OK, November. How Much Grass Do You Need?

Well. It happened. November.

Shoot. Now what?

Oh, how I yearn for those warm summer days. Not the hot summer days. Not the dry summer days. The warm ones…topping out around 85 degrees. Those are nice but they are gone. Gone. They won’t return for another six months.

Six months.

Warm season grasses are gone. The clover has been killed back by frost. The soil is frozen an inch deep making it hard to move fence posts. Cool season grasses are still growing a little on warm days but the pasture won’t be ALIVE again for until May.

What am I going to do?

Well, here’s the plan. We want to continue grazing cattle for the duration. We want to keep the ground covered for the duration. That’s about it.

So here we are on November 20th. What is left to graze? Take a look at the map. I have shaded in areas that have been grazed since Oct. 1. Red shaded areas are where I grazed the alfalfa field down to the nubbins. The blue area was grazed lightly and may be grazed again. Everything else averages 18″ tall. The yellow border wraps the farm.

TheFarm

It looks like so much more area when you are on ground level. The cows are currently growing that red block at the south west corner and will finish up all of the alfalfa west of the pond by the first of December. If not sooner. I am also supplementing them with a round bale. I just unwrap and carry a layer each morning and give them a new strip of alfalfa to graze. Then we give a second strip of alfalfa around noon. Seems to do the trick.

AlfalfaGrazing

Strip grazing the alfalfa field is a little tricky. First I have to be concerned with my cattle for a number of reasons. Alfalfa can cause bloat…even if I am careful, there is very little shelter out there from weather so I have to be attentive to their needs and they are a long way from the water spigot making it hard on the farmers caring for the animals. There is nothing quite like a basement full of frozen hoses! Beyond the cattle I have to be concerned about the alfalfa stand itself. I don’t particularly want a pure alfalfa stand (cause it causes bloat) but I also don’t want to kill it with hooves on mud. I do want to remove the stems to limit next year’s alfalfa weevil population and I do want to add manure. And I need to utilize the foot or so of alfalfa that grew back since the last hay cutting. This forage would otherwise be wasted. Grazing it now saves more durable forages for later. So here we are. And right by the hard road too…where people can watch me screw up my alfalfa field.

Anywho. I have to race across the alfalfa because it just isn’t built to last. Snow will push it down to the dirt, knocking off the leaves and leaving behind the stems or the freeze thaw will …knock off the leaves and leave just the stems. The cows aren’t big fans of stems. But I’m a big fan of the cows spreading manure across my alfalfa field. It doesn’t make up for the four cuttings of hay we remove but it’s that much less manure I have to scrape up from somewhere else. So we’re trying to rock right on through the 17 acres of alfalfa before January 1.

SO. How much grass does November need? No more grass. But the alfalfa west of the pond and the rest of a round bale should do it. I hope.

Now, November. Tell me how much firewood you need.

What If They Move Away? Is It Worth It?

What if?

Do you consider the possibilities? Like, all of the possibilities? The unlikely ones like coronal mass ejection or alien abduction and the likely ones like ice storms and layoffs. How do you handle it all? What if the sky really is falling? What if my kids run screaming from the farm seeking freedom in the city?

I don’t know.

Let me summarize this post for you. I have no idea which, if any, of my children will want the farm in 20 years. I can’t even guarantee that I will want the farm in 20 years. But I promise you I love my children. I love my wife. I don’t want to be alone. So we adapt. We respond. We change. We seek unity.

We make the best choices we can given the information we have at the time. But we have to be careful about what choices we bother to wrestle. When I find myself dwelling on an issue there is one question that brings everything into focus for me.

What problem am I trying to solve?

FamilyVision2

The picture above is from the center of Julie’s vision board. What do you see in there that has anything to do with farming? (BTW, there is a lot of cool stuff on her vision board. Feel free to ask her to share the whole thing with you. I don’t feel like I should share the whole thing today.)

The question from our friend SailorsSmallFarm came in like this:

Will one or more of your kids take on the farm when it’s their turn? It’s the big question isn’t it…because if they don’t, who will? And is all this worth it if they don’t? Quite a gamble, but worthwhile, I believe.

So, OK. My bad. I really, REALLY dig the farming thing. Like, really really. Like if I had my druthers I would spend my days moving cows and checking brooder temps and hauling feed sacks and scratching pig ears. Even in cold weather. That is so in my wheelhouse. But it’s not everybody’s bag. I get that.

It may not be the ideal any of my children prescribe for their own lives. And that’s OK.

I have this job thing. It’s in town. It pays money. It takes me away from the farm but it enables me to farm. Fortunately, my town job does even better than that. It makes the farm payment with a little left over. What do we do with that remainder? We encourage family spiritual and intellectual development. How do we do that? We read books together and talk about them. We read the Bible and talk about it. We seek out opportunities to be giving in our community and invest in others. We go to the zoo and the art museum together and otherwise devote our surplus time to  #5 on the list, Providing and Maintaining a common family culture.

Culture

Common family culture

What is a “Jordan”? What does it take to make the team? Are we farmers? No. Roofers maybe. Mom’s people are farmers…or were. But what happens when the farmers leave the farm? Is something lost? The wealth was retained and spread among the heirs to fritter away or save but was some part of common family culture lost when mom’s generation left the farm?

