Every year I chip away at fencing on the farm. And every year, my technique refines a bit. I’ve watched as minor differences contribute to a fence’s longevity or lack thereof. Most of my changes have been toward simplification. Fence construction manuals are all written by people selling fencing supplies. Caveat emptor.
I started with 6 wire electric fences, with an alternating hot-ground configuration. I learned that with our mostly wet climate, the alternating wire arrangement loses too much spark when high moisture vegetation gets between the two polarities. Now all our fences are hot. I also learned that 6 strands is overkill. If I had sheep, then perhaps I’d need the extra strands, but even there 3 strands would be sufficient for all situations except road frontage. All my new fences are two stranded. To speed up installation, I set the wires biometrically. The top strand goes in at the height where my pocket knife has worn a bare patch in my pants (all my work jeans get the same wear patterns) and the bottom strand goes in at the bottom of my kneecap. This arrangement works fine for our cattle. The top wire is low enough that I can jump the fence using a scissor kick jump, but the bottom wire is low enough that the cattle can graze under it, saving me the hassle of trimming under the fences. If I want to run pigs in that pasture, I just add an extra polywire strand temporarily.
Another change has been the switch from H braces to floating braces. It saves one driven post, and speeds things up considerably. My floating braced fences have proven more durable over time than my H braces. And now that I’ve dropped to two wires, I really don’t put much stress on the corner and end posts. I’ve had some floating braces in service since late 2012 (and those were hand-dug posts, which is the least reliable way to install posts). So if they can remain in perfect alignment through 125 degrees of temperature variation, floods, snowstorms, and bulldozers driving over the fence wires, then I think they’ll last until the posts rot.
I’ve played around with line post spacing. Originally I used 100 foot spacing with plastic droppers at 50 foot intervals. The droppers all failed within a few years, when the snow would drift over fences and buckle the droppers. I tried fiberglass (too splintery) and plastic composite (too weak after about five years). Both the fiberglass and poly posts were prone to frost heaving in winter and popping out during spring mud, just because it wasn’t possible to drive them below the frost line. I’ve gone back to all wood posts, driven four feet deep, and installed 75 feet apart. This seems to be the magic combination for fencing on relatively flat land. On bumpy terrain, the spacing needs to conform to the natural undulations, so spacing is tighter in these areas.
I’m always amazed at how much art and skill is involved in good work. I pass by fences, or houses, or sweaters, or paintings without stopping to consider what the creator of that work was thinking, or what that person had learned to enable the creation of the object. I probably wouldn’t enjoy a full time job of building fences, but I like the change of pace, when I am able to focus on getting a few important details correct, and then seeing the resulting product: a fence that will last us for many years.
We probably have a dozen bungee gates on the farm. None of them are permanently installed. We attach a hook handle on each end, so we can install them across any gateway on the farm (well, almost all of them). We’ve standardized our gateways and our lanes to 20 feet wide. We keep a pile of bungee gates in the toolbox of the ATV, so it is easy to close off a gate or lane as needed. We appreciate that they can be coiled up and stored in compact bundles, and that they can be deployed so quickly and easily.
One problem with the bungees is that they just don’t last very long. After about two years the ends wear out from the stress where the cord wraps around the loop of the gate hook. This is especially the case if a bungee gate is used during the winter when it can get buried in four or five feet of snow drifting across a gateway. As the snow compacts and settles, this can exert weight on the material, over-stressing it.
I used to solve this problem by cutting the cord shorter, but this fix eventually shortens the cord enough that we overstretch the bungee on our 20 foot gateway. My solution to stretch the life of a bungee gate is to install a wire reinforcement. This works well for conducting electricity, and it relieves the stress on the fibers.
