Monday, August 3, 2015

Prairie Grass

                                              photo by Glen Larson

Several years ago when we began planting prairie grasses on low lying, frequently wet  parts of our hay field, I recognized two different prairie grasses - Big Blue Stem with tall purplish and three flower stalks (the reason for its common name, Turkey Foot), and Side Oats Gramma, a distinctive shorter grass with all its seeds dangling from one side of the stem. I was ecstatic when I first saw the tall purplish grasses in our fields.

As that first summer progressed, I keyed out the flowers expecting to find the prairie forbs I knew we had planted - Black-eyed Susan, Purple Prairie Clover,  and Yarrow. I found the Yarrow, but all the other flowers were volunteers, not the species we had planted, and most of the blooms were thistles. This summer was completely different. Not only did we have prairie flowers, but I could identify them all, and hardly any were thistles

So, I decided to key out the grasses, hoping to find more than Big Blue Stem. My books were unhelpful. One key differentiated between reeds, sedges and grasses. Sedges had triangular stems. Grasses had round stems. That was as far as the key went. After a collecting walk, I had ten kinds of round stemmed grasses, all very different.

Photographs are really useless in a grass guide except for Big Blue Stem and Side Oats Gramma - perhaps the reason I can recognize them. Line drawings turned out to be much better for identification. I tentatively labeled one specimen Switch Grass because of the airy spray of tiny, delicate pinkish flowers at the end of each stem. Fantastic. Now I had nine unidentified samples labeled "grass."

Then I found University of California -  Davis' guide to grasses online. It was a real field guide with a real key. I got out my magnifying glass and began:
1) seed heads close to stem or standing away from stem
2) leaves clasping stem with a slit, overlapped, or continuous overlapped
3) nodes or no nodes on stem
4) shape of leaf as it meets stem
5) shape of flowers - tube-like or not
6) root structure

It was a new world. Differences I had never noticed jumped into view when I looked carefully. Switch Grass turned out to be actually Reed Canary Grass,  just as  the yellow daisy like flowers with dark centers which I had identified as Black-eyed Susans  differentiated into both Black-eyed Susans and Grey headed Cone flower when I studied them up close.

From a distance, the prairie is a beautiful sea of waving, undifferentiated flowers and grasses like something nebulous from a poem or a landscape painting. But up close,  each grass is a little miracle, flowers designed to release pollen to the winds and shoots sinking deep into the earth to ensure survival during droughts and prairie fires. Beautiful in form, function and utility.  I'll never look at grasses in the same way again.


Friday, July 31, 2015

Prairie!

Our praiire this week is a mass of purple and gold. And yet, I didn't go out there. I knew that the purple was thistles and if they were blooming, it was too late to cut or spray them. They would be going to seed no matter what we did. But I needed  a prairie photo for my next blog posting, so yesterday morning I walked across the hayfield, forded the ditch, pushed my way through head high grasses and emerged into the prairie.
                                             photo by Dave Ellison

It was so beautiful! So beautiful! I just kept saying it over and over as I stared. I was standing in the midst of a sea of black eyed susans, sunflowers, vervain, wild bergamot and yarrow. All in bloom. It was so beautiful I could hardly catch my breath. This land that had been a wasteland of thistles only a few years ago was now the most beautiful thing I had ever seen (with the exception of my daughters and my grandsons).

Our friends Doug and Mike had assured me that the prairie would take over the thistles, but I hadn't really believed them until I saw the flowers with my own eyes. Golden black eyed susan, pale purlpe bergamot. So beautiful.

 










photos by Kate Andrews

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Baling


We've been baling hay for 31 years (It really just feels that way, actually we've been baling hay for two weeks a year for 31 years) and it doesn't get any easier. The machinery breaks down and Dave repairs it. The skies fill with rain clouds every few days and wash the windrows. A few of our part time employees realize how much hard work baling is and suddenly discover that they need to be elsewhere. Dave and I bale three wagon loads by ourselves after the dew has dried. I build the first half of the load while Dave drives the tractor. When my arms and back run out of energy, Dave takes my place on the wagon and I drive the tractor.  We call three or four high school boys to help us unload the wagons in the evening.

Those things happen every year and this year was no different. What was different this year was the big river of smoke that drifted from the wild fires in northwestern Canada, keeping the dew point high and obscuring the sun. Mornings and evenings the sun glowed, an orange red sphere on the horizon. "What's wrong with the sun?" the boys asked as we rested after unloading a hay wagon. "Why doesn't the hay dry?" Dave asked as he turned windrows. "When will we ever be done haying?" I complained.

