Thursday, March 19, 2009

An Indiana Cattle Drive

Finally, I have a chance to write this.

Last Saturday, my kids and I went and had a singularly iconic experience. Iconic because it was so 'American' at its roots. We participated in a real live cattle drive.

My friend, Alan Yegerlehner and his family, own a dairy near Clay City, Indiana. Alan's ancestors were from Switzerland where the name is spelled with a 'J', not a 'Y'. He's been to the old country and visited distant relatives. Here's a shot of Alan telling us cowboys and cowgirls exactly what we'll be doing.

But before I get into the actual cattle drive, let me tell you about his farming methods. It's worth the read.

The Swiss Connection Farm is a totally grass fed farm. Alan currently has about 140 head of cattle. That includes 12 herd bulls, a bunch of steers being raised for grass-fed beef, some young heifers, and of course, the currently very pregnant milk cows. Alan believes in efficiency, and he's discovered that the best way to do that is to follow the lead of nature. First, the real food of cattle is grass, not grain. So that's what he feeds them. ACRES of it. He and his daughter rotate the cows through a number of pastures, giving them fresh grass two or three times a day. It's very management intensive.

As you may have guessed, Alan's farming methods are very divergent from mainstream dairy farms. But it gets better... The cows are milked one time a day, around 8:00 in the morning (no 6:30 milking for Alan!). Neither are they given hormones or antibiotics (they don't need them). Alan's not going for the most milk output he can get from the cows. No, he wants good, wholesome milk, without all the 'additives'. In order to get that, though, you sacrifice on volume.

Let's talk calves for a moment. On mainstream dairy farms cows have their calves and the calves are taken from the moms about as soon as they hit the ground. Then they're fed milk replacer until they're weaned. Not the Swiss Connection. Calves are born in the pasture, and that's where they stay. They nurse from their mothers until they are naturally weaned and eating grass. A cow will produce enough milk to meet demand, so there's enough for the calf and for Alan. The cows at the farm are about to freshen (give birth) here in the next month or so. Yes, all of them in the same couple of weeks. Alan says it's a very busy time with little rest, but it's over soon. Why would he want all of his cows to freshen at the same time? Convenience. First, you have to quit milking a cow several weeks before she calves so she can dry off and save energy for calving. Some farms only give the poor girl a couple of weeks. But doing it this way, all of them freshening at once, gives Alan a good initial start to a milking season, and a definite end. Alan dries his cows off the end of December. He quits milking just after Christmas and doesn't milk again until they freshen in the spring. No early, cold winter morning milkings! I love it! Furthermore, a cow that's being milked through the winter requires more feed to stay warm and produce milk. Not milking means he spends less on hay.

Ok, so they all freshen at the same time, which means they all come in heat about the same time too. Most farmers don't keep a herd bull anymore. First, any bull is a potentially dangerous bull. But for some reason, dairy bulls are especially so... the Jersey being one of the worst! Most farmers rely on artificial insemination to impregnate the cows. And when you only have one or two cows at a time coming into heat, that might be ok. But not when you have a whole herd of 80 or more cows! So long about June, Alan runs his 12 bulls in with the cows for a month or so. It's rare, but sometimes a cow won't be settled (get pregnant) after a month-long visit from the boys. Weird, huh? It's really a great process.

Alan says he's breeding from a smaller, more compact cow that will produce well and require less feed. Some of the young heifers, especially, are quite small. It's also a very mixed herd. He has Dutch Belted, Jersey, Holstien, Milking Shorthorn, all mixed together. It's very colorful.

The Swiss Connection is a true dairy. Alan and his family make butter, cheese (mmmmm goood!), and ice cream. All from unpasteurized milk. What RAW MILK! Yes. I've written about it before. But since it's illegal to sell milk and butter made with raw milk, he has to put a 'pet food' label on it stating that it's not for human consumption. What the purchaser does with it when they get it home is up to them. But I don't think I'd be feeding a $6 gallon of milk to my dog, if you know what I mean. Alan also sells grass-fed beef, and raises a few whey-fed, pastured pigs for pork. He's been written about in news papers and web articles numerous times. He's been to numerous conferences around the country as a speaker on grass-fed management practices.

