Where Did All These Cows Come From?

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

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

WinterJerseys

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

Shorthorns1

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

WholeHerd

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

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

Happy57

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

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

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

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Bringing the Awesome to our Children

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

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

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

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

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

Kids

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

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

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

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

That’s why the farm isn’t awesome.

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

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

Driving

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

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

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

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

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

picking apples

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

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

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

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

Compare that to a video game.

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

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

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

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

Changing of the Guard

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

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

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

OldFlock

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

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

Eggs

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

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

ManureSpreaders

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

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

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

Grazing Where You Shouldn’t Graze

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

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

EarlyBloat

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

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

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

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

NoProblem

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

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

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

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

CowRemodeling

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

Fridiary Randomness

Just a few disconnected thoughts on a Friday morning. I thought “Disconnected from each other, Connected to the farm” was too long of a title and may be more useful in discussing family relationships.

Yesterday Julie was away at a class learning about AromaTouch, a massage technique involving the oils she sells. Apparently it is quite relaxing. Julie fell asleep when they demonstrated it on her.

While she was out I had a long list of farm chores to do. Along the way I discovered one milker inflation has a tear in it. The inflations are made to be used for one lactation only but we have used ours longer. We rotate which three teats we milk on the cows so we will simply stop using that inflation for the remainder of our milking season (10 more days). The tear does not impact the function of the milker as it is held closed when the milker is in place but I am concerned about what could live in that seam. Better just to skip it.

Our first frost was two days ago (two weeks late). The air temp didn’t get below 38 but there was ice on the windshield. Those are the mornings I need to be out walking the farm. I found this in a well known frost pocket. The clover won’t last much longer. Sigh.

FrostedClover

It is important to know where frost pockets are as they impact where you would plant certain things and where you will graze your cattle. There are a few plants (like clover) that are best left ungrazed when frosted.

My day yesterday was primarily spent rediscovering why you should never, never, NEVER use powdered laundry detergent in a HE washing machine. I was up to my elbows in our sewer line, complete with a big hole in our yard.

Dad found a livestock drinker on CL yesterday for $150 just like our other hog waterer. The lady had been using it to keep her dogs watered. It’s not new but it is in good shape. The float is out of place and it is missing a stopper. No big whoop. We picked that up and got home in time for dinner.

While dad and I were out we stopped to look at tractors. Boy, a cab tractor with a loader would be a wonderful thing for cleaning up manure, hauling away scrap iron and digging holes for fence posts. I could own one in a mere 84 months of payments too. That’s the same as renting a Bobcat for a weekend every month for the next 7 years except I would get to pay the repair bills on the tractor. Well, and a Bobcat is really no help in baling hay. I am really wrestling with this. I see the value in owning a tractor with a loader but I also like not going into a debt agreement for 84 FREAKIN’ MONTHS!

Sigh.

What’s the big deal? It’s only 40 calves worth of tractor.

Well, it is a big deal. Instead of driving to rent a loader every month and only having access to it for a weekend, I could have one here I can use any time at all for the same money. Ugh. How does one illustrate frustration in text? Picture, in your mind, me pulling my hair out while making gurgling noises, sighs and the occational scream. Ugh. Weather ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of 7 years of indentured servitude or to take rentals against a sea of cow manure, and by opposing, gain fertility and clean the barn all at once?

And let’s talk about the cattle barn briefly. What a dump. Should I repair it? Seems like tin comes loose every month. The north wall is leaning out at about a 30 degree angle because cattle have pushed on it for decades. There is metal siding over old wood siding and it’s only partially on, partially laying in the pasture waiting for me to clean it up. It needs a loft put back in it. Should I do that first or should I fix the white barn first? Don’t get me started on the white barn.

