Essex Farm Note
Week 12, 2014
Hello, spring. My, you’ve changed! This new look you have is so cool. White is the new green, eh? I think I liked your old style better. We are proceeding as if warm weather is coming, despite the forecast, which includes several nights of single digits, and days that don’t crawl much north of freezing. The propane truck came yesterday, delivering a load of canisters for the greenhouse, which look to me like giant cans of money all ready to be burned up. Aubrey has begun filling the flats with soil blocks, and the little electric heater is on in the germination chamber. First seeds hit dirt this morning. May they conjure the weather they need in order to grow.
We had Donn Hewes here for two days this week, as an Essex Farm Institute Fellow. Donn’s great passion is working horses and mules, and teaching others to do it. He and Scott Hoffman worked some of our greener horses in the round pen, and then hitched four up (two in front of two), to practice driving with two sets of lines. Later, Donn taught a group of beginners the basics of hitching and driving a team. When discussing a detail of harness, I heard him say: “When I’m not sure of something, I look to see what the Amish are doing. They have thousands of horses working every day. If they do something a certain way, it’s for a reason.” Donn has many Amish farmers among his friends and neighbors. It reminds me we are lucky the Amish have preserved this knowledge that has been lost to the wider culture.
Jet is wearing his superdog cape this week. After dinner on Wednesday, I noticed he was doing his best to quietly block my way with his body, and his head and tail were low and still. The way he was eyeballing me, it was like he was playing a game of charades, where the answer was, Something Is Wrong and I was a particularly stupid partner. Then I noticed that Mary, the seven month old pup, was not with him. I went outside and called, expecting to see a black-and-white streak cruising up the driveway. Nothing. “Go find Mary,” I said to Jet. This is not something he is trained to do, but he ducked his head and off he went, looking back at me every few yards to make sure I was following. When he trotted out of the farmyard and turned down the road toward the pastures, I decided he must be wrong, and headed back to the house. I checked the granary, machine shop, basement, the office. Nothing. Jet followed me around with great patience, then stood in front of me, insistent. “OK fine,” I said. “I’ll follow you.” He ran this time, in the same direction, still looking back to see if I was with him. He went past the barns, past the round bales, and started down the hill, toward the pastures. Then he turned and bounded through the deep snow in front of the guest cabin, which hadn’t been used since last fall. He stopped, front feet on the steps, and wagged his tail, and looked at me. Then I saw a little black and white ball inside, bouncing up and down in front of the window. Mary. Mark had taken some visitors for a walk that afternoon, and briefly shown them the cabin, and hadn’t noticed that Mary had slipped in and not come back out. Good dog, Jet.
Farewell Mike Intrabartola, who is off to Greenland to build research facilities on the ice sheet. It was great to have you here, Mike, and we hope to see you again. And that is the news for this equinox 12th week of 2014. -Kristin & Mark Kimball
Essex Farm Note
Week 11, 2014
Aubrey came to the house on Monday morning during milking. “The milk smells like nail polish remover,” she said. We walked out to the barn together and as soon as I opened the door I smelled it: a high, sweetish, chemical note that clashed with the normal soft green and earthy smells of the barn and the cows. “Ketosis,” I said. I had never smelled it in our herd before but it is unmistakable, and common in dairies. It is the smell of cows who are short on energy, burning their fat at a rate too high for their livers to handle, producing a ketone, acetone – the same chemical we use to strip polish from our nails.
Anyone who has gone hard core on the Atkins diet or bodybuilding knows about the metabolic quirk of ketosis, because it can happen to people, too, when they eliminate carbohydrates from their diet in order to burn off fat. In a dairy cow, it happens as her production is peaking. She can’t eat enough energy to keep up with the energy she’s putting out in the form of milk.
I knew what it was, but it didn’t make any sense. Our cows are not humongous producers. Their feed quality is good. They didn’t look depressed but bright and perky, happily eating the hay we put in front of them. Strangest of all, it was not just the one or two cows at the peak of production who had symptoms, but the entire herd, including the bull and the dry cows. There’s no way those animals could be ketotic, unless we were starving them completely. Matt and Mike reported that the previous night’s bales were unusually wet and full of clover, and that the cows had attacked them like stoners on a midnight run to a 7-Eleven.
