Widening the World

Sidehill Farm News

Widening the World

There are definitely times when dairy farming seems like a very small world. It’s those moments when Paul says “I just realized I haven’t left the farm in two and a half weeks,” and you realize that aside from the trip to Shelburne Falls to make the bank deposit last Monday, you haven’t either. It’s when you chat with a customer, and you can’t think of anything to talk about except cows’ reproductive cycles. When the only people who get your jokes are other dairy farmers. Last year, in attempt to halt the contraction of our world, we started to subscribing to the Greenfield Recorder. The idea was to have a perspective-widening source of news in front of our faces every morning, but half the days, the paper blows away, and we don’t see it until our neighbor Melanie finds it in a tree half a mile down the road, four days later. So much for institutionalizing a connection to the outside world. Now it’s true, that this proscribed world is partially a choice - one could organize one’s schedule to go to a dance class once a week, or meet some friends for dinner on occasion. But dairy farming is, by definition, a sharing of your life with cows, and cows are on 24/7. You look away for 10 minutes, and I’ll be darned if those cows haven’t filled in all the blank spaces on your calendar while your back was turned.

So when we received an email from Rigdzin Tarshin earlier in March, we felt a little breeze from the window to the world outside. Rigdzin will graduate from Babson College this May with an MBA. After graduation, he will return to his native Tibet to manage a yak cooperative he helped found. We had met Rigdzin briefly at a Massachusetts Cheese Guild tasting event this past fall, where he told us that our yogurt was his favorite of all the yogurts you could buy in the Boston area. We were very flattered to receive such a compliment from someone from a culture with such an ancient and developed tradition of fermented dairy products. We told him that there was a small Tibetan community near where we lived, and they also really liked our yogurt, and that he should come visit us sometime. But we also met about 2000 other people that day, and by 5 o’clock, we couldn’t remember a single face or name from that day.

But Rigdzin remembered us, and asked if he could come out to the farm and ask questions about how we ran our operation. So on this past Monday, Rigdzin arrived in Hawley with his friends Tsering Chostso, and Kunchok Gelek. Kunchok lives in Amherst with his wife, who is a PhD candidate at UMass. Tsering is visiting from Tibet, and is headed back there soon. The three of them, aside from speaking excellent English, had excellent, thoughtful questions on a level we don’t often get to explore with most visitors. They wanted to know the details of how piping systems worked, and the costs of specific machinery. Questions about marketing and labor efficiency and what were the mistakes that we made in the beginning. When he returns to Tibet, Rigdzin will be working with nomadic yak herders, establishing a processing facility and markets for value-added products  made from their milk. We talked through ideas for quality control, for incentive systems, for packaging. He described the challenges he will face in working with herders who milk by hand, sometimes out in the field, with animals that only produce milk seasonally. And because yaks are hairy, and Tibet is dusty, our milking pipeline, where the milk moves through an enclosed system of stainless steel pipes from the time it leaves the cow, had Rigdzin and Kunchok excitedly discussing the possibilities of a sanitary system, At the same time, Tsering and Paul were sketching out the workings of a vat pasteurizer, and modelling milk production predictions through lactation curves.

The five of us spent nearly two hours together talking not only business, but talking about why we do what we do. When it came time for them to leave, we felt we had made a strong connection with three kindred souls - good-hearted people who want to use their skills and education to make life better for their communities. Paul joked that we would be willing to come to Tibet to do some consulting on Rigdzin’s project. There was a heartbeat, in which we realized that impossible as it may sound, we would really love to do that. And in that same heartbeat, Rigdzin, Tsering, and Kunchok’s eyes lit up at the same possibility. 

So best of luck and all blessings to Rigdzin, Tsering, and Kunchok. Even if we never get a chance to visit Tibet, you have fired our imaginations, widened our world, and reinforced the truth that there are good and kind people everywhere. Thank you for that. 

And cows of Sidehill Farm, be ready for a short notice on vacation.

What if Georgie is the Mastermind?

Back in the summer of 2014 - the summer of the Great Mouse Invasion - we hired two sisters to work here at Sidehill Farm. Those of you who have been following our tales of the absurdity of life with cows for a while will remember this posting:

We were nearly at our wits end, when as though it  were divinely ordained, we received The Call. A former apprentice of whom we have always been very fond, called to say that she had two barn cats that needed homes. Yes! Barn cats! Perfect! We called Rebecca back right away and got the scoop: two tiger cats, sisters, great mousers, rugged barn cats. Perfect! Rebecca was allergic to cats, her new housemate arrived with cats, and now they needed a new home. Perfect! We'd talk again in a few days, and make arrangements. Perfect! In the meantime, we fantasized about our new rodent control team - probably some rough looking characters, mangy coats, tattered ears, maybe missing a front tooth - but Finely Tuned Mouse-Killing Machines who are Ferocious and Insatiable and feed themselves on the spoils of the hunt. 
 