I dunno. Maybe. There was something common binding mom’s side of the family together. Maybe it was grandma Chism more than the farm. The Matriarch. The farm is a place we all have sentimental attachment to. Grandma Chism was more. But was grandma the common tie or just the focal point? Grandma’s sister (Aunt Melba) was certainly part of the culture when she was alive. Did we lose something when she died? Her kids stopped coming so often. Everybody goes to grandma’s house. Grandmas stay home. My mom is a grandma. Most of her siblings are grandparents. Christmas parties got smaller when my grandma died. Did our family get smaller?

What gave us our identity? What gives us our identity now? Do you have to live on the farm to be a Jordan? No. Does your last name have to end in Jordan to be a Jordan? No. Do you have to live in Illinois to be a Jordan? No. Is it necessary to be an American to qualify as a Jordan? No. But experiences and foundational beliefs seem to be part of it.

Our family culture does not seem to be defined by the land we live on. Not defined. Our family culture is certainly shaped by the farm as we are always shaped, in part, by our interactions with the world around us. But farm or no, we are still a family. We still have purpose.

So, SailorsSmallFarm, I guess I disagree with your question. The big question is not “Will the kids take the farm?” The big question is can Julie and I help our children to find their purpose and can we align our family goals with each specific calling? Can we maintain a common culture over generations? Can we create a structure that, like a grandmother, brings everyone back together…uniting us in some intangible way?

I don’t have an answer to that question. I think we can but I don’t really know what it looks like. But I think the farm gives us an anchor. It’s home. It’s the place we go to for safety. We have a sentimental attachment here…if not the memories of the land then to the memories of family we buried here. But the house? The farm? The cows? Those things are not “Jordan”. They are not particularly “Chism” either. They are just things. And they only exist to help us fulfill our family mission:

We work together as a team to steward God’s resources, create a welcoming home, share with others, encourage one another, learn and explore new ideas and pursue our God given purpose.

So let’s move on to the next part of your question. If they move away will it all be worth it?

I am certain we are not wasting our time. There is no gamble here.

It felt like a gamble when we first arrived on the farm. Oh, the house we sold in the suburbs! It was perfect. Really. Two story, brick. New furnace and A/C. New roof. Dry basement. Fireplace. Two car attached garage. I installed hardwood floors throughout, built floor to ceiling bookshelves in three rooms. Two and a half bath. Four bedrooms. Excellent, quiet neighborhood, nice neighbors of a wide range of ages. Three doors down from a community pool in a nice little town just 25 minutes from St. Louis. The back yard was fenced waist-high allowing neighbors to chat and offer a drink while cutting the grass, raking the leaves or just watching the kids play. The kids had a swing in the big tree in the back yard. It couldn’t have been better. Further, we bought well and had our expenses so tightly controlled we were saving a huge percentage of our income.

Dad was shocked when we sold. Shocked! Surprised! Flabbergasted! Why would we leave paradise to go kill chickens. “Have you even killed a chicken? Do you think you can do it? They stink. The work is not fun. This is the nicest house any of us have ever lived in!”

The house sold very quickly and we moved into grandma’s house.

Talk about a contrast.

We made a mistake. A big mistake. Not the farm. The house. Wow. Wow! What a hole.

The kids cried. The older daughter missed her best friend from next door. The younger daughter missed our elderly neighbors. There were spiders and wasps and swarms of flies at the farm house. It was pretty icky. Grandma had rented the house to a work crew for a while and they, apparently, liked to drink beer, play poker and go fishing. Housework was not a priority. Julie cried.

There was a problem with the sewer system. The house smelled. Stink. Stank. Stunk.

Then we got the heating bill for the first winter. Oh! My! GOSH!

Ahem! Mr. Jordan, I believe you were attempting to persuade the reader that your farming endeavors were not in vain.

I just don’t want to sugarcoat it. It got pretty gritty. Raccoons had attempted to dig into the kitchen through the roof. Rain water flooded the kitchen. Chimney swifts flew into the chimney and out through the basement. I caught one during a birthday party once. Aunt Marian was impressed.

I would like to say “But, it all worked out. The house is now our home.” but that really doesn’t do it justice. The house still has problems. We are tackling them one by one.

However, in spite of the initial discomfort I feel certain that we made the right choice.

We live next to my parents. How cool is that? I want a close, ongoing relationship with my children. They aren’t a 20 year sentence. They are a lifelong blessing! Or I want them to be… And what better way than for me to model it with my own parents? My parents live next door…if next door is half a mile down the road. I talk to my dad daily. Do we always agree? LOL! No. No! But we don’t have to agree. I don’t expect my kids to always agree with me. I expect them to honor me as I honor my parents. I believe that our children will arise and call Julie blessed (her husband also and he praises her!). Could that happen in town? Yup. Do I want to move back? Nope. But someday I might.

Right now my kids can range through 60 acres, picking nuts and berries, going fishing, building forts, sledding, climbing trees…you name it. There is a barn full of life. Horses to ride, kittens to tame, barn swallows to marvel over. We are raising free-range children. 99% of children are locked down in confinement houses, packed tightly into small areas and given antibiotics. Ours are given a varied ration and a clean environment with fresh air and sunshine with every opportunity to express their distinctive human-ness. We even tailor each child’s education to match their interests. Compare that to the poor, suffering children you see raised in medicated confinement. Sigh.

But that stuff is right now. I have no idea what happens next. Will my children marry? Who will they marry? Will I be a grandfather in 10 years? Don’t know. Can’t know. But I can work to meet my children where they are. I can work to understand my children for who they are. I can help my children to understand who we are. We are our parent’s children. We look to them for wisdom. We continue to honor them. We work to continue learning, continue developing, continue growing. We care for the resources we have been trusted with…be that money, cattle, land, lives or just time.

