Old (Farm) Wives’ Tales


We are down to only three hens at the moment, thanks to foxes or coyotes exacting their yearly tribute, but we are still getting two eggs every day. One of the two recently was a small, yolkless egg. “Old wives” told me when I was a child that such an egg signals the end of a hen’s laying season until she molts and starts up again. But since that yolkless little egg, we have continued to  get two normal-size ones every day. One might argue, in defense of old wives’ tales, that the third hen started laying the minute she noticed that one of others had laid a small egg. But if something that outlandish could be true then, according to another old wives’ tale, that first egg she laid should have had a little dried blood smeared on the shell which was not the case.

There’s another mystery involved. I asked my sister, the one closest to me in age, if she had heard about this last egg-first egg morsel of folklore and she said no. How could she not have heard what I heard since we grew up together. Perhaps her memory is dimming quicker than mine, although I would not dare say that in her presence. So I ask all of you: have you heard this folklore? Did I just dream it up?

Another quaint belief from the past is the notion that  you should not graze your sheep on red clover because it will cause pregnancy problems. I grazed my ewes on red clover for years, sometimes on fields that were almost entirely red clover. No problems. I notice that Ulf Kintzel, who writes very knowledgably  about sheep in Farming magazine, agrees with me. So where does this notion come from?

When I worked for the Soil Conservation Service I was taught that  good forest farming meant not allowing wild grapevines to grow up the trees. And so I instructed others. Grapevines climbing up the tree trunks would kill trees or ruin them for high value timber. When I first became a tree farmer, I assiduously cut off grapevines that were clinging to my trees too. Eventually I grew older and lazier and the grapevines grew faster and faster, and it occurred to me one day to wonder exceedingly. If grapevines hurt trees, how did so many hundreds of thousands of trees reach good timber status in wild grape country before the coming of the white man? Surely the Indians didn’t spend their time cutting grape vines in the trackless forest, especially without sharp steel axes. So one day I asked my timber buyer who has been in the business since 1955: do grapevines  really cause enough harm to merit all that work? He gave me a kind of sneaky little grin, like he knew he was about to say something heretical  and replied: “I don’t think so.”  Then recently, I read an article by a nature writer, Scott Shalaway in Farm and Dairy who headlined his essay with this title: “Grapevines are aggressive but are not deadly” and went on to give his experiences.  He was roundly scolded by a Forest Service worker in the next issue for such heresy, but now at least I am not afraid to disagree with orthodoxy.  And I will always remember visiting a farmer in Pennsylvania years ago who had a tame Concord grape vine growing up one of his yard trees. The vine was loaded with fruit and the tree was as healthy as any.

My favorite old wives tale comes, again, from childhood. There had been a destructive hailstorm on the other side of the county. An elderly neighbor  was visiting, talking to Dad about it. “Course, we don’t have to worry about that,” he said at the end of the discussion. “The Injuns hereabouts allus told how hail never fell bad between two rivers, like where we are.” He never cracked even the smallest grin and you can bet I was paying very close attention. As a child, my equivalent of television entertainment was listening to old farmers’ tales. And you might understand why, many years later, I wrote my doctoral dissertation in cultural history (which, like so much else in my contrary life, was never approved) on the folklore of my home county.

Here’s the fun part. Not to tempt fate, but in 80 years we have never had a really destructive hail storm right here in our neighborhood, more or less sandwiched between Tymochtee Creek and the Sandusky River.




Gene –
I’m an old wife. Sure hope you didn’t bring that cock egg in the house!! 🙂


I always thought that clover was only a problem in the spring when it is too wet after the winter eating hay, but that would go for spring grass too, but maybe more so with it being so rich in comparison.

Red clover is more for older ladies I thought, if the phytooestrogens were a problem then they wouldn’t put soya in feedstuffs designed for animals which may breed, as that contains them too. I think it will only be a problem when the hormones are naturally low, in which case the phytooestrogens may well pose a problem because they will replace the more potent natural oestrogens in the body of the animal. For the older ladies, they provide a top up of an oestrogen like substance that may help with menopause and that kind of thing, when their levels have got very low. In short it is all about the balance of hormones 🙂

Bodies of water do tend to alter weather patterns, so maybe the “Injuns” were right? Where we live there is no water, but the mountains mess up our weather plenty.

It’s all a grand story, isn’t it? Great fun, Gene!

Yep the story has been oft repeated not to put breeding ewes in Red Clover because of phytoestrogens. I don’t know if I would recognize a phytoestrogen if I saw one but my sheep ate red clover as fast as they could get it down and still had more lambs than I needed at the time. I sure can’t figure why Red Clover would be any more of a problem that other legumes, but that’s the story. Hmm…

I’ve also heard and read in herbalist circles that Red Clover is :”good for female problems”. Is there some contradiction here? I’ve note experienced female problems yet so I haven’t tested this theory . Sainfoin is a great forage legume, which, so the stories say, doesn’t contribute to bloat in ruminants, and it has red blossoms too. I wonder if Sainfoin has phytoestrogens? No one using it as forage to my knowledge has complained about breeding problems with animals grazing it.

