Farmer’s Progress Chapter 1 Part 2

In my last post I wandered a bit. We are, in our home, big fans of books. George Henderson’s books are so in our wheelhouse I got a little excited and ran off on a wild tangent about my nomination of Henderson’s works into our informal list of agricultural classics. A list that includes Pastured Poultry Profits, Contrary Farmer, Grassfed Cattle, Comeback Farms, Our Farm of Four Acres and Harris on the Pig…and many others. In fact, look for a post or page on this topic soon. Henderson warns the reader against farmers who don’t read (kind of funny, that) and against writers who don’t farm…especially college professors who teach agriculture and have never farmed. And don’t forget legislators who have never farmed. I’ll let him tell you.

Books are useful, they are sometimes our only contact with great minds, but make them your servants and not your masters. To many reading is a drug. This book is of no use whatever unless you put into practice something you learn from it.

An hour spent in serious reading, each night, will give you all the scientific knowledge you require and is probably as much as the human brain can carry.

Skipping ahead a bit:

How seldom do we see the college-trained man applying his knowledge! Every student is taught that liquid manure contains the most valuable plant foods, yet how many store and use it to the best advantage when they start farming? Probably not one in a hundred; yet ninety-nine out of a hundred French or German peasants make provision to return every drop to the land.

And skipping again:

Scientific knowledge has its value, but to go far in farming you must train your mind and body to be the servant of your will.

FarmersProgress

All this book learnin’ is only a portion of the work required. There is also hands-on. And travel…time for observation. I have spent at least an hour a day for at least 10 years reading a wide variety of farming books and I feel like I am only just beginning. I have only lived on this farm for a little over four years and I can tell you, I’m still at the bottom of a big hill. But we are climbing. I am on what you might consider the self-study track to farming and I can tell you it is an expensive way to learn. But we are learning. Slowly. And we are investing that in our children. If things work out, one or more will take the reins from us soon and they’ll have a running start. With land that is ready, cows that are successful on grass, SOPs, training and experimentation out of the way, they’ll just focus intently on marketing product rather than paying for school. And I’ll just clean the toilets. But right now, it’s an expensive way to go.

Henderson strongly emphasizes that farming should be learned from an efficient farmer…one who has his ducks in a row and is actively looking for help, not some guy who is kind and willing but has no idea what to do with you. Further, he strongly suggests that I, as a farming father, send my kids to other farms to learn and see how they do things. But, again, Henderson is quite precise about what kind of learning is going on.

It should be made quite clear that there is a big difference between learning to be a farm worker and learning to be a farmer. Much of your time will be spent in doing the same work, but in the first case you gain only the skill which will enable you to earn perhaps £250 a year maximum; whereas, if you are a farm student, the farmer shares his knowledge and experience…and there will be no limit to your earning capacity…

And a little later:

I said earlier, you must study the farmer. Find out to what he attributes his success, and also form your own judgement on this. Listen patiently to all he has to say, even if he often repeats himself, and most farmers do, and gather those pearls of wisdom which are handed on from generation to generation.

Listen also to the farm workers. You will find they have three main topics of conversation – beer, women and the Boss. You need not pay much attention to the first two, that is usually dull repetition, but their constant criticisms of the management will bear careful study.

I am quoting Mr. Henderson quite extensively here (maybe even beginning to talk like him (isn’t that lovely?)) and I want to be careful not to relieve you of the desire to buy the book…if you can find it. I also need to stay in the fuzzy bounds of fair use as I quote from his book. There is so much in the passages above that is applicable outside of farming I have to talk about it. My dad sometimes asks me how someone can learn to do what I do for a living. How does somebody get into my real profession…my day job? For those who haven’t met me, I’m sort of a programmer…except I’m not. I can write in modern programming languages and have an elementary understanding of OOP principles but that’s not what I do. Well-written applications are a good thing…and God bless. Success breeds success and at some point, that success becomes a big mess. My job is to bring order to chaos. I act as a kind of steward over data collected by applications making sure it is secure, recoverable and easy to look through. It sounds easy enough but it is sort of like solving abstract puzzles all day with no right answers…and no answer sheet…and no instructor…and you have to use ink. For clarity, if you think I can fix your computer you are mistaken. Julie likes to say that I work on computers the way the UPS guy works on a truck. So, please don’t invite me to a social event then corner me with tech questions.

