Sidehill Farm Organic Grass-fed Beef in Bulk!

Sidehill Farm News

Halves and Quarters of Sidehill Farm Grass-fed Beef

If you've enjoyed the beef you've picked up in the farm shop and are hungry for more, you're in luck! We are offering our flavorful Sidehill Farm grass-fed beef in bulk - at a bulk price! Here's the chance to stock your freezer with a quarter or half beef, (or a whole beef, if you have a big freezer!) - you will receive a wide variety of steaks like tenderloins, rib-eye, NY strips, and sirloin; chuck, sirloin tip, and round roasts, some braising cuts, and ground beef, shanks, stew meat. Organs are available if you want them.

Quarters are $750 for 100 lbs of beef. ($7.50/lb)

Halves are $145o for 200 lbs of beef ($7.25/lb)

And if a half or quarter isn’t enough for your family, we are offering the option to add on extra 30 lb boxes of ground beef at $6/lb ($180 for the box), and soup bones at $2/lb (random weight boxes).

Here at Sidehill Farm, our beef animals finish beautifully on the sweet summer grasses we have here in New England, and don't need to be force-fed corn in a feedlot in order to develop deep flavor and tenderness. The beef is lean, and full of old-time rich, beefy flavor.

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. 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, when the meat is nicely marbled and tender.

This year, in addition to our Normande beeves, we will also be including Gus and Kyra’s Red Poll beeves in the mix you will receive. Red Polls are a gorgeous chesnut colored heritage breed of cattle that are always polled (hornless). The breed was developed in the early 1800s in Britain, but is now endangered. They are known for the quality of their grass-fed beef - juicy and fine-grained, with excellent flavor. The beef is leaner than Normande beef, but just as tasty! They are also smaller animals than the Normandes, so the Red Poll cuts will be smaller in size, but you will receive the same total number of pounds of beef. So you’ll get both Normande and Red Poll beef in your half or quarter this year!

Other exciting news is that our beef is now officially certified organic by Baystate Organic Certifiers! We have raised our animals to certified organic standards for as long as we have had cows, but now we’ve taken the plunge, done all the paperwork, written the checks, and now can officially say that the beef is certified organic.

Pickup for halves and quarters will be at the farm, on October 12th - the first Saturday in October. The slaughter date is September 12th, and it usually takes about 4 weeks for proper hanging, aging, and then cutting and wrapping.

If the October pickup date doesn't work for you, we will be sending a second round of animals on October 10th, for pickup at the beginning of November, so just let us know if you would prefer the second round! We will be sending excellent, well-finished animals in both rounds.

We will need a $100 deposit will hold your place on the list. Please send us an email with a quick yes or no as soon as possible, and then have a deposit to us by September 16th - you can send it to the farm mailing address:

Sidehill Farm

58 Forget Rd

Hawley, MA 01339

Thank you for all your support for local farms!

And we are about six weeks into an exciting transition for Sidehill Farm. If you have not heard the news, read our previous blog post: We are super excited about this new adventure, and we think you will be too!

The next adventure starts now!

We are now one month into the beginning of huge transition for Sidehill Farm. As we announced in September of 2018, we (Amy and Paul) are looking to focus our energies on the yogurt-making part of Sidehill Farm, and to find a young couple who want to operate the dairy farm side of the business. After nearly a year of searching, we have met the farmers of our dreams! Gus and Kyra Tafel, and their 3 adorable daughters Eva, Laurelye, and Ronan, have arrived here in Hawley to work for the summer, and learn the ins-and-outs of our systems before taking on ownership of the farmland and dairy herd around the end of the year. They have moved into the house next to the farm shop and have started working with us daily on the farm. 

 Gus and Kyra arrive here from central NY, where they were milking certified organic, 100% grass-fed cows, and selling the milk to a small creamery making yogurt that was sold into NYC. The yogurt brand folded, and they lost their milk contract. They also had solid markets for their organic beef, pork, lamb, and chicken; but without the milk contract, the farm was not financially viable, and they were forced to sell the milk cows and find off-farm work. Fortunately, they found us!

 They have brought with them a herd of beef cows, a handful of dairy heifers, 40 sheep, a flock of turkeys, and a friendly dog named Mojo. It seems like we have animals everywhere now! You’ll see their gorgeous chestnut colored heritage breed Red Poll beef cows grazing around the farm, a few mixed in with the milking herd. White and brown Dorset sheep are grazing the pastures behind the house, and now finally appear to be content to stay within their fences. From the galaxy of little hoofprints all over the farm, it appears they had both a soccer game and a square dance one evening when all the humans were away. Shaun the Sheep would be proud. We are now hiding the keys to all the vehicles, just in case.