Rebecca and Annamay arrived the next day with a cat carrier and a large plastic tub in tow. Inside the cat carrier were two adorable, little tiny, glossy and perfectly groomed tiger cats. Georgie and Dickens. Glossy and perfectly groomed, and wearing sparkly collars with shiny tags. Our hearts sank. Not a tattered ear, missing tooth, or even one mangy hair between them. Did I say sparkly collars? Sparkly collars. We opened the plastic tub that came with them, and inside were cans of organic super-groovy wet cat food, bags of feline dental care treats, a litterbox with scented litter, and worst of all, cat brushes. Cat brushes? We had to admit that they were very sweet - snuggly and affectionate, but just light-years away from our vision of a coldly efficient team of scruffy mouse killers. We let the cats out in the barn, closed the doors, and with very low hopes for the success of the venture, left them to explore their new home. This was not looking so perfect.

 
If you have visited the farm shop here in Hawley, you have probably met Georgie and Dickens. Georgie is the chubby one with the white feet who sleeps in the basket on the table in the farm shop. Dickens is the leaner one who meows stridently at you to open the door, and then 30 seconds later, meows at you to let her back out again. They are, despite their sparky-collar-beginnings, in fact, Real Barn Cats. They live in the barns, bite the heads off mice, terrorize visiting dogs, and leave us endless gifts of small headless bodies. We no longer have a mouse problem. But they are also soft, furry, sweet, and affectionate. They love to be petted. They climb in people’s cars and fall asleep in sunny spots on the driver’s seat. They seek out laps. There is not one tattered ear, mangy pelt, or snaggled tooth between them, and you could in no way call them rough customers. And so, we endlessly muse on this strange disconnect - the adorable killing machine - and of course, invent endless theories on why this must be. We have come up with many. But the only thing that makes sense? 

Georgie and Dickens are aliens. 

Yep, when the alien leaders were asking for volunteers for this mission to earth, Dickens, clearly a prodigy in the intelligence gathering field, was a top candidate for head operative. A true James Bond type - handsome, charming, athletic, and coldly efficient at data collection, she was a natural to go undercover as a cat. But the alien leadership knew she had one flaw - she was too good. No one would ever believe it. She needed a sidekick who was so completely believable as a cat that her cover would never be broken. Someone soft and fluffy with a squeaky meow and absolutely zero ambition to be head alien. Or really, zero ambition to be anything other than a basic, affectionate, mouse-eating cat.  They needed someone maybe not so bright, maybe someone who was passed over for a promotion pretty early on in the training. So they sent Georgie. And while Georgie missed a few key lines in the cat training manual - have you ever seen a cat trip over her own feet? - she’s pretty darn cat-like. You’d never know the truth.

Dickens, on the other hand, clearly spends a great deal of time sucking information out of people’s brains. Just look at her: she sits on the top of the t-shirt shelf in the farm shop and fixes you with her laser brain sucking stare. Don’t worry - it’s not just you - she does it to cows, calves, birds, dogs, customers - everyone and everything. And we are sure she uploads it all directly to the mother ship. Once she has plumbed the depths of your mind for useful data, she’ll jump down and insist that you give her a vigorous petting. From this, we deduce that these particular aliens are peaceable. They seem primarily concerned with collecting data on humans and their mysterious activities, and are not planning a full-scale invasion. They might have even flown completely under the radar and never been discovered, except for one slip-up that has given them away. 

Dickens accidentally read the dog manual. 

While Georgie was memorizing skills like purring and face-washing, Dickens picked up a manual from the wrong pile. She comes running when you drive in the driveway. She comes when you call her by name. She loves to be vigorously, roughly scratched all over her body. She likes to go on long walks in the woods with the humans. She chases balls. She scratches at the door to come in. When you don’t let her in, because she is a barn cat and barn cats don’t come in the house, she hurls herself bodily at the door until she catches the door handle at just the right angle and the door opens. Then she comes inside and lies down on the couch and waits for you there. Wagging her tail. Dog / alien.

And so, we have been happy with this explanation of the ways of our barn cats. They are aliens, Dickens is the lead, and Georgie is the distraction. The classic smart alien/ goofball alien storyline. Dickens collects data, Georgie lies in the basket in the farm shop with her belly in a sun spot. All is well. But recently, Steven, who minds the farm shop on weekends, and has a deep soft spot for these little furry aliens, (or maybe they’ve taken control of his brain…) installed a cat door in the back door of the farm shop so they could come in when it was really cold out. Georgie figured out the cat door in a matter of days. She comes and goes as she pleases. Dickens? Three weeks on, Dickens has no idea how to use the cat door. She still stands out front and meows for customers to let her in and out. You can stuff her through in both directions over and over, and she just looks at you like you’ve offended her. We just assumed that she thinks that squeezing her body through a small space is beneath her dignity. But this morning, as I opened the door to the farm shop and greeted a soft, sleepy, warm Georgie stretching in her basket, it suddenly occurred to me that we might have it all wrong. What if Georgie is the mastermind?

Back to the drawing board on the barn cat theories.

