It has been an odd day today. Although still February it has felt spring like. No, correct that, it has been like a summer’s day today. All day it has been warm and sunny, in North Wales even in Summer this is unusual.
I decided to take the opportunity to start preparing the vegetable beds. I got the Goldoni fired-up and after 2 hours we had the first pass completed. The poultry also enjoy this task as they can follow the rotary plough and take their pick of the insect life that it reveals.
I was glad to have this task to do for two reasons. Firstly, I am due to restart the goat house bedding. We use a deep bedding system for the goats. This means we add to the straw bedding on a regular basis over the year and the bedding gets deeper and deeper. It also stays warm and dry, if topped up, which the goats like. But after a period there is the task of mucking out a few tons of straw which has been liberally mixed with dung and urine. This is a hard, back breaking task, that must be done in one go (as otherwise the goats would have nowhere to sleep that night). I can’t avoid it for much longer but breaking the ground did give me an excuse for today.
The second reason was the Six Nations International Rugby competition. I knew, in my guts, Scotland was not going to perform well today and I could not really stand the stress of watching this. It was marginally less distressing to listen to it in the radio and being busy did distract and ease the pain. I could hear Scotland valiantly fighting, but losing, and this was rather less unpleasant than watching it happening in all its gory detail. Fortunately, I am now of two nationalities. My Scottish persona felt the bitter disappointment of loosing to France but my Welsh persona had the great pleasure of watching Wales win again England an hour or so later. This was a wonderful antidote and lifted me enough that I thought I might tackle the goat house tomorrow – possibly.
To round off the day nicely, whilst rotavating I uncovered a small buried treasure. I thought that I had collected all of last years potatoes but I was mistaken. In the middle of a run there was a small cache of some Pentland Javelin and Red Désirée potatoes. Not many but enough for a couple of meals. I had intended to be well behaved in my diet today and keep my carb count to a minimum. This, however, was obviously a sign, just like Wales’ win, to allow me to disregard my diet at least for tonight. I decided to have the potatoes fried in butter. These small delights had gone to all the bother of keeping themselves hidden until today just to cheer me up. I really had to eat them, despite my diet, it would have churlish not to.
I can, unfortunately, be pretty certain I’ll find no pleasant surprises when I shift the tons of dung and straw from the goat house later this week. Unless another comes along and takes priority.
I tend to agree with the Irish Meteorologial Office and think that Autumn (fómhar) has started. They follow the old gaelic tradition that Autumn is comprised of August, September and October. In Welsh the month of July is named Gorffennaf which is literally the end (gorffen) of summer (haf) and I have lived in Britain long enough to know that November is winter. So, however we dress it up, after July, and before November, is Autumn in my book. This, without any shadow of doubt, is my favourite season, the one which surpasses all the others. Summer is too hot, Winter is too cold and Spring is too busy. Autumn has that perfect mix of an ideal climate and productive nature. This is the season when rural life blossoms. Each village and small town will have its local Show where produce and craft can be displayed. Then, following these, the area’s social life will start to resume after the lull of the summer.
These last weeks have started to feel truly autumnal. The temperatures have dropped, the colours have started to change in the trees and the produce following summer is everywhere. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the hedgerows. Dues to the long hot spell in summer the berries have done much better than usual and we will need to start collecting blackberries (Mwyar Duon). The hedges are heavy with berries and they have started to ripen. If we leave it too late we will lose out to the birds who always know when the berries are ready and get up earlier in the morning than we do.
We will have the grandchildren around to help us making the collection and this year there will be a larger educational component. Because of the hot summer the berries have done well. This also means that the honeysuckle berries are also prolific. The children will need to be taught how to tell them apart . Although they are not greatly poisonous, and one would have to eat heroic quantities to come to harm, they are toxic and can cause gastrointestinal upset if eaten. It will be a good lesson to explain that although things may be superficially similar that doesn’t mean they are equally good, or bad.
The blackberries are a welcome free crop and I anticipate a much larger store of jam this year than before. Our other free crop this year came in the form of honey. Our bait-hive attracted a swarm of bees and after a relatively short sojourn there we found they had produced a reasonable stock of honey. This honey, though slightly cloudy, is very pleasant in taste and was a very welcome present from our new visitors. It is the season when the shelves in the pantry start filling up, getting ready for the start of winter.
