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Day to day, week to week life at Blue Rooster.
Posted 4/14/2011 8:18am by Julie Hurst / Roy Brubaker.

It is like a brand new world outside this morning.  So lovely to have a break from the rain.  It seems that with every rainy day another half dozen lambs are born.    This morning when I took my walk in the warm sun through the sheep paddock, I didn't find one new lamb.   I imagine the next ones will arrive on Saturday with the rain.   The lambs that are here are definitely enjoying themselves.   The older ones have already started forming little adventure gangs that dash about in groups, giving some of the more anxious moms cause for alarm. 

On one of my recent lamb walks I observed ewe number R146 anxiously trotting around the pasture baa-ing feverishly for her lamb.   I watched as she went from lamb to lamb, sniffing behinds and sometimes getting buffed by other ewes.   I couldn't watch without wanting to join the search. This panic at the possibility of a lost child is apparently not only universally human, but perhaps simply universal.  I know her lamb.  It is strapping and healthy and usually by her side.   I tried to discretely join the search by quietly scanning each group of lambs with my binoculars.    Just as her bawling began to reach a new level of panic, I spotted it.  It was sleeping peacefully, totally oblivious to its mother's distress.   I walked just close enough to cause a ripple of alarm among the lambs and send them running for their mamas.   I would have liked to stomp over and scold the little guy, "didn't you hear your ...."  Silly thoughts.  Even with children it is a questionable response.   They will learn soon enough the world is not exactly the safe, warm, peaceful pasture they may feel it is.

Someone recently asked me if it is true that pigs love mud.   All I can say is, it appears they do.  Our old chicken run is now home to the growing gilts and barrows and thanks to the wet weather, they have rooted it into a serious mud lot.   We were hoping for some tillage so that it would be ready for planting corn in mid-May.   Instead we got excavation.   They are happy little excavators though.  I think they have a project in mind for the yard -- a pond perhaps, maybe a rain garden.  Whatever it is, it is in constant transformation.   When it is time for their mid-morning coffee break, they head inside the dry shed to nestle down in a heap of pig and take a nap.  Not too bad a life if you ask me.  Good work.  Good sleep. 

Posted 4/8/2011 9:20am by Julie Hurst / Roy Brubaker.

Our first lamb arrived last week, just a few hours after Roy and I expanded their paddock to give the ewes a little more space.  Since then we've been averaging around four to six lambs daily.  Every morning and evening, one of us, usually I, walk through the sheep pasture with pockets full of ear tags, pens, paper, a tagging "gun" and a pair of binoculars around my neck.   the intention is to keep record of ewes who have lambed, the number of lambs they have, the gender of the lambs etc. and to tag the lamb's ears so we know which ewe they have come from.   We've been dabbling in keeping a small registered flock alongside our commercial ewes but we are beginning to question whether or not registered sheep are worth it.  We like mothers who are calm, keep their lambs close to them, and raise a set of twins year after year.   Being registered does not guarantee any of those qualities, but it does mean we can ask a higher price if we were to sell breeding stock.  All the same, registration requires good record keeping and good record keeping and "low input" does not always work well together.   Tagging lambs born on pasture can be stressful -- especially for those moms we want to stay calm.   And for the farmer, it has the potential to be both humiliating, and occasionally very gratifying.   Why humiliating?   You'd think a reasonably well-coordinated adult human could outsmart, or at least, out run, a wobbly lamb that is a mere hours old.   Not so.  Those little buggers are unbelievably quick.  I've been face down in the pasture more than once.   Face in grass gives one good perspective.  Is it really necessary for me to be stalking this poor, scared. newborn, while its mom stomps at me and give me the evil ovine eye?   Probably not.  Sheep may not have a lot going for them but they manage survival without sharp teeth or claws or sophisticated forms of communication and record keeping. So perhaps like them, we ought to play to our strengths, like standing at at distance with powerful binoculars to observe the ewe with her newborns.   Good mother?  Healthy lambs?  Record that number.  The problem is when the mom is exceptional and she has ewe lambs,  we want to tag those little ewes because they are who we select for.   We've considered hitting the little ewe lambs with a dot or two or spray paint then tagging them when we run them through the chute in a month or two, but I really wonder if any spray paint will stay on that long.   For now I continue to step into the pasture morning and evening, armed to the teeth with my record-keeping supplies, but with just a little less gumption for stalking.   

Posted 3/29/2011 9:49am by Julie Hurst / Roy Brubaker.

