Painted Hand Farm is a 20 acre Civil War era farm located in Cumberland county, Pennsylvania. We raise meat goats, veal calves, turkeys and organic vegetables using humane and sustainable agricultural practices.
Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD)--large, aloof, independent breeds such as the Anatolian Shepherd, Kuvaz, Maremma, Burmese Mountain Dog, Komondor and of course, the Great Pyrenees. Unlike herding dogs that depend on livestock's inherent fear of predators, these gentle giants bond with the herd moving effortlessly among the flock.
Many producers choose to keep LGDs to ward off predators such as coyote and mountain lions. More often, as we have, producers employ LGDs to ward off neighbors' domestic dogs that roam free and harass livestock. However, LGDs can do much more than keep the flock safe as I found out yesterday during the morning feeding.
Although we interact with our herd of nearly 50 does daily, close inspection of each animal is not possible. We check for the obvious such as limping, scours, poor condition, etc., but subtle anomalies can be easily overlooked.
Two thirds of the herd is currently bred. After tossing hay, I was walking around the herd checking the girls out when I noticed El Jefe, our Great Pyrenees, was keen on one particular doe. His nose was glued to her hind end as she moved around to get at the hay. Taking a closer look, I realized the young doe had either aborted or was about to abort.
Thanks to my LGD identifying the problem, I was able to bring the doe out of the pasture and into the barn for close monitoring before additional problems, such as possible infection, occurred.
Many producers only factor in the cost savings of livestock protected from predators, however, a good working LGD can alert you to early problems within large herds and flocks, thus saving you even more effort and money in the long run.
I love fall. Maybe I should clarify that statement. I love eating in the fall. The early frosts bring out the sweetness in the chards, kales and brussel sprouts. The vines on the all the potatoes die back signalling their readiness to be dug from the earth softened by autumn rains.
Digging veggies liberates that earthy aroma--the familiar fragrance mixed of mineral, decaying organic material and the vegetables themselves. I love the way the dirt clings to my fingers as I snap the sun chokes off the root ball that once supported sunflower-like stems towering over six feet. "Choke" is an appropriate name for them since they literally choke out everything in the surrounding area. Right now the horseradish is fighting for its patch in the perenial garden and the noduled tubers are encroaching into the herbal district.
Another aspect of fall is with the cooler weather comes butcher time. A few weeks ago, we had to slaughter a goat for roasting at a picnic so at the same time, we did a lamb for the freezer. Ralph was going out of town, Jessica was going to a friend's for the weekend so I vacuume-packed all of it until tonight.
It feels really good knowing that only an hour earlier the roasted sweet potatoes and russets, sun chokes, onions and carrots on our dinner plates were still snug in the garden and the lamb chops led a bucolic life in pasture prior to a quick and humane dispatch. I rest easier knowing that lamb was slaughtered and packaged in a clean environment...my backyard and my kitchen. My vegetables have been fertilized with rich compost made from the manure of grass-fed animals...no O157 E. coli on my salad greens.
Raising healthful, natural and safe food for ourself and others is a lot of hard work, but when I am able to sit down to a meal, such as tonight's, it puts a season of our labors into perspective.
It's one thing to salvage things like sheds, vehicles, tools, etc., but the opportunity recently presented itself for a roadside salvage operation for some premium hay. "Sandy, someone dropped a large bale of nice hay down the road from your place," said the voice of my ususal hay man on my answering machine, "It's laying right along side the road." With over a hundred mouths to feed on the farm, this warranted a closer look so I grabbed a pitchfork and corralled my daughter into going along. Sure enough, there was a very large bale of number one hay pushed off the road on a curve. It was hay auction day, so my guess is one of the local farmers took the curve a bit too fast and the bale fell off breaking open. I positioned the truck on the downhill as close to the hay as I could get and began loading it on the truck. "Mom, this is so embarassing. What if someone from school sees us?" my daughter wailed. "Tell them that because I got $50 of free hay, I can spend that on clothes for you," I shot back and then went on to ask her how much the dress was I had purchased for her a few weeks before. "There's no way you're going to fit all of this on the truck," she countered. "Watch me." For the next fifteen minutes we proceeded to stack all of the 750 pound bale on the truck. She needled me again. "We'll never get it all home." In response, the truck never reached 10mph on the trip up the street. Not only did I get the entire bale on the truck, I made it home without losing any. The next day I got a call from one of the other local farmers from whom I often purchase hay. "You must be really in need of hay if you have to pick up what I've dropped along side the road," he joked. Actually, he admitted to yes, as I suspected, taking the curve too fast on his way to the hay auction and losing, not one, but six large bales off his truck. Fortunate for him, only one broke open. Since he was scheduling a delivery I offered to pay him for the bale. "Nah, that was close to an 800-pound bale. If you picked it up, you earned it," he said. So for 15 minutes of exercise, I made off with $50 of premium hay. Not too shabby.