What do I need a loft in the cattle barn for? I’m reading The Farming Ladder again. Henderson says he gives each of his five fresh milk cows two hundredweight of straw each day. EACH DAY! I’m not British. I don’t speak in terms of “stone” and “hundredweight”. Am I right in understanding that to be the rough equivalent of 4-5 square bales of straw? Each day? I can’t imagine it. Can’t. Imagine. It. I mean, I can but…no way. Let’s try it with a pig. A bale of straw costs $2. I suspect you could put down a bale of straw each day for a pig and keep the pig clean while capturing the liquids in suspension. After 120 days the pig leaves the farm and you have 120 bales worth of straw holding manure for you. Per pig. $240 worth of bedding. Per pig. Can’t imagine. There are certainly cheaper sources of carbon but Henderson is pointing out that I’m not doing enough. That I’m not making fertility a high enough priority. He transported 600 loads of manure to his fields each year. Can’t. Imagine. But maybe that’s why I need a loader tractor. Back to that again.

I have a mountain of unpublished blog posts I need to get out. I’m just having a hard time finding the time to get it all done. Similarly I’m behind on work and I can’t seem to find time to read either. I’m not sure what is happening. Am I being affected by the short days? Dunno.

Anyway, Diary. Thanks for listening.

Frosty Morning Chicken Work

Our first frost is not quite two weeks late. This morning the thermometer showed 38 degrees but the windshields were covered in ice. Everything I touched was slightly icy. I am out of the habit of wearing gloves so I just had to deal with it today. Otherwise, beautiful morning with just a pinch of moon.

FrostyMorningThis morning I had to move the main layer flock. Apparently it takes me 2 minutes to collect each length of fence, three minutes to stand each back up and another 8 minutes to move the house, feeder and drinker. I don’t know how to speed that process up but that’s what I have to do. Even on flat land where I can build a simple square I’m slower than I would like. I’ll be sure to tell you what I come up with if you promise to offer any tips you have.

 

The Adventures of Compost Calzone in the Wild West!

Julie used to make these amazing calzones with chicken, spinach and cheese. Something like this recipe except she would use our own ingredients and make the dough herself. Out of this world! Those are, apparently, not a part of the menu these days. Sigh.

So what is a calzone? It’s sort of a pie. There is a layer of bread surrounding the good stuff. Maybe more like a sandwich that is all sealed up.

Click image for source.

What is a compost calzone? Nothing you would want to eat. (I could have called this a poop pasty but, well…I think you agree…)

The pigs are currently cleaning up a poriton of an overgrown hog lot for me. There are 20 years worth of grass and trees growing and virginia creeper out there. The pigs do a good job of rooting through that mess and adding manure. My job is to clean it up and make the most of what remains so I am making compost calzones.

The pigs need a dry, warm place to lay down and take a nap so I fill the shelter with two bales of straw. That’s the bread of the calzone. When I move the pigs to their new pen I gather up the bedding into a pile in the center of the shelter. I do this because I want the compost covered so my nutrients stay where I want them. I can’t let anything wash away. So I make a little nest of the bedding material in the shelter. Then I begin scraping the concrete and pile the wet mess from outside into the shallow center of that nest.

BeginningCleanOut

Shovel by shovel, scrape by scrape, I fill the nest in.

FilledCrust

Now, there is a little family secret to helping this recipe turn out well. I may as well tell you. Bring in a little extra material to cover the top. Today I used a little spoiled hay but whatever is handy works. With the pile covered, begin working your way around the pile with a pitchfork, folding the surplus material from the edges up over the top of the pile. This is not in any way a technique of my own design, I read about it in Just Enough (a book I highly recommend). Farmers would bring a wagon into town and fill layer after layer with straw and (Gasp!) humanure, sewing the edges of each layer up under the layer above, trapping all the…um…juices…within. The goal was to return nutrients to farms rather than allow farm soils to deplete while nutrients are concentrated and trapped in the cities. They would pay more to clean out the latrines of wealthy people as their diet was better and their manure was richer.

CompleteCalzone

So, following their example, I trap the moisture within to help it all compost nicely. Well…somewhat nicely. To be honest, this wasn’t the nicest compost calzone I have ever cooked but the end result tastes just as good. This is a nicely contained compost pile made of straw, pig manure, leaves, dirt, grass and vines under shelter and the concrete pad is clean for the first time in decades.

HogLot2

Once the composting action begins the pile will heat through from the inside. When it begins to cool (3 days…maybe a week) I’ll tear it apart and put it back together again. After our compost pile goes through a few heat cycles I’ll send it out to feed our fields.

