As Don and I get older – and as we lose the critical help of our farmhands, otherwise known as our daughters – we need to make sure we can still run the farm safely and efficiently without hurting ourselves.
The single-most useful tool we’ve acquired in the 25 years we’ve been homesteading is the tractor. Having a force-multiplier has been immeasurably important. All the heavy lifting, all the rototilling, all the shoving stuff around – we can let the tractor do it.
But the tractor can’t do it all. To this end, we’re looking at ways to work smarter, not harder. Many of these problem-solving techniques spring from Don’s amazing and creative brain. He’s been looking at what causes us the most frustration and difficulty, and/or what has the most potential for injury, and coming up with ways to change things.
One thing Don built was an auger stand. The spiral-shaped auger is used to drill holes. I can’t even begin to describe how many holes must be drilled on a homestead, usually for installing fences and gates, but also to plant trees, construct outbuildings, or even (sigh) to bury a pet. But the auger weighs a zillion pounds and has arms like an octopus. Trying to get a zillion-pound octopus installed on the tractor was a difficult and frustrating two-person job.
The auger stand has made all the difference in the world. Now Don simply backs the tractor up to it and either drops the auger into place, or hitches the auger up. It’s a simple one-person job, and we haven’t bruised a shin or pinched a finger since he built it.
Another huge source of frustration was cutting out cows whenever we needed to isolate them for whatever reason (usually butchering). Cows, as you know, are herd animals, and move together with a herd’s mentality. Separating cows was always an all-hands-on-deck occasion with 10-foot lengths of PVC as push poles and a lot of swearing as the animals dashed madly wherever they wanted to go.
Without the girls, moving cattle became virtually impossible with just the two of us, so we had to find another way. Don noted that if we installed gates at critical pinch-points on the property, we could create multiple temporary corrals which would allow us to shunt animals a few at a time without having to deal with the entire herd at once.
Another “smarter, not harder” thing Don built is the calf cage. Since calves are ALWAYS born at the farthest corner of the property, it became too difficult to carry a wiggling newborn a quarter-mile back to the house for either castrating or dehorning.
To understand why, try this exercise: Hold out your arms in a wide circle, like you’re embracing something. Then have someone put a 35-pound weight in your hands. Still holding your arms out, carry that weight for a quarter-mile. And no matter what, you can’t put it down. Now have that weight struggle and wiggle and try to get away. Now have a hormonally deranged mother cow bellowing in alarm and dogging your heels. For additional fun, throw in another 10 or 20 animals, many with horns, who are excited and milling about, as you stagger that quarter-mile toward the barn with your arms outstretched around a 35-pound wiggling weight.
Now do you understand the difficulty? Unsurprisingly, we’re finding the older we get, the more difficult it is to carry newborns calves out of the pasture.
The calf cage changed all that. We strap it to the tines of the tractor and go fetch the calf. Tractors don’t bother cows, so we can get close to the calf, lay it gently in the cage (padded with an old horse blanket), and slowly drive back to the house with the mother either following behind, or easily shooed into the barn behind the calf. What a difference.
Anyway, I was discussing with an online homesteading friend (who lives in Maine) about what changes we’re making as we get older. My friend wrote: “The cons were starting to outweigh the pros of goats. My hands are starting with arthritis and I have some carpel tunnel issues so milking was a problem. I really don’t want surgery to fix the carpel tunnel as I see tons of surgeries gone bad. Rich and I aren’t getting any younger and last winter really beat the heck out of us. We have other friends our age and the big discussion is how to start doing things the easy way. We are seriously looking at what and how we are doing stuff and figuring out if there is a better, easier way.”
My friend suggested I put up a blog post seeking input from readers about what tips and tricks they’ve found to help ease the homesteading workload, especially with older people.
So I’m opening up the platform, folks. Give us your best ideas, suggestions, projects, and hacks that work. You’ll be doing everyone a favor in passing around the tricks of the trade.