The sun was shining, and the grass was ready. In our area, farmers start haying the last week of May and hope to finish by mid-June. Why such a short window? Because this is when the grass is the most nutritious. Once it starts to "head" it loses nutritional value. If you cut it later, say July, you’ll have more yield, more bales, but they are not as good. They will keep the animal alive the following winter but will not make much milk (or for beef animals, add much weight).
Lisa and I have been working long days (and evenings) getting the grass cut, dried, raked into rows, baled, hauled off the fields, wrapped and stacked. We just finished the home fields yesterday evening, hours before the rain today. 227 round bales or about 165,000 pounds of hay. Looking back at our historical records, this is a good year for hay crops, up 27% from last year. This is due to weather: lots of sunny days and just the right amount of rain. Each cow will eat about 19 round bales, so we now have enough for 12 cows this coming winter.
We still need another 130 or so bales. A couple remote fields will provide some more bales. Then late July, when the grass has grown back, we do it all again! This is called “second cut.” Second cut will only yield about one third as much as first cut. However, it is even more nutritious. (Very leafy; almost no stems). Added all together, we should have enough to feed the cows this winter -and it will be quality feed.
The cows like that.
The 95 million cattle in the U.S. spend their days eating, chewing cud and belching out planet-warming methane. Unlike humans, cow don't digest their food in their intestines but rather in their stomachs. The bacteria that help them digest their food also makes methane. In our era of growing awareness and concern about greenhouse gasses, this is an issue.
We hear frequent calls in marketing and social media to reduce red meat consumption and switch to plant or nut juices. Cows are blamed as a major contributor of the world’s environmental problems. We need to, so the reasoning goes, reduce the global cattle population to combat climate change. In fact, methane production from livestock has been decreasing for decades as cattle numbers have declined by millions of animals. But despite the 1.4 billion cows on our planet, most methane comes from humans. Agriculture is responsible for 10% of greenhouse gasses in the U.S., and half of those (that’s 5%) come from belching cows as they digest forages.
Cows are a contributor, but are not the villeins they are frequently portrayed in the press. They are easy targets because cows don’t have deep-pocket lobbying groups. So where do most greenhouse gasses come from? Fossil fuels are the top culprit, producing one-third of all methane. This is another example of diverting people from the real issue and blaming the little guy. For unlike dairy, the gas and oil industry yields lots of cash and influence. Nor does it help that most people are so cut off from their food that they believe the marketing hype that drinking aquafer-draining almond “milk” is better for the planet than the real thing.
So let’s talk about cow burbs. Here’s the 411. Methane is 28-times more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide, however its lifespan is one decade, while CO2 remains in the atmosphere for 1000 years. After ten years, methane is broken down (by a process called hydroxyl oxidation, if you’re interested in this sort of thing) into CO2. And as you may know, farmland plays a big role in sequestering carbon. According to one study, farms capture and store the same amount of greenhouse gasses that the cows burp. Net neutral is still not good enough, but neither are cow burps the calamity we're regularly told.
And cow emissions can be easily reduced. A recent study at the University of California, Davis shows that a little seaweed in cattle feed reduces methane emissions from cattle by 80%. The seaweed inhibits an enzyme in the cow’s digestive system that contributes to methane production. The seaweed has no impact on the taste of milk or beef, and helps strengthen the animal’s immune system. (BTW, Kiss the Cow Farm has always offered free-choice kelp to our cows; they like it).
Cattle actually have a vital role in saving our planet and feeding people, but that’s a story for another week...
Lisa chides me every year about this time. I spend part of many days walking around the perimeter of the pastures and hay fields picking up fallen sticks. No, I don’t know any other farmer who does this, but somehow it seems important. Most of the fields are surrounded by mature maple and ash trees. Each tall, majestic tree seems to have an endless supply of dead branches to shed. The farm is also high up (1400’) and open to the ever-howling west wind.
I have this strange sense that fields should grow grass, not sticks. The branches get in the way of the tractor, end up incorporated in hay bales and puncturing the plastic wrap, are underfoot and an eyesore. So, I take the time before the grass grows too high to remove them from the fields. After all, just because I cannot see something doesn’t mean it's not there! After several years now, there are little mounds of branches and limbs scattered around the edges of the fields. They make perfect habitats for smaller animals. Almost like Hobbit houses.
