September 17, 2011

Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm ,

I really missed Saturday Market last week. I loved being at the Indie Craft Parade and the great sales will certainly help tremendously with winter hay money but I guess I’m just in a routine where I look forward to being on Main St. on Saturdays.

From about midday Thursday until late on Sunday I did not spend the usual time around the farm as I was busy either with preparations or actually downtown at the Indie event. Al kept up with my farm chores while doing his own and still having time to give me a hand with set up, break down and selling. It wasn’t until Monday that I was reminded of how much some of my creatures missed me.

I was exhausted so was still in bed at about 6 a.m. when Al came in from doing the first chores. He’d let Sadie, our youngest Anatolian Shepherd, come up to the house with him. I awoke to find her on the floor as close to my side of the bed as she could get. I didn’t realize she was there until I swung a foot out of bed and stepped on her. I let her spend the morning in the house with me. She followed me from room to room, laying down when I started a project like felting soap or working at the spinning wheel. Although it seemed she was napping, the moment I headed out of the room she would open one eye, watch carefully and then follow me to the next destination. She came outside with me but rather than run off as usual when she entered the barnyard, she continued at my side as I watered livestock, gathered eggs and fed chickens. By the end of the afternoon she was apparently convinced that I would not be disappearing again and has mostly resumed her normal routine.

The Lincoln lambs, Buddy and Inky Dink, have also spent a lot of time attached to my legs since I’ve been back to my regular schedule. Both boys have grown out their beautiful long curly locks to the point where their heads are big fuzz balls. Buddy seems to enjoy it when I hold his head in my hands, brush the long locks out of his eyes and kiss his forehead. Both boys are quite long legged so I hardly have to bend down to fuss over them. Inky follows Buddy closely so I’ve had to be careful when I am walking through the barnyard and am about to turn as one or the other has been underfoot. They usually ignore me when I am in the stable dyeing fiber but this week I’ve noticed them checking on me by “maaaaaa-ing” until I speak to them. That contents them or about fifteen minutes. If I haven’t come out of the dyeing stall by then they speak again. They have accidentally found themselves in the wrong pasture more than once this week as they’ve followed me in, gotten momentarily distracted and I’ve moved on without them. Fortunately all of the livestock guardian dogs are familiar with them so they are safe if I leave them behind.

We have been slowly transitioning the new pullets to the great outdoors. It is best to move them right at bedtime, deposit them in one of the buildings along with some other hens and hope for the best when everyone wakes up together the next morning. If a new chicken joins the established group in broad daylight the regulars will harass her. I did try to move a few during the middle of the day last week. I was hoping that if I moved several together that they would go about their business without any problems but I was mistaken and I knew better. The older hens immediately cornered one young gal and then just stood there daring her to move. Fortunately I’d stayed outside to watch what would happen. I hauled the poor pullets back to the stable until later in the day. I tried putting them outside as the hens were roosting for bedtime. The next morning I found the new pullets together outside simply scratching around. They are definitely staying together and the other hens don’t seem to care.

We did have one white pullet who went off on an adventure. We do have chickens almost everywhere in small groups around the farm. This little gal somehow ended up all the way at the bottom of one of the sheep pastures that runs along the neighboring woods. I caught a glimpse of a very bright white chicken as I was calling up one of the dogs to feed her. I walked all the way to the bottom of the pasture to find her wandering back and forth between the pasture and the neighbor’s trees. There were no other chickens in sight. I could not catch her. I am usually pretty good at cornering and catching a silly chicken but there were no real “corners” I could work with in the pasture that is fenced with high tensile wire that she could easily slip under. There is one more chicken-catching trick but even that wouldn’t work. If you step away for a moment and then quickly step back at the hen with arms extended wide it will often flatten out on the ground as if ducking from a hawk. When I tried that, this silly gal took off running across the open pasture, a move that would easily make her hawk dinner. I mentioned it to Al that evening and he promised to look for her. He came in to say that he couldn’t find her. I figured she had either come up the hill and rejoined the other birds or had disappeared altogether.

The next morning she was back out again. I tried one more time to track her down but every time I got close to her she slipped under the fence and into the nearby poison ivy and underbrush. On Al’s last round of checking everyone out before bedtime he found her roosting up a small tree. He grabbed her and returned her to the stable. We will move her out again with another batch of birds later. Perhaps next time she’ll decided to be sociable and hang around the other girls. It seems there is always something to keep an eye on here!

The rescued squirrel did move on to a safer rehab program. We’d gotten him to the point where he had added solid food to his numerous bottle feedings each day. We were worried that even if we rehabilitated him to the point that we could release him we would merely be turning a slightly tame squirrel over to our own cats and dogs. That just didn’t seem right. Katy was able to find a fellow who regularly does squirrel rehab so the little guy was delivered to him. I guess that is one less creature to fuss over in my day.

I have spent much of this week dyeing, spinning and felting to restock for Saturday Market. I’m also trying to figure out how I can teach a few knitting or felting classes once market is over for the season. I love being a farmer as there is no such thing as a boring day.

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Friday, September 2, 2011

Farm Story for September 3, 2011

Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm ,

We started about 90 new laying hens back in May. We get our newly hatched pullets from Murray McMurray in Iowa. The day the chicks hatch they are packed up and air freighted to our post office. I get a 6 a.m. phone call from the post office telling me to come get the live freight. I rap on the side door at the post office and they hand out my peeping box. Often I can see a beak or feather poking out one of the many air holes on the sides of the cardboard box.

I race the box of birds home and gently transfer each one into a big empty water trough under heat lamps in the stable. As I transfer each little gal I dip her beak in the water dish and then set her down near a shallow pan of feed. We then spend several weeks raising the girls out. This year we were not so quick to move the girls out of the stall in the stable. As they outgrew their first water trough we drug in another one and split them between two troughs. As they outgrew the troughs we transferred them to the nice dirt floor of the stable. The big window in the stable has a nice screen so that nothing can sneak in to snatch one of them but they still get fresh air and sunshine. And as the girls continued to grow we removed about a third of them to another stall. The two stalls are adjoining with just bars along the top wall. Not all of the hens we moved over stayed in the new stall but since some of the birds in the original stall began roosting on the stall wall at night and apparently jumping off on the wrong side of the wall the numbers remained pretty even between the two bird rooms.

My sweet husband feeds and waters the girls first thing in the morning, I feed and water them at least twice more in a day and he checks them one last time in the evening. The bigger they have grown, the more we’ve talked about moving them to the world of “free range”. We have waited a little longer than we ordinarily would because of the crazy heat. The stable has a great ventilation fan and the concrete floors in the main hall seem to keep the building a little cooler than the outdoors.

Well, the girls have really been ready to go outside for a few weeks now. We usually move them out at the end of a day. The new chickens get along better with the older ones when they just happen to wake up together one morning rather than if they are wide awake when meeting strangers. Between the heat and the very busy days I’ve had lately, I’ve just neglected to initiate the “let’s move the chickens” evening.

