Modest Enough Not to Know

If you were uncertain what the message of the blog is I want to be clear:

I. Don’t. Know.

I have no idea.

I am totally, entirely, utterly clueless.

I read books. I make notes. I actually do stuff in vivo. I make more notes. I talk to other farmers. I make more notes.

But it’s hard to make a plan from those notes. I can’t copy from Steve or Matron or Salatin. They are not me.

The formula seems so simple:

  1. Do stuff
  2. Stop doing stuff that doesn’t work.

But what does that really mean?

I’ll tell you what it means. I really do know the answer to this one.

It means humility.

It means you are going to stand on top of a mountain (or a blog) and shout to the world that farming is awesome! That you, along with your trusted companion, are going to solve problems both economical and ecological by harnessing sunlight and rain to make fat cows. And, shortly afterward, find out that it takes maybe a little longer than you had initially imagined. …that things don’t play out like they do in your head. …that well pumps break. …that one of those heifers you bought is a freemartin and two just won’t breed, that pinkeye runs through the herd like wildfire, that a heifer dies quickly and unexpectedly, that you cut hay then the forecast changed to 5 days of heavy rain. It means watching the escaped cows run down the road in the rain storm and feeling tired. Old. Foolish.

RainHay

It means learning how much can go wrong, how quickly it can happen and how miserable it feels.

Remember that house we used to own? The one with three bathrooms? What I wouldn’t give for an extra bathroom. I didn’t know we would need an extra bathroom with three teenagers in our house.

Remember when it rained in the kitchen? I didn’t know raccoons would try to dig through the roof to get into the house. Heck, I didn’t know we had a legion of raccoons living in the shed.

Remember that morning we found 30 dead birds in the chicken house? I didn’t know we had minks here.

Remember that time the water source leaked and 300 chicks caught pneumonia, dressed out without any fat on their bones and the meat was so tough we lost a bunch of customers? I remember that too. Totally clueless.

Remember trying to pluck ducks? Great idea. Poor execution.

You would think I would have learned a little about humility by now. And maybe I have. It is clear that I don’t have any answers at this point. But my inquisitiveness still hasn’t been beaten out of me.

I had a boss once on a roofing job. He told me not to ask him “Why” questions.

But I really want to know WHY!

For example, Why can’t I make money with hogs? Is it me? Is it feed costs? Is it worth keeping pigs anyway? What is the value of the manure? What is the value of customer exposure? What is the value of the experience for me? …for the kids?

I have a few ideas about how to answer those questions and some of my answers depend on my mood. But if you pin me down and demand an answer I have to cry out:

I don’t know!

But I want to know. And I am looking for answers.

In spite of the lack of posts recently, I continue working to clearly define my ignorance…but maybe more quietly. Reading the book Algorithms to Live By over lunch recently I found something that explains why I have the cows that I have. The authors are discussing a mathematical solution to a theoretical problem: how to hire the best secretary you can when you have a number of them to interview and you only get one shot at each.

The math shows that when there are a lot of applicants left in the pool, you should pass up even a very good applicant in the hopes of finding someone still better than that – but as your options dwindle, you should be prepared to hire anyone who’s simply better than average. It’s a familiar, if not exactly inspiring, message: in the face of slim pickings, lower your standards.

Well? Mission accomplished. The difference here is I expect my cows to breed so I can hire their daughters (cows, not secretaries) and each subsequent generation that I don’t eat will grow slowly closer to my ideal. Slowly. Slowly. How slowly? I don’t know. I think it’s going to take a while. Maybe never. Maybe I hired the wrong group entirely. That takes us into limitations of time, the whole point of the book. But this isn’t a book review post and I don’t know when I’ll have time to write one. The point is, wrong cows. Wrong, wrong cows. Or wrong farmer. Whatever.

Having written 900 words describing my ignorance I don’t want to leave you without hope that I, Chris Jordan, might someday overcome my limitation. I’ll leave you with what I do know. I know that I do not know. 39 years of ignorance has come at a high cost but I can’t be paralyzed by fear of the unknown. So I keep plugging away. Scratching my way forward by reading, listening, studying and reflecting but also by getting out there every day to keep learning what doesn’t work. Thanking God that I have a job in town.

The month of June thoroughly kicked my behind. Today is July 1. I don’t have the courage to be optimistic about July but I am overflowing with humility this morning.

 

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Field Experiment

Once upon a time, when I was about 16, I walked beside a wagon South of the white barn picking up straw bales for my cousin. Then I went into the barn to stack them. Then I thought I was going to die from allergies. I think some of those bales are still in the SW corner of the barn. This very field, 25 years ago:

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Our barn from the south.

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More recently that field has been planted to corn, sudangrass and, lastly alfalfa. A more distant cousin planted the alfalfa a year or so before we bought the farm.

I didn’t particularly want alfalfa but there it was. I find it is hard to dry for hay and tricky to graze. We ran chicken tractors over other fields but the field South of the barn remained untouched…other than being mowed for hay 5 years straight.

Tractor4

One day, a few years ago, it rained 6 inches while the chicken tractors were full in the very spot pictured above. The rain and chicken manure and pressure from chicken feet killed the alfalfa under the chicken tractors.