I’ve finished picking up the sticks from this past winter, but will continue to check throughout the summer season. New-fallen branches also cause no end of problems with the electric fence. Our biggest cow breakout happened a few years ago when a giant limb smashed the wire fence into the ground. Naturally, this happened to be the paddock where the cow were. We eventually found them in the neighbor’s vegetable garden. They were quite happy; the owner was not. Whoops! So we run stick patrol often.
As you may know, dairy is a precarious business. The number of dairies in the country has been trending down for decades. Vermont lost another 19 dairies in January alone. We now have less than 600 commercial dairies in the state. This includes conventional and organic. (Although the VT Agency of Ag proudly touts that we still have the same number of dairy cows! Think about that for a moment....)
Even value-add dairies have taken a serious hit with COVID. There are about 45 cheesemakers in Vermont. This is a hefty number for such a small state, but we’ve recently lost four local cheesemakers (that I know of). The folks at Blythdale Cheese are retiring. Diane and her husband at Landaff Creamery (in NH) have also retired. (Her father, Dr. Erb, was our vet growing up). Janine Putnam and her husband at Thistle Hill Farm in Pomfret, who have been making their famous Tarentaise cheese for many years have ceased production and sold the cows. “We just can't make any money without a solid cheese and organic milk market here in VT,” Janine told me. “Cheese sales have crashed without restaurants and smaller gourmet shops.” She was also shipping excess milk to Horizon, but this national organic processor keeps paying farmers less and less for their milk while now forcing them to pay for trucking. And Spring Brook down in Reading just let go all their cheesemakers. Oy!
I was walking through the Hay Barn the other day when something caught my eye. I looked up and discovered that one of the girts, a vital, long horizonal beam was bending dangerously and had sprung from its connecting vertical beam. My first reaction was “Oh, that’s not good.”
This 3-story barn is comprised of repurposed, hand-hewn beams. As far as I can tell it was built about 100 years ago, probably reusing the beams from a different barn that was taken down around that time. We have a 1920’s photograph showing the farmhouse and a corner of this previous barn.
The Hay Barn has always reminded me of a Gothic cathedral with its delicate tracery as the sun shines through the upper slats in the peak, and thin columns stretch up into the high rafters, home to myriad pigeons and other birds. The lofty structure is kept together with steel cables.
Now a critical section has detached, is bowing under stress and a third of the roof is very close to collapsing. Did I mention this was a couple days before high winds were forecast? Winds that would slam into this old, exposed building. Oh, this is not good.
So I called in a neighbor, who has lots of experience dealing with old barns. After putting up staging so we could reach the girt, we used large straps and come-alongs, a hand-operated ratchet, to winch the girt back in line to the vertical post. It was nip and tuck for a while as we kept ratcheting the come-along, but the beam refused to move. A few more clicks. Then another click….click. Was it enough to move the beam? No. Suddenly, we heard loud cracks as the tension released somewhere in this rickety barn. It was nerve wracking as we had to work inside the building. Finally, we were able to get the beam mostly back in place. We then fastened 2x8 planks on either side of the vertical beam to hold the girt in place. And we left one of the straps to prevent the beam from bowing again.
The wind howled across the farm all the next day. But the Hay Barn is still standing.
Another week already. This constant, sudden restarting of the week continues to amaze me. Didn’t I just do this? Well, yes, but it’s time to do it again.