I was thinking about that just this morning as I finished the mid-morning feed and water check. I finished caring for the stable birds and walked on to the building where most of the nest boxes are so that I could gather the first round of eggs for the day. A hen anxiously pacing along the top of the nesting boxes caught my eye. It was one of the young White Orpington hens from inside the stable. I looked around for more young hens, thinking perhaps that Al had moved a few outside at bedtime last night. I called him to ask. He had not moved anyone.

It would not be a stretch to think that she’d made it out of her stall in the stable and into an adjoining stall with an open and unscreened window. Had she jumped out of the window she would have crossed paths with at least one of the livestock guardian dogs, a few sheep, a goat or two, a cow and plenty of other chickens. I imagine she kept wandering until she found the largest accumulation of chickens who love to hang out in the building with the nest boxes, lots of food and a good water supply. I also imagine she ended up on top of the nesting boxes to escape a nosy and perhaps unpleasant hen who wanted to know why a newcomer was invading her territory.
Since we were planning on moving the hens out soon anyways it made no sense to pick her up and put her back in the stable. I also didn’t want her to be the outcast in the group so I made what I felt was a good decision. I put down my partially-filled egg bucket, walked back to the stable, swooped up two more hens that looked just like my little wanderer and brought them out to her. One of the older hens immediately ran up to one of the newcomers, rapped her on the head with her beak and trotted away. I lined all three Orpingtons up on the top of the nest box and went about gathering eggs. I guess we’ll try to move more girls out tonight just at sunset and hope everyone can get along in the morning. There are many aspects of running a farm that are like running a nursery school!

I have spent the majority of my week continuing to make items for the Indie Craft Parade. I have only a few more days to be ready as it is the weekend of the 9th. I have spent many hours out in the stable in my little dyeing studio working away. I love that my studio is in the stable as I have plenty of company as I work. The two stalls full of young chickens are next door so I hear them talking to each other. I have two sheep and a goat who insist on being in the stable whenever I am there. I am also joined by at least one of the livestock guardian dogs but often all four who have access to the barnyard join me. They love to nap on the cool concrete floor and compete to see who can lay down closest to the fan. Little Joey, one of the cats from the front of the house, always follows me to the stable if I go in the late afternoon as he’s learned that is when I feed the dogs. We feed dry food to the dogs but I always add a little canned food or some scrambled eggs to make it a little more appealing. For some reason Little Joey has decided that if he is in the stable when I get there he should get first bite of whatever goodie I am adding to the dog food. I feed him but then quickly remove him if I am also doing dyeing work as he likes to join me as I work and just has too much fun walking along the seven foot lengths of cellophane that I use to wrap my yarn in after I have painted on all of the dyes.

I have felted many, many bars of soap in a coat. I’ve also spun up some more yarn and felted lots more pretty flower pins. I love to work with our sheep’s wool, especially when I can walk right out the door and let the beautiful creatures know how much I appreciate their “product”. Once my preparations for Indie Craft Parade are over I will start the process all over again as we’ll still have another month and a half of Saturday Market. I have numerous bags of wool to continue to keep me occupied over the winter and before we know it we’ll be back to spring shearing again. It is a pleasant cycle.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Farm Story for August 27, 2011

Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm ,

Lambing and kidding have been over for a few months and we had our last calf in June so I imagined we were pretty well done with babies until late next winter. It seems I was mistaken. Two babies have popped up in the last two weeks.

At the end of the day on a Thursday two weeks ago I walked into the building where many of the hens lay their eggs. I heard a tiny peeping sound. I knew immediately that somewhere there was a new chick. I searched and saw the mother before I spotted the chick. I knew the pretty white hen was the mother because the moment I stepped into the room she was in she flared out all of her feathers so that she would look big and intimidating to scare me off and protect her little one. She had only a single small brown, black and white chick. I have no idea where she had sat on her nest but there are so many places to hide around here that it is not uncommon to miss a broody hen setting on a nest at the top of the stacked hay bales or behind a building. This gal had apparently hatched the little one out somewhere else but had brought it back to her familiar place where she knew there would be a steady supply of food and water.

I was tickled to find it but doubted it would make it more than a few days. Our chickens truly are free range. Most thrive but there are perils, especially for a little chick. There are bigger and meaner chickens, water holes, dogs and even an occasional rat that visits in the night and would be just as content to haul off a live chick as a mouthful of spare chicken feed. I checked on the hen and chick one last time before dark and found them snuggled into one of the duck nesting boxes. We built the duck nesting boxes several years ago when we decided to raise ducks for their lovely eggs. The boxes sit on the ground and are 18” deep. They do make a nice place to hide in and this hen was doing just that.

The next morning the two were out making the rounds. I did see one near mishap when a big black hen jumped out of her nest box and landed on the chick. The chick rolled over in the dirt and mother hen raced at the offender, squawking and threatening with her wings. I love to watch a mother hen. She goes out of her way to scratch at the ground until a tasty bug or seed comes up. She talks to her chick the whole time, stepping back when something appears so that the chick can grab it. Should the chick wander far, she calls it back or races over, fluffs all of her feathers out and defends it from any real or imagined threats. This hen’s biggest problem seems to be the fact that her little one keeps getting behind a door that separates one room from the other in the laying house. She can see her chick through the screen but panics as it cannot reach her. The little chick bounces up and down on the other side of the door. I’ve concluded that chickens are fairly linear thinkers – If they can see a straight path to something it never dawns on them to go around the corner instead. More than once I have rescued the little chick before someone gets hurt. Even If the two were separated only briefly, there is still a big reunion with mother chatting away at her chick as it runs between her legs at least for the next minute or two.

I celebrated the chick’s one-week birthday and was pleased that it was still around. Just a few days later I found the hen and chick out in the sheep pasture. Gwen, the Anatolian Shepherd who is in charge of that yard, was sleeping in the back of the old barn. Baloo, the Pyrenees who climbs gates and goes in any pasture he wants, was sleeping in the stable. I was relieved that there were no nosy dogs to play with the chick as that could be bad news. I gently herded hen and chick back toward their usual quarters. The little chick celebrated its two-week birthday a few days ago. It is thriving, mother is fabulous and I am wasting plenty of time watching the two go about their day.

The second new baby arrived here on Saturday night. Sweet husband Al had gone out to do the final walk around before bedtime. He returned with something balled up in his hands. It was a small wet baby squirrel. He took it away from Allez, the Anatolian whose territory includes the woods and creek. She had been gently playing with it and had shown it to him when he came out to her pasture. It did not have a scratch on it but was almost drowned in slobber. It was also chilled. It had wrapped its tail all the way up over its head and had all of its legs folded as tightly as it could against its body. I dried it with a towel while Al went to retrieve a small cage from the garage. Once it was dried it still had very stiff fur from the residual dog spit but I did not want to traumatize it with a bath. We have done a fair bit of wildlife rehab over the years so still have necessary supplies. I located a small syringe with a soft tip or feeding and pulled out small clean towels. We checked the little guy for injury and dehydration and since he was fine and did not have an empty belly we put a heating pad under his cage and tucked him in for the night.

