Sunday, December 27, 2009

Cloudy, 8 degrees

We weathered the second big storm of the year just fine, though it threatened holiday travel across the midwest with freezing rain, the most treacherous of weather. It rained here for about two days straight it seemed, but I'm happy that we escaped the 20 inches of snow a couple hundred miles to our west.

Once the rain stopped, the temps dropped, turning the rain and slush into a nice hard glaze. Our driveway now has an underlayment of ice under a coating of thin, dry snow. Still, it could have been worse, so I'm not complaining.

That is a picture of a robins' nest above. It reminded me that last week I heard and saw a robin in the top of my black walnut tree at the end of the driveway! Now that is one procrastinating bird! I tend to allow myself to forego filling my bird feeders in the lush months, but I am compelled to do it during this type of weather. I know studies have shown that wild birds do not become dependent on feeders, but I fugure it can't hurt to offer them some extra protein and carbs when it is so cold and windy out, with not much to eat out there, at least for some species. Besides, it does provide us with an interesting and flashy show outside. We get lots of woodpeckers, like downy, hairy, flickers and nuthatches. I'm waiting to see a red-headed woodpecker here. Of course we also get the sparrows and finches, cardinals, doves, blue jays, etc. We'd probably get more if I put out some water for them, but I can't justify adding to our already high electric bill. Add to that that Dottie would surely find it a great place to stalk birds. And well, you know, maybe some day if I get my compost pile heater going, I can place a water dish on top for the wild birds. This reminds me - I forgot to ask for a bluebird house for Chirstmas. I hope to get some of those up early this Spring. I've heard bluebirds around the farm, and I just love seeing them and listening to their beautiful song. I don't know for sure, but I think they are making a pretty good comeback, another success story of humans waking up and learning what we should and shouldn't do if we want to preserve nature's most beautiful gems.
I hope to get a permanent pasture going on our land this year, and that attracts grassland birds such as meadowlarks and bluebirds, etc. This is a group of birds that has been hit very hard by development and modern agriculture practices, so we graziers try to encourage and provide nesting havitat for these important insectivores.

It's also satisfying to provide our backyard birds with suet and lard from our own animals.
Speaking of lard, we got ours back with our butchered hog this year, it comes in a big bag in chunks. We will render it by putting it in a crockpot and letting it melt down and drawing off pure, white lard with which I hope to encourage Karen to make delicate pie crusts ;) I bet that won't take much!

One of these days I will explain the benefits of good fat vs. that of bad fat, and why our animals are full of the good stuff. I think many people are catching on to this, still I know it's been so ingrained in our society for so long, to avoid animal fats because they are unhealthy, that it's still common to run into people who don't believe us. Like trying to convince people that pork really doesn't need to be cooked until it's well-done! It doesn't, and you'll be glad you didn't!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Happpy Solstice!

Cloudy, 28 degrees, snowing
We've made it to the darkest part of the year. The sun only shines here for about 9 hours per day (when it isn't obscured by clouds, of course). It's a good time to take stock, think back on accomplishments, look forward to goals, and generally get our houses in order while we have indoor time. When the sun has begun her swing closer to us and her warming rays stir growth again, there is no such time for winnowing through piles of old magazines and re-arranging kitchen drawer contents. That is the time for creating these piles in the first place while we head back out the door toward the field or barn or garden.

Last night we marked the long darkness by eating our dinner by candle light. Karen told her traditional story about the two sisters who visit Old Mother Winter, and we talked about what we hope to do in the next year, before the next long dark falls again. Then we made popcorn balls for Birk's school holiday party the next day ;-)

Tonight we will celebrate the return of the light by going to a friends' house for a Solstice celebration in town. There will be a fire, and I've been appointed Fire Marshall. What that means, basically, is that I have firewood and am willing to bring it, lol. It seems like a fun thing to look forward to, and I'm sure all the kids will be having fun.

We do have another nasty storm looming, and it threatens to snarl up thousands, if not millions of people's Christmas travel plans. The Midwest is bracing for a snow/rain/ice event that is due to go for at least 48 hours and straddling both sides of Christmas Eve, so just about everyone I know is nervously watching the ever-changing forecast to see if they can make it a Merry Christmas with loved ones. Oy.

