March winds are roaring, a warm sun is shining and the pastures are almost visibly trembling with the prospect of spring! Spring at Coulter Farms is calving season. Our Hereford beef cows and our Jersey dairy cows are not saying much, but if they could speak, they would be grumbling about being SO ready to get out of the barns, drop their 75 pound calves and go kick up their heels in the pastures. Frankly, the whole farm seems to leaning so hard into spring that it could almost tip over and fall on its metaphorical nose.
Baaa, Baaaah!!! The spring lambing season has started with a bang (more of a soft 'plop', actually ) at Coulter Farms. Monday morning we saw the first pair of lamb twins. By the end of the day, there were at least eight tiny, glowing white lambs. Tuesday brought another eight or ten and I haven't even gotten a count today (Wednesday) of how many lambs are frisking around in the fluffy straw. When it rains, it pours :)
We try to time our lambing season to start March 1st. That way, the lambs are mostly weaned and ready to devour lush Organic grass pasture by late April. Our 100 ewes do not always choose to cooperate with our carefully laid breeding plans, though. Sheep have a five month gestation period... but putting our two rams in with the ewes on October 1st usually gives us a rush of lambs in early March followed by a steady flow over the next two months.
We like the 'concept' of lambing outdoors on pasture... it seems like a good idea..... but it doesn't work in practice. Chilly spring rains and raw wind are a death sentence for a newborn, wet lamb. Lambs (especially triplets) only weigh a couple of pounds and are very vulnerable to wet and wind in their first few hours. A belly full of warm milk from momma and a dry fleece are all they need to survive and thrive. They do much better being born in dry 5 degree weather than on a wet 50 degree day.
Another 'nail in the coffin' of outdoor lambing is predators. Red tailed hawks and bald eagles are infamous for pecking out the eyes of newborn lambs and then waiting, patiently, for them to die. While foxes and coyotes are something we have to watch out for, we have a lot more trouble with feathered predators than furry ones. Anyway, we have decided that the benefits of lambing on a nice fluffy, warm, dry, composting bedding pack in our spacious, airy lambing shed far outweigh the costs and extra work of lambing indoors.
We had used a llama as a guard animal for many years. She did a good job of chasing predators (and, annoyingly, farmers) out of the pasture when there were baby lambs. However, she had a few exasperating quirks in her personality. She would lay her ears back, scream like a woman, and spit a nasty slime of rumen juice on anyone who dared to try to work with 'her' lambs. Another unhandy habit, which turned her maternal instinct into a curse rather than a blessing, was that she would woo newborn lambs away from their mothers by nuzzling, humming and calling to them. I wish I had a picture of the day we saw a lamb standing on his two hind legs, trying in vain to nurse from its 'llama mama' that not only had no milk, but was WAY too tall to be any help to the hapless lamb. We never could cajole that wayward lamb back to her mother, and ended up having to raise him on a bottle... :( ... Grrr. Anyway, when that llama went on to her reward, we chose to not replace her.
Raising sheep is a great 'fit' for our farm. Sheep are most happy browsing on broadleaf and stemmy weeds that the dairy and beef cattle will not eat. These weeds are mineral rich and highly nutritive, but are often bitter and full of tannins that the cattle would benefit from, but are too spoiled to eat. Anyway, with no herbicides on our Certified Organic farm, we rely, heavily, on the sheep to come through and clean up what the cattle are too finicky to eat. You will never find a weedy pasture after our sheep have been through it.
We like bringing our 100% Grassfed, Certified Organic Lamb meat to market, too, since it is such a rare thing. Sheep are very vulnerable to intestinal parasites, and receive a lot of toxic chemical wormers in a conventional system. Worming organically with things like diatomaceous earth, garlic and black walnut hull powder is a challenge, but we think it is worth it! Try 'googling' 'certified organic, 100% grassfed lamb' and you'll see that very few farms are raising lamb this way.
I was turned off by lamb as a boy. We would have it at Easter and I would have to make a 'soup' of mint jelly to choke down the fatty, strong tasting stuff. Our 100% Grassfed lamb is a totally different meat than 'grain fed'. It is our family's favorite meat. Try some at this week's drop or farm market!
Winter has finally arrived in Juniata County... at least according to the calendar. It might surprise you to know that this unseasonably warm weather is not always a blessing for our farm and animals. Warmer days and mildly frozen nights... as well as rain instead of snow... produce 'cold and flu' season for the animals. They do much better in good cold, dry or snowy weather. Drizzle in the 30's is far harder on the animals than zero degrees and sunshine...even when they are in barns.