One task that starts again at this time of year is the chipping of the goat yard. During the spring and summer the goats find plenty of material to eat while out browsing in the meadow. On wet days, that we see during autumn and winter they are not keen on venturing far from the yard and the comfort of their sheds. Unlike sheep, goats do not have lanolin in their wool, and thus are much less tolerant of rainy weather. During this time when I have edging work to do on the fields I cut down the overhanging branches and feed them to the goats. They then strip off every leaf, especially quickly when it is their favourite trees (oak, ash, willow and beech). I then cut the branches into staves or firewood depending on shape and size. The remainder is put through the chipper to create useful animal bedding. The bedding, once it has been mixed with animal urine and faeces and rotted down for a period, is then gradually added to the compost pile. Nothing is wasted if it can be avoided.
One other useful product of this process is the protection of my mental health. You can take all your “stress balls” and relaxation strategies and through them out of the window. If you have something on your mind, something or someone bugging you, or a problem you can’t solve then get out the Earthquake Woodchipper and fire her up. You will now be engulfed in a wall of angry woodchipping noise; if you want to mutter, grumble or swear no-one will hear a word you say. The pleasure there is in throwing branches down the chipper, to hear them splinter into a myriad of chippings, is difficult to describe. You can’t imagine who, and what, I have put through that chipper in my imagination! We are lucky we are still free to think what we like and there are no thought crimes (yet) or I’d be writing this from the computer in the prison library.
Even without its benefits for mental health I’d have to recommend this chipper. Electric chippers and shredders are always too weak and you end up spending more like clearing them than using them. As they say, if it hasn’t got the ability to take your arm off its not strong enough ! You need a petrol engined model. This one uses the four-stroke Briggs and Stratton engine and meets the most vital criterion for petrol driven appliances – it starts on the first pull! It is noisy but you could wear ear-protectors if this was an issue for you. The European version comes with some safety attachments absent on the American model (It is dangerous to put your arm down the cutting chute – who would have guessed?). I guess that Americans are recognised as being able to think unlike we Europeans who need to be protected from such dangerous activities.(*)
As is so often the case in life, the problems of physical and mental health sometimes have their solutions in the world of work and activity. In our steady march towards a world of leisure we might well be marching in the wrong direction.
Sorry about the quality of this video, it hard to work with a camera balanced in the rim of your hat.
(*) I have worries about these safety modifications. I found that the raised bin in the shredder, and other attachments, made the machine harder to use. Also as you spent time trying to bypass the difficulties caused by these safety additions you started to place yourself in danger while operating the machine. I am not sure that these modifications increase operator safety and fear they may even impair it.
I have taken up fencing today, I had little alternative. It was only a matter of time following the birth of the billy goat kids. This is not some form of self-defence, there is no cut and parry nor clever swordsmanship, this simply the need to fence the old lower meadow as somewhere for them to stay. Goats mature sexually very young, as we know from experience, and I don’t want this to happen while the boys are living with their mother, aunty or sister. I need some good fences and distance between them.
One of the important things about fencing, as with many agricultural tasks, is having the right tools for the job. My wife believes the right tools for fencing are the business card of a professional fencer and telephone. It is true that the professionals with tractors and post drivers will do a better job and that you will end up with taut, plumb straight fences but you will have to pay them. Fencing, basic stock fencing at least, is not that difficult and it is quite enjoyable to do. There is quite a sense of achievement to look at the end of day’s work and to see that you have actually altered the geography of a place.
The correct tools you need are :-
as well as stock fencing, post and staples. The posts you will need for basic stock fencing are 5′ 6″ long, 3 1/2″ diameter, rough hewn posts. These are reasonably priced in most farmers’ marts. The staples are bought by the kilogram and 30mm (by 3.3mm) galvanised staples are your best bet.
Once you have decided where your fence is going to go then get all your tools, and enough of your materials to the start point. Then clear the line of your proposed fence with a brush cutter. Try to keep to straight lines as far as practicable. I could not today as the edge of the meadow is a meandering river, so I needed to follow its curves.
