beautiful mayhem

IMGP1027Lambing is in full swing these days. I’m kind of glad the gardens are so wet from all of the rain that we have had because if we were also faced with tons of spring garden work at the same time all of these lambs are dropping to the ground… well, I think we might consider ourselves overwhelmed. IMGP1003Something like 25 lambs were born within the last 24 hours. That’s basically one lamb per hour. I wonder how long the flurry will continue. When multiple ewes labor and give birth in the proximity of one other, it is very easy for there to be confusion about whose lamb is who’s. In these years of keeping sheep, I’ve noticed that sheep are not, by nature, mathematicians. Counting to two poses a serious challenge for some of the ewes. When they happen to throw triplets? Well, most ewes are truly flummoxed. Eric carries a little pocket notebook with him all of the time during lambing season, taking notes as he strolls the paddocks before each time we move the livestock. In his notes, he has one abbreviation that totally cracks me up: “HPC”… having problems counting. It is certainly worth noting!

This ewe happened to be at the gate into the next paddock as all of the straggler lambs came through... they all were certain she was their mama.

This ewe happened to be at the gate into the next paddock as all of the straggler lambs came through… they all were certain she was their mama.

Inevitably, there always seem to be a few lambs that are orphaned each year. Depending on the circumstances, we have different ways of dealing with this. There is always bottle-feeding but, geez, that’s a time drain and an expense. It’s great when an orphan is vigorous enough to be a milk thief! (making the rounds to the HPC ewes, and catching them with their guard down). Sometimes a ewe can be convinced to take on an orphan, especially if her own lamb died and you can mask the odor of the orphan lamb with the ewe’s placenta. You obviously have to be on the ball and pretty observant for the pieces of this puzzle to fit into place. This year I am planning to have a little milk replacer and a bottle on hand and when I find a lamb that isn’t being properly cared for give it a shot. I don’t want to bottle feed all of the time, but I feel like some little lambs just need enough energy to get going, and then maybe they can keep up with their rightful mama or find a ewe to steal from. We’ll see how it goes.

Olivia had a blast pretending to be this lambs mama. It was pretty funny watching the lamb actually get under her and punch, looking for Livi's udder!

Olivia had a blast pretending to be this lambs mama. It was pretty funny watching the lamb actually get under her and punch, looking for Livi’s udder!

All through lambing season, we continue with our daily paddock shifts. We are still on the three times a day move. There is quite a bit of mayhem each time we move the livestock, especially as the ewes try to find their babies that maybe got lost in the shuffle. A really good ewe has the ability to keep the lambs right by her side, even amidst all of the confusion. We certainly take notes of this quality, as these are the ewes that best fit with our program. These are the ewes and lambs whose genetics we want to propagate. There’s a management intensive grazing specialist, Ian Mitchell Innes, that says “An animal’s purpose is to perform in the environment into which it is born.” Therefore, if animal doesn’t perform well under the conditions of your farm, move it on down the pike. So that’s basically what we do. Obviously, we make exceptions for animals that we bring to the farm, the ones that were not born here. Most of the time, with some patience (and maybe a small dose of frustration) animals will adapt. After all, everyone wants to survive!IMGP1079A few days ago, during evening chores, I was collecting eggs. The livestock had just been shifted into their new paddock and were right beside the chickens. All of the ewes were balling for their lambs and the lambs were bleating for their mamas. The geese were standing at the end of the egg-mobile, honking their heads off directly into the metal-sided structure that reverberated intensely with their noise. The chickens were cackling and even though I don’t remember precisely, I’m sure a rooster (or two or three) crowed. The cattle couldn’t help but add to the symphony with some deep lowing, and the girls, on roller skates (absolutely essential attire for evening chores) were squealing with fear that the geese were going to come after them. I think I probably covered my ears for a time. The noise was dizzying. But I looked around and saw all that was going on. I saw the light catching the new green leaves on the trees. The steely gray sky with shafts of light filtering through as the sun sank towards the horizon. The droplets of water shimmering in the deep green grass. The children, the livestock, the chickens and geese… all so full of life. I had the realization that Eric and I created all of this madness. And that the mayhem was nothing short of beautiful.IMGP1104

three cheers for the dung beetle


this photo was taken last year in the garden... sorry it's not very crisp

this photo was taken last year in the garden… sorry it’s not very crisp

Bugtussle, Kentucky… the place I call home, not even a tiny little dot on most maps. Bugtussle is the name of our community but there really isn’t anything here anymore except for the fine rural folks that inhabit this place. The Bugtussle General Store sits empty. The Bugtussle Bar-B-Q has not emitted the smell of sweet hickory smoke in years.

From the stories we have heard, Bugtussle was named after the dung beetle “tussling” a ball of dung around. We have also heard that, “back in the day”, fine summer evenings were spent relaxing, maybe drinking a beer or two, and watching the dung beetles actively doing their good work. Sounds like fine family entertainment, if you ask me!!!

notice the tubes of soil the beetle removed in creating it's tunnel...

notice the tubes of soil the beetle removed in creating it’s tunnel…

Nowadays, with each passing year, the pastoral landscape is being replaced with large-scale industrial annual agriculture. We see more and more annual agriculture creeping into this community with each growing season. Most perennial grasslands have been turned. The ruminants have been replaced with corn, soybeans, and lots of tobacco. And let me just say here, the world isn’t going to be saved by industrial annual agriculture. It just isn’t possible. Growing more food to feed the increasing numbers of humans on this planet by turning and working the soil on the big scale, whether using conventional or organic farming practices, is very depleting and not at all sustainable. As soon as that soil gets turned and exposed to the elements, carbon goes into the atmosphere and soil organic matter is lost. Simple as that. Mulching is an excellent way to protect these precious soils, but for those of us that use lots of mulch (and I don’t mean black plastic sheeting, to me that doesn’t qualify as mulch), we know just how labor intensive and just how much mulch it takes to keep the soil adequately protected. Lots. I don’t ever expect to see large-scale permaculture farms come into vogue, even though it sure would be lovely. 

