Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Proud of my kids

If you remember, back in November Younger Daughter and I undertook the NaNoWriMo challenge. NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, and the idea is to write a 50,000 word novel in one month, which comes out to 1667 words per day. Younger Daughter easily did this, and in fact wrote a 84,000 word book that month.

This month NaNoWriMo was putting on a "challenge" in which writers can set their own word count goals. Younger Daughter signed up with the idea of writing 100,000 words in one month. Yes, one month. That's 3333 words per day.

When April 1 arrived, she plunged into the challenge with enthusiasm. Although I didn't officially sign up, I did some novel writing too, adding some to the novel I worked on last November, but with only a casual word count of about 20,000 spread throughout the entire month. But Younger Daughter, to her credit and despite a chaotic month with many interruptions, kept her word tally up.

When I took these photos, we were in a small town getting some work done on our car tires. With several hours to kill, she and I holed up in a cafe and wrote. Everywhere she went, she toted her AlphaSmart along and wrote wrote wrote.

And this morning -- the last day of the April NaNoWriMo challenge -- she came into the kitchen and announced, "I'm done!"

Her story is finished at 90,000 words. She intends to spend today fleshing it out a bit to achieve her round 100,000 mark. But personally I don't give a rip if she "wins" this challenge or not. She's already won. She set out to write an impressively lengthy book in a month, and she did it!

I excused her from schoolwork for the duration of April, figuring that this writing project was "school" enough. I don't know many 14 year olds who could do what she did -- much less adults.

Younger Daughter says she wants to write professionally when she's older (gee, I have no idea where she got that ambition), but even if she never achieves that goal, I'm proud as can be that she had the dedication and maturity and plain ol' stick-to-it-iveness to pound the keyboard for so many hours per day.

I've always told my girls that if I could launch them in adulthood able to write like educated young women instead of texting monkeys, then our homeschooling efforts will not have been in vain. I'm pleased to report success in this endeavor.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Butchering day

I'll repeat the warning I put up every time we butcher: DO NOT READ THIS POST if you are vegetarian or have a squeamish stomach. This post shows pictures of some animals being butchered. I don't want anyone complaining that they weren't adequately warned about the graphic nature of these photos.


Okay. That said, this morning we butchered our steer, Thor, and our bull calf, Atlas.

The most challenging part of butchering animals is getting them confined to the barn the day before the butchers come, and keeping them there. Through harsh experience we've learned that trying to round up an animal on the actual the day it's due to be dispatched is stressful, frustrating, and often a failure.

And even when we cleverly get an animal confined the night before is no guarantee he'll be there in the morning. Last summer when we butchered our heifer Smokey, she escaped the barn during the night, jumped two gates, plowed through three fences, and went gamboling across the neighbor's pasture by the time I found her at dawn the next morning. Grrrr, was I ever glad to put that girl in the freezer.

Thor, who is Matilda's two-year-old steer, has been growing more and more snarky over the last few months. He's big, and has been plowing down fences with abandon. We know from experience that an animal with an unpleasant disposition isn't going to improve; far better to stop feeding him and let him feed us.

We originally purchased Atlas when he was a few days old from a neighbor, thinking we would raise him to become our new herd sire. However our old bull Gimli was his father, meaning he has a bit too much relatedness to our girls. Once we got our new bull Samson, poor little Atlas became surplus. He's very sweet-natured and rather small for his age (he's about 17 months old). We thought we had a buyer for him, but no such luck.

Anyway, in anticipation of the mobile butchers who were due to arrive this morning, we needed to maneuver the herd out of the pasture and back toward the house (and barn). But before we could do that, we needed to make some infrastructure improvements.

Last week we bit the bullet and bought eight more cattle panels (cha-ching!). They're expensive but oh my, they're wonderful. Instant (and sturdy) fences wherever you need them.

We wanted to block the cattle from getting into the garden, the chicken coop, and the hay barn. So we trotted the cattle panels around and put in temporary U-nails to keep them in place.

Here the barn and all that tempting hay is walled off.

Next step: the old barn. It sustained some severe damage during a windstorm a couple months ago. The barn was built with cheap T1-11 sheets and gets damaged all the time. Time to patch it, at least temporarily, since the area on the right is where Thor will be locked up for the night.