We are getting snow right now, but nothing major. They forecast an inch, I'd say we're easily over 2.5 at the moment, and it's still coming down. Light fluffy stuff. I've got the tractor plugged in so I can clear this out, and I'll try to keep the driveway cleared as best I can over the upcoming few days. It doesn't sound like it's gonna be pretty. Well, maybe it WILL be pretty, but you know what I mean.

The other day I was walking past my big compost pile made of what's left of last years' bedding from pigs in the barn, and this years' broilers. I noticed how the snow was all melted from the top. Of course, I've always known compost piles heat up. But I was in the process of getting the chickens some un-frozen water, and I suddenly (finally??) went "HEY! There's HEAT in there! FREE, untapped heat! And not only that, but all I had to do to generate that heat was to pile a bunch of sh$t up in a mound!" and my mind started spinning like a teenager on a school parking lot. So my latest Big Thought is how can I use compost pile heat to keep my water lines unfrozen in the dead of winter? Could I use it to make hot water? Could I use it to heat a barn? If I could heat a barn with it, what about being able to heat the house with it?? I've just started doing a little research on the topic, luckily there are folks out there who have had this thought too, and they are smarter than me, and they've been experimenting. There are some really cool ideas out there.

A lot of folks in town simply might not have access to the amounts of materials necessary for a large enough compost pile, but I do. Now that's got me thinking more about deep-bedded over-wintering systems inside barns for livestock such as pigs and cattle.
I wonder if someday, small farms could accept yard waste from suburban neighbors and sell them back electricity made from methane made from thecompost heaps? And then when the compost heap is done, the end result is the best fertilizer there is, and goes right back into the soil and actually helps grow more food and build the soil, rather than depleting anything. Pretty Cool, hey? It's so perfect - it makes me look over my shoulder to watch out for Big Oil coming down on it. You watch. I bet they lobby for control of these types of things. Can't have folks making their own energy at home in a closed-loop system, can we? Bad for profits.
Anyway, here's a link to a cool site that includes all sorts of renewable fuel types and sources:

Happy Solstice to everyone from us at Prairie Fire Farm!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Clear and Cold, 3 degrees

Got the chains on the other night. Came home from work, and I knew the forecast was calling for a real plunge in temps. Since I needed to move and drive the tractor to get the chains on, I wanted to get them on before the big chill got here and brought more snow with it. I didn't want to have to be trying to start a diesel and put chains on in below-zero temps. Looks like we are stuck with these frigid temps for a good while, so I needed to get this done.

So after work I got the grill and the pre-heater going, and decided to keep myself busy while waiting for her to warm up by installing a light timer over the chickens. Well, I got interrupted by a UPS guy who was lost, a timer that was broken, and a partner shouting from the door of the house that I needed to come in and take the bread out of the oven and feed the baby as she was on her way to yoga.

Once Birk was fed and the bread was baked, I could turn my attention back to tractor maintenence. I took the tarp off and climbed up into the seat. I was so very pleased when she turned right over and fired up on the first crank :) The only people who will understand the happiness at such a moment are others who rely on tractor power to plow, lift, drag, whatever has got to get done, and if the tractor don't start, it ain't getting done.

I lined up the first chain on the ground next to the open garage door, as it was now well after dark, and I needed the light from the garage to see what I was doing. I did one side at a time. Laid out the chain, backed over it half way, then got off and basically pulled up each side. This wasn't too easy, since the chain was so heavy and it was already pretty tight, so I basically had to inch it up over each lug on the tire. When I got them hooked on, I put bungees on the sides, across the tire hub like a criss-cross to keep them tightened. I drove a bit with the chains on, letting them settle in and then got off again and tightened them up about another inch or so. I was able to easily plow areas that were giving me fits the other day, so the chains are working and were obviously a good investment.

These will stay on the tractor until Spring. If I need to deal with mud, they will help them as well. I'm glad I have them - now I'm ready if we get another really big snow.

The next night we put up the christmas tree. It was so sweet pulling out the ornaments and talking about each one, listening to Birk saying this is her most favorite thing of all. It was a very sweet family moment. Aw.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Of Chains And Cheese Spread

This is Karen way up in the tractor bucket a couple weeks ago, putting up the lights farm style.

