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Monday, July 16, 2012

The weather is great. If you're in the construction business

Once again, I find myself sounding like a farmer. I have 15 acres of "hay" that's under duress from the lack of moisture.  I was looking at my old posts and it was just about one year ago that I was lamenting how wet it was.  The field had spots with standing water.  The corral had evolved into an ankle deep mucky mess.  Water was flowing into my basement through the foundation and back out into a southern pasture through a gray water discharge pipe. I was feeling reasonably smart at that point for selecting an alfalfa variety designed to withstand wetter than average conditions.  That gloating would end a few weeks later as the rains dried up and the field turned into a weed infested mess.

This year I replanted parts of the field due to the prior year's crop failure. It was going along pretty well and then, once again, the rain stopped and has stayed stopped.  What rain we got seems to have We got a mixed bag of production from the 15 acres which aggregated to 16 large rounds and 200 small squares of "hay" that looks more like straw than hay.  At this point I'm skeptical that we'll get a second cut unless we get some cooler weather and more moisture.  Also, at this point, survival of what was planted this year is at risk. 

Getting that first cut up was a mess.  It seemed as if Murphy's Law was making things that were going wrong going even more wrong. It made me wonder if Murphy had a twin brother that showed up to help him in special situations like mine. 

I'd deferred cutting during in ideal conditions because I wanted square bales and the guy that was going to do it for me had another week left of berry production on his farm that he had to deal with.  Of course, the next two weeks were cluttered with much need rains that prevented cutting but was barely enough to nourish the crops. Eventually my baling guy came over.  By then the alfalfa had been fully bloomed a couple of weeks and the oats in parts of the field had gone beyond milk stage to fully mature oats. That's not what I wanted, but there was still some good oat hay remaining.

My friend couldn't get to us to cut the hay so I asked another farmer if they could cut it.  They could and did.  In that same phone call I found out that latter farmer is also doing small squares and they have some very new and very expensive hay equipment.  "New" + "Expensive" = "Reliable."

I asked the neighbor farmer to do the north 1/2 of my field in round bales.  My friend would do the south 1/2 in small squares. 

The hay was supposed to be cut on that particular Sunday or Monday.  It didn't get cut until Tuesday. My neighbor got it raked on Wednesday and it was ready to bale on Thursday.  The north 1/2 was baled in no time on Thursday afternoon  The small square baler showed up Thursday evening.  Keep in mind we were then dealing with temps in the high 90 degree range with heat indexes well over 100 degrees.  Nonetheless, baling commenced.   We got 26 bales into baling when the baler broke down.    After a couple of hours of messing around with the baler, trying to get it working, we finally gave up.  I called my farmer neighbors and asked if they could finish the field in large rounds.  I preferred that to it getting wet.  They said they'd be there the following morning (Friday).

On Friday morning I woke up to damp sidewalks.  I figured it hadn't rained much and that my hay would get baled that afternoon.  It didn't.  It rained that night about 1/2 inch.  Being the conflicted farmer, I was thrilled for the moisture for the field to spur new growth, but I was disappointed that my hay on the ground had gotten wet.

I called my friend and he agreed to come over and rake it to help in dry out.  He raked it, but I was out in the field the next day checking to see if was drying and found that he'd only raked about mid way through the rows. The bottoms of the wind rows never got turned and they were still soaked.  My friend came back with his rake and set it lower and turned the rows again.

The next day my farmer neighbors, unbeknownst to me, came over with their wheel rake and raked the field again.  That combined a couple of wind rows into one row making them much bigger rows.  Meanwhile, my friend called to tell me his baler was fixed and did I want him to come over to finish baling.  By now we're into Monday and we're still dealing with sweltering conditions.  He came over and we got about 175 bales up.  That was a huge accomplishment because we broke a couple of shear bolts because the rows were too big for his baler.  We'd make progress and either a bolt would break or the baler would clog up.  As dusk was setting in and I was bordering on heat stroke, feeling shaky and nauseous, we called it quits.  The plan to was to resume baling on the following Thursday. 

