The Return of Surplus

Being the huge fan of farm economics that I am, and being decidedly in favor of individual freedom and thinking the best of my fellow man and accepting, as I do, that the Earth is not just a place to put my stuff but is, instead, a treasure to be…erm…treasured, and because a friend recently emailed me about the questionable sanity of male bloggers with oddly disjointed posts, I offer you this bit of self-indulgence. I present to you…

The Return of Surplus (available in HD)

Surplus is coming back. Let’s return to the world of plenty. My favorite college class was taught by a long-braided hippie lady who seemingly always wore a green dress and was happy to let me be wrong about whatever as long as I could back up my position. She taught a class titled “Nature and the American Experience” or some such nonsense. (Have I ever mentioned that I have a generally negative view of college for unlicensed professions (or of gov’t licensing of professionals? (come on…at least I’m giving you something to think about.))) Anyway, this instructor, whose name has evaporated from memory (Dr.? Ms.? Jan …something?), could not have been nicer and left me with a positive impression of what a hippie person could, and in some ways should be. Julie and I aspire to be similarly accepting of others. And we don’t use shampoo. And we compost our wastes. And we have a big garden. And I have a beard…for now. And I’m generally against war…especially when the warring party considers the best defense to be a good offense. Or when “war” is practiced by hitting wedding parties with missiles. Our real-life hippie cred is way above average.

So anyway, I propose that surplus is coming back into style. It’s what the cool kids are doing. The hipsters. To be clear, I was planting trees before planting trees was cool. Not that it matters. A planted tree is a planted tree, cool or not. And my beard has nothing to do with being a hippie (I’m really a lousy hippie) and nothing to do with hunting (I’m a lousy hunter) and nothing to do with hipster culture (hipsters should laugh ironically at that) and everything to do with having been the hairiest kid in school…being called “Wolfman” at age 12 because I had the beginnings of a beard then.

How am I doing on the disjointed thing? Does this qualify as questionably sane?

There are three permaculture ethics and depending on the bent of the author writing about them you’ll see a different wording for each. The more libertarian writers (you know, leave people alone, let them do what they do as long as they don’t violate the rights of others) tend to write them this way:
1. Care for the Earth
2. Care for People
3. Return of Surplus

The more totalitarian authors (the kind who like to tell other people what is best for them…because it’s for the children) write it out this way:
1. Earth Care
2. People Care
3. Fair Share

Isn’t that nice? It rhymes and it makes us feel good! It’s fair!

Obviously I think there’s a big difference between the two. A big difference. And I’m going to pick on the kind of person who thinks the world would be better if he could just impose his will on others. If you are one of those people, I respect your opinions but I secretly think you’re a tool. If we interpret “Fair Share” as freely giving resources to others we have made Ethics 2 and 3 redundant. I believe the ethics are (or should be) distinct. Hence the “Return of Surplus” in the title.

Rather than focus on how we can feel good about giving apples away to people who don’t have apples (which may or may not be worth doing but is covered by Ethic #2, not a part of this post) we need to focus on returning surplus back into the system. Pretend it is a closed loop. A finite Earth. That when you throw plastic away it doesn’t magically go away. It just gets stored somewhere else. Forever. When you sit on your tookus doing nothing you are taking from the system without returning to it. Just converting oxygen into CO2 and food into…well, not …food…for humans. You are consuming resources and returning nothing of value.

So what do we do with our surplus plastic? I don’t know. Try not to buy stuff wrapped in plastic.

But let’s back off of the Captain Planet message and focus on the farm for a minute. The farm is a closed loop. Cows don’t produce plastic. Cows don’t eat plastic (in fact, those Arkansas tumbleweeds are quite dangerous for cows). We capture sunlight and rain while using plants and fungus to mine minerals out of the soil. Our management of the cows takes full advantage of the stored energy and nutrients while leaving a residual of plant material, manure and disturbance to enhance future forage growth. It’s all an ongoing cycle of transition from one state to the next. The only thing in true surplus is the sunlight and we try to make the most of it. There is no surplus manure. That’s food for worms and dung beetles and fly larvae. There are no surplus flies. Those are food for birds and frogs and ???. If I sell the manure, the hay, the maggots or the worms I have disrupted some portion of the cycle. Somewhat. When properly managed, the relentless onslaught of sunlight brings a level of abundance. We’ll sell surplus cattle to keep the system in balance.

We have removed – not returned – some surplus by selling cattle. So what is all this “return” nonsense?

