Saturday, March 31, 2012

Mowing the lawn in March...

...and other spring fun

As much as we enjoyed our mild winter, our enjoyment of our unseasonably warm and early spring is double that.

Even though, as farmers, thoughts of drought and the summer of 1988 linger in the backs of our heads, the current weather has us smiling.

We should be able to let the cows out to pasture a full two weeks early this year – something both us and the cows are excited about. Jillian, one of the dry cows, found an unchained gate yesterday and took off for a jaunt. I know the rest of the cows are just waiting for the pasture gate to open.

Spring grazing – 2011

Words can't even describe how much the kids are enjoying the spring. I'm ready to start putting them to bed in clean barn clothes because they're out the door in the morning before they've changed out of their pajamas.

Monika got a trampoline for her birthday. (Technically, it's Monika's and Dan's, but we're letting Dan believe it's Monika's for awhile because every other play thing was his first.) The kids and their cousins were out jumping as soon as Grandpa finished setting it up. And, yes, Dan was still in his pajamas.

We had a beautiful day for Monika's birthday party. We ate outside, opened presents outside and played the year's first game of kickball.

The day after Monika's party — March 25 — I took the lawnmower out. The grass behind the barn was ready for a trim. It didn't get mowed last summer because the grass got away from us when our lawnmower broke down — and once the grass behind the barn gets too tall, mowing that area becomes an occupational hazard due to the steep banks. Plus, we were super busy with our construction projects. I'm determined this year to keep it mowed.

Maybe we'll look back later and shake our heads at our early spring, but right now we're having fun!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Switching again

It's official. We're switching cows again.

Maui and Trixie calved on Monday morning within minutes of each other. I know that happens all the time on bigger farms, but it doesn't happen very often around here. Both cows gave birth to heifer calves, which made the morning doubly exciting.

The arrival of these two little heifers also means that we're now milking more cows than the barn can hold. And there aren't any more cows to dry off until the middle of April.

We already dried off a couple cows early to make room for the cows that calved earlier this month. Not nearly as many as we did during the winter of 2010-11, though. This past fall we 'wintersized' the herd, as one of our salesmen dubbed it, so we wouldn't end up with so many cows on extended vacation.

The challenging part of switching this early in the year is that the cows aren't out on pasture yet. But they will be soon. For now, the switch cows are relaxing on a pile of corn stalks in the cow yard.

The challenging part of switching itself — other than the extra time it takes to milk and move cows — is knowing that come fall we'll have to downsize again to fit the herd back into the barn.

Unfortunately, we can't double cows up in stalls as easily as Trixie's and Maui's calves doubled up in the calf warmer.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Pink Pancakes for the Birthday Girl

It's amazing how a couple drops of food coloring can turn an everyday breakfast into a birthday treat!

Pink Pancakes
Makes 50 2½-inch pancakes

4 eggs
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
1 cup sour cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
¼ cup sugar
½ tsp salt
couple drops red food coloring*
½ cup whole wheat flour
½ tsp baking soda

In a large bowl, lightly beat eggs. Whisk in yogurt, sour cream, vanilla, sugar, salt and coloring. Then whisk in flour and baking soda.

Preheat large nonstick pan over medium heat. (The burners on my electric stove go from 1 to 10; I set the burner at 4 for these pancakes.) When water dropped on pan instantly bubbles, pan is ready. Spoon one tablespoon (an actual measuring spoon) batter for each pancake. Cover pan and cook pancakes until bubbles on top start to pop, then turn and cook until lightly browned.

Serve hot with the accompaniments of your choice. I like these pancakes plain, Glen likes them with pure maple syrup, and our kids like them with honey butter or whipped cream.

*The pancakes are just as good with blue food coloring (Dan's favorite) or none at all.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Minty fresh farming

Shamrock Shakes. Irish Mist Brownies. Peppermint Hot Chocolate.

Okay, we won't need hot chocolate to keep warm this St. Patrick's Day, but I'm sure the celebrations will include plenty of other minty treats.

Where do those minty flavors come from?

Ultimately, they come from mint grown by farmers like Tom Irrer, who I had the pleasure of meeting at World Ag Expo last month. Tom didn't want me to take his picture. But he said I could share the conversation we had over a lunch of pulled pork sandwiches.