So this cattle drive... (if you've read this far, I commend you!) Since Alan doesn't milk in the winter, he wants to move the cows to give the summer pastures a break. He owns pasture three miles down the road from the barn. So late December, he gathers a bunch of folks to help him, and they move the cows to the winter pasture. There are reasons for this, mostly to due with trying to keep the cows from bloating on fresh green spring grass, but I won't go into that here. The cows are rotated through the winter pasture as well as given hay. There are no barns or sheds. There are trees for a windbreak, but the cows grow long, shaggy coats and do quite well in the winter.

Spring is coming. The cows will freshen soon. They need to be closer to the barn for milking. So it's time to move them back down the road. About 60 or so people showed up at 10:30 and loaded onto a hay wagon. After a hayride down the road to where the cows were, we all took places on either side of the road. Two electric wires were connected to the tractor and wagon at the front of the parade. The wires were 'cold' of course, but the cows didn't know that. We all took the wire in hand about waist high. Then the cows were turned out and were driven down to the road. They were essentially corralled between two wires and a bunch of people. Then the tractor started to move. As we went along, the parade stretched out quite a way down the road, with the steers and young heifers pushing and shoving in the front, and the older cows bringing up the rear. And let me tell you, it wasn't a leisurely stroll. We clipped along at 4 or 5 mph. Now for me, that was good exercise, but for the kids... well, I had to pick Grant up and run him to the front of the line and literally throw him on the wagon. Hey, 120 cows don't start and stop on a dime. I just made Anna and Eric sweat it out.

About four steers managed to break out of our cordon, but they were more worried about being left behind than making an escape, and followed us, eventually rejoining the herd. After the long walk, the Yegerlehner's fed us on Knackwurst, chili, veggies, cheese, and ice cream. It was a really good time, and a beautiful sunny day to boot. Go visit The Swiss Connection's website and check out what they've got going on.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A new toy

Well, ok. Some folks would certainly not get excited about this, but I am excited. I received a $50 check from our CSA (consumer supported agriculture) group as a 'thank you' for hosting a drop site last year where people could pick up their produce. That check sat around and sat around. Finally, it dawned on me what to do with it.

I went to Rural King yesterday with the kids because it's chick days. We wanted to see all the cute little diddles (as my Mamaw used to call them), even if we couldn't buy any of them. Whilst I was there, I made a purchase:

THAT is a 26 quart, PRESTO pressure canner. I had to add some of my own money to pay for it, but I think it's money well spent.

Now all I have to do is grow something to preserve so I can use it. No fear though, I'm planning on planting a mess of beans, and hopefully I'll be making pasta sauce.

It says it hold 7 quart jars, 20 pint jars, or 24 half-pint jars. How cool is this?

It even has a safety valve that won't allow the pressure to build up if the lid isn't on right and sealed, so my wife won't have to worry about me blowing up the house! Yes, I do feel it in my soul... I HAVE arrived ;o)

Friday, March 6, 2009

Just life

Well, it's not a pretty picture, but it's a sign of better days to come. Yesterday was the first day I've hung clothes on the line since last fall. What a relief. There really is something therapeutic about it for me.

It was very windy yesterday too. I have some support posts I use to prop the lines up, but they wouldn't stay put because the wind kept blowing them down. Regardless of wind, I'll take 64 degrees in early March. I'm not holding my breath though. I anticipate a return of some cooler air as I look at the forecast.

Today, there are Robins bobbing around the yard and flitting from tree to tree. A very welcome sight indeed.

Anna is moving from inside to outside as she works on her schoolwork. I'm making final decisions on what I'll plant in my garden this year and am gearing up to order some seeds (I hope I'm not too late!) I think I'll be ordering from Seed Savers Exchange. It's an organization that works to preserve genetic diversity in agriculture. They do some amazing work. Go check them out here. I promise, they have more varieties of tomato than you ever thought existed!

On Saturday the 14th of March (next week), the kids and I are going to go help out with a cattle drive! Yep, who'd have guessed that such a thing happened in Indiana? My friend, Alan, the dairy farmer, is moving his herd from winter pasture, back to summer pasture nearer the barn. He'll have about 50 to 60 people there to help move his herd of around 170 animals down three miles of country road. Alan and his family provide lunch afterward. Should be fun. I'll be sure to post some pics for you. I, of course, CAN'T WAIT!