Its been an eventful week.  Last Wednesday night a cold front moved in bringing with it a thunderstorm and hail pellets that covered the ground.   Earlier in the week I was relieved to return our ewes to pasture before any lambs arrived.  They've been shorn and their ear tag numbers spray painted onto their sides so that we can keep record of them and their lambs, and they were given a few large round bails of hay to hold them over till the grass really gets growing.   It seems like we are getting our seasonal routines worked out in a timely manner for once!  Our sheep are hardy stock  (they were bred in the borderlands of Scotland) who stoically put their butts to the wind and rain and stand still waiting for storms to pass.    The best time to count our sheep is during a rain storm when they stand in quiet formation, like a regiment on guard duty.   But... hail stinging the backs of newly shorn sheep is a different story.   I must admit this was an incident when I truly felt sorry for our sheep and very glad that no lambs had been born yet.   One feels rather helpless as lightening zips across the sky, nervous children are wanting to stay very close, and the whole flock of sheep is walking around heads down, trying to get away from the stinging hail.   Even from the kitchen window where I watched them I thought I could see their skin shivering like they do when flies are bothering them.  Thankfully the hail remained pellet-sized and only lasted a short time. The next morning the sheep were lying in the sun around the hay feeders, calmly chewing their cud.

This past weekend we also succeeded at getting the cows out on pasture before any calves arrived.   Part of this processes involved weaning some of last years late calves so that the mama cows get a break before the new calves arrive.   Weaning is never a quiet process and seems to be a lot harder when the cows and weanlings are in audible range of each other.    We kept the weanling calves in the barnyard with the bull where they have plenty of hay and water and shelter from hail storms.   The mama cows were taken to our southwest paddock where they have both new and overwintered grass to eat and clean pastures for giving birth.  The problem is they can both see and hear each other.   Last night two cows were determined to get back to their bawling calves, (the calves are nearly "teens" -- just a month or so away from sexual maturity themselves) and probably get some relief for their tight udders.   What it meant for Roy, Mac, and I was stomping and stumbling (well -- not Mac-- he's graceful in the worst of circumstances) through the wetlands at dusk shoo-ing a determined cow back across the creek to hang out with her pregnant sisters.    We succeeded and felt confident that the hot fence would keep her in.    This morning she was out again.   But her wandering is limited so we left her go to be dealt with again tonight.  For today she can wander alone with an eye and ear to both her calve and her "sisters".   As her milk gets reabsorbed I am hopeful she will reconsider her circumstance and quietly return tonight to the maternity paddock to prepare for a new arrival.   Fat chance.

The sheep survived the hailstorm but our modem did not.   The electric didn't blink and our old phone is working fine, but perhaps the jumpy nine-year-olds just did it in.   While there is much to love about living thirty minutes away from a "town",  having access to the internet has made it much more appealing.  The last five days seemed like what I imagine an abbreviated addiction recovery process might be like - albeit requiring far less courage from me.   Initially I had a hard time structuring my day without checking email or working on the website, checking my bank account or even my facebook page.   But four days in I found I could focus on other important work with very little thought of email.  So all that to say, if you've been feeling ignored by Blue Rooster Farm, that is why.   I had to make a decision over the weekend -- do I drive 50 miles round trip to check email at my in-laws or do I stay home and get to cows out with Roy.   For farmers who make an effort to be sustainable, our carbon footprint is pretty big -- we put a lot of miles on our cars-- so I opted to stay home.   But my "recovery" was short-lived -- this is a business after all!  I am hoping for UPS delivery today and in the meantime -- I had to make a trip anyway.  We need groceries and my library books were due and I did not give up email for lent. 

Posted 3/16/2011 1:42pm by Julie Hurst / Roy Brubaker.

This week feels particularly heavy.  I don't think it is the farm that has sobered my mood -- the animals are actually seeming pretty manageable at the moment, lambing and calving is still a couple weeks away -- rather it is news of devastation near and far that reminds me how fragile life as we know it is.   Just south of us in Perry county a farm family is facing the loss of seven children in a fast moving house fire.  Seven children.  One doesn't have to be a parent to feel the weight of such a loss.  And then there is Japan.  Need I say more?  Only a catastrophe on such a scale could turn our attention from the atrocities of the madman in Libya against his own people.  There are times it takes some effort to feel like the world is not simply unraveling before our eyes.  Thich Nhat Hanh responds to the events in Japan with these words,  "...An event such as this reminds us of the impermanent nature of our lives. It helps us remember that what's most important is to love each other, to be there for each other, and to treasure each moment we have that we are alive. This is the best that we can do for those who have died: we can live in such a way that they continue, beautifully, in us."  