 And of course, there is an amazing back story. Kyra’s aunt Joyce, was Amy’s Dad’s very first PhD student in biochemistry at the University of New Hampshire in the 1970s! Joyce remembers Amy as a 5 year old girl – just about Eva’s age. Whoa!

 We are incredibly excited about their arrival, and feel that we are already forging the structure of a partnership that will keep both Sidehill Farm Yogurt, and Sidehill Farm Dairy vital and thriving. Gus has moved smoothly into a herd management role here, and his judgment seems both sensible and solid, and to include the few requisite crazy ideas that occasionally change everything for the better. We can already see that he just might be better at milking cows than we are! Kyra is tending to sheep, calves, and 3 enthusiastic and energetic daughters; and is bringing her own expertise to our pool of organic animal health resources. Eva (6) has learned all the cow names and helps with milking, Laurelye (4) is now in charge of checking for ripe tomatoes in the greenhouse and quality testing on sugarsnap peas, and Ronan (2) holds the funnel to fill calf bottles, and wants you to know that yesterday she walked all the way from the house to the cow barn by herself despite wearing 2 different shoes that were on the wrong feet. 

 These first four weeks have gone so well that we were actually able to get out of their hair for a whole week, and take a vacation! Gus and Kyra want to keep challenging themselves to handle the dairy on their own, and our confidence in them grows every day. After essentially not having a single day off for more than a year, we are liking this trajectory a lot! Over the next couple of months, we will be slowly moving them into involvement with the farm shop, so they can polish their retail management skills. You’ll probably see Kyra and Gus and the girls around when you come to the farm shop over the next few weeks, so please take time to introduce yourself – they are eager to meet people in their new community!

 And yes, for those of you have noticed that we (Amy and Paul) are no longer living at the farm - we are currently homeless, and learning about commuting to work each day! We are so grateful to our friends who are supplying us with housesitting gigs and empty guest rooms and campers to stay in through this transition period. We are hoping to buy a house and a little land (not enough to graze cows on!) in Ashfield or somewhere within 15-20 minutes of the farm, so if you hear of anything, please let us know!

The Next Adventure!

Six and a half years ago, we announced in this newsletter the most exciting news that we could possibly imagine - that we had bought the Donovan Farm in Hawley, the magical piece of big sky country where we farm today.

Since that time, we have poured our whole selves into this special and spectacular farm. We built a light and airy barn for winter cow housing, and a modern creamery for yogurt production. For our regular applications of lime and manure, fish fertilizer and trace minerals, the fields have thanked us with increasing yields of high quality grass . Our farm shop has grown from raw milk and yogurt to include our grass-fed beef and wild forest pork, plus cheeses, ice cream, pickles and other tasties from local farms. We certified the entire operation as organic - both cows and yogurt. Our crew has grown to 10 folks, who in that six and half years have celebrated weddings, bought houses, given birth to babies, and are raising kids who think that store milk tastes funny. The yogurt business is thriving, and we are delivering Sidehill Farm yogurt all over the state. Our mission has always been to provide healthy, affordable food to everyone, and with help from our crew, we have refined that mission to focus on the quality of our products, the efficiency of our systems, and gratitude for all living beings and resources that support our work. (Plus having a good time doing it!) And so, six and half years on, we are very excited to announce the next phase in the growth of Sidehill Farm.

We are selling the farm.

WHAT! HOLD ON! Selling the farm? How is that exciting?

Let me explain...

Approximately two years ago, Paul and I were invited to sit on a discussion panel following a showing of the film Forgotten Farms. The film shines a light on traditional dairies here in New England. These are not dairies with a public face - no cheese in River Valley Market, no glass bottle milk for home delivery. They are the farms that have been milking cows, sometimes for generations, wholesaling bulk raw milk to co-ops. They are at the mercy of commodity milk prices, and they are all masters of operating on razor-thin margins. These folks are incredibly hard working, clever, persistent, and loyal to their animals. But value-added processing is something they either do not want to do, or cannot afford to do, so they operate in the shadows of the local food movement.