Mark and I walked to the covered barnyard as Mark dialed our friend Ben Christian. Ben used to manage a two thousand cow dairy and dealt every day with the various things that can go wrong with bovines. With the phone pressed to his ear Mark checked the remnants of a bale the cows had eaten the night before, grabbed some, held it to his nose, and inhaled deeply. “Uh huh,” I heard him say. “Like burnt sugar. Tobacco notes. Pickles. Alcohol.” Whatever was going on, it required the skills of a sommelier. “Yep, their manure looks tighter than usual,” he said. Then he hung up. “We know what it is,” he said with surety.
The bales the cows had eaten had gone bad in a very specific way. Haylage should cure like sauerkraut, through the action of lactobacillus. These bales were too wet and clovery, and had caramelized instead of fermenting. Cows love the taste, but the nutrients are entirely bound up, and pass right through the cow. So the cows were starving, even as they ate. We pulled the bad bales out and replaced them with good ones. The nail polish smell disappeared by the next morning.
That was quite a nor’easter that hit on Wednesday. Mark and I trudged to the barn just before bedtime, fighting wind and drifts, to find the last sow had just given birth to a beautiful litter of 13. Baby pigs seem even more naked and vulnerable during a big storm. We moved another heat lamp to their stall and hoped. Happy to report that all 13 made it. And that is the news from Essex Farm for this still-awfully-wintery 11th week of 2014.
-Kristin & Mark Kimball
Essex Farm Note
Week 10, 2014
Every few years the rat population takes a bounce around here, we have one too many sightings of our sleek gray friends in the barn, and we must clamp down. I am on rat patrol this week. Spring traps are set in strategic places, but they don’t work very well on older, wiser rats, so we are adding some barrel traps with pirate-style planks above them. The planks are made of aluminum flashing, baited with peanut butter and anchovies. They are too flimsy to hold the weight of a rat, so, in theory, the rat is overcome with greed for the bait, ventures too far out on the plank, and slips into the barrel, from which it cannot escape. This may sound far-fetched but it works on YouTube. And we’ve had some luck with similar traps in the past. So far this time, though, the score for our side is a big fat zero. Maybe the cold has frozen all the smell out of our baits, or maybe the rats have gone south for spring break.
Gwen came by on Wednesday to castrate the piglets. She has a good steady hand and strong nerves, and both are necessary for this job, which involves temporarily separating a protective half-ton mama from her precious babies. Castrating a piglet is not quite as straightforward as castrating a calf or a lamb because the testicles are inside of the body instead of hanging outside in a scrotum. The piglet is positioned on its back, and the lower belly is scrubbed with iodine. The testicles can be felt as little bulges under the skin. Using a scalpel, a small incision is made above one testicle, which is then forced out of the incision. The testicle’s cord is carefully severed, using a scraping motion instead of a straight cut, to prevent bleeding. Repeat on the other side. Another squirt with iodine and the piglet is returned to his mama, who is waiting in a cleanly-bedded stall. There is not any blood and the piglets recover very quickly. Usually, the little guys go straight to nursing and in a day or two the incision has healed.
Now that I’ve grossed you out for two paragraphs, how about some plant news? We finished the germination tests this week. Seeds lose potency with time, so we test any that are left over from last season. The kids and I made uniform pads out of paper towels, labeled them, wet them, then tucked twenty seeds of each type into a pad. We will check them every few days and record how many seeds have sprouted at what time. If the germination is poor or too variable we will discard that lot of seed. It could have been a tedious job but I had good company, and besides, I like seeds. They mean spring is coming, despite the weather. And it is still amazing to me, after all these years, that so much comes from so little. A mint seed, for example, is almost smaller than a thought, and yet that tiny spark of life, once lit, is a revolution that can overtake an entire field.
Short news? The horses are starting to shed. Another cow is due to calve. 14 lambs in the barn. The new farm stand is wired for electricity. The sauerkraut is ripe and ready, delicious. I made polenta twice this week, and it bounced me out of the carb rut I was in. I think I saw a robin yesterday, but he was wearing earmuffs. And that is the news for this leonine 10th week of 2014.
-Kristin & Mark Kimball