Monday, June 14, 2010

Farm Journal: Potatoes, Buffaloes and Bucks

Today I was determined to weed the potatoes and onions. They were planted three weeks before and the lambs quarters have taken hold of the field in the worst way. Got to get them out of there and give the plants room to grow and be nourished by the soil and sun without the competition from those weeds. I also need to hill the potatoes with compost but will need to wait until the plants grow larger.

I arrived in the early morning and went right to work—after I spent some time with the goats, of course. The water buffalo were in the pasture so the barnyard was clear of them and I felt comfortable going in the pen to pet and hug the goats. After about half an hour, I set out to work on the garden.

I worked alone today, quite different from last year when there were four of us working on the garden. Matt decided not to work on the garden this year and Donna is very busy with the farm market and legislation in Lansing. But I don’t mind doing this work by myself because this year I know better what to do. Last year I even had to learn how to water the tomatoes correctly!

Actually, this year I wanted to “go commercial” by planting a large garden and selling some produce at the farm market. I just want to see if I can do it. As it turned out, I would only plant potatoes and onions.

Ron threw out last year’s seed potatoes because he is trying to clean out his house and farm in preparation for the move to a new farm in September. He didn’t think anyone would plant a garden this year and he knew he certainly couldn’t do it. We were already a month behind in planting the garden. As luck would have it, Jerry at the feed store in Lawrence had 200 pounds of seed potatoes and 50 pounds of onions left that he didn’t sell. He was about to throw them away, so he just gave them to us. Soo and I picked them up with the big white truck—and I got to drive the truck. It’s always such a thrill for me to use big equipment. I’d learned how to drive the tractor last winter during our barn cleaning.

Ron picked through the potatoes and helped me plant 100 pounds of them and five pounds of seed onions and for that I’m grateful. I measured out the ground and he dug the holes and trenches. Then I dropped in the seeds and covered them over with soil.

These plants have become my summer project as I take care of them from seed to harvest. I ask Ron for some advice from time to time, but I follow through on the work. He also watches over the plants and alerts me to what needs to be done next.

The potatoes have sprouted very well—but so have the weeds. The field was so covered with weeds, including some volunteer amaranth, that it is difficult finding the plants. Today, Donna and Anna helped me a bit with weeding.

Not all of the plants came up and I thought they were lost but both Donna and Ron advised that it might take a little more time for them to grow. I hope so. Ron calculates that we’ll harvest 600-800 pounds of potatoes—that’s about 6 to 8 pounds per plant.

I love digging—and eating—potatoes. That was my driving force in getting so many into the ground! I also don’t mind working with the compost this year since I know it works on the plant and gives it nutrients and flavor. Ron says he has a machine that can help hill the potatoes, which also needs to be done in order to protect the potatoes underground. Sometimes they get exposed and that will stunt their growth or kill them. Hilling the potatoes will also help in finding the plants when they’re ready for harvest. I intend to make big hills this year.

While I was working in the garden, Ella and Ava were in the goat pen crying. The herd had gone to pasture and these two kids didn’t follow. It is essential that all the new kids learn to follow the herd. That is their protection from predators. So I stopped my gardening and automatically went into the pen and bid them follow me to the pasture. Along the way told them about the importance of sticking with the herd.

The water buffalo were in the far pen. Most of them were lying down in the shade chewing their cud and relaxing. I reckoned they’d stay put and not follow us. However, as I took the two kids to the south pasture, low and behold, I noticed the buffalo were walking all together in single file right behind us.

That was not a good sign because I’ve not been alone with the buffalo in the pasture and I didn’t have a staff to protect me. Fortunately, I didn’t panic, which I knew was key to being with the buffs. I simply stayed close to the trees for protection, as Ron had shown me when I went out to pasture with him one day. At one point I hid behind a large tree thinking I could hide. Then I saw two big buffs peek around the tree with their big noses and curious eyes. This was not a time to run away but it was imperative that I get out of there. I stayed in the trees for awhile and then walked around the buffalo toward the gate, which was some 50 yards away. As I walked, I petted a couple buffs and casually said hello as though this were nothing out of the ordinary. Fortunately, they were more interested in grazing than in me so I slipped out of there quietly with no harm done.

It was probably a stupid thing to do to take the chance of bringing the kids to the pasture but my instincts told me I should do it. And I really didn’t think the buffaloes would follow. On the other hand, they may have followed us as a response to their own herding instinct—or it was just time to go to pasture. (They do this all day long, going to and from the pasture with a shady respite in the barn or under the barnyard trees.)

I later told Ron about this incident. He was both pleased and surprised that it went so well because the buffalo had never reacted like that before and no one but he has been with the buffs in pasture either.

Actually, I’ve been getting to know the buffaloes over the past couple months. I’ve let them sniff and lick my hand and arm. That’s the way these huge 1800-pound beasts communicate. It must have gotten them used to me even though I hadn’t been working closely with them. Ron was also glad to hear that I used my instincts to get the goats with the herd. I was glad that he was glad and that he didn’t get angry with me. I was also happy that I had responded so well to the animals. I have told Ron that I’d like to learn to work with the buffs and he said that was fine. He also said that I was particularly good with the animals—a high compliment of praise indeed that utterly delights me. Actually, some days I feel as though I can communicate better with the animals than I can with people!

