Gonna Get Busy

Spring is here. I know it doesn’t look like it but it is. Really. No, really. Not on a calendar but on a to-do list.

SummerMorning

Let’s take a quick look at the year, shall we? Julie and I have been meaning to do this but…you know…it’s hard to find the time. This list is incomplete but not inaccurate. Again, it’s less of a calendar and more of us being aware of what’s coming next.

Today (Monday, Jan 12)

  • Ordered layer feed (cause we need it this week)
  • Ordered pig feed (cause we’ll need it soon)
  • Ordered chick starter (cause it won’t be long).
  • Ordered broilers and turkey poults for the coming year
  • Called my pig guy. May get a few gilts for breeding. I always threaten that. Maybe this time…
  • Called my trencher guy to have him put a hydrant next to the brooder and save Julie’s back. Maybe even put it in the brooder.

Between now and Feb

  • Cut wood for next winter
  • Cut sprouts
  • Cut Japanese bush honeysuckle (Thanks SSF)
  • Cut the trees in the yellow house barn lot, especially the sumac trees growing against the barns.
  • Read
  • Try to put on a layer of fat. Long days are coming. Lunch at breakfast, supper at bedtime.
  • Order more sawdust
  • Rent a chipper or have a big, big fire. Several big, big fires.
  • Haul scrap iron (I’m dreaming here)
  • Sell the pigs I’ll get in February.
  • Sell 75% of broilers we will get in February.
  • Overseed pastures with clover mix. Probably mix in some cool-season plants too.

Jan. 31 or Feb. 1

  • Start planting greenhouse. Yeah. Potatoes even.
  • Pigs arrive. Vacation ends.

Feb 6

  • Build new chicken house. We plan to build one similar to the new house from last summer…except shaped like a train caboose…because why not?

Feb 14

  • Valentine’s Day
  • Put bedding in brooder, turn on heat lamps to get things warmed up.
  • Tap maple trees

Feb. 18

  • Chicks arrive. Prayers begin in earnest. Vacation really ends.

March

  • Goslings arrive (need to get these ordered ASAP!).
  • Pullets arrive (need to get these ordered ASAP!).
  • Hatch a few duck eggs.
  • Fill chicken tractors (7th or 14th? Depends on weather).
  • Order more chick starter.
  • Plant potatoes outside.

April

  • Grass starts growing
  • Calving starts. There are no more vacations.
  • Butchering chickens begins. Please let it be warm. Please let the buffalo gnats be gone.
  • Get serious about outdoor gardens. Cole and root crops mostly.
  • Repair post rot in south side of bar while the barn is mostly empty.

May

  • Broadcast cowpea, sorghum and sunflower on the pasture. Maybe crimson clover too.
  • Pullets go into chicken tractors as broilers leave
  • First cutting hay to the barn
  • Flora will freshen. So much for vacation time.
  • Plant post-frost garden.
  • Scrape up every drop of manure I can find into heaps to be spread next month.
  • Pigs leave the farm.

June

  • Wash and pack a metric ton of eggs…somehow.
  • Sell a metric ton of eggs…somehow.
  • Cut hay.
  • Spread manure where hay was cut.
  • Buy 200 bales of straw.
  • New pigs arrive! I love pigs. I can’t wait. I really can’t. They are just the best. Little piggies!

Piglet

July

  • Turkey poults arrive. They should be raised with broilers. May have to drive to Iowa to get the chicks and poults because I don’t trust the postal service in July.
  • Cut hay.
  • Bull arrives. Need to use a different bull this year. Maybe get a roan shorthorn? I kinda like the red ones as they seem to slick out better. I’ve been thinking about devon…
  • Order more sawdust
  • Order a load of firewood from the sawmill. That stuff is surprisingly awesome.

August

  • Pray for rain.
  • Chicken tractors filled with broilers and turkey poults. The goal is to have turkeys that dress out at 20 pounds and at least 50 broilers that dress out above 8 pounds. Oh yeah.
  • Butcher geese. Maybe.
  • Cut hay.
  • Keep the cows cool. I may change things up and start bringing the cows back to the barn around 11am to loaf during the day, putting them back on pasture in the evening. We’ll see.

September

  • Cut hay?
  • Sell the majority of the broilers that will be butchered in October. Hopefully cooling weather will get people thinking about cooking again.
  • Keep the cows cool.

October

  • Butcher broilers early in the month. Trying to beat the first frost.
  • Butcher turkeys ’cause if I don’t we’ll have to cut them in half to fit them in the oven.
  • Pigs leave the farm. Good riddance! 300 pound nuisances…all of them.

November

  • Stop milking the cow. Thank God. Swear it off forever. Just buy the dang milk from Steve.
  • Sprint the cows across the alfalfa field. Well, stretch, not sprint. Get it used up before frost knocks the leaves to the ground. Just make it happen.

December

  • Eat.
  • Sleep
  • Read books
  • Hang with the fam.
  • Keep grazing pasture.

There are all kinds of details missing from that but at least I got started. Do you have anything like this? It’s a little like a grazing chart. If you really fill out a full grazing chart you make room for weddings and vacations as you plan toward your goals. Might be something to think about including.

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Meet Them Where They Are

Kari has been asking for a post about marketing. I have to do this two ways and both are more conceptual than concrete. (I may offer more concrete examples another time but I think that subject is already saturated.) First we’ll discuss Marketing for Business then Marketing for Sustainability. You’ll see how those two ideas differ as we go but there is one thing in common: You have to meet your customers where they are.

Marketing for Business

Customers won’t come find you. They won’t magically appear at your farm gate and they won’t make immediate and radical changes to their buying habits. It seems easier to convince someone to change religions than to convince them to change diets. You have to find them where they are. Offer them something that looks like their concept of food but is superior in every way.

But sometimes…just sometimes…someone will go through some sort of crisis. They may join a gym or read a book about Paleo or something and suddenly they have stopped buying donuts. With all that disposable income and the encouragement of their newfound literature and peer support groups they will begin to ask, “Where can I buy a whole chicken and what do I do with it? What is a deep freezer? How do I cook with an oven?” They will ask friends at they gym, friends at work, friends at church. Somebody knows somebody. That somebody may know you. And that’s the best way…word of mouth. But you have to start somewhere. I have gotten years of business from customers and, later, their friends by initially giving away a single dozen eggs. There are times when we are swamped with eggs and we don’t know what to do with them all. So we give eggs away. At this point we throw a free dozen into a customer’s order if they will promise to pass a second free dozen to a friend. That normally results in a new customer…if you have dotted your i’s.

