Changes for 2017

One year ago we purchased and moved to our little farm.  I remember feeling very unsure that day of what lie ahead for us, but we both clung to faith that this was where we were being led.  Looking back over the past months, I can attest that only good was in store for us, even amongst the hard work and bumps we’ve experienced along the way.  Our ideas of needs and wants have been challenged, humbled and sifted.  True priorities and simple blessings have emerged.  We changed and grew right along with this farm and we look forward to another exciting year.

Rabbits

Raising rabbits for meat was something we started when we were on a city lot in a neighborhood that restricted all livestock.  We were determined to begin taking control of our own food production so we began a small garden and brought home a pair of rabbits.  When we moved to the farm, we were suddenly able to raise traditional livestock so we no longer had a need for rabbits. wp_20160712_14_07_07_pro

Our bunnies were the cutest thing on the farm and we enjoyed them thoroughly, but when the time came to butcher them, nobody wanted to mess with it.  We had our schedule full with projects and chores involving other animals so we made the decision to sell the rabbits and no longer raise them on our farm.  We were thankful for the extra time this created for us to focus on other livestock.  I still highly recommend raising meat rabbits to someone wanting to gain control over their food on a city lot.

Honeybees

This year we plan to add honeybees to our farm.  This will be a whole new world for us, one we’ll navigate as we go.  We’d like to begin with two hives, which must be ordered this month, and set up sometime in spring.  We would like to raise our bees as naturally as possible.  While we do have some crops within our future bees’ expected flight range, we are also blessed to have an abundance of natural areas.  In the spring we see numerous wild crab apples blooming throughout the countryside and all summer long we enjoy the ever-changing color display of wildflowers scattered around the farm. This is in addition to our own garden and fruit trees.wp_20160504_14_41_51_pro

Our hope is this will give the bees plenty of natural, pesticide-free sources of nectar.  With the health of bee colonies declining and the rise of systemic pesticides (pesticides that are engineered to exist inside seeds and the resulting plant cells), we want to ensure our bees will be safe and the honey we ultimately feed to our family be free of harmful chemicals.

A New Calf

This past summer we brought our Dexter heifer, Pearl, to a farm to spend a couple of months with a proven, purebred Dexter bull.  Getting her loaded into the trailer was one of the most stressful things we have done on our farm so far.  We tried luring her in with hay with no luck. She was very skeptical of that trailer and wouldn’t be led astray by her belly.  We ended up having to muscle her big body in, despite her best resistance.  I thought somebody was going to get a hoof to the face or possibly trampled.  Thankfully, nobody was hurt and she was transported safely to the farm for her “summer vacation.”pearl

She’s back at home now – safe, sound, and assumedly “with calf.”  Come June, we should have a newborn calf on our farm.  If all goes well, it’s sure to be a highlight of our year.

Farmhouse Projects

We have a few farmhouse projects slated for this year, but I’m very excited about one in particular.  We plan to convert our useless, unwelcoming, uninsulated side porch into a well-insulated, functional winter storage pantry.  This will be in lieu of our previous idea of digging a root cellar.  It was so frustrating bringing in the harvest last year and working to preserve our produce only to realize we had nowhere to put it.  The side porch will be gutted and rebuilt with lots of insulation to ensure the temperature stays above freezing, with shelving to hold all my canning equipment and those priceless jars filled with garden goodness. wp_20170105_14_02_57_pro

Underneath the shelves, on the floor, will be built-in bins to contain produce like potatoes, pumpkins, squash and apples. wp_20170105_14_03_25_pro

The winter pantry will be such a great use of the currently dysfunctional and messy space. I plan to put in a frosted glass pantry door that I can open and close to help control the temperature of the pantry, if needed.  There won’t be any windows as the produce keeps best in the dark.  Because this room is located right off the kitchen, it will be much more convenient and accessible, not to mention more affordable, than a new root cellar.  As the shelves and bins empty over the winter, I will have temporary space to house the piles of summer produce as well, keeping my kitchen island clear and retaining its original intended function.