I have a distinct lack of cash. No surplus cash is available (or ever will be…I promise!). I take surplus cattle and exchange them for needed cash. The cash is returned to the farm. Maybe in the form of fencing materials. Maybe in the form of Irish whiskey to help me cope with the lack of fencing materials. Some may think any Irish whiskey is surplus Irish whiskey. I disagree. There are things we enjoy just for the sake of enjoyment. Things that keep us on the farm. Things that make the back-breaking, heart-wrenching work more bearable. Not just booze (though that is nice) but books and comfy chairs and new boots. Things that weren’t sourced on the farm but grant us a measure of sustainability by keeping us fat and happy. Because if we weren’t fat and happy we wouldn’t be doing this. And sometimes the whiskey helps. Only sometimes. I promise. (But sometimes it really helps. A lot.)

And being fat and happy is the goal. Heck, Crevecoeur wrote about it nearly 250 years ago as he was defining an American in Letter III (A book I read in the aforementioned hippie college class at least 18 years ago):

Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. Americans are the western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigour, and industry which began long since in the east; they will finish the great circle. The Americans were once scattered all over Europe; here they are incorporated into one of the finest systems of population which has ever appeared, and which will hereafter become distinct by the power of the different climates they inhabit. The American ought therefore to love this country much better than that wherein either he or his forefathers were born. Here the rewards of his industry follow with equal steps the progress of his labour; his labour is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest; can it want a stronger allurement? Wives and children, who before in vain demanded of him a morsel of bread, now, fat and frolicsome, gladly help their father to clear those fields whence exuberant crops are to arise to feed and to clothe them all; without any part being claimed, either by a despotic prince, a rich abbot, or a mighty lord. I lord religion demands but little of him; a small voluntary salary to the minister, and gratitude to God; can he refuse these? The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions. From involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labour, he has passed to toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence. –This is an American.

“…fat and Frolicsome, gladly help their father”. Sweet! Men – Americans – no longer suffer from a surplus of forced free time. They are rewarded for their labor! Well, that was the American envisioned by Crèvecœur. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide if that every really came to be. Or if it was and was lost. Or if America is a place or an idea. Or if it is required of an American to live in the United States. Or if the United States has become increasingly welcoming or increasingly hostile toward Americans.

So that brings us to surpluses the farm can absorb. The farm can absorb all the manure my cows can drop. No problem. The farm can absorb all the labor my wife, children and I can spare. Further, the farm can absorb all the labor I can hire.

So let’s really address surpluses. It is not outside of the scope of imagination that I could grow more apples than I could eat. More, even, than I could feed to pigs. A true surplus. I have several options available to me. First, I could press a portion of the apples to make hard cider…making the farming more bearable…and the winters warmer. Possibly leading to additional children. Bonus. But let’s imagine that I have so many apples that I can make so much hard cider I couldn’t possibly begin to drink it all. Now, like the surplus cattle, I need to move these surpluses off of the farm. Unlike cattle, surplus apples are available in small quantities. It would be entirely possible for me to trade my surplus hard cider and exchange it for something you have in small surplus. And if you own nothing I suppose you might have time in surplus. And it just so happens that my farm can absorb all the time we can throw at it. There is always more work to do!

This is radically different than charity (and we make major allowances for charity, see Ethic #2), it is radically different than “Fair Share”. It really is fair. “I have this. You have that. Would you like to trade?” That’s very different than saying, “Don’t you feel guilty that you have so much when so many have so little?” Nobody has to hang their head. Nobody is a loser. There are no greedy bastards. No guy with all the apples. No guy with all the free time. It is a mutually beneficial convergence of surpluses. My surplus apples are being returned to the farm…whatever the form! Return of surplus.

Dad was recently approached about buying hay for a woman who keeps horses. She was turned in (to the horse feeding police?) because her horses were reportedly malnourished. The vet who examined them found that one was fine but not fat (horses around here are all fat), the other was old. You know…old. As in, may be lacking teeth and having a hard time maintaining weight because it is…old. But they’re collecting hay for her anyway. Grass grows in surplus in our part of the world. Pond edges, field edges the front yard (yeah), alfalfa that couldn’t be cut because it got too cold to cure and the always present roadsides. How about this, horse lady? How about you cancel your Satellite TV, you put your horse on a lead rope and you go soak up your excess time soaking up excess forage? You, the horse and the grass will all be better off for it. I mean, if you have Satellite TV and horses you can’t possibly need a share of my production/labor/assets/whatever. That doesn’t seem fair as I have neither Satellite TV nor horse…nor desire for either. But you and your equine can achieve an equitable trade for your free time and solve your feeding issues. Or just shoot/sell the dang horses and give yourself more completely to the gods of television.

Now I have ticked off totalitarian warmongers (republican or democrat), hippies, hipsters, hunters, horse-owners, people who value sitting on their couch, people who still believe the myth of the college degree and 90% of permaculturists. How’s that for a self-indulgent, questionably sane, rambling post?