How can that be? I just ordered bread and chocolate milk, got the manure cleaner working and the poop out of the barn, moved more hay bales to the yard feeders, labeled still more ice cream pints, cleaned up the calf pens, hauled water to the chickens (both coops), unthawed the vacuum line again, washed more raw milk bottles, cleaned and sanitized the bulk tank, made out the staff schedule for the week, put another load of cow cleaning cloths in the washer, answered more emails, talked with a potential employee for next fall, took the cow cloths and put them in the dryer, got another survey from the feds that we (okay, Lisa) needs to fill out, grumbled because I needed to somehow make an extra batch of pasteurized milk to meet unexpected demand, researched about getting a larger pasteurizer so I wouldn’t need to do so many small batches, took the clean cow cloths up to the barn, complimented Alice on refilling the cow’s salt and kelp tray on her own initiative, collected eggs, swept the barn, filled the sawdust carts, continued work on figuring out how many more cows we’d need if we were to get a bigger pasteurizer, replied to the woman asking if we shipped to Texas (Sorry, no, but feel free to visit us in Vermont), shoveled the path to the store, printed labels for the next batch of ice cream, paid some bills, talked to another local food maker about carrying their products, reread a grant description for the umpteenth time trying to ascertain if it’s worth the effort to fill out (no), drove to Middlesex to fetch some veggies, brought the cows in for milking, milked cows, continued work on a recipe for a new ice cream flavor, updated the online product inventory, and wrote yet another weekly blog thingie for the CSA.
Yeah, I’m pretty sure I just did all this.
It’s said that if you don’t have water, you don’t have a farm. Let me add to that: If your milking system doesn’t work, you don’t have a dairy farm.
Last Monday, Lisa and I were at a funeral when the kids texted that the milking system stopped working. Naturally. The one day that neither of us is available is when there’s an emergency. That’s how the universe rolls. We tried trouble-shooting via text, but no go. The cows did not get milked.
Contrary to kids’ imaginations, cows won’t explode if they are not milked. However, stopping milking suddenly is not healthy for them either -especially for recently lactating animals, of which we have a few. (Naturally).
When we got back late afternoon, I grabbed the portable milking unit Lisa and I used when we had our first cow (Sophie) in the garage at the house. I’d bolted it up on the wall to get it out of the way. I apparently was afraid it might fall down because I had used several, very long screws to hold it up. It took forever to get the thing down. (Naturally, only when you’re in a hurry).
I got it to work after having last used it 7 years ago, but I’d forgotten how loud this thing is. We all had to wear ear protection while milking. OMG. We didn't like it. The cows didn't like it. It wouldn't roll, the extension cord was in the way. What a pain. The good news is that we were able to milk the cows Tuesday morning. On the other hand, it took five hours to milk 14 cows. (It normally takes a couple hours).
I kept fiddling with the main system, overrode the regulator (“throttle”) and finally got it to power one milker -barely, with fingers crossed. All milking systems run on a vacuum whether it’s our cutting-edge bucket milkers from the 1950s or a modern robotic milker. The system turned on, but just didn’t have the vacuum pressure it needed to work. I first thought the problem was the electric motor (getting only 110 instead of 220v?), but the electrician said it was running fine. Then I focused on the vacuum pump, another ancient piece of cast iron. I found a lot of oily gunk almost blocking the exit port much like a clogged artery. But that didn’t fix the problem. While cleaning the pump I discovered that the belt-driven pulley was almost off the shaft. I fixed that too, but again it didn’t solve the problem.
I really didn’t want to take apart the vacuum pump. It’s so old you cannot get parts for it. Besides, have you ever taken apart a vacuum pump? Me neither.
My mind kept wandering back to the little portable unit which loudly chugged away powering one milker and I finally realized what was bothering me. All dairy vacuum systems have a tank to hold “extra” vacuum so that the pressure doesn’t fluctuate when connecting or disconnecting a milker. The barn system doesn’t have a vacuum tank, which is odd. All other farms that I’ve been on have a tank, but this one doesn’t. So the question becomes: even when this system worked, how did it work? The only possible explanation is that the vacuum line itself, which goes around the entire interior of the barn, contains enough volume to act as a tank would.
Aha. This means the problem is likely a blockage somewhere in the line. Possibly ice buildup -which I now recall happened all the time with the portable milker on cold winter mornings -and we are a couple weeks into a cold spell. After poking a piece of fence wire in all the access ports along the pipeline I found the likely blockage. A heat gun took care of the of ice in the line and after four days we again have a fully working milking system! No more ear protectors!
Life is good when the milking system sucks.