“Merry Christmas, Grandma!”

“Merry Christmas, Christopher” (kiss) “Can you take a look at my computer. It has been acting up.”

“…well…I was kind of hoping to visit with family tonight…”

“Oh, it will just take you a minute. Here’s a cookie.”

True story. I’m not a tech guy, I just play one on TV. If the anecdote below looks too long to bother with, know that I have been in front of a computer every day for 30 years (before the Google, before the age of AOL, beyond the birth of Microsoft Windows…since the days of the 5 1/4 floppy disk.) and have studied them in detail…with a very specific focus.

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Click Image for Source

Click Image for Source

Dad’s question is, “How did I learn to do this?” Well, dad, you bought a Commodore 64 when I was 8. Then you bought a 386 and I took a typing class. Then my sister married a computer genius who did some of the most amazing hacks I have ever seen…and did them 20 years ago (before Google). Then I started taking computers apart, upgrading memory, crashing Mack OS 8 (Windows blue-screened, Mac bombed), building PCs for friends, modifying PC boot menus to preserve upper memory (when memory was still $100/MB) and building networks so friends and I could all play Doom together. Having always been around them, constantly breaking and fixing things, I was very comfortable with the machines…that got me my first job. Networking experience and long hours of study got me my first Microsoft certification in the late ’90′s and launched me to a much better job.

Hard work, dedication, long hours and evenings spent studying and working on extra, side projects not only got me the next job (in the current career) but actually made me pretty good at it. Beyond the hard work I have two experienced mentors who were very patient teachers and to this day tolerate and encourage me (Thanks Mike and Devi!). And I still have to spend spare time reading blogs and books, attending training, teaching training, talking to other professionals and listening to podcasts to stay afloat in my field. In short, it took me 30 years to learn how to do my job…and because tech is always changing the value of my knowledge is always eroding away. Look at the pattern above. There is all kinds of hands-on experience in my youth but that wasn’t enough. So I started reading everything I could put my hands on related to my career path. Then I sought out experienced mentors, kept reading and kept doing…inside and outside of my real job. Paid or not. I kept my head in the game. The thing I did was the thing I did. Compare that to my time as a fast food employee. I was there to get paid. When I was off-duty I wasn’t trying to get better at my job. I was skating with my friends.

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That is exactly what Mr. Henderson is talking about. Farmhands are farmhands because they only apply themselves when they are paid to. Farmers own farms because they continue working outside of hours. Bill Bonner talked about this quite a bit in his book Family Fortunes. The fortune founder needs to put in 12 hour days so he or she will have 6 years of experience for every 4 years worked. I work full-time in tech, learn everything I can during the day and during the drive then work full-time on the farm 4-5 hours every day (total of morning and evening work time) and 10-12 hour days on the weekends. And on my vacation time I do consulting work related to my primary vocation. And that, apparently, is how one gets ahead in life. It’s not luck. (Not that we are particularly ahead right now…)

But before I break my arm patting myself on the back for my years of hard work and dedication, I should read more of Mr. Henderson. That man was an animal. Short of the fact that I have nearly 17 consecutive years of marriage to the same woman and four awesome children, he puts me to shame. Not only could he work me under the table, he was thoughtful and efficient about it.

There is no virtue in getting up early unless you make good use of the time it puts at your disposal. How often you hear a farmer say that it is no use his getting up early because his men do not start until seven o’clock. One presumes he has to stop at 5 p.m. for the same reason. Yet is is before and after normal working hours that a farmer can often make the best use of his time; if it is only filling up tractors so that his men go out to work as soon as they arrive. If all the book-keeping, planning and organizing is done, then you can give your whole mind to the work in hand and enjoy a happy day on the land.

And later (hang on to your hat)

On the subject of sleep, it is well to remember that it is the quality and not the quantity that matters.

In some of the happiest years of my life I went to bed at 10 p.m. and got up at 3:30 a.m., seven days a week. Others may manage on less, but I found a tendency to lose weight if I cut my sleep down too far when working sixteen hours a day. One of the great secrets of success in farming is to train yourself to work long hours, with a high output, and without physical strain.

I don’t know if I’m there with Mr. Henderson. In fact, this is further evidence of the gulf between us. I appreciate – even treasure – time spent sleeping. A nap on a Sunday afternoon. The alarm clock set for 5:11 so I can have that satisfied feeling of sleeping late…even though I’m usually looking at the alarm clock at 5:04. But you can’t take over the world if you’re asleep. You also can’t take over the world if you are eating junk food…it takes a lot of energy to stay active all day.

