Friday, January 02, 2009

New year, new calves, new blog location . . .

The first babies of 2009 here on our farm are these twin calves. Rosie, the young Jersey cow, gave birth sometime after 3 a.m. on New Year's Day. By nightfall, they'd already had their first adventure. You can read about it here at the new blog location --

The Land of Moo isn't much different than the Real Dirt blog, except for the new layout and some behind-the-scenes programming that makes it much easier for me to upload photos and posts via my cranky, quirky satellite internet connection. The Real Dirt archives have been moved to Moo, too. I'll still be writing about farm life, gardening, farm fresh cooking, wildlife, stupid animal tricks, and a few stupid human tricks, too. So click on over, browse around, let me know what you like and what you wish I'd change.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Freckles and the Cows

It's morning. It's time to eat. They've been waiting for hours. HOURS! They don't get much, just a can of sweet feed to share between the four of them. There's plenty of grass for them out in the pasture. I feed them that bit of grain to keep them tame and cooperative, always willing to follow me if I'm carrying that magic shiny can full of grain. Or a bucket. Or if I'm just walking through the pasture because you never know, I might have a bucket of oats, sweetened with molasses, tucked under my jacket or in my hat.

Above: that's Lottie, my older Jersey milk cow, waiting at the feeder. She has attitude and a big sense of entitlement. If I'm late, she'll shove the feed bunk, bang on it, and maybe turn it over. Steak is the black steer approaching from the left. He's Lottie's calf from last year, and he's good at helping turn the feed bunk over. Rosie is the pretty Jersey between them. Her specialty is a loud, demanding bellow.

Freckles is on the job though. No cattle mischief is allowed! He slips under the barbed wire and hurries to move them back. That black and white blotch at the right end of the feed bunk is Freckles, racing in to enforce the rules.

Mama Dinah, the black dog, is right there helping. Or maybe Freckles is helping her. Dinah had this duty first, and she taught Freckles how to move the cattle back a bit and hold them in a little group, under the trees, where they couldn't vent their frustrations on the feed bunk or water trough. (Yeah, they turn that over, too. If it's too full to tip, they just give it a few kicks.)

Blue, the old Aussie, helps from his side of the fence, urging the cattle back. He doesn't see very well anymore, so we'd rather he wasn't in the middle of the action. He tends to push the stock in the wrong direction now because he can't see that it's the wrong direction.

So, time passed. The cattle behaved and stood politely under the tree while I took care of the other livestock. The dogs left the pasture to help me round up some adventurous young ducks who escaped when I let the older ones out for their usual morning excursion to the pond.

Lottie took advantage and returned to thumping the feed bunk. The dogs moved her back while I sprinkled their morning rations down the length of the feed bunk --- finally.

And there was peace at the feeder, and happy munching sounds. And cow slobber.

Just in case, Freckles settled in to keep an eye on them.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Day in the Life of Freckles

I really had intended to sell the entire litter of pups. I'd have kept every one of them if I listened to my heart instead of my head. But that would be way more dogs than any farm needs. Besides, they were great pups who each deserved their own farms and families to take care of when they grew up. Still . . . when the transportation arrangements for Freckles fell through and Freckles' buyer had to cancel the sale, I wasn't heartbroken. I could have sold him a few times after that, but I stalled for one reason, then another. There were a few weeks there that I might have let him go if I'd found the right buyer with the right sized farm, the right livestock for Freckles to work with, and a personality that complemented Freckles' own. Eventually, though, the truth became obvious. It was undeniable. I just wanted to keep him.

I felt guilty about that for a few more weeks and did try to keep an open mind. Finally, though, we gave in to the inevitable. Freckles was here to stay. He's ours, and he's the goofy, yet mostly competent pup we really didn't need but are glad to have anyway.

Freckles has always shown great potential as a herding dog. When he was 8 weeks old, he and a littermate 'helped' me bring an old goat who'd indulged on too many wild rose blossoms into the barn where I could examine her and treat her for the case of bloat she'd given herself. While I was checking old Katrinka over, the pups disappeared. A few minutes later, they herded the two other retired nannies into the stall. Then they went out for the Babydoll Southdown ewe and brought her up, too. It was impressed with their independent thinking skills, even though I also knew I'd better keep an eye on them and make sure they didn't take it upon themselves to move the stock here and there and harass them for the fun of it.

