That’s a Lot of Snow, But At Least It’s Not Boston

It started snowing sometime between 3:30AM, when I woke up to check, and 5:30AM, when I actually got out of bed, and it didn’t stop until late evening.  My pitchfork estimated we got about 8″ of fine, soft powder in just about 16 hours.  I know we wouldn’t think much of that kind of snow in my native New Jersey – maybe a school holiday, but the roads would be cleared quickly and life would go on fairly uninterrupted.  It’s an unusual amount of snow for this area, though, and we’re just not well equipped to deal with it.  So the whole world stops.  We stay home because the roads won’t be plowed for quite some time, and the schools will probably be closed for more than one day.

In weather like this, I wish we had a bigger barn.  A barn with two closed ends.  Anything to give our girls a little more shelter.  As it was, all the cows were encrusted with ice by the afternoon, and none of them liked having it brushed out.  I think it pulled their hairs.  ;-)  The steers were the hardest to help, as they don’t have quite as much contact with us and did not appreciate being handled.  I did what I could, but it wasn’t much.  When I left them, they had fresh bedding, but they both had icicles hanging off their cheeks.  I prayed for them.

Although the temperature dropped to -6° just before dawn – 12° lower than forecast – all the animals made it safely through the night!    They only had a little frost on the tips of their fur; even the icicles had melted!

We worked hard this morning, cleaning up the barn, milking the cows and getting water to thirsty animals.  Lovely flakes of silvery snow drifted down from the trees.  The whole world sparkled and shimmered in the warmth of the rising sun.

It’s going to be a beautiful day.

Artificial Insemination: Two Down, Two to Go

“Good morning, ladies!” I called out cheerfully.  I flipped on the barn lights.  Sleepy cows rose and stretched and looked at me curiously.  Except one: she thrust her head over the stall door and mooed.

Here’s a little known fact for you: Cows only moo when they are in need of something.

So I looked at her sharply.  “What’s wrong, Maybelle?  You can’t be hungry.”  She focused intently on Annabelle, who was performing her morning toilet.  “Ah, you’re in heat!”

In order to minimize the chaos a cow in heat causes, we kept her isolated and milked her last.  At the last minute, I decided to leave her in the barn until I could call the vet to see if could come AI her.

AI stands for artificial insemination.  While it’s maybe not the best thing for people, it sure does save a lot of trouble for cows!  Our vet keeps the semen straws in a very cold tank at his office, and when we need one, he warms it, comes out to the farm, and impregnates the cow.  It saves us having to keep a bull, and having to find a new bull every two years when his daughters are ready for breeding.  It also gives us access to better quality sires than we’re likely to be able acquire as a live animals.

Alas, the vet is not always available on short notice, and I didn’t really expect him to make it over.  Then again, it was a rather cold and windy day.  Maybe most of his other farm work had been cancelled due to weather.  I waited impatiently for the office to open at eight, while Maybelle paced and mooed in the confines of the barn.

I dialed at 8:03. (They never answer exactly at eight.)  “Hello, would one of the good happen to be available to come AI a cow this morning?” I asked.

“Actually, yes!” the receptionist replied, much to my surprise.  “Would ten o’clock be okay?”

“Perfect!” I exclaimed.

So Maybelle is bred!  Hopefully.  We’ll watch her carefully for signs of heat in about three weeks, to make sure the AI took.  It usually does, so I’m not worried, but I need to make sure.  And if it did take, that means that two of our four cows are bred for late fall calving this year.  The other two will wait till May for Spring 2016 calving, unless I can catch Annabelle in the next few days.  I’m finding fall calves to be all around better than spring, but I don’t want to deal with it too far into the winter!

The Heart of the Hay: It's the best part, you know! We're storing the hay in the heifer calves' field, and they do a good job of eating out the middles.

The Heart of the Hay: It’s the best part, you know! We’re storing the hay in the heifer calves’ field, and they do a good job of eating out the middles.