He was still alive the next morning so I took some powdered squirrel milk out of the freezer, mixed it up with water and cream and fed him a nice breakfast. He struggled as we held him, alternately licking at the tasty milk drops coming out of the syringe and turning from side to side to get out of our grip. He ate just a few small mouthfuls. We worked with the feeding process all day Sunday. By the evening he’d gotten the hang of it. He took a too-big sip once or twice and ended up blowing milk bubbles with his nose but never really choked.

By Monday he had the feeding down just fine, even holding the syringe with his front feet as he nurses. His routine now is to sleep for two or three hours, wake up, chirp loudly for someone to come feed him, play for a while, crawl under his towel and roll into a little ball for a nap and start the whole process over again. After checking his teeth and how well fur-covered he is, we determined that he is about six weeks old. That means, with luck, he should only need a few more weeks of nursing, some transition time to solid food and perhaps will be ready to release. Our biggest predicament will be to find a safe place to turn him loose. We are just too cat and dog intense here to assume he’d be safe living on our property. I guess life is never boring.

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Friday, August 19, 2011

Farm Story for August 20, 2011

Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm,

I have been flogged twice this week by a particular rooster. Fortunately, I had trimmed his spurs a while back so that he leaves a big bruise but does not puncture my skin anymore. It sure does hurt though. As I was going back through older market stories I came across this one about him. As I thought of his beginnings my anger toward him dissolved. I never imagined one of my regular market stories would save anyone’s life but thanks to this story our pushy rooster will keep his happy home. And I apologize to those of you who might remember this story from a few years ago.

This story started on a wet Saturday when we were due at Saturday Market. I drove through torrential rains on the interstate but tried to remain optimistic. As I exited the interstate, the rains slowed to a drizzle. I arrived at Market in a steady mist so decided just to unload my coolers of eggs and my tables. I left all of my wool products and soaps in the car thinking I would unload them closer to the Market start time. To make a long story short, as it got closer to eight o'clock the rains got heavier. The difficult decision was made to cancel Market for the day. Katy and I drove home and changed into dry clothing.

I decided to go about a normal day. Even though Al feeds the chickens when he gets up each morning, I make an early morning walk through to gather the duck eggs and to check on everyone. I waited until the showers let up a bit and headed out. It was just before ten o'clock. As I neared the chicken yard, I could see a wet lump in the mud at the end of the small pond. As I got closer, I realized it was a poor dead chicken that must have gotten bogged down while getting a drink in a heavy downpour. I could tell by its small size that it was one of the younger chickens that we'd started in July. When I got closer I realized that it was the little oddball chicken that the hatchery had added to my order as a bonus. This peculiar chicken was a white crested black Polish. Its feathers were black but it had a huge poufy mound of white feathers sprouting out of the top of its head and cascading down so that its eyes were almost covered. I had liked that little bird so was especially upset to see that was my dead bird.

As nasty as the weather was, I still couldn't leave that little dead body out in the mud. I decided to wade into the edge of the pond to retrieve it and move it to someplace a bit more dignified. As I took my first step down the muddy bank, my foot slid out from under me. I managed to keep from going all the way down to my knees by grabbing onto the fence near the edge of the pond. I was muddied but not badly so I steadied myself on my feet and reached for the body. It was about two thirds buried into the mud and every feather clung to it in odd directions, having been so completely soaked by the pounding rains. Its white crest was a dark clump of mud. I reached out and grabbed the edge of a wing so that I could pull it out of the mud. As I started to tug, I heard a little sighing sound. I took one muddy step closer so that I could get my hands around the bird's body and snatched it up. He tried to chirp. He could not open his eyes as they were plastered with mud. What little skin I could see through the mud coated feathers was a sickly blue white. But he seemed to be alive. I wrapped him up against my shirt and ran to the house with him.

I kicked my muddy shoes off at the downstairs door and raced my little messy bird to the kitchen sink. I began to run warm water over him. The first thing I did was wash out his eyes. He barely opened one when I was done but that did not discourage me. I washed and washed and washed some more. Every time I thought I was close to done, I was able to wash one more time to get more mud out of his feathers. I even washed between his little toes and up under his toenails. I hoped that the warm water was helping with his body temperature as it was so very low when I found him. Color was not returning to his skin but at least with the mud gone I really could see his skin. I even pried open his little beak, held his head sideways under the faucet and rinsed gritty mud out of his mouth. I wrapped him in a towel and held him up only to have his head flop heavily to the side. That was not a very good sign. But he did open an eye briefly for me.

I found Katy's blow dryer, set it on low and sat on the couch drying the little guy for half an hour. I would hold him at different angles so that his feathers blew up and away from his skin as I did not want any water trapped under them. His only response was to squeeze his eyes shut even tighter as the warm air hit the white feathers on top of his head. Once he was dry I put another small towel around him and set him on a heating pad while I mixed Gatorade. I was able to get him to take Gatorade from a syringe so got a fair bit into him and then just left him on the heating pad to recover. Every time I checked on him I gave him another shot of Gatorade. He was beginning to open his eyes when I lifted him for his drink. I did not know what to expect but it was a nasty rainy day outside so I had all the time I needed inside for this little project.

By the end of the day the little fellow was standing up. He did not walk far but did eat at a bit of feed that Al had brought in from the stable. By Sunday morning he definitely looked like he was planning to live. The house cats spent plenty of time trying to peek under the door to see what I had. I kept him safely locked up in my bathroom until Monday when I returned him to the chicken yard.

I have just a few chickens that have names as there are just too many to keep up with but this little fellow definitely deserved a name and it seemed appropriate for my Crested Polish chicken to have a traditional Polish name. Katy asked a European friend for suggestions. There was only one suggested name that I could pronounce, let alone remember and that was Pavl. I was told it is the Polish equivalent of Paul. So our little fellow became Pavl. Little Pavl was one lucky bird. And as much as I hated that Market was canceled, I believe his luck would have run out in that pond had I been delayed a few more hours.

I did corner Pavl after his latest attack. I turned him over, held him to the ground and scolded him. When I let him up he scurried away. I hope he got the message that I am still in charge around here as I don’t like having to watch my back every time I pass him.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Farm Story for August 13, 2011

Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm ,

This has been a noisy week. I had determined to get lots of dyeing done so that I’ll have a good yarn inventory for Saturday Market as well as a nice supply to get me through the Indie Craft Parade which is coming up here in Greenville in September. Last year I was juried into the Indie even and it was quite a big deal. I was able to sell enough in just a day and a half to pay for much of the winter’s hay. That is why I was tickled to get in again this year and to know that they’ve extended the event for another day. Another day means the chance of more sales but it also means I have to have plenty to sell. Everything that I do is time consuming which is why Saturday Market works so well. I can have a good day of sales on Saturday but then have the week to dye, felt, spin and knit for another Saturday. That will not be the case with the Indie Craft Parade which is now less than a month away. So this sense of urgency explains my noisy week.

