It’s Cold!

It has been very cold lately. Usually it never even gets this cold at any point in the winter. It’s already made it to negative 6 degrees F here. At least the wind hasn’t been too bad.

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Icicles have been forming on the cow’s whiskers. We’ve had to break up the ice on the pond so the ducks could get a drink two times a day. The ice is so thick we use a heavy 7/8th thick steel bar to break it, then scoop out the ice chunks with a  flat shovel. The chicken waterer keeps freezing so we keep exchanging it with one we keep in the house.

Despite all of this, the egg production is still pretty good, though we’ve been feeding more scratch grains to keep them warm.

We keep topping off the water barrel we keep in the barn for the cow. She’s still lactating (and for another 6 weeks or so), so she is still drinking 15-25 gallons of water per day. She’s drinking more since she is on dry hay mostly now.

Some may wonder how I do this. It’s pretty simple. I have a cheap submersible pump I bought from Harbor Freight a few years ago. It is connected to a hose that goes through our well head. Then it couples to another hose. I use 3/4″ “Farm Hose” which is more durable and flexible than typical garden hose. The pump is turned on and off by a radio-controlled switch (called a Safelink) so we can turn the hose on an off in the barn or around the farm. It takes about 20 seconds once you turn it on but then water comes out. Once the barrel is filled, we then disconnect the hose from the well head and “walk out” the line so that no water freezes in it. This takes about one minute. The whole cow watering process in the winter takes about 10 minutes, most of it waiting for the barrel to fill. And such a solution costs a fraction of what it would have cost to run underground pipe and install frost-free hydrants everywhere I wanted them.

That’s the think with small scale farming. If you do everything the way a big scale farmer does, it will cost more than what you produce, and it won’t be worth your time. With a  farm as small as ours the frost free hydrants and the underground pipe would never pay for themselves, not to mention the expensive high-pressure pumps needed for such systems.

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Winter Solstice Sunset

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Winter Solstice Sunset

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Stockpiling II

Ongoing experimentation with forage-based feeding of dairy cattle continues to yield good information. This Winter has come unexpectedly early and is unusually cold, yet our stockpiled Ryegrass pastures are holding up well.

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Water time. They lean very quickly. 

Of course we feed hay in the barn at night, either a mixed Ryegrass-White Clover or Timothy-Red Clover hay, but the amount of nutrition coming from the field is considerable. Usually she eats about a bale of hay per day if she has no access to stockpiled pasture, but when she is given access to the stockpiled pasture she eats about 1/2 to 2/3rds less hay. We’ve kept her limited grain intake the same: two pounds of All-Stock sweet-mix per day, a pound after each milking. Her regular summertime production (6 gallons per day) has only declined slightly, cutting back to about 5 gallons per day, which is plenty. The key to keeping production up seems to be access to water. Out on pasture during the winter the barrels will freeze, so we let her into the barn where we keep a thermostatically controlled tank heater in the barrel twice a day so she can glug down about 5 gallons of water at at time.

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Even with this snow cover, she still snuffles through eating grass. 

So many people who keep dairy cattle insist on matters that just aren’t so. You can’t feed them mostly on pasture or hay–they need lots of grain. You can’t put dairy cattle out in the winter to graze stockpiled pasture. All of this is simply untrue, as we continue to demonstrate. The key is to have common sense and to know your animals. They are able to signal their needs if you pay attention.

No, I would not advise leaving a Jersey cow out overnight with wind and temperatures in the teens. No, you shouldn’t let them go a day with a frozen tank. You still need a barn to shelter them, and that barn should be well bedded, and have clean water to drink. But you can easily cut back about 1/3 to 1/2 on the amount of hay you feed while keeping production up by letting them out during the day when the weather is decent to graze stockpiled pasture. To me it is worthwhile.

 

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The Tin Cat

We’ve tried about every rodent control strategy there is. Part of living in old houses in the country is rodents, I guess. We keep food contained, we sweep promptly, we prevent moisture areas that can attract them. None of it works completely, but by taking precautions and trapping, reasonable control can be maintained.

The classic Victor snap-trap is pretty good. They cost $1 or so when you buy them at Rural King. They last for a few mice, but they seem to not attract them as effectively with time. They are also a hazard for little kids’ fingers. We tried other traps like the Kentucky-Ringer trap which is basically a rolling log that you bait and the mice fall into a 5 gallon bucket of water. These work well, and can catch many mice without needing to be re-baited or unloaded, but they take up a lot of space, and are again a potential hazard to toddlers (drowning).

We tried poison bait stations. These definitely work, but mice tend to die in bad places you can’t get to and you have to live with the smell until their bodies eventually desiccate. We stopped using poison bait of all kinds for this reason. Plus our dog sometimes catches mice and eats them. I’d have to think a hazard exists for her if she were to consume a mouse which had consumed poison.

After giving up on bait stations, we stumbled upon the Tin Cat, which is usually sold in the same area, but Tin Cats don’t use poison. Initially I balked at the $10 these things cost, but they work very well and last a long time. The contain the mice, but do not kill them, and they can be re-baited almost indefinitely. We’ve caught three mice in them at a time. Usually we empty the live mice out into a garbage can or a barrel filled with water. Sometimes we just dump them in the field and let the dog or a Harrier have a meal. House mice don’t have the same instincts as field mice do, and perish outdoors in the winter.

