I did my gardening best

My gardening best

I promised I tried my best, I promised myself that I would not have an overflow of seedlings this year, I restrained my hand as much as possible while planting seeds, I have generously given away as many as I could, I even had seedling funerals and ate many of them in micro-vegetable state. And still, I am being drowned by them.

There are tomatoes galore, enough kale to plant a forest, cabbage for all, more celery than I ever wished for and so many flowers. My green fingers worked against me, as even the oldest seed sprouted into vigorous life. Who knew.

My sheep were kind enough to thin out many of my brassicas and kale seedlings, both planted in the beds and in the pots, when they ventured into the polytunnel a few times. At least they mind the plastic, unlike my bullock frenemies, and left my precious tomatoes alone.

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This cauliflower is begging to be planted, but I already have so many!

 

 

I have given away as many seedlings as I can. One friend commented that it was like going to a garden centre, as I loaded her with stuff.

Almost all my tomatoes have been planted, but I have a few tough and thriving ones in pots begging me to find space for them. I have cherry tomatoes, yellow ones, oval ones and I am very excited about the blue ones.

There are also peppers, both sweet and spicy. I never truly realised that Habaneros (very very spicy chillies) are from tropical climes, really needs a lot of heat. It is growing extremely slowly. Fingers crossed.

I never thought I would have success with artichoke seed I came across, now I’m wondering where I will have the space to plant these very large plants. A few years ago, I bought three seedlings that turned out to be Cardoons and not globe Artichokes. They are hardy, easy to maintain, tough and come back year after year in the outdoor garden, without me so much as looking in their direction. I didn’t even realise you could eat them until recently. Does anyone have any Cardoon recipes?

This year I thought I’d make everything that little bit prettier and I will end up having to create a flower border of some kind. I literally have a sea of flowers waiting for their forever home. It will look lovely though, I just don’t know how I will have the time to weed and maintain a flowerbed. It will probably look spectacular for a couple of months, and very sad for the rest of the year.

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A suprise crop of Globe Artichokes. I never thought they’d be so easy to grow.

I have tried making use of the flowers by interplanting them between the veg and in every pot I can find, and it looks very pretty. I always plant marigold between my tomato plants. This year, as in my plant plan, I also planted Calendula flowers to make hand cream. As a novice in flower gardening, just like vegetable novices, I did not realise how large those plants can get inside the tunnel. You learn something every year when gardening.

Again, the sheep have been kind enough to de-head most of my planted flowers. They will be taking a trip in the trailer to the butcher or the mart if that type of kindness continues.

Next year I will have to revise my gardening plan again, be stricter and harder. I was so proud that I had only planted the six cucumber seeds I needed for six plants. No more, no less. The sheep unbalanced the scale when they bit the top of two of the planted cucumbers. I’m sure I will find something to fill that gap, but six just looked so right in the spot.

My climbing rolet squash will do the trick. I have too many of those anyway, or maybe it is time for another polytunnel?

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RTE show, Nationwide with Anne Cassin, being filmed at the Irish Seedsavers’ plant swap day.

 

One bit of saving grace was the Irish Seedsavers’ plant swap day a couple of weeks ago. I happily brought my babies and gave them away to other loving homes where they will be appreciated. Thankfully we arrived quite late and there were not many seedlings to bring home; I did of course manage to grab a few odd ones…just for the craic of it. RTE was there that day filming a sequence for Nationwide with Anne Cassin, something that made my kids very exited.

The Irish Seedsavers have lovely gardens that have a wild touch to them. They are not like the tidy and perfect castle or walled gardens, but free, large and a great place for an outing in East Clare. The Seedsavers are specialised in native fruit trees and bushes, there is a lovely coffee shop and they also have a great array of workshops of all kinds, from beekeeping, gardening, beermaking and more.

A friend of mine has also given me a load of raspberry plants, which I hope will thrive by our back wall. There may be no jam this year, but I am sure these hardy plants will thrive.

Apart from a few stragglers of all kinds, it is only the celery and ginger that are giving me a bad conscience. There is a bit much of them and they are waiting to be planted. I am waiting for an overcast day to get them and my sweetcorn into the ground.

The tunnel is thriving and there are still hopes that this year will be the best year ever.

The bees love the flowered Pak Choi, I don’t have the hearty to pull it out yet.

Farming reality slapped me in the face

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

Raw milk in the house

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Kevin has always been adamant that he does not want to have a dairy cow, there is no way he is ever going to go back to milking cows. Hand milking 15 cows twice a day, while growing up, was more than enough for him. Goldie’s birth left us little option, as she was not suckling and the colostrum in the early milk is crucial for a calf. We had to milk Oprah and tube Goldie, mixing the milk with electrolytes, for additional hydration (see the post A life or death situation).

While we didn’t use any of the early milk, freezing left over colostrum and stuffing Goldie to the gills, we quickly realised that Oprah had an abundance of milk. There was no question of putting another calf on her, which is an option, as Goldie needed to stabilize first; there is also a risk of mastitis or other infections, if there is too much milk. The answer was easy, I just had to keep on milking and learn fast.