Yesterday evening I went down to the laying hens to help Harry bring up the eggs he gathered. As I was putting the cases of eggs into the truck, I heard this sharp snap, snap, snap behind me. I turned to find a group of hens in a feeding frenzy on a patch of bare ground. On closer inspection, I saw that they were eating tiny white larvae. And the larvae weren’t just scrunching or wriggling along the ground like normal maggots, grubs, or caterpillars; these things were launching themselves two feet into the air. They were less than a half inch long with no external parts visible to my eye. They move themselves by snapping their bodies with an audible click, and arcing up into the air. It didn’t seem to me that they were projecting their motion in any particular direction, rather they seemed to be just popcorning all over the place, probably just opportunistically hoping to find a good place to escape the hens.
It turns out that these little guys are the larval stage of the cheese skipper fly (aka ham skipper). In reading up on them, I learned that people dealt with this fly frequently in per-refrigeration times when they discovered that it liked to lay its eggs in cheeses and meat, and then a couple weeks later the piece of (now rotten) food would have little white things blasting out of it in all directions. After reading about them, I’m surprised I haven’t encountered them before. It seems like I out to have seen them in dead animals I’ve found in the woods, but maybe I just haven’t been paying enough attention to decomposing things.
So what were the larvae feeding on? Chicken feed. Two weeks ago we had a problem with one of the chicken feeders. The lip was too low and it spilled about 100 lbs of feed. I tried to clean it up, but there was still a lot of feed left in the grass. Then it rained for a few days, caking it all into a nice mess that apparently was an ideal habitat for cheese skippers. I inadvertently created a two-stage feeding system for chickens, feeding chicken feed to skippers and then feeding the skippers to the chickens. That’s terribly inefficient from the entropic standpoint, but I don’t think the chickens mind. They prefer live bugs over peas, sunflower seeds, and corn any chance they can get them.
Once the chickens figured out what was going on, they began tearing through the capped layer of spoiled feed to get at the larvae, which were all in a concentrated layer about one inch below the surface. Feathers flew. Larvae leaped. Chickens chortled.
One thing we appreciate about turkeys is their suitability for herding. Just judging by their body shape, we might expect them simply to act like bigger versions of chickens. Turkeys and chickens are only distant relations in the larger pheasant family, so it isn’t surprising that they express their flocking instincts quite differently. Even though they bear strong resemblances, they are very different birds.
Moving turkeys across open pasture is far easier than trying to accomplish the same task with chickens. Chickens scatter in all directions, and even with a crew of people, it normally takes three or four tries before the laying hens can be moved from one pasture to another. Whenever possible, we wait until night to move the hens, so we can move them when they are roosting in their wagon. Turkeys (with perhaps the exception of the first time moving them) always go in one big group without any drama.
Allie does all the daily the turkey chores, so they are imprinted on her and will willingly follow her anywhere. They don’t know me as well, so I work better behind the flock, driving them. I don’t need to any cowboy shouting, just following behind while making large arm motions is enough to keep the stragglers on the move. We spent about an hour moving fences, feeders, water lines, and the shelter trailer, so it is almost anticlimactic when the actual turkey move takes thirty seconds. Not that we mind it when things go well…
At lunchtime I went out to give the farm a checkup, and as I passed the small pond I saw a crow partially submerged in the water. It seemed in distress, flailing its wings but not making progress toward the shore. It wasn’t squawking, just opening its beak periodically without vocalizing.
I made a decision to intervene. It wasn’t a studied decision, just a spur of the moment action. I don’t try to interfere with every wounded animal, but I hate to see protracted suffering if it can be prevented with a little intervention.
I grabbed two plastic fence posts and slurp-slopped my way through the mudflat around the pond until I could get one post under the crow and the other over it, chopstick style. I pulled on the crow, but it didn’t come easily. So I gave a heave and the crow came out, along with about 20 pounds of snapping turtle attached to one leg. This presented a philosophical dilemma. The turtle was still attached, just below the water line, and the crow was still in the water. I could let the frying pan sized turtle have its way with the crow. Nature, red in tooth and claw (and beak), would proceed in its innocent remorselessness. But I’d still feel bad about the crow having to take the long way out. I could rescue the crow and feel self satisfied about rescuing it, but then feel guilty for stealing a well-earned meal from the turtle. I didn’t have long to act because the turtle was tugging the crow back down. How does one reconcile pity for suffering and respect for the natural order?
