The Sylvan Challenge

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Not exactly what comes to mind when someone says ‘farmland’

When we first decided to move away from the suburbs and complete dependency on city infrastructure, we began by looking for farm properties. Our first choice was a property with around one hundred acres total, split into sixty acres of woodlands and forty acres of conventional cleared pastures. We began researching how to best use and improve the wooded acreage for both our future livestock and the creatures native to the area. I came away with a vague (though exciting) idea of a combination of raising livestock suited to forest browsing and things such as food forests to slowly and naturally create silvopastures.

But… things happen. Things usually involving money and a distinct lack of access to it. That first property did not work out. Nor did the next. And by the time we settled on our new place, we were happy to have anything with some elbow room and far enough from the city.

Today we are situated on a little over seventeen acres of mostly steeply sloping oak-hickory forest. And we love it. However, the land certainly doesn’t lend itself to doing practically anything in a conventional way anywhere. What had originally been my vague idea of using and improving a portion of our land has become an absolute necessity for every square inch of it.

Moving our inside fence out

Today we are continuing to work on expanding the fence around the cleared area of our property where our house and outbuildings are situated. We are more than ready to get more use out of our property. This ‘inside’ perimeter fence must be completed so that we are better able to rotate animals through for grazing and browsing while we focus on the daunting task of completing a total perimeter fence out there in the woods.

After fences are in place, the plan is to rotate animals suited for the task through the greater part of our hilly woods. We will begin with our Highland cattle who do a great job clearing thick brush and trampling down decaying trees. The walking paths that they create through the rocky landscape make areas more accessible to us (and the deer!) as they go. And you can’t dismiss the high quality fertilizer they leave behind.

The goats will come behind for keeping low brush from overtaking any areas that the cows have left behind in their travels – while the donkeys will have the job of finishing off saplings too large for little goats to dismantle. All the while, our chickens volunteer to constantly lightly till and turn the compost on the forest floor.

The goats love their job.

We have also decided to grow mushrooms using our larger felled trees and resulting compost. Not only are they super efficient at breaking down all these hardwoods – but… Free mushrooms!

It does seem like something of a pipe dream at this point. There are tons of moving parts in this plan and many things will frankly be left somewhat to chance… But it’s the journey and not the destination, right? For now we see tiny patches of success here and there… The greening of one of our valleys off to the east that was previously barren or patches of grass appearing out in clearings that now receive sunlight. We notice new song birds coming in each year and the population of tree squirrels and chipmunks has definitely increased. All the while we enjoy the experience and our animals show us what we need to do next.

Working with nature rather than simply trying to cut or trample it out of the way is NOT the quick or easy way. But we truly believe in what we are doing here – preserving a natural habitat for native wildlife while coexisting ourselves and with our poultry and livestock. Someday, perhaps, it will be something close to our vision when our children leave this place to their children. That thought makes it all worthwhile.

On why I can’t seem to blog

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It’s mostly their fault.

I have been trying for years to settle into a routine which would actually involve regularly updating the blog with informative tidbits and amusing anecdotes. No matter how strongly I resolve to begin (and continue) it always seems to fall apart even before I ever really get started. I’m just too busy actually gathering informative tidbits and living the amusing anecdotes to stop and write about it.

We upgraded the donkey barn a bit. I was going to blog about it. But I ended up hanging out with the donkeys instead.

How do people raise children and bake bread from scratch, can their own vegetables from their immaculate garden and raise hand-fed all organic beef cattle, treat individual chickens for bumblefoot with daily spa treatments and paint their pigs’ toenails, build their own log cabin with hand tools and knit winter hats for homeless veterans — all while maintaining a heavily trafficked blog and a YouTube channel with one hundred and fifty thousand subscribers?

I seriously need to know their secrets. In the meantime, I’m pretty proud of myself when I remember to feed our children before midnight on a given day. I’m a long, long way from adding ‘social media goddess’ to my resume.

Also their fault.