If you come to the farm you may see a small heifer loose. That’s Pebble, daughter of Puddle. She’s a wanderer. Being much smaller than the other cows, she is pushed around a lot. Cows have a pecking order and she’s at the very bottom. She’s learned not to compete with all the big cows around the hay feeders. She’ll wait until they are off chewing cud, then go and get her fill. Of course, like most teens she’s at the stage when your rules mean nothing to her. And she’s still small enough that she can squeeze between the electric fence wires. She’s a free-spirited gal finding her own way in the world. So she’s often roaming around the yard, sneaking inside the barn to lay down, and generally being a nuisance! It’s gotten so bad we put a (cow) bell on her just so we know where she is.
The other day a car got stuck on the long driveway to the farm. Pebble trotted down to check out the commotion, then ran back to her buddys, bell ringing loudly. She’s curious and friendly.
So if you see a small, loose cow wandering around don’t worry. Just pet her.
You’re not the only one who doesn’t like cold weather. Animals don’t like it much either, although they’re better equipped to handle cold or wet weather. Cows grow a thicker, winter coat, for example, and can easily be outside in a snowstorm. We’ve occasionally had them come in the barn for morning milking with a few inches of snow on their (insulated) backs and icicles hanging underneath them. They’re fine in spite of how they look! A few winters ago, one heifer wouldn't come in at all, even during the worst storms. Ruminants have an advantage: their constant chewing and swallowing keeps the blood flowing even when standing still. Actually, cows are healthier outside than stuck in a damp barn with stale air, which is a perfect environment for pneumonia.
Chickens will fluff up their feathers creating air pockets to help insulate them. They’ll often huddle together in a corner of the coop or spoon (alternate facing front and back) when sitting on a roost. And they will tuck one leg up in their feathers to keep it warm. A draft-free environment is more important than heat.
Of course, it takes more calories just to stay warm so milk or egg production suffer during the winter months, especially during cold spells. The shorter days with less sunlight also contribute to lower production. This is why you will find fewer local eggs in stores (or CSAs!) during winter. Egg production can fall off as much as 40%.
All of which is to explain why we don’t have enough organic eggs at the moment….
Saturday's CSA pickups did not go as planned. The “2-3 inches of snow changing to rain mid-morning” turned out to be over 10” with occasional white-out conditions. Oi. At the time though we didn’t know this. Lisa loaded up the van and headed off early only to get stuck at the end of the long driveway. The town truck had plowed a giant berm of wet, heavy snow across the end. No problem, I thought. I’ll get the tractor and soon have her out. Ah, hubris before the fall! I immediately got the tractor stuck too. So we hand-shovel the berm at the end of the driveway, but the wet snow is just too slippery for the studded tires on the van. Now what? So I trudge through several inches of snow to steal the neighbor’s tractor. (After all, one more stuck vehicle isn't going to make a difference). I back it up to the van, grab the chains from the stuck tractor and…. Where do you attach these things to the van? All I can find is plastic. Lots of plastic. Cars don't have axels anymore so that doesn't help. We open the engine compartment. More plastic. So we whip out the manual for the van because there obviously has to be somewhere to attach the chains…. To discover you can buy an OPTIONAL screw eye thingie, which after popping lose a PLASTIC cover you can screw in COUNTER-CLOCKWISE because it’s threaded lefthanded (why?!!). None of this matters because said piece of optional equipment naturally didn't come with the vehicle. And because it's a left-handed thread none of the large screw eyes I oddly enough have in stock will fit. Aagghhh!
We are now way past when Lisa needed to leave. So she tries to call everyone. Cell service at the farm is spotty in the best of times. With a heavy snowfall it’s almost non-existent. Aagghhh!
Lisa is stressed because her entire weekend is now upended and she's afraid folks are going to be upset. I’m soaked through and exhausted. After flinging sand everywhere we finally get the van moving, and by late afternoon it’s back where we started.
But our sorry story doesn’t end quite yet. Lisa has arranged to deliver on the following day; everyone is readily agreeable and appreciative. She hops in the van to head out only to discover it’s stuck again. This van, which I used to like, but is now annoying me like a pebble in a shoe has all of 4” clearance underneath it. Apparently, there is about 4.2” of snow under there and the thing is stuck like a beached whale. Lisa shovels, I push and somehow it breaks free.
Farming. It’s so peaceful. The simple, stress-free life.