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Herman Nelson

Herman Nelson

 

Jonathan Wright

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My late Uncle Cletus, second-eldest in a family of thirteen, explained the family-planning in those days:

 

“What’s that?” said Mom.

“I’ll set a trap,” said Dad.

“No… that…”

“Good Lord.”

“Another one.”

“Yes.”

“Better go kill a chicken.  It will soon be hungry.”

“I’ll kill a quail.  The others grew so fast.”

“Maybe this one will be small.”

“Yes – start right. Control its diet.”

“It can be a Stenographer.”

“It seems small.”

“It’s still a baby.”

“Get it out from under the table.”

“We should find it some clothes – it leaves little to the imagination.”

“It’s a quiet one, though.”

“It doesn’t want to attract the others.”

“Good survival instinct.”

“And introspective.”

“What sex is it?”

“Give it time.”

“How soon can we put it to work?”

“Soon – simple tasks.”

“It’s rather hairy.”

“That’s a good name.”

“It has a lot of hair.”

“It’s a December child…”

 

The thing is, Andrea and I didn’t have thirteen children, but we did have something small, hairy, and unexpected arrive this December.

 

Mable is our sole remaining milk cow.  This is after selling her mother, Mary.  It seems like a terrible thing, to sell someone’s mother, but Mable doesn’t seem to care.  Her mother was a full-blood Jersey, a breed prone to milk-fever, so we crossed her to a Milking Shorthorn sire, a breed not known for milk-fever.  This made sense, to us.  Mable has the red-and-white colouration of the dad, overlaid with a nice brindling.

 

Now, here’s the thing about yaks: you can cross a yak with a cow, but the resulting bulls are sterile.  The cows remain fertile.  Prevailing wisdom surrounding yaks says that if you wish to accomplish such a breeding, you must separate the yak bull together with the cow you wish to breed.  He is something of an elitist, you see, and will only breed a cow when the pickings get – or are rendered – slim.

 

Mable was not separated from our small yak herd and we didn’t worry.  We thought one day we might separate her with Clint, our yak bull, when the time seemed right.  Anyway, she started bagging-up in early December, but not much, so we didn’t think much of it.  “She’s becoming a woman,” that sort of thing.  Nothing else to cause alarm seemed to be occurring.

 

It got cold, so we put her in the old milking barn, the one built by Arnie Arnesson way back when and that we put a new metal roof on because it was on its last legs, although it should stand now for a long time.  Log barns, so the prevailing wisdom goes, don’t fall over, they just get more squat over time, like the folks that build them; and all the other folks, too.  We hope the prevailing wisdom surrounding log barns has more substance behind it than the prevailing wisdom surrounding yaks.  You see, it had only been a few days that Mable was snug in her barn when I went in and thought,

 

“Who let that mongrel in here with the cow?”

 

But I was wrong.  Mable had given birth.  A little calf was there, small, hairy, red-and-white like the mom, and already frolicking about, his name: Herman Nelson.  Half-yak, one-quarter Jersey, one-quarter Milking Shorthorn.  Not only did we have a new calf, we had learned something more about Clint, our yak bull, Herman’s dad.  Something that we hadn’t thought about before, something that would not have occurred to us: he was not much of a reader.  And this is the thing about yaks, the other thing.  Their calves are small, like a sewing machine.  They make no more difference to the mother’s girlish shape than a couple of beers make to the shape of a long-haul trucker.  The result being that they tend to simply appear, if you are not watching closely.  If you do watch closely, they appear anyway.

 

Just like our ancestors did.

 

 

We Stand on Guard for Thee

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Andrea is working in the farmyard, close to the gate that opens out to pasture.  Some of the big grazers are coming down the corridor to the central paddock for water.  There, approaching amongst them, she becomes aware of  something small and incongruous.  It is the fox that has been plaguing us, beautiful and relentless little killer.  It is there using the large animals as a screen to approach the field-chickens unnoticed, or so it hopes.

But it doesn’t work.  Just as she’s about to shout at the interloper, a streak of wolf-large whooly fur rockets out from behind her, followed by another and yet another  These are our protectors, our livestock guardian dogs.  They are almost on the fox before it realizes the very real peril it is in and bolts.  By now our two other farm dogs have joined the chase.  The fox won’t be getting a free lunch from us, not today.  Still, it is very lucky not to have been shredded.

