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Day to day, week to week life at Blue Rooster.
Posted 10/28/2010 11:53am by Julie Hurst / Roy Brubaker.

Cows, to my knowledge, can audibly communicate a range of about two emotions: discontent and maternal anxiety.  This morning as I was moving the sheep, the cows we have on pastures rented from our neighbors just two knolls south of us, were clearly the former.  I'm not suggesting they are not smart because of their limits. The distant bawling only began after they heard our four-wheeler engine idling as I drove around picking up fence.  When the sheep were secure in their new paddock I drove down to check on them.  They had water.  All the calves were with the mature cows or in little youth gangs, standing on the fringe looking cool and disinterested; a couple hid cigarettes as I walked by.  Their mineral feeder was sufficiently full.  As I walked around the pastures the entire herd followed me, vocalizing all the problems they have to put up with, namely that the grass just isn't as succulent as it had been several weeks ago.  Maybe this is how Obama feels these days.  I opened gates into paddocks that would quiet them, but I can not really change the reality that winter is approaching, the grass is putting it's energy under ground for a while and the cows are going to have to adjust till spring. For now they are quietly grazing like the sheep, steers, and horses during this extended Indian summer. 

Posted 9/23/2010 1:37pm by Julie Hurst / Roy Brubaker.

We owe much of our business to the writing of Michael Pollan.  His expose on the beef industry and his books Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food have been instrumental in raising awareness about the American food system causing many folks to seek an alternative, hopefully more life-giving, way of eating.   Some of those folks have come to us for their meat and we are glad they have.  Michael doesn't need me to plug his books, but I am going to anyway.  Early this morning the "Super Harvest Moon" shone right in our window and tricked my body into believing it was morning.  A light fog reflected the bright moonlight making for a beautifully lit nighttime landscape.  I thought reading might put me back to sleep but I am currently reading Michael Pollan's, Second Nature: A Gardeners Education and as result before I knew it more than an hour had passed.  In spite of an interrupted night, I was inspired by Michael to get out in my garden this morning pull weeds, harvest peppers and tomatoes,  and make plans for next season's garden.   Second Nature is less a practical guide to gardening and more an observance of human interaction with nature, specifically in the context of the American garden.   Even at 2 am it did not put me to sleep like I had hoped.

Posted 9/10/2010 8:31am by Julie Hurst / Roy Brubaker.

Good Morning,

Several months ago I wrote about being challenged by some environmentalists' claim that veganism is the best personal response to our global environmental / food crisis.  It seemed an intuitively illogical claim to me, but it is hard to argue with people who throw numbers around like the Word of God when all your basing your response on is intuition and perhaps some illogical pastoral idealism of your own.   I did feed a little defensive but realistically not too threatened.  I am all too aware of the power of bacon and a juicy, red, steak right off the grill.  Thankfully though, Simon Fairlie did respond, with numbers and everything, in a book called Meat: A Benign Extravagance.   I have not read it yet, but a customer forwarded this article by George Monbiot in The Guardian.  It is quite well done but I am even more excited to read the book.   Anyway, check it out and let me know what you think.

Posted 7/17/2010 11:34am by Julie Hurst / Roy Brubaker.

I believe much of Pennsylvania is rejoicing over the much-needed rain we recieved this week.  I was surprised to learn we got nearly three inches in what sounded like a gentle, overnight rain.  This heat is quickly sucking up the moisture, but not before the pastures, our garden, and our spirits were rejuvenated. 

This week the girls have swimming lessons every day so I am back to fitting in tasks here and there around busy schedules rather than having a day or two of rapid productivity like last week.  This morning I thought I might surprise Roy by moving a round bale into the barn for the horses with the skid steer.   The Bobcat skid steer is a machine I try to avoid but I've been feeling pretty brave with it lately and thought that moving a round bale was a pretty safe task for me.  It was simple enough to drive the skid steer to the line of round bales at the east end of the barn and even stabbing it with the big forks so that it wouldn't roll off was pretty simple.  When I got the open barn I briefly stopped to consider whether or not I should jump off and try to push the doors open a little wider, especially since I am somewhat of a novice with this big machine.  But I was in a hurry and I  saw that with a gentle touch I should be able to drop the bale just inside the door so I kept going.  Gentle or graceful, especially in my hands and feet, is not exactly a good way to describe the movements of a skid steer however.   A skid steer moves like a ZTR lawn mover; your hands control the turns and direction it is going. That feels pretty natural and intuitive to me. However on the floor there are two pedals: one controls raising and lowering of the fork, the other controls the angle.  When I got to the barn door I raised the fork and tried to tilt it back so that the bale would not fall off too soon but I quickly forgot which foot controlled which movement so suddenly I and the wild beast I was riding were bucking around dangerously in front of door that looked way too small for us. Rather than gather my wits I started shouting "stop" to the skid steer as we reared and banged our way into the door.  As I aimlessly stomped on the pedals, while the Bobcat bucked and reared aggressively, it dawned on me that I should be listening to my own command to "stop" but for several seconds I couldn't for the life of me figure out how.  Finally I removed my feet from the pedals, took a deep breath, and assessed the situation.  The bale was high against the top of the barn door, to my left some of the steel siding was a little crumpled, but other than that, we were safe.   I tested a pedal to see if I guessed the right one and slowly the bale lowered and I tilted it slightly and it slid neatly onto the barn floor, just about where I intended it to be.   And there it sits waiting to be handled by a pitch fork; a much more elegant, less cumbersome tool and one I am quite comfortable using.