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My morning routine these days.

I quickly got rid of my fear of sitting so close to this big animal, while inexpertly squeezing a very sore part of her anatomy. Thank goodness, she is a very patient cow and I quickly learned how to hand milk, there were a few kicks in the beginning as her teats healed the lesions from briar scrapes.

Now my morning routine includes bringing Oprah into the shed, milking her by hand and letting her out again. It started with about 1.5 litres, but now with the growth spurt of the grass, we are up to 2.5 to 3 litres a day. I only milk her late in the mornings, primarily to give Goldie a chance to drink her fill first. I don’t fully drain her udders, but only to soften the tension in the ones Goldie has not emptied. This was again initially for Oprah to avoid any infections, but as the milk regulates according to demand it has worked out well.

While Kevin will get away with not milking, our girls are more than happy to pitch in and are delighted of their new skills. They practiced throughout their Easter holidays, right in our own spontaneous but very practical Easter camp.

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Ready for the fridge.

I read up quite a bit on the process of milking, but also looked up regulations around milk. A great resource was the Backwoods Home Magazine , I was also delighted to read that there are very few restrictions around raw milk in Ireland and that you could even sell it, as long as you adhered to required sanitary standards. I have no intention of selling our milk, but there is the issue of oversupply for our own house. There is a huge support for raw milk in Ireland, have a look at Darina Allen’s article in the Slow Food Ireland site.

If you are looking to buy or find out more about raw milk, have a look at the Raw Milk Ireland website.

You don’t know what raw milk is? It’s exactly that, un-boiled and therefore unpasteurised. Before you get a heart attack, know that…I know exactly what my cows eat, any meds they are on, how they are health wise, and so on. This is also the milk Kevin grew up on. And no, I would not randomly drink raw milk from large factory farms.

The key is in hygiene and knowing the health of your cow. It also helps to know that Kevin never drank any other type of milk, as most children from Irish farms.

What about taste? To be honest, I don’t feel the difference. Saying that, I only drink milk with coffee, tea and porridge. My kids, that love a glass of milk, say they don’t feel any difference to the shop bought whole milk. I think this speaks volumes of the high standard of Irish milk.

While we are only milking one cow, it didn’t take long to have an oversupply of milk. My neighbours are happy to get some every so often, but that is still not enough. The solution was simpler than I thought, as there was no way I was going to waste that milk; I have started making cheese.

As a beginner, I started with the easiest cheese of all, and let me assure you that it is truly easy, cream cheese. Not only did I do a plain one that my daughter cleverly transformed into a lovely cheesecake, but I also did a very popular cream cheese with chives. It is beautiful with a slice of tomato; or on brown bread with smoked salmon, compliments from one of my neighbours.

Kevin and my kids are now hinting at me that two of the sheep, of which one has now lambed, are of a milking breed. “Wouldn’t our own feta cheese be great, mum?” said one of my girls. I have suddenly become the milkmaid of the house, but I am my own worst enemy, as I have to be honest and say that it does sound interesting.

 

Too many seedlings

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I have a few gardening weaknesses. Well many, but a few I will admit to.  Like many gardeners, I tend to plant too many seeds and then I have trouble killing off seedlings that seem perfectly healthy. Instead I end up with too many plants which I hopefully can give away, but sometimes have to just forget about and let them die a quiet death. Thankfully there is always someone that wants a few, and I am more than happy to give away my babies.

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Way too many celery seedlings. The seed were supposed to be too old!

This year again, I have plenty of extras, but in my defence some of the seed were old and I didn’t know or expect that they would actually come out at all. I just had to plant them all, thinking that only a few would sprout, but they seem to have been hardier than expected and I now have more broccoli and celery seedlings than ever.

The plan that I made up, which you can see in my Seed Frenzy post, is very helpful and does curb my ambitions, although I feel I should have space or make space for more plants. I am getting better at utilising spaces between plants for quick veg, such as radishes, salads and coriander.

This year I have also decided to plant more flowers, both as useful companions to deter bugs, as edible plants, but also for ground cover and for the pretty effect. I always plant marigolds around my tomatoes, but while they are edible I have never really used them in my cooking or salads, their strong fragrance has always put me off. I have bulked up on nasturtiums, that also are edible, as they were hard to find last year. They are hardy, pretty and a terrific addition to any salad.

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Kale, cabbage, cauliflower…how many can I plant? Let the Games Begin!

Other useful flowers I will be planting are Calendula, type of marigold really but leggier and more elegant. Last year I did a herbal workshop with local herbalist Vivienne Cambell. She showed us how to do a great hand cream with dried Calendula flower heads, it was a very good gardening cream. When my kids were small I always used the Weleda calendula oil at diaper changes, I found it excellent for their skin. In case you are interested, Vivienne has great webinars and e-courses on herbal medicine on her site, The Herbal Hub.

The Cosmos and Cornflowers, favourites of mine, will go outdoors. My children have also planted an array of old flower seeds that are nameless, so whatever comes will be a surprise.