Training New Nurse Cows

Sidehill Farm News

Training New Nurse Cows

As of today, the calf count stands at 4 bulls, and finally, 2 heifers! That leaves 8 more cows to calve by the end of March, and then we are all going to sit down and fall asleep with our faces in our dinner plates. Yep, calving season is a big push - not because our cows have trouble calving, but it just requires a little extra cow management, and a lot of extra vigilance. When do we start training pregnant heifers to the parlor? Is it enough time for her to learn before she calves? When will she really calve? Do we put her in a calving pen tonight? Should I get up at 1:00am and go to the barn and check on her? Is the calf coming out in the right orientation? Did the calf figure out how to nurse? Did it get enough colostrum? And of course, this calving season we felt we all just didn’t have enough work, so we are taking on the project of training a few new nurse cows.

It was very early on in our dairy farming careers that we discovered that while calves are super cute, they are also very strong, and sometimes really stubborn. Bottle feeding a calf is an enchanting activity - they are furry and soft and really really love you with their whole wiggly charming self, for just as long as the bottle is full.

When the bottle is empty, however, instinct kicks in. If you have ever watched a calf nurse on it’s mother, you notice that the way a calf gets her mom to let her milk down is to slam it’s bony little head into the side of mom’s udder. To a cow, apparently, this is appealing, and she lets her milk down. To a person, who is holding the bottle at approximately crotch height in order to get the bony calf head in the right position for drinking, this is NOT appealing. I’m sure there is a calculation somewhere on the internet for figuring the force transferred from calf head to bottle to human pubic bone, but you know, it just doesn’t matter. It hurts, and you say bad words. 

So after bottle-feeding approximately, oh, let’s say ONE calf, the enchantment has completely worn off, and you start looking for another solution. Stage 2 was a milk bar - essentially a bucket with nipples sticking out of the sides. You pour milk in, the calves drink. No crotches involved. This system is pretty good, but it means you still need to warm up the milk, carry it out to the calf pen in bucket, pour it in, go back to the milkroom, refill the bucket with warm water, carry it back out to the calf pen, stand there until the milk is gone, pour in the warm water so the calves keep sucking on the milk bar instead of each other, retrieve the milk bar (pouring warm milky water all over yourself in the process), and wash the milk bar. There must be an easier way.

Then we discovered these amazing devices called “cows”. They are full of milk, walk into the calf pen under their own power, and enjoy having calves slam their bony heads into their udders. Whoever invented these things was a genius. But not all cows like to nurse calves. Cows seem to come on a sliding scale of maternal instinct that ranges from “ALL of these calves are MINE!”, down to “I have no idea what that creature is trying to do to me, but GET IT FAR AWAY!” So we have a select team of nurse cows - extremely maternal cows that love to raise calves. Giant Baby, Princess, and Edith have been heading up the nurse cow team for several years now, and they are true professionals. But unfortunately, both Giant Baby and Princess are near the end of their lactations right now, and are not making enough milk to feed calves. Edith just calved yesterday morning, with a beautiful little heifer calf who looks just like her sister Esther, born almost exactly 2 years ago. (We’re thinking her name might be Esmerelda.) But part of the reason that Edith is a nurse cow is that she only has two functioning teats - the other two have stopped making milk. She can only nurse two calves. Time to recruit a new nurse cow.

Now training a new nurse cow is not the most fun you’ve ever had. Even if a cow is very maternal, she will often only want to nurse her own calf at first, and will kick disturbingly accurately at the heads of the others. We’ve found that a few days of tying her head up, combined with scratching that special spot right next to her tailhead, and of course, a little treat of organic grain solves the problem. But it takes two people several days of working with them to get both cows and calves comfortable, and since you are working underneath the cow, showing little calf snouts the right spot, your hands get kicked a lot, and you get pooped on. Usually right down the back of your neck. Inside your turtleneck. Fun.

So that’s the project for the week. We’ve chosen Nina, who has always been very maternal. Her udder is very low, which makes her difficult to milk in the parlor, but calves don’t care about that - they’re short. So it’s a win-win if she decides she likes it. And so far, she’s been great. We had one round of kicking and pooping and running around the nursing pen, but we have one determined little bull calf who wouldn’t quit. When he finally caught up with her and latched on to a teat, she stopped dead, opened her eyes really really wide, and let him nurse.  We brought a second calf in, and apparently that was one calf too many for the first day, but it was progress. Then we milked her in the parlor, and fed her milk to those calves, (with the milk bar - crotch insurance) so they would smell like her. The next milking, she stood still for two calves, only kicking a little when one punched her udder. This morning she was outside the calf pen mooing for the calves before we even let her in! Tomorrow we try three calves, and maybe don’t tie her head. We keep pinching ourselves - even Giant Baby and Princess weren’t this easy to train! 

We will probably need one more nurse cow for this calving, depending on how many heifer calves we decide to keep. We have our eye on Crumpet, who is calving later in March. We just hope that new nurse cows aren’t like kids - if the first one is a dream, the second one is the payback. We’ll be sure to let you know.

Calving Season is Upon Us!

Sidehill Farm News

Calving Season is Upon Us!

After Zebra had her backwards calf a week ago Monday, things have been pretty quiet in the calf pen. We expected Edith to calve, but she hasn’t yet. Toothpick, maybe, but her udder isn’t filled up yet, so she’s clearly a while out. Nina and Ciba were due for Tuesday, but Normandes are always 5 to 7 days late, so we weren’t looking to see calves from them yet. It was pleasantly uneventful in the barn.