Freckles still does a great job of helping with the livestock, mostly with the other dogs but occasionally on his own if I need the assistance and the older dogs are occupied elsewhere. Like any young dog, sometimes he gets it all right and makes me so proud I'm grinning like a fool. Other times, he gets it wrong and sends the cattle off in the wrong direction and we have to start all over again. Still, for a five-month-old pup, he's not half bad, as one of my neighbors said last week when Freckles and Dinah, his dam, helped us separate my cattle from the stubborn yearling steer that had escaped the neighbor's pasture.

Pest control is what Freckles currently does best. He's been hunting mice, voles, rats, and moles with his mama since he was small, and now he hunts independently throughout the day. Here he is in action, at the edge of the tall grass near the big garden.

He knows there's something small and furry around there but he's still searching, cautiously walking along, nose down, nostrils quivering as he focuses on finding the critter's trail.

He always checks the tall grass and weeds. There are a lot of places for a mouse to hide there.

Nope, no fresh trails in those weeds, but something around here smells yummy.

Aha! Behold! A scent trail leading into the tall grass and . . . a mole tunnel.

Mama Dinah found the other end of the tunnel and stuck her snout right into the dirt, snuffling hard, checking for a current occupant. After a bit, she gave up and moved back into the weeds, out of sight, where she made more snuffling noises for a while.

Freckles checked the hole his mama abandoned, just in case. He's still young enough to have to try everything himself first before he agrees that Mom was right. The mole might be down there, nearby, but they weren't at the right access point to catch it.

Mole hunting is tough work. After a while, a pup works up a sweat and needs to rest a while, to stretch out and cool off in the damp sand near the little spring-fed creek.

On this particular day, it began to rain. That was fun, too, for a while, running around in the wet grass, crashing through the woods and wrestling in the underbrush. Then it was time for a nap. So Freckles trotted into the greenhouse where I was working because he also likes a good scratch behind the ears before settling down for a nap. He plopped down in the middle of a pile of tarps and row covers I'd set aside while clearing out the section to be planted next.

You can tell by his expression that he's realized his error. That was not a puppy bed.

Rather than moving, he tried to play cute and con me into rubbing his belly. Seriously, look at that sand and mud caked into his fur. Would you rub that belly?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Thank you, Gustav

I know that a hurricane is a fearful thing – my grandparents spent their last decade or so in a beach community on the Florida panhandle. They evacuated for hurricanes and rode out tropical storms in their little block house, and they described each ordeal in great detail, pictures included. I have great sympathy for those in Gustav’s path, and Hanna’s, and now Ivan and all the future storms that may come to pass.

Still, it would be ungrateful to not give thanks for the gentle rains that sometimes reach us here in the Midwest from the occasional fading hurricane, blown far inland. Early last week, the fields and prairies lay parched beneath drying breezes with great cracks in the dirt. We watered our gardens some and tended the potted plants, but we haven’t the infrastructure for irrigating pastures nor the will or wherewithal to install it. And so the pastures faded and plants dried and died or simply went into a dormant state. Then came Gustav, and in this area at least, the rain was steady and gentle. It was exactly what we needed.

Above, pictured, is Wah-kon-tah Prairie, which I pass on my way to and from town. Damp and revived, in a break between showers, the wildflowers wave in a slight breeze, and there’s a low buzz of insects. Gustav ended our local summer drought and broke the heat wave – one not so impressive as years past but uncomfortable nonetheless. After the remnants of Gustav passed, we had a few nice days, followed by more gentle rain that moved in from another direction. The extended forecast includes more of the same, pleasant days, rain, and then more sunshine.

Here at the farm, we’re catching up on neglected chores. String beans are ready in the second chance garden, which earned that name during the summer replanting. The earlier crops were washed out by flash flooding this spring. What wasn’t washed out completely, slowly drowned in the mucky wetness that remained, thanks to the heavy rains that made the spring one of the wettest in memory. After that, it felt odd to be complaining about the lack of rain in August, but we did. Some.

Much has changed since I posted last. A favorite ewe was lost to predators, and four new ewes fill her stall with their demanding voices. The puppies have grown and gone to their new homes, all but one. I kept Freckles. He’s doing well, and I’ll write more about him later this week. The calves have grown as tall as their mamas and still aren’t weaned. Their nursing is a ridiculous sight. The last of the season’s chicks are beginning to feather out, and birds of all ages and sizes race about after any bug that dares to move.
I spent much of the spring and summer in treatment for spinal issues – bulging discs and misalignments, the type of thing one encounters with age in a life full of small adventures and mishaps. Painful and inconvenient, but hardly life threatening. It’s simply life’s way of reminding me that I’m not 25 anymore, and it’s time I stop acted liking it. And thus I’m heeding the advice of neighbors older and wiser than me and am changing how I do a few things, acquiring labor-saving equipment and generally trying to act more like a grownup.