The Poultry Flock

We’ll be making some changes to our poultry flock this year.wp_20170105_14_07_41_pro

We’ll be thinning our flock a bit to reduce our hen population, keeping the most efficient layers.  We’ve also been discussing trading in our heritage breed ducks for the larger, meatier Pekin ducks.

Pekin ducks are ready to butcher at about 8 weeks of age, meaning we won’t keep a year-round duck flock for eggs.  The main reason for this change is because how dirty the ducks make the pond water.  The chickens and turkeys use the pond for their drinking water so we’d like the pond to be clean.  With ducks, it’s very tiring to keep clean what they insist on dirtying.  What’s more, without the ducks, we could purchase a pond filter to clean the water for us, eliminating the task of bucketing it out on a weekly basis.  Pond filters don’t work with ducks because they will clog it up and cause it to break down.  Focusing on the Pekin ducks will allow us to still enjoy ducks on our farm for a couple months (before we send them off to freezer camp!) without having the year-long issue of filthy water and a labor-intensive pond.

We’ve learned a lot during our first year on the farm.  Through trial and error, we’re discovering what we enjoy, what works with our current set-up, how we can increase the functionality of our homestead and what’s simply a drain on our time.  I expect nothing less for year two.

Thank you for reading our updates and following along through our first year on the farm.  We enjoy recording our experiences and feel so blessed by those who’ve taken the time to tell us they are enjoying our story.  Whatever is happening on the farm is made that much more enjoyable for us by being able to share it with you.

Becca

Beef and Lamb

A few weeks ago, we reached a milestone on our farm that I’d like to share: we harvested our first beef and lambs.wp_20160723_20_15_58_pro

Ryan butchered our two ram lambs on the farm, along with help from his dad. This was his first time slaughtering and butchering anything larger than a chicken, and he was grateful for the help, as the task felt overwhelming. The lambs met a quick, painless end with a bullet to the head, then were bled out via a cut to the neck. They were then gutted, skinned, and allowed to age for two days while hanging in the cold garage, before being cut up and wrapped in freezer paper.

Our steer was taken to a local meat shop for processing. Ryan unloaded him at the butcher shop, and two weeks later we picked up hundreds of pounds of meat. Our Dexter steer hanging weight was 350 pounds. We got over a hundred pounds of ground beef, and the remainder in steaks, roasts and stew meat.

Meat is neither a fast food, nor a cheap, easy meal. (If the meat you are buying is cheap and easy, beware the hidden costs!) It has taken a year of planning, preparation, financial investment and lots of hard work to get us to this point. We’ve learned a wealth of skills and information along the way. We set out to see if we could produce not just healthy, but tasty and tender, red meat on our farm using pasture and hay alone, without the addition of grain. We were rewarded with satisfying, wholesome, delicious and healthy food.wp_20160723_20_15_50_pro

The belief is prevalent that meat must be finished on grain for “marbling” or adding fat into the meat to produce a tender, juicy product. After our experience, we can confidently say this is not always true. You can raise beef and lamb on grass alone, without sacrifice during the dining experience. I feel we experienced success because of two key factors.

1.  We purchased livestock well-suited for a pasture-based farm. I feel we would be disappointed with our meat had we tried to bring in a breed of animal that has been developed around the grain industry. Many of the modern cattle and sheep breeds reach an astonishing amount of production compared to breeds of old, due to selective breeding on a grain program with health interventions. Had we stocked our farm with these, expecting success on a grass-fed, minimal intervention program, we likely would not have experienced such positive results. Upon examining the carcasses of our lambs, we noticed a very reassuring amount of fat which tells us they were getting plenty of nutrition on pasture grasses alone. Our lambs were born on our farm, stayed with their mamas their whole life (we never forced weaning) and never fed grain. I’ve prepared lamb tenderloin, lamb stew and lamb roast. It is mild and tender, and the kids cheer when it’s on the dinner menu.