If you are interested, the books I remember from that class were:
Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches from Eighteenth-Century America
A Sand County Almanac
A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee

Go ahead. Check those out from the library, discuss them with a group of peers and give yourself 4 imaginary credits toward a fancy piece of paper. It may help you make a lot of money someday and costs much less than similar imaginary credits from our competitors.

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Turtles Under Glass

My brother-in-law and I took my children and nephews for a walk around the pond edge. The ice was nearly 2″ thick everywhere but the group of us together caused some fractures so we stayed in the shallows. We were looking for turtles. We found turtles…and more.

Bluegill

CommonPondTurtle

LeopardFrog

SnappingTurtle

SnappingTurtle2

Tadpole

The real value of the farm can’t be measured by the cattle we can raise. There is also the joy of taking a group of children around the edge of a frozen pond enjoying their squeals of delight and discovery.

Not only am I keeping this for them I am teaching them about it. Teaching them to enjoy it. This is stewardship.

Christmas at Grandma’s

As a kid I thought it was odd but now…I don’t know…I think it’s kind of sweet. My grandparents were married on Christmas. If my dates are correct, today would be their 67th anniversary. (I originally posted that grandma and grandpa were married on Christmas eve. That will teach me to trust my memory. It took two weeks for anyone to correct me though…)

I have misplaced the newspaper clipping announcing their 50th anniversary. Here they are in the early 50’s. My grandpa in this picture is younger than I am now. That’s my mom in my grandma’s arms.

ChismFamilyManhood was thrust on my grandfather at an early age and he wore it well. Look at him. I don’ t measure up. I miss my grandparents.

I think everybody arrived earlier and earlier each year – in part for the fellowship, in part because there was some competition between an aunt and an uncle for favorite tender morsels. There was always mistletoe hanging in the house and Grandma loved to kiss us. The whole family would set up tables and squeeze into the back room for Christmas dinner. Dad would carve the meat, the buffet would be set out. Basically the same food every year. I got a slice or two of ham, at least two crescent rolls my aunt made, some frozen fruit salad my grandma always made and a slice of the squash pie my great aunt Marion still makes with a dob of cool whip.

I sat at the “kids table” in the SE corner of the room. Each year several of us conspired to unroll the youngest cousin’s crescent roll at dinner. Then we would race to pick our favorite spot in the living room and wait to open presents. A favorite cousin and I would sit by the fake fireplace, waiting with increasing impatience while somebody cleaned tables, washed dishes and otherwise added to our frustration.

Grandma and Grandpa would take their places in their recliners. The rest of the family would squeeze into the living room. Somebody would pass out presents and…well, manners were forgotten. Paper went flying. One older cousin would gather the paper as it flew his direction and stuff it behind the green couch. I mean, what else are we going to do with it? Every year was the same. Pajamas, bathrobe and socks.

Christmas

This must be around 1994 or 1995. My sister made me that Animaniacs/Marvin the Martian blanket I’m holding. My kids still use it.

Then all the grandkids would put on their jammies and stand in front of the Christmas tree for pictures. If not jammies, the girls got Christmas dresses. Maybe we would pose in the back room. Whatever the case, family pictures were a must. After that it’s all a blur. Toys, Grandma’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, hugs all around. Aunts and uncles and cousins leaving if the weather allowed. We usually stayed the night at grandma’s. Sister would sleep on the green couch, I would sleep on the vinyl couch with several blankets topped by a thin red quilt (Wow. I haven’t thought about that quilt in 20 years). The clock on the mantle would tick away the minutes until I fell asleep. I woke up when grandma would wind the clock in the morning.

Jammies

I must have been unhappy that grandma made me a clown doll. Or just tired. Who knows.

That was basically every Christmas of my life. There were small changes over time. Cousins started bringing friends, then dates…later spouses…then great-grandchildren in numbers beyond counting. I was no longer allowed to sit at the kids table. Somehow the house still fit us all. Somehow grandma made enough cookies. Somehow the septic tank couldn’t manage.

Family

The unwritten rule of Christmas is that you go to your grandmother’s house. Now my mother is grandma. My aunt is grandma. The next generation of first cousins play together at their respective grandma’s. I can only hope somebody brings crescent rolls. Julie makes my grandma’s cookies and has found a way to make them even better by adding peppermint oil. Out. Of. This. World!

Grandma wrote this recipe but she didn’t use a recipe. I have added notes for the way we bake these so they turn out more like hers. These were always in her freezer in quart bags. Get yourself a glass of milk and a whole bag of cookies and find a quiet place. Julie adds a few drops of (Vendor name censored by the FDA) peppermint oil as a final step.