Firstly use the crowbar to make a hole. This need not be too wide. It is best about 1 1/2 to 2 inches wide – as the post goes down it will create its path and we want a tight fit. We don’t want to disturb more earth than necessary. While the width of the hole doesn’t matter the depth does. The hole should be at least 2 1/2 feet deep. This is where the strength comes from and it is wise to work get at least this depth. Once you have the hole, roughly insert the fence post into place.
Now use the post rammer. This is one place where the right tool helps. You could use a sledgehammer for this task. That is, you could use a sledgehammer if your spouse has fingers to spare, an undoubting loyalty to you and no sense of fear whatsoever. If you use a sledgehammer you need somebody to hold the pole while you hammer it in. Or if you are really brave you can hole the pole while someone tries to hit it with a large metal hammer. If you use the post rammer you can work alone. Check after the first couple of strikes that you have the post vertical as if you try and correct later on it can ber very difficult. It you do manage to dislodge and re-align the fence post you will often leave that post wobbly which you do not want.
Next you need the fence tensioner. This is a long bar that can grip one of the horizontal wires on the fencing. You can then use it as a lever to pull the fence taught before hitting in the staples. It is important to get the fence as tight as you can or else it will sag and start to become a liability. A loose fence is poor at keeping animals in (or out, depending on what you want). You can put all your body weight against the long arm of the tensioner to get a good tension going and then, stand leaning against it, while you use both hands to get the staples knocked. Or you can ask your spouse to keep the tension while you hammer. They should be happy to do this after you have told them you abandoned your plans with the sledgehammer !
When knocking in the staples don’t be too stingy with them. At least 4 for each post. Always one on the uppermost and one on the lowermost wires, and two (and preferably three) in between them. It is useful to hammer the staples in on the oblique, slightly slanted. If you insert them vertically with the pins going in one directly above the other there is a tendency to create a fissure, or crack, in the fence post between them. Over time this widens and your staples will risk falling out.
This is another time when the correct tool will help you. A fencing tool is your best bet for this part of the job. Certainly you can use a hammer but you will also need pliers to bend wires and a bendy thingimmy to extract old or misplaced staples. You can also be sure that when you are standing holding the pole and fence in position and holding the hammer you will actually need the bendy thingimmy, or if you have the pliers you will need the hammer. Having all of them in one tool is invaluable. I would also suggest getting a pair in bright colours. I regret buying my blue handled pair. You will spend an annoyingly long time looking in the grass for this tool. You have a better chance of seeing it if it is bright red or yellow – avoid black and green like the plague.
Once you have done all of this work you will be able to look back and admire your handiwork. There is now only one last thing you need to do. You can now tear up your gym membership card; if you manage this you never need to see the inside of a gym, or look at an exercise machine, let alone consider wearing lycra.
After a long hiatus we have started milking again this week. Last year we gave our two nannies a break from milking as we felt they deserved a rest. This meant, for the first time for us, we had to arrange to get the them in kid so we could restart the milking process. Thankfully this did not require a lot of skills natural impulses and the billy goat managed all of the basics without any real intervention on our part. This week we have started to wean the kids away from their mother and to restart the daily milking cycle. I had forgotten how important this was to me.
I always feel that milking is like the heartbeat of the farm. Every day, come hell or high water, at the same times we go milking. Every other part of our day is organised around these times. As we only have a few animals we cannot justify the cost of a milking machine. Therefore all our milking is down by hand and thus it is very rarely that we can go away for more than 10 hours. When I worked we were world travellers, crisscrossing the globe for business and pleasure, this is but a dim memory now. Very infrequently, when we have friend who have been trained how to milk, we venture away for our annual holiday. For our most recent holiday we went to hotel 8 miles away (just in case we had to get back in an emergency) for “dinner, bed and breakfast” having come across vouchers on the web. I have to say that the holiday was as enjoyable as any we have had and a great deal less stressful.
My favourite is the morning milking. This occurs between 5 and 6 am in the spring and summer, and thankfully a bit later in winter and autumn. At this time of day the world truly is a peace. The only noises are the birds wakening and the animals calling for their feed. The rest of the world doesn’t seem to have roused and it feels like there is only me and the goats. Very rarely I might catch sight of our neighbour who has cattle on the other side of the valley as he goes on his early morning run to attend to them. It is too peaceful to do anything more than wave and nod.