And I find life is less satisfying when Julie is not right beside me…so I have to make time for her. And for the kids. So unlike Mr. Henderson, I include my family in my to-do list. Just the 6 of us…and the dog. We need time to chill. No books. No manure. No feed sacks, firewood or fence. No phone, no email, no text messages. Family takes work too. Long hours of reading aloud, playing board games, putting on puppet shows, teaching guitar, throwing the sport ball and just goofing around. That investment pays off later and with unpredictable results. With all of that going on I’m spread a little thin. Sometimes I wear through at the edges. I can’t imagine how Mr. Henderson did it – and wrote a book about it – but I hope you are enjoying reading him with me. He covered a lot of ground in one chapter.

Let me know your thoughts in comments. Have you found a copy of this book yet?

Rite of Passage

Nine and a half? Here are the keys.

Driving

May seem crazy to give a kid control of a 3/4 ton go-kart but that’s how it works out here. Everybody needs to be trained from a young age to act responsibly and pitch in where needed. Sometimes an extra driver is just what the doctor ordered. He can’t pick up a bale of hay but he can learn to navigate the hay field so I can do a little less walking.

He thought it was a pretty big deal.

We did too.

Just stay in the barnyard. You can’t go on the road for 7 more years.

Farmer’s Progress Chapter 1, Part 1

If you are just here for pretty pictures of cows, cats and pigs I’m afraid this isn’t the post for you. Well, maybe just one for clicks.

Tubby

On the other hand, if you are here to learn something cool, and if you haven’t yet, go to Amazon and order yourself a copy or three of The Farming Ladder. (Go ahead. Click the link. I live in The People’s Republic of Illinois so Amazon won’t pay me for linking to them.) Odds are you’ll have a tough time finding a copy of the second book Henderson wrote, Farmer’s Progress. It is out of print and isn’t currently available anywhere unless you find a copy used somewhere (I currently see one for $63 and one for $80). I paid through the nose for my copy…and it was well worth it. I would like to share a little of it with you.

Our country suffers sadly, and in many ways, from its amateur farmers, men who may have brought capital, but nothing else, into the industry. A whole mass of agricultural legislation could have been avoided by a simple Act requiring that a prospective tenant or occupier of an agricultural holding should bring proof that he had served his time, in service or apprenticeship, under an experienced and capable farmer. We take it that no man may hold command of a vessel carrying goods to and from our shores without a master’s ticket, which cannot be acquired in less than twelve years’ service at sea. Why, then, do we let loose any ex-hairdresser or haberdasher, who may have money to burn, on our priceless heritage, the soil? But take heart from this, there is an opportunity in every difficulty. They are often the people to follow in farming. One shrewd farmer, born on the farm where I now live, had one golden rule, ‘Always take over a farm from a gentleman farmer, always give up a farm to a gentleman farmer.’ He had twenty-two farms in his time, started with practically nothing and left over £40,000 in a time when that was a lot of money. You can often get in very cheaply when an amateur farmer is anxious to get out. You can sell out very well when the hobby farmer is keen to get in. It is such tips as this, scattered throughout the book, which give such excellent value for the modest sum my philanthropically-minded publishers charge for it!

I’m not in favor of ongoing licensing from government agencies but he kind of makes a point. Then backs it up. Then goes on full attack against me personally from his vantage point 65 years ago. I have worked for and with a number of farmers but I’m a city kid and most of what I think I know I learned from reading books. Worse, I have a city job to support my farming hobby. (To be fair, Mr. Henderson repeatedly says a farmer should take advantage of every opportunity to make a little money. He wrote articles for travel magazines while on vacation. So maybe he wouldn’t be against me subsidizing my farm with off-farm income…in the early stages anyway.) If you saw this year’s taxes you would know that our farm is a losing venture…and we’re losing badly…primarily because we are making large infrastructure investments. How much more leisure time would I have if we had just stayed in the suburbs?

But we weren’t happy there. And, though we work hard (and stay skinny), we are happy. The kids can run and explore and learn. 60 acres of playground. Houses, barns, livestock. Reproduction. Birth. Life. Death. Finance. Budgeting. Planning. No holds barred. No questions off-limits.