OatmealCookies

The house has changed though. It’s not my grandma’s house anymore. I’m sorry to say it has lost some of that…that…feeling. Grandma’s furnishings and decorations are properly disbursed among the family. Her paintings, her painted saw blades, the buffet in the dining room, the mantle clock . It’s still grandma’s house but with my stuff in it. It’s not the same somehow…like our stuff doesn’t fit the house because it’s not grandma’s. We’ll figure it out. And like my grandparents we have four children. I look forward to seeing my grandchildren unrolling each other’s crescent rolls and hiding wrapping paper behind the couch and posing for pictures in their new jammies.

Dresses

So many things have changed. So many people are gone now. But my grandparents gave us a family culture, a set of our own traditions and love. My mom is helping deliver Christmas dresses to the great-granddaughters today. I don’t know if this sounds corny or if it sounds boring. I hope it sounds consistent. Consistency is what I got from my grandparents. Every time I saw them. Every visit to their house. Always the same. Always loved. No matter what.

No matter what.

(Updated to add a few extra pictures I found at mom’s house.)

Budgeting Time

So, Chris. How much money do you make?

None of your business. But let me say this, we wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have a job in town. 10 cows, 8 pigs and 100 layers and 1,000 broilers amount to little more than a hobby. This blog earns me a negative $27 each year. Nobody pays me to write. I just need a creative outlet and appreciate your readership and feedback. That said, I’m uncertain of the value of the time I spend writing. Certainly something to consider.

With that in mind, it’s time to figure out what we’re going to do next year, why we are going to do it and how we are going to pay for it. No real answers in this post, just questions.

I need the farm to grow. I have this weird dream that someday I could derive the majority of our income from the farm itself. But it’s not going to happen with 10 cows. It may not happen with cows at all. But we’re going to drive that direction until we hit a roadblock. How much will that crash and burn cost me? A lot. But how much will it cost me next year? We have to figure that out.

And not just that. We have to budget pasture usage. What ground will rest? What will be stockpiled? Where will we plant trees? Where will we calve? When will we schedule a bull? What will that cost? Should we AI everyone and just use the bull for cleanup? Where will we cut hay? When? With what? Are we going to put up a few thousand square bales this year or should we buy a round-baler? What about next year? Will we have enough cows next year that we’ll utilize the whole pasture and just buy in whatever hay we need? How can I partner more closely with my father to build a multi-generational future now?

What about pigs? I am already receiving orders for July pigs. How many should I raise? Where will we raise them? They are awful hard on pastures. How will they fit into the rotation?

How about chickens? We obviously need more layers as we can’t begin to meet the demand for eggs. But that also indicates we need to raise prices. What is the next price target? How many customers will that scare away? Should I shoot for 250 layers June 1 and begin a 6-month replacement program, selling birds at their first molt? Should I keep birds until their second molt and make stewing hens? We haven’t seen a lot of success marketing stewing hens to this point. Maybe I should protect first year layers behind netting but just let second year birds roam behind the cows in egg-mobiles, knowing we will lose some. How can I lower our feed requirements? Can I eliminate soy?

And turkeys!? Just today I got orders for turkeys. Do they really fit into our operation?

If the overarching goal is for me to earn my full-time income from the farm and to build an empire that will include my children and their families, well…I have to get off of my tookus, sharpen my pencil and figure some of this stuff out.

There is a lot to think about with the coming year. A lot for me to figure out. Not just goals but how to pay for goals and how to determine which goals will pay for themselves. And this is just the farm…just a percentage of our total household budget. I have the rest of the household to figure out too.

This is a lot like work. I hope you are working on it too…both in your business and in your personal life. Money is hard to earn and easy to spend. A little purposeful reflection and restraint go a long way.

Next week may simply be next week. But next week is also next year. Next week or next year, head toward it with a plan…a destination in mind. Don’t be like Alice.

‘Cheshire Puss,’ she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. ‘Come, it’s pleased so far,’ thought Alice, and she went on. ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’

‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.

‘I don’t much care where—’ said Alice.

‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.

‘—so long as I get SOMEWHERE,’ Alice added as an explanation.

‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.’

Where are you going?

Phosphorus. Who Knew?

Our mineral array from Free Choice Enterprises arrived Thursday morning. The company sent enough to last 10 cows a couple of months. Let me say that differently. They sent a bag of everything plus extra trace mineral arrays and extra extra phosphorus.

Good thing too. The cows attacked the phosphorus. Attacked. It.

Minerals

As frost was arriving we were feeding comfrey to the cows. Apparently comfrey is a phosphorus accumulator. The cows loved it. Other phosphorus accumulators include dock and shagbark hickory. These are all plants that grow deep root systems over years and years…involving relationships with fungal environments. I don’t remember seeing the cows eating dock. Any tree leaves within reach are fair game though. I can’t discount the possibility that comfrey may simply taste good.

