Work, Muck and Thought

…what may be achieved by having a thorough grasp of the underlying principles for successful farming, which I have laid down in this book, and which may be summarized in three words: Work, Muck and Thought.

George Henderson
The Farming Ladder

Muck. We’ve got the muck. Decades of it piled up in the cattle barn. Layer after layer of petrified manure. Chipping it out with a fork, watching it crumble through the fork. An hour to the load, cover it with lime and put it on the field. There it can be put to better use.


Work, Muck and Thought. I’ve got the work. I’ve got the muck. I’m thinking I need a loader tractor. Now I have to think of how to pay for it. Maybe the lack of hospital bills…

Maybe a loader tractor will help me to get more done around here…like repairing the failing cattle barn…

Maybe a loader tractor will make the workload more manageable so my kids don’t turn tail and run…

The Adventures of Compost Calzone in the Wild West!

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

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

Click image for source.

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

Good luck with your calzones, chicken or compost.

Everything the Pasture Needs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where Chickens Dare

The pasture east of the yellow house should be some of our very best pasture. It’s up on the flat, it’s easy to access and it’s a good soil type. But it just doesn’t grow grass. What grows there is sparse and there is quite a bit of moss, especially on the north-facing slopes. I don’t mind a weedy mess but I do mind the bare spaces. And as I walk the field there are lots of bare spaces.


Seven days from now the cows are scheduled to return here for calving. That’s the plan. But the forage didn’t read the plan. Fortunately the chickens did. Where chicken tractors covered the ground there are distinct stripes of darker green and taller forage. And, yes, I spend a lot of time comparing shades of the color green.

ChickenStripesSo my theory is that the cows, over the years, have grazed this open ground in the cool of the morning then lounged and manured under the trees (mainly in the creek!) in the heat of the day…translocating the nutrients down hill (!!!) and leaving too little behind for the soil biology. One little pass with chicken manure woke the soil up in three narrow bands.


It’s a difference of 4-6 inches of forage and a massive increase in leaf area and density. But it’s not just chickens that are capable of this magic. On a whim I put a load of horse manure in the pasture shortly after the cows crossed this ground 3 weeks ago. If anything it was even more magical.


But if you need further evidence I don’t know what to say. The hills closer to our house have been grazed for the last few years by goats, chickens, pigs, turkeys and cows. I honestly can’t tell you that everything is better off for it because there are two places in particular that I didn’t manage the pigs well enough but I can tell you that you can see the difference in the variety, volume and density of forage grown over the entire season. Those grasses now wake up at least 10 days before the rest of the farm and grow fast. These grasses are a foot tall in spite of the fact they have been grazed by cattle and by the layer flock in the last 6 weeks…the layer flock that came out of the greenhouse and ate everything in sight. All this growth in spite of apparent abuse and it’s only April 30th!


So I have to get the pasture east of the yellow house on an even footing. After the cows cross that field again in a few weeks I plan to come back through with the manure spreader and a couple of loads of composted hog bedding, though I would rather apply compost in June when we begin our forage slump. I also have several loads of cow manure my tenant left in the barn…and thank God. Beyond that, I need to make my layer flock more portable so I can put them to work scratching, working and helping add fertility over a greater area. And I have to put more birds in chicken tractors. What a difference they make!

We could accomplish this feat with cattle alone but we can speed biological time by using multiple species while, also, building additional profit centers for our farm business. If there is a crash in the cattle market, pigs and chickens could carry us through. The book The Farming Ladder drives this home over and over. Mr. Henderson would add that we should raise wheat and corn(maize) to more fully diversify the farm. But, to stay on point with the post, he would seek to heavily stock the farm. The increase in sheep, pigs and chickens would allow the farm to carry more cattle. I think we have illustrated his point nicely.


My Mountain of Gold

OK. Not so much a mountain. And certainly not gold. I hope the scale works in this picture. The pile is as tall as me.


