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.
What does 100% Grassfed mean, and why does it matter? Grains and corn are often fed to cows and sheep, because it causes them to grow much faster, get fatter, and produce more milk, which is good for the farmer’s bottom line. It also allows the farmer to feed their animals in the barn or a feedlot, instead of letting them graze and roam in the pastures. However, since cows and sheep were designed to graze and eat grass, the meat and milk from those animals will not provide the same nutrients. Studies have shown that 100% Grassfed meats are higher in CLA’s, Omega 3, and vitamins and minerals. Check out the EatWild website for more information. We are committed to providing the most healthful food possible, as well as a healthy and natural lifestyle for our animals.
Because our cows and sheep eat only grass, we need large open pastures for our rotational grazing system. But what about in the winter when there is no grass? During the spring and early summer we harvest the extra grass and make huge round hay bales to feed during the summer dry spells, and over the winter. Of course it all has to get hauled from the far flung fields to the feeders.
After looking at the budget, and the possible options, we settled on an old cabover flatbed truck, big enough to carry some bales and pull a loaded trailer. At max capacity, the truck, which soon earned the nickname of the BEAST, can haul 27 bales. The little girls love to ride in it, and our “CEO of Keeping Animals Fed”, nineteen year old Jason, has found it to be one of the most useful tools on the farm.
While we enjoy summer here, the lack of rainfall has turned our pastures into dust, and the grass for the cows into crispy, dried stems. When the grass isn’t growing, we stop our usual rotational grazing, because the cows will kill what grass remains by over-grazing, and will damage the pastures. The mama cows and their babies are now confined to a small, shady section of pasture right in front of our house, with a feeder full of hay from our bountiful spring harvest. However, hay is not as rich in nutrients as the grass, and we want the babies to grow strong and healthy. So Jason, our ‘CEO in charge of all things relating to cows’, has set the electric wire that borders the pasture high enough that the calves can walk under it. The calves are free to wander all the pastures, selecting what they like best to eat, and returning to their mamas for some milk to wash it down.
Unfortunately, they often choose to wander in the driveway, the lawn, and my flower beds. Three in particular have a destructive bent, and I frequently catch them trampling my petunias. Five year old Sabrina usually leads the charge of little girls chasing calves back to the pasture. I suppose I should be grateful that they have not yet discovered the garden.
With the addition of bottled milk to our product lineup, the trailer we used to haul everything to farmers market was quickly becoming too small for the task. Over the winter, we purchased a larger trailer, and Jared spent weeks insulating and putting a cooling system and shelves in a section of it to create a mini ‘reefer’, and setting up the rest of the trailer to hold the tents, tables, coolers and other necessities.
As we started taking it to market, we found a few details that still needed attention, and Jared would work at them as he had time. On a recent Tuesday morning, expecting Kinley to leave for market at 10:00, Jared hopped on the trailer to finish up some work in the ‘reefer room’. Much to his dismay, Kinley was actually scheduled to leave at 9:00, and he fastened the outer door shut, jumped in the truck, and headed out the driveway. Jared said if he hadn’t been so shocked at being locked in, he might have started hollering soon enough for Kinley to hear him; as it was, all he got for the yelling was a hoarse throat. He next started to picture his dad’s face when he opened the trailer in 2 ½ hours at market, and decided to take some action.
Fishing through the bins of supplies, he found a brightly colored flag that we used to advertise our ice cream. He pried open the top corner of the side door on the trailer, and snaked the flag out, expecting the occupants of the truck to see it flapping in the wind and realize they had a stowaway. Unfortunately, the flag was high enough to be hard to see in the mirrors, and didn’t get noticed right away. Jared had formulated another plan, and started in on breaking a hole through the front wall of the trailer, before the flag got Kinley’s attention and he stopped.
As he walked back to the trailer door, Kinley could hear banging inside, and he started imagining what kind of wild animal could have gotten on the trailer during the night; Jared’s disgruntled face was not on the list of things he expected when he opened the door. Maybe it is time for Jared to start carrying a cell phone…..
Collisions between fenceposts and farm equipment don’t usually have a good result for either one. After a few years, and a few close encounters, some of our fences had noticeable sags where there used to be posts. Since none of us are fond of running after loose cattle, who usually find the weak spots in the fences and make their escape at inconvenient times, Jason and Jacob mounted the post pounder on the skidloader this week and set to work.
They should have been able to finish replacing all the broken posts this week, but they expressed a remarkable reluctance to continue the job in the pouring rain. Instead, they stayed inside, and used the time for some lively discussion of exactly who was driving the equipment during the implement/post encounters, and how much smarter it would have been to use a little more caution and a little less speed. I’m sure next week’s better weather will have them finishing up so we will have tight, strong fences around all the pastures when we turn the cows out for their first taste of the fresh spring grass.
Spring! I’m thinking of newborn lambs (9 so far) and calves (1 so far), daffodils poking up from the warming soil, robins hopping in the lawn, and children playing outside (and the amount of time outside being longer than the amount of time it takes to dress them!). The children are thinking of flying kites, chasing butterflies, and running barefoot. Kinley and my big boys are thinking of mud and mess, ruts in the fields, and muddy pastures with muddy cows to be cleaned up and milked. I guess it’s all in your point of view!