But why do the cows think we are short on phosphorus? There’s plenty of manure on the pasture all year. All manner of N-P-K has been spread on my farm for the last 60 years…or harvested and fed into my cattle…and dumped on the pasture. How could we possibly be short on phosphorus? It’s not like there’s a shortage of dock growing in my pastures.

I’ll tell you what I think. I probably won’t know if I’m right in my lifetime but I’ll tell you anyway.

I think it’s because the pastures have been grazed down to nothing forever. No residual left to cover the dirt summer or winter. Just pulses of spring and fall lush growth. That is an environment that favors bacterial growth…it inhibits fungal growth. Further, the cows tend to manure under shelter…to rest under shade then unload before walking away. Some percentage of the manure ends up on the pasture but a large percentage of it is concentrated under trees.

But over the next 50 years or so, if we can keep managing our grazing for high residual, we’ll see an increase in fungal activity and a more even distribution of manure. It will help when we establish diverse strips of trees on contour in our pastures. It also helps to have high diversity in our pastures.

But I have to wonder about the buffalo. What would a herd of buffalo do if they came across a phosphorus lick as they grazed the prairie? Would they stop to partake?

Do children like candy?

Maybe that’s what I’m seeing. Maybe it’s not so much a nutritional deficiency as just the cows stocking up on something hard to find while it’s on sale. We’ll see if the rate of consumption continues over the next 20 years…but I’m not jumping to conclusions if it does. What I’m really looking for is cows giving birth to healthy calves without difficulty. Cows without health problems. Phosphorus? Meh. I just have to trust that the cows know what is good for them…in this case. I don’t take the same position concerning lush alfalfa though.

All I really know is that I need to close the loop on my land as much as possible to keep our nutrients at home. Keeping our dirt covered and our roots deep should help with that. The cows and I will come to some accord concerning mineral consumption. So far I’m liking what I’m seeing.

More Strip Grazing Goodness

My shorthorns have never had to work for their dinner in the winter. I mean, it’s one thing to put them out on the frozen ground and ask them to clean up orchardgrass and leftover alfalfa. It’s another thing entirely to ask them to bulldoze through 6″ of snow to graze the grass beneath. Worse, we asked the cows to break a new trail across the pond dam and meander to the barn to access their new pasture. We rely on the Jerseys to move the herd. We opened up a new path and showed it to Flora. She led the way. Cows were moved. No pushing, no hollering, nobody got angry. We just let the heifers follow another cow. She knows what to do. No big whoop.

PondDam

Same deal grazing in the snow. The shorthorns don’t seem to know what to do. Again the Jerseys knew the drill and they led the way. Well, one of them led the way. The other follows in our footsteps. Literally. She eats where our feet revealed the grass beneath. The Shorthorns figured it out quickly enough and soon cleared and grazed large areas of the pasture.

GrazingDecemberSnow

This ground hasn’t been grazed since late July. Last I checked there was 14-18″ of fescue standing as well as a good mix of radishes, turnips and the remains of summer forages like sudangrass. Hopefully this will give us some relief from feeding hay. Three days last week we fed two square bales/day among the 10 cows. I know that’s not much but I’m not happy about it anyway. According to our hay pile, we have to do better.

The cows are in the SE corner of the field where the water supply is (a narrowed and compressed #24 from this post). Here’s the same picture from April of last year after we let the horses graze it to the nubbins. Compare to the picture above to notice how much brush grew back in 8 months.

AprilPasture1

We made a narrow strip running to the North. Next we’ll open up a strip to the west a little at a time, not restricting access to places the cattle have already grazed. I know this will allow some concentration of nutrients but it will also allow the cows to pick their winter shelter and access the water supply. So, yes, I’m lazy.

The winter shelter thing was a recent comment from my father…his concern was that strip grazing wasn’t allowing the cows to find the place in the pasture where they are most comfortable during a storm. As we move them around they have usually access to the leeward side of a hill or just to a comfy spot under a tree…especially when a storm is brewing. We try to make sure there are a variety of options in each section for winter grazing. Summer grazing has its own list of considerations (shade) but winter is more about shelter from wind than about keylines. Also, I have to balance cow comfort against winter feed requirements and future pasture productivity. The cows are the tool, not the target. I think there is a middle ground that suits everyone’s goals. Happy cows, healthy pasture, even manure distribution, lowered (or eliminated) hay requirements. That’s what we’re shootin’ for anyway.

The snow should melt this week making things easier for the moos. How’s grazing at your place?

Minks, Foxes and Murdered Chickens

Well, 6 ducks and a pullet. No pictures today.

It started this way. The fence was unplugged late last week.

Skip to the end, I come home from church Saturday night and find 5 dead ducks, one almost dead duck that couldn’t be pulled through the snow, a dead pullet (why do they never kill roosters!) and footprints in the snow. All bitten on the neck, nothing eaten. You know all those things they tell church people not to say? I’m ready to say them all. I hate minks. In all of creation I hate minks the most. They are smart hunters and viscous killers. A few years ago we lost 28 birds in one night to a mink.