Time

Will my children want to continue on the farm in 20 years? Will I want to continue on the farm in 20 years? Dunno. I’ll tell you when we get there. Maybe I’ll look back on this experiment as a failure, like the collarless button up shirts of the ’90′s. But I suspect this will be different. My children are being formed right here right now. The work we are doing right now could impact generations to come no matter where they live.

Farm? No Farm? Dunno.

Family? Worth it.

The Farm That Was..That May Be Again

I have often wondered what was really happening economically on our farm before 1950. Oh, I know they had beef and sheep and dairy and chickens and bees and an array of field crops. But how many? And in what numbers? This is important to me because it at that time my son is almost the same age my grandfather was when grandpa took over management of the farm. What would that look like today?

I don’t have those answers but I have a better idea of sales figures since dad found a Report of the account of C. Thomas Chism & Marian H. Chism, Executors of the estate of Charles A. Chism. I’m afraid I know very little of the people involved here but it appears the trust was set up to care for Granna Tim (my great grandma) and her handicapped son Billy. I have only seen a picture or two of my great uncle Billy.

Click image for source

He looked a lot like grandpa Tom but my uncle Jack sent me this picture of Uncle Billy in words:

He was a big man, about the size of my dad, but had dark hair and less pattern baldness. He liked walking around outdoors, and they always assigned him chores. (Gathering eggs; chopping wood.) He sang most of the time when he was outdoors–various songs he remembered from the radio; but his favorite seemed to be “Happy Birthday.”

He was the firstborn to a couple who had to wait until ages 42 and 35 to get married. After he came, they went ahead and had two more kids.  It was the job of the whole family to care for [Billy]. He occasionally had epileptic seizures, and it was younger brother Tom’s job to restrain him to keep him from hurting himself.

At 16 grandpa took over the farm when his father had a stroke. In 1948 grandpa would have been 27. Here he is at 29 or 30 just to lend a little context.

Click image for source

What you are about to see is an accounting of stewardship. Let’s skip to the end, looks like everything earned is being reinvested into the farm leaving $12.14 “held in trust by said Executors as Trustees under descendant’s Will for the benefit of the beneficiaries and purposes therein set forth.” But what they are earning is almost 5 times the average annual income…and they still had other work they did for themselves. Aunt Marian kept a job in town!

Pretty cool. SO what did they sell off of the old farm in 1948? Let me show you.

Trust

I found a few resources online to try to give this listing some meaning but, really, I was only able to guess what the numbers meant. Profit on Livestock Purchased & Resold could be anything. I see expenses on the other side of the page detailing how many dollars they spent in several categories of livestock but nothing to indicate what earned this specific sum. I just have to imagine it follows the formula that less than 1% of overall farm income came from sheep and 27% of farm income came from pigs as suggested by the brochure  Twenty Years of Prices and Incomes Received by Illinois Farmers. From what I understand they sold fluid milk and milked 14 cows by hand. If my guess at their milk check is correct they were selling around 12 gallons each day, leaving some milk on the farm for the household and for pigs. Based on a guess of wholesale egg prices and my understanding of layer reliability of the era they kept a flock of 60-80 chickens. But those are just guesses and, as such, are mostly useless.

So how can I make that spreadsheet useful? What can we really see in it? That my grandpa, who passed away 16 years ago, and his sister just took me to school. Look at that list! And that list doesn’t include other things grandpa did on his own including custom plowing. They even had to fix the barn (the barn their father built). I had to fix the barn too!

BarnDamage

But it’s what I don’t see that interests me most. Why is there so little income from grain? Probably for the same reason they spent $7,000 on livestock feed. Grain was grown to fatten livestock (not people). But the items listed above aren’t the things it takes to run a household and they aren’t the only things the farm produced, just what got sold. There was an orchard east of the yellow house. Somehow they had time to maintain that orchard and can up the produce. And keep a garden. And butcher for their own table. And care for an older brother.

Grandpa Charlie was at least four years older than I am now when he started having children. He was at least 20 years older than me when he had a stroke. Looking at this document I can only reflect on the success he had training his children to take over. They brought in a farm income of $15,000 at a time when the average household income was $3,600. I have a son who is 14. Could I step out of his way in two years, allowing him to run the farm? Should I? He is already larger than me…like grandpa was. I have a 12 year old daughter who is in many ways similar to my Aunt Marian. She works hard, volunteers frequently, gives selflessly, seems to enjoy working with her hands and she has a sharp wit. What will she do with the farm? Could the two of them generate $250,000 in farm sales each year (5x 2014 median income)? What about the other two children? One wants to be a preacher and open a taco restaurant, one wants to stay here and help us.

What will they do with the farm? Will they raise sheep and horses and mules and cattle and chickens and ducks? Will they maintain an orchard? Will they build fences and put up hay? Will they be able to tell me what a disc hayloader is? Will they convert it into a park they visit on weekends while busying themselves with work in town? Maybe the answer depends on me. I’ll come back to that.

I am also struck by what is listed and what I have never seen here.Why weren’t there sheep and ducks and chickens when I was a kid? Where were the dairy cows? I asked uncle Jack what he thought:

Sheep: My dad despised them for some reason. Goats: He got three nannies and kept them for awhile; then came out one morning and he had twelve: three sets of triplets. For some reason he decided he was tired of goats.