Then, last summer, the rain didn’t stop. Rain fell all spring. It rained an inch every day in June…or nearly so. It kept raining in July. Then it resumed again in August. We got a cutting or two of pretty bad hay and maybe one small cutting of fairly decent hay but the rain drowned the alfalfa on the flat land. It also drowned the clovers. I guess I thought I had mismanaged something in the wet that the clover all died but Steve had the same problem on his farm. The neighbor’s alfalfa field to the SE was planted the same day mine was and his alfalfa all died too.

Now, instead of an alfalfa field, I had a field of cheat and wild oats.

You know what cows don’t want to eat? Cheat and wild oats. They walk on it. They look at it. But they don’t eat it. This should be the best field on the farm. But it is not. It is cheat and wild oats. But for year after year, crop after crop, cutting after cutting, 4 cuttings of hay per year, we have taken from these fields. We have super-oxygenated the soil with tillage. We have burned through the soil bank account and have made no deposits.

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Moving the herd. #farmphotography #farmchores

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I baled a bunch of the cheap grasses up last summer for spare bedding in the barn. Seeds and all. We could not buy straw because the summer was so wet. Then I let it grow back to full maturity and grazed it through January, offering the cattle additional hay on pasture to encourage them to tromp that carbon down.

That brings us to April of 2016.

Let’s put together what we think we have observed about these fields.

  1. Rainwater does not soak in. It either sits on the surface or runs off. The whole field was a wet mess last year. This seems to indicate that soil organic matter is low and there is a hardpan not far down.
  2. Overall fertility is low, based on the absence of plant diversity. There aren’t even broad leaf weeds in the field. Just cheat and oats, clovers on the edges near the limestone roads. Clover at the edges where there is lime. Hmmmm.

So I guess I should check soil pH and soil organic matter. Let’s just assume the worst.

So now what?

If I can be disciplined enough to leave it alone and not mow it we will see what happens. I have a similar field to the East and a slightly better field to the West. Our pastures seem to follow a certain progression. There are a couple of years of heavy thistle infestation followed by a couple of years of heavy giant ragweed. Then the grass strengthens and white clover covers the compacted areas and dung beetles show up out of nowhere. That’s where most of our pastures stand today. We still have patches of thistle here and there but most of the thistle has been crowded out by grass and the cows eat the ragweed where it grows.

I’ll just follow the pattern. There is no real shade out there so the cows stay away for the summer. Maybe I could graze the field at night, taking them back to the barn and offer hay during the day. Maybe. Otherwise we will graze fall, winter and spring.

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The white barn.

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We will continue to frost seed red clover. We will spread manure and lime everywhere. The only difference is this: I am not going to mow this field. 3 acres of ground going fallow for the summer. Probably next summer too. At some point I should treat this like a real experiment. I should measure pH and soil organic matter and compare the before and after. I should measure the brix of the forages in each field. And that would satisfy the part of me that has a degree in biology. But mostly I want to grow lots of grass then invite the cows to press it into the soil. Rinse and repeat.

And since I tend to believe that grass is better off with cattle than without it, and since I tend to believe that tall grass is healthier than mowed grass, and since I tend to believe more wildlife can hide in tall grass than in short grass…well, I feel somewhat OK about leaving 3 acres grazed but un-mowed and messy for a couple of years…just to see what happens. The grass will grow, the cows will tromp and manure. Earthworms will incorporate new materials. Chickens will eat earthworms. Mice will make colonies, coyotes will dig them up. The hair I don’t lose will turn gray. Should be good times.

Timing the Spring Graze

The secret to comedy is timing.

Timing. Get it?

That’s the secret to grazing too. Today I am going to reference a couple of articles I found by Ian Mitchell-Innes that I think are instructive and challenging. First, from the poorly-titled Energy is Money, Money is Energy, Time is Money, Water is Money:

It is to make sure you do not loose animal performance, while you the manager and animals, are going through a learning curve.

Let’s talk about animal performance. As I shared yesterday, I took six heifers off of a feedlot where they were fattening on hot feed and put them on grass. Of that first six, two were not physically capable of breeding. The remaining four all gave me calves but only one has shown that she can give me a calf each year and even she has problems. Zero out of six heifers work on grass. Their offspring, however, look promising. If that second generation come up open it is because I mismanaged my resources.

Because of timing.

41 and 111 did not breed back this year because I didn’t manage energy correctly. Either I had too many cattle on too few acres or I had cattle on the right amount of ground but my grazing intervals were too short. As a third option, our grass is poor and I should have fed hay to build fertility. Whatever. My fault.

But there is more. Time on our farm has been mismanaged for generations, as Ian says in the post:

There is increasing evidence, that we humans, particularly since the advent of barbed wire, have managed in such a way that we have reduced the effectiveness of our soils. The result being the plants growing on those soils, do not capture the amount of Energy from the Sun, which used to be captured.

OldPasture

Our pasture soils are poor but improving. We have pastures that were overgrazed and compacted and growing only sparse, short grasses that are now dense with a large variety of tall plants…many of which are “weeds”. When we first moved there were many places you could lay down a hula hoop and encircle no more than 10 plants. Most of the pastures had deep ruts and cow paths carved into them from the cows walking to and from the barn to eat corn every day for decades. We are transitioning from sparse grasses, dense ragweed and thorny trees everywhere to a large variety of dense grasses and forbs and more desirable species of trees. But we are only beginning. Our pasture has not recovered even a portion of it’s potential capacity. But between then and now I have to make money. To do that I have to find energy to feed my cattle.