We also face challenges with protecting our soil in warm winter weather. When the animals are outside on thawed ground, soil compaction and erosion rears its ugly head! So, whenever the ground is thawed and wet, we must put all 250 head of animals into the barns on Certified Organic bedding ($150/day plus labor for bedding... yikes!), until the ground freezes again. The animals and the farmer are much happier (and wealthier!) when cold weather settles in and everyone can enjoy nice, frozen ground. Believe it or not, warmish weather is a worse problem for us than cold and snow.... who would have thought?
A warm winter with minimal frost depth in the soil is a disappointment in another way, as well. Bitter cold weather serves as a 'miracle drug' to combat soil compaction by fluffing and heaving the soil as it freezes. Grass has a hard time thriving in the spring and summer in soil packed and firmed by animal and tractor traffic the previous growing season. A warm winter reduces our hay and pasture productivity... even the lowly earthworms, not to mention the grass and clover roots, appreciate the light, fluffy soil that a cold winter restores, .
The final 'grumble' we would have about a warm winter is that our 2, 4 and 6 year old girls can't get out and 'run off their wiggles' by sled-riding and bombarding each other with snowballs. The ice rink has only yielded one good night of skating, so far... which leaves the 14, 17, 19 and 21 year old hockey players with excess 'wiggles', too. Rebecca finds a house full of 7 children with lots of unchanneled energy to be a 'sore trial' by February. Oh well, spring is just around the corner!
So, we have quite a laundry list of challenges with 'unseasonably warm' winters. The sad part is that if February turns cold, you'll all have to put up with the laundry list of difficulties that COLD winters bring... :) All of that being said... nothing beats long, quiet winter evenings enjoying some family time while soaking up toasty warm wood-heat in the house... whether it's cold and dry OR warm and wet outdoors... we are Blessed!
While there are thousands of types of cheese, the process for making them is very similar. Time, temperature, and culture...as well as the aging process, account for the differences in flavor and texture. The most important thing is to start with good milk.... here is Jared with 400 gallons of our 100% Grassfed, Certified Organic milk in our raw milk cheese vat. Of our approximately 20 types of cheese, this batch will be Hot Pepper Jack. Yummy, one of our favoritest!
Raw milk is very slowly stirred, and gently heated by water piped in from our outdoor wood furnace. Flavor molecules in milk are very complex and fragile, and rough stirring or pumping makes for insipid cheese. When the sun-golden milk reaches about 80 degrees, the proper culture is added to the milk. The milk is golden due to extremely high levels of Beta Carotene (vitamin A) present in the milk, which comes from our beautiful Jersey cows eating nothing but green grass or fermented hay. After a period of ripening at about 92 degrees, the cheese-maker will then 'cook the curd'. At approximately body temperature (98-102 degrees), he will add rennet, and leave it sit until it coagulates, forming a firm "curd".
When the curd is sufficiently firm, Jared uses a frame with thin wires, called a curd knife, to cut it into half inch pieces, and leaves it to separate into "curds and whey". After separating, the whey is drained into a holding tank through a hose attached to the bottom of the cheese vat.
Sea Salt, and any herbs or spices, are added and stirred in (hot peppers, for our pepper jack, in the picture), and the curd is shoveled into 40 lb. press boxes, called 'Wilson Hoops'.
The boxes are loaded into a press frame, with levers and weights, and the loose curd is pressed at specific pressure, time and temperature into 'green' (or 'unaged') cheese. The cheese is fairly flavorless and rubbery at this point. This fresh cheese is then either vacuum packed in bulk loaves, or left to age in a 'cave' environment with only a natural rind to seal the cheese.
All of the biodynamic qualities of the grassfed milk are preserved in this process that has been repeated, unchanged (until the modern 'food factory' era), for thousands of years. Our government inspectors allow us to sell this raw milk product to you after at least 60 days of aging, without any pasteurization, because the aging process allows the 'good cheese bacteria' to overwhelm any potential 'bad bacteria' that could (theoretically) have gotten into the milk. After a period of anywhere from 60 days to up to 3 years, the cultures and raw milk bacteria will have lived, and reproduced, and died for many hundreds or thousands of generations... all the while producing enzymes and other amazing molecules that work their marvels on the cheese, breaking down proteins and creating a startling array of 'affinage (aging) tastes', as well as 'Terroir (farm specific qualities from the soil and hay) tastes' that could never exist without the miracle of life in this 'living food' we generically call 'cheese.'
After aging in our aging 'cave,' the cheese is packaged, and ready for you! The pictures above show part of our 'cave aging' room where 12 pound wheels of Gruyere are settling in for a year or two of' 'hibernating' at 95% humidity and 50 degrees... not a bad life for a wheel of cheese! Jared keeps careful track of their ages and development. Here, he is washing the rinds of each individual wheel.