Photo of the Week: Moon on the Pond

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Isn’t this just beautiful?  Night photography is not my strong suit; I had my camera pressed tight against a fence post and held my breath till the shutter closed again.

I have a particular affection for the moon in general and full moons in particular.  The weather was particularly fine last night, too, perfect for moon-gazing.

Holes or Sinkholes?

Last summer, I told you about our sinkholes.  Do you remember?  If not, you can go back and read this, or just admire the photographs of sunshine and greenness. :-)

Are you back?  Oh, good!  I missed you.

Now about those sinkholes.  If there was any doubt that our sinkholes were active, they have been laid completely to rest.

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Dave noticed this on his way out to feed the pigs, on what has been so far the coldest day of the year.  I was pretty numb by the time my camera and I made it back to the house, but it was a fascinating thing to behold!  You can barely see in the picture: plumes of warm, damp air were rising out of the earth and freezing on the vegetation closest to the holes.  The whole area was speckled with clumps of crystalline weeds!

I’m glad we got it fenced off, doubly so since I went inside the wire to get the photos and I noted a whole lot of new little holes.


Maybelle had been feeling particularly aggressive that morning, too, and I had to keep running her off.  Every time I tried to get a shot, she’d charge me again!

I risked frostbite, unstable earth, and a raging bovine, all so I could show you a picture of icy weeds.  :-)

But if sinkholes, caves, and underground rivers are half as fascinating to you as they are to me, it was totally worth it.

Cows in the Snow

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Wasn’t it the most beautiful morning?  I’m always grateful that the cows get me up and out so I never miss a sunrise!  So much promise in a new day. :-)

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Homemade Ricotta Cheese

We have nuns here in Brandenburg. They hail from Malta, originally, which is near enough to Italy that they like the same kinds of food. Like ricotta cheese. Not the store boughten kind, either. The nuns make their own ricotta, fresh, whenever they want. “Oh, it’s easy!” they told me in their heavy accents. “You just warm the milk and add a little vinegar, and then maybe just a little bit more, and then it’s done!” Well, I wasn’t finding it so easy. My curds wouldn’t come at all, or coagulated into a dense, sticky, not ricotta-y mess. But, I figured, if the nuns could do it, I could do it, so I kept at it, feeding my many failures to the pigs. At last, I have it all worked out, so my ricotta comes every time! Here’s what you do:

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First, you’ll need a gallon of milk. I hope your milk comes in glass jars. If it comes in plastic jugs, we maybe need to talk. You can make ricotta out of your boughten milk, but fresh-from-the-farm would be so much better, don’t you think? You can skim the cream off or use it whole. I usually use it whole, but if I didn’t have umpteen gallons of milk going through my kitchen every day, I’d probably save the cream for butter or coffee and use just the skim milk for cheese.

You’ll also need 1/4 cup of vinegar, but have a little more handy, just in case. Not too much; too much vinegar makes the curds clumpy and gooey.

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All right! Pour the milk into your pot, put a thermometer in it, and heat it up to 200°. Make sure it doesn’t scald on the bottom. Our old electric flat-top range always burned the milk if I didn’t watch it closely and stir often, but our new gas range hasn’t burned a thing yet, no matter how often I get distracted. Since it takes a while to heat the milk, and I’m easily distracted, I’m really appreciating this feature of our new range.

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Are we at 200° yet? Great! Go ahead and turn off the heat. Now, stirring constantly with up and down motions to draw it through, pour the vinegar slowly into the hot milk. You should see small curds developing.

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If it still looks quite milky, add a tiny bit of extra vinegar, just a teaspoon at a time here. Give it a minute to work. We’re looking for a good, clear separation of curds and whey without going overboard.

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See how the whey is kind of greenish now?

We’re going to let this sit for 10 minutes, so all the curds can rise to the top.

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I use these ricotta cheese baskets to drain my curds. I usually have some on hand for shareholders, along with extra rennet, but I haven’t placed an order with the cheese supply in a while. We’ll fix that in a couple of weeks. If you don’t have one, you can probably use a square of muslin in a colander. Don’t use cheesecloth; the weave is too loose and your curds will go right through!