We decided to purchase Dexter cattle for our farm, due to their reputation for thriving on pasture alone, and producing tender, flavorful meat without grain.  We watched our steer grow big and meaty on our pasture and he remained in good health for the entire time he was at our farm. While we did not get to see the carcass of our steer (in the future that is something we’d like to ensure) after tasting some steaks and ground beef, we can see the meat is well-marbled, tender and flavorful, and easily the best beef we’ve tasted, grass-fed or otherwise! wp_20160723_20_15_55_pro

2.  We graze our animals in a high-density pasture rotation. This means our animals are not spread out. They graze together in a group, and only have access to the amount of pasture they can eat in a day, sometimes two. This forces the animals to not pick and choose too much. The choice leaves and blades of grass get eaten along with the weeds. The animals get moved to a fresh, clean, rested piece of pasture daily (or every other day) where the plants are healthy, strong and optimal for consumption having been allowed time to grow back from the last grazing. This keeps the animal eating nutrient-rich, leafy plants all throughout the growing season, adding fat to the animal and producing a tender product, which mimics the movement of herds and flocks in nature. Because we move the animals so often, over time, the pasture should improve. The manure fertilizes the soil and is evenly distributed over the entire pasture instead of being concentrated in the animals’ favorite hangouts. The animals do not obliterate the good plants while allowing the weeds to grow uncontrollably and spread seeds (another good reason to mix species, as they each have their own flavor palates and will graze the pasture more evenly). As the pasture improves, we can stock a higher number of animals in each paddock, increasing our production and efficiency.  wp_20160723_20_15_08_pro

The best thing about raising your own meat or buying it from someone you know who is producing it as carefully as possible, is not having to wonder how healthy the dinner actually is when placed on the table. We don’t have to worry about the kids ingesting chemicals or traces of drugs, whether the animal was fed GMOs and what effects that may have on our health, or even whether the animal was healthy, treated well, or lived in misery. This is why we don’t feel guilty or sad about butchering our animals. We enjoy observing the animals run, kick and play or when they come over to us for a scratch on the head. We know we are giving them a healthy, stress-free and happy life, full of green grass and fresh air, along with a humane, quick end. They are taking part in improving the soil and plants on a small piece of earth and garden, as well as allowing us independence from the conventional food system and the fossil fuels it necessitates. We feel confident we are being good stewards of creation while enjoying the nourishing and healthy food that our family worked and prayed for together.

Becca

Grazing with Electronet Fencing

Yesterday was the big day. We finally released our grazing animals out on green grass to…well, graze. They’ve been stuck in a small barnyard eating hay since we purchased them in January. We’ve been waiting four months to see this, not to mention the years we’ve been dreaming of this day. It was a beautiful sight.WP_20160427_07_56_18_Pro

We modified our previous fencing plan. We decided we would not fix up the current, permanent electric fencing around the perimeter of our front pasture as it would be a waste of time and money. We will be repurposing some of the posts and the wire for other fencing projects we have on our to-do list, including a new winter barnyard area. Our grazing animals will be rotated across our whole 10 acre property with just the moveable electronet fencing. We purchased four 164-foot fence rolls. We’ll use two fences at one time to create an 82’ x 82’ paddock.  When we are ready to move the animals into their next paddock, we’ll set up the second set of fences and transfer the animals in through an opening between the two. After a couple transfers, the animals will be well-trained and eagerly waiting for their new green buffet to be served each day. Our fencing arrived yesterday and we were anxious to get outside after dinner to set it up.WP_20160426_19_00_34_Pro
First, the rolls of fencing need to be laid around the perimeter of the chosen area to graze.WP_20160426_19_17_46_Pro

Next, the fence posts need to be stepped into the ground and corners need to be secured to strong support posts that also push into the ground.WP_20160426_19_14_28_Pro
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Once the fence is up, it gets connected to the portable solar-powered energizer. WP_20160427_07_59_36_Pro The energizer will run on a battery during the night and cloudy days. There is also a plug-in to charge the battery if it gets low.
We also purchased a voltage detector to be able to test our fence and make sure it is working properly. Ryan went around and tested several spots in our fence and all were kicking out 4,000 volts.

