A Spa-day For the Bovines

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Another day of brown matter, only this time it’s identifiable.  The girls moved up to the pens today.  A couple of cows need a pedicure.  And when mommy gets a pedicure, what better time to get your ears pierced!  We have eight calves on the farm so far.  Two of them are tagged and the others need their tags done.  Everyone’s doing it.

 

The cattle move went very well.  When we started, there were two Black Hawk like things sniffing our alfalfa (Dude, a little close this time you think?).  Also, there were two LOUD sonic booms.  It was a fun-filled military show in the French countryside today.  Despite loud noises and crazy helicopters, we finally see the calming effect of cows.  Cows are older, had their baby or four and are really in no hurry to get anywhere.  They were barely fazed by such intrusions.  Brent moves the herd all the time.  The daily “new grass” move is calm.  When he does a long move with a facebook of heifers, running and general giddiness is the theme.  But they stop.  Quite quickly.  With the cows, everyone slows down and moves like cows.  There’s no rush.  We chew.  We moo.  I love the cows.  There was a hiccup at the point where the fence led them into the pens.  We recovered.  We have some improvements for our pen approach plan.

Now that the girls are here and our calf ear tags have at last arrived, Brent wanted to tag the calves.  The pens are partially completed.  They are beautiful.  I heart the new pens.  They are not done.  Our calf tagging plan involves a full set of pens.  With our partial set, Brent laid out a method that was very Gascon.

 

 

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The deal with calf tagging is you need to catch the calf and pierce both ears with a little plastic tag and a very quick, strong, relatively painless clampy thing.  But see, there’s the mom.  She’s usually right next to the calf and extremely interested in the calf’s whereabouts.  I can relate.  My children are very important to me and I constantly worry about them.  Any separation can lead to worry, panic and aggressive behavior.  Otto is away on a school trip right now.   He’s never been away this long, ever.  Inside I’m mooing.  The act of catching a calf to tag it seemed scary to me.

 

With our half pens, this was the plan:

–        I stand in a newly installed pen with tagging tools

–        Brent gently works the herd to catch a calf

–        Brent hands the calf to me in the pen (safe away from potentially aggressive mama)

–        Calf gets tagged

–        Calf happily returns with mama and the herd

 

This is what happened:

–        I stood in the pen ( in my expensive jeans and cashmere sweater. Dumb girl. )

–        Brent worked the herd and caught the calf

–        Brent carried the calf to me (further than planned.  He’s very tired tonight), while mama cow was watching, but totally chill and calm

–        Brent rolled under the gate and helped the calf be still for the ear piercing.  Those little barely-a-week-old calves are strong!

–        Together we held the calf while one of us tagged

–        Calf happily returned with mama and the herd

 

It was a day of brown.  It was a day where “in sickness and in health and in tagging calves” must have been listed in the fine print of our wedding vows.  For some crazy reason, I didn’t imagine myself laying my entire weight, fancy jeans and all, on a calf to keep it from running so I could tag it.  I had visions of a weaker calf.  One that I could sit on while my white, cashmere sweater stayed clean.  It suddenly came clear why the local farmers wear these aquamarine overalls when they work with the cows.  Up to this point, I’ve not rolled around in cow-brown nicely mixed with straw.  It helps keep your perspective in life.  When a job needs to get done, these things are unimportant.  We worked together.  Every cow was calm and we managed to tag five of the six we were trying to do.  The last one was tricky because mama cow was giving Brent the “hairy eyeball.”  We’ll give it another go tomorrow.  Only this time, I’ll wear my overalls.

 

 

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Spreading His Seed

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As a kid I used to LOVE alfalfa sprouts.  Sometimes on sandwiches, but mostly I’d eat them straight out of the little plastic box they came in.  Here we are, just twenty-nine years later and we’re growing alfalfa sprouts by the hectare.  This effort will not end up a green-note in sandwiches.  If all works well, those little seeds will end up grilled with frites as we work hard to get great grass turned into great beef.

 

Brent has been working steadily getting the fields prepared before the rain.  Then he went to get the seed in before the rain.  Then it rained.  Let’s skip to the end after the rain hit, but before he gets the seeder going where we share that moment of joy when all his debugging came clear and the broadcast seeder went ‘round.    It goes now, the seeder.  Thankfully there’s more rain coming.

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Seeding is actually quick to do compared to the discing and rolling he’s been doing.  Seed preparation takes a bit more time.  As I’m new to this, I can see where seed prep could go a bit faster.  Preparing alfalfa goes a little something like this:

Mix up Activator B, that’s ‘B’ for “Brown” (I’m not sure what it is, but it’s unidentifiable brown matter that is organic)

Add Activator B to big bag of alfalfa and mix … with your hands or a cement mixer so I’ve heard

Let it set for a minute to work magic

Take picture of cute cat

Add any other seed you intend to broadcast into the grass party, then let ‘er go.