This evening when Roy got home he informed me that I had picked up a bale from the mulch-hay pile and it will have to be removed for pig bedding rather than used to feed the horses.  Bummer.

Posted 6/8/2010 4:13am by Julie Hurst / Roy Brubaker.

Sunday, while I took the girls down the road for a quick swim in our neighbor's pool, Roy went for a walk in the woods to check his mushoom logs and ginseng plots.   Here's what he found under a protective layer of brush intended to keep the deer from browsing his precious crop.

We arrived back at the house at the same time so we grabbed the camera, tied the dogs in the yard, and all returned to get a glimpse.  A fawn's only real defense is it ability to blend in and lie still.  In spite of Roy getting within two feet of its hiding place and having dogs running around oblivious of its existance, and then having more people come whispering around it, it stayed put.  What a lovely creature.

Posted 5/27/2010 12:00pm by Julie Hurst / Roy Brubaker.

The grass has now out-paced the harvesting mouths of our sheep and cows.  Pollen from the mature grass hovers over the pastures like a light fog in the early morning or late evening sun.  When driving a four-wheeler through the grass to move a water tank or mineral feeder, it is like little explosions or fireworks are going off just ahead of us as the metal rack bolted onto the front bumps the heads of Kentucky bluegrass.  At dinnertime, we complain of itchy eyes and Riley's asthma, which rarely acts up,  is irritating her lungs enough that she's been using the nebulizer and has a short-term prescription of prednisone.   When Roy moved the sheep into a new paddock last evening, they disappeared into tall grass; this morning they reappeared, as little white bumps poking out of the now-thinning grass.   Two new lambs were born yesterday and we feared that in the move they might get lost -- their hungry moms rushing on ahead like mob-shoppers on Black Friday -- but when I rode down this morning to check for them, they were comfortably nestled in a nest of grass next to their moms.  Thus begins round two of our spring lambing (so much for our plan to concentrate lambing into a month!)  Thankfully, only a few ewes will be lambing over the next week or two, and then we will truly be done for this season.

Our five Berkshire sows are really growing fast.  Pigs have an amazing rate of gain compared to sheep!  We've moved them over into our big cattle loafing pen for the summer.  They have more than enough space to root and run around -- in fact -- going into that pen can be a little scary.   They are not shy like sheep nor do they move deliberately like cows.  They are gregarious and quick.   They come right up to me snorting and bumping like paparazzi -- maybe they think I'm Jennifer Anisten, or more likely, Woody Allen.  I am a little shrill and neurotic at times.   Thanks to Charles and Tammy, our dairy farmer neighbors down the road, our pigs are very happy right now.  For the past week they've had several gallons of fresh milk every morning.  After the girls get on the bus, I pull our Radio Flyer wagon down the road to the Kline farm and haul back two five gallon buckets of fresh milk for the pigs.   Several of his cows have "freshened" (just had a calf) and their milk is not allowed to go into the tank for several days.   I feel like the valley milk maid -- pulling my wagon, milk sloshing over the edges of the buckets, as I make my way home to feed the pigs. 

Posted 5/24/2010 10:30am by Julie Hurst / Roy Brubaker.

Last Sunday, May 17th, was our 2nd Annual Customer Appreciation and Open Farm Day. (Click to see the slide show) We were thrilled to have nearly 70 customers attend on one of the loveliest May days we could have ever hoped for.   Everything went so smoothly we weren't sure if we were at the right farm!   (Having several friends and family members helping us the last several days was a wonderful asset.)

But while we were cleaning up and putting the horses in the barn we noticed a lot of baa-ing coming from the sheep paddock.  That usually means one thing -- a member of the flock has escaped and the rest are tattling or expressing their jealously.   Sure enough, way down in the lowest pasture, just beyond where they were supposed to be, I saw sheep parting the tall grass.  We'd turned off the electric fence during the day to prevent anyone from getting  zapped but they'd been turned back on soon after we knew everyone was out of the field.  Apparently a few sheep had made a break for it while the fence was off and now they realized an electrified fence had them separated from the flock.  Roy called Mac and together they went down to round them up. 