The morning milking is quite quick. Sitting with your head against the flank of a goat listening to the rhythmic “whoosh whoosh” of the milk as it is pumped into the bucket is very relaxing. Once the milk is safely gathered I need to filter and bottle it. For this part of the procedure I have a daily podcast to keep my attention and I listen to the Bwletin Amaeth which is the short morning farmers’ program that keeps me up to date with agricultural issues and the weather. This is just long enough to keep my attention while I prepare the milk.
The evening milking is done as late as I can so as to try and keep the nanny from feeling overfull the following morning. It is the last task on the farm and I see it as the closing up aspect for the day. After collecting and preparing the milk I do a round of all the animal houses and make a quick head-count of the sheep. It is a reassuring and pleasant feeling to know that everyone is well and where they are meant to be.
Perhaps the best thing about milking is that it means we are again much more self-reliant. As we always have eggs and milk in the house there is never a pressing reason to go shopping. You can always prepare something to eat no matter how badly organised you have been. It used to annoy me when, in my previous life, I’d find we had no milk and would then ‘pop out’ to the supermarket which was open 24 hours. I’d go for milk but always come back with a bag of groceries as I’d be tempted by the 2 for 1 offers or I’d buy the end of date items which always seemed to be a bargain I could not forego. Latterly our supermarket became more of a department store so going out for milk could mean returning with trousers or a short as well. I should have been able to go and spend £1 but invariably I was gullible and came back spending over £10.
Goat’s milk is very versatile and can be used in many recipes but I feel the best thing to use if for (other than as milk) is to make yoghurt. There are few recipes as healthy as that for natural yoghurt. The ingredients are :-
and that’s it. I don’t understand why more people don’t make their own. All that is required is to bring the milk up to 195F (the temperature that it starts to boil) and stir it for a few moments. Then let it cool down to 110F, when it feels hot rather than tepid, and stir in a tablespoon of your last batch of yoghurt. Leave it somewhere warm overnight and voila you have yoghurt. I leave it in the bottom of the oven after it has been used and is still warm but switched off. Once it is ready transfer it to the fridge. It is possible to add sugars and flavours but natural goats milk yoghurt really doesn’t benefit from this.
The only downside of milking that I can currently see is that I now have two young billy goats I don’t need. We’ll see if anyone else has a desire for them, but if not I have plans that mean will need to start working in earnest next week.
I really was at a loss as how best approach the Daily Prompt today. My musical tastes tend to brand me a crank and there were few songs that I felt I could share without seriously damaging my reputation. I had spent much of the morning mulling over this problem when the solution came to me through the airwaves. I was sitting shaving carrots when the 10cc hit from 1976, “The things we do for love“ came on the air. This was the first hit that 10cc had made since Godley and Crème had left the band and it transported me back to my days as a student and the misery that was my romantic life at that time. But perhaps I should stick to the point and explain why I was shaving carrots !
Spring is our busiest season, the world starts to come alive after the winter hibernation and the new lives start to appear on the smallholding. We have had a very successful year with our ewes and lambs and our goats are also proving to be fecund as well. It is during this season that I often find myself thinking about vegetarians. I can understand many of the moral arguments for vegetarianism and also think that in terms of efficiency, and from a green perspective, there are probably good reasons to support their decision (Although, in temperate climates, there may be a case for sustainable meat). But in their focus on the end of the animals life I fear that they fail to understand those of us who work with animals and develop warm and strong affectionate bonds with them.
During spring I will work harder than at any other time. Like any anxious parent I will be up many times a night, leaving my warm bed, to walk in the small hours (and usually the rain) to the barn to feed a weak lamb or to tend to a distressed ewe. The feed requirement of the animals is obviously much higher at this time of year, but the natural pasture for grazing has not yet arrived, so there are regular foraging and feeding expeditions. Conscious of the dangers of birth and the problems that can accompany delivery we need to check the animals round the clock, regardless of what other calls may be made on our time.