The final step, add the animals. WP_20160426_19_51_19_Pro
Our animals were so excited to be on fresh, green grass. They immediately began grazing. After a few minutes satisfying their craving for new spring shoots, the friskiness set in. WP_20160426_19_54_18_ProThe lambs leapt. The cows kicked up their back hooves. The farmers looked on in satisfaction and contentment. There is something so peaceful about watching animals happily graze on green grass.

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(Side note) You can see in this picture how our hair sheep are shedding their winter coat.  It falls off in clumps, revealing a shorter, thinner coat.  It will stay this way all summer.

With the electronet, anything is pasture. The current paddock the animals are grazing is my future vegetable garden. The animals will mow it down, fertilize it, then we’ll till it and plant our seeds (a project we hope to complete very soon). This evening we’ll move the animals onto a new fresh piece of pasture. This is high maintenance management, to be sure. However, it is ideal for grass-fed animals and the soil. It mimics wild, grazing herds in nature. They never stay stationary. They eat, poop and move on. Under these conditions, the soil, plants and animals thrive.
The shock from the electronet provides enough pain to deter predators and keep our animals safely in the fence. We watched for a few minutes as the animals began testing their new boundary. I think the cows were the first to learn respect for the fence. They would unsuspectingly nose the fence and ZAP! They would jump back. Not surprisingly, our steer needed to repeatedly learn this painful lesson. He ran to a few different areas of the fence, cautiously inching his nose forward until ZAP! You can actually hear the voltage transferring to the animal. After a few times testing the fence, all the animals learned to mind it. We read reviews from users online that attest to the fence’s ability to keep out coyotes, stray dogs and anything else that may threaten the safety of our animals.

We feel so excited and relieved to finally have our fencing plan and infrastructure up and running. The animals are happy, too. WP_20160427_07_56_20_Pro

Warmly,

Becca

The Steer and the To-Do List

 

Saturday morning we freed Bucky from his stall. He was able to explore the barnyard and formally meet Pearl.

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Bucky and Pearl seem pleased to have each other!  They stick pretty close together now and where you find one, you’ll find the other.  Everyone needs someone who gets them, right?  After about 15 minutes of just the two bovines in the barnyard, we released the sheep.  Bucky’s horse stall was right next to the sheep so he had all week to become desensitized to them.  That didn’t stop him from chasing them back and forth across the barnyard!  I think our poor sheep are wondering why in the world we keep adding cattle to their flock!

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Let me say here, I love my sweet Pearl.  She is quiet, gentle, friendly and adorable.  I have worked with that heifer every day since we got her.  I give her alfalfa pellets from my hand every morning so she associates my presence with a reward, then I brush her and reach down to feel her udder.  It took about a week for me to be able to do this without her reacting in any way.  She now tolerates this just fine and never backs away from me.  This is all pre-training for when she calves and I can milk her.  I want her as used to the milking process as possible before we’re actually learning to milk!

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However, I’m not crazy about the steer.  He’ll grab alfalfa from my hand but if I reach out to touch him, he starts tossing his head into the air.  I’m not sure he wants to get too friendly.  He is also pushing our sheep away from the hay feeder when he’s eating.  Ryan may need to build yet another hay feeder so if the steer is hogging one, the sheep can go to the other.  Adding another project to the to-do list is so discouraging when we have many other things we need to accomplish.  I’m hoping Bucky just needs more time to transition.  He seems a little quieter now that he’s in the barnyard with Pearl but I still hear him bellow every now and then.  As of yet I’m not too bummed that our steer is only a temporary fixture on the farm.

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The above-mentioned to-do list didn’t receive a satisfactory dent this weekend, either.  One of my goals was to halter train Pearl.  Fail!  Dexters don’t fit standard cattle halters so after researching a bit online we ordered two halters in different sizes.  We lured Pearl into a horse stall with very rich alfalfa hay (I’m pretty sure it’s the equivalent of ice cream for grazing animals 🙂 ) and tried them on her while she happily munched her treat.  Neither fit!  So now we need to buy another halter!  We got a recommendation from the family we bought Pearl from for a good-fitting Dexter halter so we’ll go with that.  They are very knowledgeable and have been extremely helpful to us!  My goal is to finally tackle the halter training within the next couple weeks.  This will make it easier to get them from one place to another and we can even stake them out in the yard to graze around the house this summer!  Who needs a lawn mower when you have Dexters?