Now here at Sidehill, we are always looking for the ideal cow, and as much as we love our Normandes and Jerseys, we find that crosses are almost always a healthier and hardier cow that combines the advantages of both breeds. Even better is a 3-way cross - breeding a Normande/Jersey cross to a third breed - since that maintains the advantages of hybrid vigor into additional generations. But the right third breed has been hard to find - we need high protein milk to make firm yogurt, and most breeds other than Normandes and Jerseys fall way short on protein. This past spring, we discovered the MRY breed, (Meuse-Rhine-Ijssel) - a red and white dual purpose breed similar to the Normande, but from the Netherlands. The breed is noted for high protein milk, strong feet and legs, longevity, excellent body condition, calving ease, and fertility. These are all things we love about our Normandes, so it seemed worth a try. We bred Nina, Ciba, Toothpick, and Pippin, all Normande/Jersey crosses to MRY, and hoped for some good looking heifer calves.
Monday night, just as we were about to leave the barn for the evening, Nina’s water broke. Now with a cow, this is an event. It’s a LOT of fluid - and if you are around to witness it, you start thinking about raingear, and rowboats, and sometimes arks. We had expected Nina to calve in 4 or 5 days, so this seemed a little sudden. We put her in the calving pen with fresh bedding, food, and water, and left her for an hour or so to go eat dinner. When we got back an hour and half later, she was aggressively licking off a gigantic brown bull calf. Here was a our first MRY calf! and while we were disappointed he was not a heifer, and that he didn't look much like the swimsuit cover model cow, what a bull calf he was! Stocky, wide, tall, and large in every way - a little brown furry tank - and hungry! We left them together for the night, and headed off to bed.

Tuesday morning, Paul walked out on the pack to collect the cows for milking, and there on the pack, fresh and warm, was a cow placenta. A cow placenta is a tough thing to miss - for one thing, it’s the size of a 5 gallon bucket. Yep, pretty large. For the second, it’s bright red and white and shiny - not colors and textures you normally find in a barn, so it’s pretty distinctive. But the most important thing about a cow placenta is that it comes out of the cow AFTER the calf has been born. And Nina was put in the calving pen BEFORE her calf was born. Meaning? It wasn’t hers. So we looked around a bit, expecting to see someone else with a calf at their side. Nope. Everyone was giving us the big who-me? cow eyes, and heading for the milking parlor. Hmmm… And then we noticed a little bit of ruckus in the pen of dry cows. There, at the very back of the barn, scaring the pants off a bunch of bred heifers, was a seriously sturdy black and white bull calf. He was poking around at all those dry udders, and not only failing to get any milk action, but making himself pretty unpopular by sucking on knees, tails, and even the ears of anyone who dared lie down. We grabbed him, and dropped him back on the milk cow side of the fence. He tossed his head, mooed twice, ran straight to Ciba and began nursing. Mystery solved! Ciba seemed very relieved, since she had been apparently standing at the fence all night long, and, unable to convince her little boy to come back across, had lain down and given up.


In the end, Ciba ended up with a mild case of milk fever - a condition where a cow draws calcium to fill her udder from her muscles instead of her bones, and thereby causes a calcium deficiency in her muscles. A muscle without calcium can’t move, and a cow with milk fever becomes paralyzed. Jerseys have a breed tendency towards this condition. It can be fatal - their heart can stop if it’s not treated immediately - but Ciba’s case was mild, and it just caused her to lie down and not get up. Mostly it caused her to get a lot of extra attention, special treats like molasses and extra good hay, and lots of petting (as well as a calcium IV), but since she is a drama queen, and the matriarch of a line of drama queens, she loved it. She worked it for all it was worth, lying on her own special bed of hay for most of the day, before she finally decided that the humans weren’t pampering her enough anymore, and getting up and walking away. She’s fine now, and back to all her drama queen shenanigans.

So now we know, MRY crosses are born on the exact due date! And they don't look much like the cow in the promotional literature, either. But let’s hope Toothpick and Pippin have just as easy a calving, and the calves look just as big and healthy. Except they are girls! 

The Resistance Triumphs Again

Having left Valencia airport with our hats and jackets packed away, Paul and I were pleased to see only a few inches of snow on the ground in Boston. We’d had no news from Team Sidehill for nearly 10 days, and the minimal snow was a good omen. So, having been awake already for nearly 24 hours, we caught the Logan Express bus to our car in Framingham, and began the drive back to Hawley. Now mind you, the plane had landed at 8pm, and while we breezed through passport control and customs, we weren’t on the road until almost 10 pm. We were tired but vigilant, and all was going well until we turned off Route 9 in Goshen to head north. There were snow piles. BIG snow piles. Not the couple of inches that were on the runways in Boston, but a couple of feet. And really, really windy. We know wind, living in Hawley, and this was WIND. It was now 12:30am, and we were pretty darn tired, but this was the homestretch.