If you do not get animal performance you will go broke!

That simple statement is restated in another post on his site:

The first thing to consider is animal performance, as this is the financial aspect of all livestock based operations. The Land and what grows on it, is a solar panel.

‘The limiting factor to all animal performance is Energy’, be it re-conception or weight gain.

Ugh. Energy again. His original post he lists the following points:

Some of the things we have learnt are :-

  • The bigger the herd, the better the animals do and the quicker the soil is restored.
  • The more Carbon (plant material) is trodden onto and into the soil, the better the soil does.
  • We need to manage the livestock to make sure the soil is covered with growing plants or litter, to keep the soil at a more constant temperature and feed life in the soil.
  • We also know that selection of grazing makes animals perform (fat).

If I am not mistaken, Chad Peterson claims that the behavior of cattle changes when you get 300 or more in a group. Grazing is less selective and soil impact is greatly increased and manure distribution is more even. Julius Ruechel illustrates other behavioral changes in his book Grass Fed Cattle. The mob bunches tightly and weaker animals are pushed to the perimeter. It is easy to see the poor-doers even from a distance. Johan Zietesman wrote in his book Man, Cattle and Veld that we need to focus on growing our herd with the best genetics available but we need to keep some of the sub-par animals around while the herd is growing to keep the mob large and the pasture moving forward by stepping more litter into the soil and adding more manure.

Trample

That third point, about making sure the soil is covered, is difficult for me. Greg Judy wrote about a failure he perceives in our practice of putting up hay. By cutting, raking and baling the ground we remove the potential for soil litter. We are stripping away the soil’s protection. I find that to be very difficult. He suggests we aren’t going to convince all farmers not to put up hay, heck, some people enjoy it so we should buy their fertility and put it on our farm.

OK. So we want a big herd to build soil. But is that all there is to it? No. Things change by season. Heck, thing change by day. Another article by Ian:

In the spring put all your animals in one herd and start moving them… The weather must be monitored every day (temperature and rainfall), and if you have started out with relatively slow growth, the day you wake up and it has rained or it is warmer, start moving faster. Slow growth, slow moves; fast growth, fast moves.

Do not force the animals to graze or tread the undesirable plants; if you do, you will lose animal performance. These ungrazed plants will die over a couple of years as no sunlight will be getting to the growing points at soil surface level. The dead plants leave a massive amount of carbon in and on the soil, holding water and enabling a desirable plant to germinate and establish itself.

I am always in awe of farmers pushing to put a million pounds of beef on an acre. Ranchers like Neil Dennis or Gabe Brown who pack the animals into tight breaks with multiple moves each day…amazing. It makes for powerful slides in a presentation but it is not the only strategy they use throughout the year, changing as conditions change. When the grass is growing quickly you give the herd room to roam. When the grass is growing slowly and the cows are dry you slow the grazing down, forcing them to graze, trample, manure and “remodel” a smaller area.

SpringGrazing

This year I boosted my numbers by bringing in some steers. We are grazing 60 acres with 27 head (29 a few weeks ago). Since April we have covered the entire farm 3 times. My goal is usually to rotate 4 times by June 1 but we just didn’t get it done. The cattle are allowed to be selective as we sprint across the landscape. But soon we will stop getting an inch of rain every week and we will need to increase the recovery period. Instead of grazing the whole farm every 20 days we will cover it in 60 days. Or 90 days. And if it gets really dry we may offer hay on pasture in rotation just to keep distributing manure and urine and encourage some amount of forage growth. Winter is an entirely different strategy.

It is all about timing. And the timing changes with the time of the year. And the conditions relative to that time. Right now we are getting a lot of rain. Right now we are moving the herd across 2 acres/day. When they enter the grass has recovered to at least 3′ tall and the clover is all in bloom again. We time our moves with plant recovery. When we achieve recovery before the cows cover the whole 60 we drop out portions of our farm. I skipped 7 acres on the last rotation.

But no matter what I do, 27 head is not the same as 300 head. It just isn’t. If Chad Peterson is right, I’ll need 300 head to see a behavioral change. Maybe by the time I get there I’ll know what I am doing. Because it takes time to learn. It takes time to grow grass. It takes time to put a herd together. And we are taking our time. Right now we just do the best we can with what we have: too few cows and an inexperienced but well-read farmer.

Tomorrow I will tell you about the worst field on the farm and how it became so awful. Here is a picture of it. Don’t be fooled by the green stuff growing there. It is of zero value to cattle.

TheWorstField

Cattle I Have Owned

I plan to write a short series on the cow herd. I believe the cattle are the future. Feed them well and let them lead the way.

The future. I see the future in my mind. More cattle. Many more. Grass growing in dense stands, cattle, bunched up tightly, pushing organic material (grasses, tree branches, manure) into solid contact with the soil to feed the earth. The soil responding positively as impact and recovery cycles steadily build topsoil as the years pass by. And keep in mind, building soil is the goal, cattle are just the mechanism. I see it. Not just on my 60 but starting here. Right here. Today.

But I didn’t start today.

I started a few years ago. With just a few heifers.

First there were two dairy heifers, Mable and Flora.