I have added another edible to my list, more than one to be honest but lets not dwell on that (seed frenzy you see!); so I am currently looking for Stevia seeds.

You might have seen the Stevia syrup in shops, which is a good replacement for sugar as it is healthier and you use much smaller quantities. It still is sweet, it still has calories, but less. Supposedly you can sweeten your drinks with Stevia leaves and I thought it would be a good thing to try out as I find the syrup a good replacement for sugar. Depending on how much you need, I might give a try to making some kind of syrup.

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My favourite squash. Seeds from Seedaholic.com

After searching a bit, I have found seeds for one of my favourite vegetables, the Rolet squash. This is a fabulous vegetable that look like a black cue ball; you boil it, cut it in half, eat it with a bit of butter, it tastes strongly of sweetcorn and just heavenly. You can get the seeds at the Seedaholic.com site. Just be careful if you are an avid gardener, as their selection will make you drool. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

 

The one thing I have really succeeded with, in regards of my original planting plan, are my cucumbers. I have six plants, no more and no less, exactly as planned. I might be drowning in cabbage, kale, cauliflower and celery, but I am done with the cucumbers.

Unless…unless I come across some interesting new seeds. Small round lemon cucumbers sounded awful interesting I have to say. Wonder what they taste like?

 

A life or death situation

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Early on a Sunday afternoon, one of my girls and I decided to have a look at the animals. Since our first lamb was born we have been and still are in constant suspense about the next births, whether these be lambs or calves.

In one of the more sheltered fields we could see something and decided to investigate. One of the cows lying down and as we came closer we could see two legs of a calf in mid birth. It was time to get the only person with experience, so we ran back to the house to get Kevin. My daughter easily left me behind and ran into the house panting “calf…cow…field!”

Calmly and well used to the situation, Kevin asked me to get a rope and he brought an armful of hay. The cow was lying on her side and caught in some brambles, we could see the two front legs of the calf sticking out. Grabbing a handful of hay we took hold of the slippery legs of the calf and pulled. When this wasn’t enough, Kevin tied the rope around the legs and pulled, while I pulled at the legs. Suddenly the calf slipped out and our first calf was born.

The poor thing looked wrecked but healthy. Once we got the cow out of the brambles she vigorously started licking her calf. We stayed with them for a while and felt some worry that the calf seemed weak and was not suckling immediately, as other things needed our attention we left them for a while in the sheltered and sunny field.

Later that afternoon I went over to check on the calf, but there had been very little improvement. As Kevin was out, a neighbour helped me and advised me to get the calf and cow into the shed. We loaded the calf into a wheelbarrow and tempted the cow with a bucket of beef nuts (cow food that looks similar to dry dog food).

The tongue of the calf had been sticking out since she was born and looked a bit swollen, we later realised that this was part of the problem with the inability to suck. As she had not stood up for long, she was also cold. She was weaker now than when she had been born. My neighbour generously lent us his infra-red heating lamp, which did wonders for the calf.

Once Kevin was home, he milked the cow and we force fed the calf with an empty half-pint Jameson whiskey bottle. The neck needed to be long enough to reach far down the throat as the calf was not suckling, not even your fingers when you stuck them into her mouth and tickled her palate.

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The shed became a calf ICU as we all checked on the calf regularly. Another neighbour, a very experienced cattle farmer, came over with a feeding tube. We got electrolytes to mix with the milk, which is a re-hydration solution, and had to tube her through her mouth into her stomach to give her milk. She also developed a fever and pneumonia, and we had to give her antibiotics. As she improved every time she got a bit of milk, when she looked at her worse I got up in the middle of the night to feed her.

I cannot explain the fear we had a few mornings when we woke, wondering if the calf would still be alive. What was I going to say to my girls? And how had I suddenly developed so much fondness for this cow and calf?

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Such a delight to finally see her suckling!

You might have read my post on my very strained relationship with our bullocks, my frenemies on the farm. Well, I had hoped to get a better experience with the females of the species, and I can now say I am converted. Cows, particularly these three cows we have, are lovely, calm, easy to work with and even friendly. They are still lumbering hippopotamuses, drooly and poopy, but their calm nature makes me forgive all that.

In a slow but steady pace the calf improved and finally recovered. She is a beautiful calf, a golden brown with a blond crown of curly hair on the top of her head. Once we felt secure that she was out of the woods, it was the most natural thing to call her Goldie.

There is no direct connection or symbolic meaning in the name, but we thought it would such a cool name to call a cow (not insult intended, rather a lot of admiration) that we named her mother Oprah.

Now Goldie and Oprah spend the days out in the fields and the nights in the shed. I know, I’m being a bit of a mother hen, but I dote on my girls and want the best for them. I also hand milk Oprah each morning and she generously supplies plenty for both the calf and the house.

Who would have thought it, that I would feel such affection for Oprah and Goldie. It is barely a chore to care for them, as they both recognise my voice and know what needs to be done. I also truly enjoy these few farming tasks I have each morning and evening.

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Goldie is getting an unwanted cleanup from her mum.