I do my dyeing outside in a stall in our stable. I can keep all of my supplies safe and have electricity and water. The dye fumes do not stink up the house and I have no problem keeping my dye pots and vats separated from my kitchenware. It is also pleasant to listen to our many creatures going about their daily routines as I work. Unfortunately, some of the creatures feel they need to be a part of all that I do. That is especially the case with a handful of sheep who think that they must go in and out of the stable I do. And once they are in the stable they try to force their way into my dyeing stall as they are convinced there are wonderful things in there that they need. Their pushiness and nosiness slows me down so I decided to be sure they were all in a pasture rather than the barnyard before I began this latest marathon dyeing session. Al scattered grain and pulled everyone into pastures. There are a few lambs who can still slip through the slats of the gate but most prefer to stay with their mothers so that is a small problem. Little Jagger, however, sees things differently.

Jagger is a little ram lamb who was born this spring to Jezebelle, one of our oldest Shetland ewes. He has a Tunis daddy because he is that pretty red color but has also sprouted little Shetland ram horns. Because of Jezebelle’s age, we decided to supplement her nursing with a daily bottle for her little lamb. He is quite content to spend time in the stable with or without his mother and has also figured out that he can get an extra scoop of grain if he’s inside getting under my feet and I decide to yank a few spare babies into a stall by luring them with sweet feed dumped on the old church pew we keep in the first stall. Yes, it is an old oak church pew from St. Andrew’s in Jacksonville, Florida. We used to use it as a bench outside the stable and then pulled it inside to stack feed on. When we got better racking to stack the feed on we began to use the pew as a bit of a feed trough and goat kid playground.

Well, Jezebelle has been corralled in the pasture while Jagger slips in and out. Jezebelle is one of Eric’s original three Shetland ewes. He spelled her name with “belle” rather than “bel” since she is a Southern sheep. She has lived up to her Southern Belle name and is also the loudest and most persistent gal on the farm. She has a bleat that I can hear inside of the house. She will pursue us, often tapping at us with her front foreleg when she feels she needs special attention. And Jezebelle always feels she needs special attention. She started out as a pitch black ewe lamb and with age her fiber has lightened and grayed but nothing about her personality has mellowed. She knows she is entitled to be in the stable so whenever she has seen me go into it this week she has bawled even louder. Rather than just enjoying the sound of chickens working outside the stable as I paint my dyes on my wool, I’ve had to try to ignore her angry noises. She gets even madder when she realizes that little Jagger has followed me into the stable. As I walk to and from the stable she runs along the fence line at the edge of the barnyard so that she can be even closer to me as she fusses. I know there is really nothing wrong with her so have gritted my teeth and ignored her all week as I’ve toted buckets of wetted wool. A few times I gently dropped her lamb over the fence to her hoping that would calm her. She briefly lets him nurse and then goes right back to her tirade. She has enormous black eyes that have stared hatefully at me. She has also trotted along beside me when I am in her pasture, swatting me with that front foot and then trying to force her way through the gate the instant I lift the chain. A few times I’ve cut through the back of the old barn rather than push and argue at the gate. It has been a trying week for the both of us.

Finally on Friday I decided that I had done enough dyeing and let Jezebelle back into the barnyard. She looked at me as if nothing had ever happened. Jagger ran up for a quick peek at mama’s udder and then the two of them walked over to the stable door. Jezebelle stared back at me and started that horrific bleating again, quite confident that she could now convince me to let her in the stable. I crumbled. I opened the stable door, let the two of them escort me to the stall where most of the feed is stored and got them a big scoop of sweet feed that I spread out across the milk stand for them to enjoy. I did not hear a sound out of them as I walked back to the house.

I really do feel like I got some good fiber work done this week. I spent some time at the spinning wheel but most of my work was on the other yarns I sell. Every hand painted skein that I dye has to be wound into a giant loop held together with lots of ties so that it doesn’t tangle into a mess. It is soaked in a bucket of warm soapy water and then laid out on cellophane on an eight foot long table. My dyes are mixed as I need them and then painted and drizzled onto the wet skein of yarn. The skein is wrapped in the cellophane and placed in a steamer for about an hour. It is funny to peek in on the covered steamer near the end of the process as steam builds inside the packet and blows the packet up into what seems to be a colorful living blob of a creature. Once the steaming is done the skein is cooled, unwrapped, rinsed a few times, wuzzed and hung to dry. “Wuzzing” is the term for holding a wet skein firmly and then flinging it around so that much of the water flies out. I love to do that over the concrete driveway and watch the pretty patterns that the water forms as it sprays out. A dried skein must be untied, rewound in a form that I can measure the yarn, retied and then tagged for market. It is always a good feeling to grab an armload of finished yarns and load them up the night before market. It is an even better feeling to take the money I’ve earned by selling them at market and hand it to the hay man, knowing we are able to put away lush feed to hold them through the coming fall and winter.

And here is a picture of Jezebelle and little Jagger on the day he was born:

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Friday, July 29, 2011

Farm Story for July 30, 2011

Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm ,

We have the most wonderful arrangement with our friends, Jeff and Kim, of Iszy’s Heirlooms. They are our next-tent-over neighbors at Saturday Market and also live barely 15 minutes away from our farm. Our arrangement is that I bring a few 5 gallon cull buckets on Saturday morning and Jeff fills them up as he goes through his produce at market. The not-quite-perfect goodies go home with me at the end of market to treat our animals.

When we first started doing this the oxen caught on right away. They live in the pasture at the front of the property so are the first recipients of Jeff’s goodies as I pull in the driveway. I realized long ago that they seem to know when it is market day and get excited when I come home in the early afternoon. They stand at the gate and begin to bawl as I open the back of the car. If I should put a cull bucket down on the driveway they stomp and become anxious, knowing that there is a very good chance a sheep will race around the corner and begin to sample “their” goodies. The sheep really are bad about going through a bucket of culls, taking a bite out of each one and chucking it to the side. They will go back and eat up the pieces later but a good bucket of tomatoes can quickly turn into a sloppy red mess with much of it ending up on lips, faces and even up to the tips of ears. So Zeb and Gates, the oxen, know I’d better lug that bucket to them right away or have another bucket for them in the car.

It took me a while to figure out why the oxen got excited on Saturday afternoon but did not pay much attention to me on my normal trips in and out. One day it dawned on me that I think I am tipping them off that it is market day when I am outside at 5:30 in the morning loading the coolers of eggs into the car. Market day is the only day I do that before sunrise and the oxen seem to have paired this with a nice treat later in the day.

Well, this past Saturday no one had to worry about how many lovely culls I had to share. When Jeff arrived at market I’d already put my two cull buckets under his tent as usual. After about half an hour he asked me if I had any more buckets. He said he’d intentionally brought along squash, tomatoes and cucumbers that were suffering from the heat so that I could take them home. I called my sweet husband, knowing he had to come into Greenville later that morning. Within the hour he’d dropped off a large clean garbage can. Jeff filled that and it went home with Al. At the end of market I filled my car with about another hundred pounds of culls packed in my buckets, my empty egg coolers and a few of Jeff’s baskets. All the creatures had a Saturday feast for which we were all very grateful. After it was all said and done I found only a handful of hot peppers sitting in a puddle of tomato juice and seeds. And I knew that by the end of the day a few chickens would carefully peck up every one of those seeds.