Usually during the winter, our tractors and skid loader stay in the shop or one of the barns. But this recent cold snap caught Jason off guard, and the ‘big’ tractor was left outside. When he went to start it so he could haul some bales to feed the cows, it showed no sign of life. After about an hour of tinkering at 9 degrees he came and asked his dad for advice. The two of them rigged up a heater under the engine block, close enough to warm everything but far enough away to not start a fire. At least that was the plan. Judgement calls like that always leave me worrying about flames reaching to the sky or explosions, but they seem to take it all in stride. They have pointed out to me that if I’m not the one out in the cold, I probably would be best not giving advice. By lunch time, they had thawed the tractor enough that the solenoid would engage and the engine could start, and had delivered hay to the feeders, putting smiles on the faces of the hungry cows, steers and sheep :).
The real estate agent who listed our farm for sale in 1999 was a master of embellishments and exaggeration, and painted a glowing picture of the numerous, quaint barns, outbuildings and facilities the lucky purchaser would have. It has taken us a quite a number of years and a sizeable pile of dollars to either dismantle them or reconstruct them to put them into useable condition. This winter’s project has been an ancient bank barn, probably built in the 1860’s, which we have used as winter shelter for the sheep and cows, as well as for hay storage.
Old bank barns have a low ceiling in the ‘cellar’ area, with a loose stacked stone wall at the back, and huge beams and posts supporting the open upper hay storage area. Over time, the supporting posts in ours had become rotted, and some of the beams had shifted. Jared, on a mission to rescue the barn, decided to use a 20 ton and two 12 ton jacks to lift the beams, and replace the posts and the concrete footers under them.
Next was the wall at the back, which had lost all the mortar holding the stones in place, and quite a few of the stones. This week he has been replacing stones, and using a chute from the upstairs of the barn to funnel concrete into forms to stabilize the wall.
It feels good to recycle plastic milk bottles….it feels very good to salvage an entire building. By the time he is done, I expect he will be reluctant to let the animals back in, since they will quickly take the lustre off his fresh work.
“What makes your milk so orange?” is a question we are often asked at market. For folks who are used to seeing heavily processed, homogenized milk, from cows who are seldom outdoors, our fresh whole milk looks unusual. The Beta-Carotene from the grass and sunshine are a visible reminder of the difference; the Omega 3’s, CLA, and other phyto-nutrients are all there too. Especially during the grazing months, when the cows are only inside to be milked, our 100% Grassfed milk really shows its color.
Typically, in our rotational grazing system, by the time the cows have grazed through all the paddocks the grass on the first pasture is regrown enough to start the rotation all over again. During the recent dry spell, the cows ate the grass faster than it grew, and had to spend about two weeks eating the hay we had baled during the early summer. Jason and Jacob, our milking crew, were surprised that their milk production dropped off 30% when they didn’t have fresh, green grass to eat. A recent storm has the beautiful, nutrient dense grass growing and the milk flowing abundantly.
When I was growing up, on our farm in Susquehanna County, my father always set a goal of having the first cutting, or harvesting of hay done by the 4th of July. My father did the mowing, and my four brothers and I helped to rake, bale and stack the hay in the barn. It seemed to me like I always got the sweaty, dusty job of stacking up in the tip top of the barn, bumping my head on the rafters; I think the job assignment may have had something to do with a piece of broken equipment the only time I tried to do some of the tractor work. If we had good weather and were done by the 4th, Dad would take us to town for banana splits.
Here on our farm, my three boys do the mowing, raking and baling. But with more cows to feed, and more acres to cover than my father had, we wrap our harvest in plastic, with an automatic bale wrapper, to store for winter feeding.
My job now is to bring them food and drinks, and run for parts when something breaks… they still don’t want me driving the tractors J. This year the weather has cooperated, and we finished harvesting our last field yesterday, so I guess Kinley owes the boys a trip for ice cream! And next week, if we have fit weather, they will start right in on harvesting the second cutting.
So far, Kinley and the boys have mowed, raked, baled and wrapped about 120 acres of grass into 245 big round bales of hay for the cows’ winter feed. By the end of the growing season, they will have about 1,200 bales, totaling about 600 tons stored away, waiting to be turned into milk, beef, or lamb.
The end of February found us keeping a close eye on the sheep pen, and an ear tuned for the bleat of newborn lambs. The pattern of arrivals usually is 2 or 3 lambs a day for a few days, followed by a week-and-a-half deluge of lambs, then a lull for about 2 weeks, until the next batch starts. Right now, we are in the ‘new lambs everywhere’ phase.
Last year, Jessica had decided she was too busy and too mature to bother with raising a bottle lamb, so three-year-old Sabrina decided to give it a try. She really enjoyed being Betsy the lamb’s mama, until Betsy got bigger than her. When lambs nurse, they often butt at their mama, to the point of lifting the ewe’s back feet off the ground. When Betsy butted Sabrina, she would go sprawling, and the bottle would fly through the air, followed by the hungry lamb. Sabrina decided that lambs are much cuter when they are small, and sent Betsy to live with the other sheep, consoled by the thought that this year would bring another bottle lamb.
