Calving When it’s Time to Calve

From Wednesday’s Pharo Cattle Company PCC update:

Just one week after the official beginning of our calving season, we are almost two-thirds done calving.   That is impossible for those who do not calve in sync with nature.  Since all calves are born with a summer hair coat, doesn’t it make sense to calve in warm weather?

That’s pretty much the boat we are in. Our animals were all naturally serviced in a short window and it has taken 17 days for four out of five calves to hit the ground. The cows were on pasture all year but we turned them on new grass 2 months ago. They are fat, healthy and clean. The grass is tall. The air is warm. Calves are all coming unassisted. We just look away for a second and look back and there’s a calf up nursing.

Curly

Certainly some of the vigor we are seeing in our calves is due to the bull we used but there is more than just that. Certainly some portion of calving ease is due to herd genetics but that doesn’t account for the whole picture either. The calves are warm. Their bellies and moms’ udders are kept clean by tall, fresh grass. They are standing, running and romping on firm ground. Mom is making milk just at the time when the pasture is at its peak of production.

Edith

So now the question…should I breed at the same time this year? Last year the bull arrived on July 27th. Three heifers did not breed. Did they miss because they were inferior animals? Too tall? Infertile/unhealthy? Were they just too hot when the bull was here? So far, all heifers bred on their first cycle but the bull was here until the end of September. Do those other three really have an excuse? Really?

I don’t know. I mean, I guess I can stick with the same window and continue selecting for cattle that will breed in the heat. It’s hard to know what is best.

Clover

Our pastures are dominated by infected fescue. Infected fescue does all sorts of bad things to cattle including increasing their body temperature. Lots of ranchers just to the west of us breed in December to calve in the fall flush of growth and take advantage of stockpiled fescue when it is of the highest quality…when it is frozen. Then they wean in the spring when calf prices are high but to this point we have allowed the cow to wean the calf herself…at about 9 months. That’s no big whoop either.

Henry_Edith

I don’t know if I am doing the right thing. We aren’t worried that the calf will be cold. The cows are fat, clean and in good health. We are doing what other, apparently knowledgeable, apparently successful farmers and ranchers do. We are doing what the deer do. It seems to be working out well.

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Farmer’s Progress Chapter 6: Farming as a Business

I don’t know how many of you are reading through Farmer’s Progress with me. The book is out of print and a little hard to find but I think it’s worth the effort. Today Mr. Henderson reminds us that a farm is not just a dream or a tax shelter, it is a business. I am not trying to distill each chapter down to a few bullet points. I am also not trying to republish his work. I am giving you a glimpse into Mr. Henderson’s wonderful book, encouraging you to find a copy and sharing a few anecdotes and thoughts of my own along the way.

FarmersProgress

On this topic, Ethan Book released a podcast last week about financing a farm. Each episode of the podcast features a hard lesson learned (or not yet learned) segment. This week’s Ethan suggested that he bought his farm to satisfy a dream rather than to fulfill a business goal. At one point he asks how ridiculous would it be for him to buy a restaurant with zero experience in the restaurant business. That’s exactly the point Mr. Henderson is making as he corrects me once again. We arrived with business in mind but zero experience. We quickly overcame the early (and low) hurdles of efficient livestock production but, as Bruce King pointed out, how do you sell that 300 pigs once you raise them? We were ready to raise chickens. We were somewhat ready to kill chickens. But we were not ready for a freezer full of chickens. I guess we thought it would be Field of Dreams…if we grow it, they will come. They didn’t come. They won’t come. Our farm “business” has to be about 10% production time and 90% marketing time. I don’t know if Mr. Henderson would approve but that’s what it takes to move a chicken.

In earlier chapters he wants the reader to define a clear vision, gain experience, work and save your nickels, understand the world around you and your place in it, and make a study of the efficient application of labor. In chapter 6 we are faced with the grim reality of the market. Scarcity will place farms in the hands of those who can produce most efficiently and strip it from those who just tread water.

To farm a farm as it has been farmed before is to obtain nothing more than a bare living from it, for the great weakness in British agriculture lies in seeking a  stable rather than a progressive industry, and a farm should always be planned on the assumption of steadily rising costs which will have to be met by greater efficiency and a higher output.

The early part of the chapter is given to a reminder that farming is a business. A business! Henderson says we are going to stack multiple enterprises on the same bit of land. He talks about having a poultry farm, a cattle farm and a pig farm all on the same land, each enhancing the other, each carrying the other through price downturns and building the farm up over time. But it isn’t as simple as buying a variety of livestock (and planting a variety of grain). He wants you to turn your money frequently. You down? Economists talk about the “Velocity” of money. There could be $1,000,000 of currency in the economy doing $1,000,000,000 worth of work. It just has to move quickly. Think of it this way, if you can make 10% on every transaction you won’t earn a 10% annual return. You’ll compound your return every time. So Mr. Henderson wants us to buy some ram lambs, some pigs and some pullets. By the time the pullets are ready to lay the ram lambs will be ready for market. We can take the proceeds from the ram lamb sale and put it toward the next set of lambs AND some chicken feed. When the pigs ship we buy replacement stock, spread the manure on the fields (to increase the carrying capacity of our pastures or grow more grain for chicken feed) and buy the feed required for the next batch of pigs. You get the idea. Our money is always invested where it is growing and in a variety of places. The faster we can release that capital, reinvest and realize profits, the faster we can move the farm forward.

That’s why Julie and I never have two nickels to rub together. It all goes back into the farm (and then some!). Well, that and we aren’t very good at turning our inventory. Look at the annual statement of any publicly traded company. Any of them. Compare the two major retailers if you want. You need to see two figures. You just need to divide the cost of goods sold by the average inventory for the period. No big whoop. That will indicate to you which competitors are using resources more efficiently. If Business A turns inventory every 3 days and Business B turns inventory every 5 days and Business C is turning inventory every 20 days…well, you can probably make a few assumptions about the management of Business C.