I don't know who took this picture. No idea. I just know the orange eggs are mine.

I don’t know who took this picture. No idea. I just know the orange eggs are mine.

How do you dot the i in an egg? People don’t talk about ordinary products. Ordinary products are just too ordinary. You have to bring the WOW! to get word of mouth. Soon you’ll see pictures of your food on FB or Instagram. Customers will text you pictures of your eggs frying next to “Free-Range, Organic Brown eggs from the store” and will express wonder at how pale the competitor’s egg is. But the truth is that store egg is not your competition. In fact you don’t have competition. If those are eggs then you produce something else. Same with chicken. Same with pork. Same with beef. That product you have is so superior to what people are used to…it’s like you are producing something else. Not a commodity, real food. Real quality. And people will talk about it.

Three years ago our van was stolen (and 5 dozen eggs in a nice small cooler!). I searched for its replacement on CraigsList. We took the whole family on the test drive with the owner. As I merged on to Lindbergh he said, “So…what do you do?”

“I am a computer guy. But we have a farm and raise chickens, turkeys, goats and pigs on pasture.”

Fast forward a few minutes.

“Chris, that was the most interesting test drive I have ever been on. I’m sold. How can I buy your product?”

Turns out he is a foodie.

Three years later he is still buying from us. He has given eggs to friends, neighbors and co-workers. He buys and smokes chickens and turkeys. He makes soup with our spent layers. He buys pigs and splits them with neighbors. He builds my customer base every time he changes jobs. We can count on him to spread the word. In a way, he is a partner in our growing business and has become a friend. And he’s not the only enthusiastic customer we have.

Several times he has pulled me aside and said, “Chris, I bought a chicken from X or from Y but they aren’t the same.” Heck, he continues to buy our eggs even though he belongs to a CSA that includes eggs. He says ours are better.

So, it’s all about the quality.

But if it’s all about quality it is also all about the price. Keep in mind there are alternatives on the market and remember cost has nothing to do with price. Cost is important to you, the producer. Prices are set by the market. Customers have price expectations. They expect to pay more for quality but you can’t be too far out of line. Consumers are price sensitive and allowing for that puts you in position to meet them where they are…to at least get within waving distance.

That said, there is a theory that if you’re having trouble moving product you should raise your prices. If nothing else the higher price gives your product a psychological advantage. Also, I can tell you from experience, customers are thankful when you lower prices and hateful when you raise them. Try to start at the high end of what the market will bear. We started too low (cause we didn’t add up our costs and allow a margin).

We make quality products and charge what customers indicate are reasonable prices. We rely on word of mouth and give out free samples in times of surplus. If you can do that while operating efficiently your business will grow. That’s all there is to it. Give away a few eggs to get the door open. Then sell a chicken to get your foot in the door. Then, before you know it, you are in the kitchen and, later, selling beef, pork, lamb and chicken to the whole neighborhood.

As long as you can keep up with the workload.

Marketing for Sustainability

What will happen to the farm when I’m gone? My labor? My dreams? My herds and flocks, the trees I planted…who will care for them? Who will continue the work here? I fear the vision is becoming hazy. Where I used to feel invincible I am often intimidated by the staggering amount of work ahead of me. Our dream (a dream I have in common with my ancestors) needs an injection of fresh blood. Youth. Energy! I am a steward, not an owner. I await the next steward.

Stacking

We will never be sustainable unless new generations stand up and take the reins at regular intervals. That takes serious marketing success or they will all move away. The farm will be sold and, worse, spent. I need my children to buy into the dream, to share our vision and to move things forward. So let’s share some vision.

You know what I want? I want to spread manure on the pastures to build up future fertility so we have more nutritious, more drought-resistant forages, healthier cows that breed back every year and a beautiful place to spend our lives together. I want birds and ponds and fish and frogs and snakes and ducks. I want blueberries and gooseberries and raspberries and dewberries and strawberries. I want hazelnuts and walnuts and hickory nuts. I want cows and pigs and chickens and foxes and raccoons…well, maybe not raccoons. I want painted buildings in good repair full of feed and bedding. I want a beautiful, welcoming farm that family and friends can visit to feel refreshed. I want an efficient, smaller home with an open floor plan that is easy to heat, easy to cool, easy to clean and comfortable to entertain in and I want the house filled with our children and their children and laughter and games and food and lots and lots and lots of books.

How do I get there?

I go where my customers are now. I meet their needs where they are. Right now.

My kids are playing Minecraft right now. Even if they aren’t actually playing the game I promise at least two of them are sitting with graph paper and designing the castles they will build next time they can play. The others are reading library books either on the couch near the fire or on the couch in the front room near the electric heater. What books? I don’t know. They read so fast it’s almost impossible for me to even keep track…but I still try. My two older kids usually read at least a book each day (the library limits us to 70 books at a time…per card, BTW).

So that’s where my sustainability customers are.

Now, I could leave my kids there. They would be entertained, I could get some work done…or do some reading…or take a nap. But did Julie and I have kids so we could keep the computer busy all day? They aren’t an accidental by-product of recreational activity! No. We had kids because WE WANTED KIDS!

We wanted to be asked “Why?” questions and we wanted to clean up messes and we wanted to spend decades growing with and learning about them. What are they like? Who are they on the inside? What do they like to eat? What are they interested in doing?

You know what they are interested in doing? Right now they are interested in a specific game. So I am also interested in that game.

Why?

Because that’s how marketing works. If your customers want to play golf you play golf. If they want dinner, you go to dinner. If they want to build floating castles in the sky out of emeralds you go to your crafting table and make a pickaxe.

I need to build real connections with my customer base. This is more than just appreciation for the quality food at a reasonable price. This is me inspiring my children to achieve more than I can.

I’m taking the first step. I’m giving. Reaching out. I can’t wait for them to come to me…they might out of a sense of obligation but obligation doesn’t inspire vision.

But let’s say none of my children want anything to do with the farm as adults. OK. Let’s say that. It hurts me but we can pretend. Then what? Then I go to plan B: Grandchildren, nieces and nephews. It worked for my grandma. But what if I had no siblings and no children of my own? Then what? Then it’s incumbent on me to go out and find a protege. To mentor someone. To pass on our vision and continue the dream.