I know I can do better though. I know I can catch more nutrients, make pigs happier and do less work. We may even find a way to use this silly hog floor more frequently. I just have to keep applying myself to the problem. And buy a loader.

Good luck with your calzones, chicken or compost.

A Pig For All Seasons

Things vary from season to season and day to day on the farm. Weather changes. Livestock grow. I need help with different chores from time to time. My pigs are my favorite helpers. Julie laughs when I sell the pigs because I act so relieved but within 48 hours I’m racing to buy more pigs.

I can explain that several ways.

  1. Jordan’s Law of pigs: The relative danger of the pig is directly proportional to the weight of the pig. In some sources of that ancient family text it reads “nuisance” in place of “danger”.
  2. Pigs will magically turn garden waste, skim milk, acorns, etc. into bacon while also generating valuable muck.
  3. I just like pigs. They are pleasant animals to have around. They make fun noises and it’s fun to watch them explore the world, wondering what everything tastes like, wondering if they can push something over or not. They learn very quickly that we bring the food and we can scratch ears so they seem to want to be near us. Just fun.
  4. I am always relieved to sell the pigs because I’m relieved to have successfully SOLD the pigs to customers. Whew!

So I like having and selling pigs…and having them again. But that constant stream of pigs on and off of the farm means we change almost overnight from small groups with massive destructive power to small groups with massive cute power. From pigs that generate 25 pounds of manure each day to pigs that weigh 25 pounds each. These two groups have radically different needs and can exert radically different pressures on their environment.

And don’t overlook the change of seasons. Seasonality brings its own challenges and each batch of pigs takes 4 months to grow out. Small pigs do better than large pigs in hot weather. No pigs do well outside in wet snow. Care has to be taken when pigs are on pasture in monsoon season or the pasture itself will wash away. And that’s what we’re in now; Monsoon season.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Sometimes we just need the pigs to churn up the ground and add in a big dose of fertility as we did when establishing our garden a few years ago. Our garden is great now. It was initially compacted but a little row-by-row dose of broadfork and a covering of mulch provided all the resolution required.

Group2

Sometimes we need the pigs to help us compost winter bedding in the cattle barns.

Piggies

Sometimes we put the pigs on the hillside and ask them to root up rhizomes and eat worms and dig wallows. But I’m tending to drift away from that last one.

ChangingPigPastures4

Keeping livestock is all about enhancing the soil. I have cows because cows help my soil to be healthier. Same with chickens. They cycle minerals through and dispose of vegetation that would otherwise stand and oxidize, shading out future growth. They provide a dose of bacterial activity in the soil to balance out fungal life…maintaining diversity in the soil. Pulsing organic material on the soil by way of trampled organic material, and in the soil by way of decaying root systems of mature plants grazed by the cattle. The movement of the cattle on the landscape enhances both the cattle and the soil over time.

Keeping pigs on pasture needs be the same. I keep pigs on pasture not to have pastured pork to sell but, instead, because it serves in advancing soil health. Throwing pigs on dirt and mud during periods of prolonged rain will cause soil loss and soil compaction. Putting pigs in cold mud will only hurt pig health, whatever customers say they want. The site Natural Pig Farming makes this point well. With this in mind, we use a number of techniques to both respect the pig, build the soil and make our customers happy, just as we vary grazing techniques with cattle.

This past year we have offered our hogs access to the nut crop in the forest, deep bedding in barns and, most recently, work reclaiming an overgrown hog lot. Our hog lot hasn’t been in use for nearly 20 years and has grown into a forest.

HogLot1

Most of the bays in the building are being used for storage. I sticker and stack my green lumber from the sawmill in a couple of the bays, we have greenhouse parts and …well, who knows what else out there. Stuff. But the four bays to the west are unused. Because the weather has been cold and rainy for the last two weeks the last place I want pigs is on pasture. They would work up the soil and allow it to wash away. So instead, I’m putting them into the forest with the concrete floor, one bay at a time.