Let’s do it this way. How many people in your community buy milk? Does the grocer keep that much milk in stock at all times? You’ll find out next time there’s an ice storm. The grocer needs to maximize the utility of his refrigerator case, maximize the return on his inventory purchases and still meet your needs. If he is efficient about it, he is buying and selling milk frequently.

All of that to say, how efficient are you about turning your farm inventory? I bring a calf into the world, put labor, grass, nutrients, and improvements into the calf and, over the span of 6-8 months create a finished product…a weaned calf. I get one crop of calves each year. It takes me a long time to turn my money over with cattle. But I could manage my operation differently. I could lamb 3 times in two years. I could pig (verb) two or three times each year. I could do a Bud Williams Sell/Buy operation where I’m always looking out for the relatively undervalued class of stock immediately after selling the relatively overvalued class of stock. I could turn my money over monthly. Calves this month, open cull cows next month, sheep the month after that…always looking to keep my money in motion…to increase the velocity. To make my percentage over and over and over quickly. Eggs bring in cash every day but after 5-6 months of raising the birds to point of lay you have to pay off their housing, fencing and feed with egg sales. Broilers give a return in about 2 months(if you have done your marketing). Feeder pigs give a return in 4-5 months (again, marketing). Corn needs a summer season before you see your investment again (and corn in the bin is money in the bank). You need 4 calves to break even on the development of a heifer. It’s only the cows that wean a calf every year for 5 or more years that make you any money. That’s slow turning, though fairly reliable.

We’re talking about rapid ROI here and it’s a difficult and sobering conversation. Land costs money…a frightening amount of money. You can lower the land resource cost of each operation by adding additional profitable enterprises. Remember, Mr. Henderson wants a balanced mix of arable land and livestock. The livestock pay the fertilizer bill, the arable land pays the feed bill and everything grown is of the highest quality from the registered stock to the seed corn he harvests. To balance production requires investment in buildings. Where most farmers of the time valued a farm primarily on the amount of arable land, Henderson considered the improvements.

…the value of a farm is not the market price or the rent you are asked for it, but what you intend to do with it. … After all, piped water, a good cowshed, dairy, piggery, and Dutch barn make all the difference between being compelled to depend on arable farming and having a fully balanced system building up stock and fertility.

Mine was a mixed farm from its inception. The yellow house, at the center of a 60, has two barns, a hog floor, a grain bin, a machine shed, a pond, a pig nursery and a corral. There is a road that makes it easy to move equipment to each of the buildings. Water lines are buried everywhere (and are in need of replacement), power runs overhead and underground, the head stalls for the milk cows are still functional. The farm is set up for livestock. Even with termite damage in the barn and roofing blowing off and trees growing up besides buildings and walls pushed out by livestock and leaky water lines that we have shut off until we can replace them…even with all the repairs we need to do the farm layout makes working here more pleasant and saves me from having to figure out how to lay out a farm on my own. This must have made a real difference to my ancestors when they farmed with horses…moving wagons by team. That planning continues to make a positive impact today but I have to amplify it. Remember the first quote I used about always assuming we have to meet steadily rising costs with increased productivity?

…it is no use producing more unless you produce it cheaper; it is of no value to produce cheaper unless the labour you save is devoted to further production. The people of this world have either to reduce population, to increase production, or starve. Let us take the middle course – it is by far the most comfortable and interesting!

He goes further than that. It is not only important that we lay out the farm in an efficient manner and work in an efficient way, not so we can goof off more, but so we can produce more, it is important that we design to be inclusive.

The saving of human effort is also important, for we are not all built for heavy work, and nowadays, when some of the best and most conscientious workers are women, it is a pity to have to retain anyone whose only qualification is brute strength.

I need to design with Julie in mind. Why is she carrying that bucket? Can I put a spigot there? What will cost more: the spigot or back surgery? This also counts for the kids. What can I do to make things easier on the kiddos so they can handle a greater portion of the now easier workload?

From here Mr. Henderson goes into the need for proper bookkeeping. Peppered into each chapter are lengthy sections describing methods of making work more efficient and he does not disappoint here. While describing his bookkeeping method he also teaches about pulping roots for fodder then he transitions to the need for business-mindedness and delivers this gem:

Many farmers, still dreaming of the golden age of the 1870’s when their grandfathers lived like gentlemen, and hoping those days will come again, despise the tradesman; but there is a great deal they could learn from him. The ex-shopkeeper often does well in farming simply because he is used to thinking in terms of pennies as the profit on an article, and he will be quite happy to sell even a bale of straw retail if the opportunity occurs.

He then goes into the reluctance many farmers feel not just about selling retail but about selling at all. If you need a bale of straw he’ll extract a favor rather than money. If you need to borrow some of his workers, just pay their wages…never demanding a little bit for organizing and training the crew or to compensate you for the work they won’t get done while they are on his place.

This, I suppose, originated in the hoary old tradition that farmers never make a profit anyway!

I was thinking about my great-grandpa Charlie yesterday. He was born 101 years before me. He built the big white barn 100 years ago this year – when he was just about my age – at a time of great agricultural prosperity. I don’t know how he lived. I don’t know if he ever laughed. I see the old family picture of stern looking people and know the stories of how they suffered and worked and look at the house I live in, the barn we use, the ruined old yellow house…My goodness! I really do appreciate what they did for my generation. I believe they lived well for their time. But I wouldn’t trade places with any of them for a second. It would be cool to see 14 Jersey and Guernsey cows lined up in the head stalls and to hear the pail sing with each squirt of milk from my great-grandpa’s, my grandpa’s and my great-aunt’s effort. What did they do with the milk? How did they account for the costs? Was it a business? Was it a lifestyle? I know they were a prosperous people…but did they know it?