I got a call on Thursday asking if we could resume baling on Friday.  I agreed.  It was still extremely hot and there was no rain in the forecast.

On Friday I learned that my friend's tractor was broken down. I called my farmer neighbors to see if they could finish the field.  They said "sure," but they couldn't get to it until the following Monday afternoon.  They were in IN for a wedding and wouldn't be back until then.  I said that they were my best option and Monday would be find.  I then commenced praying for no rain.  At that point, the only real threat was isolation, pop up type storms.  It didn't rain then and hasn't since.

On Sunday I got a call from my friend. He said his tractor was fixed and would I like him to come over on Monday to bale the hay.  I told him "no way."  I was heading out on Tuesday for a trip to the east coast and I had other errands and chores to deal with on Monday.  I found out later that his tractor had broken down yet again doing his own hay.  My neighbors showed up on Monday as planned and completed baling, with nary of drop of sweat off my brow, in about an hour.  The first cut was done, three weeks and two rainfalls after being cut. 

I've asked my neighbors to do my second cut.  Perhaps I'll be fortunate and there will be a second cut. If not, I'll be like a lot of other farmers and consider the year another "bust."

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Good Fences, blah, blah, blah

If you go back in my blog you'll find a post about good fences making good neighbors.  Turns out that good fences can promote good marriages too.  You see, my failure to build a fence around our berry garden has led to more than a little dissension in the Bailey household.  This is because, invariably, somebody leaves a gate open and the sheep, invariably, head straight for the berry garden.  Forget that lush, nutritious grass between the open gate and the berry garden.  But nooooo, those strawberry plants and the leaves of the raspberry plants with their herbal legerdemain, are the primary target of the formerly incarcerated ovines (this even stumped spell check. For the uninformed, Ovine is Latin for "damned sheep.")

In my prior post I shared with you my adventure of chasing the sheep out of the garden (and over hill and dale to spare the berry plants.)  In my post I claimed that I had saved the berry plants/bushes.  Not entirely accurate says Mrs. Bailey.  Turns out there was some damage, but nearly to the extent of prior incursions into the realm of the berry patch by the sheep. 

As I also alluded to in my prior post, the sheep are capable of inflicting serious damage to the berry plants/bushes by systematically stripping the leaves off bushes and uprooting entire strawberry plants.  In fact, the sheep have done that. Repeatedly. Again and again over the last three years.  OK.  So nowhere will you find in my prior posts any claims by me or anybody else that I'm a smart farmer.  I just have a very long learning curve and am an eternal optimist that all gates will be closed when somebody goes through them. 

Mrs. Bailey, being the more practical (realist) farmer, although I often find her to be far more idealistic than me (if I'm being realistic she tells me I'm being pessimistic), found a free picket fence on Craigslist.  She promptly called and advised me that the guy would hold it for the day for us.  I hooked up the livestock trailer and drove to West Des Moines and picked up about 250 feet of very nice picket fence panels and posts.  We took the fence home and put it in the barn.  And there it sat for three years until a few weeks ago. 

In light of my recent adventure with the sheep again getting out, in spite of my diligent efforts to contain them by constantly checking gates, I committed to installing the fence.  I woke up early a few Saturday's (by my standards anyway) and took the two little girls into Earlham for breakfast (a now weekly tradition).  Around 10:00 a.m. I was at the rental place in Desoto to pick up the post hole digger.  I'd intended to pick up the two man digger but the rental guy assured me the one man would work fine.  I was skeptical but it turned out to be good advice.  It's much lighter and easier to handle.  My back aches, but I'm guessing using the two man would have been debilitating.

The plan was to install the fence to protect not only the berry garden, but the main garden as well.  This is about a 200' square area bordered on one side by a wind row of evergreesn that's backed up a pasture fence.  Part of another side has some existing crappy fence that will require a chain saw to clear the area.  So the plan was to locate the corner post in the SE corner of the planned enclosure and move west and north from there.  As they say, a good plan executed poorly is better than no plan at all.  Let me be clear, execution was lacking on that day.