At least when they’re watching. When it’s just me and the pup in the back field, all bets are off.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Puppies & turtles

This box turtle has been a frequent summer visitor to the front porch of the farmhouse the last two summers --- and we've been watching for it this year and wondering if it survived the winter. Its cracked, battered shell makes it easily recognizable. The grown dogs recognized it and paid no attention as it crawled across the concrete toward the dog food dish. The puppies were a bit more concerned.

Bebe ordered the pups back, then settled down to keep an eye on things while the old guy snacked on some dog food bits. Bebe's like that. Once she knows the rules, she enforces them, and the rule is, you don't mess with this old turtle. It's a friend. Still, Homer (formerly known as Patches), can't resist a quick sniff.

Sable tried to play with it, which earned her a sharp, chastising bark from Bebe. So she stretched out to pout and watch.
Then she realized it had dog food before it.

And it ate the dog food.

Hippo (on the right) joined her a few minutes later. He'd been off playing with a stick and wasn't sure what was happening. I don't think he believed that story about the turtle eating their dog food at first.

Then the turtle headed for a lone piece of dog food on the concrete -- straight for it, with a purposeful gleam in its eyes. It was moving fast for a turtle, its nails scraping against the cement.

CHOMP! The turtle ate it. Hippo jumped up, looking startled.

And that's the box turtle lesson. I'm hoping the snapping turtle lesson doesn't happen anytime soon. Or on my porch.

Monday, May 19, 2008

A puppy extravaganza

I realized that the puppies are six weeks old now, and I've been hoarding all that puppy goodness to myself. I apologize. That was so selfish of me. To make up for it, I'll introduce you to the gang and tell you a little about each. Some general information first:

  • 7 puppies total, including two females and five males

  • Both parents are American Working Farmcollies, and both really do work here on the farm. They work hard, and they never take a day off. They even work nights. I wouldn't do what they do for what I pay them.

  • At six weeks, they're eating lots of crunchy puppy food, cottage cheese, scrambled eggs, and dry dog food from the big dogs' bowl whenever Papa Ralphie Dog isn't looking. They're not weaned yet and still enjoy a snack of mama's milk whenever she'll stand still for that.

  • The names we use here aren't their permanent, forever names. We just have to call them something when we're telling each other what cute thing one of them did. It's simpler to use a name than to start with 'you know the black one with the spot on its nose -- not the one with the funny pineapple or rabbit ears or whatever on his chest, but the other one.' (We had those sorts of conversations before the pups earned their temporary names).

  • It was an oops litter. We'd planned for puppies from this pair, but not this year. The dogs, apparently, didn't feel the need to consult us about their choices.

The last week has been full of adventures. First, the pups were evicted from the humans' house and took up residence in the big old dog house at the bottom of the yard. In and under . . . mostly under. They love the holes in the concrete blocks. Fortunately, there's a block at each corner and two more for the doghouse doorstep. That's Sable (female) under the step, and Hippo (male) peeking out from further back.

Blackie, the male with the pineapple/rabbit ears on his belly, is a sweet one. He looks most like his mama, and I'm beginning to think his temperament may be similar. He's smart and observant, but not pushy. He'll sit quietly for his turn to be pet, and he likes to hang out with Bebe, one of the older farmcollies. Bebe's like your bossy aunt, the one who wipes snotty noses, hugs away your tears, and also makes you eat your peas. In human terms, Bebe is Mama Dinah's aunt since she and Dinah's dam were littermates. Bebe was raised and trained by my first farmcollie, Sadie, and is carrying on the tradition of helping raise pups right, no matter who they belong to.

The genius husband started calling the pup above Rotty because of her black and tan markings. The real truth is Rotty stands for spoiled rotten. She'd just awoken from a long nap at the genius husband's side . . . in the house . . . in our bed. She was the runt of the litter, little, cute, strong, and spunky. Her markings actually are the classic black and tan English Shepherd type. Papa Ralphie's a purebred English Shepherd, and Mama Dinah's pedigree is mostly English Shepherd, so the coloring could have come from either line.