On Tuesday Kim called to say that Jeff had lots of overgrown squash if I’d like it for the animals. Because of the tremendous heat the animals had not been terribly interested in eating but I knew this would appeal to them so I agreed to pick it up the next morning. When I got there Jeff started filling my car with cull tomatoes. The squash was already picked off the plants and piled in the field for me but I knew there was too much to put in the car so decided to come back in the evening with Al and his truck.

When I got home the sheep greeted me. I did not want them to have all this food as they needed to share with the chickens in the back. I did toss a few tomatoes out to distract them but then went to the barnyard and brought Ravi, one of the Anatolian Shepherds, up to the front yard with me. He has no desire to eat tomatoes so it was safe to let him guard them for me. He plopped himself down next to the buckets and growled as the sheep approached. He only had to stand up once to make it clear that there would be no further snacking.

After a quick dinner we loaded the wheelbarrow in the back of the truck and ran over to Jeff’s. We walked the rows making a game of tossing very large squash into the wheelbarrow. There were even more large squash on the plants. They had ballooned during the hot day so we culled those also. Jeff is fine with us culling in his field as he knows we are tender with his plants, pull a few weeds as we work and even carry an odd rock or two out of his field when we come across them. In under an hour we’d gathered three wheelbarrow loads of squash and cucumbers. It was almost nine o’clock as we headed home. When we pulled in Al went about his evening chores while I began to unload the truck. We’d just tossed the goodies in the bed of the truck which was now filled a third of the way to the top. I lined a few garbage cans up on the ground at the side of the truck, climbed in and began tossing. I drew a crowd of a few sheep and the smallest donkey. The oxen realized that something was going on and began to bawl and the standard donkeys in the other pasture began to pace at the fence. I flung squash to all the complainers, carried two bucket loads to the oxen and still managed to fill two garbage cans and the wheelbarrow to feed out the next day. I especially wanted to save plenty for the small herd of Dexter cattle at the back of the property.

The trip to Jeff and Kim’s was beneficial even beyond all the vegetables that they shared. As we were driving over we noticed a fellow baling hay. We turned around and pulled into his field just as another truck was pulling in. We asked the fellow in the other truck if the hay was already sold. He said that the field belonged to his friend and it was spoken for but that he would be baling on Sunday and expected nearly a thousand bales. He and Al talked a bit more and Al agreed to take about five hundred bales straight out of the field. The fellow only wants $2.50 a bale if we pick them up and that is a wonderful price right now. We have been concerned about the dry weather and our potential to get hay for the fall and winter so need to take advantage of this even if it means a lot of good hard work. Our goal is to get three hundred bales out of his first cutting and the remainder when he bales a little later. We did check with both of our grown sons to see if they can give us a hand. We load a hundred bales at a time, drive back home, unload them into the barn and return. Once the second hundred bales are in the barn the task looks pretty intimidating so it will be good to have the help. And I may not be walking upright until about Tuesday but I’ll sleep well, not only from the physical exhaustion but knowing that we are doing the best we can to keep all of the creatures here healthy, safe and very well fed.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Farm Story for July 23, 2011

Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm ,

About a month ago I was scrolling through craigslist and came across a post for bottle fed lambs. Ordinarily I would not have paid much attention except that these were Lincoln lambs, a breed of sheep not really common in this area. The Lincoln is an English breed bred for their long curly locks and heavy fleeces. They are very large sheep with rams growing out to be about 300 pounds. I was excited to see that someone in the area had them so I called.

It seems the woman had two ram lambs that had both been abandoned by their mothers at birth. The lambs were healthy, the ewes just refused to nurse them. They had become bottle babies out of necessity but I know how expensive bottle babies are and I think the woman was ready to be rid of them. We visited them and fell in love with the enormous babies covered with dark curls. The older one was barely a month old and weighed a good twenty pounds. The younger one was a little over two weeks old with a more petite build but still weighed about fifteen pounds. They had bright eyes and were healthy fellows so we paid for them and hauled them home.

They were vigorous little eaters. I soon discovered that for each feeding I needed to mix up a quart of lamb milk replacer. We were feeding them about five times a day and also letting them have all the hay and grain they were interested in. The seemed to believe they were born to eat, enthusiastically following anyone who looked like they may be able to produce a bottle. They were so funny to watch as they were enormous but still acted like babies. We named the larger one Buddy after the main character in the movie Elf. We’ve gotten into the habit of calling the little guy Inky Dink because of his size compared to Buddy but I don’t know if we’ve really decided that that is his name.

So once it seemed our lambing season was pretty well over we took on a new pair of babies. And they have made themselves right at home. They started out living in the stable and although they are often out in the barnyard they make it a point to slip back in whenever they can. They know which stall holds the feed and often stand in front of that closed door, willing us to open it. We began feeding them grain by sprinkling it on the milk stand and encouraging them to try it. Now the minute we open the stable door they race to check for goodies left on the milk stand. The fellows stay on our heels when we work outside and bawl at the barn door should we walk in without them. The two are inseparable so also panic when they end up on opposite sides of a fence. They are rather high maintenance but they are so adorable that we don’t mind. They have very long legs and are built like concrete blocks. Buddy’s shoulders come well up to my knees and Inky Dink, though a little more slightly built, is also growing taller and taller. We’ll just see how sweet they are when they top two hundred pounds apiece. Their saving grace had better be the gorgeous fleeces!

We have been very busy with the heat. It seems much of my day is spent checking water troughs. I also study the pastures for anyone that looks at all peculiar. Any animal that doesn’t jump right up the minute I call gets a visit to be sure that it is simply napping and not suffering from the heat. In the winter the animals move from sunny spot to sunny spot throughout a chilly day. Now they follow the shade.

I have discovered that the chickens seem to know where every little breeze might potentially blow on the whole property. Whenever I see a few chickens standing around in an area I squat down near them and can often feel a very gentle movement in the air. They have found lots of shaded areas as well as little wind tunnels between buildings or in the rises and falls of the pastures. They are drinking lots of water but are not as interested in eating. The heat has caused egg production to drop by easily a quarter of the number of eggs we are used to getting. Some of the hens have also gone into an early molt as their bodies drop feathers and go into a seasonal resting period that would usually occur later in the summer. That means we just keep feeding and caring with fewer eggs to sell but that is just a part of farming. The unpredictable weather is something to take in stride.

We did get a hay delivery on Saturday. One of our hay men brought about two dozen huge round bales to the house. We have been concerned about the lack of rain so are buying hay as we can get it. It is such a blessing to have Saturday Market as it gives us a regular cash flow to buy hay as it becomes available. It really is nice to know as I work with our sheep’s wool that they are helping to buy their own dinner.

I did have a funny little surprise this week. The Pilgrim geese have three water buckets. One has become their favorite for bathing and they drink out of the other two. I always completely dump the drinking water buckets and rinse them before refilling them but sometimes just top off the bathing bucket with the hose. I noticed that the bathing bucket was full of newly hatched tadpoles! I didn’t have the heart to dump the little ones out on the hot dry ground to die so have just been very gently topping off the water , careful not to flush any out. The geese seem to ignore them when bathing but I have been tempted to move that whole bucket to a safe spot and replace it with a new one for the geese. I am sure that during the goose-bath ritual of dipping their heads and letting the water run over their faces and down their necks they are scooping out a few of the tadpoles. But perhaps that is simply nature taking its course. We already have a quite adequate toad and frog population on the farm.