Can’t tell you anything about the cattle, except that when I was small around 1950, I do remember we still had a milk truck stopping each morning to pick up big milk cans in front of the house. The milking barn was over at the other place; but the current road south of the pond didn’t exist then—not until they built the pond. So the road by our house which went over past the windmill was the private lane of the home place. So my dad brought the milk cans out to the mouth of the road, next to your house. And this means that 2-3 years after the document you’re looking at, we still had a number of dairy cows. And I always assumed in those early years that there were beef cattle around—usually black ones at that time. Around 58-60 we got Herefords from Montana and raised those for awhile.

“The home place” is the yellow house…the barn Julie and I milk in. Grandpa and Aunt Marian were born at the yellow house. My folks lived there when I was born. But for most of my life it was the place grandpa housed his hired help. It is just storage now. Things change.

But some things don’t change. Just like my elders, I need to make the most of what I’ve got. To do that I need more livestock. I need more cows. I need to add sheep. I need more chickens. But I also need to prepare the next generation to take over. Great grandpa Charlie was, apparently, better at this than grandpa Tom but maybe only out of necessity. Great grandpa Charlie had a stroke but was still around to advise grandpa Tom. But grandpa Tom farmed into his 70′s. One son bought a farm of his own, the other children moved away. Mom and dad moved to another farm nearby when I was 16 but by that time most of my generation of cousins had grown up away from farming. Only one cousin was (is) still here. Maybe that’s why the sheep, chickens, ducks and dairy departed. It is a lot of work without youth to help. Involving the kids now is a big part of making the most of what I’ve got. I don’t need more land. I need additional responsible decision makers.

Henderson includes this quote near the end of The Farming Ladder:

…the pupils are the farmers of the future, and therefore the most valuable and important stock on the farm; for it is their youth and energy which have contributed so largely to [the success of the farm].

Every morning my body reminds me that I am no spring chicken. I need the youth and energy of my own children. We will need the youth and energy of their children. And their children. None of this can continue without a regular infusion of youth and energy. Fences have to be maintained. Barns have to be repaired. Livestock have to be managed. Trees have to be planted, pruned and picked. Firewood has to be cut. New ideas have to be tried out. Failures have to be recovered from. Grandpa and Aunt Marian brought youth and energy and innovation (tractors) to the farm. My parents and aunts and uncles brought covered dishes to the farm at Christmas. My grandma cried when I said I would like to buy the farm. She thought nobody wanted it. Will my children bring life and energy to the farm or will they bring covered dishes? Will an elderly, widowed Grandma Julie cry wondering if any of her children will want to continue here?

How can I encourage my children to take ownership…to protect it, to multiply it, to give it their very best? I have to make it theirs. I have to stop being so critical and step back into a supportive role. Mom and dad and Julie and I have to show them what is possible.

Grazing in the Late Fall

Cool autumn days and cold nights make this just about as easy as it gets grazing cattle here. The new heifers have settled in. The milk cows are only being milked by their calves. Everybody is in one big happy herd. Well, one big herd. Most of the pushing wars have ended though Julie and I watched a calf get pushed under the wire today. I said “most”.

So we have them bunched tight. Tight enough you can’t step in the pasture without hitting a land mine. Tight enough that they are eating everything down to a common height. We move them when they need to move giving them something that looks like this (well, they don’t all look like this)…

NewSpot

…leaving this behind…

OldSpot

I moved the cows to the spot above around 7:30 this morning. I moved them off again at noon. Moved them again at sunset. Tight bunches. Massive impact. Quick moves. Fat cows.

Flora

Well, fat most of the time. If I do my job. And we are trying to leave enough grass standing that it has a chance to recover slightly before it goes dormant. Further, we leave enough grass we can graze it again if we have to. Well, a man can have his ideals, can’t he? This fescue was grazed two weeks ago and I think it looks pretty good for November. You can clearly see old, grazed growth and fresh, green growth. You can also see how much other stuff is blanketing the soil. See how shiny fescue is?

Fescue

I plan my grazing out in my head well ahead of time complete with contingency plans and emergency backup plans and, of course, hay. If a bad storm kicks up we can take them to the barn. If feed runs low we can haul out some bales. But I prefer it if my cows have a nice, clean place to lie down each night, if they spread their own manure and if they at least get a bite of something green every day. But I have a lot to learn too.

Work, Muck and Thought

…what may be achieved by having a thorough grasp of the underlying principles for successful farming, which I have laid down in this book, and which may be summarized in three words: Work, Muck and Thought.

George Henderson
The Farming Ladder

Muck. We’ve got the muck. Decades of it piled up in the cattle barn. Layer after layer of petrified manure. Chipping it out with a fork, watching it crumble through the fork. An hour to the load, cover it with lime and put it on the field. There it can be put to better use.

Load1

Work, Muck and Thought. I’ve got the work. I’ve got the muck. I’m thinking I need a loader tractor. Now I have to think of how to pay for it. Maybe the lack of hospital bills…

Maybe a loader tractor will help me to get more done around here…like repairing the failing cattle barn…

Maybe a loader tractor will make the workload more manageable so my kids don’t turn tail and run…

Pasture is Always Better? Always?

I’m up against the idea that pasturing animals is always better. Always.

Better for what? Better for who? Under what conditions?

This may seem like a strange point for me to argue but I don’t think it is necessarily so. Let me skip to the end and say that at under certain conditions it may make sense to preserve your pasture and increase animal health and comfort by sheltering the animals.

There. I said it.

feb dot

What problem are we trying to solve?