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Brent had me add a splash of cola to help it all bind.  The kids have been staring at that bottle of cola for weeks.  Each day I’m asked if “Daddy has used his Coke yet?” or “Can I have some of Daddy’s Coke?”  (they kids don’t get Coke at home.  yeah, I’m one of those).  At last Daddy’s cola product has been opened and the kids haven’t noticed yet.  It’s so intermingled with Activator B, I’m not interested in sharing with the kids.  I think a celebratory cola product is in order as Brent completed his first paddock of alfalfa.

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Mixing Activator B into 25 kilos of alfalfa with your hands takes you back to playing in pebbly sand.  As the brown goop gets mixed in, you feel like you’re about to create France’s largest chia pet.  Alfalfa seeds are very small.  I have visions of alfalfa sprouting under my nails or in the crevices of my camera.
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I mixed a couple batches of seed today.  There is still much more to do.  We will always be seeding each year, but not this much.  The old vineyards, the old corn fields and the old sorghum fields need an introduction to their new life as grass.

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Like Finding a Beige Bolt in a Field of Dirt That Isn’t There

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Brent is in the tractor with his disc harrows hitched up.  We have many, many hectares of grass for the cows ( google says: 1 hectare == 2.47105381 acres).  We also have many, many hectares of old vineyard and old crop fields.  The soil is pretty soil-like despite years and years of fertilizers, vine spraying and mono-crops.  Brent is out there getting them “online” for future grass and hay.  Our cows are a bit spoiled.  This disc-ing business is touchy.  Brent knows WAY more on this, but it seems you can’t disc when it’s too wet or a bit wet or a bit wet followed by lots of sun (you can make bricks that way).  While talking through the disc plan, I can’t help but think of the Farmers’ Almanac.  I used to read it as a child.  My mom kept a copy in the bathroom.  I’ve never been a bathroom reader, I suppose I’m efficient that way, but the Farmers’ Almanac gave such incredible data on weather and other things, I could sit there and thumb through it for many minutes.  As a Southern California native where it’s 72F and breezy at all times, I loved reading about weather.  Apparently, it fluctuates between cold, hot, windy and rainy and not always the same from year to year.  Who knew?  We have rain approaching this weekend.  All the farmers are out working the fields to get seed in the ground and start germinating.  Each day things need to run smoothly.  The weather is checked daily.  Sometimes the rain starts this Friday, another time it’s pushed out to Sunday.  The farmers need to keep on tractoring and hope nothing breaks down.  Or in Brent’s case, lose a bolt on your disc harrow.  He did a quick look around when he noticed and couldn’t find it.  Then, he went to plan B.

 

 

z in the b-pack

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Plan B is: “if the discs work, keep on disc-ing.”  The discs work, but he can no longer lift them with his fancy hydraulics.  So everywhere he drives, he discs fields.  He decided to plan a route to the back of the farm that would give us most bang for the disc while I searched the field for the bolt.  Along the way, we now have lovely disced grass that should grow some interesting foliage as seed blows around.

 

I popped Zélie on my back and walked the freshly worked field searching for a large beige bolt.  The field was brown.  The bolt was beige.  I must admit, I was pessimistic.  Z and I kept it up.  Of course I wore the wrong shoes.  My urban Campers were no match for the freshly worked soil of France.  With each step I was reminded of walking in the hot sun on Coronado beach looking for a spot to place my towel, crank up 91X and start working on my Spring tan.  “Lulu POP!  Lucy POP!” would bring me back to reality.  The reality was, there was no way I was going to find that bolt.  We did the entire field.  It wasn’t there.

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In other news, yesterday another calf was born successfully.  A little girl.  I think we’re calling her “hooptie.”

Big Mamas

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The Big Mamas are here. For those of you playing along at home, we’re starting a cow farm and we’re establishing our herd. After much thought and planning by Brent, he decided to fill up the herd with fifteen mama cows. They arrived in good form and really, really love our hay. Two of them already calved and arrived with baby. The day after, one of the first-time moms popped out a female calf successfully. It’s the year of the ‘h’ so we have Homer, Hibou and Hermione. Hermione was named by a guest visiting the day of the birth.

After a few days of mingling, Brent set off to merge the herds. After our last experience of merging herds, let me tell you now … we learned a thing or three. I feel comfortable offering advice should anyone fall into this circumstance. Tip number one: don’t start up a grass-fed beef farm, have a baby, move into a house missing windows and doors in a country you don’t know the language all that well all at the same time.  Any one of those items is awesome, but all at once is doable, but tough. Tip two and three: get your fences cranked up to eleven. Tip four: don’t buy a facebook of heifers; They’re giddy little teenagers who tend to bolt if someone insults them. Tip five: don’t buy heifers that insult other heifers and expect them all to get along. At the moment this will be our last herd merge. From here on out, we stop buying cows and start selling grass-fed meat.

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Herd Merge 2012 went VERY WELL. Brent and I talked through the plan with quick alternatives should a “moo off” turn ugly. Oh yes, there was mooing, but the girls handled it as classy bitches. The plan was
1) move our current herd to green pasture
2) let mama cows work out the hierarchy in the pens
3) let mama cows out to explore fresh grass near old herd
4) move mama cows adjacent to old herd with big, fat hay bale for each group
5) remove hot wire that separates the two herds
6) two cows facing each other … but they are one
(seriously, planning cow moves is not unlike moving data around in the computer world. Just a bit slower after you compile and then run your program).

