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.