Archive for January 23, 2013

Chicken Feed and Winter Treats

Pocketful of eggs

Pocketful of eggs

How do you feed your chickens?  A set amount, once a day?  Self feeder always kept full?  Organic?  Conventional?  Soy Free?  Special blend?  What treats do you give your laying hens during these cold winter days?

Milking Big Dottie

Me with the giant Brown Swiss milk cow, Dottie, after she had warmed up to me!

Me with the giant Brown Swiss milk cow, Dottie, after she had warmed up to me!

Mickie had been tending to her sick family all week when she finally succumbed to the flu herself.  She called me the night before.  “I don’t think I’m going to be able to get out of bed tomorrow.” she told me.

“I have you covered.  What time do you normally milk?”   My Girl and I rolled up about 30 minutes later than Dottie was used to being milked.  I figured that having a full udder would make her a little more compliant.  Not so.

I spent a few minute quietly talking to Dottie with the stall door between us.  She was curious and wanted to sniff my hand, but didn’t want me to touch her, and pulled her head away.

Most mail carriers have a few tricks for handling dogs.  Many carry a deterrent spray as well as dry dog treats and a tennis ball.  When a dog is loose, they have an opportunity to impress upon the dog that they are a friend who has treats and toys and is fun to play with.  Pretty smart, huh?

Well this milk maid also has a secret arsenal.  I use a large walking stick in the field.  A stick isn’t much protection against a charging 1200 lb beast, but it can be an incentive when the sweet spring grass is more tempting than the pressure of a full udder.  I also use my voice a lot.  Cows have a very deep moo- strikingly similar to a whale call- that they use to reassure their calves, so I try to talk in a low tone. The final weapon in my arsenal is organic apple slices.  Cows are suckers for apple slices.  Inside the barn, my walking stick would have just been something to trip over, so all I had was my voice and a half an organic apple, cut into slices.

As soon as I rolled her stall door open, Dottie bolted out and pushed past me into the barn aisle.  She found an open bag of corn and dove right in.  When I tugged at her halter, she raised up quickly and shook her hornless head at me, as if to say, “Bug off!  I’ll not stand for this intrusion from a stranger!”  Right about then I noticed how much bigger a Brown Swiss cow stands than my petite Gurnsey cows.  If I put my weight into my cows shoulder, I can usually throw them off balance and induce them into moving where I want them.  Dottie was rooted in front of the bag of corn like a mountain.  An irritated mountain.

After a few minutes of talking to her, I pushed the bag of corn into a stall with my foot and closed the door.  She nosed the heavy door back open and started munching away with her head inside the stall and her big ole butt sticking out into the aisle.   She finally pulled her head out long enough for me to push the door closed and latch it.  She stormed off down the barn aisle, flipping her tail, officially annoyed with me.  My Girl had been standing in the corner quietly observing all this with eyes as big as saucers.  I sent her outside the barn to hold the doors closed.  I edged past Dottie, spread my arms wide and stepped toward her.   She fled back into her stall, shaking her head at me again.

I called Mickie from my cell phone.  “I’m so sorry.  I can’t get her hooked up outside the stall!”  She came outside in her jammies and muck boots, looking like death warmed over.  It one swift motion, she grabbed the halter and Big Dot swished out into the aisle and was in proper milking position.  Mickie explained that her previous owner hadn’t handled her head much so she was head shy.   She didn’t need to explain.  I was a stranger to Dottie.  Milking a cow is a seriously intimate event.

Mickie instructed me to milk out a small saucer of milk for the barn cat.  The tiny cat was not intimidated in the least and started drinking her milk as soon as it was set on the floor, mere inches from the giant cows hind feet.   Once I had her cow cleaned and had settled in to milking, Mickie hauled herself back into the house.

Dottie was a dream to milk!  Her teats are perfect for hand milking and she stood in one place the whole time my knees were under her.

She slipped back into her stall quickly, I think more to get away from the transient in her barn than anything.  As I filled her water tank, then her calf’s, My Girl set about making friends with Big Dot.  She eventually allowed My Girl to pet her face and took an apple slice from her.