WinterJerseys

Both great animals. Bred to thrive on grass. We bought these from Steve in 2011. What an upgrade from a goat! These would eat grass! It seemed to help for us to graze shorter grass, not tall grass. Also, you know that part about “thriving on grass” I wrote above? Well, when they are producing milk, they need quite a bit of energy. Energy that you just can’t get from fescue. We tried several things to keep them moving forward including giving them large areas of pasture daily but finally settled on giving them a mix of beets, carrots and oats with a smattering of molasses.

But we had cows. May is still with us. Expecting any day now. She is in a pen with the other recent moms. More on that later. Flora got sick. I don’t completely understand why or what but she just withered away over the course of a month or two. We suspect Johne’s but it could have been hardware disease too. We cried quite a bit when we lost her. Flora gave us only bull calves. May has only given us heifers.

Shorthorns1

 

Freezer was her first. I had no way to control a bull so we sent her back to Steve for breeding. He was born on the coldest day of February. We learned some lessons that day. Freezer didn’t stand up. We brought him in by the wood stove to dry and warm him in the back room. Julie and I tied and milked Flora to bottle feed the calf. It all worked out once he drank a little milk and he grew to be a fine young steer. We did not cry when we shipped Freezer. If anything, the pasture was a more friendly place in his absence.

The picture above shows the first four shorthorn heifers we bought and the day we introduced them to the herd. Here is another angle:

Shorthorns2

One problem we dealt with immediately was that Jersey cows are generous milkers. We had a few heifers drinking our family milk. I now separate mothers from calves. I hope someday to own more cattle who will kick away milk thieves…even their own calves after about 3 or 4 months.

Those are numbered 111, 41, 70 and 76. 70 turned out to be a freemartin (a sterile female) and is no longer on the farm. 41 has never weaned a calf. By accident, by injury by whatever, her calves don’t make it. 111 has given us two nice calves but came up open this year. 76 breeds back early and often, but her calf was stepped on last year. That was entirely my fault. Entirely.

Outside of those four heifers, we bought 81 and 27. Later we bought 2 and Snowball. I don’t remember Snowball’s number. She was pure white, except for the mud on her butt. Snowball was always a poor doer. We had little hope that she would breed.

Grazing

Snowball went down the road. Twoey (2) turned out to be another freemartin. 81 gave us a heifer last year but we had to pull it. She came up open this year. One calf in 3 years. 81 is just too big. So is 27. They can’t eat enough grass in a day to maintain condition, let alone to make milk. They have to leave the farm.

If you review that list again you will see that out of 10 heifers we bought, four made the team after 3 years. And all four of those only make the team because I make excuses for them.

 

Long term, the herd has to survive on the grass we have. The goal is for a cow to wean four calves in its first 6 years. I want those calves to wean between 400 and 600 pounds. Not too big, not too small. But if I demand that every cow on my farm meets those criteria immediately I won’t have a herd. I’ll have to cull every animal. And maybe that’s the right idea but what would I do with all of the grass?

But the reality is, I can’t buy cattle that thrive on the grass we have. They don’t exist. Oh, there are a few out there but the majority of the N. American cattle herd grows fat on corn. Do you read bass clef? All Cows Eat Grass. That is no longer true. We have nearly doubled the size of each animal on pasture in 50 years. Now I come in with these animals and put them at a severe disadvantage, asking some gas-guzzling hot rod to run on self-harvested solar power.

On top of that you have a greenhorn like me. I don’t know what I don’t know about cattle. And it shows. I bought freemartins for crying out loud! And I don’t always know how to give the cattle what they need. Water, grass and minerals? Oh, it sounds so easy. But let me tell you, it isn’t. It doesn’t work according to plan.

Well, it kind of works.

76 gave us Edith and a nice roan heifer this spring.

first new calf

111 gave us Agnes and a little bull calf. Turns out the bull calf is horned so I’ll have to make a decision on his future soon.

Mable gave us three heifers so far. We sold her first back to Steve. Clover is half shorthorn and gave us a beautiful 3/4 shorthorn bull calf this spring. Lucy is developing in the pasture and is stringy and bony like a dairy cow. Ugh.

81 gave us one heifer. We had to pull her. That heifer needs to leave the farm.

All of these second-generation heifers are better than their mothers. Their daughters will be even closer to what we need. But progress happens slowly. Deliberately. Gaining momentum over time.

Maybe by the time I’m 70 I’ll have cattle worth owning. Maybe.

So how can I begin to impact my pasture with so few cattle? It takes a lot of animals to make herd impact. Apparently, you need 300 head of cattle to make the herd become a different organism altogether, something that acts like a mob, eating what is available instead of just what is tasty. Pounding the soil with hooves and manure, restoring pasture ecology and diversity quickly and efficiently, pushing the weak animals to the perimeter like a real herd in the wild.

Someday.

We have kept 40% of our original herd for 4 years. I am not happy with that number. But I am willing to be honest and open with you about mistakes we have made. You need to buy cows that are closer to grass, even if you have to pay a premium for them. Our cows were purchased at market price and are costing me years. Years.

Tomorrow I plan to write about how I am controlling the small herd I have as we work to grow better grass tomorrow.

The Cold December Rain

My apologies to GnR for the title.

Contrary to what you may have heard we have had rain in December in years past. During a previous el Niño some years ago my bee mentor took me to check and feed his hives on a warm January 1st. I got so stung up my fingers were swollen like bratwursts. I hardly react to bee stings anymore.

Sometimes it rains in December in Illinois. Sometimes it snows…though not very often. A White Christmas is a big deal.