If I hold the flashlight just right I can follow the track around the perimeter of the fence toward the big walnut tree and toward the iron pile. The iron pile.

I’m gonna git you sucka!

Gun in hand, I follow the track to the edge of the walnut tree’s canopy. At that point the snow is disturbed in a 100′ circle by snow that clumped on branches and fell off throughout the day. No more tracking. No shooting. No gittin’ suckas.

Just a long sleepless night.

Morning rolls around. Time to make the donuts. I take the flashlight out and hear the familiar duck greeting we are used to hearing. No additional casualties.  One duck is bloodied up but healing.

The fence is good and hot now. The ducks and hen will be rendered into cat food. Another day passes.

After checking that everything is cool outside I tuck into bed. At 4:30 I wake up. Time to make the donuts. I have a sickening feeling in my stomach. Maybe the mink found his way through the electric fence. Do I have any more ducks?

Once again, the familiar noise of ducks greets me. It’s kind of like the sound of laughter. Maybe cynnical laughter. I don’t particularly care for the ducks but I don’t want them to be killed by a mink.

The mink. He’s still out there. Somewhere. Hunting. Waiting. Searching. Biding his time. One sleepy night I won’t be paying attention and he’ll sneak in. Taking what is not his. And there will be little I can do about it.

Minks are skilled hunters and hard targets. I do have my trappers permit. It is season. But am I skilled enough? Will I kill the offending mink or just another mink?

Should I kill a mink?

Yesterday a fox ran past the cows in the pasture. We watched him stop, dig and hunt for mice then he jogged (do foxes jog?) to the pond to drink from the hole I cut in the ice. Finally he ran through the bottom East of the house. A few hours later I walked to the barn and a second fox was napping in the straw.

These predators can easily jump the electric fence and will help themselves to a chicken or two in the spring when they are feeding kits.

Should I kill a fox?

Maybe. My neighbors seem to think so. But fur is a fashion faux pas…for some reason. Like we are no longer a part of nature, just observers. Seems wasteful to just shoot it and let it rot. It’s kind of fun to see a fox run on the snow in the afternoon sun. They don’t kill all that many chickens (never roosters, only hens). How many mice do they kill?

Mr. Mink eats mice too. Do I value that service? I certainly don’t value serial killing of my ducks.

How do I balance this out? Shoot ’em all?

I don’t know.

I think I have to decide what a problem is and only deal with the problem. A dead chicken here or there isn’t much of a problem, really. 30 in one night is a problem. We dealt with that problem. But maybe we only lost the 6 because I didn’t turn on the fence. My bad. Is killing a chicken a capital crime? I guess not. But killing 30…that’s something else.

Obviously I have no problem with shooting animals. That’s just part of the deal. In the Zombie Post-Apocalyptic world I’ll shoot zombies. Skunks have a lot in common with zombies. But another part of the deal is being judicious about taking life. Part of stewardship is managing for biodiversity. That includes diversity among natural predators. Right?

Fence is off? Shame on me. Keep coming back for more? Shame on you.

Carrying the Cows’ Water

Matron mentioned chopping ice in a recent post. We chop ice too.

It is no use trying to drag hoses 1/4 mile across the pasture to where the cows are strip grazing. The hoses are frozen. I do my best to lay them downhill on South-facing slopes but when the high temperature is 25F, ice tends to build up. The best you can hope for is a big buildup of ice at the end of the hose you can work out with your pocketknife. But odds are, somewhere along the way, the ice froze in the hose and caused a buildup before it could run out. So we chop ice in the pond.

PondHoleI go out onto the pond where the water is at least 18″ deep and cut a hole in the ice. At this point the ice is a minimum of 2.5″. Not thick enough to trust but thick enough to get the job done if I stick to the shallows.

I cut a hole a little larger than the dimensions of a bucket laying on its side. Each chop sprays ice or water at my face. It’s always a good time to come into the house with ice caked into my beard. Almost every bucket brings up pond moss and it is not uncommon to scoop up bullfrog tadpoles too. I try to put those back.

PondPathThen I make the short march back to the trough with 10 gallons of water in my hands. 8 trips later, I’m done. Julie puts in a couple more buckets in the afternoon then in the morning I chip out all the ice and dump out the remaining water to start fresh again.

We were letting the cows water themselves at the pond but we found they are wary of the ice at the edge. Letting the cows get their own water is far easier for all parties involved and would necessarily be the solution if we had more cows on winter pasture. But we don’t. And this works.