The coming week is supposed to be hot and dry again. I am sure I will spend many hours keeping up with creatures. I might also plan on a bit more time in the house sitting in the air conditioning while spinning some more yarn or knitting scarves for the fall. I do one dyeing and spinning technique where I end up spinning wet wool that sends a constant sprinkling of mist into the air as I treadle my wheel. I think this might be a good time to make a few skeins of that sort of yarn so that I can benefit from the cooled environment that the process generates.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Farm Story for July 16, 2011

A Farm Story for July 16, 2011

Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm ,

A week ago Friday I was pleasantly ready for Saturday Market by dinner time. All of my fiber items were in the car and the eggs were all washed up and waiting in the refrigerator until time to load early the next morning. Our oldest son and his adorable wife were coming over to work with my sweet husband to plan their farm’s corn maze for the fall. My plan was to have a routine Friday night and go to bed by ten o’clock as I get up early on Saturday. Bed time did not come as expected.

Shortly before ten, the children got up to leave. I looked through the front window to see lights in our driveway and what appeared to be a horse standing outside the gate. Of course I blurted out that there was a horse in our drive and we all raced outside. We do not have horses and this was quite obviously not one of our three donkeys. There was a man and a boy standing at our gate with an enormous paint horse. He asked if it was ours and explained that he’d been coming down Highway 81, had caught the white spots in the horse in his headlights, thought for a second it was someone walking in the road and had swerved to miss it. As soon as he realized it was a horse he pulled over and managed to walk it the little way up our driveway to the gate. He explained that he had horse experience and had just returned from a rodeo out west.

We obviously could not leave the horse on the road so we opened the gate and it walked in. It had no halter on so our son, Eric, grabbed one of the halters for our oxen. It was much too large but the horse allowed it to be put on. One of the children held the horse while we moved the dogs out of the front yard. The horse was shod so it clip clopped up and down our concrete driveway, anxiously swinging its rear end around as it tried to orient itself in the dark. Since there is a farm with paint horses a mile down the road, Al decided to go down and ask if it was theirs. While he was gone we walked the horse around the front yard and tried to keep it from chasing Eve, our miniature donkey. Zeke and Esther, the standard donkeys in the front pasture, were prancing around anxiously watching this huge horse.

The children and I tried to keep the horse amused while we waited for Al to hunt down an owner. It was an enormous horse, probably a good 16 hands or more so that I could not see over its back. It looked quite healthy and was only a little jumpy but it was a still a bit nerve-wracking to have a strange horse in the dark as the dogs were barking, the front yard sheep were mulling around and the donkeys were snorting uncomfortably. After about half an hour our oldest and his wife had to leave. Eric and I hung out with the horse until we finally heard from Al. He said he had been to two different farms and none were missing horses.

It was past eleven o’clock by this time so we decided to just start again in the morning. We were not comfortable leaving the horse in the front of the house because of the cars parked there. A shod horse that gets upset and decides to kick a car can make an ugly mess. We decided to move it to a stall in the stable. I ran ahead to check on the locations of the livestock guardian dogs. I moved one out of the backyard and another out of the barnyard so that they would not startle the horse or explode into a barking fit when the horse came through. Years ago on the night the oxen were delivered one of the dogs barked as Al was walking an ox to the pasture. The one-ton fellow started, jumped and landed on Al’s foot. Lesson learned. I also locked up the Lincoln lambs who are still on the bottle and who spend the night in the stable. I pulled them into a stall and shut the door so that they didn’t run out at the horse as we opened the stable door. We attached a lead line to the floppy halter and walked the horse slowly to the stable, talking gently to it all the way. It was quite alert, holding its head high and perking up its ears. It cautiously allowed itself to be led right to the stable doors. I was sure it would balk at walking into an unfamiliar building but we had the lights on inside so that it could see where it was going. After a slight hesitation it followed right in, walking down the concrete hallway to a stall. It needed just a bit of coaxing to enter the stall. Once it was in, we gave it a moment to settle down as we ran to fill a water bucket and grab an armload of nice oat hay. The horse was calm so we removed the halter and left it for the night.

I had to get up early for Saturday Market but before going to bed I did put a quick notice on craigslist under the lost and found as well as the farm section. Al said he would begin the hunt for an owner again in the morning. It was past eleven thirty before we finally went to bed.

The next morning I had an e-mail from a woman wanting to have the horse if no one wanted it. I ignored it as the horse was not mine to give away. I went on to Market, hoping that I would return to find the horse had been reclaimed. It was a gorgeous creature but not one that we could afford to maintain properly.

Al started the morning driving around trying to find folks with livestock to talk to about the horse. One neighbor thought perhaps it was his horse, not realizing that a farmhand had put it in another pasture. He came down, looked and realized his mistake. After visiting a few more places, Al finally ran across two fellows pulled over at the side of a field chatting. He asked them and one fellow said he thought he knew whose horse it might be. He gave a woman a call but she didn’t know if her horse was missing. She was boarding it somewhere out here but did not live nearby. She took Al’s phone number and was heading out to find her horse. She called him later to say that when she arrived the pasture gate was wide open and her horse, Geronimo, was missing. She described the horse to Al and it seemed to be the one we had. She arrived shortly with a trailer as well as Geronimo’s halter. She was thrilled to see him. She explained that she had owned him for several years and then sold him. After about ten years she had tracked him down and bought him back so they were only recently reunited. She was boarding him about half a mile down the highway from us. He was one very lucky horse to end up in our driveway rather than dead in the road. Geronimo was gone by the time I returned from Market. I took a nap to recover from the very short Friday night and very hot Saturday morning at Market. And I am hoping the rest of my pre-Market Fridays are just routine for the rest of the season.

Geronimo & his owner:

Friday, July 8, 2011

Farm Story for July 9, 2011

A Farm Story for July 9, 2011
Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm ,

We irrigate our pastures and provide water to the barns from our spring-fed creek that runs at the back of the property down in the woods. That has worked nicely over the last few years, especially to provide enough water during the droughty summers to keep us from losing our pasture grass all together. We rotate our animals to cut down on the stress on the pastures but a dry summer has the potential to completely kill a pasture.

Sunday started out with a pleasant morning in church and a little bit of knitting in the afternoon. I went out in the late afternoon to feed the pasture dogs and check the month-old chicks that we are raising out to add to the laying flock. When I turned the faucet to water the birds absolutely nothing happened. My sweet husband, Al, was out feeding hay to the sheep so I asked him about it. We had had some thunderstorms earlier so he checked the breakers on the chance we’d had a lightning strike. One of the breakers was tripped so he reset it and then decided to walk down in the woods to check the pump. I assumed the water would be running shortly. He returned rolling his eyes.

Micah, our Dexter bull, is about 12 years old. He frequently lives by himself in the largest pasture which takes in the woods and the creek. He goes through fits, bawling at the nearby cows, snorting and pawing at the ground. Not long ago I saw great clouds of what I believed to be smoke rolling out from behind the stable. I raced out fearing something was on fire but soon realized it was just Micah kicking up a dust storm on a very dry day as he pined for the nearby gals. He is a sturdy fellow who can create quite a show when he wants to. Well, Micah had apparently been acting a fool down near the creek on Sunday.