I have precious little control over the weather as evidenced by the 6″ of rain we got last night, 4″ of which are in my basement as I type. But I do have control over where my livestock are when the cold rain hits.

How do you feel about cold rain? Would you like to have a picnic outside in the grass when it is 36 degrees and pouring rain out? Do you think the cows want to picnic outside under those conditions? Do you think the pasture wants cows on it during those conditions?

What about the pigs? Pigs love mud…don’t they? What about cold mud? What about cold mud they can’t escape?

MarchPasture7

I have learned to make a few adjustments to our routines to help our livestock and our pastures do better. This was hard-won information. It cost me a couple of vet bills.

In short, plan for rain in December. Heck, plan for rain in February. And ice in April. Last year it rained an inch every day in June killing all of our alfalfa and most of the clover. The year before it didn’t rain in June at all. Weather happens. We just have to plan for and deal with it.

Let me pull back a little bit. I frequently reference Mr. Salatin in my blogs. I do this first because it is relevant and interesting. I also do this because my readers, generally, know who Mr. Salatin is and have read at least some of his work. Yesterday I was burying a pet in the pasture, standing in the rain on Christmas day. As I was digging where we bury our pets I worried I might find another animal long buried and thought, “Alas, poor Yorick I knew him, Horatio…” Shakespeare is commonly read by our culture…his work is part of the foundation of western society. Similarly, Mr. Salatin’s work is foundational to the current generation of alternative agriculture. This allows me to reference his example as I explain our own position.

We pasture our animals as Mr. Salatin does. We built chicken tractors and a dolly like he uses. We buy fence he uses. We market like he markets.

We work to avoid confining livestock following his lead.

Saying that requires clarification. Mr. Salatin confines his hogs, cattle and chickens. But that confinement is conditional and worthy of reflection. The cattle are, in appropriate weather, confined to fresh sections of grass daily. In winter things change. When his herds were smaller and he first started writing he would use barns and deep bedding for his herds. Things may be a little different now that he has more cattle but for the pattern is valid for our needs.

Please notice I said “pattern” there. It’s a pattern. He didn’t publish plans we could follow. He lives in Virginia. I live in Illinois. He is a genius. I am rather ordinary. But by looking at his pattern and attempting to apply it here at home I benefit.

My cattle were in the barn on deep bedding during the heavy rains, not on our pastures. It wouldn’t do for them to freeze in the cold and rain while covered in mud and manure. They are, instead, warm and dry and eating hay.

I have stockpiled pasture to last us for months but it goes beyond those few coming months. It goes into next summer. If I graze heavily over frozen ground in January and February, piling manure densely on pasture, the pasture will look GREAT in May. If I graze heavily over muddy ground in December my pasture will wash into the creek and the sod will need most of June (if not years) to recover…mostly as a weedy mess. So the cows are in the barn for now.

CowHay.jpg

This thinking is even more applicable to hogs. Pigs love wet wallows in hot weather. Wet isn’t a problem. Cold really isn’t a problem. But wet and cold kills. Further, pasture won’t recover quickly when abused in December. Mr. Salatin moves his pigs off of pasture and into hoop houses for the winter. I don’t have that kind of space or setup in my hoop house. I have a hog floor.

DryPigs.jpg

But there is a difference. I am currently missing part of the pattern. Salatin’s pigs are dry and out of the mud but they do get to dig. There is a limit to how much digging they can do because there is, ultimately, concrete under the bedding pack. But they can dig. That is missing in my solution.

Right now my pigs have a foot or so of bedding in their covered sleeping area. Otherwise, they have a concrete pad that is open to the sky and sloped slightly downhill. Will this turn into a sheet of ice in the winter? I dunno. I have never kept so few hogs here in the winter.

But right now, in the cold of the late December rain, our pigs are warm, dry and happy with room to run. All this without being concerned about the health of my pastures.

I can do better. I know I can do better. I can fill the runs with sawdust if nothing else. Or used horse bedding. But I have them out of the mud. And that is better for pasture, pig and for pig farmer…even if only a first step.

But I will never have Polyface farm. I will never be Joel Salatin. I can quote him. I can use him as an example and I can adapt his patterns to my needs but I can’t copy him exactly. Nor should I.

Feel free to analyze, criticize and improve on what I do. That is, I think, why any of us write and share. Not to brag, to find better solutions. I can’t solve rainstorms in December but we can put our heads together to establish better patterns…patterns that better meet the needs of our land, labor and livestock.

Sunset Thoughts

So Tuesday evening…

Sunset

What a day Tuesday was. What a way to end the day. Allergies hit me Monday night. Wicked sore throat all day Tuesday. Busy at work. Stuff to do at home. No end.

No end. But we can pause.

Look at that sunset. Since we’re standing here, let’s just keep standing here. What’s it going to hurt?

We have hay down. Not much but some. There is rain in the forecast for the weekend and temperatures are a little on the cool side so we didn’t go bananas cutting hay. Just a few acres. Do you know what a relief it is to have hay down? And to just have a hundred or so bales worth of hay down? Knowing my 1.5 scale human 14 year old will be home from a mission trip on Thursday to help put it up? That’s awesome.

Flora left the farm today. Flora was one of our first cows. A Jersey. A beautiful easy keeper with a great attitude and very forgiving of my ignorance.