And then came the day that is marked as a personal best on my internal checklist of such things, the day I built a load of 80 hay bales all by myself. I'd never made it past 40 bales in the past. Normally, I couldn't boost very many bales up four feet onto the top layer. Normally, I couldn't keep up with the speed that the bales came off the chute of the baler. But this summer wasn't normal. It was a perfect year for me to build an entire load. The smoke kept the heat down. The field we were baling  was mostly grass and thus made for lighter bales. and the field also needed to be fertilized so the plants were shorter and the bales were fewer so the bales came out of the baler more slowly. Even with all those excuses, I felt strong and triumphant as I pulled bale number 80 onto the wagon and Dave turned off the tractor.

Of course, the next mornings bales were so heavy that I could hardly lift them at all. I drove tractor and Dave built the entire load. But it didn't matter because yesterday, I, a sixty-seven year old woman, had built an entire wagon load of bales, all by myself.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Up close and personal



                                                                                     photo by Kate Andrews
When Budd and Kate began taming our lambs this spring, I never considered the  repercussions.
Having Kate and Budd feed the bottle lambs when we were gone was an obvious plus. Having the bottle lambs come when we call the sheep is another because the rest of the lambs tend to follow the bottle lambs.

 We knew that friendly lambs made everybody happy to visit the barnyard. Our grandsons really appreciate them...


















There  are, however, some disadvantage to friendly sheep. They don't know their own strength, and as they get bigger they are also stronger. They have no interpersonal boundaries. Your lap is their lap. And they will happily follow you anywhere.




                                   
                                                                                                                                                                      self  portrait by David Fluegel

The biggest disadvantage comes the day someone shows up at the farm wanting to buy that cute little lamb for supper. The lamb standing beside you because it trusts you. The lamb you've hand fed since it was a newborn. The lamb that you couldn't add to the flock even if it had a nice fleece because it's a boy. When you raise sheep and then tame them, the consequences of being a farmer are much clearer because you know each animal personally.

I can't keep all my lambs. They would rapidly outgrow the amount of pasture we have and the amount of hay we can bale. So every summer we sell most of our lambs. With 40 or 50 lambs, we usually don't get to know them. But this summer, because Kate and Budd have taken the time to tame our lambs, we do know them and we do love them.

Up close and personal is not the way most people want  to view their supper; but this summer I have realized that more than ever before, up close and personal is the way I want to raise my sheep.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Baby chicks

"Grandpa, when you hold a baby chick, you let it sit on one hand and then you put your other hand in front of it so it can't jump off," Jasper told his Grandpa Dave. "And you don't hold it too tight."
                                           photo by Dave Ellison

Dave and I have been talking about buying baby chicks  again for the last few years. We like having chickens running around the barn yard, but we don't like losing them to racoons, weasels, skunks and our very own dog. This spring we've had our grandson Jasper here for five days and our grandsons Kieran and Simon will be up next week for seven. It seems the perfect time to get baby chicks. The boys will learn about baby chicks and Dave and I will have to critter proof the chicken coop so the boys can  experience the chickens.

Jasper and I emptied the coop of everything we'd stored there in place of chickens. Then we forked out the old bedding. Jasper learned how to use a pitch fork and I learned how to avoid the tines on Jasper's fork. Next we rebedded the coop with fresh straw. After nap time, we drove to Detroit Lakes. The chicks were stored in three foot long stock tanks with heat lights hanging overhead. Jasper and I picked out five yellow ones, five brown ones, five speckled one and five black ones. They peeped loudly in a box on the back seat next to Jasper on the way home. Then we took them out to the barn and one by one let them loose under the big metal umbrella shaped brooder. We turned on the heat lamp, filled a waterer, and then  filled a feed trough with chick starter. The chicks immediately began exploring. They dipped their beaks into the water and then tipped their heads back. A little drop of water glistened on the tip of each beak as they swallowed.

One at a time Jasper and I picked up each chick, held it carefully in our hands and felt their fuzzy heads with our cheeks. We looked at their eyes and their beaks. Jasper kissed each one on the top of the head. We all bonded.

When our friends Budd, Kate and Marguerite came to see the lambs today, Marguerite followed Jasper into the barn to see the chicks. As I set a little yellow baby onto her hands, she smiled, and her fingers curled instinctively around the little puff of life just as mine did when I first picked a chick up and as Jasper has learned to do. Marguerite remembered the chicks they had as a child and the chick in her hand brought her joy.

By the time Jasper returns to the farm in a month or so, the chicks will be unrecognizable - almost full grown chickens, but he'll have the memory in his hands and his mind and on his lips of baby chicks and that memory will be with him forever, bringing him joy.


Saturday, May 2, 2015

A real shepherd

                                                                          photo by Kate Andrews

Kate is a friend of ours. When she moved back to Pelican Rapids to help care for her elderly parents, she offered to farm sit for us, caring for the dog, cats and sheep. She has become quite a good shepherd.

