I spent the whole day up in Oswego. The location was fabulous, a crazily canted old stone building right at the mouth of the Oswego River opening onto Lake Ontario with tugs, barges, and cranes all busying about. But my sightseeing only came in glimpses as I lugged dirty insulated panels out to the truck. I was tearing out a walk-in cooler and freezer. I was able to get it all disconnected, knocked down, and loaded in one long slog, but it warn’t easy. Some of the panels were in bad shape, but I should have enough to make a single freezer, 11 feet wide and between 6 and 12 feet deep depending on how I eventually configure it. My initial thought is that I’m going to use the freezer panels as a framework and install an additional 2″ foam layer inside, but I need some time to work out those construction details.
This latest acquisition will eventually go in the shed behind our house. We currently use ten freezers (not counting the little one above the fridge in the kitchen). As we have increased our sales we’ve found that we never have enough freezer space. Chest freezers are more efficient, but they take up a lot of floor space. Upright freezers theoretically allow us to store more per square foot, but their shelving configurations invariably are incompatible with whatever boxes we are trying to stow. In either case, we are out of room to add new freezers. The ideal solution would be to rent cold storage space, but the nearest cold storage requires a two-hour round trip, making it an inconvenient solution. All those considerations make the walk-in the only feasible option for our situation.
I won’t be able to start working on the walk-in freezer until this winter, so for the time being I’ll continue to use the humming herd of freezers. Whatever doesn’t fit I’ll truck out to the commercial freezer warehouse in Utica. For all the time Rachel and I spend shuffling boxes between freezers, we are really looking forward to having a more workable frozen storage facility right here on the farm.
Hickory nuts are dropping in the woods and in the hedgerows. The pigs are pleased. They crush the shells with their molars and then sort the nut meat from the shell with their tongues, spitting out the fragments. The noise from the cracking shells sounds like it ought to be painful, but the pigs obviously don’t think so.
Nuts and acorns have been traditionally used for pig forage. Our farm has red and white oaks scattered thinly over it, but they are so far apart that we can’t move the pigs to all those isolated locations to harvest the fallen acorns. Pigs used to be fattened in this part of the country in the abundant chestnut groves until the blight wiped them out, but I’ll write more on a curious short term reintroduction of chestnuts in a future post… Other mast forages like pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, and beechnuts either can’t be grown here or just aren’t found on our farm. But we do have hickory nuts, lots of them. We have both shagbark and bitternut varieties. I prefer the shagbark trees for their crazy delaminated appearances. Nuts from the shagbarks are more palatable for human consumption although extracting the meat is more challenging and less rewarding than working with pecans or walnuts. The bitternuts are appropriately named for their high tannin content. Pigs seem to be equally fond of both hickory species.
Forty-two pounds of edible fungus
In the wilderness a-growin’
Saved the settlers from starvation.
Helped the founding of this nation.
Homer Price, Robert McCloskey
Funny how I can still recite this chorus from Homer Price. I’ve forgotten the story now, but the chorus burrowed its way into long term memory. Actually I’m surprised that I haven’t reread the story to my kids. I believe I’ve ready every other Robert McCloskey book to them. One Morning in Maine is my favorite; Blueberries for Sal is theirs.
One subject for which I feel profound ignorance is mushroom identification. Walking in the woods this afternoon while checking the pigs, I found fungi with a wide assortment of colors and shapes in a variety of habitats. I’ll admit that I’m not as interested in gathering a large body of taxonomic information as much as I’d like to be able to safely identify edible fungus.
My mycological repertoire includes only one edible mushroom: the puffball. I believe that in some parts of the world there are inedible look-alikes, but around here the puffball is unique and impossible to confuse so it is a good rookie mushroom.
Gastronomically, the puffball is not a standout. It is fluffy and absorbent, with a definite mushroom odor but very little flavor. I’m not aware of any preparation that doesn’t involve first browning in oil. The puffball is something I eat because I like the idea of foraging my own mushrooms, not because it is great. It isn’t bad, it’s just not too exciting. Like tofu. No, I take that back. Better than tofu. Tofu is something you eat only if you have a grudge against meat.
