Thursday, May 27, 2010

Two White Rabbits

They're here!  We purchased two New Zealand rabbits from the co-op yesterday, and while we wanted a buck and a doe, I'm pretty sure all the rabbits at the store were does.  We'll find a buck somewhere.  Savanna is very excited about the rabbits and is taking care of them as much as is possible.  We will be building them a "grazing cage" soon, but for now just move their cage around the yard so they can eat grass.  They are so excited to get grass, they buck and jump and devour all that pokes into their cages in no time.  They've eaten very little pellet so they must be getting a lot from the grass.  It will be difficult to kill something that is so sweet and gentle, but ultimately we'd rather eat an animal that was fed and handled with respect than one that wasn't, plus it's cool knowing you raised much of the food on your table.  I am certain that, like the milk, we will consume less meat when we harvest it ourselves etc.  I'll keep you posted on whether that happens or not.  We'll definitely have to see how it goes, but until there are babies there isn't much reason to worry about butchering.  The does get to be our "pets."

 I will post pictures soon!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Mulling over rabbits, "warm-water test," & cow thank you's

We have had much time to think about things lately, we have all been very in our snuffy, congested, hoarse voices we mulled over our options - yet again.  What a struggle it can be just making decisions.  Stay here, go there.  Sell this, buy that?

Richard and I have been doing a lot of talking about what we can do now that will transfer on a larger scale when we buy/lease property.  Rabbits and a hoop house were on the top of the list.  Dillon doesn't allow chickens (they're lumped in with goats, llamas and pigs in city ordinances) but rabbits are ok.  Rabbits will help us build soil.  They will feed us.  They will humor us and our children with their wild, rabbit antics.  We'll try to find a breeding pair, they will be the "pets" of the project, Savanna will call them hers I'm certain.

Our milk fat has been gathering in two ways: one semi-solid mass or a collection of smaller masses.  These smaller masses only happen after Ruby is in heat...coincidence?  Hormonal?  Looks like hormonal but I was uncertain, so I asked my online family cow forum friends what these globs could be.  They turned me onto the "warm-water test:"  simply place the cream in question (a bit of it) in warm water, if it relaxes and "melts" then its just fine.  If it remains in glob form then it's mastitis.  Pretty neat huh?  Of course, by the time I got a reply on this I had tentatively figured this out.  As I poured several milkings worth of milk into my large, red enamel cheese pot I saw the lumps.  Figuring that it would have to go to the dogs and worrying over how I would slip in extra milkings along with taking care of a sick family (and self), I left it there on the stove for an hour or so.  Guess what?  They all "relaxed" and it looked just like the normal, solid cream.  This is completely bizarre to me.  I feel like a little kid getting to do new science experiments or something.  There's an odd happiness that fills me when I figure these things out.  I went on to make ricotta with this milk, and it was the most heavenly that we've made yet!  Soft, delicate and crumbly - exactly what it should be.  Lovely.

This morning I raced a large, wet and windy storm to the barn.  As I was just getting in the barn the first drops started hitting its big tin roof, thousands of small soft thuds hurrying me through the myriad of gates to get the girls in.  Both Ruby and Opal (who usually enjoys a game of "who's faster?" before going in the barn) were waiting with their heads at the gate, and ran inside tandem right as the rain started blowing horizontal and cold.  When the weather is poor Ruby doesn't seem to care if the milkings take a while, but when it's sunny outside she is angsty to get back to sunning herself, it seems.  After milking this morning though, both she and Opal stood in the breezeway inside the barn, looking out the open door while I gathered a few flakes of hay.  Not moving an inch.  Just watching.  It wasn't until I tied their gate back and walked towards their shelter that they hopped out of the barn and trotted along behind me.  When I held the blowing door to their shelter open for them, they slipped inside and - if cows could talk - said "thank you" for the hay in the warm little barn.  Had I fed in the bunk outside - by the hay stack - I'm not sure they would not have left the barn without some prodding.  It's very satisfying to experience animals in this way.  To do things for them and know that they appreciate it.  Rarely would I spoil a horse like this, but for some reason - probably because she gives nourishment for my family - doing so for a milk cow seems natural.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Touching traditions