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Ranger and some egg birds.

The working group “livestock guardian dogs” is composed of a number of breeds, including but not limited to: Great Pyrenees; Maremma; Akbash; Komondor; Ovcharka.  The origin of these dogs is lost in antiquity, but it seems they share a common ancestor that originated perhaps in Asia.  They are designed for a pastoral style of livestock husbandry, that is, one that relies on free ranging stock out on open pasture.  They are raised from pups right alongside those animals they are meant to guard, and long instinct borne out of careful selection over millennia instructs them that their job is to watch over this “family” and all it contains, and to guard it with their life.  (In our case, we raised our pups alongside our chickens.  The yaks and the draft horses don’t need protecting.)  They tend to be large dogs, capable of standing a chance against a wolf or bear if necessary.  Custom sometimes suggests the dogs should receive a minimum of human contact in order for them to bond with their animal charges, but this hardly seems to be the case,  Ours are extremely bonded to us yet do an exemplary job guarding, and at only slightly over a year old, they will only get better – it takes these dogs up to three years to fully mature.  At any rate, we cannot imagine the loss that would be ours should we not have their friendship as we do – they are delightful creatures, full of character and personality.  Furthermore, any dog this large, and programmed for savagery as the situation requires, certainly needs socialization with humans.  Unless you are Ghenghis Khan, an individual infamous for harnessing his anger to produce a desired outcome.  Then again, while some people who come on your place will certainly deserve to be bit on the ass by a large carnivore, Mr. Khan did not live in such a litigious age as we do today.

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Komondorok are serious dogs. Here’s one convincing a coyote.

Amongst the breeds that compose this group of dogs are those famous for wandering large distances.  I once had a friend who raised Pyrenees on his farm, for instance, this being one of the roaming breeds.  When I drove over the prairie to visit him in winter, it was not uncommon to begin encountering the tracks of his dogs in the snow many miles out on the plains before I reached his farm.  Two of his pups were our first livestock dogs, in fact.  We couldn’t keep them on the place, nor to be honest,  anywhere near it.  I suppose we got them a little old to bond properly with the stock.  Whatever the case, and while I personally found their free-spiritedness both fascinating and endearing, the dogs were effectively useless to us when they were five miles away and the coyote five feet from the fence.  We reluctantly returned them.

Our livestock dogs that are on the place now – the brothers Sounder, Ranger and Hunter – are a trio we rescued as young pups.  Their mother is a Komondor, a huge and intriguing breed that is more aggressive yet less prone to wander, their dad one of my friend’s old Pyrenees.  Since spring has come on and the chickens are out ranging well afield, these new dogs have become pretty much the homebodies, tied to their job.  But there was a time last winter when i was off deer hunting in the big woods that abuts our place, several miles deep into the sylvan fastness, and came upon tracks on a steep and trackless slope that i first took to be those of a pair of very large mountain lions.  Wolf-sized prints.  (There are lions here that leave such large tracks.)  Then I detected claw-marks, which the lion of course, having retractable ones, does not leave.  The prints were too round and catlike, however, to be those of wolves, found here as well.  Then it suddenly dawned on me why these prints were looking so familiar as I continued to examine them.  They were the tracks of my own pack!  I was happy knowing they were out engaging the wilds as I was. 

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Sounder at his post near the eggmobile, guarding the free-range egg layers.

Our dogs are interesting to us on many levels, not the least of which includes how their physical appearance lends insights into the ancient ties between the livestock guardian breeds.  For while both their parents were entirely white, two of the brothers are predominantly grey.  A person might well wonder why this is so, yet in learning more about this guild of canines, will discover that other guardian breeds known from geographic regions abutting those from whence the “Komondorok” (plural for Komondor) and Pyrenees sprang indeed commonly have markings, hues and patterns not unlike those of our crosses.  Breeds like the Pyrenean Mastiff, and the South Russian Ovcharka.  The long buried lineages emerging readily from the ether of long ago with a little genetic coaxing.

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Komondor x Pyrenees pups, newly arrived. Sounder, Ranger and Hunter.