In another week or so we’ll leave the alfalfa field and go to the fescue stockpile. There is a newly-installed spigot in that pasture. WHEW! After that? I dunno. We’ll start the cows up by the cemetery and work our way through the triangle and through the bottom. Hope the pasture lasts!

The pigs are much easier. They have a big water tank sitting on a mountain of compost. There has been a film of ice at the very top of the water. Otherwise, the compost keeps the water running.

Short Days, Short on Eggs, Long on Math (Updated)

108 layers in our flock. 29 eggs yesterday. Some of that is my fault. Those birds were hatched in March and July of 2012. I chose not to raise pullets in 2013 (beyond a few we hatched for fun). If I had raised replacements in the spring, those younger birds would be laying well right now. The older birds are taking a little time off because the days are so short…and because they are tired.

Snapped from wunderground.com

Snapped from wunderground.com

And I’m OK with that. They worked hard all spring, summer and fall. Now it’s time for them to rest up and restart in February when the days get longer. I could put a light bulb out there but, well…come on. I know our customers are disappointed that we are so short on eggs right now but…can’t they have a little time off?

Julie met a couple nearby who raised pullets in the spring who have not slowed down at all. They are selling eggs for $2/dozen at a farmer’s market and say they are giving away a fair portion of their eggs. They just can’t sell them and they certainly can’t imagine charging $4 for eggs. The conversation went back and forth a little bit, “Walmart charges $4 for low-quality brown eggs.” but the main theme was Julie saying, “You can’t possibly be making any money at $2” and them saying, “We do make money at $2.” So I thought it was a good time to review what it costs to produce a dozen eggs…cause there is just no way they are making money at $2.

I’ll assume their birds are outdoors which means they are not as feed efficient as other birds. According to Nutrena, a layer needs 0.21 pounds of feed per day. Let’s just call that 0.25 to adjust for outdoors and to make the math easier. This family is keeping 150 birds and says they pay $9 per bag of feed. I don’t know if that’s a 40 pound Nutrena bag or a 50 pound Purina bag so we’ll just say 50 pounds and give them the benefit of the doubt. 150 birds would need to eat 37.5 pounds of feed each day costing $6.75. A chicken lays an egg 2 days out of three. That means they should be getting 99 eggs/day. Let’s say none are cracked or stained so he gets 8 dozen eggs each day. $6.75/8 = $0.84. Maybe they feed garden waste or table waste to their birds to cut feed costs. I don’t have that information. I think you’ll see that even free feed wouldn’t help the situation.

He has $0.84 worth of feed in each dozen eggs he sells (assuming quite a bit in his favor). Because he is a licensed egg seller in Illinois he follows the rules. The rules say we have to use new egg cartons. He does. Egg cartons cost $0.30 at our scale weather you buy foam or pulp. Now we are up to $1.14 per dozen.

Each day the farmer has to feed and water the birds and gather the eggs. Then the eggs have to be washed, sorted, packed, weighed and labeled. Let’s call that an hour and let’s just suggest that an hour of that labor is worth $10. Now we’re at $2.39 per dozen eggs (assuming we’re selling 8 dozen each day).

We haven’t accounted for the 6 months of raising the young pullets when they weren’t laying any eggs and ate 10 pounds of feed each. We haven’t paid for the brooder they used. We haven’t paid for nest boxes, housing, roost space. We haven’t paid the Illinois egg inspection tax. We haven’t accounted for birds that will be killed by predators. We haven’t covered transportation as we haul them to a farmer’s market or paid for the booth at the farmer’s market…or paid for our time at the farmer’s market. Many of those costs are detailed in an older post. But forget all that. This producer is paying his customer $0.40 per dozen ($1,168 per year) and STILL has to give the eggs away. Heck, let’s break that down to one day. He’s getting up, trudging through the ice and snow, thawing drinkers, feeding chickens, cleaning nest boxes, gathering eggs, thawing waterers again, washing, packing, sorting, weighing and labeling eggs just so he can give his customers at least $3.20 every day. Wouldn’t it be better to just sit on the couch under a blanket? There are easier and funner ways to burn money!

If you are a customer of ours, I apologize that we are currently short on eggs. I apologize that our egg prices went up this year (and are likely to go up again in the spring). I know what it costs us to produce a dozen eggs. I know what it costs our business if I am unable to meet your demands for eggs. I realize I made a mistake in not raising pullets last spring. But, where I am today, working with what I have to work with and at our current scale, I feel it is best not to put a light on our birds to make them lay more eggs. Stick with us for just a little while longer. I know this is inconvenient but by March we’ll be swimming in eggs again.

Late update:
I found a couple of articles at OnPasture.com that addressed the egg issue well. There are also some articles linked on my original egg math posting.

Egg-onomics
Egg-onomics II

Philosophy of Finding Customers

Word is out. We are farmers. Yup. That’s what we are. We raise animals in a humane way and without the use of hormones or sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics. But we also grow really, really good food…getting better every year.

