Sunday, August 8, 2010

Farm Journal: Harvesting, Husbandry, and Hoof Trimming


It’s been a good month so far. I’m keeping up with the weeds. The potato and onion plantss are getting bigger. And, I’m starting to harvest my crops!

It’s truly exciting to pull up a plant to see what it will bring. You can’t tell from the plant above ground. I suppose, like plant growth, the bounty below ground, is part of the mystery of gardening, too.

My onions came in different sizes and they went nicely on my tomato salad. I cut them so they looked like little curls of pasta. Then I added cucumbers, green and yellow beans, chopped hard boiled eggs, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and oregano. Delicious! The taste of the onions were especially prominent.

The potato plants were another story. Ron suggested I pull up a plant or two and find out how they are doing. I was hesitant to do this at first because I didn’t want to waste the plant if there was nothing there. On the other hand, there is no other way to know if the plants are ready to harvest or not. I tried a plant in the first row and was disappointed that there was nothing there. I dug deep under the plant and then noticed that the roots had very tiny potatoes on them. Not wanting to waste the plant, I stuck it back into the ground and hope it will continue to grow.

Ron tried another plant. He found only new potatoes and then gave them to me. (I baked them and they were alright, not as good as last year’s crop. I hope they improve as they grow in the ground longer.)

Later I tried another plant in another part of the field and found more new potatoes but nowhere near the amount for harvest. Each plant should yield about five pounds. I sure hope they are ready for harvest in a couple weeks so that I can sell them to Asiago’s for the Texas Township picnic!

Husbandry
Donna asked me to estimate the amount of time I spent on the potatoes and I calculated about 80 hours over the past two months. A lot of that time was spent pulling weeds that had overgrown the fields—twice. And it took place in 90-degree heat and made the work so much harder. Now I keep up with the weeds. Once a week seems to be about right.

I am realizing this summer how difficult it is to understand how much time and effort it takes to maintain a well-kept field. It all looks so easy but the key ingredient is caring for the plants and paying attention to detail. Wendell Berry in his anthology of essays, Bringing It to the Table, talks about the “communion between farmer as husband and the well-husbanded farm.” This kind of farming—so different from conventional industrial agriculture—is “a cultural force” that fits the farming to the farm, to the land, to the family, and to the local economy. That makes a lot of sense to me both in what I have observed in Ron’s farm husbandry and in what I am learning from this gardening project.

Hoof Trimming for Goats
We trimmed the goats’ hooves and some of them badly needed it. This is a task that must be done periodically otherwise the goats don’t stand up properly.

Goats in the wild obviously don’t get their hooves trimmed because as they walk, run, and jump on rocks and hard ground and that wears away the “skin” that grows over their hooves. Domestic goats that hang out in pastures where the ground is soft and grassy don’t have the same luxury as wild goats so they must go through this “nail clipping” process.

To trim the hooves, we have each goat jump up on the milk stand. This elevates her and makes it easier to bend each leg and work on the hoof. To hold her still, we lock her head in place over a feed bucket that has some delicious grain that is coated with molasses. This provides her with a great distraction--and the satisfaction of her sweet tooth. One of my jobs is to re-fill the grain bucket.

Trimming the hooves goes best when two people work together so I get to hold the goat’s head, pet her, talk to her and try to calm her down while Ron trims the hooves. Sometimes I brush the goats, which is one of their great pleasures.

Most of the goats cooperate with the necessary inconvenience of hoof trimming but some are skittish, squirmy, or agitated. In that case, Ron has to put their lower abdomen on his knee which shifts their thighs forward and lifts their hind feet off the floor. This requires a lot of strength on his part, as so much of farming does. The goats usually calm down at this point, maybe just to get out of this unnatural position.

It is also my job to fetch a goat and to make sure each one receives treatment. Today, Lucy and Dina were out on the pasture and “unavailable” for trimming. Bad little goats! They are supposed to stay with the herd and not go out for a jaunt anytime they feel like it. It is also not good survival behavior because they can be picked off easily by predators. Fortunately, they are safe on the farm but that kind of independence is not a good trait to be passed on to their progeny.

Last summer, one beautiful, jet black older goat was especially bad. She’d run away when approached, act up during hoof trimming, exhibit loner behavior, and just in general be very disruptive. When she didn’t conceive for three seasons after being bred the vet concluded that she have been barren. So Ron determined she had to be culled from the herd. He says that it's important for the goats to be compliant and that a farmer must not only maintain control over his goats, they must contribute to the dairy by bearing kids and producing milk.

Taking command over the goats is still something I have trouble doing. This is especially necessary when I open the exit door of the milk room to let out a newly-trimmed goat back into the loafing room of the barn. Invariably, the other goats who want to get back to the grain bucket try to storm their way in. If I don’t slide the door fast enough, the goats play their favorite little game of coming into the milk room and wandering around in circles as though this were the most natural thing in the world to do. They think this is really funny and actually, it is, unless you're busy. Frequently, I laugh as I try to get them out, but Ron gets annoyed at this behavior because it means we’ve lost control over the goats.

The key to restoring order is to know that it can be done. To do this, we take each goat separately by the collar or push her out out of the milk room at her butt end. This takes a lot of strength with the mature goats. The younger and lighter goats can sometimes just be picked up and taken out.

***

It is interesting to me that hoof trimming for goats is like hilling and weeding each potato plant: it requires individual attention. When I bring in a goat from the barn to the milk room, I am reminded of who she is and maybe recall something funny she has done. Ron also reacts to each goat as she enters the room. Sometimes, I think he is anticipating the goat’s behavior, but sometimes he must think about his relationship to the goat because he frequently shares a story about her. He is definitely a farmer who knows and loves his goats!

There is something sacramental about all this that reminds me of the Mass where each person receives communion with the words: “the body of Christ.” It takes time and it’s repetitious to go through the whole crowd, especially when the church is full, but the distribution of the Eucharist is done with a personal regard for each member of the community. I’m sure as the priest distributes communion, he probably remembers something many of the people, too, just as we do the goats.

***

The kids received collars today. These collars allow us to lead each goat, which is a behavior and control mechanism for getting them to go where we want them to go.

The doelings have been wearing their collars for the past year but we have not trained them to lead yet. I’m looking forward to doing that. Ron also told me he wants me to trim the goats’ hooves next time, which will probably be at the new farm. I’m ready and willing to do this as it gives me more responsibility to care for the goats.

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