It is normal these days when new laws are passed out in the country for them to represent some level of inhibiting nuisance to those rural folk living traditional rural lives.  So it was with relief and hope that we reviewed new ordinances in our home county of Mountainview.

In Mountainview County, it is now writ in law that a barking livestock protection dog is not to be considered grounds for nuisance complaints.  Nor is a livestock protection dog that is roaming off-property in the pursuit of its duties to be considered a “dog-at-large.”  Rather, these dogs are now being protected as the vitally contributing rural citizens that they are, essential elements of a productive rural fabric.

Now that’s the kind of “progress” we need to see more of.  Laws that actually favor, rather than hamstring, traditional farm economies. 

 

A Most Elegant System

Image “All flesh is grass,” says the Book of Isaiah, and so on our farm, that’s where it begins – with the grass.  The production of our free-range eggs and meat chickens is a good example of the genesis of this adage.

To produce the best chicken and eggs possible, we must raise the birds on pasture, and so rather than focusing primarily on the chickens, we must practice farm management principles that are best for the health of this pasture first.

Grass is designed with grazers in mind.  Grazers in nature run in tight herds and move around a lot.  The stay tight as defense against predators, and they move around so that the grass beneath their feet is always fresh.  Any given blade of grass is nipped off once and left alone as the grazer moves on.  The root of the grass dies back according to the amount grazed off above the surface, and the dead root elements decompose into topsoil.  The blade of the grass then has a growth surge in response to being nipped, and the roots do too.  Nip it more than once in too short a span of time, however, and you stunt the blade and the root, both.  Hence the old adage, “Keep down the shoot, kill the root.”

The first step then in raising the best chicken and eggs, is to have a herd of large grazers to keep the pasture healthy and prepare it for the chickens.  On our farm, this herd is composed of draft horses, yaks and dairy cows.  In order to mimic the patterns of natural grazing just described, we move them daily to fresh pasture, enclosed tightly in a temporary paddock delineated by solar-powered electric wire and just large enough to completely graze in one day, no larger.  They’re on there, they hit it hard, and they’re gone, leaving the grass alone to respond naturally.  They aren’t brought back to the same spot until the grass is ready.  Your grass tells you when and where to graze the animals, in other words.  This system is called “mob grazing.”  It is not only a key to healthy pasture, it is a potent tool in combating climate-change, for while over-grazed pastures which are the norm today lead to desertification and absorb little carbon-dioxide, and ungrazed pastures emit carbon dioxide from their thick decomposing thatch of dead, unused grass, mob-grazed pastures maintain optimum growth and absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide.

This method on its own, done correctly and with attention to detail, would result in very good pasture at about four times the volume a conventionally grazed pasture provides, but now we incorporate the chickens to add diversity to the system, for resilience is contingent on diversity.  Our meat and egg birds are rotated onto the paddocks the big grazers have prepared as the grass is coming back, for the chickens don’t like the grass too long.  The meat birds are kept in large, movable pens to protect them from predators and the elements, and the more agile egg birds range out from fixed-coops and a mobile “eggmobile,” protected by big, shaggy dogs whose working lineages are lost in antiquity.  They nibble the grass without having the impact of the herd animals, and they eat the insects and take in all the nutritional elements of a healthy sward.  They add their droppings to the grounds, an incredible injection of soil health-inducing nitrogen that the grass would not be able to incorporate were it not for the fact that it were being mob-grazed and kept in a hyper-productive state.  The chickens in turn take in many healthy antibodies and of course receive plenty of ultra-violet from the sun.  This way, we circumvent the need in today’s large and vulnerable meat birds for the constant infusions of antibiotics required to keep them alive in the crowded, stressed battery barns they were genetically designed for, and where the chicken you’re used to eating comes from.  And the eggs you get our way have been shown to be six times more nutritious than conventionally raised.  And so as a by-product of keeping our pasture in the best shape it can possibly be in, we get the finest chicken and eggs possible.  We also build topsoil, maintain healthy herds, feed draft-animals that provide us with the sustainable power that machines cannot, at the same time as combating climate change.