Do you see that those two ideas are the same…but different? Let me illustrate with two statements we hear from new customers regularly.

Chris, we just watched Food, Inc. I didn’t realize animals were treated so badly by farmers and farmers were treated so badly by Monsanto. My daughter has stopped eating. So, do you sell eggs? Are your chickens outside? How much are the eggs?

Chris, my friend X was just telling me about your eggs. He says the whites whip up like nothing he has ever seen! Can you put me on your list for a dozen? I can’t wait to try them!

From my experience (and experiences vary) the Food, Inc. viewer feels guilty. The second customer is probably more of a “foodie”. Guilt wears off quickly. The love of good food endures.

Leaving off nutrient density, everybody wants food to taste good and there’s a certain amount of that you can cover by just learning how to cook. Any mix of fresh ingredients is going to taste better than any similar mix of boxed, frozen or canned. But the next step is to find better ingredients. I promise you, pork from a hog floor and pork from a pasture smell different both when butchering and when cooking…and maybe that’s why you think you don’t like pork. There are worlds of difference drinking and making ice cream with freshly squeezed raw milk vs. pasteurized milk from the store. So when a foodie finds us for the first time they buy a dozen eggs and I usually get a text message or email or Facebook posting comparing my egg (orange, firm and tall) in a skillet next to a store bought, free range, organic, cage-free brown egg (pale yellow, limp and flat) along with a lengthy list of the merits my eggs and all the different things they cooked. The best was when a pastry chef friend took two-dozen of my eggs to an event where several chefs were working. After the event she said they all hung around to “play” with my eggs. Or when a group of sisters and old friends all came to together one weekend to bake cookies and the cookies were, apparently, the best ever. How cool is that?

These people enjoy food. Compare that to customers who arrive out of guilt. The customer who was lectured by their teen daughter about what they “should” do and, because the daughter is starving herself and the father is desperate, he buys a dozen eggs. “But a chicken is a dang chicken. It can’t be all that different.”

Obviously I am concerned about animal welfare. Remember what I said above about sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics? That is done to help animals in confinement deal with the stress of being in confinement. Allow me to illustrate. Imagine being packed into a small airport terminal with hundreds of people you don’t know…people you don’t want to know…people you don’t want to smell or touch or – GEEZ! – feel rubbing against your leg. Add to that, you are eating strange food. You can’t find a place to sit down. You need to go to the bathroom but it is closed. You are, yourself, wondering if you’ll make your connecting flight as you wait to be inspected, sorted and led down the loading chute. It is stressful. Now, imagine your flight never leaves and you are stuck in the terminal for months. In time, your health may decline. To help avoid that, you are given small doses of antibiotics in your food on a daily basis. This will help keep you on top of stress-related diseases. Does the discomfort of travel prevent you from traveling? Does this illustration keep you from eating feedlot beef? Probably not.

How about public school. You know, a 12 year sentence with people who are paid to keep the inmates from killing each other. Children who can’t perform in the gulag will be medicated into submission. I am working to evoke emotional response here, not debate the morality of compulsory education. Did you feel you angry as you read what I wrote? What do you do with that emotional response? Go ahead. Imagine yourself angry after reading that or after watching Food, Inc. Now what? How long will that feeling last? What is it you are angry about? Are you angry that I said it? Are you angry that people feel that way? Are you angry that there is some truth to Food, Inc.? Are you angry that you can’t do much about it? At some point your anger will wane. That’s just the way it is. There is little you can do about it and the kids are late for soccer.

Isn’t it better to appeal to something positive? To say, “Wow, I love to eat and those eggs are worth eating!” than to say, “Well, these eggs don’t suck as much as those.” Isn’t it better to think about what you like instead of dwelling on what you do not like?

I work to find passionate customers. I find that customers who are inspired to act out of gilt peter out quickly. They buy that first dozen eggs with a bewildered look on their face and one comment on their lips: “You get $4 for eggs?” and rarely return for seconds. The foodies have the opposite reaction. They are shocked the price is so low and return to me with a story. Then they buy a chicken. Then they buy a hog. Now they are partnering in our farm. The guilty buyer goes back to cheap food, not seeking an experience, not seeking quality. Just doing what he has always done.

I don’t really know how to end this other than to say I think this applies far beyond food and to caution that this is not a more carrot/less stick talk. Appeal to people’s passions if you want to motivate them to action. Saying, “I can help you fulfill your dreams!” is far more powerful, long term, than, “Give me money because you feel guilty!” Don’t just run around like Chicken Little claiming the world is ending and we’re all going to die. You are going to die. It is going to happen. But a few of us choose to live while we are alive. And those are the customers I seek.