Last Friday Pete came to shear the sheep.  Thanks to help from Dave and Adam, Village Acres' CSA manager and crop manager respectively, we were able to get the sheep in the barn before the rain came and soaked their wool.  Dave and Adam finished the back-breaking task of cleaning out the sheep pen of three-years worth of hay and manure, making it much easier to work the sheep through the chute.  Roy worked several evenings till 11 pm and I picked away at it several mornings, but without the help of the guys, we'd have never completed the task before the rain.  I was especially impressed with their enthusiasm for moving the sheep into the barn.  Honestly, I was a little frightened.  I had been called out on a substitute teaching job and wasn't really sure they were up to the challenge.  (You might remember I've had my own ordeals with escaped sheep.)  But at 2pm I got a call from Dave that all was well -- the sheep were in the barn, dry and cozy, and shortly after it began to rain.   Perfect. 

Shearing went smoothly too.  Dave and Steve were on hand to help us keep wooly sheep in front of Pete and collect and bag the wool afterward. 

And Saturday I had a great market day in D.C. while Frances and Riley had a very memorable day in Hershey with Roy's sister Deb, her friend Hannah and her kids.

And I left the weaned piglets out into the chicken run on Monday and they've been rooting, running, and just entertaining me ever since.

Small joys in the face of large sadness.  Look around, perhaps you'll see some too.

Posted 3/3/2011 9:02am by Julie Hurst / Roy Brubaker.

Farming, like so many things, is at its best when it is a shared experience.   Garrison Keilor tells comical stories of bachelor farmers, but farming alone is rather rare.   My farming partner and husband has been shipped off again this week for some state-required training related to his job and I really miss him.   I miss our end-of-the-day, face-to-face conversations but a cell phone can at least help reacquaint us every evening.   I really miss his strength and the fact that usually he takes care of things like putting round bales out for the sheep and cows.  

We planned ahead for his departure and all the ruminants were well stocked with hay for the first half of the week.  Every morning and evening I simply fed and watered the pigs, put hay down for the horses, and made sure the sheep had water as well.    I was hoping all of our preparations would last till Thursday, my first free day, but when the girls and I came home on Wednesday in the late afternoon, it was clear the sheep were hungry.  After doing all the routine chores I told the girls I'd have to feed some round bales to the sheep, and, feeling the adventure of three (nearly) women running the farm, they gamely asked how they could help.   I was grateful for their offer and their company but when it comes to running a skid steer the best place for kids is watching from a distance.   The skid steer and I are on ever-better terms but it is still a little tricky and Frances called after me as went to let it out of its pen, "just be careful mom!!" then moved far away to play on a mound of dirt with Riley.   Getting the bales placed in the sheep pasture went smoothly but the sheep were hungry and they quickly surrounded the bales trying to get a mouthful before I had time to cut off the bale wrap and place the feed panels around it. I called Mac, who dislikes the skid steer and was showing off for the piglets in the barn, to keep the sheep off while I dragged over the feeder panels and tied them in place.  By this time it was dark and the stars were out.    Perhaps had I a bit of dinner and the physical strength of Roy to lift the panels into place, I could have enjoyed the evening a bit more, but honestly, by that time I was done; exhausted from a long  day of farming, meetings, and farming late into evening.   I had sent the girls to the house for showers ahead of me and when I finally came in I found a little note of encouragement from Riley written on a paper towel with a snack of  four dried apricots.    And did I lead you to believe I was farming alone this week?  I was wrong...I've got very good company... all the same it will be nice to have Roy home.

But the story, or the week, doesn't end there.  This morning our neighbors in Reed's Gap came to pick up Mac to use as a stud on their border collie.  I told them I would likely be in the barn when they arrived and of course they arrived when I was yet again trying to tame that old skid steer.   Mr. E found me and we walked up to the house together.  His wife, looking the neat and tidy farm wife she is, sprang out of the mini-van and greeted me as I, in my raggedy barn coat and dirty boots crossed the road with her lean, coverall-wearing farmer husband, "so, you're the farmer-man today" she said.