It was a beautiful morning for milking a beautiful cow.

Dottie wants the person she has bonded with to milk her every day, like most milk cows.

Dottie wants the person she has bonded with to milk her every day, like most milk cows.

Washing Dishes


stainless steel milk cans

I used to have cows on a friends property, but after 6 months, they decided they didn’t want the cows.  So I have become a farm-less dairy farmer.  A cow-less dairy farmer.  I yearn for a farm of my own and am working very hard to get our house ready to sell this spring so we can start looking for land of our own.  In the mean time, I am a guest milker.  I go to the farm from whence my cows came every week and help their keeper milk all of his cows.  And then I bring back milk for the supporters who kindly pay for the herd of cows care and feed.  It’s called a herd share agreement.   It’s sort of like boarding a horse, but instead of riding on weekends, you get milk.  And cream.  And rich golden butter.  But I get more benefits than most because I get to actually interact with the herd every week and milk them by hand.  I’ve learned their names and personalities.  Gertie is a doll.  Yarrow is a high stepper who derives pleasure from stepping in the bucket.  Honey is, well, my sweetheart.  She will come live on my farm again someday.

Along with the benefits, comes the dreaded dish washing.  I despise washing dishes.

Every weekend, I procrastinate.  I could wash the milk cans one at a time as the milk supporters show up and drain them of their contents one by one.  I could, but I don’t.  I end up stacking them up until Sunday and then I have a kitchen floor littered with giant stainless steel cans, painted on the outside with dried milk drips, until they shift first into the sink and then finally the counter tops are covered with upside-down-balancing-tipped-slightly-askew 3 and 5 gallon milk cans.  White tea towels cover every inch of my counter tops as the lids first drip dry.  Then I flip the lids and use them to prop the milk cans.  They have to be tipped so air can flow into the steaming hot, wet cans and moisture will drip down one side.   I listen to music on my iPod and selfishly block out the rest of the world while I wash.  I don’t usually wear gloves to wash dishes, but I turn the faucet to the hottest setting for the milk equipment and it is really hot.   It’s a serious procedure.  Rinse with warm water.  Scrub with warm then hot, soapy water.  Rinse with vinegar water.  Triple rinse with super hot water.  Tip, and let sit over night to drain and dry.  The next morning I check to make sure there is no moisture inside.  I also personally perform the highly rated sniff test.  I had not implemented the triple rinse until I encountered vinegar smell one morning.  At 5:30 in the morning.  As I was shifting things in the back of the truck to make room for another cooler and on a whim, popped a lid and sniffed.  I smelled vinegar.  Needless to say, I now triple rinse.  Once I am assured that there is no vinegar essence remaining and the moisture is evaporated, I  lid the cans closed and carry them out to the truck.  I tuck the heavy stainless steel cans into mountains of fluffy blankets until I’m comfortable that nothing will bang or fall over.  Then I pull the heavy vinyl cover the SUV manufacturer installed over the tall cans as a final reassurance that everything is secure.  Until next weekend.



Deep orange yolks in the dead of winter

When it looks like old man winter has us in his icy grip, and you want your chickens to give you eggs with yolks the color of pumpkins, it’s a good time to feed your chickens barley sprouts.  Specifically, 7 day old, organic barley sprouts.

pumpkin orange egg yolk

That is canned pumpkin in the upper left corner, an orange in the lower right corner a brown Marans chicken egg and my dark orange egg yolk in the lower left corner.

Step 1) Call your local feed mill and ask them to order you a 50# bag of organic, whole, barley seed.  Make sure they know you are going to sprout it, so you don’t accidently get barley that has been cut, smushed or somehow rendered unsproutable.  You should expect to pay around $25 for a 50lb bag.

Step 2) Locate some sprouting containers.   The size depends on A) how many chickens you are feeding B) how much of their diet you want to replace C)How much window space you have.  I use some plastic trays I picked up at a resale shop for .50 apiece.  I’ve also seen the lids of 5 gallon pails used.  You could probably also use paint trays.  Basically, anything with a lip on it that will hold the seeds in place will work.