In all of this: milking, cheese & butter making, bread making, food growing...wild-ness, there is a grounding effect.  When I milk Ruby, and hear the steady streams beat the bucket I know that there are millions of women that have done (or do) the same thing daily for centuries.  This exact same thing (well, without a teat dip cup I'd imagine).  Providing food for our families is something that satisfies on a very elemental level, and I adore that feeling.  Tucking kneaded bread into pans to "sleep" (second rise) while Savanna watches, feeding warm, soft bits of fresh ricotta to her right from the cheese cloth - these are things so satisfying that I've begun to realize why people become truly fanatical about "self-sufficiency."  When you've made or raised the things you eat, you tend to eat with a clearer mind as well as eat less of the fats etc because they are more time consuming to produce.  There is no "what was this sprayed with?,"  "was this cow healthy?," "do they have the same regulations in Chile as they do here?"  Only pure enjoyment.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A word about REAL cream

For ten minutes I tried to take a decent picture of what fresh cream looks like coming off a spoon - only to realize that my camera doesn't do close-ups very well.  Here is the best of the several blurry photos I took.  Fresh, raw cream hangs in drips from the lid of its jar.  It slides off of a spoon in a thick lump, almost like yogurt but not really.  It's incredible to pour the skimmed cream into a bowl because the mass of heavy, thick (delicious) cream glops in instead of streaming out like the small bit of skim milk at the bottom.  You know how Emerald Lagasse is always talking about the "essence" of this or that?  Raw milk has an essence of cow.  Cow in it's purest form.  People who've never had raw milk before are usually surprised by it when they first taste the difference.  It is the difference between store-bought cookies, and the ones that your mama makes (or your friends mama if yours always burns a cookie).  Real cream doesn't behave like store cream at all.  Making butter can take over an hour in the Kitchenaid if the cream isn't left out to "age" for 8-12 hours first (something to do with proteins breaking down so that the cream will separate into fat & buttermilk) - then it still takes a half hour!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Warm like an old world grandma

This evening looking north from the feed bunks by the barn

For those of you who know me well, some of this will be old news.  I am a weeny about the cold if my neck and ears aren't out of the wind.  I will stay perfectly warm, so long as I have one of my scarfs (wild rag kind, not long, fringed kind) tied tightly around my neck.  For my entire twenty six years I have assumed that women in the 1950's and earlier wore their scarves tied over their hair so that it wouldn't be "mussed" in the wind.  Never did it cross my mind that there was more function to this - naive I know - until this evening.  The wind was blowing like crazy at the barn.  A cold, damp wind from the northeast.  I cannot keep my hood over my head with out the zipper scratching me and my ears feel as though they are filling with tiny icicles.  Here is where you Montanans start laughing because it really wasn't that cold today.  Anyways, finally decided that I would just wrap my scarf around my head so that the hood of my jacket wouldn't scratch me and my ears would be warm.  Wow.  It essentially made my hood silk-lined, kept the wind out of my ears, and still kept my neck warm because it was tied around it under my chin.  Here is where all "stylish," cool chick points go right out the window, but it was heavenly and I will do it again.  

In the last couple weeks I have been calling dairies across the country that are doing anything local and small-scale-ish.  Wow is it depressing.  I cannot come up with the words to explain how disheartening some of these stories are.  Some started by investing a LOT of money, without ensuring that the local market could support their business.  There are artisan cheese makers out there selling cheese for $27/lb.  Pretty steep compared to Tillamook right?  They are only clearing $2/lb on their product.  $2!!!!  Am I the only one who thinks this is insanity?  They give their whey (by-product) away.  No ricotta made, pigs or calves fed and then profited from.  They have incredible, beautiful structures on their property for cheese tasting and their barn looks like something out of Country magazine...but all they talk about is how broke they are.  
We are obviously green, and I listen to these owners with great interest and respect, but in my mind I cannot seem to understand many of the aesthetic things that they are investing in.  

I'm sorry this isn't very organized, but I am floored and saddened by the things we're learning.  