Here's Hippo, male, chewing his favorite stick. At this age, there's a lot of teething and chewing going on. They've learned it's okay to chew on sticks, the rope chew toys, and each other. Humans and big dogs don't like to be chewed upon.

Freckles, male, might have been the first to learn the perils of tugging a big dog tail.

He definitely was the first to learn the trick to picking up the food dish and carrying it off.

Sable, female, watched Freckles for a minute and grabbed the other bowl to prove girls are just as good as boys. I grabbed both bowls and replaced them with big, heavy old pie plates they can't lift. Yet. That's Spot, male, with Sable. Look at those faces. They're thinking hard about something.

Places to go, things to do. That's Patches, male. He's a mannerly little guy, always sitting when he's told, never chewing on fingers . . . well, mostly never. He keeps himself occupied and mostly out of trouble. And he's gorgeous. He reminds me of my first farmcollie's sire, who was a beautiful tri with a quiet, observant manner and impressive skills.

And that's Mama Dinah, who's the most patient of teenage mothers and a promising farm dog already. Wonder what secrets Rotty's whispering in Mama's ear?

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Morel season

Last week, I spotted my first morel of the season. Here it is, a moderately sized, half-attached morel. I snapped a quick picture, and that was the last one I thought to take because when I start finding morels, the last thing on my mind is the camera. I revert to the childish delight of a four-year-old on an Easter Egg hunt. I found much prettier ones -- impressive clusters and stately lone sponge-headed grays bursting through the leaf litter. But did I think to take a picture? Heck no! I did give a little whoop or two and do a careful dance of delight though -- watching where my feet landed just in case that morel had a friend nearby.

I grew up in Mississippi River country. We hunted morels in the foothills, along streams and bluffs, and the best morel hunters found huge bags and buckets of them. You could get general advice about finding them, but the old folks who taught me about finding morels are the type who guard their secrets carefully. They'll tell you to look when the mayapples are blooming, on warm spring days after a rain, around old elm trees, etc. They'll give you tips and maybe lead you to an example of the right type of habitat, but they won't take you along to their favorite spots. Don't even ask.

The half-attached morels are edible, but I don't like them as well as regular morels. They're more watery and fragile, and the taste is different. I fried up a few with the others, and they're good that way. Most, however, I dried in the dehydrator for use in soups and sauces later. The fragrance from that type reminds me more of the stronger, woody scent of a shitake. They dry up to almost nothing -- convenient for storage purposes, but a little disheartening when you consider time and effort spent foraging and cleaning them.

Fortunately, we found lots of the gray and yellow morels, too. This is what was left in the bowl after I battered and fried four skilletfuls for my daughter and I to munch on. I'd have cooked more, but the experts recommend that you don't eat too many at once. The recommended limit I've most often seen is a pint per person per day, measured fresh. I've never had any digestive upset from morels, but they're a seasonal food, and I think it's good advice to use moderation with any food that's not a regular part of your diet.

Most of the yellows were just a couple inches tall and were scattered here and there along streams. Two days ago I found a seven-inch gray in our woods. It was a late straggler in a patch that's produce well over the last week. I dried the remaining grays and yellows and stored them separately from the half-attached types because I'll probably use them differently.

Here's how a mess of morels look fresh from the skillet. I soaked the mushrooms for a couple of hours in cold saltwater. Some sources say soak a half hour. Some say overnight, 24 hours, and there are recommendations for time spans everywhere in between. A couple of old-timers write that it's best to take extra care in the field so it's not necessary to wash them. They believe that washing removes some of the subtle flavors. Well pardon me, but I've seen what crawls out of those sponge-like mushroom heads when they're soaking in saltwater, and I'd rather skip the subtle flavors of the bugs and slugs.

After soaking, I rinse gently, cut off of any bad spots, slice them open, and drain. I dipped the mushroom halfs in a mixture of beaten duck eggs and milk, then dusted them with flour seasoned to taste with salt, pepper, and garlic. I fry them until golden brown in vegetable oil, then drain on a cake rack. You can use paper towels to soak up the excess grease. They're also good fried in butter without the egg batter breading.

My morel total for the season thus far is just under 15 pounds. That sounds like a lot when you consider that they're selling in Midwestern cities for $30 to $50 a pound fresh-picked. When I look at the little bags of dried morels in my kitchen, I think I need to find a lot more.