As grandpa lay in his hospital bed in the room where I am typing, he expressed concern for grandma’s future without him. He owed a little money on 80 acres down the road. He feared debt. I have no idea what my great-grandpa Charlie was like but I remember my grandpa Tom well and my great-aunt is very similar. Grandpa was always on the lookout for a deal. Not so he could profit from another’s error but so he could facilitate one guy in moving something and another in buying it. He would always take odd routes, often stopping to chat about a baler or a bull or …who knows what else. Dad says grandpa would bring a baler home and just when they got it timed and working well grandpa would sell it. Make a little profit. Turn that money. A bull, a cow, a pig. Improve the breeding stock. Improve the land and water systems. Make the workload more efficient. Profit by making other farmers more efficient. Profit by making sure everybody came out a winner.

I would like to say that’s where Henderson ends the chapter, teaching us to go ahead and reap where we have sown, to take a little reward for risks taken. But he closes out the chapter railing against the injustices of the British tax officials of the time. Not that it appears Henderson is against paying taxes but, instead, he is against the injustice of the system that makes no concession for error and the extreme difficulty of obtaining a refund for overpayment.

It is even said that as much revenue is obtained from payments in error as is lost by evasion of payment. What a comment on the ethics of the Civil Service! In the great majority of cases a farmer must employ someone whose business it is to see that he does not pay too much.

I made the mistake of moving here thinking I could raise a few birds, milk a few cows and fatten a few pigs and everything would just turn out peachy keen. Fattening stock is easy. Ridiculously easy. The hard part is marketing our goods, calculating profit percentages, growing our money and reinvesting in infrastructure. We came here to raise animals and succeeded. I was utterly unprepared to be in business. Mr. Henderson drove that home in this chapter.

Tell Me You Were Kidding about the Poop!

“What do you mean, ‘Tail covered in manure‘?!?!?!?” asked an alarmed friend.

Well…um…not exactly covered. I meant that to be a humorous post about the down and dirty of the daily chores, not a confession that I’m milking a sick cow in unsanitary conditions. I’m not milking a sick cow and we keep things clean. Very clean. I am milking a cow that is on some pretty lush spring forage, is refusing to eat any hay and has loose manure…some of which splattered on the hair at the tip of her tail…the part that beat me on the head as I milked so we dang-near give her a sponge bath before milking.

I might say “I’m covered in ticks” when I have two ticks on my person. Any manure on the cow’s tail is too much manure on the cow’s tail when that tail hits the back of your head. She wasn’t coated in manure. She wasn’t really covered in manure. The tip of her tail was splattered lightly. That’s part of spring but it’s not part of milking.

I keep an eye on the cow manure every morning and evening. It’s just part of the routine. What did they eat in this paddock? Are their ears up? Anybody lagging behind? Eyes clear? Are they full? What does the manure look like? All of those questions can be answered in less than a minute.

We have gone through some dense bromegrass, orchardgrass, fescue and red clover pasture and we have been getting at least an inch of rain every week for about the last month. Things are growing like gangbusters out there so the forage is pretty rich and immature (high in protein). This site talks about manure consistency and what it means. Ours looks a lot like the last picture. Very thin. Very green. Very splatterish.

Julie (who is listed in my phone as Beautiful Wife) texted me yesterday (I had to dress this up a bit as it arrived out of sequence):

CowManure

So that’s that. Too much protein and it comes out wet. I need more energy in my forages…which should start to happen any day now as the grass is 3′ tall and going to seed. But let’s just plow through that mess and move on.

Cows poop. Poop happens. But you don’t want poop in your dairy. We could go ahead and let poop happen in the dairy then hide the evidence with pasteurization or we could work our butts off to keep the cow clean, keep the dairy clean, keep our bucket clean and keep the milk clean.

Remember that picture earlier this week?

MilkingFlora

Where is the bucket? We are milking on a clean concrete pad but the bucket isn’t on the concrete. The cow just stepped there! I hold the bucket up between my knees, really close to the clean udder. What you don’t see is me milking out about a quart then pouring it into another pail…a pail with a lid. Then I go back for more. If something should happen to the bucket (like a splattering of cow manure) I continue milking but stop collecting the milk for household consumption. We let the waste milk clabber up and we give it to the piggies. You also don’t see the filter we use in the kitchen to help us prove the milk is clean (not to clean the milk…though we do allow it to filter a stray hair or two.) Switching to the milking machine has given us even more bio-security both from a cleanliness standpoint and in terms of speed to chill. Here’s a cool video showing what is involved (not us). You can learn more about the video below at this link.

As my father reminded me, “Cleanliness is next to godliness”. But we don’t wash our bodies with antibacterial soap every day to kill even the beneficial bacteria covering us do we? Oh. Some of you do? Huh. OK. Well. We don’t cook ourselves through at 138 degrees for 2 seconds each day to purify our bodies. We wash our hands, eat well, get regular sleep, get a little sunlight and rely on our healthy, functioning immune systems to keep the baddies at bay. When drinking raw milk you also have to keep the pasture healthy, the cow healthy (let it graze fresh, tall grass in the sunlight, let it get a little exercise), wash your hands and keep the cow poop out of the bucket. If Flora comes to the barn with a truly messy tail we take a moment outside to clean things off. Then we brush her to remove loose hair. By this time she’s usually a little antsy so we put her in the head stall and get to work.