The Tin Cat also advantageously exploits a peculiar behavioral pattern of mice. Unlike many mammals, which are territorial and avoid their kind, mice are attracted to the smell of other mice. Since they are a foraging critter, if the find some other mouse’s droppings, they seem to figure that there must be good forage around or something. In any case, if you leave a Tin Cat alone, perhaps only applying more bait (peanut butter works well) as it is gradually consumed or looses aroma, the smell of mice that gets on the Tin Cat and will help attract them. Unlike snap-traps, which mice learn to avoid, they learn to LOVE Tin Cats. They almost seem like they want to set up shop in them until you pick them up. When we get a new Tin Cat, the first mouse caught seems to invariably be a small and naive one, then, as it seasons, we start catching whole mouse families!

Just a few Tin Cats have replaced a dozen snap traps and are far less trouble to keep going. They have zero hazards that I am aware of, and they are non-lethal without being tortuous (glue traps torture mice, I’ve seen them chew off their tails and legs to get out of these).

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Low effort tender grass-fed baby beef

We had our calf slaughtered two weeks ago, he dry-aged for 8 days at a local slaughterhouse, and we took him home in four quarters. We are now most of the way through butchering him. We’ve eaten a few meals from him, too.

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A nice dry-aged pasture-fed baby-beef T-bone. As you can see, the meat is lean, but not without marbling. It is extremely tender, more tender than any beef, but it tastes like beef, not veal. A real delicacy in my reckoning. 

Some observations:

  1. Dry-aged beef is far superior to wet-aged beef, which is what is encountered in the grocery store. Dry-aging concentrates flavor, is easier to butcher, and results in a lighter carcass (dry aging can reduce the water content 5-15%) that is easier to move.
  2. Our calf never had a bite of grain in his life. Only mother’s milk and forage and a tiny bit of hay in his last week. The meat was more tender, just as flavorful, and had no off flavors at all compared to ordinary grain finished beef.
  3. Jersey-Angus crosses have apparently none of the yellow fat that Channel Island cattle have. Since white fat is the standard in the industry (not that the color matters), Channel Island breeds (both dairy breeds with yellow fat) have been assigned lower status as crosses with beef cattle compared to the Holstein and Brown Swiss. Well, the fat on our calf was white, as white as any full-blooded beef cattle. Put that little canard to rest.
  4. Baby beef makes sense for a number of reasons. Slaughtering at just 7 months of age may seem wasteful, yet his hanging weight was 430 pounds. That means he gained over 2 pounds per day, which is as comparable to most beef cattle. And we didn’t have to bring him through the winter on hay or grain. He also has a smaller, more manageable animal to get to the slaughter house, and a smaller, more manageable carcass to butcher. And even a large family has trouble getting through 400 pounds of beef in a year. Who has a freezer that big anyway? I feel like if the animal were any larger, it couldn’t be butchered quickly enough by two non-pro adults to avert spoilage.

In short, I see no reason why not to cross a family dairy cow with a beef bull to produce a meat calf this way. The other option would be cross the cow with a dairy bull and hope for a heifer which you can sell for cash to buy beef. The problem is that if you use a bull, there is about a 50% chance of the cow throwing a lousy-no-good dairy bull calf. There is sexed frozen semen available, which gives upwards of a 90% assurance of getting a heifer, but this requires artificial insemination, which can be tricky (it was what we do). A beef bull will throw a heifer or a bull calf that will both make good beef, however. It’s a more sure thing.

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Winter Sunset

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Taken the day before the pond froze over and received our first snow. No more refections until Springtime. 

 

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Cheese Press

We’ve been generally dissatisfied using weights to press cheese. This works well enough for many cheeses, but it is not enough pressure for Cheddar.

First we tried using to board with a nylon web ratchet strap (motorcycle tie-down) to compress the inside-outside buckets between two boards, but we found this was uneven and provided limited pressure. I think the best way to go is to just go and buy a few things.

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These are two food grade plastic buckets which nest in each other that once contained cake icing. They were cleaned and holes were drilled into one of them to allow whey to squeeze out.

I used a 6′ 1/2-13 threaded rod that I bought a while ago (not sure what for). These are soft (grade 2) and cut easily with a hacksaw but are adequate for the job. Pick up at least four 1/2-13 hex nuts, and four 1/2-13 wing nuts and eight 1/2″ washers. This shouldn’t cost much; it’s sold by the pound ($2/lb. where I live) at our local Family Farm and Home/Tractor Supply. I sized our cheese press to allow the inside-outside buckets to slide in from at least two sides easily, so the top doesn’t need to be taken off. Also, you need to make sure that the rods are long enough for the biggest cheese you will make and that the bottom will fit inside a baking tray or something to catch the whey that runs out.

I used an odd pine 2×12″ board, which I cut into two 14″ lengths. Drill holes in the corners of the boards with a 1/2 drill bit and you’re good. We washed the boards and baked them to dry, and I treated the bottom board with Raw Linseed Oil (safe for food contact). We also washed the rods and hardware like dishes and let them dry.

It doesn’t look like much but it is completely adjustable, exerts more than adequate pressure with just thumb force (no wrench necessary). It would have been better I suppose to have used hardwood boards (like white oak) that were 3./4″ thick and some cross-wise 3/4″ hardwood strips on the end to prevent it from splitting down the middle, and if I make another cheese press someday, that is how I would do it.

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