We nailed one of the T1-11 sheets lengthwise across the wall, then put a cattle panel across the top. We also reinforced several spots inside that we felt Thor could push through if he was agitated enough.

This pretty much wiped out Don, who still doesn't have his full strength back from last week's kidney failure.

But at this point all that was left to do was trot down and close our driveway gate.

Then I walked to the pasture gate and yelled "Bossy bossy bossy bossy bossy!" -- which is our universal cattle call. Immediately the critters came running.

As usual, Brit was the first through the gate.

As the neighbor's horses watched, all the other cattle came barreling through in short order.

At first everyone congregated in the back of the barn before scattering around the driveway area.

We left the barn door invitingly open. Sure enough Thor, being the curious creature that he is, went in to investigate and I closed the door behind him. One down, one to go.

Atlas was a little more wily but was unable to resist exploring Matilda's stall, the door of which I left invitingly open. Soon he too was where he needed to be. Whoo-hoo, success! And fairly painless too! No rodeos this time.

We left the rest of the livestock in the driveway for the night, and all night long we were serenaded by bellows from Thor and Atlas. I also spent the night stressing. I always do this the day before, and the morning of, butchering -- stress that the doomed critter(s) will make an escape. We checked constantly to see if either animal was breaking out of the barn, but it actually -- and let the record show, this is the first time -- held, and no one escaped. Atlas, however, did an absolute number on Matilda's stall -- trashed it -- and managed to escape into Thor's area, but since he couldn't escape from Thor's side, they were within easy dispatch reach.

Potlatch Pack, the best mobile butchers in the region, came on the dot of 10 am this morning. Their specialized rig is self-contained with water, power, and all their tools.

On the side of the rig are barrels for waste.

Within minutes, both animals were down. These men know precisely where to place the bullet so the animal drops instantly with hardly a twitch and certainly without suffering. They chained the animals up one by one to get them out of the barn. First order is to drain the blood, then take off the head followed by the feet. (Mel is on the right, and his nephew Chance is on the left.)

Then they start skinning. I've never seen anyone who could skin as quickly and perfectly. Comes from sheer practice, of course.

They always make sure the tough Achilles tendons are exposed because they use them for hanging the carcass later on.

Today has been a day of wild shrieking wind (gusts up to 60 mph) but the men were cheerful as they worked. "At least it's not blowing snow," said Mel.

Over his waterproof apron, each man wore a belt from which dangled a plastic holster for their knives...

...and a knife sharpener. The sharpener is constantly in use.

Within short order, the carcasses were partially skinned and ready to gut.

But first they have to cut through the ribcage, which they do with a specialized chain saw. They have to be careful not to cut any of the internal organs, which could taint the meat.

They insert a stout metal bracket through the tendons on the back legs so the animal can be partially hoisted. Lifting the animal makes it far easier to gut, finish skinning, and then halve the carcass.

Once the carcass is hoisted, they gut it.

We have a neighbor who adores fresh liver, so they put the liver aside for her.

Next they cut through the backbone.

Here they're hosing down the carcass. The men hose down everything, constantly: themselves, their aprons, their knives, the carcass, the truck... they keep everything squeaky-clean.

They can finally finish detaching the hide. This is almost the last step.

They put the hide in one of the side barrels.

They sell the hide to an outfit in Spokane that bundles them into thousand-hide lots and ships them to the Orient, where they're processed into leather. This surprised me, but Chance told me there are no more large-scale tanneries in America any more.

"It amazes me how many manufacturing jobs we've lost," I commented.

Chase gave a small bitter smile. "And they're just beginning to realize the impact," he said, thus proving that every blue-collar worker in America "gets" what our politicians don't.

It didn't take long for all four carcass halves to be wheeled into the interior of the truck.

Then the cleanup began. I took the tub of blood onto the compost pile with the intent of pouring it around (blood is a superb compost activator)...

...but the blood had already congealed into a gelatinous mass. So I left it. The chickens will probably scratch around in it, but the wind was shrieking too hard to fuss with it for now.

Chase emptied the contents of the stomachs into the now-empty tub. This too will go onto the compost pile.