BaleWalking

I have to go to them. I have to give away the best eggs in the world. I have to be generous with my time. I have to go short on sleep to go long on parenting. I have to read what they are reading and play what they are playing and continuously build connections over the decades. I have to make time to serve the people who matter the most and wash their feet. (I don’t know that I’ve every heard Jesus used as a sales example but it applies. The idea is that He came to us.)

I have to meet them where they are.

Worn but Still Worn

Saturday my 10 year old son was wearing jeans with holes in the knees…under which he was wearing long johns with holes in the knees. “Dude, your knees have to be cold. Go change and bring me those pants.”

He said, “Old clothes are just more comfortable.” He changed but returned wearing jeans with a smaller hole. I asked Julie to get some iron-on patches while she was out.

20 years ago I raised open gilts on the hog lot for a nearby producer. He also kept a vasectomized boar with them so they could AI more easily later. My job was to call when the feeders ran low, give a shot if needed and scrape the floors clean. I did all that but I also played with the piggies. One warm winter day I had my coat unzipped as I scraped the floor. One of the girls gave an affectionate tug to the sleeve of my coat…so affectionate she pulled it right off me. Good thing I had it unzipped or I would have gone down. Off she ran, dragging my winter work coat through the manure. Thanks piggy.

So I bought a new Carhartt coat. 20 years ago. For years it would stand in the corner by itself. They take forever to break in. This time I bought a quilted coat instead of a blanket-lined one. I’m still not sure I like the lining. But I can tell you this, it’s warm and comfortable. Even with holes in the wrists, along the bottom edge and all along the zipper.

coat2

 

I don’t think there is any magic to Carhartt. Their zippers seem to hold up but I suspect a real farmer can’t make a coat last for 20 years. Just a computer guy who wears his coat for about an hour or two each day in the winter. Julie bought one around 1996 and finally had to swap it out two years ago.

But I want my wife and children to look nice. We don’t have all the money in the world but surely we can wear long johns that don’t have holes worn in the knees. But my coat? I don’t know. It is comfortable.

Reading Journal 2015 Week 2

This was a busy week. Hopefully we saw our low temperatures for the year. It’s hard to keep bedding under the cows, feed in the cows and water available to the cows. Much easier when they are on pasture. To make things harder I was introduced to Minecraft this week. That is, quite possibly, the greatest PG-rated time waster ever! I had to scramble to get any reading done. More in a minute.

I wanted to make a quick note about ebooks. I tend to read on my phone about half the time. When I have a paper book in my hand I also keep a pencil in hand (or mouth) to underline passages that impact me. I also scribble notes in the margins. I can highlight in an ebook and it’s easy to look through sections of a book I have highlighted but somehow…I…don’t. When I review an ebook I have read I tend to have many fewer notes than when I read a physical book. Sometimes, though, I think that is appropriate. Sometimes a book is a meal. Sometimes it’s just a cup of coffee.

Ten Acres Enough

What is the book about?
A change from city businessman to man in the business of farming. He wrote about stacking products and staggering harvest windows 100 years before permaculture was a word…cause he read about it from even older books. He even calls himself a book farmer.

TenAcresEnough

Is it a classic?
Anything people still read and discuss 150 years later is, necessarily, a classic. However, this could have been written last week. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting somebody who yearns for life in the country…making an honest living growing and selling small fruits and this book bore fruit all those years ago.

Will you read it again?
Quite probably. And soon. In fact, I think it’s worthy of a chapter-by-chapter reflection. Or maybe a topic by topic reflection.

Does it belong on your bookshelf?
This was one of those books that I knew about, had heard a thing or two about but never made the slightest attempt to read. One of Julie’s uncles gave it to me for Christmas…a very thoughtful gift. It will remain on my shelf both because I enjoyed it and plan to study it further and because I wish to honor Julie’s uncle Tim.

Can you relate a favorite passage?
Just one?

In chapter 2 he makes a long series of arguments to persuade the reader that land ownership is desirable. As you read here, remember he is violently opposed to debt. His argument includes this quotable quote:

Wheat grows and corn ripens though all the banks in the world may break, for seed-time and harvest is one of the divine promises to man, never to be broken, because of its divine origin. They grew and ripened before banks were invented, and will continue to do so when banks and railroad bonds shall have become obsolete.

He finishes his argument with this: It’s hard for the kids to sell it.

When all other guards give way, early memories of parental attachment to these ancestral acres, or tender reminiscences of childhood, will come in to stay the spoliation of the homestead, and make even the prodigal pause before giving up this portion of his inheritance.

Chapter 3 has one worthy of mention also. The world is full of prognostications even today. In the Old Testament, prophets who got it wrong got killed. Today the world is flooded with news of impending doom from all directions and there are no consequences for the Chicken Little prophets. I assume there were no consequences for fear-driven business advisers in the 1840’s either.

Twenty years ago nurserymen were advised to close up their sales and abandon their businesses, as they could soon have no customers for trees – everybody was supplied. But trees have continued to be planted from that day to this, and where hundreds were sold twenty years ago, thousands are disposed of now. Old-established nurseries have been planted. The nursery business has grown to a magnitude truly gigantic, because the market for fruit has been annually growing larger, and no business enlarges itself unless it is proved to be profitable.

Well, I might argue that last point. In an era of free money there is a lot of capital misallocation. But that’s a different book for a different day. Some of that free money gets thrown at projects that would, otherwise, not be funded then the money evaporates. Pets.com comes to mind.

At any rate, the future is unknown, business is risky and that’s why owners typically take home a higher percentage than employees. It’s their neck on the line. Everybody says there is no need for more trees but you, the risk taker, go ahead and pot up another batch. Will they sell? Will you sleep until they do?

Chapter 21 has a great quote about a man who started small, the need to start small and the strength that gives for growth. Of course, the gentleman in question, as many of the author’s mentors did, used manures to the greatest advantage. Put that poop to work!

His great success removed all doubt and disarmed all opposition. But even his was not achieved without unremitting industry and intelligent application of the mind. Neither his hands nor the manure did every thing. But manure lay at the foundation of the edifice: without it he would have toiled in vain to build up an ample fortune from the humblest of beginnings.