Let’s go back and revisit that previous paragraph. I have read a number of arguments that suggest there is no difference in the health of a cow on pasture and a cow in a confinement dairy. Further, there are not enough acres of grassland to support nation-wide grass-based dairy. Confinement dairy works because we have access to cheap energy and because we have bred cows that make large volumes of fluid milk on high-powered feed. Confinement cows, however, rarely last past three lactations (remember the argument that there is no difference in health!). Grazing dairies usually have surplus heifers they sell to the confinement dairies. The acres involved are much less of a problem but I’ll outline it briefly then suggest a solution. A cow has to spend X hours each day eating and digesting (varies based on body weight, temperature and stage of life). Any time spent walking to and from the dairy is time that is not spent grazing or, more importantly, ruminating. Even after overcoming the near total lack of grazing-adapted dairy genetics in North America, we have to reduce the number of cows per dairy and increase the number of dairies. I don’t see the downside here…moving away from EPA hazard 4,000 cow confinement dairies that turn 5-year old cows into hamburger and consume massive quantities of oil, however efficiently, to many, many 200 head grazing-only operations. Not to mention decentralization. I have heard so many arguments against Wal-Mart that can basically be summed up in one point: Wal-Mart is too big. Well. If we hate big corporations, don’t we also hate the big organic milk producer that is organic in name only? Isn’t more selection more better? Isn’t this what the Net Neutrality fuss is all about? Desiring competition in the marketplace so we don’t all have to bow at the alter of the big cable provider? Don’t we want competition in milk production? Don’t we want cows to eat grass? (I’m about to go full-on rant here so I should just stop now.)

I’m really not interested in arguing for or against raw milk. This product is not for sale and the bulk of our milk goes to the pigs (’cause we can’t drink it all). I think there are all sorts of problems in American dairies from the mineral-deficient land to cattle stuck indoors to dishonest or misleading dairy protections to the overweight, immuno-compromised consumers. For my fully-vaccinated, athletic and generally healthy family, raw dairy from our own clean, healthy cattle grazing on clean, healthy, well-mineralized pastures, milked in a clean environment with clean, sterile equipment and milk that goes from teat to fridge in under 15 minutes is no problem. But I’m not interested in making that decision for you. I generally shy away from telling people what to do, I focus on telling people what NOT to do as in “Don’t screw up like I did”. Nor will I recommend that you go buy raw milk because it is “better”. If raw milk is your bag, get to know your dairyman. If you dig pasteurized milk, well, you can pasteurize the raw milk you buy from your dairyman. I know several families that re-pasteurize store-bought milk. If you want to buy pasteurized milk at the store go to town but pasteurized milk is not sterile. Similar thinking applies to ham and spinach…and sprouts are deadly.

If you are milking the cow, keep things clean. Don’t give infection an opportunity. If you are buying the milk, educate yourself then go see what goes on at the dairy.

How’s this for Glamour?

“Oh! To live as you do….on the farm, chickens, cows, a few apple trees! How wonderful for your children to eat all that fresh food!”

Awesome? Yes. Easy? No. Glamorous? LOL!

Remember, behind every beautiful cow is a tail covered in manure…smacking you on the back of the head as you milk.

MilkingFlora

There is a lot going on in that picture, many small tweaks that come from experience and even a few from a recent read of Farmer’s Progress. I’m holding the bucket between my knees to keep it up and clean and not stepped in. My left knee keeps the cow from kicking. My head presses into her side, looking toward the cow’s head. The only problem here (aside from the manure on the tail hitting the back of my head) is the small handles. She has thimbles!  I have to milk her with my thumb and two fingers. Ugh…takes For. Ever. This kind of milking will teach patience. Fortunately Julie does most of the milking! I think it’s time to break out the milker. …and to tie up the tail during milking.

So, yeah man. Move on out to the farm. Spend the day with the fragrance of eau de Bos. Vous serez tres chic! (You may even remember your high school French!)

Totally Faking It Every Day.

I seem to have them all fooled…at least for now. All of them. My employer, my wife, my children, my dog. Maybe even you, the reader.

We have a bumper sticker that came with our van that says, “Lord, let me be the person my dog thinks I am.” Wow does that apply to my life.

My livestock expect me to be the kind of man who gets up in the morning and meets all of their needs. Not just safety, respect and high-quality feed and forage but opportunity to express natural inclinations. But I don’t know what I’m doing. I just look at the animals and their poop and make adjustments until things look like I think they are supposed to. Then I write a few notes about my cow’s poop, include a few pictures and publish it for all of the internet to enjoy…because apparently there are a few people out there who enjoy gritty stories of farm life from the trenches.

Lord, let me be the person my cows think I am.

I wouldn’t have a farm if I didn’t have a job with a fairly significant income. We just wouldn’t be here. So I have to keep that job. I have done my job for 10 years but with side jobs and extra hours I have at least 15 years of experience. Most of my work time is spent being proactive about problems. Being intentionally vague (cause my job is nerdy and boring) I work to find issues before they impact customers. I also dedicate a portion of each day to learning about new technologies and new trends in my field. I do a bit of firefighting but if I’m really on top of my game I look like the Maytag repair man…but I have to look busy or I’ll lose my job and, potentially, my farm. Management doesn’t seem to appreciate me when everything just “works” regardless of how much work it takes to look effortless.

Lord, let me be the employee my employer thinks I am.

Being completely honest, I couldn’t do my job as well without the internet. I don’t have to discover every solution. Somebody else has already done it, blogged it and moved on. Same with cattle. Where would I be without Joel Salatin’s books and the generations of farmers he has inspired (at least 2 generations now, maybe 3). I wonder if Salatin every prays, “Lord, let me be the farmer they think I am.”

That takes me to my family. I don’t know who they think I am. I have no idea why Julie married me. I wouldn’t marry me. Not only that, but she married me and stuck with it. Weird. And she intentionally and voluntarily created children with me. Is she on drugs? Is this all a dream? What if she finds out? After everything that Julie and I have been through I’m really not as insecure about our relationship as I’m pretending to be but still…I have no idea why she is still there every night when I get home. It must be the exciting and frequent conversations we have about cow poop.

Lord, let me be the husband my wife needs me to be.

Kids, though…kids. In some ways you could liken them to inmates. They have an 18-year sentence before we’ll let them loose. By that point they may be so completely institutionalized that the freedom will drive them crazy or they will break down the locked door to get back home. Hopefully, though, they will grow to be self-assured young men and women who live each day with purpose and vision. But who is going to teach them that? Me? LOL! I don’t know what I’m doing. I have never raised children before! They are more complicated than dogs. Messier too. Fortunately the conversation is so much more meaningful. But what do I talk to them about? I can’t talk about my job. They don’t care about cow poop. I think the older boy is catching on to me. Maybe I should wrestle him in the grass, throw a ball and end the day with a meaningful life lesson, “Son, life is like cow poop. Sometimes it’s runny and messy and sticks to your tail. Other times it’s firm and hard. Either extreme is too much. You want it right in the middle. That’s all of life right there, son. If cow poop comes out soft but doesn’t mess up the tail and has a depression on top, you’ve done everything right by your cows. You think about that, son.”