HogLot3

Even here they can root and dig and eat grass. I have four pigs in one bay rather than the 60 or so it is designed for. Their job is to reclaim the concrete for me. I filled the sheltered area with straw so they have a comfy bed then leave them to work until the job is done (about a week). Then I come in behind them, shovel and scrape it all clean then compost the manure and bedding under shelter.

HogLot2

I have all kinds of reservations about doing this but obviously I think it’s better than putting my pigs out in the cold mud. But it has me wondering what the limits are. Clearly hogs are adaptable animals. 99% of pigs are raised successfully on slatted concrete floors. Heck, Salatin has concrete strips running the length of his hoop structures to keep the pigs from rooting up the ground. He just covers it in a thick layer of deep bedding. And that, to my way of thinking, puts the pig closer to its roots. But I’m already somewhat close with the trees growing in my lot. In Dune, Dr. Kynes’ last words were “I am a desert creature!” I think of this when I look at my pigs. They are forest creatures.

So how can I go about making room for a forest where none was intended? How can I put deep bedding over a concrete floor that was designed to be scraped clean regularly? Won’t the litter wash out in heavy rain? Won’t it stink if it gets wet?

As long as the litter was kept dry, the temperature of the litter-bed was maintained and the odor of the pig farms was controlled. 

So I have this nice facility. It’s all paid for. And I can’t use it because it doesn’t have a roof. Again, Natural Pig Farming suggests I should add a roof, otherwise there is no way to install and maintain deep bedding. Animal Welfare Approved (not a member) suggests that:

7.6.1 When pigs are excluded from ranging and foraging areas they must be provided with sufficient material they can manipulate so that they can engage in rooting and foraging behavior.

They have that right now because of the organic material that has gathered and grown for 20 years. Beyond the goal above, I’m taking steps to keep uncomposted nitrogenous wastes out of our streams. There is a lagoon off of the hog lot. If anything from our four pigs should escape the lot it would have a hard time escaping that.

I’m saddled with a hog floor I didn’t ask for. It’s just here because of a decision made by the previous generation. But now that I have it, is there any way I can leverage it? ..even if only seasonally? I think so. But it’s going to take some tinkering. It’s easy to focus on muck and money. But we can’t overlook the forest creature.

PasturedPigs1

On the topic of hog floor muck, tune in later this week for The Adventures of Compost Calzone in the Wild West!

How Many Reels of Fence Do I Need?

We have a dozen rolls of polywire fencing but how many do we need? I mean really need?

Ignore the fact that we keep our cows in two herds, beef and dairy. Let’s just talk about the beef herd. How much fence do we use?

We could get by with five. Easily.

Let me explain. We need two reels running in parallel the length of the pasture (let’s call those lines). Then we use one reel for a back fence, one for a front fence and the third defines the length of tomorrow’s grazing area (let’s call those cross fences). Those three cross fences rotate forward the length of the two parallel lines. Clear as mud? Let’s use pictures. This is an overhead view of the field north of the hog building. For decades it was where the sows and boars were kept. I remember it being a moonscape as a kid, now the fences have all been pulled down into the earth by grasses and trampled by cattle.

PigPasture_Bare

The satellite image has not been updated recently so the picture shows a lot of damage done by the cattle in the past. See those well worn paths across the field? That’s from the cattle lounging in the bottom or in the wheat field further north and trekking across the field every morning to eat silage and hay at the barn. The whole herd walked in a line right there several times each day, every day for years. There is good fence to the south and west of the field. I just need to build temporary fence to the north then subdivide the grazing to concentrate their activity as they pulse across the landscape. Because my cattle walk in a place only once every three or more months the old cow paths are healing. Instead there are deep roots and tall forages. Unfortunately, there are also tall weeds but that’s part of the healing process.

On the picture below I show the permanent fence in red, the north line in yellow and the cross fences in green. Those daily subdivisions are quite large. In September we were just trying to skim out the annual forbs (chicory, dandelion, clover and ragweed) while maintaining and fertilizing the standing fescue. Fescue is at its best when everything else has frozen out. The little extra dose of nitrogen left by grazing animals will make it even better…for longer. Better still where the layer flock passes.