But it’s more than just our freedom. There’s a longing that is satisfied here. Even when we feel somewhat shackled down it feels….right. The work is rewarding and sometimes even fun. Like I’m doing my part to make the world a better place. I’ll let Mr. Henderson take the microphone for a minute (emphasis mine):

…for throughout his life a farmer is always having to forgo his personal pleasures for the sake of his farm. If you are well suited to the life you will seldom miss them; for the enjoyment of living comes from having a purpose in life, and amusements and so-called pleasure are merely the means by which many people escape for a few hours from the fact that they have no aim or purpose in life. It is true that some farmers play golf, hunt and shoot, but it is very seldom done by men who have made their own way in the industry. They are too happy and absorved in their work – they live to farm, while the others farm to live.

But even in farming you need not make a martyr of yourself. Work is sometimes to be enjoyed; and all around you are the wonders of nature, ready to make the world a perpetual source of interest and delight.

Chew on that.

He goes on to say that you, as a productive farmer, will notice things, learn things and invent things and will teach them and share them with others. You know, like with a blog.

This is a fascinating and life-changing book! I have said that before about other books. In fact, I say that quite frequently. And I’m not alone:

Some years ago Julie, Dad and I read Les Miserables. I was forever changed. Julius Caesar? Forever changed. The Virginian? Forever changed. In some cases I fought and clawed my way through books but most of the time I just read as fast as I could turn the pages. I would hate to guess how many books I have read in the last 10 years. But I would point to one that made them all more meaningful. One with a strange title: How to Read a Book. Adler showed us the difference between reading for entertainment, reading for information and reading for enlightenment and worked with other professors to put together a collection (The Great Books of the Western World) with the following criteria:

  • a book must be relevant to contemporary issues, and not only important in its historical context
  • it must reward rereading
  • and it must be a part of “the great conversation about the great ideas”

Though Adler may find the subject matter unimportant, the Farming Ladder and Farmer’s Progress are both worthy of the kind of study required by Adler…to really grok the author, to understand him…to wrestle with his ideas. They are certainly relevant to modern agriculture, they are certainly worth rereading. And if food isn’t a great idea, I don’t know what is.

George Henderson has written a couple of real agricultural classics. I hope to discuss Farmer’s Progress as George and I wrestle it out. So far in Chapter 1 George has taken me to task. My real regret is that I didn’t read them sooner. Do yourself a favor. Go find copies of each and read them now. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200…er £200.

I’ll continue with chapter one in my next post. Mr. Henderson takes on agricultural colleges and it isn’t pretty.

Spring Grazing…Ugh.

…not yet. …not yet.  Just a little longer…..

Ugh. I can’t wait a little longer. I’m out of stockpile! There is still hay in the barn but we don’t want to feed it all. And the cows clearly prefer grazing over waiting for me to bring them feed. So here we are. Grazing field edges that haven’t been grazed in …possibly decades. The cows eat grass, alfalfa and thistle. Why is there thistle? Because they sprayed the groudn with roundup for years to keep the fence clear. The earth doesn’t want to be naked…something has to grow. So thistle grows. The cows stomp and manure ground that hasn’t been directly manured and they only get a couple of hours to do it. We bunch them tightly and move them quickly. This kind of treatment will knock back the thistle better than anything else I can do. (BTW, see Mrs. White with her head up looking at the camera? Her head is not in the game.)

AlfalfaEdge1The field edge lasted two days. The first day we fed hay in the morning, gave them a grassy area to graze then sped them along the field edge. Toward the end of the day we asked them to camp out at the other end of the field where mature, stale grass rules.

AlfalfaEdge2

They munch through the brown grass to find green grass beneath. They trample it all in, knock down brambles and manure everywhere. They even found a really nice antler in the tall grass I would never have found. Then, the next day, we let them have the other half of the field edge they missed the day before. Again, they went onto it full, we kept them bunched tightly and we moved quickly. Alfalfa in the spring can be risky…actually, the transition to green forage is a little tricky but bloat is the biggest concern.

But now what? I have enough of this wooded patch to last until Wednesday evening. Then I have to do something else with my moos. The pasture isn’t ready to be grazed. Well, some portions are but in general, not so much.