Lord, let me be the father my children think I am.

I have no idea what I’m doing but I have an idea of what I need to do each day. I wake up, make a plan and execute that plan…or at least chip away at it. The phrase “Fake it ’till you make it” indicates that someday I’ll finally know something about what I’m doing and can stop faking my way through. But someday isn’t here. I have heard grazers say it takes 20 years to learn anything about grazing livestock so I’ll be faking for at least another 15 years.

To be more serious for a moment, I really don’t know where I’m going…where my wife and I are going. We have direction. We are obedient. We work hard. I have a vague idea of the next destination but I can’t for the life of me comprehend how to get there. So we focus on our relationships, we do our work, we study, we take one step at a time and we pray a lot. I don’t know what else to do.

I don’t know how you do what you do or if you share any of my insecurities but I do thank you for reading this and hope you will come back again.

Lord, let me be the person my blog reader thinks I am.

Farmer’s Progress Chapter 5: Farming as a Craft

I continue reading and reflecting on George Henderson’s book Farmer’s Progress. This book is out of print but not out of copyright so I am trying to make the best use of a few selected quotes to share my thoughts on each chapter. I know the book is hard to find and a little pricey but compare the used purchase price to the price of any used college textbook. Just buy it.

It’s all about efficiency of movement and you’ll wear out your body trying to figure it out on your own. Years ago we took a couple of classes with local weightlifting coaches to learn to deadlift and clean efficiently and correctly. There are a lot of things we tend to do incorrectly out of ignorance that injure our bodies over time. The key things for me to remember when deadlifting are head up, chest out, butt back and the bar against my legs. But there is more. I need to set up with the right hand and foot positions and keep the weight on my heels. It all adds up to a long list of little things I wouldn’t know if Coach Kenney or Coach Rut hadn’t told me. He gave me a shortcut to efficiency. You might think deadlift and clean are useless in this discussion but think again next time you pick up a box and put it on a shelf. A little coaching goes a long way.

Mr. Henderson points out that you can’t learn to swim by reading a book so he jokes that he is writing a book that can’t teach you anything. Instead, he’s pointing out some ideas that you can keep in mind as you are learning from an experienced farmer. If you are going to put in long, hard days for decades on end you need to learn to work with your body without damaging it. Here is an early example from the chapter:

The secret of work is well-arranged time and the saving of unnecessary effort. Watch the amateur farmer fetching a barrow load of mangels from the camp. He loads it up and then turns it round loaded – extra effort for no purpose.

Know your body. Julie has a long torso and proportionally shorter legs compared to me. There are differences that we need to account for when buying a bicycle. Those differences also need to be accounted for in our farm chores.

Why does the experienced worker carry a sack of corn across his shoulders instead of down his back? He is using his bony framework instead of his muscles. A man is a triangle, broad shoulders, narrow hips with heels close together; quite different from a woman, whose wide hips make her egg-shaped; and for that reason she should not carry sacks in that manner; her limit is about half the 18 stone a nine-stone man can carry…

Certainly there are exceptions. I have known some VERY strong women. Leave out any perceived sexism in Mr. Henderson’s writing and think about two people with differently designed bodies. They each need to determine how best to leverage that design in accomplishing their task. If you do what you are not designed to do, things will begin to break down…as Julie would tell you.

My oldest son and I are designed very similarly…in fact, we are frequently mistaken for each other from a distance. He can’t split firewood to save his life (sorry, son). I can swing the maul with a rhythm for a long time before I am winded. There are a hundred things I know about splitting wood that I haven’t successfully taught him yet. Aim here, not there. Look for the checks. This kind of wood requires this kind of force. Watch for this or that. To him, it’s all just wood. You swing at it until it chips apart. For me, it’s a game. I swing only where I have to and the wood flies apart…most of the time. But I have a lot of years of splitting wood under my belt. A lot of years of watching my dad or my father in law split wood. (BTW, I try not to split wood unless I have to. I prefer to cut 6″ or smaller logs and just burn them whole.)

So much can be learned by watching others. Thank God for Youtube. We would never have learned to butcher chickens if David Schafer hadn’t posted this video.

But along with seeking mechanical efficiency you have to burn the right fuel. You won’t get very far putting the wrong fuel in your tractor. Your body is no different.

As in animals the basis of health in man is sound diet. The decline in physical energy has coincided with the introduction of white flour; if only all farming folk would eat wholemeal home-baked bread, from freshly ground, home-grown wheat, they could work like our ancestors…

Well. I don’t know about the wheat thing but I am sure he is right. No matter how mechanically sound my motions are, I can’t perform them for long if I’m all filled up on junk food. The point of the whole book is to inspire us to do 40 years of farming in 20 years…a feat we can’t accomplish without the right fuel.

But I also want to make mention of the home-baked and home-grown ideas. Certainly there is more work involved in making your own food from your own ingredients. But you are certain of what that food contains. Further, you haven’t paid tax on the income of farm products so you can pay tax on goods purchased off-farm. You just grow it and eat it. Currently there is no tax assessed on that. Currently…

Much of the rest of the chapter is example after example of the value of mastery and efficiency. There are a full two pages given to a description of how to efficiently milk a cow and that’s worth your time as well as a discussion of what he has learned from other farmers about grazing livestock. This quote seems to sum it up well enough:

…the knowledge of which is passed on from generation to generation, and remember that the oral wisdom of the countryside is of no less value than that which is found within the covers of a book, or told so glibly from the platform of the lecture hall. Wisdom will carry a man farther than knowledge; opinion may be formed without a grasp of the facts, while propaganda is the language of the devil, when it is applied to farming.