I have been struggling with this question quite a bit recently, and mentioned it in a recent post. What problem I am really trying to solve by putting pigs on pasture. Am I solving a pig health issue? An ecological issue? A monetary issue? A pride issue? The answer to all may be “Yes” but let’s introduce the fourth dimension: Time. How long do you leave pigs on one specific pasture? Does a heavy rainfall change our management plan? Does incorrect timing hurt animal health, the ecology, our pocketbook or our pride? Yes.

Am I really concerned about animal health? Or am I primarily concerned about what people will think of me if I deviate from the pasture model for a few days? Do you think customers want to mess with explanations?

Q: Are your animals pastured?
A: Well, it depends…(and they roll their eyes and walk away.)

This is a little like the “Organic” question.

Q: Are you organic?
A: No. But…

They are finished with the conversation. The prospective customer has bought into the illusion that “Organic” is a meaningful term when in truth it is a government-owned monster with no teeth. Not only that but organic standards vary as you cross borders. What does it mean?

I could tell my customers, “Yes, my pigs are on pasture 24/7. No matter what. Why, just last week we had 20 inches of rain in 24 hours and 50 piglets were drowned when they washed down the creek. Further, the muddy wallow created by the herd washed out decades of topsoil but, by golly, we have pastured pigs.”

And it’s not just about pigs. There are times when the pasture is better served if the cows are in the barn and the chickens are in the greenhouse on deep bedding.

But not everyone agrees. And that’s OK. We don’t have to agree all the time. Right? Variety is the spice of life. Celebrate diversity and all that.

But it’s not cool to say that “All pigs are better off on pasture” without any qualifications. And because I’m so heavily immersed in P. G. Woodhouse at present I am inclined to say, “I rather believe my pigs are dashed happy on the stone floor.”

So let’s start at the beginning.

Q: What problem are we trying to solve?
A: We need to increase the farm’s fertility and water holding capacity.

Q: So what do pigs have to do with this?
A: Oh shoot! Pigs are the mechanism, not the problem.

The problem has nothing to do with pigs at all. I’m trying to solve a fertility issue. Pigs are a tasty solution provider. But if we’re going to use pigs to help increase fertility we had dashed well make certain their needs are met. They need to be warm, comfortable, well-fed and active. And I guess if I’m providing fresh bedding of sufficient depth it doesn’t matter if there is concrete under the pigs or not. The problem is fertility. The solution is husbandry…on or off pasture.

And I’m not alone in such thoughts. But maybe that’s why Salatin calls himself “Farmer” instead of a “Permaculturist”. Wanna see what he uses for winter housing for his pigs? It’s concrete. He puts concrete sidewalks in hoop structures so the pigs can’t “make huge craters that go all the way down to China“.The best picture I can find of it is on another blog.

Click image for source.

I don’t…can’t…won’t do everything following Mr. Salatin’s example but a big part of why any of us do anything we do is because we read a book or two of his. He is HUGELY influential to the current generation of alt. farmers. His video, Pigs ‘n Glens, shows, appropriately, pigs in glens. But it also shows pigs in hoop houses. He gives an example of an effort to get pigs off of pasture, being late, and having to wait out a heavy snow storm before bringing the pigs in. So for a short time his pigs were on pasture in the snow but that’s not the design.

Where are his pigs in the winter? On pasture? Nope. And why? I asked a friend of mine who met Mr. Salatin some years ago.

Pigs on dirt, might work in some places, and people only get to the first part of Salatin’s talk, hear the word pasture and that’s it.  Never mind there are photos of their hogs in barns or hoop houses during the winter.  I think I have a Smithsonian from 2000 and in it there’s a photo of Joel in a barn with lots of big hogs on deep bedding.  He values his pastures too much, and I’ve seen his pig glens up on the mountain, they are very small and only visited once a year.  No one wants to listen to that, it’s too extensive to only use that land once.

Well, things change. We learn. We adapt. Apparently he now visits pastures more than once but let’s let him tell us all about it. He leaves 50 pigs in on a half acre for “about 5-10 days” (at 1:30), returning 3 times/year (things change). That’s very different than a recent Acres USA article suggesting that you can just leave pigs in place for two months. Salatin specifically says “landscape massage” (5:00) when discussing managing the disturbance. Managed disturbance.

What does “managed disturbance” mean? Salatin says you don’t want too little disturbance. You don’t want too much disturbance. You want just enough. Just enough to encourage grass growth, not so much that you encourage weed growth (see the 3 minute mark).

So how do you do that? Well, it depends. But where I live I have to keep the pigs moving from pasture to pasture before they turn it into soup. If it is raining, they have to move more quickly…or not be there at all.

And that’s where I’m content to leave it. Where are my pigs? It depends. It depends on seasons. It depends on rainfall. It depends on heat. It depends how big the pigs are. It depends on what I need pigs to do. But I have no problem housing my pigs on fresh pasture, cattle bedding or asking them to work over the concrete slab. Wherever they are, it’s up to me to make sure their needs are met and meeting their needs every day is what is best for the pigs. I use pigs to help solve my fertility problem but that creates new problems for me to solve. Husbandry problems. Chasing dollars around a muddy pasture won’t save the world. Proper land and animal husbandry will.

Where Did All These Cows Come From?

I am not an investment professional. I tried trading stocks some years ago. I’ll summarize by saying hasty speculation has a way of bringing poverty.

But steady plodding leads to prosperity. We have a plan that includes cows, time and work. Lots of cows. Lots of time. Lots and lots of work. There are two paths from zero cows to lots of cows. The first, and most obvious, is to put together a pile of money and go buy lots of cows. Done. Problem solved. The second, and more understandable to someone of limited means (me) is to buy a couple of cows and find out what you don’t know before you get too deep. We started by upgrading from milk goats to milk cows…by buying open heifers.