The first attempt at a hole for the corner post was  quickly aborted at about six inches.  The digger refused to bite through the compacted gravel and dirt at the edge of the drive.  I moved the hole about two feet further from the drive and met with success.  Our corner post was inserted and packed into place.  Now we could start marking for the next few holes and get drilling.

I guess I haven't mentioned I've never installed a picket fence or any other decorative type fence.  My limited experience consists of weaving woven fence lines using round fence posts intermingled with metal fence posts.  Since the fences are out in the pasture a modicum of straightness is sufficient for my needs. What is important is that the livestock can't get through, under or over the fences. 

While my prior fencing experience was helpful, it wasn't sufficient to overcome the shortcomings of my two dimensional brain which has trouble computing N, S, E, W and up and down for each post.  Not only is it important for the post to be vertical in the hole, it also need to be the proper distance from the prior post so that the panels will fit properly.  Too far apart and the panel can't be nailed to the posts.  Too short and it won't fit without being cut. 

Further, as I quickly noted after about four posts, the height of the posts are important, not so much for structural reasons, but more so for aesthetic reasons.  To further complicate this process was the mild rolling terrain of the area that I was fencing.  This was most notable with the corner post being in the lowest area that I was fencing.  My two dimensional brain trying to digest the implications of a three dimensional fence was making my brain hurt.

Now I need to back up just a bit to the point where we were marking our holes.  I started by grabbing one of the panels to measure how long it was.  It measured out to six feet which I thought was odd since I would have guessed the panels would be eight feet.  Nonetheless, the boys (another factor to contend with) and I proceeded to mark the areas to drill using a tape measure.  I'd already set up a line on the ground to make sure we stayed in a straight line.

We drilled the next three holes and that's when I noticed my first faux pas.  We hadn't really been paying attention to the depth of the holes.  That meant that we had a small, rolling wave of fence post heights with the corner post that started it all much lower than the others. 

I'd originally planned to install the panels as the posts were installed.  I was going to use my nail gun and had one of the boys drag the compressor and electrical cord out to where we were working.  I quickly realized that the nails would be way too short.  That meant I'd be screwing the panels on instead.  I decided to run to the hardware store for screws and asked the boys to continue digging holes while I was gone.

I returned about 20 minutes later to one post installed that was wobbly enough that a crow would have had trouble keeping its balance on the top.  The next hole was obiously off by about six inches. 

And then yet another revelation.  Stepping away from the job and allowing my brain a break started an epiphany of sorts.  Somewhere along the way those stray synapses in my brain started to connect and wonder why that section of fence I'd measured was only six feet and not eight.  I went to our pile  of panels and, lo and behold, almost all of the other sections were eight feet.  That meant that of the six holes we'd dug and the same number of fence posts installed, only five of the six had to be removed.  The first because it was too deep and the four others because the spacing was wrong. Alas, the non-blushing longeshormen, and my nearby kids, were safe as nary a tool or angry word was thrown.  The mistakes were mine, except for the off center holes dug by my progeny.  But, that wouldn't matter because not only was the hole off center by six inches, it was also off by another two feet in spacing from the prior hole. 

Essentially, two hours into our fence installation, we were starting from scratch.  But, lessons were learned.  I switched from a tape measure to an 8' board to measure distance between posts.  I also got better at watching to make sure the post was as close to perfect vertically and that it was at the right depth.  By the time we quit working on Saturday evening, we had posts in for 96' of fence.

Sunday was another cool day with conditions pretty darn near perfect for fence work.  Seth had track practice in the afternoon so I didn't even get started fencing again until almost 4:00.  But I'd rented the post hole digger on Saturday and had it until Monday morning at no extra charge.  Two of the boys helped me when I started digging holes but, after about six holes were dug, I noticed that I was on my own.  I had six holes dug, only two more posts installed and another six holes to dig and ten posts to install.  Undaunted, I plugged away and a mere two hours later, all of the holes were drilled, posts installed and even a gate temporarily installed.