We have always felt that the success we have enjoyed as Sidehill Farm should be a tool for positive change in our community. As we have grown, we have been committed to supporting our local food pantry, sponsoring fundraising events for land protection, donating yogurt to events at local schools. After watching this film, Paul and I realized we could use this unique Sidehill Farm tool in a new way - by supporting other dairy farmers. If there are dairy farmers whose deepest passion is milking cows and producing high quality milk, well then, we want to work with them. Instead of pushing to milk more cows here, and straining the resources this farm has to offer, we began looking for farms producing high quality, grass-fed, certified organic milk to partner with us. As a result of that search, we supplement our own milk with milk from Leahey Farm in Lee. Phil Leahey grew up on his grandfather and uncle’s farm, and always wanted to milk cows. With his wife Jen, and two kids, Phil began milking cows on his family’s farm, and bottling their milk for sale at Guido’s and other Berkshire county stores. In the end, they realized that what they loved was milking cows, and that the milk bottling was killing them. So they called us. It was a perfect fit - Phil and Jen’s jersey cows are grass-fed, certified organic, and raised with the care and attention that we give to our own cows. We now buy all the milk they produce, for a price that is a living wage for the family. Sidehill Farm Yogurt grows and expands, and the Leaheys get to milk cows. It is a fantastic arrangement all around.

But this summer, local newspapers reported that conventional milk prices had fallen so far, dairy co-ops, including Agrimark, the milk co-op most local dairies sell their milk to, were sending out phone numbers for suicide hotlines along with their milk checks. Long standing organic co-ops like Organic Valley began putting production quotas on their family farms, and more recently, have started dropping pay prices. Horizon Organic abruptly cancelled contracts, leaving some farmers with nowhere to sell their milk. No co-ops, conventional or organic, are offering new milk contracts. For young farmers looking to get started in dairy, there are almost no options. Unless you are inheriting your family’s farm and contract, the door is closed to you.

Here at Sidehill Farm, we have been insulated from many of these changes. We sell our milk to ourselves, and pay ourselves a decent, living wage for that milk. Our farm here in Hawley produces all of the milk that is sold as raw milk in our farm shop, and the bulk of the milk that goes to our yogurt and sour cream. That milk alone could represent a good living for a family-scale dairy farmer. And that farmer? That farmer doesn’t need to be us. It could be another family who is committed to the same quality standards and organic practices. Say, a young farm family looking to get started in dairy. Started with a solid raw milk business, and a guaranteed milk contract to Sidehill Farm Yogurt for an excellent pay price.

In this vision, a young farmer gets a chance to build equity, with the safety net of a secure milk contract. We get to buy top quality, grass-fed, organic milk. The creamery would stay right here in Hawley, on the farm, with the bulk of the milk being produced right here. Paul and I get to focus on growing the yogurt business so our team of employees, and now farmers, gets paid well and fairly, and we have guaranteed access to the quality of milk that we are accustomed to. The farm shop continues under the management of the new farmer, so raw milk, beef, and pork will still be available. And maybe with fresh energy, some new products, as well.

But the other piece? Dairy farming is way of life that requires commitments and sacrifices every day of the week, possibly every hour of the day. It is not a job. And it is most definitely not a neat fit with a business requiring regular hours, production schedules, and delivery deadlines. We have brought Sidehill Farm much farther than we ever expected by pretending that reality did not apply to us – that we really could do both pieces well, without running ourselves into the ground. But you know what? It’s not true. Our mission is to support the health of our community on all its myriad levels. If dairy farmers are considering suicide, and young farmers are being shut out - that is a part of our community that needs tending to. We have a tool to help address that. Our responsibility is to the bigger picture, not to our dream of being dairy farmers.

So while we cannot deny that the process of releasing the dream is wistful, we are really excited about the possibilities! In our vision for this partnership, cows still live satisfying lives acting like cows, the soil biology here in Hawley continues to improve and gain fertility, dairy farmers make a living milking cows, yogurt makers make yogurt and provide for their families, and loyal customers buy fantastic organic grass-fed yogurt made at Sidehill Farm. And maybe we all get a vacation. That sounds pretty exciting to us.

And if you know a committed young dairy farmer who is looking for a farm, please pass this on:

Amy and Paul

If you want more information about the reasons that dairy is (yet again) in crisis, please read this excellent article:

Cold Wet May, Barn Full of Hay

"Cold Wet May, Barn Full of Hay."

I’ve heard this said at least a hundred times in the eleven years that we have been dairy farming - sometimes from our experienced farming elders, but more often from younger people repeating what they’ve heard from those experienced elders. The phrase has that weighty ring of an oft-proven fact - a guiding principle you can always depend on year in, year out. I always assumed that it was a good thing - that cool temperatures and adequate moisture in May created perfect grass-growing conditions, and by the first week of June you’d be happily mowing extremely high quality hay. And that phrase is always offered up as an encouragement - the weather might be miserable right now, but at least you’ll have a Barn Full of Hay! What dairy farmer doesn’t want a Barn Full of Hay?