WinterJerseys

Then, each year, we allocate a little money to buy a few more heifers to speed up the natural increase from calving.

Shorthorns1

If cow prices are high you buy fewer animals. Low prices, more heifers. Before you know it, the herd has grown to the point you have to zoom out to catch them all in one picture.

WholeHerd

Each year the number increases. Each year we add to our accumulated knowledge. We lost a calf for the first time this year. It hurt. It didn’t hurt in the pocketbook as much as it hurt in the heart. Still does. But we learned that lesson by losing one bull calf instead of losing 50.

So that’s where it is. Every year we grow. Soon we will begin to cull the non-performers in earnest. Soon we will have beef to sell to customers. Soon we will have surplus heifers of our own. We have to get rid of cattle that are late to reach sexual maturity (tall ones), get rid of cattle that produce too much milk (won’t breed back), get rid of cattle that stay shaggy all summer, get rid of cattle that won’t produce on grass alone. Cull, cull, cull. Not everybody can make the team. So we add heifers as often as we can. Heifers are an unknown quantity but cost half as much as cows. For the same money we double our genetic dice roll.

Happy57

What is 57 going to become? What about 59? What about 81? What about the three other heifers that were born here this year? Dunno. They will tell us in a couple of years.

As time passes our herd will become increasingly adapted to our farm and to our management. A little at a time. The end result of years spent planning, thinking and being patient. Thinking. Planning. Looking at the cows. Monitoring the fertility. Making slight adjustments to genetics, slight adjustments to management, making slight adjustments to fertility programs. But mostly just watching.

How does that compare to any other investment? Is it an investment? Our farm provides a lot of our entertainment but did we buy an amusement park? Did we buy a trust fund? Or are we building a business through steady plodding? I hope it is the latter option.

Bringing the Awesome to our Children

Sailor’s Small Farm left a quick comment on a recent post.

Very good plan, teaching your kids to find the awesome. I’ve had mixed success with it, and looking back can see where I’d change quite a few things I did or didn’t do. They are helpful and proficient around here – I mean, I left 250 chickens in three stages of development and 2 pigs in their capable hands for two days and left the country. They were happy to be entrusted with the whole shebang. But neither of them wants that kind of work for the long term. They want the awesome without the grunt. Eat ethically raised meat? Absolutely. Move broiler shelters every day for 4 weeks? Not so much. Home grown veg? Love it! Dig six rows of potatoes? Later.

Let’s look at things from a child’s perspective. After all, it was a mere (hmmmfannmum) years ago that I myself was a child. I have some memory of it. At 10 I wanted to build airplanes and spaceships with Lego. I was also exercising and training daily to help Mario save the Princess and to lead Link to his destiny with Ganon. I was paid to cut the grass for dad, I shoveled snow from as many driveways as I could to make extra cash and spent whole summers at the city pool. My dad did a little carpentry work here and there around the house and I would help…ish. He would mechanic on our vehicles and I would be underfoot.

Let’s overlay that onto my 10 year old son. He wants to build Lego airplanes and spaceships. Link and Mario have been replaced with other characters but if he could, he would train daily. He cuts a little grass and looks for odd jobs. Given his choice he would go fishing at the pond every minute of every day. I do a little work around the farm and he…well…helps. Sometimes he’s underfoot but I’m always glad to have him around.

But when it’s time to kill chickens he’s on the swing set. I think killing chickens is at least as cool as racing Bowser. Maybe even cooler. Doesn’t he know that?

Kids

It appears that I’m operating from the wrong perspective again. Let’s change my child’s point of view. Dad has a lot of jobs. What does dad do and why?

  • Dad works on the farm. Works. Lift heavy bags, shovel smelly things, drive dangerous tractors, felling big, thorny trees and cows kick when you milk and dad is rewarded by maybe making the farm payment and delicious cream for his morning coffee.
  • Dad works in the city. Sits at a desk and gets paid enough money to buy our family the things we need plus Legos…plus pays for the farm.
  • Dad works in Florida. Stands in front of a classroom and makes enough money to pay for a modest family vacation.
  • Dad does extra work on the side at his computer…whatever it is that he does he can, apparently, do it on the internet.

Any reasonable person would look at their needs and decide how best to meet their needs. My kids need legos, books and a warm house.

Q: What is the best way for me to provide these things?
A: Go to the city and sit at a desk.

That’s why the farm isn’t awesome.

It won’t be long and the farm will be free of thorny things. The perimeter fence will be in good repair. Our marketing reach will be well established. Our cattle herd will thrive on grass alone. The farm will generate sufficient revenue to support our modest needs. It won’t be long.

But while our children are young and impressionable it’s all work all the time…plus driving lessons.

Driving

But while they are young the only thing they think they need me to do is to pay for a house and buy legos.

So what, exactly is the problem I’m trying to solve?

One goal here is to establish in my children’s minds that riches have a high utility but wealth is the real goal…if we continue with our definition of riches as money and wealth as time. We certainly want to be wealthy enough to pursue our own productive interests. We certainly want to reinforce that money can be useful but more money is not, in itself, a worthy goal. But at the same time we acknowledge that a little more money would sure be handy.

