Farming and Living Off-the-Grid

(Handsome) son Henry with his array

(Handsome) son Henry with his array


I’m 64 years old. A few years back–I don’t even remember what the “new” thing was…something about my Ipad perhaps?–I recall saying to my son Henry, “I don’t like learning new things.” Somehow, when you get a little older, you seem to want things easy, smooth, predictable, and with little chance of triggering anxiety. Any of you “older” folks able to relate to that? Or, maybe, it’s just an extension of my temperament, that desire to have everything under control at all times.

So, this said, why the heck did we go solar? And, beyond grid-tied solar, why did we go “cut the ties with the power company” battery-stored solar? On sunny days–I call them “wash lots of clothes, vacuum, and run the food dehydrator” days–I don’t ask myself this question. The state of charge of the batteries gets up to 100% before noon, and I shift into a get-er-done/use that sun mode and wash, vacuum, bake, dehydrate to my heart’s content.

But, today was cloudy and rainy and the weather forecast says we’re going to have more days of the same. The state of charge was only somewhere in the 60% range when I was last down to check and every once in awhile I open the door to hear if the generator is kicking in, as programmed, when we get down to 50%. Yes, it’s a bit stressful yet. We are still new to the off-the-grid life, haven’t gotten the well guy to come and install the new “soft-start” pump I bought, and we’re watchful that the system doesn’t throw a fault because the generator (impacted by the high demand of the well when it goes on to meet the needs of drinking livestock) provides excess power.

We had a “situation” last weekend. We had a contingent of delightful Islamic Indian folks here on the farm celebrating a festival–which meant using more lights than usual and a meat saw in the garage–and suddenly the place went black. We had overdrawn the power and the power center shut off to protect the batteries, since the generator didn’t kick in as it should have. The good learning experience for me was that the power center is ready to protect the batteries. Everything was worked out.

I’m confident that we’ll work out the kinks. But, still, the question remains…..why did I do this? Subject myself to learning a new way of thinking about power usage (friend Roger Bertsch said, “You have to realize that you’re your own power company now, Bonnie”) when I’m at a time in my ife when I just want everything to be mellow?

Because it’s just so gratifying to be producing our own power almost all of the time. To think that we are pumping the water for the animals and humans, electrifying the fences, cooking the food, dehydrating the food, keeping food frozen or refridgerated, running this computer, on the power of the sun! I’m willing to adapt on cloudy days, to worry a bit as we get the last kinks worked out in the system. I’m willing….yes, I’m willing….to learn new things!

Lamb and Beef, 2014

Ram lambs on October pasture

Ram lambs on October pasture

The “snow lambs” were a hardy bunch and grew well on this summer’s bountiful pastures. We had a butchering of ram lambs in September and will have another in mid-November. Ewe lambs that aren’t being saved for replacement stock will likely be butchered in March and May.

Because the requests for both Pine Knob beef and lamb have been growing faster than expansion of the beef herd and the ewe flock–in recovery from the heavy culling that was necessary with the drought of 2012–we’ve been not able to fully meet demand this year. We did not take on any new beef customers; we did not sell beef retail; and even returning customers who wanted more only got 1/4s. In 2015, we ought to be able to meet the needs of current beef customers and in 2016, we should have beef for a few more.

The 2014 lamb crop should be sufficient to meet the needs of current customers and a few new ones. We have, with regrets, quit offering our lamb through the Viroqua Food Coop. Customers who have been used to purchasing lamb through the coop should feel welcome to contact us to see if we have the cuts they need. I deliver to Viroqua on Fridays.

I am nothing short of thrilled that our lamb is regularly on the menu of the Driftless Cafe in Viroqua. Owner Luke Zahm is a delight to work with; I’ve never before imagined feeling so appreciated as a farmer! And the ways he and his crew prepare my lamb are so fantastic that they have me going in there, looking for lamb on the menu! Bless you, Driftless Cafe, for you are truly a boon to the Driftless region.