But now it’s June 6th, and we have a fire burning in the woodstove. It’s 38 degrees and raining, and has been for the bulk of the last two weeks. We had 2” of snow on Mother’s Day, and an inch of dime-sized hail 7 days ago.  I have pulled my long underwear back out of storage so many times now that they now have a special place of honor in the closet where I can grab them on short notice. It is no longer just a cold, wet May, it’s a cold, wet June. 

As far as I know, our experienced farming elders do not have a catchy phrase for "Cold wet June…”  At this point, it might be “Cold wet June, wearing longjohns in summer makes you crazy as a loon.” Paul suggested “Cold wet June, plan that vacation soon.” Georgie and Dickens, the barn cats, say “Cold wet June, we are grumpy because our feet are wet and the mice are hiding and so we are going to express our frustration by embalming the farm shop freezers with muddy footprints.” But we all know that cats can’t rhyme, so you weren’t expecting anything very clever from them anyway. 

Now that it is in fact a cold, wet June, I have a new understanding of the traditional phrase. I will explain - but first, some key background about grass-fed dairy cows. Modern dairy cows, who we have bred to produce more milk than is needed to raise one calf, require a very specific balance of protein and energy (carbohydrate) in their diets in order to produce that extra milk. If that balance is off, the function of their rumen - the largest of their four stomachs, and the one where most of the conversion from food to useable nutrition happens - is compromised. Unhappy rumen = unhappy cow, and most likely, unhealthy cow. Most dairy cows, who are fed either corn silage or grain as the bulk of their diet, are easy to balance - add soy for protein, and a bunch of corn silage for energy; mix and feed. But grass-fed cows need to have that balance happen all in the grass. Protein is not that difficult - early spring grass and clovers, while in their first burst of growth, can produce such high protein levels that if they are not properly balanced with energy, the cows can essentially go on the Atkins diet (yes really!), and start losing weight rapidly. In cows it is called ketosis and it can be fatal. So a grass based dairy farmer’s focus is on producing the right level of energy to balance that protein. That’s the hard part - and a big reason why dairies went to feeding mostly grain and corn silage in the first place. High energy hay needs to be harvested early, while it is still in a fast-growing vegetative state - grasses before they start forming seedheads, and legumes (clovers) before they start flowering. In addition, once a grass plant starts to produce a stem and seedhead, the hay begins to lignify (that is - become more like wood - like lignin), and not only protein and energy levels, but the digestibility and the palatability of the hay drops significantly. Which means the cow doesn’t like to eat it as well. Which means she eats less. Which means she makes less milk. But it is not just earliness. On top of that, the hay must be grown on extremely fertile soil, so the plants are producing and storing excess sugars through photosynthesis - enough sugar for themselves, and additional sugar to trade with other beings in the soil biome for nutrients they can’t produce themselves. It also must be harvested so the plant can do the maximum amount of photosynthesizing and storing sugars on harvest day before it is cut, and wilted quickly, so it doesn’t use up those sugars trying to stay alive before it gets to the correct dryness. 

So what is the drawback to harvesting hay early? You got it - You Get Less than a Barn Full of Hay. Cutting hay in late June might not get you good milk-cow hay, but it will get you LOTS of hay. So when you see folks out harvesting hay in late June or July, you know they are likely selling hay for horses, or for beef animals and heifers, who are only growing, and not both growing themselves, but growing a calf, and making milk. It’s quantity over quality. It’s the difference of a literal Barn Full of Hay. Which from this damp and chilly perspective, that no longer seems like a good thing. Unfortunately, the most truthful catchy phrase might be "Cold wet June, better arrange for some good quality purchased hay soon.”

This past weekend, we managed to squeak out a little bit of haymaking - around 50 round bales, - but three quarters of our fields still need to be cut. It seems like an awful lot to finish by June 15th - which is 9 days from now. But maybe, just maybe, it will turn 75 degrees and sunny this weekend. We’ll miraculously produce the whole 200 round bales we need from this first cutting. And though we’ll be out past dark baling and wrapping, baling and wrapping, it will be under the clear sky of a warm starry night, with the last of the peepers singing to keep us awake. And we’ll have a Barn Partially Filled with fantastic quality Hay. Which is exactly what we want. Keep your fingers crossed for us. 