Honestly though, and despite all of my very valid protestations about being busy, the main reason why I never get much done on a regular basis with the blog is that I tend to worry too much about what I am going to say. There’s a very real blogger writer’s block phenomenon – particularly in this day and age of polished professionally published websites and monetized program generated content. I mean, here I am with a camera and a two hundred dollar smart phone with nothing more to talk about than how ridiculous donkeys look when they’re soaking wet or to brag post a bit when we get some little project done around here.

Soaking wet AND frozen – now there’s a blog post.

Maybe if I can step away from all of that for a little while and get back into the mindset of sharing about our daily lives with people who may actually enjoy that, I can keep this thing going for at least a little while.

But if I do disappear … It’s probably because I got caught up in the moment of watching the goats play with the family after a long, hard day of work and didn’t want to end an otherwise magical day sitting in front of a computer screen. Just sit tight. I will be back.

Death, taxes, and fencing

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And not the kind with the sword.

Living out here in the country with animals means that fence acquisition, building, and repair are both unavoidable and near-constant parts of life. Back when I lived in the suburbs on a 1/4 acre privacy-fenced lot, I dreamed of moving out into a natural utopia – free, open, devoid of manmade barriers.

At the time, I thought free-ranging all of our animals would be the ticket. Who needs fences? As long as all of your animal charges are regularly handled and have all of their needs met – they will never want to leave. Incarceration is for the lazy.

We are reworking and expanding our inside perimeter fence today.

So, obviously, that was stupid. Fences are more for keeping things out than keeping things in. Sometimes it is necessary to separate animals for their own protection. Sometimes you really need to keep your does away from your buck. And sometimes even your most content companions want to take a day trip to the middle of the busy road down the hill.

Now that we know better, we devote a pretty significant number of annual waking hours to building or mending fences. Today we are reworking our inside perimeter fence to include a little more usable land at the top of our steep hill while replacing the 4-strand wire with wire panel to keep our dog closer to home when he is out unsupervised. This is going to be a multi-weekend project, as usual, but there is no use complaining about it.

We also learned the hard way that it is a lot better to invest in better fencing materials (the most effective for your animals and terrain rather than the cheapest) from the start. Now that we have learned this we can finally look forward to getting to work on the larger perimeter fence – rather than constantly having to use our time and money to repair the existing fences.

What had once been something we thought we would only accomplish someday after we won the lottery is now on the radar for completion within the next two years. I can’t even begin to express how exciting that is and all of the other projects that will open up for all of us.

For now… Back to smashing my hands with pliers and fence clips and battling ticks. It will all be worth it in the end.

Lawn Service

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Gathering for photo op.

For the first time in what seems like forever to me (and probably seems even longer to them), Emily’s geese are out on a field trip. This past fall we had decided to build a designated goose area to contain our winged lawnmowers until our grass recovered from the flood/drought/flood cycle of the previous summer. Although the larger part of our property still has more time before it will require a good goose-trimming, our smaller fenced yards around the house are starting to grow up.

It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet, really.

Geese are so efficient at trimming grass that we actually sold our riding mower this past fall. Also so efficient that we had to learn the hard way that a flock of 25+ geese can completely overgraze two or three acres of grass in a very short time.

They’re still more fun than pushing a mower around.

These guys will spend the next three or four days in the backyard working – or at least until trimming is complete – whichever comes first. In the meantime, it is nice to have them nearby again and be able to watch them doing what geese are made to do.

Special thanks to Emily for taking care of the Goose Army Lawn Maintenance Unit – and for providing some pictures for me to share today.

Don’t forget! It is hatching season. If you are looking for goslings to add to your home flock – be sure to contact us now to reserve some from our upcoming hatches.

The Horse Stall

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I just can’t think of a better title for this post. That wouldn’t be because it is the best title – it’s just that I am too exhausted to come up with anything better on this balmy Sunday night.

Here is what we started with. Not so lovely.

We went to work putting together our stall kit right on schedule Saturday morning. Sort of. We still had to do our regular morning chores and we also had to move the old corral pen and stall mats. (I hate stall mats now, by the way.) Aaaand we had to actually carry the frames into the barn – which was enough work for a day.