Our food system is set up (regulations etc) for large, mass-production farms and I really was clueless about the extent of the difficulties in starting a small farm purely with the intent of supplying food to our community.  I guess I'm a simpler person that I thought, but I really don't see why on earth everything is priced to keep the little guy out of the market.  No wonder so many people just sell raw milk or go around the law in some other way.  Going with the law not only requires a lot of money, but also a lot of paperwork and fuss - which we'll deal with but geez.  All to sell minimally processed products.
My goal for this week is to look into grants for land/equipment purchases as well as learn a little bit about the government subsidizing farms.  I am fairly in the dark regarding subsidies, really my only real experience is with apricots in California a few years ago.  Our family received the "OK" to go pick all the apricots we wanted from an orchard there.  A large orchard.  Fruit so thick it looked like giant clusters of creamy orange colored grapes running down the length of each branch...and the farmer was being paid to let the fruit rot.  He could not give it away to the community (but apparently a few families like ours would go unnoticed).  What was wrong with the fruit you may wonder?  It was blemished by a wind storm a couple weeks earlier.  Not destroyed, not badly bruised, just a few scrapes here and there but it was declared a total loss.  What a waste.  Remembering this and hearing of how little money there is in dairying made me want to look into subsidies, because the numbers just don't pencil out unless there is some sort of hand out added in.  I'm willing to bet the small farmers aren't receiving the bulk of it though.  Just think of all the things that could be done with "waste" like those apricots if the local communities were mobilized to make use of it.  

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Tonight I worked on cleaning the barn up a bit, mostly just swept the wide planks of the breezeway until my nose and throat were full of dust.  As I cleared the fine silt away, and the grain of the beams showed, I realized that they are all worn smooth.  It made me want to touch the soft grain of them, so smooth that they shine a bit.  I have no idea how old the barn is really, but it's old.  It is no longer square in any way, and it looks at though it has been slowly settling for a long time.  It's two stories tall, and I can imagine days of throwing hay down into the stalls from the hay loft.  Our cow and calf live behind the barn in a large pen with a small, four-sided building with a hay bunk in it.  It's quite snug, they're always in it when the wind or snow blows.

I have been working with Ruby so that she is more relaxed during milking, and this evening we had a break-through of sorts.  She chewed cud while I was milking tonight!  Now, normally this would be no big news flash.  Cows chew cud.  But they only chew their cud when they are relaxed - very relaxed.  She has not done this before while being handled (not even when we were just  brushing her).  I can't help but feel a sort of elation when we achieve little things like this together (her and I) because we have both fumbled terribly through this whole "milk cow" process and have been short with each other off and on for longer than I'd like.  Knowing a cow this well is a new experience for me, and an intriguing one.

Opal is changing as well, she's slowly settling down and letting me touch her more.  She's not quite as ticklish as she was when she was new.  Soon she'll have a thick hide like her mama and will beg to be scratched.  Ruby is shedding currently, so she is a glutton for being rubbed/brushed.  I can't blame her, my skin would itch like crazy if I had lived outside all winter too.

We have a new cat in the barn, a black and white tom cat it looks like.  He is wild, but has become more comfortable enough in the last few days to let me see him while he waits for food.  It is so quiet while I milk usually that I can hear the cats and birds moving in the barn, as well as the cows pacing outside and occasionally bawling for their breakfast.  Such a heavenly thing - the quiet - when my days are usually filled with the joyful sounds of a happy home.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The infamous barn cat

Protector of the grain - unless a raccoon shows up
This is Bluey, he's the cat living in the barn where Ruby is.  Once a day he gets about a quarter cup of fresh milk.  He spends nearly two hours a day trying to convince me that he's missed his calling and is supposed to be a house cat.  He'll actually hop up a little when you reach down to pick him up, he's that excited.  He plays in the hay like a wild animal while I feed the beef cows - which catches the attention of the three calves there, who in turn chase him around the hay area.  Funny how "simple" chores can be so entertaining.