The final chapter is concerned with where to buy land; East vs. West. He is, obviously, in favor of buying in the east where the major population centers were. Land is more expensive but you can sell product for a higher price. Let’s just let him say it.

If my example be worth imitating, land should be obtained within cheap and daily access to any one of the great cities. If within reach of two, as mine is, all the better, as the location thus secures the choice of two markets.

…and later…

But choose as he may, locate as he will, he must not, as he hopes to succeed in growing the smaller fruits to profit, locate himself out of reach of a daily cash market. New York and Philadelphia may be likened to two huge bags of gold, always filled…

Who should read this book?
I think you should. You. Yes, you. If nothing else, this book will expand your vocabulary.

Take home messages:
Several themes stand out to me:

  • Avoid debt…banks are evil. Old Testament stuff. Forty years of darkness. Earthquakes, volcanoes…dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria!
  • Rely on your spouse as your teammate
  • Stagger production windows into high income produce
  • Plant the whole farm off the bat
  • Stack multiple crops in the same area (like Stefan Sobkowiak(you should buy that!))
  • Make an investment in fertility. He bought the farm for $1,000. Over the next two years he spent $200 each year to buy manure…40% of the farm value in manure. And you wonder why I spend so much time writing about manure…

And now for something completely different.

Minecraft

What is this book game about?
It’s an open world sandbox. Completely open. You can build, destroy, hunt, explore…just a sandbox. No missions. No quests. Just go. Do. If you want you can just build huge glass castles and breed rabbits. Whatever. I’m a 38 year old child. This game is a dream. It requires a certain level of genius to make a calculator out of Minecraft blocks though.

Is it a classic?
At 60 million copies sold? Yes. And for good reason. This game will inspire and direct gaming for years to come. It comes in at third place for game sales across all platforms following Tetris and Wii Sports. (Wii Sports? Seriously? I, like, literally can’t even.)

Will you read play it again?
Again and again. For a while anyway. I’m sure it will get old but it’s right up there with my favorite game of all time, X-Com UFO Defense. Oh, gosh! Imagine an alien invasion Minecraft world! Instead of zombies you could fight aliens! Instead of abandoned mines you could discover alien bases! If only I was a better programmer.

Does it belong on your bookshelf computer?
Obviously I think so. It’s PG. It’s appropriate for all ages. It’s a hoot. Why did I wait so long? Why was I born in 1976 instead of 2010? Why don’t I go out and buy 4 more computers so the kids and I can all play together? I mean, seriously! I could hook that up for about the price of a cow!

Can you relate a favorite passage or experience?
Favorite passage?

/kill @e[type=Creeper]

The best experience is easily repeatable. I mined out a bunch of materials, suited up in armor, grabbed a couple of swords and a few stacks of torches and ladders and explored the abandoned mine I found. I should clarify, if your character dies in game it’s not a huge deal. Your stuff stays where you died until you either return to pick it up or the garbage collector routine sweeps it up for you. But you don’t want to die. So my kids are gathered around as we light up the darkness. We hear zombies moaning somewhere around us. A giant spider hisses. Then…suddenly from deep in the darkness a skeleton starts firing arrows at me. I don’t know where I can step because the ground is uneven. I don’t know where the enemies are. My kids are screaming, the younger two run out of the room acting scared and being goofy, I fall in a hole, zombies fall on me while I hack and slash and….we all have a blast. Seriously. Most fun I have had gaming in years.

Who should read this book play this game?
Anybody who wants to have fun. I think this game opens a world of possibilities for my kids. Really. If there is one skill I would have my kids learn right now it would be OO programming. I don’t know what is coming next but I do know that right now, if they want a job that is in demand, something they can do that pays well with pleasant working conditions, something they could do right here at home to supplement farm income, I would encourage them to become software developers. That requires a solid foundation in math. I can say that over and over. I can tell my kids they need to know math. But if I show them something like this…if I show them the formulas involved in creating a landscape out of blocks and persisting that data…maybe then they will begin to pay attention. Or at least start asking me questions. There is a pretty high-energy video that asks “Is Minecraft is the ultimate educational tool?

Take home messages:
This really might be a paradigm shift in gaming. The Legend of Zelda was absolutely revolutionary in 1986. This is SO MUCH COOLER. I’m not supposed to be doing anything and I want to do everything. But I can’t. There isn’t time. But we (kids and I) can have a lot of fun, can learn about PC specs, networking, programming and how to kill creepers before they explode. When the kids who are playing this now learn to create their own games, look out!

A Year With Minecraft: Behind the Scenes at Mojang

What is this book about?
It’s history and biography of the staff at a small indie game studio.

Is it a classic?
I really don’t think so.

Will you read it again?
I really don’t think so. My kids might though there was one bad word in a narration about trying to meet public expectations.

Does it belong on your bookshelf?
No.

Can you relate a favorite passage?
Long story. I have known about Minecraft for a few years now and it is something I have avoided because I though it was just some kid thing. But it’s not. It’s built for the community. The developers are very responsive to the demands of the player community. The game was originally released in a very, very pre-release form. This allowed the developer (mainly Markus) to focus on features the community wanted the most. There are several passages that discuss this, comparing Minecraft to another game, Scrolls, that the company was developing at the time the book was being written. In fact, the book may be not-so-subtle advertising for that other game. Anyway…

Rather than bludgeon you with direct quotes spanning the entire book and repeating what I said above I want to talk about how it relates to me. I am really tuba-playing band nerd turned computer guy and father who pretends to be a farmer pretending to write about farming. I have pretended so well that I’m 40-50% of the way finished with a book on raising and selling a few pigs. Just a few pigs…done the way(s) we do it. But I seem to be stuck. Not exactly writer’s block but something like that. I don’t know what level of detail to include at certain points. I suppose I could follow the model used for Minecraft and release a discounted pre-release version of the book and rely on reader feedback to form the final version complete with free updates.

So I guess that makes my book review a not-so-subtle advertisement for a book I’m pretending to write.

Also, the book follows the company. The team. The people. That’s the focus. Markus Persson created an incredible game and did so at just the right time. But behind the scenes, Markus Persson also found an incredible group of people and was incredibly generous with them, building employee loyalty, making work fun and making it financially rewarding. That’s not luck…but it’s not to say that luck didn’t come into play.

One other thing struck me. I have had to sign contracts that say the company owns my creative works for the duration of my employment. I have also benefited greatly from my network of colleagues and my professional reputation. The following quotes tie those two ideas together.