The whey which was drained off is fed from a holding tank to the frantically feasting piggies... organic, grassfed, raw whey is much more highly anticipated than boring pig food! The most highly anticipated pig food, however, is when something goes awry (seldom) and the pigs get a batch of 'flop' cheese... producing an entire day of the happiest pigs on the planet! The picture above shows our skid-loader draining several hundred gallons of whey into the whey troughs.
Well winter is finally here...with a vengeance. Green pastures have faded into a dim memory, and all of our ruminants (beef and dairy animals and sheep) are settled into their winter diet of 'baleage'. We spent much of our time and energy in the green season mowing, raking, baling and wrapping about 1,300 round bales. It occurred to us that many of you may not know much about this important component of what your food eats.
We choose to 'ensile' most of our best hay. Ensiling is baling it at a high moisture content that would allow the hay to rot in the presence of air. To get around this, we push our bales through an ingenious wrapping contraption...it hermetically seals the bales so the sugars in the hay can ferment anaerobically (without air.) Have any of you ever made sauerkraut? Same principle. We end up with high moisture hay that is far superior to most dry hay. The most nutritive part of hay are the grass/clover leaves... the problem with baling dry hay is that the raking and baling process shatters the fragile dry leaves and much of the precious sugar, fats, and proteins in the hay ends up blowing out the back of the baler... leaving mostly non-nutritive stems... we call that pine-needle and sawdust hay. By baling the hay wet, we virtually eliminate leaf shatter loss. A tremendous challenge to 100% grassfed farming is getting sufficient energy (sugar) in the hay to balance its high protein levels. The baleage has a remarkable sweet smell that causes the animals to totally forget their manners and get pushy at the feeders. Also, the fermented hay is extremely high in probiotic activity which is an enormous immune system booster to the animals... obviously, healthy animals produce healthy food.
We end up with a fair bit of plastic to deal with by the end of the season but it ends up being fully recycled, and wrapping our round bales allows us to store 5 barns worth of feed outdoors... no barns to build and no barn property taxes to pay on tubes of wrapped bales laying outside on the ground! We think fermented hay is a no-brainer, win/win situation for the farmer, the animals and for our valuable customers and their families. We hope you agree!
During our lunch break on Monday, the boys were discussing the afternoon's task of putting roofing metal on the new milking parlor addition, which is this winter's building project. Since it had sleeted during the morning, they started telling stories of 'slippery roof adventures' they had heard about from friends who work on construction crews. One of the guys, when he started sliding, quickly grabbed his hammer from his tool belt and slammed it through the roofing metal to keep himself from a fall off the roof, only to have his boss fuss at him for ruining the sheet of metal!
Later that afternoon, seventeen year old Jacob showed up in my office with a sort of sheepish look on his face. When I asked him what was up, he told me he had fallen off the roof of the new addition. Of course my first question was to make sure he was OK... he was, since he had only fallen about 8 feet, and landed on a convenient dirt pile. When I asked the obvious second question of why he didn't slam his hammer through the roof, he laughed and said he was holding a nail gun. I guess that is a disadvantage to fancy equipment! Later that afternoon they finished the roof, and are now planning the best way to enclose the area so that they can continue to work as the weather gets colder.
When we started our dairy herd in the spring of 2013, we were using an old milking parlor that came with the farm. It had been constructed on a shoe-string budget, hadn't ever had much maintenance done, and had been sitting unused for 5 years. While it served well enough to get us started, we soon realized that we needed to either do some major upgrades, or totally rebuild. The boys were optimistic and enthusiastic about taking on a building project. Kinley was thinking it would be a great opportunity to bring the milking herd to the home farm, since they boys have been driving to milk at a farm three miles away. The lone dissenting voice came from me, with my usual question of "How are we going to pay for this?", and my concern about making a 10 year plan with boys who are 21, 19, and 17. The boys were quick to reassure me that they aren't intending to leave anytime soon, and Kinley pointed out that having capacity to graze and milk 60 cows instead of 30 would help to pay for the project.
So, here are Jason (on the skidloader) and Jacob (with the laser transit) digging the trench for the footer for a 24'x48' milking parlor. Suddenly, all the conversations in our home are about trenches, trusses and headers; and any time I'm out on an errand I can expect a call asking me to pick up a box of nails or some Quikrete :).
Yesterday, Jared and Jason nailed the first header in place, and by tomorrow they hope to have the trusses set. They boys are looking forward to completing the project by spring, and milking in a shiny, organized parlor, where everything works the way it is supposed to.