 

ZenCows

She always gave us bull calves. Small handles though…like thimbles. Flora must have eaten something this winter…wire or twine or…? We did what we could but she never really came around. Stood hunched with her mouth open drooling all the time. Oh my gosh I don’t want to cry. We could have allowed her to suffer until she died but that’s not fair to her. So we shipped her. And that’s not fair either. But I couldn’t fix her. It’s not fair. But that’s how it is.

Dad asked what I would do with him when he was no longer productive. Cows do not equal people. I value people beyond their productive years. I do not operate a retirement community for cattle. I understood dad’s question though. This was a difficult issue for all of us. Maybe our Old Yeller moment.

Really don’t want to cry.

Flora is not the only cow we will ship this year. There are at least five others. One steer who will be delicious. One poor-doing heifer we will put in our own freezer. Two 3 year old heifers who have never bred and never will. And Mrs. White.

Mrs. White.

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Mrs. White is as big as an elephant. And, with the vet’s help, she gave us a calf that is almost as big as an elephant. Her size (must be 6′ at the hip!) and her calf disqualify her from the team. Plus her calf is just as watchful as she is…eyes wide in shock that we would dare to exist in her pastures.

I knew cull rates would be high early on but…wow. Just wow.

You have these ideals in mind when you begin farming. This vision of how it will someday be. It’s a long way to someday. A long, difficult path full of uncertainty. Every choice seems to require compromise. Keeping my dairy cows on pasture in the winter is good for my pride. Keeping them inside in the winter is good for my dairy cows. Sigh. So now what does that make me? Am I a pastured, humane livestock farmer or am I just conventional plus?

I think I’m just doing the best I can with what I’ve got. And what I’ve got is, apparently not well adapted to my forage, climate and ability.

So now what? I have 5 animals to sell. Do I replace them with 2x the heifers? Do I just replace them with cows? Is there something else I could do with that money to earn a better return?

Heifers or cows? I see the advantages of each. With heifers I get more rolls of the dice trying to find appropriate genetics. With cows I get proven breeders.

Dunno. I really don’t know. So let’s table that for the moment.

Dung Beetles. We have found a few dung beetles here and there over the last few years but this year there seems to have been an explosion of them. Small green beetles the size of a dime, black beetles the size of a nickel or even huge half-dollar sized ones that dig huge mounds of dirt next to cow pies. Amazing. What has caused it? Is it simply that we don’t worm our cattle? Maybe. Is it that we subdivide our farm and encourage our cattle to spread their manure over the whole thing rather than concentrate it in favorite loafing areas? Sure.

But let’s talk about that subdivision thing. All spring we have split 30 acres into 10 pastures and rotated the cattle daily. Early on I was freaked out that the grass wouldn’t recover.

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In some cases it wouldn’t have. We had some hard rain in April that forced me back to the barn to save the pastures. That gave us a few days of extra recovery time. In May it dried up and the grass simply stopped growing so we made a 15-day pass by adding a few additional subdivisions. But we have circled the farm four times in 61 days. Not bad. Now we slow it down.

Last summer I had some correspondence with Mark Bader. My cows weren’t shedding out well. He suggested this was not a mineral deficiency but, instead, an energy deficiency. He said I should move them faster around the farm and allow them to be less selective. That’s what I’ve done. Our star players are all slick. The rest…well, I listed them already above. They need to go.

So we are cutting those ten pastures into 20 pastures. More than that over time as the grass slows growing. The idea is to allow sufficient recovery between grazings so we are moving plant succession forward instead of setting up for a big weed crop. Now, I buy into that theory pretty well but not entirely. Not entirely. I have a hill that is covered in goldenrod every summer. I can’t seem to beat it. Maybe I need more cattle but this year I’m going to clip that pasture behind the cattle then spread compost and lime on the hill. I have to admit, though, that there is an incredible clover crop out there in places that have only grown moss before. Let’s hear it for hoof prints! But the goldenrod and I have a date with destiny.

Moonrise

It’s getting dark. Full moon is coming up to the east. I really ought to continue my chores. I first make sure Mable and her calf have water, shut off the water to the cows in pasture and am joined by Julie as I gather the last of the day’s eggs and close up the chickens. She, too was taking pictures of the sunset and the moonrise. We are humorously frustrated that our phones can’t take better pictures.

That’s about as much of a summary the farm as I can offer. Every day is pretty much the same. Right now we are picking at least a gallon of strawberries every day. Soon that will switch to black raspberries and dewberries. More sweat and thorns but basically the same. I’ll still be weighing cows vs. heifers when the raspberries come on. The same moon will be coming up. The same sun will be going down. In spite of some serious setbacks it’s a good life, really. I know I fuss about it quite a bit but this is a great way to raise a family. A fun place to be.

Three Minus One

Two calves were born Friday morning. I kind of think the bull calf ran out…and just kept running. What an energetic little guy.

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The heifer calf from our dairy cow was a little slow getting up but she’s a happy, spirited little one too. And now we get to milk a cow again. Please note the enthusiasm in my writing voice.

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Another calf came on Sunday evening. This story ends differently.

Some of my blog posts are more real than others. Not more honest, just more…just…sometimes…sometimes farming is really hard and I try to address it. This is one of the hard posts.

I don’t like to dwell on the bad stuff…though I do hear it going on in a loop in my head. “Was it my fault?” “Could I have done more?”

I don’t know.