EastPastureMost of the grass is just inches tall. We are in a warm rainy cycle. It shouldn’t take long for the grass to really come on and right now a week really makes a big difference. I just need to delay grazing for a little while and when we go to pasture we will be offering big grazing areas and moving the cows quickly. I mean, we’ll offer the 10 cows an acre/day (and probably break that into 4 sections) so they can pick and choose the best grazing and I’ll probably continue to offer them a little hay while we continue the transition and wait for the grass to catch up. We are planning to race across the farm in about a month as shown below (numbers of days per segment, segments will be subdivided), after that we’ll slow down and use smaller and smaller grazing areas, dropping some out for stockpiling. Matron talks about this in a post on her blog.

SpringGrazingPlan

There are, apparently, several important things for me to do right now. First, I don’t want to eat tomorrow’s grass today. If I remove too much of the leafy area I weaken the emerging grass right now when it is fragile. That can potentially set the plant back, limiting its growth for the entire season.

Second, I need to get my cows fat. They are coming out of winter a little on the thin side. They aren’t skinny but they aren’t in the condition I want for calving. I have 30 days before calving starts. Again, I really don’t know anything about cows (sorry if that’s a shock) but as I read in any number of grazing books (Walt Davis comes to mind first), the most important thing I can do to help my cows breed back is to make sure they have a good layer of fat (stored energy) on them at calving time. The good news is their metabolism is set for winter maintenance, not spring gain…so we’ll get compensatory gain from them if we give them access to enough forage and variety until their bodies adjust. Same thing happens when you diet, btw. You go “off feed” for a while, your body adjusts, then you “reward” yourself at a family gathering and suddenly your skinny jeans just don’t fit anymore. You taught your body to become more efficient at storing energy. Well, that’s what we’re doing with the cows. They have been on a diet all winter and they have worked hard and behaved themselves. Soon they get a treat. All the grass they can eat!

I just need to delay a little while longer. There are areas on the map above that are not accounted for. I need to take advantage of those areas. I can get a day in the yard at the yellow house with the help of a little hay. I can get a day in the barnlot. That gets me to Friday night…two extra days of 60 degree plus weather. Will it work? I dunno. I do my best. I read everything I can. I make a plan. I go out and try. I tell you all about it…good or bad. Wish me luck!

(In this post I linked heavily to Matron of Husbandry’s blog. Whatever books and blogs I have read or seminars I have attended, Matron has done the most to remove the fog (for instance, this post). A few postings, a few illustrations and everything became clear. She’s a great teacher…and I bet she’s rolling her eyes right now.)

Sometimes the Bar Eats You

One of those days. Those. Days.

Something died today. Those are the hardest days. I can work straight through lunch and long after dark…no problem. Come inside, grab a bite to eat and a shower and fall asleep within seconds then bounce up to do it all again the next day.

But when something dies…well…then I don’t sleep.

I lay awake and wonder about it. Will it happen again tomorrow? Or tonight even? What can I teach the children from this?

Am I to blame? Certainly.

I should have been more attentive. But I was busy doing 10 other things, all of which were important and one thing slipped.

One chore got missed.

One routine got skipped. One job that I never do…but should ensure gets done. My oldest has his own little enterprise. Well, not anymore.

And it really is my fault. It’s not like a raccoon broke through the perimeter and went on a frenzied murderous rampage. No. This is worse.

And it really hurts.

Today I got eaten by the bar. And I’m feeling pretty low.

I have to help my son learn from this experience without letting it defeat him. He made a mistake. I made a mistake. It was a costly mistake but …well, it can happen. It does happen.

You can’t lose them if you don’t have them. We do our best. Sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes, well, sometimes the bar eats you.

Learnin’ in the Mornin’…

…learnin’ in the evening, learnin’ at supper time.

Julie is only so strong. Incredibly hot, hard-working, brilliant but not a weight lifter. Remember that line in Rocky, “Sports make you grunt and smell. Be a thinker, not a stinker.” She took that to heart.

The chicken tractors are fairly heavy and you have to use slow, controlled movements to keep from hurting a bird. I move the chicken tractors every morning before I go to work then she feeds and waters the birds and keeps them fed throughout the day. She used to try to move the tractors herself but she just isn’t strong enough. We had to learn that lesson.