So, let me know if you want lamb, and we’ll see if we can meet your needs. Beef, too. Although, at this point I can’t promise much more for 2015, I am on the lookout for beef feeders that meet my specifications, and will do the best I can to meet my customers’ needs for good grassfed beef.

Fall on the Farm

First calf of the year

First calf of the year


Fall calves this year! I noticed last summer that Fuzzy Bear, our Devon bull, was rebreeding the cows and sure enough when we preg checked it became clear that we needed to bring in another bull. I think Fuzzy injured himself going through the fence that my neighbor has weakened numerous times by cutting it to get her straying horses back in. Sigh. At least she kept her pack of dogs from attacking my sheep this year, and the fence issue has been turned over to the town chairman. I hated to see Fuzzy go for he was a wonderful bull–built like a rhinoceros but calm, even a little shy.

The temporary replacement bull was an Angus but there’s not a solid black calf out there! Except for some that are all brown, they are varied in their markings and are a very vigorous group. Almost all heifers, which is just fine for growing the herd and being ready to replace cows as they get older.

Fall calves get left on the cows all winter, which is a practice that I have gravitated towards over the years anyway. I used to wean spring-born calves and give them grain with their hay through the winter (and this year I will separate out the 5 early-born calves I purchased and give them organic oats for I feel they need that little bit extra and less competition for hay) but, more and more, I’ve seen that allowing natural weaning is a benefit to the calf. Since my cows have a lot of hardy Hereford blood in them and generous hay through the winter they never seem to lose condition before the next year’s calving. I’ve also not had any problems with last year’s calves getting the milk that’s meant for a newborn; I think the cows are just too smart and tough to allow that to happen.

I have a new Devon for the 2015 calves. He came as “R17″ and I’m calling him “Rudy.” He looks good and appears to be doing his job. He’s not quite as shy as Fuzzy was, always seems to be checking out what’s going on, so I’m always checking on his whereabouts, too!

Lambing on Snow!

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We didn’t plan it this way, but many of the ewes were bred by adventuresome wandering Icelandic ram lambs last fall and are lambing out in the hay Craig feeds them on pasture. It’s working out fine! Possibly because of the hardiness of the Icelandic breed, our only death losses have been during extreme cold (-25) or ewes with bag issues. Just goes to show there’s always something new to learn in raising sheep. I always thought that lambs born in March had to go in pens in the barn. Now I see that if they’re the right type of lambs, it’s a lot healthier for them out in the sunshine.

Lambs ready!

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Whole lambs are for sale at $285, half lambs for $150. A whole lamb is around 38# of packaged meat, just enough to stuff the freezer compartment of a refrigerator. For either a whole or a 1/2 lamb, I will take your cutting instructions and convey them to the butcher. Since my next two lamb butchering appointments are with Black Earth Meats which is a distance from most of my Viroqua area customers, I’m also planning on picking up the frozen lamb cuts and delivering them.

These are very nice lambs. They are the first out of our Texel and Charolais rams, Tex and Charlie, and I am very pleased with them. Our ewes are primarily Katahdins, chosen because they are the hardiest, most amenable to organic management. The Texel and Charolais rams have brought the genetics needed for nice sized lamb chops.

Organic sheep raising is not easy, but it’s healthier for the sheep, the land, and the consumer. I’ve been raising sheep for over 30 years. Always looking for ways to improve, but this is about as good as it gets, folks!

Grassfed? When there is pasture–and on this farm it’s a long grazing season–April 1-mid-November–where ewes and lambs get all the lush pasture they want. But in the winter when lambs come off pasture, they are provided organic oats and milo along with their hay, to ensure they have all the energy they need for winter finishing.

Call–608-624-5714–or email at wfam@mwt.net to order a whole or half lamb.