5 days worth of sprouts

Step 3)Soak your seeds in a container overnight.  They will absorb a ton of water, so just to be safe, I put a pint of grain into a half gallon jar and fill it half way with luke warm water.

24-48 hours  Just a dot of growth on top of each grain

Step 4)The next day, drain the water off and spread them in your plastic container.  Spritz them with water until they are thoroughly wet, but not sitting in water.  If your house is especially dry, you might need to spray them a couple times a day.  By the end of 48 hours, you should see a tiny dot of white at the tip of the seed.  The next day, your sprouts might not look much different, but you will have roots!


Step 5) Repeat for 7 days.  By day 4 you will have a pretty solid mat of roots and by day 7 it will be a carpet of barley grass that your chickens will go crazy over.


5 day old sprouts


What do you feed your chickens in the dark, cold days of winter?

Visiting the Cows

My Girl milked her first cow by herself.  She milked this sweet little cow named Heidi.   Then she started on Surprise, but her hands gave out and M. took over.  She did great and I am so proud of her.  At 11 years of age, she is doing the work of a grown woman.  She is slowly leaving behind the childish way of interrupting adults to interject her own thoughts.  I admit I was worried that she would say something embarrassing or talk incessantly when we got to M.’s farm.   She didn’t.  When she did interrupt, M. was patient.


My girl first attempt

The sun wasn’t up yet when I walked into M.’s milk house, smiling.   “Good morning!”, I sang out.   M. spoke casually.  “There is a cow over there that you might want to see to.”  Honey.    My sweet, beautiful cow.  He had already cleaned her and she was standing calmly.  Waiting.   She swung her head around, thrust her nose into my coat and sucked the apple slice from my palm.   She turned to face me with her big eyes and my heart melted.  She had a few cuts on her sides; inevitably from re-establishing her place in the hierarchy of the herd.   I hugged her neck as best I could around the metal bars and patted and scratched her face.  She looks so much better without that stupid green halter on her face.  I walked back around to her side and took up my position.  I straddled the wide board across the pit with my muck boots on the edge of the cement ledge and balanced my hind end on the milk crate.  Once I had established a rhythm, I felt myself relax into her side, my cheek resting against her ribs.  With a single intake and exhale, I was transported into a state of calm.  All that existed was the sound of the milk hitting the side of the stainless pan and the sight of hot streams criss crossing, burying deep into the golden, foamy milk.  The smell of a cow is part manure, part cow stink and part grass.  All three are sweet.

After Honey, I milked Spidey  and Morgana.  All three cows stood perfectly still while I milked them and I sure appreciated that.

The only thing that felt close to that wonderful was being surrounded by the herd of 12 or so pregnant or about to become pregnant heifers including Sadie.  She also recognized me and allowed me to pat her, but did not open herself to hugging.  I wanted to see if I could feel the baby moving, but when I’d worked myself around to her right side, another cow came up and horned her away.  Sadie whisked away and I would have had to chase her up the hill to continue interacting with her.  I felt that would heap more disproval from the cow that had horned her away and decided feeling the calf could wait until next weekend.

My Girl was frightened to be surrounded by so many giant beasts and she clung to my coat sleeve.  I hope she gains more confidence the more often we walk out into the cows.  It is a wonderful feeling- to be so small.

I have no idea where it will be, or what it will look like, but I ache for the farm that will someday be ours.  I long for the farm we will someday call our own.  There is a term that describes this state: Barn Heart.  I have a serious case of Barn Heart.

The Cows Leave

For whatever reason, the cows were given two weeks to find a new home.  This was an impossible task.  Two very kind farmers in Grass Lake offered me use of their barns, but the land was unsuitable in both cases.    I called every Realtor I ever worked with, sought out every farmer, left flyers in every farm supply store, even knocked on strangers doors because their barn looked suitable from the road – and it was all for naught.

It was a very emotional realization for me that the cows would have to leave my care.

M. and K. sacrificed so much to make this happen.   Their dream is to plant micro-dairies on the outskirts of medium to large cities.  To develop deep relationships between farmers and consumers and to train new dairy farmers in this highly-unconventional-yet–completely traditional method of dairy farming, this was their dream.  And they asked me to be a part of it all.