Cloudy, 30 degrees
Busy weekend. I did manage to find some chains for the tractor. Let me just point out that chains are shockingly expensive, especially for something so low-tech and simple. First, of course, you have to find th right size for your tires. When I googled some sites looking for a set for my tractor, I had to take a breath when I saw that they retailed for anywhere from $300 to $800!! Yes, Eight Hundred Dollars. For CHAINS! And then shipping is another 60 bucks! Wow! I simply could not accept this reality, and my penchant for research and dialing kicked in. I must have called 6 different places, mostly local, hoping to at least save something on shipping. Karen likes to make fun of my research-y-ness. Well, guess what? On about the 5th call to a tractor store (i.e. farm implement retailer and service center), I talked to a guy named Ron. He said he needed to check in the back. After about an hour, he called me back and said he found a used set of chains the exact size for my lil' red tractor, and they were $195 for the set! Wahoo, I just saved at least $150 bucks!
I drove up and it turned out Ron was one of the owners. We went out back to a distant shed in the back, and these chains were in a pile way in the back. I don't even know how he knew they were there! And oh my lord, but they are HEAVY! No wonder shipping is so high on these things. They must weigh 70 lbs. a piece. When I got back inside to pay for them, Ron came back in, asked if I liked calendars or cheese...I shrugged, and said of course. Not thinking I had heard him quite right, I wrote out my check. It is of course calendar season, and don't you just love those free ones you get from dealers? I have lots of shed walls and other spaces to hang feed mill/tractor/vet clinic calendars. Then Ron came back to the counter with a Case/IH Calendar and a tub of nice cheese spread :) Said Happy Holidays. I love Wisconsin.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Winter storm. 28 degrees, wind and snow.

Winter slammed into us last night and today. A huge low pressure system brought lots of wet snow and high winds. We woke up this morning to a winter wonderland out there. It's pretty, and we've only lost a few tree limbs. Our sweet cherry tree was bent to the ground. Birk and I both had a snow day today, so we've been annoying Karen all day ;)

This would be the first real test of the tractor for winter use. I was very apprehensive about just getting it started. This is my first diesel, and I know they are notoriously fussy about getting cold. Much to my disappointment, I could not get the tractor into the garage. It is just a little too tall, a little too wide. I thought about cutting down the exhaust stack, but then I thought about what the inside of our garage would smell like and look like after starting up a belching diesel tractor in there a dozen times. So I fell back on tarping the tractor real good, and hoping that plugging the pre-heater in would be enough. Someday, maybe we'll actually build a barn that can fit everything in it.

Knowing the storm was coming in, I plugged in that pre-heater last night. Today, I took my shallow electric grill and placed it under the chassis for about an hour as well. I went back to shoveling the backbreaking snow, eyeballing my tarped, snow- covered tractor and bit my lip. Finally I decided it was time, and I had to work quite a bit to get the tarp off since there was over a foot of heavy wet snow on top of it. Once I got that cleared off, it only took a few tries, each time the engine seemed to turn a little easier as the fuel & air warmed. And then she chugged alive, and my spirit lifted and I did a little victory dance in my head.

Plowing the snow was a bit of an adventure. Our driveway is mostly on a hill. I did manage to clear off the lower part, and a spot across from the garage. We must have gotten 15 inches of snow, and it drifted in spots. I had to make several trips across the road to dump it in the ditch. I did manage to get bogged down and stuck on an incline between the big barn and the pump house. Wound up chewing up the driveway a bit, and there is still a lot of snow up there, but after a while, the snow got so slick my wheels were just spinning and I couldn't safely maneuver between vehicles and buildings, etc. I definitely need chains! We still have some spots that could use a more thorough plowing, so we called Curt and asked him to come and do a cleanup for us. Overall however I am very pleased with what I was able to get done considering this is a crazy amount of wet, slippery snow to deal with. I'll try to find some chains for the rear tires, and I'll continue my search for a rear blade, which will be a little easier to push snow with. Ideally, I'd love a big snowblower on the 3 point hitch, but those are all over a thousand dollars that I've seen! I wish I were more adept and skilled at mechanics and fabrication, because I'd also love to get a rotovator for th 3 pt. Though I realize they are two different tools, and they do different jobs, have different blades, etc., they are very similar in design, and I bet some enterprising individuals out there have figured out a way to make an implement that can be switched from one to the other, for less than the cost of both.