The Name Game

Because a cow must give birth to a calf in order to give milk, every year that you milk 40 cows, you end up with 40 calves. That’s a lot. Some dairies keep track of their calves with numbered ear tags - a practical, if somewhat soulless system. “Hey! Number 7703! Stop chewing on that!”, or “Yup, that ol’ Number 946, boy, she’s my favorite cow.” Tough to really build an emotional connection. Now, I want you to understand, we don’t want to build too strong of an emotional connection - they are cows after all, and they are capable of pooping down the back of your neck. But when you work with them every day, you really want to be able to call them something other that #2649, if only because when they do poop down your neck, hollering out a number is not very cathartic. So we are committed to giving our cows real, if occasionally ridiculous, names.

When our first calves arrived in spring of 2006, we named all the heifer calves with names beginning with the same letter. Our first year we had Sylvie, Selina, Sophie, Simone, Sabine, Segolene, Six, and Sept. The following year was “T” - Therese, Thea, Tatienne, Tomme, and Thalie. Year three - Udaberri, Uma, Umika, Ukelele, Unagi. This seemed like a brilliant system, until Paul realized that he was standing out in the pasture yelling “Hey! Cut it out! You! - Sylvie! - uh, I mean, Selina! er, Sophie, Simone - WHOEVER YOU ARE CUT IT OUT! And then, whoever it actually was, not hearing her specific name, would continue to do whatever infuriating and probably destructive thing she was already doing. Not effective. 

Since it was apparent that our brains could not handle the same-letter system, Take 2 involved a switch to themes. In this system, the calf is named after the theme that the mother’s name represents. Brownie is the mother to Chocolate Chip. Each calf, when she grows up and has her own calves, then starts a slight variation on the theme that is her very own. Here’s an example: Flossie was the matriarch of the Dental Products family. Her first daughter was Toothpick. (Are you following this?) Toothpick’s daughter was Toothfairy. Toothfairy’s first calf was Peter Pan. This system has worked nearly flawlessly for us - we can easily identify which family line any cow comes from, and with only a little thought, quickly remember who her mother is. It doesn’t work so well for figuring out what year the cow was born, but that’s what computer records are for.

Here’s another example. Nina, who we discussed recently as a new nurse cow, has a daughter named Pinta. Her next heifer calf will probably be named Santa Maria. (OK purists, yes, her name should be Niña, but really, cows just don’t care about tildes and stuff like that…) Pinta’s first calf, born just a few weeks ago, is Ysabel, for Queen Isabella of Castile. (OK purists, how about that Old Spanish “Y”? Feeling cool and geeky about that one…)

Sometimes the naming is easy: Cream Puff is the daughter of Crumpet, who is the daughter of Tea (pronounced Taya, but just work with us on this one.) Candy is the mother of Salted Caramel and Kit-kat. Applesauce and Pippin both come from Appleskin. But sometimes the naming is more challenging, and then you start to see the contorted depths of our brains. Really, the truth of the matter is having a bunch of English and literature majors turned dairy farmers hanging around the calf pen is just plain dangerous. Take Sophie, who was named for Sophonisba Breckinridge, a social scientist, educator, welfare activist in the late 1800s. When Paul first heard her name, he heard it as Sophanciba Breckenridge, and as Robert Frost noted, that has made all the difference. Sophie’s first calf was Sophalena Sophanciba, known now as Lena. Lena is gigantic and not very bright. Her second calf was Sophanciba Sophalena, known as Ciba. Ciba is tiny, and maybe would benefit from a smaller pool of ideas. Definitely an activist and social reformer. Lena's calves are The Mona Lena and Deena. Ciba’s calf is Zebra. No, we have not yet looked into getting help for this problem.

And of course, we have had a few spin-outs. Mandolin gave birth to Lyra, who in turn gave birth to Eurydice. But that didn’t stick, and she’s now known as Badger, for no reason that any of us can fathom. Pesa, who is really The Principesa Maria, is the mother to calves bearing names of matriarchs of Paul’s Italian family. (Maria is Paul’s grandmother) However, when Pesa’s third calf was born, she was such an outstanding nurser and quick learner that someone started calling her Champ, and the name went official. But of course, this set the stage for further derivations from protocol, and now Champ has two lines of calf names in her offspring - the Champ-as-a-shortened-version-of-Champignon line - exemplified by Chanterelle; and the Champ-as-Champion line, headed up by this year’s prodigy Serena Williams. Who ironically, is extremely white.

All in all, this system has worked remarkably well. We get to say names like Annette Butterworth and Giant Baby on a daily basis. We exercise brain cells that have been slowly going dormant since college. We gleefully entertain ourselves by naming bull calves Root Canal and Bass-O-Matic. And in the process, we exorcise the temptation to name children and dogs names we know we will come to regret. It’s all good. But if anyone has an idea of where we should go when Herfie finally has a heifer calf, we’d love to hear about it.

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.