Coming up Spruce Corner Road, we got as far as the Watson Road intersection, and turned left up towards Wauban Farm. We came uphill around a blind corner, and WHOOPS! - the road was completely blocked by a 6’ tall snowdrift. We backed slowly down the hill, skidding on the corners, and rolled back into the intersection. Take 2. We headed up Stage Road. About a mile up - Whoa! - another huge drift completely blocking the road. Someone had obviously tried to get through, and just as obviously, had not made it and extricated themselves with the help of a second vehicle. We were now really tired, and just wanted to go home. And wearing the same clothes we put on that morning in Valencia - light pants, light shirts, and the kind of comfy shoes you want to wear on a 10 hour flight - not snowboots. The concept of having to walk a couple of miles through snow and wind was not going over well. As we discussed Plan C, the snow was pouring over the top of the drift like water, piling up on the windshield and burying the hood. In the end, we drove back to 116, and came up to Hawley through Plainfield center. Every time we crossed open terrain, drifts were crawling across the road, visibly increasing in size. Every time we plowed through a drift in our all-terrain Prius, we sucked our breaths in a little, hoping that the forward motion would just keep on. And miraculously, it did. Nearly half an hour later (from Plainfield to Hawley!) we made it - the last and most challenging drift looming right in front of our garage door. Throwing all caution aside, we blasted right through into the garage and breathed a big sigh. 1:00am and we were home.

Unbeknownst to us, Stella and Anne had gone home only a couple of hours earlier, having spent the evening helping a heifer give birth to her first calf, that was, of course, coming out backwards. That was, helping the heifer give birth once they had rounded up the steers who had managed to break out earlier in the evening, and gone swimming through several feet of snow in search of the green grass they imagined was down Ivy and Cinni Donovan’s driveway. Which had happened because the 45 mph wind buried their fence in drifts, and they could walk right through because the power had gone out again on a yogurt production day, and stayed off through the beginning of milking. (Yes! We now know we can milk the cows on the generator! Silver lining!) Which had happened right at the point when Ken got the tractor and manure spreader stuck in a drift in a field, and no one could help him because they were all running around getting the generator hooked up, or chasing wild Siberian steers, or plowing away the drifts that blocked the road and driveways every 10 minutes, or noticing that Zebra was about to give birth a week early and the calf was coming out backwards. 

So as expected, the Universe was fully informed of our vacation plans, and put on a real show while we were gone. On top of Monday’s excitement, there were sudden illnesses, 2 additional snowstorms, rescheduled delivery days, and broken tractor implements. And, since the Universe’s informers apparently got our return day wrong, on our first day back we had one non-functioning cream separator, a dramatic but fortunately harmless demonstration of the volcanic effects of combining acid and alkaline wash solutions, and one minor propane explosion that has us down to one boiler for a few days. But with Craig and Stella at the helm, a lot of moving snow, some late nights, some early mornings, and even some overnight stays, the crew rocked through it. The yogurt got made, the cows got milked, milk got bottled, snow got pushed, and yogurt got delivered to stores. If you weren’t a member of Team Sidehill, you’d never even know things weren’t perfectly smooth. Thanks team, you are all incredible and awesome and the main reason for any success that we might enjoy. Thank you, thank you, thank you! 

Starting tomorrow, Stella, Craig, and Shahid are beginning their well-earned vacations. We figure we’ve been through pretty much all of it at this point (I mean - propane explosion? Where did the Universe come up with that one?) so I’m not sure what’s left for this coming week. We’ll let you know… Yikes!

Oh, and the good side? Shahid lost his Super Bowl bet with Craig, and made good on his promise to supply staff lunch. We are currently snarfing down the most incredible array of nachos and nachos toppings you’ve ever seen. Topped with sour cream, of course.

Don't Alert the Universe

Sidehill Farm News

Don't Alert the Universe

We have a running joke here at Sidehill that you must never make travel or vacation plans too far ahead of time. Planning ahead only serves to alert the Universe to an opportunity to wreak havoc, because in this Sidehill-vacation-centric understanding of the world, the Universe is sort of like the Empire, or the Dark Side. It is lurking just around the other side of the planet, accompanied by a low brass orchestra playing ominous music, waiting to glide on to the scene at the last minute and vaporize your plans. Invite us to a picnic two weeks ahead of time - we’ll never make it because a cooler compressor will go down just as we are pulling out of the driveway. Summer wedding planned for 6 months? Guaranteed tractor meltdown in the middle of baling hay. But invite us to come for dinner in half an hour? - we’re definitely there. Spontaneous flies under the Universe’s radar.

And so, with bated breath, we enter February. February is vacation month. We’re closing the creamery for a week during school vacation so Craig, Shahid, and Brian can spend time with their families. Stella is taking a week to go skiing and hang out at a bluegrass festival. Paul and Amy are leaving the country for 10 days. None of this can be spontaneous, and so we go into February with full knowledge of the truth. The Universe has Been Alerted.