BroilersThe lead tractor pasture pen is slightly downhill from the others. Any rainwater that runs downhill and into/under a chicken tractor will be clean water, not carrying a river of chicken poop. That’s a big deal if you are a chicken, sitting on the ground. We work hard to make sure our chicken tractors run on contour with the hill…that means as we pull them along they move neither up or down hill. This paints a stripe of fertility across the top of the slope all in a line - a keyline, depositing fertility to benefit the entire slope and easing our burden pulling the tractors around. We had to learn this lesson.

In years past we have been up on the flat in places that don’t drain well. April showers bring April big puddles of water. There is nothing worse than checking the birds in the morning only to find them all standing and shivering in a shallow pond…a poopy water pond. It’s bad for the birds and the mud pie they create smothers all of the forage. The chickens are here to boost the forage, not to kill it and our job is to keep both livestock and forage healthy. As of this morning we had in excess of 4″ of rain in 48 hours. It has all soaked into the pasture or run off gently. It is not standing here. That’s why we chose this spot for this time. But we had to learn this lesson.

These are things I learned by doing. Because you have read this, you won’t have to stub your toe like I did. All the doing in the world is important but so is reading. And it all has to be in balance. I wrote a post some time ago making fun of myself for thinking I had the world on a string after reading a couple of farming books. There is more to farming than you can learn in a book. At some point you will be kneeling in a manure pile in the middle of a thunderstorm trying desperately to protect your livestock from something unknown, unplanned and unexpected that nobody has ever written about. That’s when school really starts. I have some acquaintances who consider themselves to be “intellectuals”. They read “important” books. Some of them wear fake glasses so they look smarter. But when it comes down to it many of them haven’t done anything…and aren’t doing anything. But work alone doesn’t fill the void either. I have read many of the “classics” too. There has to be a balance. You can lean on the experiences of others as you grow, but you will never be a farmer until you become a farmer. I hope that makes sense.

There are good ways of doing things and there are better ways of doing things. George Henderson wrote about better ways of doing things 80 years ago in England. Even though I live 4,000 miles away in a different climate in a different century I can still glean information from his lessons. So I write to share what I have learned. I read your blogs to see what you have learned. I hope I am doing a good job. I hope my sharing enables you to do a better job. If things go as planned, my kids will take our accumulated knowledge and launch further that we even aimed. But there has to be time in your day to learn. To read. To grow. And to experience.

Not all of my reading time bears fruit. Not all of my work bears fruit. But, by keeping it in balance, I feel I am giving myself the best advantage. By sharing it with you I feel I am repaying a small portion of the debt I owe to the many who stopped to give me a little information.

What have you done today? What have you read today? Have you written about it?

Cats, Chickens, Cows and Rain. Welcome to April.

I didn’t think it would ever thaw. Winter started early in November and lasted well into March. Now the permafrost has thawed and the grass is just starting to grow again. In spite of the snowfall, we have been pretty dry for a long time so the rain is welcome…but forces us to intensify our management. The chickens have been on pasture for a few weeks and their eggs yolks show it. Just the other day a customer asked me what I had done. From one week to the next her egg yolks had changed from yellow to orange and she was pleased. It takes planning and management to bring that kind of happiness into the world.

The chickens make a big impact on the pasture in a short time. We are moving the flock every 2-3 days. Our current infrastructure makes that difficult on the hills surrounding our home but it has to be done. We are seeking to enhance the landscape with chickens, not create a moonscape. “Enhance” means they spread the cow pies, fluff the ground litter, eat bugs and add manure. A lot of manure. The picture below shows previous chicken pasture on the left and ground the chickens haven’t had access to on the right.

BeforeAfter

You can see that the chickens have eaten a fair portion of the green forage (hence the orange yolks) and they have fluffed up the litter and scratched out the cow manure. I need to be attentive to the pasture health and time their moves based on condition. I can’t simply park the chickens in one place and make an appointment for my phone to remind me to move them in a couple of days. I have to pay attention. They did this in two days here. In other places it takes three days.

The pasture move was timely as we also needed to get the chickens uphill. We are expecting several inches of rain over the next two days. The bottom here can become a temporary creek bed. Apparently a number of piglets were washed away from this very spot in a storm 50 or more years ago. Beyond saving the chickens I needed to get my fencing above the potential water line to prevent it from being tangled or damaged. Also the cows needed to be up high somewhere. They are near the highest point on the farm by the pond munching (and mostly trampling) the remaining forage stand from last summer and a little bit of the edge of the alfalfa field. The cows can eat, tromp and manure the places we can’t reach with the hay mower and exposing junk left laying (I found an ancient roll of barbed wire fencing) and weed trees I need to cut out. They also give me an excuse to manage the trees we plan to keep by cutting the lower limbs to open up grazing beneath the trees.