I raise a flock of Heritage turkeys on pasture each year because I like the taste of grass-fed poultry and I want to make sure the bird that graces my holiday table hasn't been stuffed in some fetid commercial poultry house breathing fecal fumes and been subjected to the mutilation of having its beak and toes chopped off to prevent the cannibalism that is commonplace in overpopulated poultry operations. The first year we moved to the farm in Pennsylvania, we bought poults from a local Mennonite family with a large turkey operation. They only had half a top beak and the scarred toes left alien prints in the dirt as their toes looked more like geko feet than that of a turkey.
So what's the big difference between a Heritage and a Commercial turkey is the most common question I'm asked and I always answer breasts & sex. Modern birds are the Dolly Partons of the turkey world. They've been selectively bred to grow gargantuan pectorals to please consumers. Unfortunately, at the same time, they've bred the ability for these top-heavy gobblers to reproduce naturally. We allowed four of our Mennonite-mutilated birds to reach adulthood--three hens and a tom. When spring came, the hens lined up ready to be services but the poor ol' tom could only give them some "wing". With his enormous chest, his tiny pecker (and I'm not talking about the half a pecker on his face) couldn't come close to hitting the mark. So we ate the turkey eggs along with the turkeys eventually.
Which leads me to the next most common question--how can you eat your turkeys? That's easy. Anyone who has ever raised turkeys will tell you that by the first of November they start chanting, "Three more weeks! Three more weeks!" I move two dozen birds in a portable house two to three times a day and by now the amount of crap they leave behind will gag even the strong of stomach. I can only imagine what thousands of these critters confined by the thousands in an enclosed building must be like.
I've also read enough USDA butchering regulations to know that the reason the health department suggests you incinerate a turkey to 180 degrees internal temperature is because of all the unsanitary conditions when the birds are processed. When anyone eats one of my birds, I've personally cleaned it and know that the intestinal tract hasn't been broken open by automated cleaning equipment thus contaminating the carcass with fecal matter--the source for pathogens that make people sick.
But there is one thing about my Heritage turkeys that I do love (beside the taste). There's something ethereal about stepping outside on a crisp autumn morning and hearing turkeys. They chirp and tribble some while young, but the familar gobbling doesn't begin until mid-October when the first frost appears against the backdrop of flame-colored leaves signalling fall.
Yes folks, we survived yet another goat roast here on the farm. Over sixty of our family and friends turned out to wind down summer and share the fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products of our labors. That's Ian Dietrich and Mark Cochran slicing up the roasted goat. There was also BBQ pulled pork and smoked turkey for those not brave enough to partake in the most widely-consumed meat on this planet. Believe it or not, more people eat goat meat than beef, pork, fish, poultry and game.
This year we went island-style instead of Mexican. The goat was rubbed with Jamaican jerk spiced, stuffed with chunks of fresh pineapple, papaya, oranges and cilantro and roasted on a spit over hot coals while basted with crushe pineapple, orange juice, crushed garlic and olive oil. The result was stunning. Out of a 40-pound goat, we had a one-quart container of leftovers.
The assortment of goodies laid out on the buffet table was overwhelming, but my all-time favorite is the home-made ice cream. For the last few years, we always did fresh peach with goat's milk, but sadly this year our wonderful milk goat, Liberty passed away. Breaking from tradition, I procured a few gallons of very fresh, whole Jersey milk. First, I let the luscious thick cream float to the top and then skimmed it for later use. The 'skimmed' milk was mixed with fresh pastured poultry eggs and turned into a custard. When the time was right, I put the custard, fresh cream and a thick syrup made from reduced wild black rasperberry juice and sugar all into a White Mountain Ice Cream Maker and plugged it in. In 20 minutes, we were treated to the most incredible, berry-flavored, silky home made ice cream I've ever done. I made sure everyone got a scoop, but I got my favorite part--to lick off the beaters!
As requested by several folks, here is the ice cream recipe.
Wild Black Raspberry Ice Cream
1/2 gallon whole milk (use creamline if you can get it) 1 pint fresh cream 4 large fresh eggs 1/2 vanilla bean, scraped 2 cups raw sugar 1 pound black raspberries
Custard Beat 1 cup milk and eggs on high until fully mixed and frothy. Put into a heavy-bottomed pot with the remaining milk, 1 cup sugar and vanilla bean scrapings. Slowing bring to a light boil while whisking constantly. Cook 3-5 minutes until it starts to thicken. Remove from heat and continue to stir for 3-5 minutes. Let cool further, transfer to container and refridgerate.
Berry Syrup Puree berries in a food processor until mushy. Drain in cheese cloth so there is only juice--no seeds. Squeeze as much juice as possible and discard solids. Tranfer juice to sauce pan and reduce by 1/3. Add sugar, bring to a boil for 2-3 minutes. Cool and refridgerate.