PigPasture_Fenced

Every day we moved the cows. Every day we moved the water. Every day the cows got fresh salad and clean sheets. Every day a new section of the pasture got a workout. The strategy is only a little different in the clover field. Not much in that field will survive a frost. Hopefully I can finish grazing it before the forage is killed back by frost. In recent years this has been a lot of corn and beans.

Clover_Bare

Dad lightly disced the field in the spring and spread a pasture mix heavy in legumes (60%). We took a cutting of hay in late July and it has since recovered. The ground is a little lumpy, there are a few weedy patches (shattercane and cocklebur) but for the most part it’s a very nice field. Hopefully the cows can flatten it out a bit so the hay wagon won’t be such a bumpy ride. Because of the grazing strategy here we are grazing smaller areas. We want fair utilization, a lot of trampling and good manure distribution. We try to leave a blanket covering the soil but still give the cows what they need as measured by gut fill and manure consistency.

CloverRemains

We also have to move things along quickly enough to cover the field before frost. Really I should have until early November before snow pushes it all down but I need to be in the alfalfa field after it frosts and dries. So here’s what we planned:

Clover_Planned

Try to imagine yourself as a 13 year old boy trying to walk a straight line to the opposite corner of a field…when the corner is hidden by two hills.

RedClover

What really happened is he went wide on the initial fence. We cut a portion of the area in half with another roll of fence then applied our subdivisions. It worked. The pasture sizes vary wildly but it’s cool. We were counting on cool weather in these open areas but it got to nearly 90 degrees. When it got hot we removed the back fence and allowed the cattle to lounge in the shade of the few trees in the first subdivision. That’s not ideal but it also wasn’t a big deal. The cattle tended to concentrate their manure in the shade and caused additional disruption near the trees but they appeared to do their grazing in new areas, not in old ones.

Clover_Actual

From here we’ll attempt to define a mostly parallel fencing line to the south and keep movin’ on. I think we are currently using 7 reels of fence but only because we are lazy. We could easily get by with five. You just have to think through each movement and how to get the most out of your available resources. Pasture size is dictated by available forage, livestock needs and your management goal du jour. This winter we will really bunch them up in smaller pastures to utilize the stockpiled forage and distribute manure evenly. When it is warm and rainy we give them larger areas. Seasons change. Cattle needs vary. You’ll just have to figure some of this out on your own farm.

Let me give you another example of variation. We have gotten nearly a foot of rain in the last two weeks. We had seven inches of rain in 24 hours last week. This field is so new that there isn’t a dense net of roots protecting the soil. Hooves can sink in. To prevent lasting damage we just move the herd faster. Maybe we offer smaller grazing areas and move them twice daily but they don’t get a chance to make a mud pit. You must be flexible to change with both livestock and pasture needs.

With a mere 5 reels of fence you should have everything you need to put your cows in motion. A drink of water, a pinch of salt and a little shade on hot days and you’re on your way…these could all be delivered to a small herd with a single portable structure.

Additional thoughts:

  • An important thing to consider is placement of your reels. If you are planning to make any adjustments to your fence, put your reel on the end you will adjust. Sometimes we have to roll up a little bit to let the cows into a new stretch. No big deal if the reel is in the right place. For example, try to place the reel of your cross fence so the cattle will show you their left side to you as they walk into the new pasture…and you should make the cattle walk past you to go to new pasture every day. This gives you a chance to look at the gut fill of a portion of the herd as well as a chance to look at other details. Are their coats shiny? Are their rumps and tails clean?
  • I have a few 1400′ reels of fence and I find they are difficult to roll up. I think the best reels are the ones that are only half filled as they are less likely to fall off of the spool. If I need more than 700′ of fence on my little farm I should reconsider my fencing plan.
  • We use a mix of pigtail posts and rebar posts. Rebar posts will take abuse, pigtails won’t. But we have had our share of fence shorts because the insulator on a rebar post twists and grounds out the wire. I prefer pigtails for ends, corners and cross fences then use rebar for lines. Pigtails also hold the wire more securely when deer run through the fence. If I had to make a choice I would choose pigtails.
  • 5 reels would cost around $250 for string and reels, another $50-100 for posts and insulators. That’s all the fence you would need for your first few hundred head of cattle. You might want to offer more space or move them less frequently in the spring but by the time you have 100 head of cattle you can probably afford another reel or two.
  • Don’t skimp on the energizer. And get one with a remote!
  • I would like to try polyrope but it ain’t cheap.
  • I don’t seem to know if I’m writing this blog for me or for you. Or for you. Or you. Or maybe just my kids. Maybe this is the manual for our farm…what I’ve learned so far. Whoever this is aimed at, thanks for reading. I hope it is clear.