The English language has a history of a highly specialized vocabulary for animals. We have words for specific types of animals (“herd”, “flock”, “pride”, or “gaggle”). We have words that differentiate by gender (“buck” vs “doe” or “dog” vs “bitch”). We have words to indicate age (“colt”, “kit”, or “kid”) and general body condition (“nag” or “breaker”).
When people talk to us about our livestock, there is often some awkwardness discernible just because the specialized language isn’t universally familiar. So here is a general overview of the bovine nomenclature.
Perhaps the biggest confusion is between “cow” and “cattle”. Often people will refer to an indeterminate group of cattle as cows. To be technically correct, the species as a whole are cattle. So if you see a herd in a pasture and if you haven’t had a chance to check what’s under their tails and between their legs, you should refer to them as cattle. Cows are female cattle that have had their first calf. Dictionaries have acceded to the popular misuse of the word cow. Merriam-Webster’s second definition is “a domestic bovine animal regardless of sex or age“, The OED allows “(loosely) a domestic bovine animal, regardless of sex or age“. Among farmers the word cow is always used in its most literal, technical sense. This is probably akin to the distinction masons make between cement, concrete, and mortar: there are important differences between the three, but they understand even when their customers mistakenly request for a “cement” sidewalk.
Farmers and ranchers have additional layers of terminology to describe the different ages, sizes, and conditions of cattle. The terms get more complicated, as some are regionally defined and some are used differently for beef and dairy cattle. Commonly used terms include the following: calf, weaner, yearling, stocker, finisher, springer, fresh, dry, or broken-mouth. Then there are terms to describe their potential for butchering: bob, vealer, lean, light, finished, breaker, boner, utility, or canner. There are others to describe specific physical conditions, such as stag or freemartin. And there are archaic and obsolete terms you might find in older books: cow-brute, kine, bullock, or neat. None of these lists are comprehensive.
Unless you deal regularly with cattle, we don’t judge you harshly for using the wrong language. If you ask to order a side of beef from a cow, we’ll understand that what you really want is beef from a finished steer. We know you just care what it tastes like, not what it is called. But if you want ag cred, you’ve got to use the right words.
Over the last few years I’ve been able to find good deals on round bales of oat straw for the pigs’ winter bedding. There are sometimes a small number of oats in the bales, but the raking and baling processes tend to dislodge most of the grain. I don’t count on the grain as amounting to enough to provide feed. I like oat straw for its body. Unlike hay, even coarse hay, straw doesn’t pack down into a sodden mat as quickly, so the pigs benefit from warmer, dryer conditions. This year a neighbor’s oats were so overrun by weeds they weren’t able to combine them and they just mowed down the field. But word has gotten around that I’m always looking for cheap bedding straw and hay, and I was able to purchase 4×6 bales of bedding straw.
Things were going well until the pipe framework on the bale wagon’s ancient Montgomery Ward running gear picked an inopportune moment to come apart. The front and rear axles thus untethered from each other, the running gear did the splits from the weight of 6000 pounds of straw and from the jarring travel along the farm lane. Something didn’t seem right, but the wagon was being bounced in and out of deep puddles on the way out of the field, so I didn’t realize my predicament until I was on the shoulder of the county highway. Traffic was light enough that I decided to drag the wreckage home again, home again, diggity dog.
Running gear (and all manner of trailers too) seem to hold their resale value without regard for their actual serviceability. When I bought this particular heap, it required a lot of straightening and welding. But while doing the initial repairs I didn’t see one earlier welded patch on the 2″ stretcher pipe that holds the front and rear together. As always, it’s the one you don’t see coming that gets you… I was able to replace the stretcher pipe with a somewhat stouter black pipe. Now the wagon is back together and ready for the rest of the bales. Until the next thing breaks.