Now, we have learned a few things about the Universe over the years. The first thing we’ve learned is that once the Universe has Been Alerted, there are just some things we can’t control. Like 4 feet of snow in 24 hours. Like an entire electrical panel failing so that Cecilia (Celia-of-all-trades-but-not-previously-including-electrician) has to rewire a 200 amp service with only Paul on the other end of an international call and a flashlight held in her teeth. The parlor wastewater system freezing solid so Hansen is in the ditch on his knees in 6” of poop water in zero degree weather. Or a state-issued a travel ban so we can’t deliver yogurt, which means everyone needs to deliver yogurt on the next day when they should be making yogurt, which means we won’t have space in the bulk tanks for the next few milkings because yesterday's milk didn’t get made into yogurt. We no longer stress about this type of thing, because they are just going to happen, no matter how we plan and prepare. And a little adventure is good for team-building and morale. Right team? 


The second thing we’ve learned, is that the more things that go wrong in the week before vacation, the better. It’s like the Universe puts a bunch of energy into preparation, and then runs low on calories when actual vacation occurs. So far, things are looking good. Three of the four delivery trucks have been in the shop this week for everything from bad wiring, to faulty transmission oil sensors, to locked up brakes. The PTO shaft on the bale chopper snapped in half. The tractor trailer got stuck on the ice at 6:00 am, and in the attempt to pull it off, we ripped the lift arms off the 100 horse tractor. The new waterers in the barn leaked and dumped an inch of water behind the headlocks and froze all the cow’s hay to the floor. Then at noon on Tuesday, the power went out. In the 4 years that we have been farming in Hawley, the power has gone out only twice before - once on a weekend, once at night. Yesterday, however, we were right in the middle of packaging yogurt. Now once the cultures go into the milk, we have only 2 and a half hours to get it in containers before it starts setting up and getting too firm to go through the filling machine. When the power went out there was only one hour left of culture time, and sixty gallons still to package. A quick call to National Grid told us that there was “damage to the underground infrastructure” - (read: someone dug up a buried power line), and power would not be restored until after midnight. Gulp.

So we pulled the big tractor mounted generator out of the machine shed, and drove it over to the main service panel. We’ve all been through the exercise of hooking it up before, but for some of the team, this was the first time for real, and under a significant amount of time pressure. We shut off grid power, hooked up the generator, and got power flowing back into the creamery. Lights came on. Milk pumps ran and filled the hoppers. But Sheldon the filling machine spit and fizzed, and shut back down. We shut off everything else on the panels. He still wouldn’t run. Paul was on the phone with C&S Electric motors, Craig with Sheldon’s manufacturer, both yelling over the roar of the tractor. Stella ran home to send emails and phone calls that had to go out that day. Things were not looking good, when Paul guessed that maybe the voltage was too high. He knocked the RPMs on the tractor down, and suddenly, Sheldon hissed and clanked to life. Yay! Craig and Shahid jumped into action and managed to get the yogurt packaged with less than a minute to spare.


Then, feeling confident, we restarted the walk-in cooler. Very, very bad electrical noises crackled from the controller boxes. But now, being experienced generator trouble-shooters, we guessed the voltage was too low. We revved up the tractor, and the compressors rattled into action. Next, heat pumps to the incubation room, the wash pumps, and, most desperately, the teakettle so we could make coffee. Then we figured we better stop, so we didn’t overload the generator. We were just putting our heads together about how we were going to get the cows milked, cool the milk, and cool the yogurt tonight, when the power came back on. Whew! 

The Universe has made some pretty good attempts this last week - and we’re hoping that as a result, it’s party-pooping resources are seriously depleted. But thanks to the Universe, this week we remembered the most important thing we’ve learned about going on vacation - that we have an amazing team here at Sidehill Farm. It’s a group of smart, generous, hard-working, fun-loving people who aren’t afraid of an occasional adventure and a chance to put their heads together and puzzle their way out of a mess. Craig and Stella, Sha and Brian, Faye and Phil, Anne and Dennis, Ken and Dave and Steven, thank you for being awesome. May the Force be with you this February.

No Cows in the House

Sidehill Farm News

No Cows in the House

I’m sure you’ve all noticed, that if you have a hobby, a passion, an unusual obsession, people give you stuff related to it. “Hey! I just found this John Deere tractor toilet paper holder, and immediately thought of you!” This is the whole reason for the existence of companies like the Franklin Mint, and the makers of angel figurines and sentimental snow globes that are advertised in the inserts in the Sunday newspaper. No one actually wants a collector’s edition hand engraved porcelain statue of a cat wearing a cowboy hat and boots; but everyone knows someone that needs a collector’s edition hand engraved porcelain statue of a cat wearing a cowboy hat and boots. For this reason - and well, also for our sanity - we long ago established what has proven to be the most controversial policy at Sidehill Farm.

No cows in the house. 

Now, the obvious interpretation is pretty self explanatory. Cows are 800 to 1200 lb creatures with hard hooves. They regurgitate their food and re-chew it while drooling. They poop. A lot. Anywhere they want. Right away, that qualifies them for exclusion from the house. Nobody really has any issues with the enforcement of this first level of the policy. It’s when the definition of “cow” becomes looser that folks start to have trouble. Like cow salt and pepper shakers. These are the gateway drug. Once you’ve let these in your house, someone wants to give you a cow cream pitcher. Then someone notices that you have a cow cream pitcher and cow salt and pepper shakers, so you must want some cow refrigerator magnets. Cow Christmas tree ornaments. Even… gasp!… cow toothbrush holders - because you definitely want to be thinking about cows while you have your hands inside your mouth.