In regard to climbing grapes: as a young fellow my folks had a Concord grape vine which readily climbed up an Italian prune tree, which both saved us the trouble of installing a vineyard trellis and made the grapes easy to pick. We harvested plenty of prunes as well which resulted in canned prunes with canned milk being one of my favorite dishes to this day. My wine grape vines I care for today happily climb lilacs, fruit trees or anything else that gets in their way, so I’m careful not to fall asleep in my chair while resting from pruning in the vineyard lest I be compassed about with grape tendrils.

But lest we be too hard on the old wives, remember that scientists and engineers, those “edicated folks” , are probably just as guilty of repeating tales with doubtful origins in reality.

Thinking back on the previous post; the allegedly scientifically sound tale I keep hearing or reading repeatedly is that “bluegrass isn’t a very productive forage in summer heat”, But my goats are doing well on irrigated Bluegrass with some clover in it and it is rotationally grazed pretty short too. A few days ago the temperature ranged from 85 to 110 Degrees Fahrenheit and while we struggled to keep everything irrigated, the Bluegrass kept growing, even the patch I planted this Spring. It is rather nice to gaze out upon the closely cropped lawn-pasture which I have yet to mow this spring and summer. The geese, goats and ducks and chickens keep it well-mowed and fertilized while building up soil fertility on this forage that isn’t supposed to produce much during summer heat.. Sure, other forages may produce more (theoretically,) but I doubt it would be as evenly cropped, because other forages can be tough and relatively unpalatable compared to Bluegrass with clover. Maybe we should inject another phrase into the English language such as “that’s an old engineers’ and scientists’ tale.” Meanwhile, I’ll keep enjoying those goat medallion loin steaks , which the old scientists tale indicates are not supposed to happen on Bluegrass forage.
Thank you for your insight Gene and remember without old wives probably none of us would be here.

So if I pasture my hens in red clover between two watercourses wrapped in grapevines they will lay eggs the size of hail? (That will earn me a dope slap from my not so old wife)

It never ceases to amaze me how nonsensical many of these bits of “wisdom” really are. Heck, I’d definitively would look a gift horse in the mouth since I am the one that will be putting the vet’s kids through college, otherwise. Pinch of salt over the shoulder. The township could a bundle scooping up behind me. Egg color related to ear color? No correlation to my birds. On and on they go like a rural version of the famous urban legends/

And I also would enjoy the dissertation on the folklore of your county.

Well, I am honored you are reading my articles in Farming Magazine. To answer your (perhaps rhetorical) question where does it come from that we are told not to graze red clover with sheep if we want to avoid infertility: There were some trials conducted down under way back then and somehow extension specialists and professors kept quoting these trials and then then they started quoting each other. At least that is my theory since there hasn’t been a good field trial in the US conducted on this that they can quote from and yet they had to fill some pages with some writing. Which makes it an old men’s tale, does it not?

Or the facts concerning fears of “Frankenfoods”?


You have surely jinxed yourself now! With that said our “facts” seem to change over time.
Like the government recommendation of planting Multi-flora Rose, and then in my younger days Autumn Olive. Now they are invasive species.
Or how about the standard recommendation of killing the grubs in your lawn to control moles. I recommended that for years. Now trapping is the only effective way they say because moles eat more worms than grubs!

I could go on but the fact is that our “facts” seem to change. Especially when it comes to biological systems….which brings me to my last point…in 50 years I wonder what will be the facts concerning “safe” GMO crops.

Gene: Maybe the dissertation was not accepted, but you should publish it online. I, for one, would enjoy reading it.

I’ve never heard the wives tale about the first and last eggs, but I sure am glad to hear that the grapevines aren’t really such a problem. We’ve had a lot of rain here this year, and it would take 20 bucket trucks and 100 workers to get them all down!

Many times I went outside in the winter with wet hair, simply to prove to my father colds are from viruses. Also, though as a boy in Ohio I handled many toads, I have yet to develop wart one. Contrarians also enjoy debunking myths and old wives’ tales, for the sheer plesure of it.

We grazed sheep, cows, and goats on red clover without problems, until the year that we had a drought. Pregnant animals showed strong heats, and open ones didn’t breed. My vet said that drought-stressed red clover had very high levels of phytoestrogens. That was the only year that we ever had problems.

I hear it from my mom every year..tells me I should cull that hen because she laid a fairy/witch egg. Now, mom being 67, always offers to take a stewing hen over the broilers I grow every year. I think she just like the stewing hens better but won’t admit it!!! She just smiles at me.

As for red clover (please remember I live in East Central Iowa “the western heart of big crop ag”), I seeded white dutch and red clover in my pastures. You think I was taxman taking profit from my big row crop neighbors. What a commotion. Funny story is most of the neighbors are generational farmers and when their parents stop by they compliment me on my pastures and speak of old times. Too funny!!!

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