Here’s hoping we get a bit more accomplished this upcoming weekend!  Ryan has been working hard on a farm project that the rabbits are pretty excited about!  I hope he can share what he’s been doing soon!

Warmly,

Becca

I Got a Steer for Valentine’s Day

On Valentine’s Day while most couples were heading out to dinner or exchanging gifts, we were loading up our trailer to pick up a Dexter beef steer. And I was happy about it!  I guess we celebrate love a little differently now that we’re on the farm. 🙂

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The kids named the steer Bucky.  Bucky is a purebred Dexter and will turn one year old in April. Dexters can be black like Bucky, red like Pearl, or dun which is a dusty brown color.  We’ll graze him with our “flerd” until close to the end of the year.  I think Pearl will be happy to have a fellow bovine in the flerd, although she has patiently worked her way into that flock of sheep!  They seem to have fully accepted her!  She’ll push her head against the ram’s head, reach out and lick a sheep’s ear and walk freely around in the flock without raising any concern among the sheep.  Animals are so adaptable!

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“I sooo blend with this flock!”

 

I hope Bucky transitions well to our farm. He gets to spend a week at the Horse Stall Inn before joining the flerd.  He is loud! I hope he’s just a little stressed out or lonely right now and once he settles down and gets comfortable he won’t be so vocal.  He’ll bellow and Pearl will stick her head through the barn door and answer him.

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“MOOOOOO!”

 

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“Keep it down, bro!  You’re scaring the sheep.”

 

He wouldn’t eat alfalfa from my hand this morning so I threw it over to him and left his stall. He began eating it when I left.  The second time I went in his stall he ended up stretching his neck out to sniff me.  Progress!  This evening Ryan got him to take some alfalfa from his hand.  They learn quickly to associate your presence with a treat!  Although we don’t need a strong relationship with him like we do with Pearl as our future family milk cow, we still want him to be friendly and approachable.

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The next task we need to accomplish with our Dexters is halter breaking. We hope to begin this week!  Should be a learning experience for all! 🙂

I hope you all enjoyed a happy Valentine’s Day! ❤

Warmly,

Becca

Grazing our cow and sheep together

On conventional farms today, you rarely see animals being kept together in the same fence and most large operations only have one species of animal altogether!  Someone either raises beef, or lamb, or chicken or pork.  Since large, crowded monocultures in agriculture have become standard in this country, many people wonder if you can even intermix species anymore!  Is it safe?  Will they get sick?  Will they get along?

We question conventional methods, read from successful agriculture pioneers, then experiment on our farm.  We’ve decided it’s healthier for the animals and pasture to graze them together, not to mention it’s just plain easier for us! 🙂

When we picked Pearl up we were advised to keep her in a secure stall for about a week to prevent her from trying to break out.  Animals can make a valiant effort in getting away when brought to a new location.  In fact, the family we got Pearl from told us how they lost a herd of Dexters went they broke through 5 strands of electric fencing upon unloading them at their farm!  Oh, I can’t imagine the blow to the farm or wallet!  We gratefully heeded their words of caution.  Pearl spent her first week on our farm in the barn in a secure horse stall.

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Mmmm…fresh air!

 

On Saturday it was time to let her out into our fenced barnyard area.  She was so happy to be out!  She was running, kicking and jumping!  The whole week in her stall she had typically been very still and calm, so we were surprised to see her act so frisky in the barnyard!  Although she is small for a cow, and just a calf at that, when there is a 400-500 pound beast coming your way, you MOVE!  We had wandered out into the barnyard with her to see how she’d like her newfound freedom and within minutes we were ducking back inside the barn for safety!  More experienced farm folk would probably have been anticipating her reaction! 😉

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Can we come out now?

She was in no way being aggressive or trying to scare us!  She was stretching her legs, getting some needed exercise, and celebrating her freedom!