Making the Ice Cream In a six-quart ice cream maker, put in custard, berry syrup and cream and make according to manufacturers' instructions.
Ok, so I rarely post. Think of it as a mechanic whose car needs fixed, a plumber with a stopped up toilet, a seamstress with hems too long, a hair stylist who needs her roots covered....you get the picture. But here I sit with Ernesto bearing down on us, a chicken in the oven, okra waiting to be fried and me killing time until Jess gets home from work. Ralph is happy on the couch with all the pets camped out on top of him.
As the rain finally arrives after a most dry summer, I thought I'd share the latest of farm gadgets (pardon the lack of pictures). After five years, we finally had rain gutters installed on the barn. Not wanting to squander all that wonderful rain we had been dancing for, we plumbed the downspouts into a stock tank to capture the runoff. Our 100-gallon Rubbermaid said idle for several weeks until we were blessed with 3/10th of an inch of rain last week. Starting out dry, the tank was millimeters from overflowing when the rain stopped. So we can officially say that 3/10" rain on half our barn roof yields 100 gallons.
Recently I was awarded a Project Grass Grant to increase the fencing on my farm for rotational grazing and the big question was how I was going to provide water to my stock. So I put Ralph to work with his creative ways. For those of you who remember the stories of the fish boxes, they are having yet another iteration. He plumbed the 100-gallon tank at the barn with a ball-valve leading into a collapsable irrigation pipe (which he had to encase in PVC & drainage pipe to keep the more gregarious critters from playing with it) and down over the hill (gravity feed) into the famous fish box. If you've ever watched any of the newer Star Trek series, you'll recognize them as a staples of the cargo decks. They are 300-gallon poly-boxes that can be picked up with a fork-lift and they have flat lids that snap on so they can be stacked.
This particular fish box had functioned as our quasi-hot tub for many years out west (and for a while here) before being plumbed up for a water storage tank.
We've had about a half inch so far and the system is working well. Water falls from the sky, hits the barn roof, is gathered by the gutter and directed downspout to the 100 gallon tank. When it reaches capacity, water then flows through the irrigation pipe approximately 300 feet down hill to the fish box tank where it has a hose fitting to supply water to assorted water barrels for the goaty girls.
And when Mother Nature doesn't deliver, there is always the well.
Last week when I was driving back from Penn State with a fellow farming friend who owns a dairy, I asked about getting a bull calf to raise up as a beef steer.
"Oh please! How many do you want? I'm overrun with bull calves right now," she said.
The possibility of plural sent warning bells since the only time we acquire more than two of anything at a single time on the farm is with fowl.
With that thought passing through my mind I replied, "One or two would be fine."
"How about three," she countered.
"Sure. I'll pick them up on Saturday." What had I gotten myself into?
Saturday rolled around and when I went to pick up the calves, there was Mel's husband with halters on FOUR calves.
"Four calves?" I asked.
"Mel said you were to get four," he replied. Looking over at her calf hutches, I saw why. There was no room left at the inn and some pens were doubled up with smaller calves.
So home I went with four bull calves.
Now many people who raise animals for meat don't name them, but my philosophy has always been to know the name of everything in my freezer. I know where it came from, how it was raised, how it was slaughtered and that it hasn't been pumped full of antibiotics, synthetic estrogen (growth hormones) and carbon monoxide to keep it looking fresh well after it has rotted.
Meet Pinky, Blacky (the colors of their tongues), Blondy and Dameon (he was born on 6-6-06).
Oh sure, feeding cute calves with a bottle...right? I DARE anyone to walk into a group of hungry calves with one bottle. They may be babies, but they are 100 pound babies with these tiny nubs growing out of their skulls that leave colorful bruises on your legs when they butt you with their heads (common action used to massage the cow's udder to stimulate milk let down). They may only have teeth on their bottom jaw, but they will still take the skin off your knuckles when they try to suck on your fingers thinking they're going to get something. And if you're not paying attention and your clothing gets chewed on (they have teeth in the back) it can be literally shredded in a matter of minutes.
So the next step was to put together something called a "mommy bucket". Two buckets with two teats each for four calves worked like a charm.
I recently wrote a story for New Farm about turning a junk farm into a functioning sustainable enterprise. When the editor asked me to talk about the financial costs, it got me thinking more about the savings we've done by salvaging, recycling and trading in order to get where we are.
Yesterday, I took this picture of Ralph moving a portable goat shed. As I looked closely at it, it spoke the world as to how people can effectively farm without spending a fortune.
This picture represents a savings of approximately $34,000. Yes, that's right...thirty-four thousand dollars. This is the list of all the items in that picture that only cost us our time.