He found a couple of hairballs in the stomach contents. "They're harmless," he said, "and it's too bad these are soft hairballs. Hard hairballs are worth money." Go figure.

All the leftover stuff -- unused organs, hooves, heads, etc. -- were put in the waste barrels. This material is trucked to a rendering plant.

From start to finish, butchering two animals took the men one and three-quarters hours. They have another stop at a neighbor's for a steer, then another stop for two more animals in a small town south of us, before they make their way back to their facility. There the meat hangs in a cooler for ten days, after which they cut and wrap it. In about two weeks, we'll get ground beef, stew meat, and lots of different cuts of steak and roasts, all organic grass-fed beef. Yum!

We don't know what the hanging weight is yet, but I'm guessing it's at least 750 lbs. between the two animals.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: these men and the service they offer exemplifies all that is BEST in America. They work hard and do a dirty job in sometimes adverse weather conditions; and they do it cleanly, humanely, and cheerfully.

I wish we had more people like Potlatch Pack. Thank you once again, Mel and Chance, for your work today.

Wanted: boy kitty

A friend of mind has a friend with a six-year-old daughter who really wants their cat to have kittens. So she wrote out a want ad.

Rotten Luck: the Skinny on Composting

My last Backwoods Home Magazine article entitled Rotten Luck: The Skinny on Composting, was posted online.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Interviewing a sheep dairyist

On Wednesday, I had a very interesting experience. I interviewed a sheep dairyist at a facility called Homestead Farm.

The reason behind this interview is that Backwoods Home Magazine asked me to write a comprehensive article on home dairying. Cow and goat milk is pretty obvious, but sheep milk? When I learned there was a sheep dairy within reasonable driving distance, I decided to learn a little more about this resource. What a gem of an opportunity.

The farm is run by John Cady, along with his business partner Shari Pratt and her husband Dale Pratt, who is a certified Master Cheesemaker.

John raises Katahdin sheep, a breed that doesn't need shearing because they shed. In other words, they have fur instead of wool.

Like goats, sheep are most comfortable to milk on an elevated stand.

A sheep's udder is decent-sized relative to the size of the animal -- but the teats are so small! How can you grab and milk a teat that size?

The answer is to use an EZ Milker, a handheld suction device that is pumped to create a vacuum to start the milk flowing. After a few pumps the milk runs out on its own. The advantage of this system is it keeps the milk squeaky clean.

Unlike cows, where milk is measured in gallons; or goats, where milk is measured in quarts... sheep milk is measured in ounces.

Sheep's milk has small fat molecules which won't separate the cream from the milk, so making butter isn't possible without a culture. Which begs the question, why milk sheep?

The answer? Cheese!

Sheep's milk is wonderful for lactose-intolerant people (better than goat's milk, in fact), and makes superb ice cream and yogurt. But the most princely product is cheese. Sheep-milk cheese is considered a gourmet item and is sold in Costco for upwards of $40/lb.

One gallon of milk makes about 1.4 lbs. of cheese. 100 lbs. of milk makes approximately eight 2.5 lb. wheels of cheese. It takes about a week to get 100 lbs. of milk. The milk is frozen in plastic bags (freezing does not affect the milk's quality, again because of the small fat molecules).

These is the cheese press.

Here's raw cheese curing in a salt brine.

The cheese is then waxed and aged. This outfit makes mostly gouda (including smoked gouda), but also bleu cheese, ricotta, feta, etc. These cheeses sell for $40/lb and up. They also make specialty custom cheese to order, such as habanero, cumin, garlic/herb, horseradish, jalapeno, etc. These custom cheeses cost $65 - $80/lb.

The milk they don't use for cheese gets made into soap and skin care products. They also sell cuts of meat. The meat from Katahdin sheep is much less "gamey" than Suffolk (the usual meat breed in the U.S.), so demand is high.

They sell their cheese at farmer's markets and fairs. NOW raising and milking sheep starts to make a lot more economic sense!

John Cady has over 100 ewes for sale. Unregistered sheep sell for $200-250 each, though registered sheep start much higher. He can get people started with a backyard flock for about $650-750. John says Katahdin sheep are disease resistant, parasite resistant, have fewer hoof problems, don't require shearing, and they have a brain.

Besides, they're lovely.