PondEdgeI can’t do anything without feline companionship. If I get anywhere near the white barn Zippy shows up. She can multi-task both seeking attention and looking for a tasty mouse morsel. The cows won’t really eat this grass but they will knock it down and feed it to the soil. We are still feeding a little hay out here because the forage quality is so low.

Zippy

The cows and chickens are safe on high ground and this time of year I am glad to have my pigs under a roof. The weather wouldn’t affect their health negatively but the impact of pigs on the pasture would limit forage growth this year. I have to be sensitive to pasture health right now. Pigs, cows, chickens…all can set back forage growth for the year.

The pastures around my house have been rotationally grazed by goats, chickens, pigs and cattle for the last two years. The rest of my farm has been continually grazed by cattle for…well, for decades outside of the short time dad kept a few cattle here. It appears to me that the forages we have been managing are at least two weeks ahead of the rest of the farm. Is it the presence of litter on the ground? The mix of manures? The energy stored in the root systems? The higher organic material in the soil? Is it just warmer on the 20 acres near the house? Yes…in short, is it the result of a different paradigm. Manage for forage. Looking back 11 months I should have some serious grass soon. Then we will hit the grazing accelerator. I’ll be sure to give you the play-by-play as we watch the grass grow. I just realized how lame I am. Sigh.

The End of the Stockpile

How much of your farm should you stockpile for winter? 30%? 50%?

All of it. The whole thing. Manage your grazing throughout the season so everything that is not being eaten is recovering then nibble through it all winter. Sure, I set aside portions of my farm to remain ungrazed for extended periods of time but that’s not to save forage…well, we do save forage but that’s not the point. The point is to allow those grasses to come to full maturity. To provide habitat for wildlife. To put down deep roots. To spice things up biologically in the pasture.

It is the eve of April and I’m just about out of grazing. Friday evening we walked the cows up out of the pasture and parked them in the barn for the weekend. I don’t like having my cows in the feedlot. They don’t seem to like it either. It creates a lot of work for us and I don’t feel like they get everything they need. But it gave me a chance to run some Basic H through them to see what all the fuss is about.

Sunday afternoon I built them a new grazing area east of the pond. I had to bring the mineral feeder, posts, reels and trough up from the bottom. Everything you need for grazing in a handy little kit.

PastureKit1

The east side of the pond hasn’t been grazed since ….spring of 2012? Gosh. I need more cows. It’s a mix of everything over there. The pine trees are dying from the pine borer. There is 6′ tall Johnsongrass still standing and who knows what else. Should be an adventure to graze over there.

PastureKit2

We’ll catch the edge of the alfalfa field as we go. I am a little concerned about that but our daily moves should keep things in shape. The mix of green and brown should keep the cow manure from getting too runny. A week here, an optional week at the far East side of the property and we’ll need to start racing through the pastures. It’s only 37 days until we are scheduled to begin calving and I think the dairy cows need to put on a little fat. Big spring pastures + fast moves = fat cows. Walt Davis said to make sure the cows had at least 30 days of green grass before calving to get them in shape. I’m close. I’ll have to time things a little differently next year.

The grass should really start to grow this week. I’m counting on it.

Trading Clover for Bacon

Be a net producer. Leave more than you take.

That’s really all I have to say today but I guess I should spell it out a little.

I have several options available. I could just sell everything on the farm. In some circumstances it could make sense to do that. I could sell all of the iron both from the iron piles and from the buildings themselves. I could sell the equipment I own. I could sell the livestock, the cattle mineral feeder, the fencing, the fence chargers, the hog waterer, the hog feeder, the pasture feeder for the chickens. I could tear down both houses and claim the salvage value of certain components of each. I could sell the trees either as lumber or as firewood. I could sell hay until my soil is depleted then scrape up the remaining topsoil and sell that to a housing developer. Then sell the remains of the farm to the next guy. What would be left over? Hopefully I would have covered my debt on the farm and put a little in my pockets. But then what? I have just sold my productive resources bit by bit. What would I do with my money? Go buy another productive resource to liquidate? Like a hunter stalking and consuming prey, one at a time?