I won’t pretend to have arrived at an ideal solution, but in the few seconds I watched, I decided to pull the crow. If the crow still had a good leg left, and if it still had a spark of life, I would release it. If the crow was missing a leg or if it seemed beyond hope, I would kill it instantly by cervical dislocation and toss it back to the turtle.
I don’t suppose we can ever pass through the world without changing it. At some point our sensibilities require modification, alteration, intervention. And when we intervene, we choose one thing over something else. A morality that adheres strictly to principals of nature seems like an appropriate and noble (albeit austere) standard. But before we get too self-congratulatory about painting with every color of the wind, we probably should question, “what is nature?” The turtle eating the crow is natural. But the pond where this drama unfolded is a feature I dug six years ago. I scooped out a small amount of dirt on a low-lying spot, using the excavated material to build up a nearby lane. The pond quickly filled with water and has remained full since. It now supports a population of turtles, frogs, muskrats, minnows, crayfish, leeches, and innumerable water bugs. Mice, deer, racoons, bees, killdeer, sandpipers, and other animals use it as a watering hole. Herons and ducks forage in it. The animals are all natural to my environment, but I’ve created this little micro-environment, so it remains in one sense an unnatural impostition.
Did I chose well between the crow and the turtle? I don’t know.
When I came back after finishing my round of chores, the crow had recovered and flown away. The turtle was deep in the mud, thinking turtlish thoughts, maybe wondering what strange predator stole its prey. Tomorrow, or the next day, the turtle will clamp something else in its beak and pull it under. And next spring, the crow will search for turtle eggs in the weeds on the bank, and eat them without ever considering the strange revolutions of the wheel of life. And I’ll still be baffled, unsure when to choose between intervention and acceptance, between pity and pragmatism.
We are delighted to offer grass fed dairy now! It’s always exciting to connect to other small farms with similar practices and offer delicious products that a lot of you have requested. We are now carrying plain and maple yogurts along with Raw Aged Tomme, Feta, and Havarti cheeses. (We are also carrying grass fed butter, but that is for another post.)
Not only are the farmers at North Country Creamery committed to caring for the land and treating their animals respectfully, they are providing employment for several people in their community. As I pulled into the parking lot by their cafe, I saw Ashlee and Steven and the five people they employ full time, along with a new friend or two, outside lingering late over their lunch together. Turns out that their communal breakfasts and lunches are a daily ritual. I gladly accepted the delicious soup the cafe chef had prepared and then enjoyed my tour through the farm.
Ashlee and Steven run their 20 cow dairy near Ausable Chasm where they produce rich milk, delicious yogurt, and a variety of artisan cheeses. They met in 2006 and have been farming together for 6 years.
“I became inspired to milk cows while working at Farm in Wilderness in 2006. So I worked on organic dairy farms across VT until 2011. I love the routine and closeness with animals that’s inherent in dairy farming. With a stroke of luck and encouraging friends, I landed on this property which the previous owner (“Clover Mead Farm”) had been utilizing for making several varieties of cheeses. We received a NOFA grant to hire him as a mentor our first year, so that he could teach us the tricks of the trade. I hadn’t made cheese on a commercial scale, so there was certainly a learning curve to the process. We’ve honed in on our 8 favorite cheeses to make and those that we’ve been most successful with, and added the creamline yogurts.
In 2014 a friend approached us about introducing a cafe to our enterprises. Our first year we ran it as a farmstore, but the previous owner had run it as a cafe so we decided to re-install some equipment and make it happen. We decided to call it the Clover Mead Cafe to pay homage to the previous owners and Clover Mead Farm. We currently operate 4 enterprises (dairy herd, creamery, cafe, & lodging), but they are legally all one business. I am the current single owner, but we are seeking to form a cooperative. Hopefully it will extend ownership to all the employees who are interested. We are working with the Cooperative Development Institute to figure out the details, so we have lots to learn over the next couple of years. We actually have 11 employees right now as we enter the peak of our season! About 5 full time employees. We’re really excited about visioning with [the cafe manager] (and everyone who’s interested) regarding the cafe and other enterprises in the future! We’re focusing on creating a comprehensive vision statement this summer.”