There were a few moments that stood out. When Brent first walked the new girls out to the paddock, a calf was left behind. Brent said, “watch that calf.” At the time, I’m also watching four kids fish by a lake while carrying Zélie on my back. I’m hoping the kids don’t fall in the lake and that that calf doesn’t bolt. A calf can sometimes bolt into a safe place and take days to find. This happened to our neighbor and I didn’t want this to happen to us. When I’m carrying Z on my back, I don’t go very fast. Homegirl is heavy. I told the kids to go watch a movie while we deal with the cows. I went around and closed the gate so the calf wouldn’t escape. Not soon after, the cows walked at cow speed back up to the pens and picked up the calf. Yeah! Cows are great. They’re cool. They’re slow. They’re over that giddy part of life. Heifers are crazy.

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Brent made some quick judgment calls with respect to the plan and suddenly the new cows were next to the old herd separated by a hot wire. Cut to the next morning, with plenty of hay for everyone, Brent removed the hot wire and they were one.

Later that day, there were challenges, head butting, licking and munching. It takes but one head-to-head rumble to tip a temporary fence. Brent’s permanent fences held strong, but the temp fence fell down twice. We shooed them back in to their grass paddock and all was fine (I say “shoo,” which is accurate for Brent. For me “shoo” means holy fuck! Cows! What do I do? “Allez!” I say. In my mind, I flip through all the cow moving techniques to get them where you want them. Most of the time, I stand there arms wide, extended with my stick and that does the trick.) While shoo-ing the cows, Brent had me unhook the temp fence so he could work with it without shocking himself. I did just that. Then it slipped. Then I heard words I’ve never heard Brent say, directed at me. Then I’m reminded of our wedding vows which I don’t recall ever stating “thou shalt not zap thy husband.” And I was SO SORRY for sending 15 gigawatts through my ever so loving and wonderful husband. The reel the temporary fence was on went flying into the air and then broke. Brent is resourceful and managed to get it all working for the cows.

As I write, the girls are basking in the Gascon sun, ruminating about all the lovely grass they will eat in the days to follow. The calves are running around, then napping, then feeding. This morning, we had another first time mom pop out little Hüsker Dü (you can tell when we start naming the calves. I think we are going to have too much fun with ‘h’).

The herds are now merged. Now we can move on to the biggest IKEA project I’ve ever tackled, the cattle pens.

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The Big Choco

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In America they call them “chocolate crow-sants.”  In Most of France they’re called “Pain au Chocolat.”  Here in southwest France we call them “chocolatines.”  But there’s only one place I’ve seen that makes a DOUBLE chocolatine.  A great little bakery in a cute area of Auch.  They call it “The Big Choco.”  Take your ordinary run-of-the-mill chocolatine and crank it to eleven.  Only then will you approach the Big Choco.  Otto, a seven-year-old boy, is in choco heaven my friend.

A Well Hung Sausage

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Brent killed a pig and we had a black-out. Totally unrelated, but all signs point to “fun.” I can remember as a kid growing up in San Diego when the lights would go out. It was no doubt in the summer when people and their air conditioners were reunited at last. My mom and dad would crack open some wine and bring out the cards. It was all crazy and magical when we had no electricity. After an hour or so, the lights would come back on and we’d shut everything off as though it never happened. Blackouts are fun and clearly memorable. Lucy still talks about “what a weird night” we had last Sunday when the lights went out in Southwest France. We explained to the children that when this house was built, they didn’t have lights. This is how dark it got when the sun went down. Through the candlelight, you could see their large eyes trying to understand a life without electricity.

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… and in other news, with all the pig parts we’ve acquired, we now have pots and pots of boudin noir and country paste. Brent helped kill the pig and prepared the bits and pieces for the Pâté de campagne. Included in our pig purchase, we procured Coppa. This Coppa is fresh and needs to be hung on a strong nail in a cool place for a few months. It just so happens we have that cool place and that nail that surely helped many other Coppas of the past attain their Coppa-cabana-dom. It was suggested that I get a “ham sack” (or Sac a Jambon for an easy French feeling) to ward off any flies and the rest while it hangs there all yummy-like. So there it rests drying out for a culinary yumdom of next.

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LuLu Pop

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Zélie has been saying this phrase over and over and it goes a little something like this: “LuLu! Pop!” or “LuLu Spop!”  She hears Lucy’s voice and off Zélie goes babbling this phrase.  We had a week of fun with that until one Saturday, the kids are home, the breakfast served, the kids full of energy and Lucy takes it too far.  “Lucy! Stop!” I say (yes, I say “no” to my children.  I’m one of those).  As  soon as I finish the ‘p’ in “stop”, Zélie was on again with her phrase of the week.  Then, it dawned on me.  Zélie is saying Lucy’s name, “Lucy Stop.”   And I feel like a horrible mother.  And she keeps saying, “Lucy Spop!  Lucy Spop!  Lucy Stop!”  And I feel like an even horribler mother.  Then we all giggle and drink lemonade.