Could I Farm the Whole Farm?

I recently wondered what it would be like to fully stock and graze the entire state of Illinois. In short, I would have 55 million hooved animals covering 400 square miles each day, followed by 110 million laying hens. We also included plans to plant millions of fruit and nut trees and leave room for people to live their lives and pursue their own interests. Surely some of them would be beekeepers.

But let’s scale it back. Let’s put my money where my mouth is. I have cows and chickens. I have walnut trees, oak trees, hickory trees, black locust trees. We are planting apples and cherries and plums and hazels and chestnuts. But we aren’t covering the entire 60 acre farm.

To cover the farm I would need 27 cows. Remember, I have to leave an acre per person out of production for roads, buildings, gardens and recreational area so I only have 54 acres available for agricultural activities. I suggested each cow/calf pair needs two acres in Illinois so I need 27 cows. Also 108 ewes and 270 laying hens. Those animals are not here yet. I’m not ready for the marketing, I haven’t built the equity and I don’t have the education required to manage them. I mean, on that scale I would be producing something on the order of 24 calves, 200 lambs and 5000 dozen eggs. Maybe throw in a couple hundred pigs on deep bedding too. That’s just the picture Henderson painted in The Farming Ladder…though he had 100 birds per acre.

I’m casting vision I really can’t see. It’s too far out.

Clover

I mean, it was fun to imagine the numbers involved in managing 37 million acres but I have my hands full managing 60 acres. It’s worse than just peddling all that production. I have to pull white snakeroot where it grows. I have to cut firewood, build fence, keep the tin nailed to the barn roof and participate in family stuff.

And we aren’t even dealing with the 70 or so walnut trees that have dropped their walnuts this fall. How many have I picked up? Zero. Aunt Marian’s three apple trees proved more than my match. What would I do if I planted 8 apple trees on every acre? How about 20 on every acre?

If I can’t handle the abundance of a mere 60 acres what chance do we stand trying to scale that up to the whole state?

What I need is some division of labor. I need somebody who cares about apples to pick and deal with the apples. I need somebody who cares about walnuts and somebody who cares about sawing lumber and somebody who wants to sell product and just leave me alone to watch my livestock graze in the afternoon sun.

That would have to happen on a grand scale. That would have to happen on the farm scale. That will have to happen on the family scale.

FarmGirls

Family scale is where things usually break down on the farm. Kids get tired. Are they valued members of the team or are they slave labor? Are we living out their vision or mine? Whose dreams are coming true here? Who is taking risks and being rewarded? Where is the awesome?

It can’t all be about cows and sheep and electric fence and work, work, work. Work stinks. Nobody wants to work. But you know what is fun? Making the cows happy. Harvesting fruit from trees you planted with your own hands. Opening the chicken coups in the morning under a blood moon lunar eclipse.

BloodMoon

That’s not work. That’s awesome…to me anyway. What do each of my kids think is awesome? If my kids can learn to experience the awesome on the farm, maybe I can help them buy another 60 acres of their own…set them up with a whole generation of stock from our own farm too. Send them with 13 heifers, 100 ewe lambs, a dozen or so gilts and as many hatching eggs and walnuts and chestnuts and hazels as they want. Same with my grandchildren…and thus, through the course of time, we will stock and graze the entire State of Illinois!

I don’t have 27 cows, 108 ewes and 270 chickens on 54 acres. I don’t have 200 trees per acre either. It will happen and it will happen soon but it can’t happen yet. I have to bring the awesome to a new generation first. I still have my town job so we can afford not to maximize our production…so we can afford to learn…so we can afford to teach our children to find the awesome. We can farm the whole farm after I teach my children to love it here.

I don’t want to farm alone.