We [Online photo service company] had a problem that needed solving and someone who knew Markus from a forum was aware that he had worked with that type of programming before.

…but actually hiring him was not easy…

It took almost a year to lure Markus from King.com to Jalbum, and the main reason he eventually accepted was that he wanted to work more on Minecraft. That’s was why a programming job was preferable to game developing at King, who also had rules against employees making games outside of work – especially if you charged for the game.

King lost a talented employee because they believe a lie. They believe ideas are scarce and valuable. Ideas are not scarce. Ideas are worthless. Everybody has ideas. But very few lock themselves in their home every evening for years to create something of their own. Ideas for projects are common. Finished projects are rare. Talented employees who can finish projects are gold. King screwed up. It looks like Mojang handles this differently but I only have one quote to back it up.

In the new premises, Mojang would come to have more workstations than employees, the thought being that other indie developers could use those empty seats.

I can’t even imagine. Data security? Code security? Network security? But they seem to believe making resources available to talented people is beneficial to all…so…they do it. Maybe they cultivate talent that way. What does it cost them? What does it benefit them?

How can I implement a similar sense of openness and support in our home? On our farm?

Finally, each person at Mojang carries a lot of responsibility. There aren’t big teams of people working together toward a common goal, there are individuals with individual assignments. I’m sure they bounce ideas off of each other and support each other but…

This way of working not only means that each person at Mojang have a lot of work on his or her hands; it’s also up to them to get it done. There is no one to hide behind. …People are working quietly and are persistently studying their computer screens. Diligence was the word coming to mind.

I can certainly rely on my kids to complete specific tasks. But this is, I think, more. These people are all passionate about their job. If Markus wrote Minecraft in the right place at the right time, these people are also in the right place at the right time…at the right company. I need to ensure that my kids feel similarly. I need my kids to feel rewarded and inspired. I need my kids to feel the impact of their work financially, ecologically and in our community. How do I do that? Mojang uses twitter to get feedback from millions of gamers. I don’t have that marketing reach…but still I have to make them believe. Why else would they pour their heart and soul into the work?

…creates positive peer pressure. If you stand up in front of a group and tell them what you are going to do, then you also have an obligation to the group to deliver. I think that’s the best form of organization you can create as a manager, to get the team to organize themselves and set their own goals.

That’s why I announce publicly that I’m going to finish a book each week and report on it here. So how can I cast vision into my children? How can I help them see the tremendous amount of work there is to do here, prevent them from feeling overwhelmed by breaking it down into smaller parts and encourage them to stand in front of the family and take ownership of it?

Ask me again in a few years.

Who should read this book?
I guess people like me. I have always played video games and it’s pretty cool to see through a foggy window into that world. It’s so different than the simple financial or health utility programs I have been involved with. Gamers are harder to please than the SEC and are extremely fickle. These people handle it well.

Take home messages:
I enjoyed reading this book though I really only gave it about 4 hours. It’s light reading…details on the people behind a game I am having fun playing. I found the most value in their unwavering openness, honesty and hard work. They appear to have a lot of fun working together but they do work together. They are inspired. They share a common vision. They reap the rewards. As I mentioned, I seek application of that here at home.

Favorite Blog Post of the Week

You have to know I read a TON of blog posts throughout the week. I’ll leave out the blogs about the SQL Server OPENROWSET() function to retrieve data from XML files. That’s pretty cool but doesn’t compare to cow manure.

The most personally challenging post I read this week was by my friend at SailorsSmallFarm. I didn’t comment on her blog post which is somewhat unusual, especially since she was kind enough to mention me in her post (What does “skookum” mean? Apparently it’s Chinook for “neato”). I wanted to reply to her closing question but I couldn’t find the right words.

So now, I just need to make it happen, and then…how am I going to get the pig’s paddock to be multi-functional?

I tend to be a problem solver but I think sometimes I just need to be supportive. That’s what Julie says anyway. Maybe what she needs is what she has…plus a few nut and berry plants…plus some reassurance from a friend 2200 miles away. Cause that would be cool. So…”Right on SSF. Things are looking great! You have been working hard and it shows. I can’t wait to see what you do next!”

I have started reading Cottage Economy and a couple of others I’ll report on next week. Until then, please give me some feedback on this post. I read a lot. Like, a lot, lot. Especially in the winter. I like to share with my readers when I find a book that helps a farmer out. But I also like to be entertained so I include links to movies and music and, apparently, video games. Fun books too. Please let me know if there are questions I can answer for you or if you have any suggestions to help make this format more meaningful. Would pictures of the books help?

While My Bovine Gently Eats

Try singing the title. Try singing the title to the tune of a Beatles song. Too much of a stretch? Oh well.

Cows are still locked in the barn as we are expecting freezing rain/ice starting around noon on Sunday. They have backed way off on the severity of the forecast but I prefer to err on the side of caution. The cows, however, are ready to be back on pasture. They have been getting all the alfalfa hay they want as well as some salted grass/clover mix they seem to like. I put them out on grass in a small corner of fence near the barn today and they were happy cows! I don’t really know if the grass is fresh or tasty or what but the cows went bananas for it. Twoey decided to look up for a second just in case I was up to something. (3M2…2…Twoey. You understand if you have a few animals around.)

Twoey

While my cows were busy gently eating grass I closed them out of the feedlot. That gave me a chance to break the ice out of the water tubs and refill them, move the hay ring around a fresh bale of hay, leaving the remainder of the bale for the cows to munch on, lay on or whatever. Mostly what is left of the old bale is hay they rejected so it should be pulled aside and composted but they later seemed to enjoy rubbing their polls on it and munching a little bit here and there so…whatever.

RoundBale

I also decided bed the dickens out of the barn. We started, again, with six loads of sawdust. When I say “we” I mean dad and I. He ran the tractor for me. With the loader tractor we did as much work in about 4 hours as we would have done with a wheelbarrow in about four Saturdays.

Sawdust

The jack barn is full of round bales of straw that are at least 20 years old. They have been burrowed into by all sorts of critters and aren’t bales anymore, just piles in roundish shapes. I even saw a coyote bedding down in there last winter. Dad and I started hauling out load after load of straw from there.

Straw

At some point is appropriate for the reader to ask, “Chris, isn’t that an awful lot of bedding?”

