By Heather Retberg
This week passed again in a soggy mist. When the skies cleared periodically, we worked at spring things. Phil and Carolyn and Ben worked at training the piglets to electric fence. We raise them in the woods as it’s just the best place for them to root and revel and run and croodle and do all things expressing their full pigness. But… first, comes the sometimes difficult task of fence training. When they come to us, they are little and sweet and aww-shucks piggledy cute. They are not yet at all cognizant of any kind of boundary. Up until last year, we had a fairly reliable pig training method. We stayed close. We observed. We fetched them out when they hit the fence. We made sure they didn’t get tangled. We made sure they went backward and not forward. They learned to avoid the fence and we knew they’d be safe and sound in the woods.
But, last year, there were long hours of pig chases in the woods. Long, tense hours. So, this year, extra precautions were taken–visible, physical barriers were added to the offset electrical one inside a smallish training paddock. The day to train them came when the sun shone again. I was out of commission for the day, so the brave three headed to the woods, fairly confident, hopeful leastwise, that the new and improved system would return us to our happier pig training days of yore. At day’s end, the pigs would be trained and we could work on getting the barned and cooped up animals turned out. Phhht. Carolyn returned from the training session exclaiming that these piglets are just crazy. Phil concurred–they ran kamikaze style right into the electric fence, two squeezed through the hog panel (so named presumably because it’s effective at fencing pigs!) and out into the woods. Thankfully, they wanted to return to the safe and sound hut-home Phil set up for them with some herding help from the pig crew trio. But, with rain coming, the crazed pigs would have to be trained on a different day. There were fences to tighten up, water lines to run and check for leaks. This week, the cows would be turned out, never mind the pigs just yet. For now, they could cozy up in their piglet hut until another day.
Two days of mostly dry skies gave Phil time to mend fences and water lines in anticipation of Friday turnout day. Running water that won’t freeze in hoses and lines means we’re not dragging hoses and buckets to animals. Ahhh. Cows on pasture means so much less shoveling. Cows out of the barn means winter is finally over. Release. Relief. Contentment for farmers and cows for the growing season to come. This part of the work week went smoothly and come Friday, the dairy mavens were released from barn and dry hay to green pastures in the fresh, albeit moist, air again. Winter’s not really over ’til turnout day. When the cows go back out onto pasture, a little corner of the heart goes galloping along with them. Udders swingin’, heels kicking up, heads rubbing the good green earth again, the cows just let go of all the weight of long winter. They kick it up, they thrash it out, they test each other again. Our settled dairy queens act crazed and spring-feverish for a few short moments, but once a year.
Then, there was the duck. The determined duck. Last year, she had a habit, a way of getting up into the hayloft without, naturally, climbing all those stairs. There’s a good deal of loose hay in the loft at any given time and it makes a very desirable, quiet, out of the way, nesting spot for any fowl so inclined. IF said fowl can get up there. Last year, one duck would stand on the partially built shed beam at just the right distance of rise over run, well, rise over fly, to work her way up to flying through an open window. However, you might remember that Phil has done a substantial amount of work on the barn since last fall. Her old launch pad has been enclosed into a bonafide shed closing off her access to that window opening. Mid-week, I came out for morning tending to find her perched on the deck railing, looking longingly at the new hay loft opening. The rise looked too steep to me, but I was curious to know what she’d do. I went about my usual rounds. Next time I passed by, she had given up the deck railing approach and moved to perch on the upturned garden cart in the new shed that gave her access to the old windows. Only that was really a steep rise. I couldn’t imagine she could quite get into flight in that short, steep space. But, I was curious to know what she’d do. Next time I passed by, she’d moved over against the wall in the new shed up onto two hay bales stacked on top of one another that were, more or less, where the old beam had been. The rise looked about right from there. How she made me smile. From there, I could guess just what she’d do. Next time I passed by, she must’ve done it, because she wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Oh, such duck-ed determination! I haven’t yet checked, but I’d bet a few dollars that she’s found herself a nesting spot up in the hayloft again.
Whether piglets, cows, or the good old duck, these critters are teaching all sorts of lessons at the Quill’s End Farm School this week. I know I’m taking them forward into the next season. Hope you can as well.
Heather and Phil Retberg together with their three children run Quill’s End Farm, a 105-acre property in Penobscot that they bought in 2004. They use rotational grazing on their fifteen open acres and are renovating thirty more acres from woods to pasture to increase grazing for their pigs, grass-fed cattle, lambs, laying hens, and goats. Heather is Master of Halcyon Grange #345 and writes a newsletter for their farm’s buying clubs for farmers in her area and has generously given us permission to share some of her columns with Grangers throughout the state.
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