Something else is vanishing with all of the annual agriculture and use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides: the dung beetle. IMGP0849

When Eric and I moved to this farm, nearly fifteen years ago now, we adopted the mighty dung beetle as our farm mascot and thus began calling our farm “Bugtussle Farm”. (We were actually “Bugtussle Organic Farm” at first, but when the government took over the certifying process, we stopped getting certified and therefore had to stop using the term “organic”. It didn’t really matter, though. We knew our customers personally. They were our certifiers!) So with our mascot as our guide, we set to our work of increasing the fertility of a very depleted farm. At first we started with a handful of chickens and a small portable coop. Then one coop became three and the chicken numbers increased as well. Then a few goats entered the picture. Then some sheep and a milk cow. Then more sheep. And more sheep. And more cattle. As all of those critters multiplied and proliferated, so did the amount of fertility on our little farm. All the while, we have been rotating those animals on our pastures. We rarely saw dung beetles, but on the occasion that we did, it was a fascinating sight to see. One time, when Ira was a wee thing, we were working up in the garden and he was seized with the urge to poop. I took him out into the pasture to do his business and before he even finished two tiny flying dung beetles landed and set to work. We were thrilled.

In 2008, we bought the adjacent farm… adding a second mortgage and a whole new project of turning yet another depleted farm into a place of fertility. For the first few years of this endeavor, I certainly questioned our sanity…

But years pass. Gradually, gradually change happens. And something good is happening on our farm now. We have been feeling it for awhile, but now we are beginning to see it with our very own eyes. It is as if our cup, slowly filling up from all of our hard work and sweat and blood and tears, is finally reaching fullness and is just starting to overflow the edges…IMGP0854

What we have been seeing is an insane amount of dung beetle action in our pastures! One day, within twelve hours after the animals being in a paddock, Eric and I were walking around and saw every single cow pie showed the signs of tunneling dung beetles. Within twenty-four hours some of the smaller sheep deposits were completely gone… all that poop was completely relocated down under the soil to feed the dung beetle larvae when it hatched! Something else so fabulous happens when the dung beetle clean-up crew moves in so quickly: the fly-cycle is disrupted. Flies need something like three days for their eggs to hatch, feed on the poop, and then bury themselves to pupate into the next generation of nuisance. I like to think that this year, with the dung beetles so very active, we will see a decrease in the fly population. I sure do hope so because I can’t stand flies!

The dung beetles are doing us a wonderful service. All of that rich organic matter is being recycled down into the soil, not only increasing the fertility of our soils but also allowing more moisture to be held in the soil and not just washing away downstream. That quick turnover of the nutrient cycle is the quickest way to creating a rich and fertile farm. And it’s happening here in Bugtussle. 

there's a very shy dung beetle down in that hole. It wasn't feeling very photogenic...

there’s a very shy dung beetle down in that hole. It wasn’t feeling very photogenic…

So three cheers for the dung beetles that work so tirelessly and ceaselessly to help make this farm a fertile place. Time to get out the lawn chair, crack open a cold one, and settle in for some good old-fashioned family entertainment.IMG_7539

a fine line

IMG_8179It’s very wet here. Oddly wet for October. September was oddly dry. I think there have been more thunderstorms so far this month than we had during our typical thunderstorm-laden July. For at least the last five out of six days, it has been raining while I am milking the cow. Like clockwork. Milking time=rainstorm. Most sane folks milk their cows in a snug barn where the reality of rain is a mere pitter-patter on a tin roof. And maybe a little extra mud on the wellies. Well. That’s not quite the way it works around here. Several months ago now, when I realized a new family cow was headed our way as a gift from some sweet friends, I had this funny little notion that the milking should occur in a portable stanchion that could be integrated into our herd’s pasture rotation. We certainly didn’t need another isolated chore to be added to our already colorful palatte, and I didn’t want our family milk cow to be separate from the big herd, as cows love company you know, so the portable stanchion it was. And is… This crazy thing that we are doing is working. Mind you, we have had plenty of wrinkles to iron out along the way, and the old shade-shack-turned-milking parlor is small and has no walls. There is a roof (tarp), but when the wind blows like it was this morning, I get pretty much soaked. Maybe a little bit cold, too. I suppose that is one way to become a faster milker.

But my fleeting discomfort gets swallowed by the beauty of the bigger picture.

I know there is a warm house and dry clothes waiting for me when I finish my chore. Comfort zones are meant to be challenged, right? When we stretch just beyond our comfort zone, don’t we more greatly appreciate the comfort we stretched beyond?

When you tread that fine line, it really boils down to the attitude that you carry with you. This morning, by most people’s standards, I had every right to grumble. I was sopping wet, rain absolutely dripping from my face, the occasional wet cow tail smacked across my head, and a stiff breeze blowing on my backside. But I didn’t grumble. I put my cold hands on that warm milk pail, and said thank you.IMG_8182