Yeah, I guess it is. But let’s talk about bedding here for a minute. Each year I buy two truckloads of sawdust (totaling $270 tops) and 100 bales of straw (totaling $150). So for less than $500 I get all the bedding I need for cows, pigs, brooders, greenhouses, horses, composting toilets…you get the idea.

“So, Chris, haven’t you put an awful lot of money into bedding this barn down?”:

Proportionally speaking? Yes. So let’s talk about that a little bit. Why am I bedding the cows so deeply? (Horses too for that matter…) I’m doing it because I want dry, clean, warm livestock what don’t have to smell the ammonia they produce. I’m also doing it because I want to add value to my straw and sawdust.

That’s right. I said it. And I’ll say it again. Poopy sawdust is worth more than clean sawdust. Just ask my pastures next summer! Leaving the straw sitting unused in the barn shows that I misallocated capital in acquiring that material. Actually using that material for its intended purpose is…well…what you’re supposed to do…and the faster I turn that inventory the better! Why buy the straw if you’re not going to use it?

But wait! There’s more! The more manure I can pack into this bedding the better. So why am I building it up so much? Why am I stacking it so deep? I mean, if I’m not careful the cows will be rubbing their backs on the beams. So please don’t be concerned that I’m being wasteful with my bedding. I’m not. The cows have a thick, fluffy bed/toilet but there is more.

The reason I’m putting so much down is because I’m building additional capacity into our bedding so I can keep my pigs here in a few months. By mixing pig manure into my cow bedding I’ll broaden the nutrient spectrum of my future compost while also aerating it by way of pig noses…adding even more value to the straw and sawdust. And by the time we are finished with the pigs in the barn we will also be finished brooding chicks in the spring so I’ll have that spectrum of fertility to add to the mix. Top that off with a little dose of lime and we have a winner.

So…to sum it up…my cows like eating grass and I like to shovel manure. And today would have been awful if dad hadn’t shown up to help. The end.

Keeping Cows on Hoth

“Your cow will freeze before you reach the first marker!”

“I thought they smelled bad on the outside.”

I like to make a note of weather extremes. Right now we should be facing our coldest weather of the year and sure enough we have a wind chill of -21 today (-29C for the rest of the world). That’s pretty cold. All schools are cancelled and the cows are in the barn and we aren’t going anywhere. Feel free to make the conversion from Fahrenheit to Celsius in the image below.

Weather

Click image for source.

Full moon right now. Mornings are clear, bright and cold. Did I mention it’s cold? It’s cold.

Moon

The main layer flock are in an unheated hoop house. That’s really not a bad place to spend the day. Usually we see a cat or two hanging in a nest box. The cows are in the barn. There are no pigs on the farm. We have a roaring fire going in the stove. The only things left out in the cold are the few remaining elderly layers. We will give them some extra fluffy bedding for the eggmobile and that’s that. They tend to stay close to the house and out of the wind. They need to go into a nice, warm soup pot.

ChickenHouse2

It’s cold. Cold! The wind pinches your nose like an annoying uncle and won’t let go. I don’t like it. I hope that’s clear. I always wish for winter when I’m putting up hay in August. It seems so much easier to stay warm than to stay cool. But now I’m dreaming of a hot summer. The kind of heat you can’t even escape from in the pond.

The biggest problem we have is keeping water in front of the cows. I broke a hose a couple of nights ago. Since then I actually bought a new short hose! and we are keeping it with us at the house, carrying it back and forth. In our coats. It’s every bit as awesome as it sounds.

Julie cried this morning. She couldn’t get the chicken house door open. She thought she broke the spigot getting water for the chickens (she didn’t). She hurt her back carrying a bale of straw she shouldn’t have been carrying (ongoing injury). We think she’s coming down with something…she has been achy and slugginsh for a day or so. And tired. She cried. I hate it when she cries. I hate it when she cries and I’m late for work. Things are OK now though. Should be above freezing on Sunday bringing 1-3″ of ice pellets. Can’t wait. I hope she spends today on the couch by the wood stove.

Just a quick note, Aunt Marian said if we see -10 after Christmas we won’t have a peach crop. Actually, Aunt Marian said that her mother said…

Thoughts on Deep Bedding

Our cows must think we are room service. They didn’t even get up yesterday when Julie added a bale of straw. Things are pretty comfy in the barn. Air can blow through as the building is not tight but the wind is slowed considerably. That’s a good thing for getting rid of ammonia but the better way to deal with ammonia is to capture it in carbon. Further, the deep bedding, once it builds mass, becomes a living, composting entity of its own. We started with the sawdust. 6 buckets of oak sawdust.

Sawdust

I spread that evenly over about half of the barn. Why only half? Because the barn is huge and the herd is small. We used corral panels later to cut the cows off from the rest of the building. I could either bed the whole thing or have my bedding twice as deep. We topped off the sawdust with four square bales of straw. Each day we add a bale of straw, more if needed.

It is interesting how quickly that first layer of bedding gets soiled or otherwise worked into the barn floor. We add bedding every day for several days until, finally, we seem to reach some critical mass and the bedding needs taper off considerably. The calves are at that point now except in front of their feeder. That sees such heavy traffic there is no hope for it. If the cows stay here for long the bedding will build up to a nice, thick layer. I think they will only be here for the week though.

ChewingCud

There really isn’t much for the cows to do these days. They get up and eat. They lay down and chew their cud. They walk to the water tanks. They lay down and chew their cud. I put a little kelp and a little salt in the feed bunk but otherwise, that’s the life of the cow hotel.

FeedBunk

There is a round bale of alfalfa available at all times and we offer grass/clover square bales twice each day. They really seem to want the grass. We feed them outdoors because that’s the current setup. I have the bunks. The cows are there. No big whoop.

I have to say, this isn’t really any easier or necessarily harder than having the cows on pasture. I have a little less walking and water is easier to manage but I’m have to bring the feed to them stored feed and bedding. The cows are, I think, better off. We’re in for a few days of cold weather and it’s far below what we want to subject our pet milk cows to. The shorthorns don’t seem to care either way but I don’t want to split the herd so here we are.

No pictures of manure today. You can bet I looked at it though. It looked nice…as far as manure goes anyway.