When a ewe lambs, we want to see that she is paying close attention to her babies. Most often, the ewes are good mamas, but sometimes if there are multiple lambs they will reject one of them. The tricky part is determining if the mama is just distracted by the other lambs, or is actually abandoning one. Sometimes, when left to themselves the family bonds and everything is ok; sometimes she really is rejecting the lamb, and it will die without intervention. To avoid taking one that a ewe could raise, we usually wait until we see that a lamb is not thriving before we take it to bottle feed. Unfortunately, that reduces its chances once we do take it.
Jason makes the decision of whether to take a lamb or wait and see, and sometimes the children have extended discussions about how well a lamb is doing. Jason is usually sure the lambs will be fine with their mamas; Aerial and Sabrina are certain that any lamb who is not vigorously nursing when they see it is a candidate for adoption, especially if it has pretty markings. Usually Jason’s good sense wins out, and so far we have no bottle lambs in the laundry room.
While driving down the highway recently, we passed a farmer running a tractor and spreader in his field, and Jacob and I got into a discussion on the merits of stockpiling and composting our bedding pack (which we do) versus spreading raw manure on frozen ground and snow every week.
As the conversation continued, our eight year old foster daughter revealed that she is not yet an accomplished farmer by her question “What is manure?” Sensing a teaching opportunity, I launched into an explanation of nutrient management, the plant growth cycles, and the marvel of a creation where the waste from a cow can nourish a plant. I think she missed most of what I said, because her response was “You mean there is cow poop in the salad I eat?” Jacob jumped on the chance to inform her that almost all of the food we eat is fertilized by manure from animals. I’m not sure it really helped me in my efforts to get her to eat more fruits and vegetables, but I did point out that I would rather eat food raised organically than food with chemical fertilizers.
As we headed into the slower pace of winter, with the dairy cows dried off (which means no daily trips to the milking parlor, and no huge batches of cheese), and the market schedule reduced to one Saturday farmers market, Kinley had hoped for a chance to catch up on all the jobs that had been left undone, or half done. He mentioned to the boys and me that we need firewood, the driveway is full of potholes, the farm equipment needs to be gone over for repairs and oil changes, the animal shelters need to be cleaned out and the manure spread in the fields, and the tanks that hold the whey (a by product of cheesemaking, and very good for the soil) need to be emptied.
The children had a different priority. Two years ago they developed an interest in ice hockey, and used greenhouse plastic and boards to make a small rink inside one of our cattle sheds. It was very popular, but teams had to be limited to 3 on a side, since any more left no room on the ice.
Somehow, this year, they talked Kinley into a larger outdoor rink. It started in late November as a simple, quick project, but took on a life of its own, and grew to the point that all the neighbors started stopping in to ask what was going on. The boys planned, excavated, leveled and lined a 60x100 rink enclosed with concrete barricades, and are in the process of putting up lights. Last Saturday, they flooded the rink, and they are looking forward to the bitter cold next week so they can start skating.
Of course Kinley is hoping it won't freeze, because not much of the previously mentioned list of tasks got done, and the possibility of skating might diminish their enthusiam for chores. Maybe they could work a deal with their friends where visitors can earn rink time by doing chores. I couldn't help but mention that they should get some sponsors and put up billboards along the sides, to help defray some of the cost, but they are not much into marketing, and said that was my job....so if any of you are looking for a place to spend your advertising dollars, I'll save you a space ;).
This month, we are very excited to finally be able to offer bottled milk. An on-farm milk processing room, where we could turn all of the milk from our 32 dairy cows into products we can sell directly to our customers has been a goal since before we even got the cows. As I think back through the steps of building and certifying the cheese room; starting a milking herd (primarily cared for by our sons Jason and Jacob); sending Jared, our cheese maker son, to classes; getting equipment and learning to make and package ice cream; and meeting all the requirements to be certified as a Grade A bottling facility, I find myself wondering how we managed it all. We now offer fresh, pasteurized cream-line milk, from our herd of Certified Organic, 100% Grassfed Jersey cows. It will be available in pints, quarts, and half gallons or gallons; we also have wonderful, rich chocolate milk.
In addition, we are now taking orders for Thanksgiving turkeys. The turkeys are currently ranging through our organic pastures, eating their fill of bugs and seeds. They also occasionally range in our yard, and on our porch. As soon as they get near the house, Jessica, Aerial and Sabrina go storming out the door, usually accompanied by two dogs and a cat, to keep them from leaving any ‘deposits’, and to chase them out of the flower beds.
As we head into the cooler fall weather, things usually settle into a quieter routine here. The animals are really enjoying the pleasant evenings, fewer flies, and rich green pastures. However, it seems to give them some extra energy, which can lead to mischief. One recent Tuesday, Kinley came home late at night from market, and found cows in the driveway. He was not too pleased that they chose midnight as the time to decide the grass was greener on the other side of the fence, and I was not too pleased to get rousted out of bed to help put them back in. I guess, in the end, I come out ahead though, because they come out as hamburgers.