When Roy arrived he found a ewe tangled in the electro-net.  Getting tangled in electro-net is seriously frustrating when it is not electrified.  I can't imagine how terrifying it must be when you are struggling against a net and getting shocked at the same time!  Roy unclipped the line that was electrifying the fence and bent over to get the ewe disentangled.  Out of exhaustion and sheer desperation he simply looked at Mac and said, "Go get the sheep."   In a short time the ewe was free but instead of running back into the paddock or in the direction of the other escaped sheep, she sprinted off in yet another direction.   By this time it was dusk, Roy was tired, and it looked like a beautiful, enjoyable day was about to end in total chaos until ... a line of sheep heads appeared running right towards the paddock with Mac following behind!   Roy opened the fence and they ran in, all except that ewe whose head was fried by the electro-net.  Again Roy told Mac to go find her, pointing in the direction she had run.   Mac disappeared into the tall grass and before long the single ewe came trotting back and rejoined the flock.   What a great dog. What a terrific way to end a lovely day - order restored -- happy dog, contented farmers.

Posted 4/25/2010 1:50pm by Julie Hurst / Roy Brubaker.

Most of the time lambing goes pretty smoothly but sometimes things are a little more complicated.  Last week I checked on the flock in the morning and found two new lambs and a ewe in labor.  The one lamb was being taken care of but the other one, while obviously cleaned and dried, was wandering around aimlessly, crying for its mother.  We've learned to watch and wait before intervening, but when I returned to the barn mid-morning the lamb still had not been claimed.  It is easy to tell if a ewe has recently lambed.  Her udder is full and a little bloody and if she has normal mothering instinct, she is distracted, nickering, and licking her lips.  Except for the ewe guarding her big, single lamb and the one that had by now just given birth, there were no others showing signs of having lambed.  Most likely the ewe with the single had in fact had twins, got separated from the first one, and focused totally on the second one in interim.   So... we gained another bottle lamb.   We now have three.  

The day before we put down a ewe because of a torn uterus.   An immediate c-section saved the lamb; a strapping ram who is doing surprisingly well.  We milked some colostrum from another ewe and gave him enough for a healthy start  Our third bottle lamb was a triplet who we observed getting further and further behind his hefty sibs, who pushed it out of the way to claim udder space.   A couple weeks ago, when it was blustery and cold,  I found him lying alone in the barnyard, no longer able to keep up with his mom.   He was so cold and hungry I wrapped him in an old sheet, put him in a box, and kept him by the radiator all afternoon.   When the girls came home, they draped him in doll blankets and made decorations for his bed. That, and the fact that he was drinking well and trying to stand, was my cue, to get him to the garage before we acquired yet another house pet.  All three bottle lambs are now in the barn, with our bottle calf, Fern.  Yes... the work just keeps increasing!

Fern was a twin who got separated from her mother and forgotten.   Roy suspected the cow was going to have twins and was watching for them, however, our mature cows are on some land we rent in Blacklog Valley.  The day he checked the cows she was tending to one calf and there were no other ones in sight.  He assumed he was wrong and came home.  The next day a neighbor called and told us there was a calf lying alone in a separate  paddock.   Roy went immediately and as luck would have it, was able to catch her.   He gave the cow a chance to reclaim her but it had been too long, so he put her in the back of our Subaru Outback and brought her home.

Posted 4/25/2010 11:17am by Julie Hurst / Roy Brubaker.

It is hard not to feel challenged these days when some of the very people I feel share and articulate my concerns regarding global ecological health promote vegetarianism or veganism as the biggest lifestyle change a person can make to help the environment.  They not only point to the all the fossil fuels used to grow feed-grain and move the animals from feedlot to market, they also point to evidence that the ruminating process of cows release an exorbitant amount of natural methane into the atmosphere.  I admit, until the methane argument got thrown into the mix, I felt pretty secure in our farming methods, in fact we, along with many grass farmers and grazers join the protest against the devastating ecological affects and inhumane treatment of animals associated with industrial-scale meat production. 
 
Then came the methane argument.  My first defensive thought was "who funded this study?" "Who is behind this?"  Every report I heard on the subject assumed broad generalizations about how the meat was produced. There were never any qualifications about production methods.   Surely the methane produced from a natural process as amazing as rumination cannot be a major factor in climate change!  But I am not a scientist and between farming, raising kids, volunteering for the PTA, PASA, etc. etc. I simply do not have time to do an in depth analysis of the methane argument.   All I knew was it didn't smell right to me, and believe me; I know cow smells better than most.  But being a beef farmer,  I'm prone to approach this issue with some biases that could blind me from the truth.  If I am going to be a skeptic,  I'd better start by being a bit skeptical of my own motives. 