10 Cows, 6 Heifers, 2 Steers, 60 Acres

So you read the title, right? OK. So. That’s my little herd. We are growing. We are adding to our numbers each year and things are moving along. Someone recently asked me to clarify that I really only have 13 animals out on pasture for my remaining 30 acres of stockpile. But let’s remove the numbers for just a second.

I have enough pasture remaining to enable my cows to make it to April if I supplement their grazing with hay.

Do the numbers matter?

1. It’s all about me.
What if I just went out and bought 40 cows? I have 60 acres, I live in Illinois. Shouldn’t be a big deal, right? Well, it is a big deal. Remember, I’m a transplant from the city. Yes, I own my family farm but the generation before me packed up and left. My dad worked at a coal mine, took me fishing and played catch with me in our ranch-style suburban home. I had a model train and a pile of legos. How many of those 40 cows would I kill? I would just be scrambling to keep up out there. So I started with two. (Actually I started with chickens but…) Each year I add to the numbers. Each year Julie and I increase our knowledge, our ability, our understanding, our eye and we move forward. Hopefully we will graduate from cow college in 20 years but right now we still have everything to learn.

Also, don’t overlook the costs involved in 40 cows, hay for 40 cows (cause our grass won’t cut it…more in a bit), and time for 40 cows. I have a job. I have a good job. But I don’t have that kind of cash just laying around.

2. It’s all about the grass.
My pastures are pretty poor, really. I have forests of goldenrod, forests of thorny things and pure stands of fescue. Not enough shade. Not enough water. Not what you want for 40 cows. 40 cows, supplemented with hay on pasture year round, would do a tremendous amount of work trampling my goldenrod and moving my pastures forward but that’s not leveraging our strengths. That’s ignoring…or foolishly running roughshod over our weaknesses. It was interesting to watch our pastures recover this year. I have a bare, compacted, south-facing slope by the house that was almost a pure stand of clover this year. What will it do next year? The east 40 was almost entirely devoid of clover except where dad planted it. What happens this coming year? Forages are changing on the farm, some of them intentionally so but it takes time. I could fill the farm with cows and may still be able to manage it with time but the base forage just isn’t here. The temptation would be to simplify feeding hay to my 40 cows by bringing them to the lot each day. Then I would be back where I started. Sigh.

Jan2015

3. Wrong cow, right job.
My genetics are not in place yet. I have a few prospects that we have high hopes for but we aren’t there. I need a small cow (nope) that does well on grass alone (nope). Ideally she would give milk for 90 days then dry up on her own. She would re-breed quickly and easily, fatten on nothing at all and would last 14-20 years leaving 12-18 calves in her wake. One of her sons would be retained as a sire for the next herd of the future. But that’s not what I have. I have cows that will probably come up open in a year or two and that will be that. Then what? Buy in more of the same? Breed to a devon bull?

Happy

As I learn more, as my soil health improves and pasture diversity increases and as my herd changes more toward our grazing ideal I won’t need 30 acres for 13 cows. But right now I do and mostly because of item #1. Grass grows. Cows eat. I’m the weak link. But I’m working on it. Let’s revisit that King Ranch quote from a few days ago because I think it’s appropriate here. Keep in mind, the numbers they list are for an organization that knows what they are doing, ranching on cheap land in a tropical paradise.

Unlike most manufacturing, the ranching business is a slow start-up. It takes years to bring raw land to a good grass yield and to breed up a herd to the point of turning off quality and quantity beef. Though the company operated seven years, it was only in the last six months that it generated its first net profit, $600.

I think this fits under the thinking that one should simply start…and start small. You don’t know what you don’t know and it takes years to find out. And I didn’t even touch on marketing. What would I do with 40 calves? At this point, my marketing reach is insufficient. So…grow as you go. But go. Don’t say no. I mean it, there so! Marvin K. Mooney.

BTW, this post is entirely academic. The cows are on deep bedding this week as it is particularly cold out. I have had to learn we can’t outwinter the jerseys and it really is easier to keep the team together than to split the jerseys off from the shorthorns and…ugh. Water. Freezes.

Reading Journal 2015 Week 1

This week started early. Not much early but last year early.

Anyway, the big goal is to log what I read, not just read. I tend to read and read and read but I don’t know how much of what I ingest I actually assimilate. This is both to help me assimilate more and to keep a record of when I read what. Books will be assimilated.

Click image for source. Come on. You know I like Star Trek.

But here’s the thing. I find it is difficult to cut through meaty books at this pace. I prefer to read things slowly…er…procrastinate. Maybe I read 6 or 7 books at once, finishing them all over the course of 4-6 weeks. Isolating one book each week doesn’t seem like it’s going to allow things to percolate through. But maybe that’s not all bad. I’m changing some reading habits here too, not just focusing on a single book and speed. I’m making notes in my books so I can re-focus on certain passages when I read the book again.

But this week was awful. I got distracted reading two other books just trying to run away from reading about the King Ranch. Not that I didn’t want to read about the King Ranch, I wanted to do other stuff too.

So that takes me to my review system. I just don’t have the time to share my chapter by chapter notes of each book in a series of blog posts. I have a job, man. So I’m going to attempt to answer a few simple questions about each book to help you determine if it’s the book for you. Let’s just dive in.

Bob Kleberg and the King Ranch

What’s it about?
This book seems to be two things at once. It’s kind of a biography of Bob Kleberg as well as a history of the King ranch. But it is also kind of an autobiography of Bob’s right hand man, John Cypher. Kind of. It details their decades of working together to grow the ranch into a global enterprise. Really, pretty fascinating stuff if you can wrap your head around the numbers involved. For example, they projected a property in Venezuela would finish 4,000 steers each year but they actually finished 19,000. Wow. There are numerous anecdotes that are instructional to the aspiring rancher as well as crazy stories of life with Bob.

Is it a classic?
On the initial reading I would say no. Good but not great.

Will you read it again?
Yes. I plan to read it again, skimming through and seeking out the portions of the book I highlighted.

Does it belong on your bookshelf?
Maybe for a little while. I do plan to flip through it once or twice more.

Can you relate a favorite passage or two?
Here the author is relating the experiences of establishing business in Cuba right up through when Castro seized power and stole the ranch. It’s hard to risk an investment if you don’t have secure property rights. Ultimately the ranch and investors lost $6 million. That’s a lot of money in 1959. Plus the cattle…many of which ended up in Russia. How about that? Anyway, I feel that this is personally applicable right now…and for the next 6 or 7 years.

