Thursday, May 30, 2013

Getting Polly ready to milk

For the last couple of years, I've felt sorta like we've been "cheating" here on our homestead. The reason is, we're not producing our own dairy products. Hopefully all that will change soon.

Matilda, my beloved Jersey that we got from a commercial dairy a few years ago, had an unusual situation with her last calving: one of her teats had the cartilage collapse and it inverted. She had already lost a teat shortly after we brought her home, due to a horrible case of mastitis. So Matilda is down to two working quarters, and I gave up milking her. Instead I let her devote all her milk to her calf (when she has one -- she's due to calve in September).

Knowing that Matilda was down as a milker, and wanting another Jersey for a milk animal, we bought Polly two years ago. Polly is a sweet little purebred heifer and we've been eagerly waiting for her to grow up so she could be bred.

Well Polly's all grown up now, and has been our bull Samson's pen mate since we got him.

At first we thought Polly would be bred by Samson, since she's been in the pen with him since December. However in the last few weeks her udder has been bagging up, and it's become apparent she was bred by our bull calf Atlas, whom we butchered last month. This means she's probably due to calve in the next few weeks.

Polly is going to be my primary milker once she calves, and I wanted to make sure her transition from carefree heifer to responsible milk cow goes smoothly. To this end, I needed to work with her: brushing, lead-walking, handling her udder, getting her used to the milking stall, etc. It was hard to do anything while she was in with Samson, so it had been awhile since she'd been handled.

Bottom line, we needed to get Polly out of Samson's pen. This meant putting a halter on her, first of all.

"Who, me?"

We let her out into the enclosed area next to the barn and put a rope around her neck. But she didn't want a halter on. No sirree! And those horns were intimidating. Nonetheless we tried two or three halters until we found one that fit. We buckled it on incorrectly but it was the best we could do while she was tossing her head around and trying to get access to the green grass. Finally we let her loose to graze for a few minutes.

(You'll notice I don't have any photos of these proceedings. That's because I was, um, occupied.)

Anyway, all this commotion attracted the attention of the other critters loose in the driveway area, so they came over to investigate. We had been wondering who to put in with Samson since it's not good for any bovine critter to be alone. We decided Shadow would be a good candidate. She's the one who lost her calf a few weeks ago. She's already been through one heat cycle since her calf died, and Samson would enjoy having such a pretty young thing in his pen. So in she went.

Despite the badly-put-on halter, we put a lead rope on Polly and walked her with surprising ease into the corral. Whoo-hoo, she hasn't forgotten her early lead-training!

Once in the corral with all our other new mamas, Polly instantly embarked in dominance fights. Cows have a pecking order, after all. Don and I stayed close by to make sure things didn't get out of hand or no calves were in danger of getting trampled.

These tussles lasted about one minute, tops, and then all was peaceful again. Polly gently introduced herself to the calves without an issue...

...and then settled in to become reacquainted with the other ladies.

Now that I didn't have to watch my back (literally) with a bull in the pen, I've been spending a lot of time with Polly, getting her used to being handled. Out came the brush.

Oh my, does Polly adore being brushed. Her head droops, her eyes half-close, as she sucks up the attention. I brush her all over, and handle her udder and teats and legs. No problems, she doesn't flinch or kick or anything else, except bask in the position of being Princess Polly once more.

Best of all, she was calm as can be when I removed her halter and readjusted it, then buckled it back on. I also removed her lead line since she has no problem with me leashing her up.

Our next step is to clean out Matilda's old milking stall and get her used to going in and out. Getting closer to milking, yee ha!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Putting in potato beds

I'm still working on the infrastructure of the garden, particularly tarps and gravel for weed control. We have plenty of tarps, but we're running out of gravel and at this point won't be getting more until our medical expenses are paid off.

(I should add that the combination of vinyl and gravel is working beautifully. What a treat to know my veggies won't be buried in weeds like they were last year!)

Anyway, we had to decide where to put the little bit of remaining gravel we had available. I decided to tarp the spot where I had grown potatoes last year. Rather than stacks of small tires for potato towers, I was going to use large tractor tires instead.

So I laid out a tarp and started shunting gravel. The girls were away from home visiting their grandparents, and I missed their help.

After awhile, Don finished with some tasks and came out to help, which made things go much quicker. He worked the tractor, I spread the gravel.

We were dodging squalls.

When the gravel was down, I pulled out the Saws-All and prepared to cut the sidewalls out of a few of the big tractor tires. It takes me a mere 30 seconds or so to cut the sidewall out of regular-sized tires, but these babies? I figured they'd be a bear.

In fact they were a piece of cake. Except for vibrating enough to rattle my fillings, it only took me two minutes to cut a sidewall -- and that included breaks to let my fillings settle back in.

Then one at a time, Don shunted the tires into the garden. Even with a sidewall cut out, these tires top 400 pounds.

One tire down. Before cutting and moving the other tires, though, we had to stop and fill each one we laid down, otherwise the tractor wouldn't be able to reach it later with loads of compost and topsoil.

Here Don's scooping up compost. We've used so much of our massive collection of barn waste that we're into the less-composted stuff, so this material will only be used as a "base" for each tire, and then topped with topsoil.

Next, topsoil.