Feeling centered again

The older calves play with me while I feed (this is after the blizzard this week).  They peek around the side and as I feed they run around the bale to look from behind me.  Good thing I have a camera phone : )

Today I made cheese, and was going to take some to the man that has been helping us so much - Justin - at the local NRCS office.  I realized that Richard has been wanting to meet him so we waited for him and went as a family.  We all talked about the things that we need to know, know, and have to find and Richard now is so much more confident about the help that we're getting!  Now he understands why I trust Justin's opinion to be a solid one (even if we may not entirely agree) and has learned new things because he was able to discuss it with someone who knows much much more about the science end of mob-grazing/management.  We also now have specific zones of the area we live in that we are shooting for.  There is a huge difference in how you are able to stock your animals (based on forage production per acre), and now we have a region that produces much better than others in the area.  BUT, in the areas that are sub-irrigated - think close to the river, high water table - while the production is lower, you don't have the same irrigation costs.  Lots to think about.
Life is so beautiful for us right now.  Constantly evolving, occasionally trying, but ultimately incredible.  We are so blessed to enjoy what it is to be living and to have the courage to take small, breathtaking risks.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Need a little help from you "foodies" out there (Updated)

Alright, I keep trying to make ricotta (not just queso blano though we have been making that too) and keep getting a firm product that while delicious, is not fitting the creamy-use-it-for-sauces-and-fillings bill.  Do any of you know if the fat content needs to be high in order to get a soft product?  I'm using whole milk (mostly) but some recipes say add cream - others don't.  Help! Please!  I'll keep cruising the net to see if I can get an answer there but if you have input please give it :)

Yes, you do need a lot of fat for a soft product!  We get a lot of cheese but it's firm because it is mostly protein and little fat.  Sunday we'll try a "fat" batch.

Getting into the numbers of it all...

This week I have been researching the equipment requirements for processing milk (straining, cooling, pasteurizing, cooling again, and the bottling) and it is such a crazy process.  There are very, very few farms in the country doing what we're trying to do, and the two that I've called are small conventional (confined cows) dairies that are selling semi-locally.  Not exactly what we're looking for but still got some valuable information from them.  Both bought their land - which is great if you were gifted a fat sum of money but when you're starting from scratch can really put you in a bind fast - and also spent around $250,000 on setup.  Wow.  Mind you this is conventional dairy stuff, grass-fed, pastured dairy means a lower overhead (big time) than a semi-confined dairy.  The cows will be harvesting their own feed, and we won't be feeding silage or much grain so these things will also keep our overhead lower.  There is quite a bit of information out there on "mob-grazing" and it's management, but nearly none for the growing area that we're in.  Alberta is as close as the information gets, so we're in for some hit-and-miss in our operation I think.

The second issue that we're talking about it the breed.  We'd like to keep our cows with our calves for most of the time (why bottle feed when the cows can just feed them?) and  rotate them on a high energy pasture mix....but, we are unsure of the milk production from a milking shorthorn if she is only on grass.  Now, once the grass mix comes up and is in full production her milk quality will be excellent, but how much will there be? We are reading as much as possible on this but really there comes a point when you have to just DO it to get an answer.  I guess this is just the way it goes when there are no reference farms in the area you live in.  We have been talking about adding a Jersey or two anyways so that we can produce more value-added products like butter, yogurt and soft cheeses so this may just be something that we're going to have to fumble around with.  Now, as another source of income, we will be selling milking shorthorn heifers that are raised & handled with the intent that they will be sold as family cows.  We believe that if people could get a gallon or two a day instead of six gallons or more a day, then there would be a lot more people with their own cows.  So, we're going to give it a shot, see what the market's like.

The Range Management Specialist at NRCS has worked up the numbers on how much land we would need to support the operation we have in mind, and its "94 pivot-irrigated acres."  We will have to plant the pasture with a pasture mix because odds are it will be in wheat or alfalfa production, but the NRCS will cost-share with us because we are striving for a sustainable, organic operation.  Pretty sweet.

Now, throughout all of this, I am thinking about how much the kids and I will be outdoors and am very excited but just a touch apprehensive lol.  I'll be moving the animals once a day (cows, pigs, goats/sheep maybe, and chickens) and milking twice a day.  Then processing the milk etc, feeding the family, doing all of the things required to run a house...because Rick will be working.  I'm going to have to be in good shape and on a pretty tightly managed schedule I'm thinking.  Otherwise it'll all be chaos!  We'll deal with that when we get there, but you can believe that I'm planning ahead now.

Milking is going well though, and Opal is growing like a weed; and getting snottier every day.  Halter breaking will start soon with her!  I am just completely smitten with going out in the early mornings to milk - it is always breathtaking out, even though it is usually chilly.  I am so glad that we have chosen to make this a part of our lives.

Opal @ 2 wks old