Having the frame in place was enough motivation to keep going.

The next step was carrying and installing somewhere between two hundred and five thousand heavy 2×6 boards. (It was probably closer to two hundred, but I lost count early on.) We bought the wood kits to go along with the stall panels to make things easier on ourselves. That was a great plan. The great plan was foiled by the fact that the plastic-wrapped bundles of tongue and groove planks were trapped in a thunderstorm the night before and were, as a result, quite damp. In case you don’t know this, damp is very bad for tongue and groove installation.

Only a few million more boards to go.

All in all, the process went pretty smoothly and we are perfectly happy with our Tarter Sentinel Stall Kit. The finished product is robust and looks fantastic.

It’s a serious upgrade.

As a side note, I learned this Saturday that if you really, really hate someone you should assign them the task of trimming rubber stall mats with a dull utility knife. We are talking fifth level of hell kind of torture here.

It’s so clean.

If we were literally made of money, we would definitely buy a few more of these – and even endure the back-breaking labor of putting them together – just to have them for… Well, because they just look really nice. They would definitely be a whole lot of overkill for our tiny donkeys. Our whole herd would fit in one of these things with room to spare. Even our little paint horse didn’t need this much space, but it’s go big or go home around here, you know.

Horsing Around: This Weekend’s Upcoming Project

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The current situation: Much despised due to the very real fear that Jacob will injure himself in the open panels and the very real reality that free-range chickens are a nuisance sometimes.

Every now and then, we have been known to put the cart before the horse when it comes to homestead projects. I fondly remember that one time when we bought a pair of adult, super-sized goats and brought them home despite having not one existing fence or outbuilding ready. They slept in our garage. It was … fun.

We have gotten much better about planning ahead and actually preparing before any major poultry or livestock acquisitions. Jacob, the paint horse, may have been a recent exception. I say ‘may have been’ only because we were not completely unprepared. We at least had a plan in place for his immediate housing, nutritional needs, and safety. However, it wasn’t an optimal plan and we knew that it would all be very temporary. We immediately set out to find a proper horse stall. Used options were quite limited – which is probably good because we would have had a hard time loading and unloading prebuilt stall walls anyway. New options were not only incredibly expensive, but just as limited as the used options. We were told that stall components were backordered from all of the major suppliers.

By the end of January, we gave up on the idea of finding that sweet spot between price and availability and ordered a complete stall kit. That stall kit finally arrived this week.

The stall wall frames. Metal is currently crazy expensive.

The wood kits for filling the stall frames. Wood is currently crazy expensive.

All five of us will be tackling this project bright and early Saturday morning. I have been itching to start working on it since the materials arrived, but nothing is ever so easy. A good portion of this job will involve setting up a temporary pen for the donkeys to keep them out of our workspace (and to keep Loreto from stealing my tools), while there will also be some floor preparation to do before we can really get started. Once we start, we will have to finish as we can’t leave anything unfinished (and, therefore, dangerous) inside the equine enclosure. I can’t wait to see this one done and will surely update on our progress this Saturday just because I will be so darned proud of us and will need to share.


Random Things

Meet Iggy! Iggy is our two year old Sun Conure. He isn’t your typical farm animal, but we aren’t your typical farm either – so it works. Iggy doesn’t have a clear speaking voice like larger parrots, but he has a pretty good vocabulary and knows how to use it. He’s incredibly affectionate and loves to be petted. He also loves peanuts, but has to watch his figure.

We take a lot of photos.

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And it just isn’t right to keep them all to ourselves. We could say that we thought we should launch a new blog for readers who would rather look at cute pictures than read a long story about cleaning out chicken coops. But, the truth is, sometimes we would rather post cute pictures than clean out chicken coops — or write those stories. Most of the time we will be filing this space with photos and some short stories or descriptions, but we will probably need the room for the occasional longer update or tale. If you have any suggestions for what you would like to see in our blog posts, please let us know!