After I finished working in the garden for the day, I decided to visit the bucks. It’s been a long time since I was in their pen and that was before Dude was sent to another farm to be a companion to a pony that had been rejected by the other horses. Dude wasn’t exactly happy in the pen with the big boys: his father, Leonidas, and Tiger (the other breeder) and Latte Boy, Leonidas’ castrated brother who served as a companion to him before Tiger arrived. The bucks pushed Dude away from the food and water bins and he’d have to take whatever was left over. He also didn’t have any other playmates his age and he missed playing with his six sisters.

It was a traumatic day when he was separated from his sisters and put into a barn stall by himself. He tried to keep up a brave front but when I went in to see him, and crouched down on my knee to be up close to him, he put his nose into my jacket and just held it there for the longest time. Ron had tried to put him in the buck pen the previous day and the bucks outright rejected him. The reason he had to be separated from the girl-kids is that he was mounting them and getting a full erection. Bucklings can do that at four months! So he wasn’t doing anything that was out of the ordinary, it’s just that it wasn’t time for the girl kids to be mounted.

When he was first in the buck pen, Dude would cry at the gate whenever he’d see me pass by with the girl-kids. (I’d take them for pasture walks outside the pens because they were too little to be put in with the does and doelings.) After I finished with the girl-kids, I’d sit outside the buck pen to visit Dude. It was as though he were in prison. Eventually, I went inside the buck pen to pet and hug Dude. That’s when I got to know and feel comfortable with the bucks. Probably the reason I went in there was because of an incident that happened one day, when Donna and I were in the girl-kids pen, which is adjacent to the buck pen.

Dude saw us together in there and he stood up on his hind legs and bid us come to him. Unfortunately, he got his head or leg caught in the electric wire and was screaming. I went to his rescue and tried to take the wire away with my hand but, of course, got shocked myself. Then I pushed the wire down with my boot, which thankfully had a rubber sole, and Dude got away. I rushed into the buck pen to see if he was all right and he was. It was just another bad day for poor Dude.

It seemed as though Leonidas appreciated my effort for saving Dude from the electric wire. He had been allowing Dude to lay next to him from time to time, Ron said. Actually, I thought Dude was adjusting to the pen, especially when he one day pushed Tiger away from the grain bowl. Ron was pleased with that news because he’d never seen Dude do that. By and large, Dude protected himself from getting pushed around by the bucks when he would jump into the feed bin. Not a great place for a young buck full of energy and the desire to be friends with other goats.

One day Ron got a call from a farm woman who had a pony whose mother rejected him. He needed a friend so she called Ron to see if there were any goats available she could have for her pony. Goats, by the way, make great pets for horses and they are present in a lot of stables. This day was Dude’s lucky day. He had a new purpose and a new friend. That made him a lucky boy, said Ron, and it was also a lot better than going to “freezer camp.” I hope to visit Dude some day soon and to see his new friend, the pony. I wonder if he will remember me.


While I was in the buck pen, Ron saw me and asked me to help him trim Tiger’s horn. It was close to growing into his head, as that happens to goats sometimes. Ron had just finished hauling hay to the pasture with the tractor. He parked the tractor and then went to the barn to get a leading rope and the big horn trimmers so we could go to work on Tiger.

First, we had to steady the goat so Ron tied the rope around a tree and had me hold it. Tiger is a big French Alpine with a lot of strength for his 150 pounds. Ron tried to get the big clippers around the tip of the horn but I didn’t have the strength to hold Tiger very well. After several tries, Tiger at one point jerked his whole body and the whole horn came off. Unfortunately, a lot of blood flowed out and the big buck ran away to the goat shelter, a plastic tent-looking structure they use for cover. Ron ran after him to apologize and to see if he was hurt.

Actually, what came off was the scur. It’s a partial horn that grows out of the generative tissue that remains after disbudding—it’s like a hang nail with skin on it only it’s hollow. The horn is an extension of the goat’s skull. The core is a highly vascularized hard tissue that continually generates the horn throughout life. The vascular core extends about a quarter the length of the horn; the rest is solid. When an animal is “dehorned,” the horn has to be cut off at the base to remove the generative tissue—that produces a hole in the skill exposing the brain.

One year Ron’s fourteen goats were dishorned and it was horrible, he said. They all lived through it but it is one of the reasons he is so careful about disbudding when the goats are kids.

Ron thought Tiger’s scur was already loose and that it probably would have come off when he engaged in a little head butting with Leonidas. Nevertheless, the poor goat was bleeding profusely and Ron went to the barn to get some stop-bleeding powder. He tried coaxing the goat out of the goat shelter and eventually he came out. One side of his face was all bloody and it looked dreadful. Then Ron led Tiger to the tree and tied him up in order to apply the powder. This time Ron held Tiger by the rope and the beard as I poured the powder into his hand for him to apply to the goat’s head.

I marvel at Ron’s knowledge about these goats and his ability to do what he does to keep them healthy. This incident illustrates one of the unpleasant things that occur but it never deters Ron. He does what must be done no matter what. This is one part of farm life and the farm ethic that I’ve learned here at Dancing Turtle. Besides, who else is going to do it?


I had spent the day at the farm from 10 until 7 without eating anything. I was tired and achy but satisfied with all the work I accomplished. I could see my progress—and also see what more needed to be done: weed and compost the field of squash, cucumbers and sunflowers that I planted last week. Later next week for that, especially since I will be going away for a few days during the last week of June.

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