Just scoop your curds out of your pot and lay them into your basket or muslin to drain. Ten or fifteen minutes is usually just right. If you let them drain too long, the cheese is pretty dry.

Stir in a 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon of salt and you’re done!

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I like to eat it in the summer with some fresh, in-season peaches diced on top. The children like it with two tablespoons of sugar added along with a dash of vanilla extract. I scoop it into bowls like ice cream and put a dollop of strawberry jam on top. Brenna swears by drizzling a bit of honey on while it’s still warm. And although it is most commonly used to make lasagna, it’s a star player in all sorts of dishes, both savory and sweet.

Try a google search or just stay tuned to this blog. I’ve been on a ricotta kick lately and we’re making all sorts of yummy treats!

The Case of the Wandering Pig

“A little help here!”

Brenna and I were happily chatting away over the steady rhythm and hum of the milking machine when the call, slightly garbled, came to us from behind the barn.  I looked at her quizzically.  “Did you hear something out back?”

She shrugged and got up to check.  A moment later, she ran back in.  “Daddy’s back there with a pig!”  I was in the middle of milking a cow and could not leave her to help just yet, but Brenna grabbed a bucket of grain to try to lure the wayward pig inside.

Miss Piggy was disoriented and scared and having trouble seeing in the gathering darkness.  They were having a hard time enticing her in when I turned off the machine a few moments later.  “Here’s a feed pan,” I said.  “If she can get a taste, she should follow it right in to the stall.”  That did the trick!

Now that the pig was safely secured, I asked, “How’d she get out?”  She’d been grunting for her dinner when we left for the barn, so she hadn’t been out long.

“She went out through the corner by the apple tree,” David panted.  “I called, “Pig’s out!” but nobody came.” He looked at me a little accusingly.  “Then she got confused and she ran all the way down to the neighbors’ house and all the way back again.  I could have used some help.”

“Well, we’d have surely come if we could have heard you,” I said cheerfully, “but we can’t hear much over the milking machine, you know.” He knew, but he’d been distressed to find himself out chasing a pig after a long, tiring day and he’d lost his cool a little bit; that had made the job harder. Escaped animals are already scared and they won’t be caught if they sense any angst.

My baby heifers.  Unrelated to this whole story, except that they slept in the barn, too.  But they're pretty, aren't they? :-)

My baby heifers. Unrelated to this whole story, except that they slept in the barn, too. But they’re pretty, aren’t they? :-)

So Miss Piggy slept in the barn last night.  Daisy was displaced from her usual stall.  Maybelle was surprised and mildly alarmed at the strange grunting, slamming noises coming from next door.  Annabelle, who gets the main barn floor, poked her head over the door to see what she was dealing with.

I gave the pig a little alfalfa when I fed the cows, and a little more grain, and checked that the door was sturdy enough to withstand her powerful snout.  “Y’all are good hostesses,” I said to the cows.  “Be good, don’t worry and sleep tight.  All will be well.”

Morning brought it’s own problems.  The cows were upset by the change in their normal routine, and the pig was grunting anxiously from the corner stall.  We acted as if nothing was out of the ordinary, calmly cleaning stalls, brushing cows and going about our usual activities.  The cows followed our example and settled down.  By the time we had the third cow in for milking, it was light enough – and the barn was empty enough – to safely move our pig back home.  David carried a bucket full of milk, which she followed willingly enough, but I couldn’t get the gate unfastened in time and she lost interest and wandered off again.  It took David a few minutes to get her back to the gate.  Then, she wandered through easy as pie!  I had the bucket by now, but I couldn’t see her dish to pour the milk out for her.  “Where is your dish?” I said aloud, and she ambled along in front of me with obvious purpose.  “I guess you know where it is.” So I followed.

Meanwhile, David repaired the fence, so, hopefully, she won’t get out again.  At least, not that way!  As we walked back to the house, she seemed to be investigating the gate that she hadn’t known was there…