Nora’s Sweater

I just finished this Aran sweater for my granddaughter Nora. Our Shetland/Rambouillet yarn is perfect for Aran knitting. Still plenty available of white and the two shades of brown–some grey, also. It’s 3-ply worsted and the skeins are around 250 yards, 7-8 ounces. We’re selling it for $3.50/ounce. This pattern is by Kathryn Ashley-Wright of Ewetopia in Viroqua.

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Fall Farm News

The solar panels are soaking up the energy and generating electricity! Henry has the array, power center and batteries connected and solar is now powering the fencer and barn lights. Next step is to connect the house and we’ll cut our ties to the power company and be providing all our own power. This is … Continue reading

Life is so good sometimes, one has to share the joy!

I don’t have a photo to go with this post yet. There are plenty of options: the cattle so happy to be out on “real” pasture with the hair sheep, gobbling up the taller, coarser grass that the sheep turned down; the four new goat girls getting to know Mr. Moonbaby Donkey on the pond pasture where they’re going to find their favorite forage, some multiflora rose; the woolly sheep with their lambs up on a separate pasture unaware that the shearer’s coming tomorrow and they’re soon going to be feeling very fresh and ready for summer’s sun; or maybe just the wild ducks enjoying our pond today. I’ll choose one for sure, but the image I really want to convey is more in the feeling realm…..the contentment and gratitude I experience on a day like today–going to the Farmers Market and delivering beef and lamb to familiar folks, chatting with friends and fellow vendors, meeting new people who like what this farm has to offer them, then coming home and visiting the critters, preparing for a supper of grilled teriyaki sirloin and asparagus from the garden and planning tomorrow’s hearty shearing crew dinner. I’m one happy old lady right now and my blessings are too numerous to count. (Though I know I’ll be one stiff and sore old lady at the end of the day tomorrow, after trimming 120 hooves!) And turns out the best photo is right outside my door.

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Nettle Pesto

Here’s my creation to go with baked potatoes and broiled lamb chops:
NETTLE PESTO
I recommend halving this unless you have a powerful food processor and a crowd to feed. I’ll freeze some. Nettles are so nutrient-dense they don’t keep long. I wear gloves when picking nettles and have a plastic bag over my hand when washing them.

1# nettles (washed, steamed, cooled, drained, and wrung out in a towel)
2 C. Toasted sunflower seeds (pine nuts or walnuts good; I had sunflower seeds)
2 t. Garlic powder (or fresh equivalent, we’re out of fresh)
1 t. Salt
1/2 t. Pepper
2 T. Lime or lemon juice
2 1/2 C. Olive oil
Blend it up!
Mix with 2 C. Grated Parmesan.

Best pesto I’ve ever made! Sheep and cattle have fresh pasture, and we’re dining on nettles. Life is good.

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Lambs!

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Lambing is always a special time of both challenges and delights. The challenges this year were because lambing came a month before pasture, which means hay feeding, lots, pens in the barn, bedding, sometimes heat lamps. More work for Bonnie and Craig–which is why I haven’t posted anything recently. But the blessings are many. First off is what a joy it is to have a “normal” spring! Last year was not the way spring should be and so no surprise that right on spring’s heels came the drought of summer. So bless the snow, sleet, rain and cool temperatures, for though it means April is an intense month here on the farm (and my heart aches for critters on farms where hay is running out) and the cattle and sheep look longingly at their pastures while gobbling up every little bit of green in the lots, it’s the norm for our climate and bodes well for the rest of the year.

A blessing, too, is that barn lambing really gives me a good look at how my sheep are doing, in terms of productivity and mothering ability. Having culled heavily with last summer’s drought and with good production records and new ram genetics in these 2013 lambs, I am pleased to be able to have this closeup look at the 2013 lambing in order to select Katahdin breeding stock for replacements here on the farm and for sale at weaning this fall.

The ewe in the picture is stellar. She is doing a fantastic job of raising quads–3 rams and a ewe. These ram lambs will be for sale, but I won’t part with the ewe lamb!