The electrical line to the pump is buried all the way to a tree next to the creek. There is conduit running four feet up the tree trunk to a shut off switch and then down the tree trunk to the pump. It seems Micah managed to hook the conduit with his horns and tear it from the tree trunk, breaking the electrical line in the process. Al repaired the electrical line Sunday evening. He found that his repair did not fix the problem. He switched the water source for the barns over to house water and decided to tackle the problem again on Monday. I watered the chickens and didn’t give it a lot more thought.

On Monday Al tightened up the wires that were connected to the pump and checked a few more things. He walked up the hill to the stable, turned the water back to the pump and walked down the hill again to flip the pump back on. He returned from this trip announcing that he had to make a trip to the hardware store. When he had turned the pump back on it worked but it was also shooting water up from a small part that had broken off the side of the pump. On closer examination, it appears that not only had Micah tried to rip the conduit off the side of the tree but he had also torn down a huge poison ivy vine that was wrapped around a dead branch farther up the tree. The dead branch fell, whacked the side of the pump and bounced up at the edge of the creek where Al had really not noticed it as he was focused originally on the electrical problem. Micah continued his little fit on Monday, pushing on the back gate so intensely that he broke the strap that holds the gate shut. He is now visiting with his latest girlfriend. The gate is repaired now and we’ll move him out in a few days when he decides he’d again prefer to be a bachelor in the woods. Oh, Micah.

The chicks that came in the mail a month ago are really growing. The little gals are enjoying plenty of feed and water and have quickly learned to pick through the waste hay that I rake up and pitch in for them to explore. They are quick to pick off the stray bug who rides in with the hay. The high temperatures we’ve been having meant that we were able to turn their heat lamps off during the daytime by the time they were a week old. They have gone from little fluff balls to fully feathered birds who are now flying to higher and higher perches in the big stall where they currently live. In another week we’ll divide them into two stalls rather than one so that they have more room to roam.

At the beginning of August we will move them outside with the other birds. Our birds truly are free range. People who buy our eggs at Saturday Market often ask what I mean when I say our eggs are produced by free range birds. I hate the games some folks play with definitions. Once we move the young ones out of the stable they have about 13 acres to roam around on. Most of the birds stay up near the old barn or the chicken yard working through the grass as well as the piles of hay and manure in the pastures. The chicken yard is a very large area with a few trees, a small pond and two buildings full of nesting boxes. The area is fenced to keep the goats, sheep and livestock guardian dogs out but there are chicken-sized holes in many places along the bottom of the fencing so that the birds can come and go as they please. We feed the birds in this area so that the sheep and goats don’t eat their feed. Although they love the grain we feed, the goats are especially attracted to all the fresh goodies we bring from the Hyatt’s prep kitchen. Our chickens get lots of nice goodies from the Hyatt like potato and carrot peels, lettuce leaves, fruit peels and wilted greens. I do share things like the big broccoli stems with the goats and cattle but the bulk of the fresh goodies go to help add variety to our chickens’ diet. We also prefer they lay their eggs in the many nesting boxes here as the dogs snack on any eggs they find outside of the fenced area. Most of our dogs eat the egg shell after they carefully nibble a hole in it and suck out the tasty middle but I sometimes find a half-eaten shell, evidence that one of the dogs found an egg under a tree or on a hay bale in the tractor shed before I did.

I grew up with free range chickens before the term was even coined. There are certainly down sides to this way of raising birds. We are fortunate that our livestock guardian dogs keep an eye out for the chickens but we do lose an occasional bird to a raccoon in the woods or to the pair of hawks that nest annually in a nearby tall pine and use our flock to train their young to hunt. I am also quite sure that we do not find every egg laid on the property. Whenever I find a “new to me” nesting spot I give those eggs to the dogs and begin checking that spot again the next day to be sure the eggs are fresh. I do love the fact that I can look out any window or walk most anywhere on the property and see a hen cheerfully going about her day scratching for food, bathing in the dust or even curled up napping with a sheep or goat.

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Friday, July 1, 2011

Farm Story for July 2, 2011

Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm ,

It is hard to believe that it is already July! It has been a pleasantly busy week here with lots of little routine accomplishments. One of the biggest was that I gave each of the donkeys a very good brushing with the shedding brush. Brushing out a donkey doesn’t sound like much of a big deal unless you know our donkeys. Zeke and Esther have been with us since they were weaned from their mothers about 11 years ago. They are standard donkeys so are rather large. The two have always been together, having been born on the same farm just a few weeks apart. They are tightly bonded to each other but also act like jealous little children when one gets more attention than the other.

Each morning I stand on my side of the fence, talk to the two of them and gently flick the little crusty sleepiness out of the corner of their eyes. Although it takes only seconds, it usually ends in a bit of a shoving match as the two maneuver themselves to be closer to me. Someone usually gets mad and swings their head to smack the other one. They will also nip at one another’s faces. I just stay out of the way as the tantrum ends quickly. This pushy behavior became even more of a nuisance as I entered their pasture to brush them out. I worked quickly with lots of hair and dust flying around me. I often had to shoulder a donkey out of the way or just briefly step back as they kicked at each other. Just as I was finishing up Zeke, Esther laid her entire neck and head across his back so that she could shove her face into my face. A giant plume of dust erupted from Zeke’s back and seemed to all land in my face. So after all that hard work I couldn’t even reward myself with a quick nap as I was hindered by fits of sneezing. The donkeys do look much better and we have enough spare hair now to build at least half an extra donkey should we need one.

I did get the good news on Monday that I had been juried into the Indie Craft Parade. I participated last year and had a wonderful and profitable time so was tickled with the news. It also means that I have to make an effort to keep up with my regular dyeing, spinning and felting for Saturday Market while stockpiling product for this September event. Much of what I do would not be considered hard work but it is time consuming. I wound a fair bit of yarn into the big skeins that I use when starting the dyeing process. The fine sock yarn is especially tedious to wind. A four ounce skein ends up being about 400 yards of potential tangled mess should I get distracted while winding. Dot, our pretty yellow rescue cat, especially loves to help. The instant I look like I am not paying attention she tries to eat yarn. She is quite successful and very annoying. I’ve gotten to the point where any time I need to walk away from a project I must move it into the room where I keep my stash of fiber goodies. I used to try hiding work under a pillow on the couch but discovered that she finds that to be a very amusing game of hide and seek. After having to make several project repairs and even having to discard a few things I decided it was just easier to take a few extra steps and lock up my work.