But this is also the best time. To see the new lambs at their mothers’ feet, or to watch them gambolling in the field, is a pleasure that little can surpass. The sense of achievement, and relief, when assisting successfully with a difficult birth is hard to explain but is one of the great pleasures one can experience. Although dumb, animals do show their appreciation, and over the years they have clearly learnt to trust us. On occasion, when we lose a lamb, there is obviously the sadness which accompanies this but overall the emotional bonds that form between man and animal are felt best at this time of year and it is the reason to continue with this endeavour. To focus on the last minutes and to ignore all of the animals life misses the main point of animal husbandry.
It was an aspect of goat husbandry which chimed with me when I heard 10cc’s song. Our nanny goat gave birth to twins who were delivered awkwardly. The twins are doing fine and growing well. They did have a period when they would only nurse from one of their mother’s teats which left her lopsided and uncomfortable. This necessitated a 3 a.m. milking for a short period to balance her up, and avoid the risk of mastitis, until the kids improved their table manners. The nanny lost a lot of weight after the pregnancy and in addition to advice from the vet we are trying to build her up. We have bough her fancy ryegrass haylage, at which she has haughtily nibbled, but her favourite foods are banana skins and carrots. Unfortunately she does not like carrots whole or chopped, I think that there is too much chewing involved, she likes carrot peelings. That is the way she first encountered them when she was given the vegetable peelings from the kitchen. So now we buy 20kg sacks of carrots and peel them in 5kg batches. It is why I sit at the coffee break shaving carrots for my nanny goat. My wife complains that she does not get this degree of attention lavished upon her – but the goat needs building up – the things we do for love !
Over the last few days I read Ralph Waldo Emmerson’s essay “Self Reliance“. I was attracted to it by its title and also because, I am ashamed to say, I had never read any of his work. Although I enjoyed it greatly I have reservations about recommending this book to others as I must confess that it is now rather dated. The language to the modern reader is rather inaccessible and many aspects of the vocabulary seem rather archaic. This having been said, I still think that the essay is worthy of your time and effort.
It may seem a little counter-intuitive but I have found that reading classic works like this on an e-reading platform, such as the kindle, is very valuable. It may, at first, seem unusual to suggest using our modern gadgets to access the literature of the ancients but there are two reasons I would recommend this.
Firstly, many of these classics are no longer hampered by copyright issues and are therefore available either freely or at very low prices. While there are relatively cheap editions of the classics available in the traditional paper format (Dover Thrift Editions for example) but there is still an upfront cost however modest. This can be off-putting when taking a chance on literature which may prove dated and difficult to read. E-books of the classics are usually available free of charge and this makes it much easier to take the chance and try something we might otherwise have missed. (The Project Gutenberg site is an excellent place to start looking for the classics, in a variety of e-book formats, epub, kindle, html and plain text.) In this manner, there is a whole world of literature and thought available to us at very little expense. These works have already been filtered and selected as they have stood the test of time : these are the works which were not fickle, nor were they unimportant, and the works which still talk to us and our predicaments thousands of years after they were written.
Secondly, I have found that when I tackle these books I am much less cultured than were the original readers of these books. Though I consider myself well educated and fairly knowledgeable it is clear that a wider, better awareness of The Classics was presumed by these writers. Indeed, it was previously felt that a study of the classics, and the humanities, was one of the cornerstones of a well rounded education. I do not have this so many references are lost on me. For example, Emmerson bemoans that he has “no Lethe” to help him in this essay. This reference, like many others, initially meant nothing to me until, with the help of wikipedia on the e-reader, I discovered that the Lethe was the river of forgetfulness and oblivion which flowed in Hades. With this knowledge everything made sense.
Though I was drawn to this essay by its title; this is an essay on personal, mental or spiritual self-reliance, not self-reliance in the quotidian, material sense. This is an essay promoting individualism and self-reliance of the soul. In this he urges us to be true to our own thoughts and opinions, not to be shackled by unnecessary attempts to be consistent :-
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. “Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.” Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? .. .. To be great is to be misunderstood.
He reminds us that institutions are the consequence of individual’s thoughts :-
An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man; as, Monachism, of the Hermit Antony; the Reformation, of Luther; Quakerism, of Fox; Methodism, of Wesley; Abolition, of Clarkson.
and that change likewise starts with the individual :-
Every revolution was first a thought in one man’s mind, and when the same thought occurs to another man, it is the key to that era. Every reform was once a private opinion, and when it shall be a private opinion again, it will solve the problem of the age.