In the most recent Orion, Bill McKibben, (environmentalist, author, and scholar in residence at Middlebury College) took a helpful look at the issue.  Bill Mckibben announces immediately that he has not cooked red meat in years.   I think it is fair to say his views are less biased than mine -- a very frequent eater and prepar-er of red meat who is all to happy to provide quality grass-fed red meat to anyone who is seeking it!  I will skip the details as you can read  "The Only Way to Have a Cow" for yourself  (it will be posted on April 1st.)   He makes a distinction between large feedlots and a rotational grazing system that essentially mimics what large herds of bison or other ungulates did prior to the disappearance of large predators.  They moved, spreading their manure as they went and allowing for a wide variety of grasses to thrive without needing to till, seed, spray, and mechanically harvest huge swaths of land.  According to McKibben"This method of raising cattle could put much of the atmosphere's oversupply of greenhouse gasses back in the soil inside half a century."  He goes on to say that raising beef this way will cost more, which is an important limiting factor to the amount of meat Americans eat.   "Everything in moderation" (except for the occasional chocolate binge) seems like an appropriate axiom for most of life on this precious planet.  (I wish he'd cite the research he uses, but Orion is not a scientific journal and no doubt the debate about naturally produced methane will continue.  If you know of credible research in this area, we'd love to read it.)

Posted 3/4/2010 12:01pm by Julie Hurst / Roy Brubaker.

The sun is definately arriving earlier, staying later, and shinning brighter each day and I feel my engery level rising as its intensity increases.   I've enjoyed this past season's wintery weather though, in fact to my mind, this is the way winters are supposed to be;  hard enough to make us really appreciate spring when it arrives.   The evidence for spring's iminent arrival is mounting.  Our daffodils and snowdrops are pushing through the soil and ... we had our first lambs!

The story of our first lambs is bittersweet but I will tell you anyway.  It demonstrates how on the farm, like in life, everything thing is connected, every action has a reaction.   Last Thursday, during the calm before the storm, I went out to push the hay forward in the feeders and discovered a young yearling ewe had a lamb.  We were concerned about early lambs from our young ewes because last summer, after being weened from the ewes, they were kept together with the ram lambs for about a month.  If you recall, our old way of lambing gave us a wide age-range of lambs because our lambing season was so long.  Clearly some of our lambs were reaching sexual maturity before they were separated.  The lamb I discovered was cleaned and cared for; its mother was attentive but very skittish.   I tried to coax her down to the barn by leading with the little lamb.  She'd come to the gate then dash back to join the flock.  I needed Mac's help but x-rays have shown he has a torn ligament on his right hind ankle and he is restricted from any activity for a month.   This was mid-afternoon and the sun was actually shining, but high winds and snow were predicted overnight.  We've always been told that as long as lamb is clean, dry, drinking, and cared for it can withstand extreme weather conditions.  Roy was working late so I called him and we decided to leave the lamb with the flock.  My attempts at moving the lamb were unsuccessful and just increasing stress to the lamb and the mother.

That night none of us slept very well.  The wind roared, girls woke up, and we all worried about the new lamb -- I felt more than a little guilty -- how could it ever survive this?  At six the next morning I took walk around the pen staying far enough away from the sheep so as not to disturb them.  They lay with a thin blanket of snow on their wool, chewing their cuds, and staring calmly at me.  I didn't see the lamb anywhere.
  


By mid-morning the wind had subsided and the sheep were up and moving around.  I kept watching for a sign of the lamb but couldn't see it.  Finally I decided to face the hard truth and go look for it's frozen little body.  When I crossed the fence into the paddock, all the sheep stood up and started moving around and there in the midst of them was the new lamb.  It had snow hanging from its wool, but it looked healthly and lively and I was thrilled!!  If it survived that wretched night I thought it could survive anything. 

I was wrong though. The next morning, after a calm, normal, winter night, Roy found it dead among the sheep.   Was the cummulative affect of the cold and snow too much?  Did its young mother forget about it, as occasionally seems to happen with first-time moms? Or was there something else wrong that we couldn't detect?  I don't know.  But when these things happen, and they do, we look back at the actions that led to this result and in this case it all goes back to that long lambing season we are finally trying to change.  Hopefully next spring we won't have this story to tell.

The good news is Monday we had another surprise lamb.  So far it is doing just fine!