We have two new bottle babies in the barnyard. We acquired a pair of Lincoln half-brothers after both were rejected by their mothers. The Lincoln is one of the largest breeds of sheep so these are BIG babies! The rams should grow out to be about 300 pounds each. We named the larger one Buddy as he reminds me of Buddy in the movie Elf – just big, dorky and very enthusiastic. I don’t have a name yet for the smaller and younger fellow but I just call him Inky Dink because he looks so much smaller than Buddy. Buddy was a month old and Inky Dink about two weeks old when we adopted them. Both fellows have beautiful fluffy gray curls and very fuzzy faces. They come almost up to my knees which means they take some effort to stumble around when I am carrying big vats of wetted wool to the stable to dye. They love to wind themselves around my legs. I am so careful not to step on them but they make it difficult. They also try to force themselves through the stable door. Although we are already bottling them about 5 times a day, it seems they are just bottomless pits who believe that any time they see Al or me we will magically produce yet another bottle. I am beginning to understand why their original owner was ready to sell them as the cost of milk replacer sure adds up. They will continue to get bottles for a few more months but are transitioning nicely to a little grain and lots of hay just as mama-reared lambs do.

Baloo, our big Great Pyrenees Kangal cross livestock guardian dog, has decided that he adores these two new lambs. I have found him several times now with the littler guy snuggled at this chest while Buddy jumps up and down on him. It is funny how tolerant the dogs are of the babies jumping on them or running underfoot. All of our livestock dogs are very food protective and snarl at anything that disturbs them while they are eating. That is a good instinct that we encourage especially since the dogs are submissive to us and back right down if one of us grabs their food. We have had a few slightly bloodied ears on the goats that haven’t jumped when one of the dogs growled. It is funny to see the dogs quietly and tenderly grown to warn the babies that approach their dishes. The dogs explode at the adult animals but are sweet to warn the babies. I have seen Baloo quietly growl at Buddy and stare him down as the lamb watches in confusion. It seems little Inky Dink has not needed to be growled at but has decided he doesn’t even want to approach a dog as it eats. I would not particularly classify sheep as our smartest animals but they are certainly as smart as they need to be to be successful sheep.

The heat over these last few weeks had really impacted our egg production. The birds are free range and have plenty of shade, a few fans around the different buildings they like to hang out in and a greenhouse mister that gently sprinkles an area near their favorite place to nest but they are still eating less because of the heat. The birds prefer to just sit quietly rather than scratch and range around looking for interesting things to chase and eventually snack on. The change in diet as well as the stress the heat causes means less eggs. I’ve been counting and it seems our production is down by about a third. Unfortunately, this stress often causes an early molt so that the hens’ bodies will go into a resting mode for about a month. They will not lay during that time. All we can do is to wait them out and watch their general health. Sadly, this is more like an August heat wave and was rather unexpected this early in the season. There are just so many variables in farming and we are very grateful when things do go smoothly.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Farm Story for June 25, 2011

A Farm Story for June 25, 2011
Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm ,

On Halloween last year we made a trip to Mars Hill in North Carolina to look at a pair of ewes I’d found on Craigslist. What had intrigued me about them was that they were Border Leicester crossed with Cotswold, both large breeds with gorgeous thick curly wool. We have chosen our sheep based on the variety they add to our nice handspinning flock.

Based on the information the owner gave us, we took two very large dog kennels in the back of the pickup truck. Because we were going up a mountain to almost nowhere, we did not take the horse trailer. Al is very competent at backing a trailer but we’ve discovered that there are some places where, no matter what your skills, it is just not possible to get in and out of with a trailer. It is a good thing we made that choice.

We found the pasture where the sheep were. They were down in a gulley on the opposite side of the road from the woman’s house. There was barely a foot path down to the pasture so we parked the truck on the very edge of the road and walked down with the owner. The sheep were in a pasture with a horse. The pasture was bare, eaten down to the very end of the dry weedy stems. The woman explained that she was leaving the farm and had not been able to get hay so had been feeding only grain lately. The sheep certainly showed that that was the case – they were grossly obese.

They did have long beautiful white locks. We were told they were named Betsy and Bitsy. Although they looked very similar from a distance we only needed to look at their ears to tell them apart. Bitsy had a little bit of the tip of her ear missing where her ear tag had been torn out.

After a fair bit of running, we were able to corner and catch the first gal. We had to walk her out of the pasture and up a narrow foot trail to the truck. The owner, Al and I all held onto her as we walked as she would have disappeared into the mountains had we let go. She was not accustomed to a lot of hands on contact so was quite skittish and tugged against us as we tried to guide her. We had set the dog kennels out onto the ground when we arrived so we managed to force her into one. There was room for her to stand and partially turn around but we had no idea when we planned our trip that the gals would be so grossly enormous! We managed to secure the kennel and then had to lift it up into the bed of the truck. By the time we were ready to lift, the woman’s companion had arrived. It took all four of us to hoist the full kennel into the truck. We repeated the process with the other sheep, tarped the kennels and prepared to leave. I asked their owner about the sheep’s vaccinations, lambing history and current diet. I never did find out how much grain the gals were getting each day but it was obviously quite a bit.

The owner said that the last person who had sheared for her had scolded her for their condition. There is a simple way to determine if a sheep is of the proper weight. You place your hand along its spine near the tail. Your middle finger runs the ridge of the spine and then you determine where your fingers lie in relationship to your middle finger. If your outer fingers drop lower than your middle finger the sheep is too thin, if all fingers are flat the sheep is in good condition and if your middle finger is the lowest of the fingers the sheep is overweight. Well, these girls were hefty. A middle finger trying to find the spine disappeared in a sea of fat.

Since it was the end of October, the bulk of our breeding season had passed but we didn’t want to risk any “mishaps” with these ewes. They were much too overweight to risk a pregnancy. We placed them as securely away from the rams as we could. We estimated their weights to be between 225 and 240 each. We put them on a hay-only diet which is quite sufficient for any sheep that is not nursing a lamb. They did get an occasional nibble of grain as we tried to gain their confidence. They were not really people-friendly, even with their original owner. In a few days they were becoming more and more curious about us, especially when they realized we did have a treat. As they became more interested in us, we used that to make them take walks. We would wander around the pasture with just a nibble of grain in our hands. They would walk and walk, hoping we would slow down and give them just a nip. When we first started this little game they would often be panting after just a few minutes. Their endurance increased as their weight dropped. Over time they became friendlier and healthier, probably losing about 30 pounds each.

Al sheared the gals in the spring. We knew they had dropped a decent bit of weight but were not surprised to find that they could still lose more. Sheep do not have hefty rear ends; these girls had fat folds rolling down on either side of their tails. They still have a good way to go to be truly healthy sheep but they are now grain-free and continuing to lose weight. Perhaps they will be in good condition to breed in the fall but if not they will be separated from the rams. Their health is our first priority so we will continue to work on it.

Bitsy and Betsy have earned a nickname here on the farm because of their tendency to try to force their way through gates as we are going from pasture to pasture. They are particularly persistent if the two have been separated. They have earned the name “The Sofa Sisters” because trying to get through a gate with them is like trying to squeeze between to very large fluffy couches.

The fleece from their first shearing here is gorgeous. Each fat curl is at least six inches long. Although they are filthy when they first come off the sheep, they wash up to a lovely sheen. These gals were losing their home so we would have cared for them anyways but it is nice to be rewarded with such lovely wool. And with our very hot week, I am sure they are very fortunate to be nicely shorn and to have lost as much weight as they have so far.

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