It’s a most elegant system.  Enjoy your chicken!
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The Hungry Gap is Over

In traditional farming, there comes a time of year in the early spring when one must lock their animals away in a paddock.  This happens when the grass begins to green-up, and the purpose in doing this is to let the pasture get a good start before beginning the season’s rotation of the grazers.  The paddock they are kept in for this period, usually lasting a month and a half or two, is called a “sacrifice area,” as it is sorely used by the animals and nothing much remains but dirt.  But it is worth this sacrifice for what it does for the rest of your farm.  The period the animals are kept off the fields is traditionally called, “The Hungry Gap,” for the animals are hungry for grass during this gap in their freedom, and like their wild counterparts, in their lowest condition of the year.  In addition, the horses have already been working the ground, and the mares may have been carrying babies to near-full term.  Gwyneth worked right up to the day before giving birth this time around.  This is something working horses have long been doing, and it is actually good for producing uncomplicated births to work the mothers close to the day of arrival.

Gwyneth and new filly enjoy their first day together on pasture

Gwyneth and new filly enjoy their first day together on pasture, ending the Hungry Gap for 2013.

This year, the hungry gap ended for us on May 21st.  (A couple of days before this was when Gwyneth gave birth.  Our first baby Clydesdale of the season, a lovely young filly.)  The animals, some thin and even a bit bony from a too-long, if fairly flaccid winter, were eager as always to get out on the grass.

Every day or at most two, our herd is moved from one small pasture to the next, given only enough area to graze off completely in that brief period. The patch is not then grazed again until the grass has come back fully. This is called “Mob Grazing,” and is the most efficient way to maximize the health of your pasture and the volume of grass, especially when it is a mixed herd doing the grazing, as different grazers eat the grass in a different fashion. Horses crop it down close and prefer shorter grass, for instance, while yaks and cows use their big tongue to encircle a swath of the tall stuff and pull it into their mouth.

Our first paddock, the one we traditionally break the gap with, is a mixed aspen-balsam-spruce savannah, a small patch of considerably less than an acre. The animals love it in there, it is cool and lush, and they sure are a pleasure to behold in this setting. Soon their condition will be noticeably improved, and in no time they will be back in prime shape.

Mixed herd.

Mixed herd.

Our New Farmer Site

www.newfarmer.ca

is an offshoot of Thompson Small Farm.  It is our educational wing.  We will be putting muc hof our energies into this project for 2012.  We will not be operating a CSA this year but will be selling our eggs and fresh produce at the Sunnyside Farmers Market.

Check out the new site for Jon’s latest blogs!

 

thanks,

Andrea & Jon

Okay, I think we’ve figured this out!

I think we’ve figured this out now to make it usable for those who stumble accross this blog.

I started out posting all of our past newsletter in what I believe is now the wrong section so I have done some reorganizing and will get the archived newsletters onto the new newsletter tab and keep this section for actual news from the farm.

Keep checking as we’ll be attempting to post and update at least bi-weekly.

Thanks for your interest.

Andrea & Jon

Newsletter #2011-3. April, Early May.

 Hello everyone –

Spring has finally and definitively arrived here.  It has been a couple of weeks now since we had a night frost, it seems, and the snow is at last gone from all but the shadiest places.  The chickadees (black capped’s and boreal’s) and juncos (slate-coloured and Oregon’s) at the feeder have been replaced by white crowned sparrows, while the yard and the woods are filled with sapsuckers and flickers, barn and tree swallows, the swamp with winnowing snipe and quacking hordes of wood frogs. 

We are pretty much right on schedule with our started plants in the greenhouse, although certainly the direct field seeding has been delayed some by the late thaw.  It is now windier than this country normally is, (according to neighbors,) more like the plains we just left.  We are hoping this is something short-lived.  We have enjoyed the sense of calm that has prevailed here until the past week or so.

The last weekend of April we took a minor part in the “Local 101 and 102” events put on by Slow Food at the Palace Theatre and the University of Calgary.  This event was focused on local food production.  Driving in, we reflected on the teeming hive of activity Calgary has become, and felt excited that the city was hosting an event focused on such an important issue as put on by such an esteemed organization.  We had fun, there were some great presentations and films.  The attendance, however, was frankly appalling for the entire weekend, with this fact being the dominating factor in pretty much everyone’s analysis of the event.  We are hoping this was due to a lack of advertising exposure – which we have heard was not what it could nor should have been – and not an honest reflection of the relative order of priorities in our city.  (Perhaps next year the event can be slid out onto the ice during the intermissions in a Flames game, some wag suggested.)  This may well be the case – certainly the CSA model is receiving plenty of support from Calgarians these days, with the number of startup CSA’s on the rise, and this is a very positive sign.

