A rainbow makes an appearance at the farm just after a recent storm. Weather is often a farm event provoker (or crasher), but it’s not the only player! Photo by Kara Berlage.
If you’re one of those folks who has your day planned down to the quarter-hour, keeps a tidy “to-do” list at hand, and likes to plan well in advance (and stick to it), then homestead farming might not be for you.
I do keep a “to-do” list, when I can remember where I put it. Something (often multiple things) get done every day…they’re just not always what’s on the list. So I take my que from a Joel Salatin trick and write it on the list and cross it off! At least it helps me feel better about the day’s accomplishments. That item should have been on the list anyway, right?
While other fields certainly have their hiccups, farming inherently is full of surprises, last-minute changes, unpredictability, and a large amount of variables that necessitate the need to change your plans at a second’s notice in order to avoid disaster (or do your best at cleaning up after one). “Never a dull moment!” I often hear from folks after explaining the week’s happenings. That was even more the case with this week!
Of course, weather is an immense variable in any kind of farming. Haying cannot be booked in advance—waiting for that perfect three-to-four-day dry stretch often involves giving the green light the morning of. Storms arise and it’s “drop everything and run” to batten down the hatches, tie down the chicken tractors, and stuff wheel barrows and other small items into sheds to avoid damage or loss. A mild day that turns baking hot means doubling back to open windows in the brooder coop and turn on the fan, only to return with haste in the evening as the sun sets and the temps plummet. And oh how many nights by headlamp have I been out in the garden covering sensitive plants because frost wasn’t previously predicted.
The unpredictability of animals is also high on the list of crashing the day’s plans or keeping us up at night. The ewes give birth at all hours, pigs escape their fencing, the guard donkey refuses to come in from the pasture at night, or a turkey is found sitting on the roof of the coop…just waiting for the next owl.
This week, amidst all the heavy rains and flooding that seemed to bring in “round two” of mud season on the farm, Kara and I were finishing up evening chores. We were feeding our Kunekune sows and boars by the light of the headlights on our utility golf cart when Kara climbed in to check one of the pregnant sows.
It was Clara’s first pregnancy—a red-and-black speckled pig who was hanging out with her white friend Tilly—and usually the ladies show a ready udder (“bag up”) ahead of time, giving us enough warning to move them into the barn for a clean, dry, comfy farrowing. But Clara had been keeping her pregnancy a secret until recently, and when Kara climbed into the pen, she said, “Uh, um, we’ve got milk.”
That meant her labor was imminent. It was pitch black out—not even a moon to be seen—and it was her first time. The experienced sows gladly trundle over to the barn (sometimes faster than Kara can run), but Clara was not in any way eager to leave her friends into the dark unknown, even when we cajoled her out of the pen. So I was given the task of making sure she didn’t wander off while Kara fetched the ATV and our homemade pig sled on skids we normally use to move around batches of teenaged piglets.
Fortunately, Clara was a very calm gal about the whole operation, and we were able to safely load her into the sled and glide across the muddy yard, pulling right up to the barn door. Kara had the pen all ready, filled with nice straw, and the other moms with their young piglets grunted with anticipation. We opened the back of the sled, and, with a little patting and prodding, Clara came out and waltzed into the pen.
We did it! And a good thing too. By three in the morning, Clara had given birth to seven piglets. Much better in the barn than out in a muddy pen! Whew, averted that disaster.
So Kara’s still pretty sleepy from getting up several times in the night to check on Clara and make sure that the delivery went well when, in the middle of morning chores and feeding sheep, she hears a rumble-bang-crash! It came from the red barn and sounded like broken glass. No!
Fortunately Kara had been where she could even hear the event. Racing over, she found that a ruffed grouse had exploded from outside the barn, through the window, breaking its neck and catapulting 12 feet into the barn. The window was right over a pen of medium-sized pigs, and glass was everywhere. And, in their classic toddler-like behavior, the pigs were picking up the glass and trying to eat it. No!
She climbed in, madly picking up bits of glass as fast as she could. Meanwhile, Mom and I are at the Creamery with a brunch rush, and Steve is at the home of a computer client. While at first, it seems like everything was going to be alright, one of the gilts (young female pigs) took a downward turn from glass ingestion. Kara was on the phone with us, we were on the phone with the vet, but there wasn’t anything that could be done to save the pig.
When Steve returned to the farm (and we have survived two burnt rounds of “open-faced California” sandwiches), he found himself assigned to help Kara butcher the 40-lb. glass disaster pig. Talk about putting a real kink in the day! The poor pigger and the kamikaze grouse were all finally finished and in the fridge by 4 pm…still on the same day as the piglets were born.
For instances like this, you have to be willing to change plans on a moment’s notice. If Kara had waited to investigate the glass sound, more of the pigs in that group could have been lost. And if she hadn’t been willing to butcher right then, all that meat would have been lost. And if we hadn’t moved Clara at “o-dark thirty,” her piglets might have been lost. When prioritizing your time of the farm, often lives are in the balance.
Then last night, during chores, all the lights went out in the barn and coops, right in the middle of milking. It was a scramble with terrified sheep in the parlor in the dark and frightened baby chicks with no heat lamps, but we were able to string up extension cords to the garage (which still had power) and get most of the dairy back working until our kind electrician dropped his evening plans and came over to replace a faulty breaker. Otherwise, there was no power to the bulk tank and milk would have been lost.
Goodness, never a dull moment on the farm! Time to head off to the next priority. I’ll be feeling lucky if it happens to be something on my to-do list. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com
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