"Farmer-woman!  -- at least this week."  I grinned.   I must admit, for all my youthful insistence on not conforming to prescribed female roles, I was feeling both capable and proud at her acknowledgment that I could work like a man and a little jealous that her shoes and apron were so crisp and clean.  

Posted 2/25/2011 7:18am by Julie Hurst / Roy Brubaker.

Late winter / early spring is a humbling time of year for us.   The earth's awakening from its deep freeze brings expectation of verdant pastures, productive gardens, frisky lambs and the reality of ... mud.  This is mud season.  The "dry" lot is sloppy, the driveways that circle the barn are sticky and slick with mud atop frozen ground.   Just walking up from the barn feels like an activity that promotes soil erosion, our brown footprints following us across the road right to the backdoor, where I hear myself nagging "wipe your boots!"  "Keep that mess outside!"  It may be an effort in futility, but nonetheless, it seems rather hardwired.  Oddly enough it is this time of year that we seem to attract a good number of customers and friends to the farm.   I hear myself apologizing for conditions that I have very little control over; dirty snow melting under the drum of warm rain.  I know I must trust people to understand.  Farmers, after all, are not the only ones who endure this transition of seasons and eventually the warm spring sun will win this battle.   For now it's just a waiting game.

This week Roy and Charles, our dairy-farmer friend and neighbor,  castrated the young boars in our litter of pigs.   Boars, like bulls, are castrated to prevent early breeding among our feeder pigs and it makes the little guys easier to handle.   It is a fairly simple procedure made difficult by the strong effort of the roaster-size pigs to escape one's grasp, thus the need for two strong farmers to hold them still.   By the next morning, I had a hard time picking out the new "barrows".   When I went down to feed them all the little pigs were laying together in a big pile.  They do this for warmth.   I learned at PASA that pigs at the bottom of these piles sometimes suffocate and die.   This happens if too many pigs are attempting to share a small shelter.   Just the knowledge of this possibility gives me a terrifying, claustrophobic feeling and the determination to prevent such an occurence.   Although the farmers who shared their experiences raising pigs were just as determined and well-meaning.  New risks with every new endeavor -- but being greeted with a snort and wet snout -- it seems worth the risks. 

Mac has sired another litter of puppies.  Tippy, Charles and Tammy's border collie, had the pups last Sunday morning.   The girls are thrilled at the prospect of playful puppies in a couple weeks, but for now, Tippy is staying quite protective of her squirming, mewing brood.  

Posted 2/16/2011 10:56am by Julie Hurst / Roy Brubaker.

Are you tired of hearing about pigs?  

I admit, these guys just crack me up.   Mac knows what I am talking about.  He is obsessed with the pigs.   From the time they were born, he stood outside their jugs, mesmerized by the little pigs and tormenting the sows.  Now that the piglets are the size of roasters (don't get any ideas just yet) and sharing a large pen with sows and boar, Mac is a little frantic and bewildered at how to handle them.  As soon as the barn door opens, he is in with the pigs.   He dashes about, endlessly perplexed and intrigued at their lack of fear of him.  When I get into the pen with a bucket of feed, he seems to think he should protect me and bites at the sows, but their bodies are not easy to grip.  He sort of slobbers at their shoulders and they spin their thick, bullet bodies around and chase after him with their narrow mouths open.  While I filled their water tank yesterday, he laid down between the pigs and me in order to keep them away.  With the sheep, this is very effective.  The sheep band together in a mob at the opposite end of the paddock, quivering and staring at him.   As soon as Mac lies down in the pigpen however, the piglets come over and bite at his brushy tail.   He chases them, but to them it is all a game.  When they are tired of being chased,  they turn around and chase him, their little snouts held high and their tiny mouths open.   Mac has met his match and, like a great romantic comedy, he totally fixated.  

Posted 2/10/2011 6:15pm by Julie Hurst / Roy Brubaker.

Last weekend was the annual Farming for the Future conference put together by Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA).   I always learn a lot at this conference and last week was no exception.  On Thursday I went to several workshops on raising  and marketing pigs.  Mike Yezzi of Flying Pigs Farm was there and the crowd had a lot of questions for him. But while I get many questions about our farm name,  no one, including me, asked him about the whimsical name of his farm.  Today however, I may have discovered the source of the name.