Below is a glimpse of their endeavor as I saw it at the beginning of May.
Ashlee and Tulip
The milking parlor accommodates five cows at a time.
The cleaned equipment is ready for the next milking.
The bulk tank stores the milk before it is moved into the yogurt and cheese making room.
All is orderly and clean in the cheese and yogurt areas.
The boards for the cheese cave are curing.
The stairs to the treasury.
The farmers–Ashlee and Steven.
If you are ever in the area, they would be delighted for you to stop in at the cafe!
Pardon the name dropping, but the first group of turkeys went out to pasture today, under the intent gaze of Harrison Ford who is volunteering his services with us this summer. How did we manage to get him to help? Read on, but first let me drag this out with farmy details.
Allie has been raising turkeys this spring. She was reluctant at first, but she negotiated a deal that I’d let her raise eight ducks with the turkeys. It turns out she has a real knack for caring for the birds, and she has done a great job. Turkeys need more pampering than chickens when they are little, so they spent their first five weeks inside the shelter and warmth of the brooder. Now that they are well feathered and gaining some size, the time has come to turn them out to graze.
Since turkeys graze more thoroughly than chickens, we needed a different sort of pasture shelter for them. Recall during the winter I wrote about a wrecked old camper I bought for the turkeys. I tore the camper down to the frame, and was left with this:
I did a little structural work, and then I added a wooden roosting grid as the deck. I bent chainlink fencing tubes as hoops, and covered it all with a recycled billboard. The goal is to provide shade and a place to roost at night. Turkeys don’t need anything more fancy than that. They took to the pasture immediately.
The structure is ten feet wide and thirty five feet long. I could have made it wider, but ten feet seems to be a practical limit if we want to be able to navigate the twists and turns on the lane that runs through the farm.
So, about Harrison Ford. He’s signed up to watch our turkeys this summer. Here he is on guard duty:
I realize it is hard to recognize him because of the funhouse mirror effect. Below is the original billboard image. We cut the top 1/3 off for this shelter. We’ll keep the rest of him from the armpits down for another chicken hoophouse project.
It involves some mixing up of Harrison Ford’s oeuvre, but the kids get a real kick out of the idea that Han Solo is watching the turkeys.
Fence posts are going in! It seems utterly prosaic to you, I know, but for the last seven years most of our farm has been fenced in polywire temporary fence, torn down and reset each time we rotate the cattle. So this is a big deal for us. Permanent perimeter fencing doesn’t cost that much in the grand scheme, but it always is less urgently needed than all the other urgent things, so progress has been slow.
I was able to rent a post pounder yesterday. It needed to be reserved one month in advance, so I picked my date rain or shine, and it rained. But a rainy day in June isn’t much of a hardship, so I downloaded an audiobook, grabbed a thermos of coffee, and knocked my way through more than a hundred eight foot posts in a 15 hour slugfest.
I won’t be able to do much with the fencing for a couple months as I still have a several of chicken and turkey pasture houses to build, but the posts are in and now I can begin to chip away at the project one fence segment at a time.
I (Rachel) thought Harry was playing a trick on me because every time I went down to pick up the crate of eggs he gathered, I’d find several eggs left on top of the crate storage stack. I’d ask him why they were there, and he’d say he didn’t know.
So I started getting suspicious of the chickens, and sure enough! I went down mid morning and caught them preparing to lay those beauties in the most convenient place of all.
Hmmm…the possibilities that come to mind!
Just wanted to post something to the website to prove that we’re still here. The crush of spring activities has a way of focusing us on the tasks immediately at hand. There’s a lot to tell of and plenty to show, but that will all have to wait.
Here’s the crabapple tree blooming near the old milkhouse.