Tom grows a couple thousand acres of peppermint and spearmint on his farm in Michigan. He's one of the few large-scale mint farmers left in Michigan; most of the nation's mint is grown in the Pacific Northwest.

I had lots of questions for Tom, which he happily answered. (He farms just down the road from a dairy, so he didn't have many questions for me about dairy farming.) We spend so much time interacting with farmers in our own industries, we often don't realize that other industries are just as interesting.

Here's a smidgen of what I learned during my lunch with Tom:

♣ Peppermint and spearmint can only be grown in a small part of the United States, due to the mints' specific soil and climate requirements.

♣ When it comes time to harvest fields of peppermint and spearmint, mint farmers swath the field, much like we swath a field of alfalfa. Mint is usually cut twice each year.

♣ The mint plants are left in the field to partially dry down before being being chopped and transported to the farm. At all costs, mint farmers don't let rain fall on their swathed mint. Rain washes the mint oil off the plants.

♣ At the farm, the mint hay is put into a large distiller. The distiller uses steam to extract the oil from the mint. A few mint farmers sell whole-leaf mint, but most mint farmers, like Tom, sell crude mint oil by the drum.

♣ After the oil is extracted, the steamed plants are spread back onto the fields as fertilizer. As a result, mint crops can significantly increase the organic matter in a field's soil.

♣ Like most crops, mint crops need to be rotated. Since Tom grows only mint, he has established rotation partnerships with several land owners in his area. He said the potato farmers, especially, really like the ground trading arrangement because potatoes require soil with high organic matter.

♣ The mint oil from Tom's farm is used primarily to flavor chewing gum, tooth paste and other oral care products.

I'm not a fan of peppermint — so I'll be steering clear of any green-colored St. Patrick's Day treats — but I am addicted to spearmint gum. Now, every time I crunch into a piece and savor that spearminty fresh taste, I think of Tom and his mint fields.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Miserable and mild

Winter in Minnesota is defined by cold and snow, snowsuits and sleds, and, sometimes, misery and strife. The winter of 2010-2011 redefined Minnesota winter, at least for us. The season we're about to end didn't fit our new definition of Minnesota winter. Instead, this past winter found us shaking our heads in disbelief.

Leap Day 2012: Dan finally had snow piles to slide down.

Two weeks later: High temperatures near 70°F.

For us, the winters of 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 will be remembered together, like sweet and sour, naughty and nice, hot and cold. Polar opposites: miserable and mild.

• This winter, we plowed snow in the yard twice. Yep, just two times. Last winter, since our wrapped bales were out in the middle of the field, we had to push snow nearly every day to keep the path to the bales clear. I can't even remember how many times we had to plow the yard — or have our neighbor come blow it out for us.

The cows didn't get to play in the snow much this winter.
Only two snow events — one in November and one in February —
resulted in meaningful snow accumulation.

• Mixing feed took hours last winter because (1) it took so long to get the baleage back from the field and (2) extra time was needed for the bales to grind. This year, we individually wrapped our bales and stacked them by our bags. Plus, when it got cold (or colder, since it never got really cold) we switched the ration from baleage to haylage. Without the snow plowing, bale hauling and grinding time, mixing feed seemed effortless this winter.

Winter 2010-11: Penelope marooned in her hutch.

• Last winter, we had calves and heifers living everywhere — hutches, super-hutches, the corn crib, the old mud lot. Only the lot had automatic water; that meant each of the other groups had to be watered the old fashioned way — with pails and hoses. Each pen had to be bedded by hand because either the skidloader wouldn't fit or, in the case of the mud lot, the skidloader would get stuck. This winter, thanks to this summer's overhaul of our heifer housing, there were no calves in hutches, all of the pens had automatic water, and the now-concrete heifer lot can be bedded using the skidloader and big bales.

• Last winter when the heifers got out, we had to chase them through the three feet of snow that blanketed our yard all winter. This winter when they got out — which happened far less thanks to the heifer lot renovation — there wasn't even enough snow on the ground for them to leave tracks. However, they can run a lot farther without snow to slow them down.

We were all smiles this winter!

After surviving the winter of 2010-2011, I suppose I should feel like we earned an easy winter, but I almost feel like we were spoiled by the winter of 2011-12. Either way, both winters — each memorable — are behind us. We'll have to see what next winter brings before we redefine the season another time.

What will you remember about the winter of 2011-2012?