Waking up to a phone call at 1:14 a.m. is never a good thing. Last night, it was our new neighbor in the house down the road calling us. She had recently moved here from the city, and was panic stricken to step out her door and see cows in her driveway, sniffing and snorting at her shiny SUV. Kinley woke the boys, and they zoomed out the lane to check things out. As soon as they arrived at her house, they realized something didn't add up.... they were looking at black and white cows, and all of ours are tan and brown! The poor woman was so excited that it took a few minutes for her to calm down enough for Jason to explain that the cows weren't ours. Her incredulous response of "How can you tell" almost made the boys laugh out loud :).
The next step was to call the farmer at the other end of the road. After getting his answering machine three times, they called his dad, who lives next door, and sent him to rouse his sleepy son. This finally got him out of his cozy bed to claim his wayward holstein heifers and chase them back to his pastures.
I have always said that there is a difference between 'being a farmer' and 'living in the country.' At 1:14 in the morning, I'm glad that my sons are the farmers, and I was snug in my bed while they pursued cattle frolicking in the moonlight!
As our family (and workforce :) ) continues to grow, we have tried to make wise decisions about how fast to expand our family's farming operation, and in which directions. Over the last few years, we have gone from raising meat animals to offering dairy as well. In 2011 we started making cheese on our farm with purchased Organic milk. In the spring of 2013 we added a herd of Jersey milk cows, and were able to use our own 100% Grassfed, Certified Organic milk for our cheese. In 2014 we spent time (lots) doing paperwork and purchasing equipment, and by the end of the summer had all the inspections done, and we could start bottling our Grade A milk, yogurt and kefir.
We quickly outgrew our 100 gallon pasteurizer, and our 24'x24' processing/cheese room. Much of this past winter was spent building an addition to double the size of the "processing plant", with most of the work being done by our three sons Jared, Jason and Jacob, who are 21, 19, and 17 years old. There is seldom any surplus money to hire work done, and the boys learned by experience as they worked.
Here is Jared giving directions as Jason runs the skid loader backhoe to dig the footer trench. Kinley served in an advisory capacity, with hands in pockets ;). As usual, there is no time to undertake big projects during the green season, and we ended up racing 'old man winter' trying to get under roof and out of the weather before it got too cold and snowy.
Pouring the footer... now Dad is hands-on! They used the market tents to cover the trench and ran heaters to warm it so they could lay block for the foundation. Right after the block went in, the huge snowstorm came, and they had to clear the whole construction site by hand. Some of the tools didn't reappear until the thaw.
They built the back wall in the nice warm shop, and brought it up on the trailer.
The back wall is set, and the work crew is well pleased with the day's work.
Putting on the roof went quickly.
Sabrina had a different use in mind for the addition.... for a while, it made a great race course. You can see the recently purchased preowned 200 gallon vat pasteurizer in the background.
Jared has milk in the cheese vat for a 400 pound batch of cheese. An Amish fabricator constructed the overhead agitation system so he no longer has to stir it by hand.
Now that the production construction is done, our next expansion phase is getting the Grade A bottled products to you! We are now offering weekly drops to our Harrisburg, Mechanicsburg and Carlisle customers. Our milk will go from the cow Friday morning, through our pasteurizer and bottler Friday afternoon, and into your fridge on Saturday! Day fresh milk will keep 16 days, but what could be better than right from the farm to you?
Life for a totally free ranging turkey can be pretty good. They spend their days roaming through our Certified Organic pastures, eating grass, seeds, and organic :) bugs and grasshoppers. Sometimes they wander into the yard and flower beds, which brings the three little girls running out of the house to chase them away. At night, they make their way back to shelter, which is an old box truck with the engine and transmission removed, and roosts installed.
However, we have heard that turkeys spend their days looking for a way to die, and free ranging presents some opportunities for that. In the photo above, Jason and Jacob are doing a turkey count, to see how many of the original 80 are still here.
We lost a turkey in a most spectacular was this past Sunday, as we were eating dinner. Kinley looked out the front window, and saw two Bald Eagles wheeling and swooping in and out of sight behind the trees along our driveway. They soon landed, and started pecking and tearing a white shape we could barely see through the trees. We quickly got over our excitement at having eagles so near, when we realized it was a turkey they were eating, and considered how quickly they could decimate our little flock.
This is the view from our front porch, and the eagles were near the trees on the left side. We haven’t seen them since Sunday, and we hope they haven’t developed a taste for turkey! All of the turkeys who survive the dangers of free ranging have an appointment with the butcher on November 21st. We will be delivering them fresh, on Tuesday, November 22. We will be at the Mechanicsburg drop site, from 5:00-7:00; and at the Crystal City Farmers Market from 3:00 - 7:00 with your turkey. You may order items for your holiday visitors for that drop even if you don’t need a turkey.