While I was busy plowing and shovelling, Karen and Birk made a snow fort in the back yard as the dogs helped. Dottie somehow managed to instantly collect the hugest snowballs on her fur I have ever seen on a dog! The size of softballs! They leave big puddles on the floor when she comes in the house.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Look What I brought Home

Well, this little guy was found running down the road next to a golf course. Being the resident pig expert, I was tapped to take him home a foster him until it could be determined he was heatlhy, eating, drinking, etc., and ready for adoption. He is adorable and tiny - weighs all of 6 pounds. He is a baby pot bellied pig I've nicknamed Grunt. I'll let Karen tell more about little Grunt, as she has lots of adorable pictures to share. But I will tell this one tidbit- he does need to be kept warm, and he shivers if he gets chilly. Karen actually did in fact say "Maybe we should let him sleep in the bed tonight"
To which I replied "It has hooves! I draw the line at hoofstock in the bed!"

snow and ice

Cloudy, 32 degrees, 2 inches snow

Well, we enjoyed a long Fall. Though it snowed twice in october, it didn't snow at all in November, making deer hunters grumpy, but farmers and holiday travelers happy. Probably just about everyone else, too. It was a good thing we had a mild and fairly dry november for the farmers who had corn or soybeans to harvest. There was still a lot of corn standing in the fields a week or two ago. It's that time of year when we need to be extra cautious on the roads - not only are the deer out, but our roads are frequented by huge tractors, combines, and grain bins being rolled and bounced along at a 15 mph clip. Sometimes people get impatient and cause accidents.

It looks like most of the harvest is in, just in time for the first snowfall. Yesterday when I left for work it was dry and mild out. During the day the snow started coming down, and by evening commute time we had about two inches, snarling traffic on all roads and causing wipeouts, crashes, and slide-offs everywhere. Even Wisconsin drivers forget how to drive in snow. It took an extra hour and a half to get home last night. In a short while, this kind of snow event will barely cause anyone to notice. Can't wait for that to happen!

We picked up our pork at the butcher shop last week! Always a satisfying feeling, the culmination of a big project and lots of work and passion on our part. And it's tasty! Karen and I had a big day going all over hill and dale, to Lake Geneva and back to Stoughton to make a drop off at the store selling our meat, then on to Madison to the cold storage warehouse. We needed extra storage space for some pork that needs to be shipped to the east coast as well as for our own pork - we simply don't have the room-we have a full upright and a chest freezer filled with our own meats (50 chickens take up a lot of room!). Then we made a stop at a dry ice place, and then on to the UPS store to drop off some pork going to Iowa. Temps. and arrival dates were more forgiving to IA, so that order could go right out. (I have gotten feedack and it has arrived safe and frozen solid). I took some pictures of the loading up process to give an idea of the size of boxes, etc. The product in the white cooler is one side of pork all cut into retail cuts for a store. This does not include a lot of raosts and whole hams, so you can see how easily a whole side can be stored when it's processed this way. BTW, that is a big cooler, about 120 qt, I believe, and it was only about half full.

Noe the dry ice thing is an interesting issue. Last year, I spoke to a UPS Store owner in Lake Geneva, where we were shipping our meats from at that time. She said no way, no how, no dry ice, EVER. She underlined it by saying if I put any dry ice in a package, and it was discovered, she would be fined $15,000. Okay, then.
This year, I called and spoke to a guy who owned such a store closer to the place where we are storing the frozen meat until the weather gets colder. He said "Oh, yah, sure, you can use lots of dry ice. Up to 5 lbs. per pkg, no problem" Wow...... okay. To add confusion, I wound up sending the Iowa parcel from a third UPS Store, and they said "You can use dry ice, but only up to 2 lbs."
I have a saying, "It all depends on who you get", and it certainly applies here, doesn't it?