What's for lunch, you ask? Mac n' Cheese. From the Gooseberry Patch cookbook, "Comfort Foods".

8 oz. of cooked elbow macaroni

3 T. melted butter

Salt/pepper to taste

8 oz. sharp cheddar

3 cups (two cans) evaporated milk

Put macaroni in a greased dish (I use a glass loaf pan), sprinkle with salt and pepper. Pour melted butter over. Top with shredded cheese. Then pour evaporated milk on top of all of it. Bake at 350 for one hour. Be sure to use evaporated milk and not condensed milk like I did once. Ooops. It was edible, just a little on the sweet side. Ok, it was gross. It bakes up and browns beautifully. There are a couple of Mac n' Cheese recipes in that particular book, but I like this one best.

I've been using up a lot of stuff in the cabinets and fridge this week. It's good to use up what you have and be creative. Saves money too.

Does this embarrass you?

Someone in one of the groups I belong to on Ravelry (knitters website) posted this link.

Take a minute or two to read this news article. It's about the recent visit of England's Prime Minister Brown to the White House and the gift exchange that took place.

Just a word though... Our illustrious President's gift choice may make you want to crawl under a rock and hide from embarrassment. I know I did.

Obama's Gift to Brown

Yet another reason he's not my choice. And that's all I'll say about that.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

It's Maple Sugarin' Time!

This past Saturday, our "Keepers of the Faith" homeschool group visited the home of one of our members. They live in a rural area surrounded by woods, with quite a few sugar maples. Just perfect for making some homemade maple syrup.

So Brad, the owner, and another homeschool dad who helps him, took us through the woods. Here you see my two sons, or the back of them anyway, as Eric drills a hole for the spile, as it's called. Like his camo hat? I made that.

After that, a spile is driven into the hole, and the bucket is hung on it. In this picture, you can't really see it, but the sap is really dripping into the bucket from the spile. Warm days and cold nights really make the sap run. A lid is put on top of the bucket to keep rain/snow/bugs/debris out.

Each day the buckets are checked to gather sap. Sometimes you get lucky and there's ice on the top of the sap. That's pure water and you can throw that out without wasting any of the sugar. That also cuts down on your boiling time because you're getting rid of excess water. After the sap has been collected, it's all dumped into something like this to await the boiling process...

If you look, you can see the line where the sap is. That's about a 200 gallon container. There's about 100 gallons of sap in there. It takes approximately 40 to 50 gallons of water-clear sap to make one gallon of dark brown syrup.

From there, the sap is taken to a homemade boiler that Brad made. The largest part of the boiler is the firebox. There are baffles attached to the ceiling of the firebox which really gets the sap boiling. Above the box is the boiling pan. It's about 8 inches deep and covers the entire top of the firebox. Above that is the sap 'bucket' (for lack of a better word). Sap is poured into the sap bucket after being drawn off the holding tank. A copper pipe with a valve attached controls a constant, small flow of sap into the boiler pan. This is done to eliminate a quick cooling in the boiling pan by adding a large amount of cold sap all at once. A little at a time and it all stays hot and bubbly. Then the sap boils, and boils, and boils. It takes a lot of wood to do this.

After a long while, Brad draws the sap off the boiler pan, through a filter and into a turkey fryer. Yes a turkey fryer. You could use a stock pot or something, I'm sure, but he uses a turkey fryer. The fryer goes onto a propane burner where the sap is finished off and that last bit of moisture is steamed away. What's left is nothing but pure maple syrup. He offered four bottles for a fund raiser here recently. They brought $100.

Each family was sent home with a half-pint of the dark amber stuff. I had some on waffles this morning. If you've never had true maple syrup, you're in for a surprise when you try it. It's a little runnier than store bought syrup because there's no corn syrup added. It also tastes a little, ummm, woody maybe. But it's sweet. And there are no harmful additives or anything else. You should check the label on the bottle anytime you go to buy maple syrup. Unless it says 100% Maple Syrup, you may be getting something that's mostly corn syrup with a little maple thrown in for flavor. Also, real maple syrup can be pricey. Hey, it's only harvestable for a few weeks a year, and it takes a lot of time to produce. But wow is it worth it.