This of course, sets up some awkward family moments when you open a charmingly wrapped cow figurine made in art class by your 4 year old niece. Fortunately, the rule is no cows in the house - not no cows in the barn, or no cows in the office. This is our out for the awkward moments. It also means the new cow weathervane on top of the creamery is fully within regulations. 

But we’ve had to take this even farther. When we were finally entering the world of grown-ups and shopping for our first couch (amazing what you discover about your spouse when you shop for furniture for the first time - right? How are you possibly going spend the rest of your life with someone who would voluntarily sit down on that hideous torture device?) - the salesman suggested a leather couch. Not just leather, but hair-on cowhide, looking for all the world like Toothpick or Pippin had gone flat and were draped over our living room furniture. I must admit, they were lovely in their way, but you know, when you come in from evening milking, probably having been pooped on at least once, and dealt with some sort of cow tomfoolery that made your evening an hour longer than you expected, you just don’t want a cow in your living room. In any form. Even skinned, (which is maybe the fate you were imagining for one or two of the evening’s troublemakers) and reclining on your couch. So the leather furniture was out, along with hide rugs, hide wall hangings, and idyllic paintings of cows in pastures. No cows in the house.

And so, we were sorely conflicted when offered the cow tchotchke of all times - a cast iron dinner bell topped with a cast iron Holstein cow, that came from the Ashfield farm of Bill Eddy. The offer of the bell was an honor - a passing on from one dairy to another - a hope that the spirit and determination that carried one farm forward could live on to inspire another generation. We were touched to be so chosen to carry on a piece of Ashfield history. For those of you who do not remember Bill Eddy, I am not qualified to be the one to regale you with stories. There are many others with deeper and more intimate knowledge of Bill’s life. Let it be said that Bill was a colorful character who lived life as he saw fit, and never backed down to adversity. His was one of the last remaining small scale dairies in Ashfield, and he milked cows until he just couldn’t. In later years, he lived in his car, swore like a sailor, and buried dead barn cats in the manure pile (we know because we found the skeletons in manure we bought from him.) And he collected cow stuff. Pitchers, creamers, magnets, statues, photos. Placemats, napkins, dishes. The house was literally packed with cow trinkets of every size and form. Every horizontal surface was colonized with herds of cows - kitchen, living room, bedroom, bathroom. And it was Bill who warned us. Once you’ve got one cow thing, he said, people just give you more. It never stops. So don’t even start.

And so, we said no to the bell. At first, we felt it disrespectful to the memory of Bill to turn down this gift. But we got over it. He told us not to start, and so we won’t. Hopefully, he’s joyfully cussing away up there, pleased that we bothered to listen.

Loretta Lynn Loves A Bucket

Loretta Lynn Loves a Bucket

Sometimes a smart cow is a good thing. Well, occasionally a smart cow is a good thing. OK - let’s be truthful here - it’s really only VERY RARELY that is a smart cow a good thing.  Smart cows (read: all Jerseys, and maybe, oh, let’s be generous and say approximately 2 Normandes), while charming and extremely interested in the odd doings of humans, begin their careers harmlessly enough. They steal a granola bar out of your back pocket and gallop off to the back pasture with it in their mouth. They learn how to open gates. Then they learn to open the new style of gate latch you installed because they learned how to open the old one. Eventually, it's opening headlocks so they can rodeo gleefully around the barn while the vet is trying to take a blood sample. Then it’s letting their friends out of the headlocks, because rodeoing gleefully around the barn while the people wave their arms and say bad words is much more fun as a group. It’s when you realize that both Houdini and Miney know the passcode to your smartphone that it dawns on you that you actually have a problem, and maybe those intellectually challenged cows are just fine. 

Now on the other hand, you don’t want truly dumb cows either. One seriously, doornail dense cow can really snarl up the works for the whole herd. Toothfairy took two months to learn that the exit door to the parlor was to the right, not to the left. 18 months later, she still has to stop and think after she’s milked. But Loretta Lynn? - she’s in a special class of her very own. Loretta Lynn is the great-granddaughter of Princess, our 16 yr old matriarch and head nurse cow. Princess has had many, many heifer calves in her long career, and one of the finest is Loretta Lynn’s grandmother, the Principesa Maria. (Pesa, for short.) Pesa is a champion milker, has a lovely grazing body type, and very few of the bovine bad habits that annoy the humans. Unfortunately, while Pesa is the perfect balance of not too smart, and not infuriatingly dumb, she has failed to pass that on to her offspring. Her daughter Loretta often couldn’t use both brain cells at once; and her granddaughter Loretta Lynn, well, wow.


