Farming reality slapped me in the face

CC_Blog_Death_of_a_lamb_Jun17

When you read my blog you probably sigh over the idyllic country life we have, and for most part it is true. There is always a “but” of course.

Beyond the times you have to walk out in the dark, in the rain, the cold, early in the morning when you’d rather sleep in, work in wet clothes, with cranky or stubborn animals, there are other downsides. Beyond the muck, the dirty sheds that need to be cleaned out, the fact that you become immune to the smell of animal poo, whether it is on your clothes, shoes or hands, or that you suddenly don’t have an issue with walking in in dirty wellies, dragging muck into the kitchen because you are gagging for a warm cup of tea, there are of course other things that really make the dream of an idyllic life on the farm wobble.

It is not a bad track record that out of 10 ewes, seven of them being first time mothers, we have only lost one lamb. But that this one little lamb died in my arms and it was a standard lesson of the reality of farming. My heart was on a thread when we almost lost our first calf, Goldie, earlier this spring (see Life or Death situation post), but having a living creature die while I held it in my arms was completely new to me.

The lamb was about a week old and was unfortunate enough to have a distracted mother. The two were put into the mothering pen for a couple of days, but while they bonded well once they got out, the ewe still easily walked away from her lamb while eating. The lamb did it’s best to follow, but did not get enough milk and I had to go looking for it a couple of times. The last day I found it sprawled out on the top field in the surprising heatwave we had this year in May. Poor little thing was dehydrated and very weak.

IMG_5728

Feeding the lamb milk with electolyte solution for intense hydration.

We did our best, hydrated it, milked the ewe, tube fed it, but that night it died in my arms. I had just fed it and as it seemed unresponsive I picked it up, trying to rub it and to give it warmth. I looked at Kevin and said “I think it is dead”. The worst part is that I wasn’t sure, it seemed to be moving, but it could be just me breathing. I put it down and we concluded that it had just died. I burst into tears, knowing very well that this is the reality of farming. But it was so heart-breaking, after having tried everything and it dies in my arms.

This lamb was born to one of my girl’s pet ewe, one they had hand-fed last year, so there were more tears in the morning. The reality of farming had slapped us in the face, and as my hardier husband explained to both myself and my girls in very simple terms “this happens, often, and is part of farming”. Knowing it and experiencing it are two different things, but know at least we have both.

We might give the ewe another chance. It is something my daughter must make a decision on, as it was bought as her pet and it is her choice whether we keep or sell the ewe. The one thing I am very decisive about is that our farm is not a pet farm. Animals we keep or plants we garden all need to have their use. If this ewe is a bad mother, then there is no point keeping her. If we think she will treat the next lamb the same way she needs to be sold.

It may sound callous, this cost benefit attitude towards farming, but when you have to put in so much time, commitment, physical effort and even emotional attachment, you will be less keen on wasting it. If the ewe is a bad mother, we will either end up losing the next lamb or having to hand rear them. Both options are situations any farmer will gladly avoid.

I have for years been mad about having one or two alpacas. While it might be an interesting project, the monetary return would be close to nothing. They are expensive animals to buy, and the price for one or two fleeces will not even cover their feed.  I’d rather put my effort into getting and keeping bees; not only do they provide honey and bees wax, but are also excellent pollinators for the garden.

We are not dependent on our farm, it is a choice to have it. While we probably just break even from a money point of view, our true return and payment comes in other forms, such as the learning, living, own produced milk, cheese, vegetables and meat, but most of all real life experiences for the whole family…that is unmeasurable. Still, no alpacas or bad mothers on this farm, as there are only so many hours in the day and we do more things than just farming.

 

 

Stony gardening by the Burren

Stony gardening

While Casa Ceoil is not in the heart of the Burren or officially in the national park, we are by the edges and get to experience it up close at times. Let me tell you, it is not the best experience in my garden.

The Burren is a unique landscape in the west of Ireland, here you will see flat arid-looking limestone areas, mixed up with patches of green fields, turloughs and lakes. The name says it all, as it means “the rocky place”. The limestone area is referred to as a pavement, and when you see it you are not surprised as it is so flat, ground down by the moving pre-historic ice masses. The limestone is broken and in the crevices, there is a unique flora of Mediterranean, Alpine and Arctic flowers and plants growing.

IMG_5849 (2)

The old part of the house has an integrated boulder into the corner. 

That is all very nice, but what does that have to do with my garden? Well, I never knew, until I lived here that is, that stones literally grow out of the ground in the Burren. Yes, in this part of Ireland stones grow in your garden as if you planted them like spuds (Irish slang for potatoes).

It seems like a joke or an exaggeration, but once you’ve gardened a few years you stop doubting that you forgot to dig out certain rocks the previous year. The number of stones and large rocks that are dug out of my garden each year is astounding. It doesn’t matter how thorough I am, my spade always says “clink” when I dig.