Garth over at Cairncrest put out a post on buying stuff that echoes my experience. Items like hay wagons are hard to justify spending investing in, at least on my farm. I use them on a few occasions during the summer, then they spend the rest of the year rusting and rotting. In an ideal world, limited use items could be shared among neighbors, and while we have a generous neighborly lending economy around here, I’ve found that some equipment tends to be needed by everybody at the same time. When it is raining, nobody is making hay; when we have a hot dry stretch, everybody is making hay. Shared hay wagons aren’t very practical.
One of the sure things about livestock farming is that one can never be sure how a day will turn out. When I went to fill the pigs’ whey trough in the morning round of chores, I noticed that the trough was nearly full. Strange… I usually see the pigs in their paddock, but right now they are homed in a dense patch of brushy woods, so sometimes they are snoozing in the shade. I called and whistled for them and got no response. Hmm… I started beating the bounds of their enclosure and came to a place where the polywire fence had snapped.
It took hours of searching and miles of walking since the free pigs split into two groups going opposite directions. We even enlisted the willing help of our dinner guests (also farmers, so they knew the drill) to get the last few pigs back into the enclosure, but this story ends well with everybody back in their place.
Cyprus the boar stood still for me the other day so I could measure him. According to the tape, he weighs 698 pounds. If he were fed a free choice grain diet, he’d be much bigger, but even so he’s a big guy.
I was measuring pigs so I could get a reference for new gates and chutes I’m building. It looks like mature feeder pigs need a gateway 15-17 inches wide, open sows need a gateway 16-18 inches wide, and late term bred sows need up to 20 inches. But the boar is built with a powerful front-end, far out of proportion to the shape on all other classes of pigs. He needs at least 24 inches of clearance shoulder-to-shoulder. We have two sows that weigh in the low 600-pound range, but interestingly even though their weights are only 10-15% lower than the boar’s, their shoulders are 30% smaller.
In cattle breeding there is a system called linear measurements (although it would be more accurately called proportional measurements) that purports to arrive at a measure of the deviation of any animal from “ideal” cattle proportions. Similarly, this measurement difference between boars and sows would form a phenotypic standard by which boars could be assessed. I view those sorts of rationalized systems as part genius and part superstition, but I can’t argue with the results that proponents like Gearld Fry have created by long term, measurement-based breeding and culling. I am not aware of any comparable proportional measurement standards for pigs. It would be interesting to know if over a large sample certain measured proportions tend to indicate traits like fertility, growth potential, etc. Obviously one can judge some of this by eye, but rationalizing it down to a set of ratios would be a big task. And then validating those ratios would be an even bigger task.
Cattle readily eat wild grape (fox grapes, Vitis labrusca) leaves and vines any time the plants are green, but as the grapes start to ripen they seem especially motivated. Only the vines growing six feet above ground remain unscathed. While they aren’t as resourceful as goats, who manage to gain extra reach by standing on their back legs or even stacking up on each other, the meticulousness with which the cattle strip out every possible grape and grape leaf within reach indicates that this must be a particular favorite.
We picked chokecherries this weekend. Because they are small and usually located on hard-to-reach branches, we don’t make them a centerpiece of our diet. They provide a welcome accent.
Cooling on the sideboard today: a thick, rich crabapple-chokecherry jelly. We use Pomona’s pectin, so we can get by with very little sugar or honey (still a lot of C6H12O6 and C12H22O11 compared to what we normally eat, but a far cry from traditional jelly recipes that specify equal parts sugar and fruit).
Here is our general recipe: Place 5 lbs chopped crabapples in 5 cups boiling water, then simmer about 15 minutes until they are easily mashed. Press the mash through a jelly sieve and reserve. Place 2 lbs chokecherries in 2 cups boiling water for 10 minutes, then mash through a jelly sieve and mix with the apple squeezin’s. Based on the amount of liquid you end up with, scale according to the standard apple jelly recipe amounts for pectin and calcium. We ended up using 1-1/2 cups sugar, 3 tablespoons of pectin, and 3 tablespoons of calcium water.