Roy is at a training all week so I've been picking up a few extra farm chores.  (My skid steer driving skills are improving -- I think the barn doors and roof are reasonably safe now.)  Yesterday when I went to feed the pigs in the afternoon I found a large, hungry sow and a few plump piglets scarfing down the last bag of pig feed left in the feed aisle. They had happily emptied it into the hay and dust and then seemed to believe it was too dirty to actually eat.   I was suspicious that they had learned out to open the gate, but so far they have not repeated the trick.  This morning my errands included stopping by the feed mill for another bag.  When I got home the pigs were tired of rooting for kernels of corn and crowded around to get to their chop.  Watching pigs eat is only half the fun; listening to them gives credence to your mother's command "don't eat like a pig!"   They smack their jowls and grunt and squeal, food and dirt smeared all over their snouts.   I've been trying to tame the little pigs so when the chop was distributed to the feeders I sat down to watch. Curious piglets tentatively came to smell my boots but as soon as I put my hand out to scratch their backs, they scurried out of reach.  At the long trough closest to me a line of piglets faced off against the largest sow.  As I watched, a piglet apparently got into her trough space.  She lifted her snout and flipped the little guy head over heels out of the trough.   He squealed his protest and trotted off to another trough.  "I guess she doesn't know her own strength," I naively concluded.  Two minutes later, the episode repeated itself.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw a piglet flying and flipping through the air.  These girls are serious about their food,  but so are their progeny.   Undaunted the piglet squirmed to its feet and trotted off to find more agreeable dining companions.

Posted 2/7/2011 1:00pm by Julie Hurst / Roy Brubaker.

Happy Groundhog Day! The farm is encased in icy crystal this morning.  Fences take the weight of gravity's frozen pull the hardest.  The electro-net that keeps the sheep in their winter pasture is toppled over on its side.  The sheep, seeing no better opportunity for feed, are content enough to hover close to the hay feeders that give them both warm bedding and sustenance.  Bob and Bud, Roy's team of Belgiums, seem to enjoy the sound of their hooves crashing through the crunchy snow.   The cows and calves too have opted to hang out around their bale feeders rather than damp barn this morning.  Thankfully, Punxsutawni Phil did not see his shadow this morning, so spring is close at hand. 

The hogs on our farm are not about to burrow into the ground and go to sleep.  They have been reunited; three sows with their litters, a bred sow, and the boar, in a barn pen we once used for winter lambing.  After the initial fight to establish matriarchal dominance, they settled into rooting and burrowing through the deep hay and manure that has build up there in the last couple years.   Roy noticed that they are actually eating less --even with the little pigs lining up at the trouph beside their mamas.  Our current theory is that they are less stressed being together.  Pigs are herd animals and while the fights to establish a "pecking order" are a little frighting to watch, once dominance has been determined, they seem much happier.  The little pigs seem especially happy in their new home.  They dash around in packs, stopping to dig and root, always aware of a sow that is standing still long enough to grab a drink.   I have yet to figure out if the sows have become community property or if the little pigs are choosy about where they get a drink.  From what I've observed, the mamas and babies seem more concerned about who they sleep with than who they eat with.  If I am quiet, and leave the dogs their kennel, I get to glimpse the sows burrowed deep in the hay with their fat babies snuggled against their bellies.  It is a scene I hope to capture on film to share with you.   It is a sweet moment that triggers an urge to bake bread or  pile on the sofa with my daughters to read. 

Posted 1/3/2011 8:43am by Julie Hurst / Roy Brubaker.

December 12 - 18

It's been a brutally bittersweet week here on the farm.  Four of our five sows gave birth this week during this deep freeze. We knew that having pigs arrive in December would require extra work to keep them warm and Roy and his dad had built boxes lined with non-flammable insulation and equipped with a heating lamp to keep the piglets warm.   We used wool to line the floor of the boxes to give them added warmth.   Roy began checking in on the sows during the night last week and finally early Monday morning the first ones arrived! The rest of the week is a blur as more piglets arrived, usually during the middle of the night with Roy playing the male version of a Doula for the sows.  It was a grueling week especially because inspite of all our efforts, we lost several little pigs to the cold.  We are finally catching up on our sleep and able to relax a bit as the piglets that have survived this week are now bright-eyed and perky and so very cute.  We have one more sow due to have piglets, but she seems about a week or two away.   We've learned a lot this week and I believe with our boxes, heat lamps, and new knowledge of  how even a well-timed blanket placed over the laboring sow can make a difference, we can avoid any more loss.   We definately feel a little stung and humbled, but also grateful for resiliance and patience of our sows who remained remarkably calm through all our efforts to keep them and their babies warm and comfortable.