We order a load for our place and a load for the horses every year. This entire load will be spread this winter in the greenhouse under the pigs, rabbits and chickens. We also take any wood chips we can get from the power company and local tree services. And I am overdue to rent a chipper for some brush I have piled up. It all comes in handy, soaking up odors, making animals comfortable and increasing pasture fertility. That represents the entirety of our annual fertilizer bill.

Three cheers for Sawdust!

New Cast of Characters

I built a large compost pile in the garden with two truckloads of horse manure and most of the garden waste from tomatoes and peppers.  I needed a little help getting it composted well so I enlisted the help of my sister’s turkeys.  This is just a 2-day assignment before they ship off to the freezer.

But mere turkeys are no match for a manure pile of such magnitude.  It was time to bring out the big guns.  I needed a pigerator.  I brought another chicken tractor home from the pasture, made it reasonably pig-proof and bought some new shoats!  WOOHOO!

I love pigs.  Little pigs.  Cute little oinkers that can’t knock you over and eat your arm.  Little pigs are just the best.  My sister is visiting and pushed me into it because she wanted to cuddle a spotted pig.  We got a spotted pig.

And just in time too because we have some milk that soured when we went to Florida, we’re still trying to put up apples, pears and jalapenos and we generate more kitchen waste than our poor worms can handle.

I may have to go back to Mike’s and get 7 more.

My last few batches of pigs have come from our friend Mike.  I posted about him some time ago.  He was vaccinating newborn pigs yesterday when we visited and we got to hold a tiny, tiny pig.

Thanks Mike for farrowing on pasture and raising such high-quality stock.

There’s Only One Way Outta Here

Under normal conditions you could exit my house by driving West or by driving East.  Starting Friday you could only go East.  Though it hasn’t made the international news, somebody turned over an anhydrous ammonia tank on the road to Rockbridge and dad described it as the scene from E.T.  Plastic, flashing lights, evacuations, teams of “scientists” in suits.

OK.  Well.

Let’s lay a foundation here.  First I want to say that I don’t believe anyone was injured as a direct result of this accident.  From what I have put together, the driver of the truck lost the tank somehow (hitch came loose?) and it started chasing him down a hill.  He tried to stop but ended up in the ditch next to a pond with the anhydrous tank crashing through the back window of his truck.  He escaped before ammonia flooded the cab of the vehicle.  Had he been in there…

Now, I’m not a big fan of anhydrous ammonia.  We (as a planet) use 1% of the power we generate manufacturing it.  Depending on who you read it kills a lot of earthworms when used in a field.  It falls deeply under the umbrella of chemical agriculture.  It is used to store cheap nitrogen in the soil to boost corn yields the following summer.  It is dang-near ubiquitous in modern agriculture.  We have bulldozed out the fence rows (where rabbits and quail lived) in favor of flat, tiled fields farmed all the way to the ditch.  We have to farm every square inch and need every advantage we can get.  Farming is a business after all.  It’s a business, requires efficiency and 100% resource utilization.  Tomorrow we’ll invent solutions to the problems we are creating today.  Today we need anhydrous.

So.  We have a compound of Nitrogen and Hydrogen.  A naturally occurring compound in unnatural concentration.  This compound is being sprayed on all the fields in the midwest where corn will be planted next Spring but you spill 1000 pounds on the side of the road and the hazmat team has to show up and deal with it?  Where is the hazmat team when it is being injected into the field outside of my home?  I mean, even if it got dumped into the pond at the bottom of the hill you’re going to end up with ammonium hydroxide…a household cleaner.  Is this a big deal?  YES?!?  Is it a big deal because of the scale or should I not have ammonium hydroxide in my home?  We can at least be consistent!

Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood.  I am no fan of chemical fertilizers of any flavor but I am also not a fan of state and federal bureaucracies infesting neighboring hillsides.  Why are they here?  Get the neighbors evacuated and let things run their course.  I mean, it’s not like the hazmat team is going to clean up the lawyers too!  If anhydrous ammonia is a problem why do we spray tons and tons of it on the soil surrounding my farm?…on the soil that washes into my pond?!?!