I’m still not getting there. Why the farm? We see the farm as the future source of our family wealth. My job is our present income, the farm is the future security. The future home. The place we recline in the grass reading a book with the cows cropping nearby. We explore. We climb. We run. We build fires and roast hot dogs. The place we hide when the world has turned against us. The place we return to celebrate, to recover, to rest. Working with percentages, nobody else has this anything like this. That’s the problem we’re trying to solve. We hope to help our kids to recognize the problem and encourage them to support our proposed solution. Or, heck, maybe they will show us the error in our thinking.

My jobs in town generate the cash required to just keep our heads above water. But only just. We don’t want our heads just above water. We want a cushion of security. We want to produce…to create…provide…we have this crazy idea that we can make the world a little better and eat well at the same time. By choosing not to spray our apples we don’t have to eat apple sprays. We also preserve the vast majority of insects that are not interested in apples but are affected by insect sprays. Those insects prey on our garden pests and help to feed our bird population. The more bugs we have the more manure we put down. The more health we build into our landscape. The less topsoil I send down the river. The more resilience and productive capacity we retain here on the farm and all because we didn’t spray an apple tree.

picking apples

A series of small choices, made over a number of years, cascade into big results. That morning doughnut multiplied by 10 years adds up on your belly. I could buy that Lego set, that video game or that soda but what else could we do with that money? What if we saved up and bought a heifer instead?

We have to walk out to our imaginary heifer’s pasture twice daily to make sure she has everything she needs and is where we expect her to be. Our investment in cattle is also an investment in our health. If things go as planned, that heifer will give us a calf next spring. We could either sell the bull calf and recoup a portion of our original investment or retain a heifer calf and continue our compounding efforts. Let’s pretend it’s a heifer. Now we are managing two animals for every walk out to the pasture. More bang for the walk. The next spring there will be three animals. The year after that, 5. Then, possibly, 8.

Assuming we have thrown heifers all along or that we have sold our steers to buy additional heifers, our original investment has grown from one heifer to eight animals in five years or a 160% annual return on our investment. Beyond the increase, we have been outside building fence, walking, enjoying the fresh air. We have probably handled hay in some way or otherwise lifted heavy things. And at the end of it all there is a large cut of beef, entirely grass raised with a delicious rind of fat on one edge. Food that nourishes us as we entertain guests with tales of investments and adventures in the pasture, celebrating the animal we knew well.

Certainly I have to expense the land we used to graze the animals but at this point, here in Illinois, I could get by with the above 8 cows on 10 acres. I may have to buy a little hay but we’re talking a ridiculous maximum of $100,000 for land when the median home value in the US is $175k. Heck, you could buy 10 acres in Shropshire for £55k. You may have to live in a tent or remodel a drafty old farm house but, you know, it might be fun.

Compare that to a video game.

No really. Let’s compare it. I’m something of an authority on this topic. The video game won’t reproduce. The video game won’t get sick or get into the road and cause a car accident. A video game won’t poop in your neighbor’s front yard. It also goes down in value almost exponentially after purchase. We could play the video game with our guests and regale them with wild tales of high scores as we sit on our ample seats, draped in pale, plump, soft skin untouched by the sun or wind but we would have to order in pizza.

So without making my children into boring workaholics (like me) I need to show them the awesome of the farm. I need to show them that we can heal the landscape, eat well, produce a surplus for the benefit of our community and stay trim and healthy by making boring choices early on. We could buy fun things now. Or we could look forward to the day when, suddenly and without warning, we wake up to realize we no longer have to work our city jobs. Our farm production more than meets our obligations. We now have more time to manage things here. We now have more time to read and play tag. We now have true wealth.

Time is the key ingredient. Keeping cattle is anything but boring but building a herd, as with any investment, takes time, especially if you don’t have any money to begin with. That’s where we are. That’s why I work in town. We know where we are going. We know how to get there. We want you in the picture.

Will the kids go there with us or will they just run from the work when the opportunity arises? In large part, that depends on me.

Changing of the Guard

It’s that time of year. The older birds are slowing down. The young pullets are ramping up. The switch happened last week. In terms of numbers, the young flock laid more eggs than the older birds. By weight, the older birds are still winning.

Recently we brought in 98 eggs. That’s pretty good for 200 birds in mid-October. But let’s break it down further. The 90 or so pullets (I lost count) gave us 58 small eggs. 110 or so older birds delivered the balance.

So it’s time to transition the flocks. Those 100+ older birds are nearly 30 months old and will soon achieve their ultimate purpose and our feed costs will be cut in half. Yes, 30 months old. We got more than two eggs/3 days per bird this year out of a flock that is well beyond the recommended time you should keep them. Granted, we were short on eggs last winter but for whatever reason Julie and I decided not to brood pullets in 2013, a decision we regretted in fall of 2013. But we learned our lesson and now it’s time for those old birds to go.

OldFlock

There is quite a lot to consider here. First, I need to plan to market those soup birds. This is rarely a problem…and is one Julie and I prefer to solve with our own soup pot. But many customers enjoy the rich broth you can only get from an older bird.

But there is another issue. Our customers have come to expect giant eggs which, again, you can only get from an older bird. I have been offering steep discounts on tiny pullet eggs for the last month or so. A pullet egg, if you have never tried one, is the essence of egg distilled into a concentrated package. Less egg, more WOW! Normally all eggs are the same price but for now we are selling the small eggs at a 25% discount. It won’t be long and the new flock will begin to lay medium and large eggs but as the days continue to shorten the number of eggs will continue to shrink.

Eggs

But there is also the issue of flock management. We plan to have the new birds in the greenhouse on Nov. 1 to simplify our chores for winter and to minimize pasture disturbance and stress. That will surely help. But the greenhouse is not ready. It is not surrounded by electric fence, it’s surrounded by weeds. The roosts and nest boxes are not there, they are in use elsewhere. So what’s a farmer to do?