Kate feeds hay and corn to the sheep and checks the animals daily when we are gone. A year ago, while we were in Missouri,  our rams got into the ewes' pasture a month early. Kate led the rams back to their own pasture and then repaired the fence. Last fall she taught dyeing at our fiber day. This winter she helped with shearing. This spring she  recorded  while Dave and I inoculated lambs. In the last month, Kate has brought Budd,  her father, to visit the lambs nearly every day. He's 94 years old and is slowing down, forgetting things, perfectly happy to drowse on the sofa for much of the day. But Kate shepherds him off the sofa, out of the house and into the car for a trip to the farm. Then she and her dad sit in the sun and love the bottle lambs. The lambs nuzzle their hands, chew on their shoe laces, and rub their heads against Budd's knees. While they sit and watch, some of the lambs' energy rubs off on Budd. He returns home full of joy about the experience and memories of the sheep he had when he was a child.

Kate spends the time at the farm beside her father observing the sheep. "Number 3 blue is limping,"
she told us when we returned home from playing with our grandchildren. "Number 31 is breathing real fast," she said on the phone last night, "Even when he's lying down. I watched him for half an hour."

Dave and I would eventually see the limp and the rapid breathing, but not as fast as Kate has. We don't take the time to sit and watch our sheep at this time of the year. We're too busy with other things. Even though she hasn't birthed a lamb in the middle of the night or baled hay or cut off a tail, Kate is a real shepherd. She carefully watches over the animals, the true definition of shepherd.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Climate change

Our trees are finally leafing out and we can assess how they weathered the winter.

It was a hard year for the apples. Last spring we planted a dozen apple trees and set up a drip irrigation system. Late June, a hailstorm stripped leaves and bark from the new trees and old trees alike. When Dave  checked them this spring, half of our old, well established trees had many, many dead branches and obvious signs of rot where the bark had been stripped from the trunks by the hail. Dave pruned them heavily and burned the branches. Three quarters of the new stock had no leaf buds and the branches snapped when we bent them, obviously dead. Dave ordered new stock. It will be  half a dozen years before we can expect a good harvest our own apples again, if the micro-climate around our trees hasn't changed too much.

It was a very dry winter, hardly any snow. We tapped our maples early because the weather had been so warm this spring and we didn't want to lose any sap. But it didn't matter. Out of 170 taps we only ended up with 40 quarts of syrup. We should have had close to 170 quarts. The weather didn't follow historic patterns of warm days and cold nights during March and April. We'd have a week of cold when the thermometer didn't top 32 and then a week of warm when the temperature didn't drop below freezing. About six trees produced sap during those days. Even on the few days when the temperature dropped below freezing at night and rose above 32 degrees during the day, a perfect day for the sap to run, our biggest sap collection was 35 gallons, far short of the 100 gallons we expected on a good day.  Was the ground still frozen down deep? Did we pull our taps before the sap really began to run? Were the trees drought stressed? Maples can only tolerate about ten days above 90 degrees in a summer. Did we have too many summer days when the thermometers topped 90 degrees? We don't know. All we can do is hope that next year will be more normal and that the climate has not  changed so much that the maples are dying.

When we first moved to the farm, we planted almost 100 walnuts to grow a college fund for our grandchildren. We planted trees in low spots and high spot,s on the south sides of hills and the north. We used stock from the DNR as well as sprouts from local trees. The trees have done well, producing an ever increasing crop of walnuts. They are growing in circumference and will probably be ready to harvest for lumber in 12 years when Kieran, our oldest grandson, is ready for college, if the climate cooperates. We have had very high ground water levels over the last half a dozen years. Last summer the township ran a culvert under our road to drain the pond across the road into our east fields. We have a small slough in that corner of the property, so the extra water was absorbed by the slough, but the row of walnuts closest to the slough have already succumbed to the high ground water levels. Hopefully, the trees planted on higher ground will keep growing, building our college fund.

The University of Minnesota just published a study on the importance of diversity for successful grasslands. Three years ago they published similar findings for forests, prairies and crops.We began diversifying our hay fields last year, adding red fescue, a grass, to our alfalfa mix.  Several of our pastures need replanting, we'll sow a  variety of grasses and clovers. Diversity in our tree crops seems to be the next direction we should go. We will plant more varieties of apples and in more diverse locations.

As the world warms, weather is predicted to be less predictable. Farmers will need to take this unpredictability into account. People working in the field of sustainable agriculture are already diversifying their farms. They recommend raising animals and grains, using their land for pasture and hay fields as well as other crops. Their farms are beginning to look like Old MacDonald's. With diversified farming, perhaps we can spread the risk of crop failure across many crops and phase out the dependence of most big  farmers on publicly funded crop insurance. Right now, diversification looks to be the best defense against the unpredictability of climate change.