68 fence posts removed from a neighbor's property who no longer wanted fencing. We knew the fence had been installed less than five years prior by the previous owner. The posts are 6" treated which cost approximately $8.50 each new.
The portable shelter is made out of a shipping crate for a large network attached storage device that was delivered to the lab were I used to work. The guys were going to dismantle it until I had them load it in the back of my truck. The crate made two sheds. The sheds are covered with aluminum from an above-ground pool that has a fake wood graphic. Ralph picked it up along side the road during large trash item clean-up week. The skids are from landscaping timbers my uncle was hauling to the dump. He just happened to stop by to say hello before going. Needless to say, his load was significantly lightened. New Port-a-Huts with the same space are $475 each. In addition to being portable, our huts can be set face-to-face 31 inches apart and then a rubber roof (scrap from our neighbor's roofing business) covered garage door (also salvaged from a neighbor's remodel) can be set over the span creating an even larger hut.
The pure-bred Boer buck that has bred 21 of my does was leased in trade for my work for the owner to create a 36-page catalog for their production pen sale. If I were to purchase a buck of this quality, I'd spend a minimum of $2,500.
And for the biggest savings of all...the truck. Yes, that truck was free! I have the exact same year and body-style truck in a diesel version so when a former co-worker of mine was moving out-of-state and wanted to get rid of his old truck, he offered to give it to me for parts. It ran rough and had over 250,000 miles on the engine, but lots of the parts were still good. We drove it home and after $78 in parts, the truck ran fine. That was nearly three years ago and we've put less than $100 in it since. Even the tool box in the bed was free. Granted, it took some sanding and painting to make it look better, but both gull-wing doors work fine and it doesn't leak. A new Chevy today would be around $30,000.
As you can see, there is a significant savings to be had by not being afraid to do a little dumpster-diving, spending time removing something useful someone else doesn't want and trading your non-farm expertise for goods & services.
Be creative! We salvaged an entire farm! This place was a dump when we first arrived in 2000. I could add even more ideas--kidding pens from old doors (they even match!), shelters from silo covers on pallets. Look around...there is lots of life left in what others call "junk". Ralph built a cold frame out of another neighbor's garage doors. It's the middle of February and we are still eating fresh salad!
It's taken a lot of sweat, but we're meeting our goals. Yes, I don't have all the latest and greatest status-symbol items. But I also don't have any consumer debt or a vehicle payment. So for anyone who says they can't afford to farm, I say HOGWASH!
Everyone has been after me to keep up with my farm blog, but writing for a living....well, you know it's like a plumber with leaky pipes and a mechanic whose car always needs fixing. But the babies are coming daily so I thought I'd post a little something every day during kidding season.
Kidding season officially started last Friday with a set of twins born to a purebred Boer doe--Clara. She's a lousy mother...never even looked back at her kids. Left them there on their own. I had to halter her to nurse.
Two days later, we had another terrible mother--Ashley--with twin bucks. Jessica joked that we should name one of them "Karen" (after her biological mother), but then changed her mind deciding to save that name for a future market hog.
Nestle also kidded that evening, however, she was a wonderful mother to her single doe.
The next day held our first casualty. Pumpkin Pie had trouble kidding and drug her partially born baby around essentially killing it before it was born. In an attempt to salvage her colostrum (first milk, for you non-farming folk), I haltered her and worked at grafting one of Ashley's kids on to her.
Teacup, also a maiden doe, popped on the 13th with a big buck.
February 14th brought us two maiden does each kidding large singles. Appropriately, the girl was named Valentine and the boy is Cupid. Cupid is a toad and will most likely be one of Jessica's 4-H projects (that's Cupid and his mother, Oreo).
So far, all of the kids have been white with brown heads....traditional Boer, regardless of their percentages. But this afternoon Anabelle graced us with our first two paint kids. The doe has a dark brown body with two white legs on the left side. Maybe I'll name her Lefty. The second kid born was a traditional colored buck and a few minutes ago she surprised us with a triplet buck all dark brow with a lightening bolt down his ribs on either side...flashy little devil!
It's hard to believe twenty-oh-six is already here--seems like only yesterday that we were loading up the rig and heading east (in 2000). We've had Jessica back in our lives for just over a year now, too. The goat herd is growing, we've added a calf, (yes, Tibet is still here, but she's camera shy) and we've added another pasture. As a resolution, I'm going to try to keep the farm's blog better updated. There is lots coming up...PA State Farm Show, Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture's annual Farming for the Future Conference, kidding season, new laying hens and a fresh batch of turkeys. Stay tuned.
Sandra is a witty writer, farmer and damn good cook who has been slicing her finger open on the cutting edge of the sustainable agriculture and local foods movements for the last twenty five years. Her books, How to Sell At Farmers Market and How To Kiss A Chicken On The Lips will be published in Spring 2013.