But I do remember my grandfather. So let’s go there instead.

I have strong memories of the farm when I was much younger. Grandpa had the herd in the feedlot across the road by the red barn. I guess it was spring and Sis and I were visiting for a weekend. Grandpa took me out to do chores then, later, to meet with a man about some equipment. One of the cows in the lot was pregnant and grandpa said she should calve soon. Grandpa needed to run and take care of a little business and it looked like the cow would wait. When we got back I was excited to see a calf peeking out of the back end of the cow! Grandpa was alarmed.

That cow couldn’t have that calf without help. Grandpa saw it, dropped me off at the house to get some milk and cookies then went to help the cow. I don’t think he even changed clothes. I assume they pulled the calf.

The calf didn’t make it. The next morning I saw it laying on the tailgate of grandpa’s truck. I remember its tongue was sticking out and its eyes were open.

I cried.

That one event has made a lasting impression on me. For example, I actively seek out bulls that throw calves with a low birth weight and cows that calve easily. But I have so many questions for my grandpa. Just questions about this one event! But I didn’t know or think to ask 30 years ago.

So I just have to put things together from what I know about Grandpa. I obviously admired the man. I found my grandpa to be loving and caring, though some found him to be harsh and hard. I don’t remember sitting on grandpa’s lap reading stories. I don’t remember him ever taking me fishing. That wasn’t his thing. But he took me with him to do chores…even if I had to wear bread sacks over my shoes and he took me to cattle auctions.

I can picture my grandpa smiling and laughing – maybe more of a chuckle than a loud laugh – but I don’t remember him ever telling a joke. I saw him kiss my grandma once. He was an intelligent man and a hard worker. He was honest. And he would let me prattle on and on about whatever stupid things children think to say. He was big and strong and steady and he didn’t need to talk much. When he spoke to me it often started with, “Now listen…”.

The only thing he said about the calf was, “Now listen, sometimes this happens.” Then we went out to do chores.

I lost a calf this morning. And it hurts. It hurts a lot.

It must have hurt grandpa that day.

But I guess sometimes this happens. I still have to do my chores.

Grandpa didn’t cry.

I can’t imagine my grandpa wondering to himself, “Am I a failure?” I can imagine grandpa evaluating the livestock involved, making appropriate management decisions that needed to be made and moving forward.

Sunday afternoon a calf was born. My nephew spent the night and was there to see the calf shortly after it was born. Then he went back to my house for a snack. The little heifer never stood up. At first I thought she just needed more time so I stepped away to give mom some alone time with her calf. I came back to check her and things were only worse. I massaged her spine, I tried to stand her up, I rubbed her legs, Dad and Steve and I fed her with a tube. No response. A little grunt, a little manure, no strength in her legs. She died early the next morning.

I came back to the house at 10pm, my arms and clothes covered in dried blood, manure and amniotic fluid. My nephew had gotten out of bed to go potty and saw me come in. He asked, “Whatch doin?”

How do I explain?

What do I say?

My nephew will not see a little dead calf laying on the tailgate of the truck in the morning. Maybe he will never know what happened. He didn’t see me cry. What did he see? What does he see when he looks at me? Do I read him stories or take him fishing? Or am I just busy?

My grandpa was a strong, loving, caring man. A better man than me by any measure. He would be working now, not typing. And he certainly wouldn’t be crying. He would not be questioning his decision to farm. He would not be wondering if he would ever do anything right.

He would make notes about the bull and the cow. He would dispose of the calf. Then he would get back to work.

I need to ditch the drama and get back to work…with this one, small tweak. My nephew needs to KNOW that I treasure him more than any cow. My children need to know that. My wife needs to know that. Grandpa worked hard and Grandpa loved us. And I knew it.

Grandpa still has a lot to teach me.

Let it Grow!

MrsWhite

I see Mrs. White in the morning light
Not a cow pie to be seen
A kingdom of grass and forbs
And Julie is the Queen!

Let it grow! Let it grow!
Can’t hold the cows back anymore!

I divided our farm into 10 temporary paddocks late in March and the cows graze 3 acres of fresh grass every day. The idea is to give them the very best of the very best of the pasture without putting pressure on the grass. Right now I want grass growth, not animal density. The more grass there is the more grass there will be because, if you watch, a 6″ blade of grass will double in size faster than a 1″ blade of grass. Bigger solar collector? Different maturity? Both? Dunno. Never finished reading Voisin. But it happens.

So we move the cows quickly to keep them from munching the grass down to the dirt. 9 days later the grass is ready to rock again.

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I hear your questions. “When do we move them?” “How do we know they are getting enough?” “Honey, where is my super suit?” I lack certainty concerning all three. Frozone built a case for his super suit behind the murphy bed. But the suit isn’t there. Did his wife put it somewhere else? Did Frozone simply forget to put it away? I have no idea. It’s one of the great unanswerable questions of life. The viewer is only left to assume he found it somewhere in the house and that his dinner will be served cold.

We move the cattle later in the day when sugar content in the grass is high. Usually the cows are so fat and full it’s hard to convince them to move to a new buffet. We open the fence. We call. We circle behind them and zig zag like a border collie to get them moving and hope for the best. I don’t worry about the cattle eating enough. They obviously eat enough. I worry about them leaving enough behind. I just want the cows to graze a little off of each plant, distribute manure and move on quickly.