This next quote seems a little out of place in the chapter but I agree with it so completely I am going to quote it as well.

Apart from the knowledge which comes from experience, everyone should on a farm learn elementary first-aid, not only for the animals, but for human beings as well, for you are often far from professional aid…

I could show you my scars. Julie showed a scar off on a recent blog post. We cut ourselves when butchering animals. It happens. The kids have bicycle accidents. We had a goat that kept bleeding days after being dehorned. We have to know first aid. Have to. Have to. Have to. I recently got AED certification. We know CPR. My goodness. Why bother canning up a year’s worth of peaches if you’re going to allow yourself to bleed to death when a mason jar breaks in your hand.

He ends the chapter covering why I blog and read other farmer’s blogs. We are sharing what little we have learned and making a positive contribution to the pool of available knowledge.

In an age of self-interest, cynicism, and despair, remember there are others who will be glad to learn from you; you need not hide your knowledge…

I hope you are enjoying Mr. Henderson’s books as much as we are. Have you read this chapter? What did you get out of it?

Another Addition

41 gave us a bull calf yesterday afternoon. Another surprise, unassisted calving. He’s a strong bull calf with a big head. Here he is hiding behind mom when we caught him nursing this morning.

BullCalf

The new calf was born yesterday afternoon. He had all kinds of energy last night but we hadn’t seen him latch on and nurse. I went to bed a little concerned but this morning we caught him in the act and we saw his meconium so that’s it. Red calf with a white belly doing everything he is supposed to do. Now we just have to get 41 ready to breed again in August.

We are still sprinting across the pastures trying to cream off the energy. Things are firming up if you know what I mean, but the white calf still hasn’t slicked out.

WhiteHeifer

I don’t think she’s going to make the team. To this point the white calf is the very definition of a poor do-er. I’m going to have to worm her and see if she comes along.

Just Mable (we usually say May-Belle), 111 and 76 remaining to calve. We’re overdue for some heifer calves here…but I would prefer that May give us a bull calf as she’s a Jersey bred to a Shorthorn bull.

The Awesome and the Not Awesome

We’re up! We’re down! This is great! I can’t go on.

Ready for the awesome?

Sunday morning I was washing dishes at the sink. I could see the cows out the kitchen window including Flora, our expecting-any-day-now milk cow. Every day the kids ask me, “How’s Flora?” and I reply, “Still pregnant.” Sunday morning I could see her clearly from the window. “How’s Flora?”

“Still pregnant.”

I finish up the dishes, dry my hands and head outside to open the nest boxes and check the animals. Within 10 minutes of washing the dishes I am walking through the cows and almost fall down in surprise. A fresh, wet brown bull calf is already standing next to flora and trying to nurse. Within 10 minutes!

Here he is at 24 hours old.

DryCalf

Good little guy. The kids are calling him “Steak” but I think we’ll choose something less…pointed. He is nursing well on all four quarters and running with the herd. Vigorous calf on an early May morning. What more could I want?

Had he been born 12 hours earlier the story would have been different. Saturday night we got an inch and a half of rain and quite a bit of wind with cooler temperatures. All that rain…all that wind would have been hard weather for this little guy. Thank God he was born in the morning after the storm.

But that brings us to the not awesome. We have month old pullets in our chicken tractors currently. 3 tractors, 50 pullets each. They are growing well and feathering out…doing everything a pullet is supposed to do on pasture. 46 of them piled and died in the rain Saturday night. There is no sense in it at all. Just a bucket full of dead birds…birds that didn’t have sense enough to get out of the rain.

I don’t have words for the level of frustration we are feeling. Cackle Hatchery sent us 156 pullets, 155 made it out of the brooder and lasted until last night. Weather is always a factor and there is only so much I can do to plan for it. But I would never have imagined I could lose a full third of my birds to rain.

We are up one calf. We are milking Flora again. But our future flock was just cut back dramatically. That’s the news…good and bad. This farming stuff is hard.

Farmer’s Progress Chapter 4: The Art of Farming

Today I continue reading George Henderson’s book, Farmer’s Progress. I am working to use only as many of Mr. Henderson’s words as I have to to relate the information I want to discuss and share, not to reprint an unfair portion of the book (however much I think it should be reprinted).

 

FarmersProgressAs I was beginning to form this post a friend sent me the following bit of humor:

Science and art need to mesh more – sure you can make a baby in a petri dish, but the other way is much more fun.

And with that in mind we will invite Mr. Henderson to tell us all about the art of farming. The overarching goal of a farmer must be to

leave the land for which they are responsible far better than they found it.

No problem. He points out that success in achieving this goal leads, necessarily, to finding prosperity as well as serving your fellow man. How about that? You live with purpose, you have meaningful work, you eat well and everybody is better for it…even if there will be bad days. Clearly Mr. Henderson is more poetic about this but you see what he’s saying. I have grass where there were only thorns and weeds before. What did it cost me? All of my mornings, evenings and weekends. A week of tube-feeding a baby goat only to have it die in my wife’s arms. (Poor Shivers.) Long nights sleeping in the field, waiting for that stinking skunk to return…praying I can find where he is getting in the fence before he eats yet another bird. Standing in the rain hoping to find the short in the fence so I can go back inside and thaw. Packing and labeling chickens until 2 in the morning and going to the office after 3 hours of sleep. I would be afraid to total the dollar investment we have made in our farm…but be sure that we have put in more than we have taken out. Someday that will change. Someday. For now, we are healthy. We have purpose. We are united by a common vision. We chip away each day, as a family, to help carve a rough lump of land into something beautiful.

There are bad days…just not all of them. There are good days too. And within the framework of good days and bad there is an opportunity for expression of self…of style. There is an art to doing this. Part of that expression is found in the method of implementation. To move this post along I am going to quote myself…because a man can only be so modest.