He is clearly of the opinion that discontentment and unhappiness arise from failures in self-reliance and dishonesty with oneself. It is an interesting essay which, I’d venture, gives a useful other strand to aiming for autarky or self-sufficiency – a valuable mental self reliance which helps when one has to cope with adversity or hardship. Those looking for advice on how to be more self-contained and resilient will find much of value in this short essay.
Returning the more prosaic aspects of self-reliance; I found that I needed to deal with some poor hedges and trees this winter. These were heavy with ivy and I needed to co-opt the goats into the job. At this time of year there is little greenery for the sheep and goats to browse and they are therefore very grateful to see the leaves of the holly, ivy and brambles. I find when clearing ivy it is useful to let the goats at it first. They strip every green leaf and make the movement of the branches much lighter and easier. Also, at this time of year, it is useful winter fodder and saves on out hay usage (both for the goats and sheep). In this way we make a crop out of weed.
The Billy goat and nannies also provide pleasant company during what is an annoying job. I like to see them eating and enjoy knowing that I have saved some hay rations (especially as we had a poor hay harvest this year). I feel rather guilty that we don’t make more use of the ivy wood as it feels wasteful to throw it away. It does not burn green and is quite difficult to stack , because of the differing shapes, to dry well enough to make kindling. It also seems to take an age to dry properly.
I have looked for other uses for it but have had relatively little success. One option seems to be to make wreaths of ivy. According to folklore wearing wreaths of ivy protects against the effects of alcohol. This is the reason Bacchus, the Roman god of inebriation, wore ivy wreaths to prevent him getting drunk. Sprigs of ivy can also help with marital fidelity, hence ivy is often included in wedding bouquets. Unfortunately, neither of these two uses will consume the amount of wood that I have to deal with and now that Hogmanay is passed I have little need for either. So I remain on the lookout for other, probably more productive, uses for Hedera Helix wood though I think I will cut a very dashing impression next time I am in the pub.
I never really gave it much thought, when I dropped out 5 years ago, that I would be responsible for securing the sexual satisfaction of my animal charges. I had always known I’d keep sheep, chickens and goats but hadn’t, at first, given much thought to keeping rams, cockerels and billy goats. I had recollections from my youth of the tales of the birds and the bees but I had rather naively just imagined that it would all just happen naturally and by accident, as it did with my own offspring. I had never really though that I would have to be the procurer of male company for them all, nor had I considered just how ornery and cussed these males could be.
Last year we dried off our two milking goats. They had given us a good run of milking and had been very productive. One of them being equally productive following a cloudburst, or phantom, pregnancy. But eventually the frozen milk ran out and we need to get them pregnant again so we can resume milking next spring. We really have missed the milk, yoghurt and cheese, and I also miss the rhythm of daily milking. Starting the day early, in the byre, with just the animals for company is great for the spirits and the schedule of the milkings twice a day gives a structure to the days and is a bit like the heartbeat of the farm.
After a search we found a billy kid locally. A pretty alpine-saanen cross who was, thankfully intact. Unfortunately he had not been disbudded and thus has a pair of impressive horns. It is too late to dehorn him as this would be risky and unpleasant for him so we will have to cope with this. It perhaps makes me at risk of breaking my cardinal rule of animal husbandry – “Don’t have any animals you can’t beat in a fair fight!” as I fear, when bigger, I may be no match for him.
When we got him back to the homestead it was clear from the attitude of the two girls that we had made a good choice. Pamela leapt to greet him and within half an hour of arriving they had mated. Pookie kept her reserve overnight and looked rather disdainfully at her sister and her antics. However, the following morning it was she and he who were making all the noise and action while Pamela looked on with a bored expression.
We will know in three or four weeks if the girls go back into season again or whether our first few days will prove productive. It seem likely that we may be able to expect kids in the middle of March 2018 and resume dairy production shortly thereafter.
I was surprised at how early boy goats become sexually mature. It seems that they are ready to ‘work‘ at around three months and this young boy was only a little over four months old. It has been almost surreal to watch this infant, who is all testicles and hormones, trying to mount the dams in the yard as if he were some pocket Casanova. But despite his youth he seems adequately mature, so finger crossed as we wait for spring.