But the time will come when I start to worry about them eating enough…eating enough of high-quality. I monitor grass regrowth during each rotation. When the starting point is ready to graze again the cows go back to the starting point. Heck with the rest of the farm. It will grow rank and dense and overly mature and will still be standing there waiting when we enter the late-summer drought. That reserve forage will buy us recovery time. The only thing is we have to reserve a different part of the farm each year. So we start in a different pasture each spring.

But there is even more involved than that oversimplified view. Right now the cows get lots of grass…cause there is lots of growth. Soon we’ll put on the brakes. Instead of covering the whole farm in 10 days we’ll cover the farm in 45 days. Or 90 days. Seasons change. In the early part of April I was worried that I had the cows out too soon and grass wasn’t growing. Now I have so much stinking grass I’m worried that I’ll never get through it all. But it won’t be long and the rain will stop. Then I’ll flip back the other way. We’ll slow the cows down. We will manage differently.

Kind of exciting. Well, I think it’s exciting anyway.

Did you know I have children? If you missed any of today’s pop culture references ask someone who has children.

Strolling Through the Pasture March 2015

Remember strolling through the pasture? I used to do this quite a bit. What has happened to my life? Sigh.

I still walk the pastures. I always have my phone with me. I just don’t seem to stop and look around anymore. Julie took most of today’s pictures. This isn’t a farm walk. It’s just a snapshot of the farm (pun!) in a few places. The cows are way up north of the barn and hog building. Nothing has grazed there since September and that was brief as we were trying to get to the clover field asap.

Let’s start in the trees.

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Not much going on here in terms of forage. Maybe this is a good time to talk about goals, intentions, reality and consequences.

The goal is to allow the cows to quickly skim across the landscape, allowing them to eat a little of the new, a lot of the old and to make the most of the remaining hay by converting it into magical brown messy stuff. That’s the goal.

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Our intention is to minimize the amount of damage cow hooves make to the muddy landscape while grazing…most of the time. Sometimes a little creative destruction is appropriate. But it has to be intentional. Hooves can cut the soil and allow tiny pools of water to form and increase opportunity for seed germination. But they can also cause soil compaction.

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The reality is we aren’t very good at this stuff. We still have the cows bunched up tightly because the grass is not growing fast and we don’t want to decapitate baby grass. So we are spreading out the magical brown messy stuff, allowing the cows access to fresh green, old green and hay but sometimes they make a mess. And that’s my fault. Normally it’s just around the water supply but sometimes it’s in places that just don’t drain well.

Pasture1

I guess it doesn’t look too bad. The soil is covered. The cows have been asked to move. But they will return in a few weeks. In fact, I may try to rotate across the entire farm every 10 days this spring. Yeah. I want to put a lot of energy into the cattle so they shed out quickly. We’ll see how it goes. I have 16 animals grazing nearly 45 acres so they should get the cream of the cream. That’s part of why the hay is out there…to help balance out their digestion. But I want to talk about what cream is and what cream isn’t.

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This is not cream. This is grass in its infancy. I have to protect this grass right now. Maybe for another two weeks. So the cows are still bunched up and moving slowly over tall fescue stockpile. Acres and acres of it. With access to hay.

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While the rest of the farm just gets to sit and rest. I want to point out the brush in the picture below. All those thorny stems are hedge trees. Hundreds of them. Every one 1″ in diameter and loaded with sharp thorns. That’s what happens when you cut hedge trees without killing the stump. Ugh. Pick your poison. You can either apply a bit of brush killer with a paintbrush or you can apply the loppers every few months for the next few years.

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The pastures to the east are recovering after heavy grazing most of the winter…

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..with the exception of the broilers. They move daily, dropping a tremendous amount of manure along the way. Otherwise, we are resting this area. Need to put some clover seed out too.

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So now we are at the part about consequences. What are the consequences of messing up today?

The consequences are pretty serious. If I graze the young grass too soon I’ll lose production all summer. If I compact the soil the pasture will suffer for years. If…if…if…

But if I don’t graze off and smash down some of that dead, oxidizing grass I’ll hurt grass production for the year. And I’ll have to feed more hay. And put down more bedding. And haul bedding later.

So the cows are on pasture. Again. Thank God. And the chickens are following close behind. The old chickens. The ones I should have slaughtered last fall but didn’t. After taking their third winter off they are laying heavily again.

Mess up or not, April will be here soon. Let’s take a look at April 30 of 2014.

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Look at all that fescue! It won’t be long.

Livin’ Large

Mrs. White was a big heifer. Now she’s a big cow.

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Cow size, like everything else, is subject to marginal utility. Big is good but too bug is too big. Like steak? Eat the 96er. Mrs. White is too big. She was late to mature and didn’t breed until she was 3. But I won’t say no to a calf. We’ll just keep track of the late breeding thing so we don’t accidentally select for it. She was bred late in the evening three days after the bull arrived…I caught them smoking cigarettes. So she should calve in April.

Grass is greening up quickly. Cows are still on stockpiled forage but I still put hay out just to make sure they get all they can and to put the hay out where I need it to decompose.

Decompose you ask? Yes. Last summer was wet. Our hay was not what I might have wanted.

Not much of a post today. Used a picture that is at least a week old. Lots of green out there. We went from 0 to 70 in about 2 days then hovered above 50 for a week or so. I think it hit 81 yesterday. Stuff should really start to happen now.