This year we’ve had volunteers on working holidays with us; and they sweated over the stones in the beds of my polytunnel. I don’t think they truly could believe that we each year dig out the same amount of stones they struggled with.

IMG_5839

This bed was dug, thoroughly, a month or so ago.

This was only a few months ago, and only the other day I dug out a small pile of large stones and a boulder (see the image on the left).

This growth of stones became apparent to me a few years ago. Kevin had decided to plant spuds and scraped out the grass on an area of one of the fields. He never got the chance to set the spuds and the piece of bare ground was left alone.

The year after I was astounded; that bare piece of earth was covered with stones in varied sizes. There were no stones on the grass around it, but on that bare patch it looked as we had planted stones and they had reproduced like crazy. Why stones don’t push up through the grass I will never know, but it was a lesson in geology…the earth is in constant movement.

IMG_5854

A part of this year’s crop of Burren stones and boulders.

We all think of stones and rocks as static, but they are actually in constant movement, and nowhere more than here, on the edge of one of the rockiest places on earth. So that is what I have to look forward to in my gardening, forever, a constant production of stones. It is not strange that the stones are pushed up through the softest area of little resistance, the soft earth of my raised beds.

It still surprises and amazes me, every year, and I have to ask myself…could I really have missed that boulder last year when digging my beds? There is no way that rock appeared from nowhere. But I should know by now, the Burren is bountiful when it comes to stone; at least we do have beautiful walls.

IMG_5855

Sometimes you dig out the most interesting boulders.

Cheesy chores

As I mentioned in my last post (Raw milk in the house) I am now making cheese with the surplus milk we get from our cow Oprah. I decided not to milk the ewes, no matter how pushy my kids get trying to convince me. I did give it a go, out of necessity to feed a lamb, and I have to say that while I managed, it was not the easiest thing to do; pressing milk out with only the tips of my fingers from very small teats. We are also not set up for milking the ewes and I refuse to go hunting for the one ewe to milk every morning. Maybe next year.

Hand milking Oprah

It all starts with the morning milking.

Instead I am slowly perfecting my cream cheese recipe. The one flavoured with chives is the most popular, as the plain one tends to be simply too plain. I have also tried my hand at mozzarella, with medium success but great for a first try, and a very popular ricotta, which my girls had with jam on pancakes.

The key to cheese, apart from extreme hygiene, is understanding the consistency of cheese curds at various stages. Too hard, too soft, just right, all depending on temperature, acidity and how long you leave them in the hot whey.

Making the ricotta was due to my strong dislike for waste. After making the cream cheese and mozzarella, I had a huge amount of whey left and thought that there must be use for it. As we don’t have pigs or hens at the time, nor did I want to make bread, a very successful alternative was to strain it through a very fine cheesecloth and ta da…a small amount of ricotta. Very tasty as well.

Whey is very high in protein and you can supposedly use it for a range of things, all from bread to cooking pasta and rice. The problem is that I just don’t have the fridge or freezer space to store it. I will continue researching, maybe there is more it can be used for. Leave me a comment or send me an email if you have any suggestions!

IMG_5609

A little cheese gift for the neighnbours. The chive falvoured one was the most popular.

You don’t actually need milk directly from the cow to make your own cream cheese, store bought milk will also do the trick. Is it worth it? Probably not.

You need and awful lot of milk to make a small bit of cheese, but it can still be a fun thing to try out, just for your own curiosity or for the kids to learn where food comes from. Give it a go and follow the recipe below.

Recipe
3 litres of milk
2-3 tbs of Lemon juice (maybe more)
3-4 tbs of Natural yogurt (I use natural full fat greek yogurt)
Salt (plenty of it)
Flavouring (optional, such as finely chopped chives, garlic and/or other herbs)

You will also need
Cheese cloth (muslin)Mixing
Strainer
Mixer or bowl (for hand mixing)

Make sure all your utensils are disinfected but odourless.

Boil the milk, once it is boiling add the lemon juice one spoon at the time and stir constantly. This is where practice is a must, as you must decide how hard you want your curds. The more lemon you add the harder they are. Once you are happy with the curds and that all the milk has separated. Strain the curds, wash them at least twice to wash out all the whey (liquid from the milk) and lemon juice.

Mix the curds with a couple of spoons of yogurt, by hand or in a mixer, once it is smooth add plenty of salt and your optional flavouring. Finally, put the mixture into the cheesecloth and hang it up for about six hours. Store it in a container and keep it in the fridge.

This recipe has been adapted from Sharmis Passions blog. Have a look if you want a more detailed recipe and step description.

As all three cows have now calved, I could start my own cheese production, but I have to say that I am more than happy to just milk the one cow and make cheese once a week or so. The other two cows will likely get a calf each to make use of the surplus of milk they produce, and I am sure it is a solution that will suit us all.