Work. These really aren’t problems to solve, just chores to do. The real problem to solve is how am I going to get by without hens on pasture? They do a lot of work for me adding fertility and spreading out cow pies, not to mention entertainment value. It’s a lot of fun to open the chicken house before sunrise and close it again after sunset, checking under the house for anybody trying to camp out.

ManureSpreaders

The retiring flock is a big mix of birds. We ordered a few hundred Sil Go Link pullets from Central Hatchery as well as some heritage Rhode Island Reds. The RIR birds they shipped grew up to be monster chickens and excellent in every way. Good layers, plenty of heft, thrifty on pasture. The Sil Go Link were surprisingly variable in color as can be seen on their site. We had black, white, white with black spots and red. These have done a great job of laying for us no matter the season. We also bought 50 or 100 Cinnamon Queen and Red Sex-Link birds from Cackle Hatchery at the same time. Finally there were 50 or so Americauna ordered from Cackle. These have proven time and again to be fragile birds who give up laying early in the fall. I don’t think we have gotten any blue eggs the whole month of October. The majority of the pullets we ordered were sold at 3 months and are still in use. All of these hatched in March of 2013 so it’s just time for them to go. We think it works well to order the replacement flock each spring then make soup with the old birds all winter (we don’t eat much soup in the summer).

There are a few others in the flock including the offspring of our original flock of New Hampshire birds which we plan to continue breeding.

The flock transition is a tough time for us. We plan for it each year, spending the spring brooding and the summer raising the replacement flock. When fall arrives we are usually flooded with tiny eggs that can be hard to sell but the reward for all that work arrives. We have fresh eggs and delicious soup all winter long.

Grazing Where You Shouldn’t Graze

The cows were recently on the alfalfa field. I know it’s kind of edgy to graze green alfalfa this time of year but that’s where we are. I’m trying to save my fescue for later. The alfalfa will be useless in 30 days so the goal was to sprint across the field now. The key appears to be to keep the cows full and to keep the cows full of dry fiber. Hay. But Sunday I didn’t stick to my plan. I offered the cows hay but didn’t ask them to clean it up because the day before I gave them a grazing area that was too small. The cows were hungry. I was in a hurry. So I let them eat some hay then moved them onto fresh, young, dew-covered alfalfa early in the morning.

If you don’t know, that’s a recipe for death. Bloat. The rumen fills up with methane and the cows have a hard time expelling it, front or back. If it continues expanding the cow can suffocate. Obviously, bad mojo.

EarlyBloat

Sure enough, 41 started to look pretty uncomfortable as the morning progressed. Fortunately dad pointed her out to me as we were working on something else. There are any number of real, medical solutions to bloat if you catch it in time but we didn’t have any of those on hand…you can either call me risk-tolerant or just stupid. Take your pick. Since she was still acting normal, on her feet with her ears up, we just needed to work through the gas. Dad started to walk the herd a little bit. Just a gentle walk. This is the time you want to be upwind of your herd, not downwind. Wow. She was looking a little more comfortable so we came to a stop. The cows were all full and just wanted to take a nap in the sunshine. 41 tried to lay down with the herd. She grunted, burped, grunted and burped again. Then she stood up. Then back down. I went to the barn to get the nicest bale of grass hay I could find and began to spread it out, flake by flake, in the alfalfa field. By spreading it out the cows are less likely to try to make a bed of it and more can eat the bale at one time.

A little more walking and a little more waiting and suddenly we could see a slight depression on her left side. Whew! When I came back to check again later the hay was all gone.

What did I learn? The cows need their fiber. They need to eat fibrous growth, not this young, all-protein alfalfa. It breaks down too quickly and leads to trouble…not to mention the splatter behind the cattle. I knew this already but I guess the lesson was reinforced. Maybe I learned a little bit about my own level of risk-tolerance. I am, it appears, more willing than most to make mistakes then hop on the ol’ internets and tell the world about those errors.

That’s nice and all but I also learned that not all cows are created equal.

NoProblem

The next day we kept the cows full and put them on fresh alfalfa in the warm afternoon sun. Guess what? Happened again.

So I moved the cows onto a field they haven’t grazed since July. In most places the grass (fescue) is 18″ tall and has yet to form a seed head. Good stuff. Beyond that, there are a good selection of weeds and tree leaves available in their new location. Thick stems break down slowly compared to thin, green alfalfa. Tree leaves have tannins that help balance things out. They went right to work when they got in the new area shortly after sunset.

Two days later the pullets were moved to that exact spot to clean up after the cows. Busy schedules are preventing us from harvesting the older birds. That flock are still out on the alfalfa field cleaning up the mess the cows made there. Yolks from both flocks are bright orange right now.

PulletsOnPastureThe picture is fuzzy in the early morning light but I think you can see the cows didn’t strip the grass down to bare earth. There are a few places uphill where we are asking them to help with the remodeling but here we are leaving residue. Uphill from here we have a solid stand of thistle and goldenrod with just a pinch of spiny amaranth. The cows helped us out there as you can see by the fence line.

CowRemodeling

They are a little loose on the fresh green grass but are not needing the intensity of care required when they were on the alfalfa field. Have I learned my lesson? Well, sorta. I plan to return to the alfalfa field after we get a good killing freeze so the cows can rid me of stems (alfalfa weevil live in stems) and add a layer of fertility. But I have to attend to their fiber needs.