…you have to increase stocking density (animal units per grazing area) before you can increase stocking rate (animal units on the farm).

The statement above is not rocket science. I have read it so many places I couldn’t begin to know who to attribute it to. Maybe Greg Judy presented it to me first. Whatever the case, it leads us directly into Mr. Henderson’s book. As the chapter continues he is emphasizing the need to maintain a diversified farm…to avoid specialization…keep things balanced. Grow some crops in rotation. Raise a variety of livestock. Each will carry the other through low points. Then he delivers this on the subject of stocking rate and if this isn’t an example of graceful elevation in farming I don’t know what is.

A hundred-acre farm, with a proper proportion of arable as indicated, would carry and be nearly self-supporting for twenty-four cows and their followers. The same land could carry half the number of cattle, forty breeding ewes, a dozen sows, and three or four hundred head of poultry. This would yield a far greater financial return, spread over the peak of labour which pure dairy farming involves night and morning, and divide the risks inevitable in more specialized production. At the same time this would give far greater scope for expansion, for with the building up of fertility by pigs and poultry, which also within reasonable limits can increase, the time would come when the full stock of dairy cattle normal to the size of the farm would be carried. In other words, the farmer would have a pig, poultry and dairy farm on the same acreage.

So he is suggesting we increase diversity AND density before we increase the stocking rate. I would love to get a few hair sheep! I have no idea how we would manage them. How we would fence them! What a pain to have to fence them separately from the cows. How frustrating it would be to succeed in fencing them behind a couple of wires only to have them killed by coyotes in the night! But moving netting around the farm on a daily basis in August sounds like a bad idea for team morale…and a big dog to protect so few animals seems like a financial blunder. Chickens and pigs? No problem…except I have to increase my marketing reach. He is raising his pigs in total confinement though and mixing the liquid manure with peat before spreading it on his fields. I wouldn’t be entirely against raising pigs on deep bedding in a hoop shelter with outdoor access. In fact, I find that to be an entirely appropriate solution, especially in seasons when the pasture conditions and animal health will suffer by keeping the animals outdoors.

I tend to overlook his emphasis on crop production. I have considered it. Rip a little soil here, drill a few seeds there and before you know it I could be a real farmer! It would be no big deal to plant an acre or three of wheat in the fall. Might even be a good idea. But then what? In the next summer I would need to harvest it but it’s hardly worth anyone’s time to bring their combine out to harvest 3 acres. Wheat isn’t worth much but I could feed it to the chickens I guess. I would end up with a mountain of straw…especially if I plant an older-style wheat that grows a long stem. OK. That sounds like a plan.

What about corn? I could have my cows trample in a dense planting of corn for grazing this summer. Or I could follow behind my herd with a drill…except my herd of 11 animals hardly grazes enough in a day to make it worthwhile to drag a drill out. But I could do it and it might be worth it to have a trusted source of non-GMO grain. But corn isn’t enough. I would need something growing under the corn to feed the grazing animals after the crop comes out. Oh, and somebody would have to get the crop out. I guess I would put my corn in the bin but…would I really get enough to fill my bin? I’m not going to plant 50 acres…more like 5. If we got a little rain and I used tons and tons of manure I might end up with 1,000 bushels…that I would have to pick by hand. I can hear the children’s excitement now. It all sounds like work.

…what could be achieved if we were all prepared to work as our grandfathers did, if we put in the man-hours with the machinery now at our disposal!

Mr. Henderson is talking later about the difference between a device that saves labor (electric butter churn) and a device that makes a farm more efficient (chainsaw). It would be hard to justify owning a combine that only worked at the same pace as a man. But a combine works many, many times faster than a person could. The next hurdle to overcome is the purchase price and the cost of ownership. If I buy a combine it will be an old one. No matter how cheap it is to buy, how easy it is to maintain, how easily it fits into the existing buildings, it has to be paid for by increased efficiency. Could I cut an acre of wheat by hand? Yes…but it wouldn’t be any fun. Could I justify owning a combine I use for 15 minutes each year to cut 1 acre of wheat? Geez.

I am reluctant to quote the book so heavily but Mr. Henderson goes on the attack against government oversight and limitations…especially as exercised in a time of war. Much of this chapter is about exercising our freedom of expression…our freedom to do what we feel must be done on land that we own. Our ability to create something beautiful out here is constrained only by our freedom or lack thereof. I can’t pass this quote by without highlighting it:

Countries are well cultivated, not as they are fertile, but as they are free. Holland, Denmark and Switzerland are shining examples of this, and only in countries free from control can you eat well to-day…To have freedom is only to have that which is absolutely necessary to enable us to do what we ought to do, and to possess what we ought to possess, and among these things I include freedom to stock and crop a farm as it should be stocked and cropped, for here the national and the farmer’s interests are identical. The more we produce the better it will pay us, and if our farms are self-supporting we shall have less need to buy.

That last little bit there he is talking “we” as in “Britain”. Throughout the book he is concerned about the financial dominance his country has lost and the trade power they are losing because they are too inefficient to raise their own food. They buy it from elsewhere (probably Spain). Later he …

The farmer does nearly all the thinking for everyone on the farm, and a great deal for all humanity, for the greater part of it would have long since starved to death but for the foresight of those who plan a rotation, plant potatoes after a year in which their unwanted stocks would have rotted in the clamps had they not utilized them for stockfeeding; the stock to consume them only being available through defying the edicts of short-sighted politicians and technical advisers in their recommendations to scrap pigs and poultry at the outbreak of war.

Mr. Henderson said in The Farming Ladder that he needed his farm fully stocked, even in times of war, to maintain a high level of grain production. Grains are easy to transport and keep well so the Allies were using grains to feed their armies. But Henderson’s assertion was that the civilians needed sources of fat to maintain energy levels…that the Germans lost, in part, because they could not maintain production of bacon and cream. Grain was rationed but potatoes were not…so his pigs ate potatoes. And when the war ended he was well-stocked and ready to supply the needs of the market…either other producers seeking breeding stock or consumers who wanted bacon. It doesn’t do much good to win the war if you don’t have any food. Ask Sparta about the Peloponnesian war.

