Each season is marked by its own disposition and distinctiveness. From the quiet, introvert Winter to the hustling, harvester Fall, their individual personalities are the character and complexion of our farming calendar. What we do and how we do it are intimately interwoven into the unique provisions and challenges of every season. The acorn drop of autumn signals finishing time for feeder pigs, the cool of winter beckons new litters of kits from the rabbits, and egg baskets overfloweth as spring days grow longer.
In contrast to its milder counterparts, summer tends to be heavy-handed in the administration of its decrees. As the sweltering sun asserts its dominion over these summer days, the animals and plants become increasingly dependent upon our constant attentiveness to their most basic needs. For example, when winter springs are flowing and rain is falling, water supply for the pastured animals is not an issue. However, on triple-digit days of summer, water trough checks every eight hours can mean the difference between life and death for some species.
If I had to choose one word to epitomize the experience of Northern California summers on the farm, it would be “survival.” That may sound melodramatic, but if our summers have proven to be anything, it’s unforgiving. With heat waves, lightning strikes, and wildfires, foxtails, parasites, and rattlesnakes, farming through our summers requires more intense levels of vigilance, perseverance, and stubborn determination—at times, just putting our heads down and grinding through ‘til fall.
If I had to choose one word to epitomize the experience of Northern California summers on the farm, it would be “survival.”
It doesn’t match the calendar perfectly, but in my mind, the summer farming season is three months: June, July, and August. Though we still have a few warm weeks in September, by that time the days are noticeably shorter and our gaze is fully upon the bounties of autumn ahead. In addition to keeping the animals healthy and comfortable, each month we have a pretty clear focus upon what we need to accomplish.
Several important junctures throughout the rest of the year, such as Thanksgiving turkey harvest and lambing season, hinge upon proper timing and preparation over the summer.
Early in the morning we sneak out to the pasture where a five hundred pound animal lies flat on her side, amidst layers of fresh straw two feet deep. She is calm, her chest rhythmically rising with each satisfied respiration. She’s more comfortable than she’s been in weeks, the reasons for which soon nosing their ways from beneath the hay. They emerge with a start and grunt, then scurry around to pile around mama’s neck for safety.
A happy sow with her piglets—there’s nothing like it. Days before she farrows, a good sow will build a nest. Given a quiet, secluded area, she will root and move straw with her mouth until she’s satisfied with her surroundings. It takes about four bales to create a nest of sufficient depth to safely house burrowing piglets.
Once the piglets are born, she will lie laterally in one place for hours on end while they nurse their fill and build their strength. Sometimes it’s a whole day after farrowing that she will first get up and change positions. This prolonged stationary state allows the piglets time to fill their bellies and acquire their characteristic speediness, helping to ensure they can effectively move out of the way of the sow to avoid being crushed.
Once the piglets are born, the sow will lie laterally in one place for hours on end while they nurse their fill and build their strength.
When the sow does start to become active again, mainly back and forth between her feed and her nest, she will give special grunts as warnings to her piglets that alert them she’s about to get up or lie down. It’s both a beautiful and slightly nerve wracking sight to behold. When she returns to her deep bedding, she will root with her face into the straw, mumbling all the while to piglets, who will obediently shoot out of her way as she begins her descent into the straw bedding. First crawling with her forelimbs, then slowly lowering her hind end, she finally inches her massive body onto its side once more to allow the piglets to nurse.
This will be our final litter of piglets until fall, as farrowing in the extreme temperatures of mid-summer can put a lot of stress on a sow. Pigs in born in early June will be ready for harvest mid-winter. Those born in the early fall will be finishing the following spring. A sow’s gestation is approximately three months, three weeks, and three days, so for September-October piglets, we breed a few of our sows in June. Artificial insemination (surprisingly simple with pigs) affords us several boars to choose from, while saving us the hassle of housing a boar on our property.
Throughout these sweltering months, the pigs seek reprieve in their wallows. If they find the depth or temperature of their muddy water insufficient, their powerful snout will soon upturn their water trough to refresh the pool. Running water of any kind is welcomed by hogs in the heat. Refilling their troughs might as well be a formal invitation for them to pay us a visit, slurp right out of the end of the hose, and goof around in the cold water before heading back to their mud.
On especially broiling afternoons, a sprinkler in the pigs’ paddock will provide a constant source of cool water. Unable to sweat, pigs are inefficient when it comes to cooling their fat-covered bodies. Thus, the evaporative cooling provided by water and mud wallows is crucial as the mercury rises.
Late June is when the laying hens usually make their yearly migration from our hill property down to lush, irrigated pasture a few miles away. With only about two of fifty acres irrigated here, green forages dry up quickly once it gets hot.
At night, the flock perches inside their mobile egg unit, the “Cluck Wagon.” It’s essentially an old trailer that Tim converted into a chicken coop, complete with ventilated sides, a slatted floor, perches, and nesting boxes. Once they are tucked in for the night, the door is shut to keep them in.
Early the following morning, the Cluck Wagon is hitched up to the truck and off we go down the road, looking like the Beverly Hillbillies.
With a chorus of coos and clucks, the chickens fly through the door and immediately get to scratching and pecking through the tall grass.