 

After she had her fill of running and kicking we allowed our flock of sheep into the barnyard.  We weren’t sure what was going to happen and this time we knew enough to stay out of the way!  Pearl was not afraid of the sheep at all.  She was very curious and it looked as though she was glad for the company.  The sheep, on the other hand, were comfortable with the current status of their flock and felt no need to welcome a newcomer.

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Hey Sheep!  Wanna play?

They kept fleeing from Pearl and she’d respond by slowly trotting after them.  The sheep would back themselves into a corner and watch in fear as Pearl slowly inched her way towards them.

 

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Help!  A strange cow wants to be our friend!

 

She kept trying to approach them and as soon as the sheep considered her too close for comfort they’d make a mad dash to the other side of the barnyard again!  We decided to leave them be and allow them to work it out.  Like most things, time and patience were needed.  The sheep eventually became less fearful and Pearl was able to touch noses with a few of the sheep.  Towards the end of the day, Ryan built another hay feeder from a pallet and put it in the lean-to in our barnyard.

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This hay is good, eh?

And look at that!  The cow and sheep were able to put their differences aside and bond over a meal!  How civilized!

 

The temperature dropped Sunday night so we wanted to put the sheep back in the barn to make sure the lambs would be warm enough overnight, but we left Pearl outside.  She was not happy to see her flock go!  She kept going to the barn door and mooing for them.

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I miss my sheep peeps!

Don’t feel bad though!  Every morning I walk to the barn and release the sheep into the barnyard and they get a whole new day to socialize!

 

Warmly,

Becca

 

Destination: Pearl

The farm activities began before dawn Friday morning.  We woke the sleepy kids from their warm beds and informed them the moment had finally come!  It was time for our road trip to get Pearl.WP_20160129_16_18_29_Pro

With the suburban stocked with grain-free pumpkin muffins, coffee and water we rolled out of the driveway at 7:30am and met another farm couple (they also happen to have a large family and homeschool!) in Grand Forks, ND around 1pm.  We backed our trailers together to transfer Pearl safely from their trailer into ours.  Oh my, isn’t she cute?  She’s 6 months old which gives us plenty of time to work with her before we need to take on the tasks of selecting a bull, calving, and learning to milk.

After the 4.5 hour drive we figured the kids needed play time.  We spent a couple hours at the fitness center pool in Grand Forks to let them burn off excess energy before heading back home.

I couldn’t wait to get Pearl home safe and sound.  Even though I knew it was highly unlikely, all the time we were swimming I was nervous Pearl may somehow break out of the trailer and my sweet cow would be wandering the busy streets of Grand Forks!  I was happy to get back to the vehicle and find her mooing and eating hay in her trailer.  WP_20160129_16_18_52_Pro

We finally returned home after 10pm.  What a day!  9 hours in the suburban with 6 kids, getting our first cow ever, keeping track of everyone at the pool…needless to say we were exhausted!  It was a long, crazy, busy day but we accomplished our mission.  We now have our family cow and we adore her.

We went back and forth on what cow would be the best for our small farm.  At first I was insistent on a Jersey.  (Those big doe eyes!  Lots of milk!)  However the more we researched, the more we discovered the Jersey probably was not the right choice for our farm.  Most dairy breeds, like the Jersey, have been selectively bred to produce a large quantity of milk, usually on a grain diet.  And you know what?  Feeding grain to cows and overproduction of milk not only encourages mastitis and other health problems but is expensive, neither of which we want to deal with.

Ryan had heard of the Dexter breed of cattle and together we began to research.  The Dexter is a hardy, old fashioned, small breed of cattle that thrives on pasture alone and reputed to produce exceptional meat and milk.  This means they are easy-keepers for small farms and not so intimidating in size.  Pearl is actually 3/4 Dexter, 1/8 Jersey, and 1/8 Belted Galloway, which is where she gets her adorable white belt.  I’m hopeful this will be a nice mix!

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Pearl should top out at 3 gallons a day of rich milk, plenty for our family as well as her future calf, and all on free grass and sunshine.  What more could you ask a cow for?

Warmly,

Becca