This all started about six weeks ago and here we are with 90 degree plus days now and for the foreseeable future and I still have yet to put the three final panels on one side.  I also still need to make and install a gate on the other side.  Procrastination is the only excuse.

Having not yet completed the fence the berry garden was again accosted by the sheep last week.  We had them in a temporary paddock made with electric netting. I'd checked the fence the day before and it was fine.  The next morning, while I was out of town, Lorraine woke to a gun shot. She knew by that alone the sheep were out.  We don't know if the neighbor across the drive was shooting at them or just to scare them, but she was rattled.  I'm thinking that the wind/thunderstorm the night before blew a section down low enough for the sheep to jump over.  Once one goes, they all go.  They broke out of the paddock into the hay field full of young oats and orchard grass yet, they opted to walk about 100 yards to a gate that opens into our yard.  From there, and totalling ignoring a plethora of lush, uneaten grass, they headed up the driveway and for the berry garden and then towards our neighbor's yard. 

For now at least, no more temporary paddocks outside of areas with proven fencing.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Damned Sheep!

When it comes to blogging I've been a real slacker.  My last post was in September of last year.  The lack of blogging is probably associated with the lack of excitement on the farm over the winter.  Good news for the farmer but pretty boring as far as blogging goes.

We made it through what turned about to be a pretty mild winter.  Hay usage was way below what I'd projected.  I'd anticipated having to buy some this spring to supplement what I'd bought last fall.  But, because of the unseasonably mild weather the amount of hay consumed by our livestock left some reserves that we can feed this summer if we get a typical dry spell and nominal grass growth. 

Lambing started a about eight weeks ago and promptly stopped after one ewe delivered.  It was another six weeks before a second ewe delivered.  Over the past two weeks the deliveries have increased from a trickle to a fairly steady group of young lambs, the most recent being a set of triplets on Easter Sunday and a single this past weekend.  We still have about ten more ewes yet to deliver.

About three weeks ago we also had our first baby llama ever born on the property.  It was a white female, with a grey head.  Very fun to watch as she scampers away from the lambs that apparently scare her.  She's still pretty shy and will walk up to Lorraine and the girls but they still can't tough her.  At about three months old we can start offering her treats like grain that will hopefull increase her level of trust with us.

All of those births are fun and exciting, in a good way.  Yesterday was exciting, but not in a good way.  we usually check for lambs in the morning.  Lorraine was running late and headed out the door asking me to check on the sheep.  I lounged for a few minutes and finally headed out the door only to find the sheep spread in the back yard with several in the berry garden.  We'd worked hard each of the last three years trying to get strawberries, raspberries and gooseberry plants going, only to have the sheep escape and strip the leaves off the bushes and devour the strawberry plants.  Suffice it to say, had the neighbors been home when I saw the sheep in the garden, they've have blushed even if they were longshoremen. 

My first reaction was to rush the sheep in the garden to save the plants.  They scattered as expected.  After a quick review of the plants in the garden I assumed that they'd just gotten there because nary a leaf had been touched on the plants. 

Finding the berry garden still intact my next mission was to get the sheep back into a fenced area.  They headed towards one of the gates to a paddock I didn't want them in.  Not letting them get into a fenced area and then dealing with where to put them next was a huge mistake.  I turned them back towards another gate, deluding myself into thinking that actually go back into a corral that had nothing to eat.  That's was the "stupid farmer" trying to out think stupid sheep.  Instead of the sheep calmly streaming through the open guide as I'd planned, they instead to the approach of "divide and conquer" and split into two groups heading in different directions.  Meanwhile the sheep who hadn't yet escaped, escaped along with the mamma llama and her new baby. 