Unlike most manufacturing, the ranching business is a slow start-up. It takes years to bring raw land to a good grass yield and to breed up a herd to the point of turning off quality and quantity beef. Though the company operated seven years, it was only in the last six months that it generated its first net profit, $600.

Next they were working in Brazil with one of the most successful businessman in the country at the time, Dr. Augusto T. A. Antunes. The following was asked of Dr. Antunes:

Doctor, how do you define social justice?

Without hesitation, Antunes replied, “Social justice is the process of giving everyone an equal opportunity to become unequal.”

Who should read this book?
This is a historical, biographical collection of tales mixed with details of efficient cattle operations, hunting and drinking. I don’t think they are tall tales and the author doesn’t seem to shy away from pointing out Bob’s weaknesses. There are also interesting global political notes as the world stood 50 or 60 years ago. So if you’re into that…

The Martian: A Novel

What’s the book about?
Group of astronauts go to Mars. Emergency situation comes up. One gets left behind. He wants to go home.

Is it a classic?
No. Well, maybe. There may be more here than I picked up on the initial reading. I don’t think so though.

Will you read it again?
Oh, maybe. It’s a fast read on a rainy day and it made me laugh.

Does it belong on your bookshelf?
Nope. It’s an ebook and should stay there. See if you can catch it on sale.

Can you relate a favorite passage or two?
Several. At one point the main character, who has been alone for more than a year, is focused on driving a vehicle to a rescue location. He can’t keep his mind on his work though. He interrupts himself in the middle of a narration and it made me giggle.

[Driving and going through a list of wants…]

It has been a long time since I’ve seen a woman. Just sayin’

Anyway, to ensure I don’t crash again I’ll – Seriously…no women in like, years. I don’t ask for much. Believe me, even back on earth a botanist/mechanical engineer doesn’t exactly have ladies lined up at the door. But still, c’mon.

Who should read this book?
First let me say to my Sunday School teachers out there: Skip this book. Potty. Mouth. Lots of worty dirds. Guy gets wounded and left for dead on Mars…of course he has some choice words. But he tends to have a sense of humor about things. Here’s a mild quote. Our hero is trying to build a vehicle to travel from A to B on Mars. He needs a place to sleep so he puts a tent on through an airlock on the vehicle to act as a bedroom.

The rover and trailer regulate their own temperatures just fine, but things weren’t hot enough in the bedroom.

Story of my life.

If you found any humor at all in those quotes, get the book. If you read that and thought, “I can’t believe Christopher would quote such a thing”, this isn’t the book for you. I laughed all the way through…though I did skim here and there. Narrations of driving across the surface of a frozen desert planet were…well…skimable.

Next week I plan to read Ten Acres Enough. I received that as a Christmas gift. It looks like a fast read so I may also tack on Cottage Economy.

Please give me some feedback on this post. I haven’t written a book report for 25 years and I find the results to be less than satisfactory. I read a lot. Like, a lot, lot. I like to share with my readers when I find a book that helps a farmer out. But I also like to be entertained so I include links to movies and music. Fun books too. Please let me know if there are questions I can answer for you. The current post format is just the Beta version. I’m not even sure this kind of thing belongs on this blog. Especially books about lovesick astronauts stranded on Mars.

Philosophy of Grass, Hay and Making Cows Happy

I love those big, flashy titles.

After my previous post on winter grazing I had a thought-provoking comment from a reader. In short, she pointed out that I’m not just grazing and I’m not just feeding hay. I’m doing both. Yup. And let’s talk about that. It’s philosophically different than other resources I pointed to in that post. Jim Gerrish wrote a book called “Kicking the Hay Habit” and Jim Elizondo has a DVD about Hayless winter grazing…and somehow, in spite of the fact that I’m feeding hay to my cattle, I pointed to those resources to support my routine.

Well. I stand by it. Here is another resource to further stack the cards against me. I ain’t skeered.

Mr. Elizondo avoids hay by offering flaxseed meal mixed with salt, allowing the cows to digest highly lignified forages. Mr. Gerrish, as I understand, just grazes like the fellas in the video. Let’s keep piling on counter-examples. Greg Judy, as I understand, only feeds hay if there’s a bad ice storm. Gabe Brown? Dunno. Somebody look it up and comment for me, will you?

So where do I get off stockpiling grass AND still feeding hay AND bragging about it on the internets? Just who do I think I am?

I’m me. I have my pastures. I deal with my problems. I listen to my cows. They tell me (by way of manure) they would not perform without hay. Some of this is because I have the wrong cows. Some of this is because I have the wrong pastures. But I’m honest and observant enough to assess livestock health and caring enough to address their needs. They need a little extra protein. But they certainly benefit from the standing forage. So I run a hybrid. Then the cows eat fresh plantain in the winter.

Plantain

The idea, as spelled out to me by David Hall some time ago, is to feed one month’s worth of hay over 5 months and ask the animals to deliver the fertility across the farm over time. He further said he could normally buy a round bale of good quality hay for $20-$25 (little different here in the midwest, eh?) and gain $18 worth of fertilizer value…so he buys hay. Doesn’t make hay, different discussion for a different day.

So that’s the plan. We stockpiled basically the whole farm. We still have 30 acres to graze. To keep the cows healthy we need to give a little extra protein and I feed that in the form of hay. So here I am. Standing right in the middle. We may move toward the world of no hay but I’m not there yet. Some of that is my skill level. Some is my level of faith. Some is the genetics I currently own. Some because of the condition of my soil. But whatever the reason, that’s what I do. And it seems to be working out OK.

Some of this thinking would apply if I was feeding hay during a summer drought. Keep the cows on the move, add feed to help them over the hump, measure protein needs as they are grazing highly lignified summer stockpile. However, if we can recognize the drought early we can liquidate our least valuable stock early on and maintain a much smaller herd throughout. But that’s for another day too.

One last thing. I do need to improve my pastures. The density of animal impact and …erm…cow…erm…residue will build soil health. Plus we are working to spread compost, lime and run chickens over the farm, only helping things further. But wait there’s more. 5-6 pounds of red clover per acre to be applied in the next month. Should I apply that seed ahead of the cows so they can mash it into the soil with their hooves or should I follow behind the cows, letting freeze/thaw cycles plant the seeds for me? Dunno. Maybe a little of both? Cause that’s, apparently, how I roll.