So anyway, there’s one way outta here.  Practice crop rotation, diversify our farms again and fertilize with composted animal manure or (gasp!) composted human manure.  But what do I know?  I don’t have a job with the department of ag, I don’t clean up spills, I’m not a firefighter, I don’t work for the EPA, I’m not a legislator, lobbyist or lawyer.  I’m just a computer geek with a biology degree pretending to be a farmer…certainly not an expert.  I do know my road has never been blocked for a week because horse manure got spilled on it.

A Beautiful March Day in October

It’s March.  Well, it’s not but it feels like March…but different.  The weather is right.  We got an inch of rain last night.  The wind is blowing endlessly and I’m in the garden.  March.  But instead of planting potatoes, I’m harvesting the remaining tomatoes and peppers.  I’m cutting up the plants to allow them to compost in a windrow in the garden under (you guessed it!) horse manure.  I’ll haul the horse manure once the row is out.

We’re getting an incredible harvest of green tomatoes but the summer garden is at an end.

The fall garden is getting a good head of steam.  Carrots are doing well.

Spinach is finally starting to come out.  I have the hardest time with spinach.  No idea why.

Radishes are coming out.

Lots of things happening in the garden.  Out of the garden too.  Our last chicken butcher date is this weekend.  I think we’re all ready for it.  Place your order soon.



My third child is a bit outgoing.  He didn’t really talk until he was 5.  Now it’s the opposite…lol.  He tells everyone he meets that he has worms.

That’s a bit awkward.

I made stacking boxes to keep worms in similar to my stacking supers on my beehives.  Here’s how.  Start with a 1×12.  You will need to cut two lengths off of the board: 24 inches and 16.5 inches.  Really, you should cut one 24.5″ and the other 17″, then trim them down and square them up.

Then rip the two boards to 5.5″ wide.  Now you have two pairs of boards.

Screw the longer boards to the shorter boards.  The result will be a box measuring 24×18.  That’s big enough to hold some compost and generate a little heat but small enough that you can pick it up and carry it around.

Then tack on some 1/4″ hardware cloth.  This lets the worms through but keeps the compost from falling out when you carry it.

Here are three boxes.  I have a plywood board at the bottom and a burlap sack over the top.  The burlap shades it and holds in moisture.  Just use what you have laying around.

Pull back the bedding, add in some kitchen scraps…whatever.

We use rabbit manure.  You don’t need to compost this, they are like slow-release fertilizer pellets but the worms seem to like it and it’s what I have.

To keep the worms from being burned I drilled a couple of holes in the bottom of a bucket, filled the bucket with rabbit manure then poured a bucket of water into it.  That should start the heating process pretty quickly.  Once it cools I add it to a new tray or fill in spaces in older trays.

The worms crawl up the stack, eating as they go, leaving their castings behind.  We try to fill a box each month and harvest a box each month but it varies…like all biological things.

We ordered our worms from Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm.  5000 of them.  They seem to do what they are supposed to do.

Too Much Vacation

I’m on vacation right now.  I’m not in Florida with my toes in the sand.  I’m neck-deep in work.  No time to read.  No time to write.  I just work.  It’s awesome.

I spent the last 3 days running my sawmill.  We cut and stacked 2,000 board feet of oak and walnut for a customer.


This morning I built fence, milked, fed, mucked, cleaned the kitchen, gardened and trimmed goat hooves.  It’s now 10:30.

Here’s a summary of other stuff happening around the place.  Our rabbits are multiplying.

The catfish are…well, catfishing it up.  The bell siphons were a bit tricky at first.  More on that some other time.

And I hauled another load of horse manure to the garden.  My garden is on a slight North-facing slope.  I may have to bury the Georgia wall to get it levelish.

Well, that’s all I can do for now.  We’re out of feed for the broilers and a bit low on groceries.  Gotta do something about that.  Come see us.  Stuff is changing.