I wasn't too concerned about the new escapees as I figured if I got a few headed in the right direction the rest would follow, as they always do.  What I hadn't anticipated was the mad dash that half the flock made towards the newly planted hay field.  The same hay field that had just received about four inches of rain the night before.  But, the "stupid farmer" had a strategy of chasing them across the hay field and through another open gate.  Of course they had no interest in going where I wanted them too.  They instead took a beeline south, instead of west into the gate.  I gamely followed them across the muddy field, attempting to make anybody in earshot to blush that hadn't already.  I can say with confidence that primal scream therapy is a hoax.  The sheep ignored my and I didn't feel any better other than when I bent over, hands on knees, to catch my breath.

Now when I said I folllowed them gamely across the field I didn't mention a couple of brief stops to pull my shoes, without feet in them, out of the mud.  I grabbed the shoes and proceeded in stocking feet through a waterway and back into the muddy field, trying to drive the sheep back to the north and through another gate I'd opened into the corral which, incidentally, is right next to the slightly opened gate to another paddock that all the sheep had escaped through earlier which started this whole fiasco.

Getting the sheep into the paddock I wanted them in was further complicated by the fact that we had some electric netting with part of it laying on the ground.  I figured that they'd just jump across the fence on the ground into the grassy paddock and I'd get them through a gate I wanted them to go into.  Some did, some didn't.   I grabbed a hand full of the netting to step across it where it was still standing, not knowing that Mrs. Bailey, the smarter farmer in the family, had hooked up the fence charger to it.  Mercifully the fact that part of the fence was laying on the ground took quite a bit of the bite out of the electric charge.  But, a few more longeshoremen were now blushing than before. 

The few sheep (I'm now dealing single handedly with three separate groups) headed toward the gate but had no interest in going through it.  They bolted to follow the other half of their previous mini-flock back towards the gate that they'd gone through to get into the hay field that now had a multitude of hoof and foot prints where none were before.  I latched the gate I'd previously unlatched and then followed the sheep back out of the hay field to find that the half of the flock I'd previously left behind to give my feet a mud bath were back in the berry garden.  Surely no longeshoremen remained that hadn't yet blushed after this verbal outpouring from the depths of my being.

It was clear at this point they weren't going to go back into the corral I wanted them in.  So, I decided to push them through the fate they'd originally volunteered to go through had I just opened it then.  They still weren't very willing and I was still chasing a stray or too out of the garden only to see another three sneeking behind the machine shed to raid my neighbors garden.  Fortunately I went around the machine shed the other way to head them off at the pass as they say and pushed them back towards the gate that I wanted them to go through.  By now I have about 30 head of sheep spread over about an acre parcel with no volunteers to go through the desired gate. 

I started pushing a small group towards the gate thinking that the rest would follow if I only got just a few started which is normally the case.  In this case they decided to redefine "normal."  I got about ten to head in that general direction when they veered right and into our other garden.  I pushed them out of there and finally a few headed toward the now open gate, only to stop right at the gate.  Fortunately this is an alley that's blocked by fence on both sides so, as long as I was behind them, that's where they would stay with the only option to go forward through the gate.  I "pushed" a little harder and the first small batch was into the enclosed pasture.  I then went back to get the remaining sheep and llamas (mamma llama and baby llama had been joined by the daddy llama who had escaped during the earlier mud bowl event in the hay field).

Now I've never owned pigs to get a first hand experience with being "pig headed" but I was facing a male llama and a small group of sheep who epitomized that expression.  Mamma llama was complient with baby llama at her side, but the rest of the sheep from hell weren't. 

Have you ever held one of those squishy balls that keeps squirting out of your hand?  This little flock of bandits acted the same way.  Seemed like no matter which way I tried to get them to go straight towards the gate, they'd splinter into smaller groups and go in different directions.  I was eventually able to get the group headed towards the gate.  With momentum on my side I saw victory in sight.  Just as I was about to get them into the alley way, some veered right into the garden and the others backtracked.  Of course, it was easy to push them out of the garden but it took a bit more effort to make them turn at a right angle into the alley way.  With that group headed towards the paddock the others lurking behind followed.  Alas, more than 30 minutes after I'd first witnessed the sheep in the berry garden, victory was mine!  Damned sheep!