Then the squall moved in, so we quit for the afternoon.

We resumed work the next day, but things were complicated because the cows kept hanging around. We have a cattle panel blocking access to the garden, but we had to take it down in order to get the tractor in and out. Matilda knew, just knew, that if she hung around enough, she'd be let into the garden with all that lush green grass. So she wasn't budging, by golly.

We'd never get anywhere at this rate, so Don decided to open the gate to the pasture and give the beasties something to distract them. It worked. Here they come!

Soon everyone had their heads down in all that lush green grass, grazing.

The neighbor's horses came galloping over to say hi.

Shadow got a wild hair and started gamboling all over the place before settling. Funny to watch. She'd start out running...

...race to the top of the dirt pile left over from digging the pond...

...and then race back again. She did this several times before settling down to eat.

Anyway, back to the garden. We got four tractor tires cut, moved, and filled by the end of the afternoon.

Now it was time to plant the potatoes I had left over from last year.

Seed potatoes, as you doubtless know, grow new potatoes from the "eyes."

As long as at least one eye is present, a potato will grow, so by cutting them up into pieces (with two or three eyes per piece), you can get a lot of plants out of a few potaotes. The cut potatoes must cure for a few hours so the exposed side won't rot in the ground. I started cutting and drying a few in the kitchen the day before...

...but then realized I had more than enough potatoes to plant, so I just planted the whole potato.

This is a red potato, sprouting. Pretty primeval looking, ain't it?

I was able to fit between 30 and 35 potatoes per bed.

I buried these about four inches down.

Now we wait and see. But at least this is one more step toward a productive garden!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day

Words are inadequate to thank veterans for their service and sacrifice.

But I'll try.


Sunday, May 26, 2013

The college-industrial complex

Here's an interesting article off Yahoo entitled Dear Class of ‘13: You’ve Been Scammed.

According to this writer, college costs three times as much (adjusted for inflation) as it did 30 years ago. "Consider this: You have just paid about three times as much for your degree as did someone graduating 30 years ago," writes author Brett Arends. "That’s in constant dollars -- in other words, after accounting for inflation. There is no evidence that you have received a degree three times as good. Some would wonder if you have received a degree even one times as good."

And this doesn't count dorms, food, apartment costs, etc. This is just the cost of teaching. The writer calls this the "College-Industrial Complex."

Our girls have been priced out of the college market. If we can't afford $10,000 in health insurance costs, we sure as heck can't afford $40,000 a year for college costs. And what's the alternative? Saddle our girls with anywhere from $50,000 to $150,000 in student loan debt? What an awful way to start their adult lives.

Older Daughter's choice to attend nanny school is, we feel, sensible and practical. The cost is moderate and her chances of employment are superb. Younger Daughter is still trying to figure out what she wants to do, so we haven't had to face the issue of higher education for her yet.

"Some members of the College-Industrial Complex are now talking about a new solution to bring down costs," notes Arends. "They want to reduce, or eliminate, the amount spent on the actual teaching. Instead, students will watch online videos."

I see. So material you could get for free on YouTube is worth nothing, but material you see at home on your computer through a college for a mere $40,000/year is critical to an adult's earning potential. Got it.

I'm fully aware that a wide variety of fields require extensive higher education. I don't want my doctor learning his skills through YouTube videos. But what about other fields? Can a businessman learn business skills by going into business or working for a business, rather than earning a business degree? I don't know, but it sure seems like a possibility.

So dear readers, what are your thoughts? Are you in college or facing college options for your children? What is your experience on this issue? Is college worth it?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Another heifer

I got another middle-of-the-night wakeup call this morning when I heard our bull lowing around 3:40 am. He'll often bellow in sympathy when someone's in labor, and since we expected Sparky to have her calf any day, I guessed what was happening in the barn.

Sparky is small and this is her first calf, so I wanted her close at hand in case she had difficulties. We tucked her into the corral a couple of weeks ago, and she's been hanging around watching Lily and Victoria have their calves.

By the time I got to the barn at 4 am on the dot, she'd already dropped her calf. This seems to be my specialty lately: arrive just in time to see the wet calf on the ground -- before it's on its feet -- but missing the actual birth. Oh well, we still have five more calves due.

Anyway, the calf was right in the doorway of the barn, on a spot where the ground slopes down into mud from recent rains. Bad spot for a baby.

So I picked her up and scooted her further into the barn. (Sorry about the weird eyes, the flash makes everything look funny.)

Dawn eased into the sky as Sparky licked her baby. The full moon set behind some clouds... the newborn got shakily to her feet.

It took about twenty minutes for her (yes, it's a little girl) to make it on her feet, which had me a bit concerned (usually a calf is up in about ten minutes), but I shouldn't have worried. Within minutes of standing, she began nursing.

She's a vigorous, healthy nurser.

As the calf began to dry off, she emerged with an unusual dusky grey-brown fur. I think we'll name her Dusty.

Unlike Victoria, who took some time to "settle in" to being a mom, Sparky has been vary calm, very attentive from the start.

About 7:45 am, almost four hours after dropping her calf, Sparky delivered the placenta.

Dusty is an exceptionally pretty little calf.

And I'm relieved that Sparky's first birth went so well!