I think Mr. Henderson has made his position on personal liberty clear in this book so far. Also his opinion of government “experts”. He closes out the chapter by saluting the nobility of all who practice farming, hoping us the very best because, at least in his mind, the world is depending on us to solve problems on our own farms and, by so doing, solve the world’s problems. Sweep in front of our own door. Remove the log from our own eye first.

Everything the Pasture Needs

This post is the direct result of a conversation with my father. In a way, dad encouraged me to clarify my thinking on pasture fertility and my strategy for moving it forward. If this post is too long for you allow me to summarize. You could simply feed the plants nitrogen and they would be tall and green (though high in protein but low in soluble carbohydrates). But the better long-term investment is to feed the microbes that feed the plants. The idea is that healthy soil grows healthy plants, healthy cows and healthy people. Like teaching fishing rather than giving a fish…except dirt doesn’t go fishing. You know what I mean.

Remember the breakfast scene in The Matrix? The group are eating breakfast and complaining about it a little bit. Complaining…as in they don’t like it. The scene wraps up with an exchange between Dozer and Mouse:

Dozer: It’s a single cell protein combined with synthetic aminos, vitamins, and minerals. Everything the body needs.

Mouse: It doesn’t have everything the body needs.

Mouse is right. Nobody would fuss if it had everything they needed. From here, Mouse begins to promote his digital escort service but that is not the direction I want to go. All of the dialogue leading up to that comment has already proven Mouse’s point. Nobody wants to eat a bowl of runny snot. What does the pasture need? Depends on who you ask. The plants are commonly boiled down to N, P and K. Just add 10-10-10 to your lawn and it will be green. No problem. And don’t forget Brawndo. It has electrolytes. It’s what plants crave! If you are familiar with that movie you know the electrolytes were killing the plants and the solution was to take water (like…from the toilet) to the fields to flush the salts out of the soil. (Click with caution if the kids are around.)

What does a healthy plant look like? …taste like? Can you taste the difference between a tomato that was grown from artificial N, P and K and a tomato that was grown in compost? Does it have a weak flavor? Can a cow taste the difference between grass grown from NPK and grass grown from worm castings? N is N, right? When I look at the dark green stripe in my pasture where the chicken tractor has been, all I’m seeing is N, right? ChickenStripesWell, no. I’m seeing a whole slew of things. But let’s start with what I’m not seeing. I’m not seeing dark green in most of the pasture. Why is that? Because there isn’t enough N in the soil. <sarc>No kidding</sarc>. Cattle have been grazing here for years. Why isn’t there enough N in the soil? (Flip your screen to see the answer below.) Answer What’s a farmer to do? Clearly my pasture is suffering from a lack of Nitrogen. Should I order a tank of liquid nitrogen? Well, that would certainly make it green. But I think that’s like giving the pasture a bowl of runny snot for breakfast. It doesn’t have everything the body needs. What happens over the years if I just keep throwing fertilizer at a hay field and hauling the hay off? That is essentially what has happened with the cattle moving nutrients from the open area to the shade. I’m not just trying to grow a large volume of green grass this season, I’m trying to build deep root systems and healthy soil ecosystems so my grass grows earlier in the spring and later into the fall for years and years. I am trying to make my farm better for next year…for the next farmer.

Nitrogen doesn’t have to come out of a sprayer. Nitrogen is fixed by living, breathing, dying organisms in the soil. What I need isn’t a sprayer unit. What I need is soil health…built over time. I have nothing to compare my farm with except my own farm. Fortunately, I have run livestock on the 20 acres around my house for several years. The cows, goats, pigs and chickens trampled and dunged on every square inch of it every few months for the past few years and have left enough plant residue behind to keep the soil warm, moist and well fed. The east 40 was all cows but had very little manure (the cows pooped in the shade) and zero plant residue (they ate it all because of continuous grazing). Let’s do this with pictures. I have done this for several years: Trample All that muck and manure and all of those hooves and all of those plant stems pressed into contact with the soil have, over time, built up a layer of organic material covering the soil like a blanket, holding things together during periods of heavy rain, limiting evaporation during periods of drought and keeping the soil life fat and happy. Everything from bacteria to grubs to earthworms have plenty to do and a safe, moist place to do it. Compare that to the condition my east pastures have been kept in: Every time the grass grows a little it is nipped off. Goldenrod is ignored by the cattle so it dominates the landscape…and shades out future grass growth. Since the cows are allowed to spread out over a large area they don’t trample in the weeds, stomp the saplings or cover the pasture evenly with manure. In fact, all of the manure gets concentrated in the shade…which is why there are so many dead trees…and the remaining trees are bushy, thorny monsters. The difference between the pastures is obvious but it does take a little time. That’s why you have to increase stocking density (animal units per grazing area) before you can increase stocking rate (animal units on the farm). You need to build pasture health before you can expect it to grow more forage. Bunch the cows up. Shorten grazing periods and extend rest periods. Things will start to change. CemeteryHill I think it is worth celebrating the little bit of life we have breathed into the pasture while also adding a little to the farm cash flow. The broilers, like the cattle, are tightly bunched up, grazing, trampling and manuring a small area. Sure, they put down N, P and K as they pass but they put down much, much more. And don’t overlook the value of the trampling action. It’s not just manure being fed to the soil, it’s grass stems. Not to mention the bugs, worms, etc that get eaten, adding value and nutrition to the pasture and not accounted for in the NCSU link above.

So, yeah N = N but N != Chicken Manure. The N certainly makes it obvious where the chicken manure went a few months ago. But in years to come we will still see the benefits to the soil biology. And that is worth crowing about…even if we work to blend the stripe in with pig bedding, cow manure and horse manure…a balanced, varied diet…everything the pasture needs.