How about this instead? What if I increased my cattle herd in an effort to increase forage mass and diversity? What if I planted more trees but harvested trees that are mature, sick, showing poor conformity or are just in the wrong place? What if I built brush piles to house wildlife? What if I focused, over time, on building new topsoil?

Brush

Money is nice. It really, really helps. Really. But money is just a tool. Products are purchased with production. The money is the common exchangable item between producers. For example, I don’t eat money, I eat apples…which cost money. But I am not the US Treasury so I can’t just go create my own money. Unlike the Fed, I have to do something to get money. I have to sell something I have in surplus. In my case, time. I use a portion of my time to produce healthy databases for a company. The company produces software to record information from heart monitors. Those heart monitors work to save people’s lives. So hospitals or patients give the company money in exchange for the service. And I get money from the company in exchange for my service (because I really don’t need a heart monitor). And I use the money to buy apples…and other things. I wanted apples so I helped make a heart monitor. The world is a better place because it has heart monitors it didn’t have before, along with other innumerable but often unseen benefits (I encourage you to read Bastiat to explore this idea further).

Click image for source

But heck with my city job example. I have acres and acres of grass. Grass is worthless. It grows anywhere there is rain and sunshine. Nobody wants it…or if they do, they want it to be 2″ tall with tees and greens spaced throughout. My grass grows several feet tall and it is the “wrong” kind of grass. It is essentially worthless so we have cows. We use the cows to add value to the grass. I am taking something of little to no value, adding my time to it (also of little value) and making beef. This is not a zero sum equation. It’s net production. I’m using my management ability to capture free sunlight and rain, growing grass, converting that captured solar energy into beef and using the beef by-products (footprints, saliva, manure and urine) to make the grass stand even more healthy. All while making the cows happy. It’s a win all the way around…capturing sunlight, holding and absorbing rainfall, sequestering carbon, keeping the cows fat and happy, feeding people and bringing home the bacon.

MayPasture15

I am hauling some portion of nutrients off of the farm with each egg, pig or calf that we sell. No doubt. But I more than compensate for that by the addition of organic material happening with each grazing and rest cycle and through the nutrients mined, captured, transported and released by trees and deep-rooted forages. Our farm will continue getting better as my management skills increase. As our herd numbers increase. As time passes. The end product of my labor will be left to the next generation. They will have the option of continuing to producing organic material from captured sunlight and rain. They could continue improving our farm through their productive efforts.

Or they could sell it all and go to Vegas. It’s up to them.

The Pastures to the East

Until recently I haven’t spent much time on the Eastern portion of my property. A distant cousin rented it and that was that. Well, in 5 days his cows will exit the property so my son and I took a walk, mainly to inventory the mature honey locust trees and check the condition of the fences. Some portions of the farm are pretty remote. Steep creek banks prevent access with a tractor. If something dies out there, there really is no way to retrieve it. Obviously this is unfortunate but it’s reality. The coyotes ate well for a few days. Apart from the smell, the kids were fascinated.

CalfThe lack of intensity on our farm over a number of decades has caused those steep creek banks as well as encouraging the thorny pioneer tree species. Further up hill we are seeing damage in the pastures. I can repair this quickly with hooves and rest. Hopefully fixing this will help heal the land further down hill…closing up the wound like closing a zipper.

StreamWashI would have to cross two washes like this to get back to a 9 acre corn field…which means we can’t get there. But we would like to get there to at least shred the corn stubble but it would be nice if we could run a drill across that field to plant it to pasture. I may just have to do it with cows, broadcast seed and hay. That’s probably the right way to go but the mechanical solution sounds cooler.

CornField

That corn field is surrounded by electric fence, mostly on contour. That fence is on my list of fences that will be removed. More on infrastructure another time.

All in all the pastures and field to the east don’t look too bad. The North-facing slopes are a patchwork of weeds, sparse grass and moss. The moss has to go but hooves, chicken claws and manure will take care of that. The chicken tractors are out there now. The creek is pretty badly eroded further down. I don’t have a picture to share as it was getting too dark but it isn’t pretty. Just know I can’t climb down, I have to fall and I can stand in the bottom and can’t see out. And I’m not short. I have a lot of work to do with my chainsaw but the cows should do the majority of the real work. I just need more cows. And more time. A bulldozer would be nice too. Sigh.