Since the cows came into the barn for the winter, Loretta Lynn has been struggling to learn to use the waterers in the barn. Now, I’ll admit, they are a little tricky. You have to stick your nose into a large hole in the top of an insulated tub to get to the water. Pretty challenging. Calves learn to do this in about 30 seconds. All the other cows have learned to do this in less than a minute. Loretta Lynn? We’re going on 2 months now. Eventually she figures it out, but you can tell that all that thinking is really taxing for her. But just last week, her world changed dramatically.  We always have 5 gallon buckets of warm water in the milking parlor - the water comes from the plate chiller that pre-cools the milk like a heat exchanger. We use it for washing off the milking platforms and rinsing our hands. Loretta Lynn has watched these buckets before -watched them fill and be emptied, fill, and be emptied, and that day, apparently some previously shorted connection finally made contact. Loretta Lynn has always been the last cow to come in the parlor, but that day, she came charging into the parlor right after the bossy cows. She pushed a couple loitering cows aside, pulled her ears back, and jammed her head directly into one of the buckets. Fifteen seconds of noisy slurping, and the bucket was dry. She lifted her head, looked around, and jammed her head into a second bucket. Slurped that one dry. Lifted her head, spied the third bucket, and jammed her head in that one too. Only this time, when she had slurped it dry, yep - you knew this was coming - the bucket was stuck. 

Now any other cow would have completely freaked out, charging around the parlor, crashing into things, trying to rub the bucket off on anything available, including people and other cows. This sort of activity being unpopular with both people and cows, the entire scene would have devolved into a chaos of milkers being kicked off, bellowing, and free and voluminous pooping. (The cows, not the people - although there might have been bellowing from the people.) But this is not what happened. Loretta Lynn stood there with the bucket on her head. She turned her head once. She turned it back. She took one step forward. She took one step back. And then just stood there. With full knowledge of the risks, I decided to see just how long she would stand there, and went on with milking the other cows. Ten minutes she stood there. Ten full minutes, apparently completely content inside her bucket. Eventually I had to pull it off and milk her. 

And now it’s a pattern. Each milking, LL comes in the parlor, drinks a few buckets dry, and stands there staring into the empty bucket. She’ll stand there for a long time, gazing into that bucket with all the longing that those big cow eyes are capable of. I have no idea what happened in those ten minutes with the bucket on her head. Some kind of religious conversion maybe. Whatever it was, is hasn’t made her any smarter. She still struggles to put her nose in the hole in the top of that waterer. But let me tell you, she can jam her head in a 5 gallon bucket with the best of them.

Halves and Quarters of Normande Grass-fed Beef!

In France, Normande cow milk, and the cheese and butter made from it, are considered a national treasure. In the same way that only sparkling wines made in Champagne can be called champagne, only milk from Normande cows in Normandy can be use the coveted label Le Lait Pur de Normandie. But a more closely guarded secret, is the fact that among French gourmets, Normande beef is considered the finest beef in France. Traditionally raised on pasture and hay instead of grain, the beef finishes beautifully on the sweet summer grasses we have here in New England, and doesn't need to be force-fed corn in a feedlot in order to develop it's deep flavor and tenderness. The beef is lean, and full of old-time rich, beefy flavor.

Despite the very dry conditions this summer, our beautiful Normande steers have been chowing down on our lush organic pastures, and are looking fat and glossy going into the fall! This fall, we are offering quarters and halves of our flavorful Normande grass-fed beef for those of you who would like to buy in bulk and save some money. In your quarter or half, you will receive a range of cuts, from fancy steaks like tenderloin, ribeye, NY strip, and sirloin, to roasts, stew meat, and ground beef. All meat is vacuum sealed in individual packages - one steak or roast to a package, and ground and stew in approximately one pound packages. If you are ordering  a whole cow (share with friends!), we can customize the cut list to your specifications. Quarters will weigh 100 lbs and cost $7.50/lb, for a total cost of $750. Halves will weigh twice that, but at only $7.25/lb. for a total cost of $1450. This year, we will also be offering the opportunity to add on 30 lb boxes of ground beef for $180 - that's $6/lb. 

The animals that we raise for beef are treated exactly the same as we treat our milking herd. The calves are raised by their mothers or by nurse cows, drinking milk and grazing fresh green grass. Once they are weaned at 5 months, they are out on pasture full time with their herdmates. Since Normande beef often takes longer than American beef breeds to develop it’s full, rich flavor, the beef animals stay with the herd, grazing certified organic pasture in summer and eating organic hay in winter, until they are 28 to 30 months old.

We have a limited number of animals ready to harvest this fall, so be sure to place your order soon to make sure you get on the list! To reserve a quarter or half, please send an email to amy@sidehillfarm.net by Monday, October 17th  Once we get your email, we will ask for a $100 deposit to hold your order - the balance will be due on pickup day. Pickup day at the farm will be in early November - most likely on Saturday Nov 4th. 

The Piggies Head To Market

In June of this year, these adorable tiny Berkshire piglets arrived at Sidehill Farm, and took up residence in 4 acres of brushy woods beyond the pastures. They spent their days rooting, playing pig games, and foraging for wild berries and mushrooms. Now, after 4 months of a diet of wild foods, yogurt, colostrum, whey from our Schoolhouse Cheddar, and certified organic grain, they are nearly 250 pounds each! Just this morning, we bid them goodbye, and they headed off to become delicious Wild Forest Pork. We are sad to see them go - we love their antics! - but they are going to be SO TASTY when they come back as bacon and sausage! Keep an eye out in the farm shop in the next couple of weeks!