Our first flats of brassicas (broccoli, kale and cabbage,) have gone out into the house-garden field as of yesterday.  This field was the produce source for the original Norwegian family who arrived here from Minnesota by ox and wagon.  (What a trip that must have been!)  They knew where to put a garden in a climate like ours – and theirs – it is a lovely little micro-climate they chose, noticeably warmer on a cool windy weekend like we just had.  We are deeply grateful to members Jo-Anne and Ashley Gibson, Bev Hollenbeck and Shelina Knight for coming out and participating in the planting.  These folks were efficient!  In a matter of a few short hours, they came, they conquered and they left, like a small locust plague in reverse, leaving the beginnings of a crop where just hours before there had been barren dirt, and turning for us what would have been an all-day task into something easily manageable in an afternoon.  Similar events occurred here earlier in the past month, including the crucial help we received in erecting a new passive-solar greenhouse (for peppers and tomatoes) and in surveying our north fenceline thanks to dear friends Boris Berthelot and friend Paul, and Corinne and Gary Funk, respectively.  Many hands do indeed make light work, not to mention a priceless sense of community!

There is a raven with a nest in the nearby woods who is stealing our eggs.  I had seen him coming and going from the area of the hen-house with pale objects in his beak that looked too small to be eggs, but this was a reflection of his considerable size.  Eggs they were.  In the old days, a firearm would have been produced, and a raven would have died, but that thought is appalling to us, where ravens are involved.  Watching this raven dip and soar in the wind, like some gorgeous airborne dolphin – with an intellect on par – we can only come to the conclusion that ending such a fine, unfettered life for the sake of our own ones, (which may well be of inferior quality,) would be a terrible sacrilege.  So the problem is one of husbandry, and hopefully it is one that can indeed be solved.  Our dogs chase him when they see him, but his patrols are relentless.  He is the master at this game. 

Predator issues were one of many factors bringing inefficiencies that lead to the (temporary) solution of modern agriculture – keeping everything under lock and key at great expense that could only be compensated for by increasing scale which in turn required ever more massive energy inputs.  Of course, we know what this does to food quality, not to mention the quality of life for the creatures involved (including the farmer’s.)  Sometimes problem predators do have to be killed, but this is not something that should be done without careful analysis.  As a culture, we congratulate ourselves today that we no longer kill the hawk (a basic, reptilian creature compared to a raven,) that raids the henhouse like the small farmers of yore, without recognizing the inherent stack of ironies involved. It was precisely the shift to an industrial scale and mode of life that bought us the luxury in recent decades not to have to deal sometimes harshly with competing predators on the farms, and what’s more, that provided a living in our modern times for the scores of biologists and conservationists that champion such creatures (only a fraction the number of whom were provided for by the old system of patronage) so that they could in turn speak out against the nature and actions of the very industrial system that enabled most of their livelihoods.  Thanks in large part to such folks, it is now a criminal act to protect your poultry by eliminating a problem goshawk, for instance.  It is a complicated, convoluted time we live in.  For is it not better to have many more small farms free-ranging their hens and necessarily killing the odd goshawk, however magnificent, than to have a system that saves some hawks and creates a profession of being a naturalist on the one hand while endangering all of life on earth – hawks and humans included – with the other? 

We hope you all have a wonderful May, and that you’re able to get out there and enjoy our splendid part of the world!

Thank-you…

-Jon and Andrea

You are capable of more than you know. Choose a goal that seems right for you and strive to be the best, however hard the path. Aim high. Behave honorably. Prepare to be alone at times, and to endure failure. Persist! The world needs all you can give.

 

-          E. O. Wilson

 

Today’s industrial agriculture… will become utterly unsustainable once the huge fossil fuel inputs that go into farm machinery, agricultural chemicals, worldwide transport networks, and the like stop being commercially viable.   Converting back to horse-powered agriculture would be a challenge, but one well within the realm of the possible; relatively simple changes in agricultural, taxation, and land use policy could do much to foster that conversion.

 

- John Michael Greer

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