I was honored.

The cows did not arrive at the farm on time in April.  M. and K. were delivering two cows to a farm on the north side of Ann Arbor two weeks before they were to come to our farm.  The cows escaped at that farm and then our fences were reevaluated and found lacking.  More money poured into an empty pasture and we waited very impatiently for the cows to arrive in an additional week….or so.  We were so excited to get started!

 K. came to live with us for 2 weeks in May while she trained us every morning how to milk the cows, how to care for the cows, how to handle the milk safely.  Then she went back home and trusted us to care for Honey and Sadie.   She often referred to them as 900 lb infants in our backyard.   They were counting on us for everything- to set aside enough cash for hay in a drought, to make sure the water tank was filled with clean water even when we were tired, to keep them safe from predators and cold weather and grass fires, to do a thorough job milking them every single day, to keep them free from stressful situations that would make them unhappy.

Then things got mixed up.  After milking with me every morning one of the land owners decided she didn’t want to participate anymore.   My daughter began coming with me every morning during the week and my sons would take turns coming on the weekends, more for company and safety than anything.  One of the workers at the north Ann Arbor farm had been badly injured by one of their cows when she had been alone in the barn and they now have a rule that no one is to work with the cows alone.  It made sense.  These are huge beasts, and just swinging their head to rub a fly away can result in an accidental goring if you aren’t vigilant.

 And then three months later they decided they didn’t even want the cows on their property anymore.

There would be no negotiation of the date the cows would be removed.   I had two weeks.

I keep repeating this to myself

I keep repeating this to myself

I tried to keep them.  Hubby and I even joked about keeping them in our 2 acre back yard over the winter when they would be eating only hay.  I could milk them in the garage!  He knew I was only half joking.  If we thought our neighbors wouldn’t complain, DH would have helped me smuggle them into our yard for the winter.

On the brilliantly sunny day the trailer was coming to haul them back to M.’s farm, I put off milking Honey.  I procrastinated driving out to the farm, then I stalled setting up the equipment, I dawdled bringing the cows in from the lovely green pasture and I hesitated to sit down on the milk stool.  I could not put off the inevitable.  The folks coming to transport Honey and Sadie were laughing when they walked into the barn.  Didn’t they know my beloved cows, who moo’d at me every morning, who gave my children their delicious milk and cream were going away?!?  I couldn’t hold back the flood of hot tears.  I let them flow down my face while I milked her, quietly pressing my cheeks against her ribs, letting her fur absorb my embarrassing display of emotion.  She didn’t like having strangers in the barn and kept shifting her feet, turning her head to see what was going on around her, dropping her head and shaking her horns at us in frustration.  It was awful.

When I was done milking Honey, there was nothing left for me to procrastinate.  I had to let her go.

I stepped back away from her with my milking stool in one hand and my empty milk pail in the other, passively observing what was happening around me, detached from their busyness.  They backed the trailer up to the barn but she escaped into the large pasture.  (Silently, I cheered!)  I had been giving the cows a slice of organic apple every time they came into the barn for several months, so I slipped more apple slices out of my pocket and lead Honey right up to the trailer.  Sadie compliantly followed.  They closed the trailer door, everyone shook hands like civilized humans and they drove off.

Just like that.

Then we loaded the hay onto our trailer in silence.  The remaining hay was purchased with the milk supporters money and needed to be sold to pay for the hay Honey and Sadie would eat over the winter at the farm nearly 2 hours away.  Four times we came back and stacked hay at the farm onto our trailer, then brought it back to our house and unloaded it into the front yard.  The buyer I’d lined up for the hay couldn’t come until the following day.  Deadlines required that we move the hay the same day we moved the cows.

The following day, the buyer showed up a full hour after our agreed upon meeting time.  We helped load the hay into her two giant trailers and then we scurried to church sweaty and late.   There was a chill in the air, even though the sun was shining.

It was time to move on, into the next season.

My two Guernsey cows leaving their pasture.

My two Guernsey cows leaving their pasture.