We drive them out into acres of beautiful cattle pasture, where they will act as the ever-grateful cleaning crew for the land, with outstanding eggs as a brilliant by-product. Solarpowered electric netting is used to make a paddock around their mobile coop, moved to a fresh location about every two weeks.
The delight of first turning the chickens out onto the verdant field never gets old. With a chorus of coos and clucks, they fly through the door and immediately get to scratching and pecking through the tall grass.
From now until early fall, we will drive to this location to tend the laying flock every evening: delivering feed and fresh water, ensuring they have enough shade, and collecting eggs. Our children are especially fond of this daily ritual, as this neighboring farm belongs to their cousins and very best friends. So tending the chickens is less of a chore, and more of a party in the field, especially when they are irrigating and there are water fights to be had.
A handful of rogue laying hens (i.e., those that refuse to stay with the rest of the flock) will stay on the farmstead all summer, cleaning up after the other animals and perhaps hatching a few chicks of their own. When a hen becomes “broody,” she will sit on a nest until she hatches chicks. While not necessary for them to do, we always love having a few broody hens on nests. When the chicks hatch, the true meaning of “mother hen” is played out in all its glory as she shepherds her little brood around the farm, ever watchful and protective.
While most creatures are motivated to find refuge from the swelter, not so are baby birds. Needing ambient temperatures circa 95 degrees, these little thermophiles relish the heat during their first weeks of life.
Round about the Fourth of July, we receive approximately 150 day-old turkey poults in the mail. A phone call from the post office lets us know they’ve arrived, and we rush to town to pick up chirping boxes of tiny Broad Breasted White turkeys. Once home, each bird is removed from the box, introduced to water by dipping their beaks into it, and settled into the warmth of the brooder.
A phone call from the post office lets us know they’ve arrived, and we rush to town to pick up chirping boxes of tiny Broad Breasted White turkeys.
From now until six weeks of age, they are a highmaintenance bunch. Several times a day we monitor brooder temperatures, check that water is available, assure they are consuming feed and grit, and generally assess the well-being of the birds. Poults require surprising amounts of protein in their diet, so we supplement their feed ration with hard boiled eggs daily. For months prior I have been boiling, freezing, and stashing away batches of extra chicken eggs in preparation for growing turkeys. So each evening, I take eggs out of the freezer to thaw for the next day’s feedings.
After six weeks, the turkeys are large enough to start their outdoor journey through the woods. Beginning in a special area in the creek bottom where we’ve been able to irrigate, they move into a grassy paddock surrounded by electric poultry netting, which keeps them in and the predators out.
A special shelter on skids, aptly named the “Turkoboggan,” will travel with them from paddock to paddock as they move and forage through the trees until late November.
In August, it seems most of our time is spent keeping everyone cool—or at least as cool as possible. Keeping troughs topped off with fresh water is a must, and we’re often out checking them several times a day. New shade cloths will be put up for animals with less tree cover, and sprinklers may be used a little more often to ensure the pigs don’t get overheated. The garden and fruit trees need more water, for which the ducks and dogs are most happy as they cool their heels in the short-lived puddles.
Last year, timing was just perfect and a broody hen took to the young guinea fowl we were raising. She quite literally took them under her wings and raised them into adolescence.
The rabbits are of special concern during these dog days of summer. The does are on hiatus through the warmer months, not required to do a darn thing but eat, drink, and relax.
They prefer cool, moisture-packed greens from the garden over their regular fare. We house the rabbits in our most shaded areas, not allowing them to be in the direct sun. Shade cloths, misters, frozen water bottles, and cool dirt in which to dig, with the help of a lovely little breeze that comes up our back hill, all contribute to their comfort through this season.
With few projects needing attention this month, we’ll sometimes use the opportunity to brood a new flock of guinea fowl. Though their noise is a constant, we love them for their persistent patrolling, which helps to keep rattlesnakes pushed to the perimeter of the property and out of the farmyard. Furthermore, ticks are a delicacy for them, which helps to keep the nasty pests off the animals (and humans!).
Last year, timing was just perfect and a broody hen took to the young guinea fowl we were raising. She quite literally took them under her wings and raised them into adolescence. It was a wonder that dazzled me daily, and I hope to see it happen again this year.
And so, A Sense of Place ushers us through our final season together, dear reader. How I’ve savored your company through the harvests of autumn, repose of winter, revival of spring, and survival of summer here on the farmstead! My deepest gratitude for your following along through the prose and photos across these pages. It’s been a blessing and delight for me and, I hope, a pleasure for you as well.
This is the last in a series of four articles in which Amanda Bork tells readers about each season on Brush Arbor Farmstead, in Cottonwood, California. The Bork family’s farm practice relies on regenerative agriculture, which involves constant rotations of the animals to encourage health and productivity of both soil and animals. The family sells the meats and eggs they raise in a Farmshare program, through which, their Facebook page attests, they “cultivate a community of like-minded eaters.” To find out more, visit the Facebook page or email Amanda@brusharborfarmstead.com.
The Bork family’s farm practice relies on regenerative agriculture, which involves constant rotations of the animals to encourage health and productivity of both soil and animals. Meats and eggs grown by the family are seasonally available for purchase. For more information, follow them on Instagram and Facebook, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. And see Amanda’s blog habitofhusbandry.com for more stories of husbandry and the farmstead.