Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The year in review...

Well, that was a busy year.  It's good to look back on it--partly because it allows me to actually se that we have accomplished something in this our third year on the farm, and partly because it's nice to have such a year in the rear view mirror.
There it is: most of what I worry, work, fuss, and tire myself out on, a place that I don't leave most days.  I can walk less than a mile, and most of my world gets small enough that you can't really tell much about it.

Here's a few lines that clarify things--the green line is our property line, and the purple line is what we actually payed attention to in the last year--just over half of our acreage.

Here's the same bit of land, viewed from space; my world is again in purple.

As with the previous years, the big effort was to get our infrastructure built to meet the needs of the animals, those already here, those born on site, and those acquired--an effort comparable to building an airplane as it's flying and full of passengers.  We started the year with facilities that could accurately be described as "not immediately fatal."  We are beginning the new year with facilities that are, for some animals, adequate, and for others, promising to be much better than adequate.

Our barn has become quite functional.  Of course, it was designed to be functional, but between design and implementation there are always contingencies.  That said, it is now safely and effectively housing more than 35 Shetland ewes of all ages and more than 20 Nigerian Dwarf does and kids.   Banks of LED lights make the barn bright as day, using the power of a single 120 Watt bulb.  Building enclosed spaces under the eaves has doubled our housing area and allowed different age groups to be segregated.

Sheep expansion--November 2015 (Goats earlier in the year)
The construction of new feeders has made feeding quite easy.  I'll need to tweak their design in the coming year to further reduce waste and improve fleece quality, but the improvement over the last year is huge.
New center-aisle feeders: Feb 2015
The male animals are still in "not immediately fatal" housing, but that is changing; after two years of delay (getting engineering done on the works, negotiating with a federal granting agency, waiting for weather, waiting for the end of hunting season, etc) we are finally building housing for our bucks and rams.
Ram housing--started Dec 2015
It won't be done until early 2016, but at least it's under way--which means that our rams will have shelter that protects them from the elements and that they can't destroy.

As growers of sheep and goats, we are primarily growers of pasture, which we use animals to harvest.  This year saw big improvements in our pastures, improvements visible from space.  Thanks to the federal government (and you, the taxpayer!), we received financial assistance in building fencing in our pastures to facilitate rotational grazing and good grazing techniques. You can actually see this part of our labors in the satellite picture:
New pasture fencing: January 2015
The south (left) pasture is divided in two by permanent fence, then subdivided by electric mesh for rotational grazing.  The rams and bucks are in smaller pastures (top and lower right).  Internal fencing, combined with improved housing, has made management of the farm immeasurably easier.  2015 was a very difficult year for grazing--a severe drought made the fields dry up two months earlier than usual.  We could have done worse:  we've done some seeding, to try to improve our pasture, and some targeted grazing and manual weed control to eradicate some of the more troublesome weeds.  Also, we did a soil analysis, and started lime applications to help bring our soil's pH back to a more hospitable range.  We could do better:  this year will see additional seeding, lime, and perhaps fertilizing. So far, we are having a nice wet winter.

We still need to buy hay, and this year we did a better job.  In previous years, I'd become something of a fixture at the co-op, coming in every week to buy six bales of hay, because that was all that fit in the truck and all that we had space for; an expensive and inefficient way to do things.  This last year, we've started buying hay by the three-ton, then by the eight-ton load, and we've connected with an organic supplier--although not soon enough to get the really good stuff.  This coming year, we'll hopefully be able to buy (and store) a year's worth of the good, second-cut hay.

A lot of that food eventually becomes poop, and this year saw no improvement in our ability to deal with it.  We are still using deep bedding, a system of straw bedding that is changed quarterly.  It's effective, but creates problems with fleece quality and can damage the barn structure.  We don't have good compost management, either.  The coming year we will hopefully see the construction of a proper compost facility and installation of a raised flooring system in the barn.  I also hope to purchase a manure spreader, to recapture valuable nutrients that are otherwise lost.

Of course, it is necessary for the farm to not only manage resources, but also be financially sound.  Our products this year have been primarily quality breeding stock (both goat and sheep), dairy products, and meat (and a few eggs).

A breeding program is a decades-long endeavor, and we are at the very beginning.  This year, we bought a few more animals that will make good breeding stock: we took advantage of a herd dispersal, and got a couple of good sires by being persistent and in the right place at the right time.  We are just seeing the very first results of our first round of breedings, some of which are good.  A goat of our own breeding placed tenth in a huge class at the ADGA national show, and other animals of our breeding got good reviews from judges at other shows.
Boadicea, daughter of Lady and Cernunnos, at ADGA Nationals

While show ribbons are nice, stock is supposed to be sold.  We sold all of the goat kids that we didn't want for ourselves (we keep the ones that are better than their parents).  We didn't do as well with the sheep, having twice as many rams as ewes in our lamb crop.  Most of the boys went to the butcher, though one found a home as a sire in Colorado.  We are not able to command as high a price for our animals as more established farms, but we hope that will change over the coming years.

Dairy production was limited this last year, with only eight does in milk and most of them low-producing first-fresheners.  However, this allowed me to work on cheesemaking techniques.  Happily, I have learned to make a variety of fresh cheeses that people are willing to pay for.  We also improved our aging facilities, making hard cheese possible.  I am now sampling some of the cheeses that I made this summer, and they are genuinely pleasing.  This coming year, with more does in milk, I'll be making and hopefully selling much more cheese; indeed, the challenges will lie not in the reliability, but in time management (both in milking and cheesemaking) and marketing.

Wool production is still rather below what we'd like.  Our game is not yet up to producing a good, clean fleece.  The improvements in pasture management and housing over the last year are a start, but more work is required.   We have yet to find a shearer we are completely happy with, and our experience with a wool processor this year was nearly farcical.  We have got some wool that is being made into combed top and yarn, so hopefully we will have some product to sell, but we probably won't break even on wool this year or next.
Oak Apple Bing--currently siring lambs in Co.  

We had some turnover in our chickens this year. The original gang got forcibly retired, as most of them had stopped laying with any regularity, and all of them refused to use their egg boxes, choosing instead to lay in obscure hiding places.  We also retired the original chicken coop, which caused me shame whenever I looked at its construction.  The new chicks arrived in July, and have been kept separate from the original gang so they won't learn bad habits.  I built their egg boxes in late December, and the first egg showed up January 2nd.
New chooks: Jul 2015; New coop: Nov 2015

Wedge and Spot, the cats, are both now permanently outdoor cats, having had too many incidents indoors.  They do fine with it, and follow us around whenever we go for walks in the area, complaining the whole way.  Eleanor likes her goats, and will let you know when she thinks you're getting to close to them.  Sophie, having been subjected to a rigorous program of forced marches, is losing weight and resembles more a bullet and less a cannonball.

We didn't get to have a vegetable garden this year; the garden plot has been continuously used for animal housing (see "not immediately fatal" conditions), but we hope to plant something this spring after the rams are moved into their new manse.  However, this summer saw the Real Doctor's brother and his family totally reconstruct the gardens along our front path, so we now have a lovely herb garden that has been making life much tastier.  Now we just need to grow some tomatoes!

So there's the year on the farm.  When I look at what I do, day to day, I feel both exhausted and like I haven't accomplished anything.  However, taking the long view, I suppose a lot of progress has been made, and much of that progress will allow us to be both more relaxed and more productive next year.  But for right now, I am very tired.

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