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.

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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.

Load1

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…

A Pig For All Seasons

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

I can explain that several ways.

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

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

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

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

Group2

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

Piggies

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

ChangingPigPastures4

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

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

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

HogLot1

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

HogLot3

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

HogLot2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PasturedPigs1

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

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.

If I Were Homesteading Over Again…

I appreciate and welcome email correspondence with readers. In fact, probably the coolest part of the blog is the people I have met through it. There are a couple of themes that most emails follow and I would like to address one of those today: What to start with.

The typical letter I get goes something like this (please understand I’m having fun with this):

Chris,
My wife and I really enjoy reading your blog (though we never leave a comment) and have been making plans to move to a few acres of our own. We would like to keep goats and a few chickens. Do you have any tips that would help us get rich from goat milk and chicken eggs on our two acre lot?

Thanks,

A. Reader

Mr. Reader,

We have been all the way down Goat Road. I don’t find that goats are the easiest animals to keep and I’m not alone in that thinking. They are sweet. They won’t break your foot if they step on you. But they have specific nutrition requirements, need the best hay you can buy in the winter and they tend to turn half or more of their hay into manure-covered bedding. They are hard to keep fenced…and it is especially difficult to keep them fenced out of your orchard. They can jump over fence, crawl under fence and they have a built-in, natural resistance to electric shock. Really. Salatin jokes that he won’t keep them because he can’t keep an animal that is smarter than he is. Julie and I found the goats would stay put with a hot fence and plenty of brush to eat but when they run out of food the fence may as well not be there. Maybe it’s not that bad but they can be rough. And what do you get out of the deal? A quart of milk? Talk about a recipe for a fast homestead burnout!

Olive4

Instead of focusing on what I wouldn’t do (herd of elephants) I would rather break down what I would do if I were homesteading all over again. Sound cool? I have to admit, I surprised myself with my choices as I wrote the posting. Stick with me here. This may not apply to you. It may not be what you expect. But it is where I am today.

I can’t imagine a homestead without three types of animals. Maybe four as time goes on…five if conditions are right. Feel free to disagree but if I was me (and I am me) and I was moving to a couple of acres to start fresh, goats just wouldn’t make the cut. Again, you are probably thinking of the ideal farmstead with cow, pig and chicken. Maybe include a duck or a goose or a cat like in the Little Red Hen. But this isn’t the Little Red Hen. This is a homestead.

This is not a zoo. Too many animals will damage your soil. Too many can put too much pressure on the land not allowing adequate recovery and requiring you to buy feed, draining your budget. Miss Coulton was talking of supplying additional feed to livestock saying,

…but these things are only required when you keep more stock than your land can support,—a fault very common to inexperienced farmers on a small scale.

So let’s keep it simple and pare it down to bare bones. Knowing what I know now, what would I do if I was homesteading on an acre or three? I want to keep my workload to a minimum, keep the infrastructure costs to a minimum and allow a maximum amount of time to be a Human Being not a “Human Doing”. You with me here? I want to improve my soils and enjoy my livestock but not wake up every morning dreading the day’s chores.

Since we are homesteading, I would want to put in a big garden and plant a few fruit trees appropriate for my climate but, though my diet will be positively impacted by growing my own broccoli, my budget really won’t be. In fact, growing my own veggies could add significantly to my total food costs. And I would need a source of fertilizer and something to do with all of my weeds and garden wastes. I need to partner with livestock to significantly impact my budget…raising and butchering my own meat and sourcing my own natural fertilizers. But I need animals that will work for me efficiently and that will require a minimum amount of my resources in terms of daily chores and protection from predation. Ready? Let’s go.

Pigs

No surprise to long-time readers, pigs are on the top of my list. I hate it when we sell out of pigs. Usually I only make it a few days before I go buy more. I enjoy their intelligence, their curiosity and their ability to break down and convert waste products into bacon…and what’s better than bacon? The book Harris on the Pig breaks down what makes a pig worth keeping in the opening pages of the book.

The hog is a great eater. He can eat and digest and assimilate more nutriment in a time in proportion to his size than any other of our animals.

But more to the point, the pig assimilates what would otherwise go to waste.

…roots nuts and worms and other animal matter the natural food the hog.

and later…

We can in no other way utilize the refuse from the house and the dairy so advantageously as by feeding it to swine. On grain farms pigs will obtain a good living for several weeks after harvest on the stubbles and in some sections they find a considerable amount of food in the woods.

Our pigs get spoiled milk, apple drops, all the acorns, hickory nuts and walnuts they want. It’s fun to watch a pig try to eat a walnut…sounds like they are trying to eat marbles and keeps them entertained for hours. They get tomato vines and bad tomatoes, split watermelons, etc. from the garden and relish any weeds we can throw their way, especially lambsquarters. And as much as they will eat, they really don’t ask for much from us. They need shade, shelter, food and water and a place to dig. No problem. We need to go away overnight to attend a wedding? Put down some fresh bedding, fill the feeder, check the water and we’re good.

HamAndApples

If I had limited space available I would confine the pig or pigs on deep bedding. I know, confinement. But this is exactly what Salatin does when he puts his pigs in the cow shed. Feed, water, shelter and a place to dig. That’s it. The pigs will decide to manure in one specific place and that’s the place to pile on extra bedding. When the pig ships, heap up all the bedding, let it cook through and age then add it to your potato bed. I might even suggest you overwinter a small group of pigs in an area you want to break sod and turn into a garden. To keep it simple you might pick up four 16′ combination panels then put a cover over one corner and hold everything in place with T-posts. That’s your $50 hog confinement facility. Add in a watering nipple for $2 and a feeder pan and I think you can see where I’m going with this.

Group2

Finally, I have to add that pigs can be an excellent centerpiece to your farm even beyond providing your own meat and scrap conversion. This is a business line you could grow into over time, building on skills as you go and can fully utilize your acreage, rotating through over time while keeping infrastructure costs low.

Rabbits

This may be something of a surprise but after getting a pig on my farm I would set up 4 cages, get 2 males and 2 females and start building a rabbit tractor or two to grow out the bunnies. Not unlike pigs, bunnies relish weeds and require little of the owner, though, as with pigs, we haven’t gotten around using a bagged feed. You have to work to keep them cool in the summer but they can produce a terrific amount of meat in short order and are easy to dress out. My great-grandpa Brown kept meat rabbits in his garage in Indianapolis and, apparently, my great-grandma Brown made rabbit-skin coats. I realize fur isn’t fashionable right now because we would rather save the world with polyester but some day we’ll return to utilizing natural resources…or at least I can hope.

HarePen3

Rabbits also produce copious amounts of manure…the kind you can put directly on your garden without composting and it acts like a time-release fertilizer capsule. But if you choose to compost it you’ll only make things better. Maybe make a compost pile with alternating layers of leaves and rabbit manure in the fall. But to keep odors down you’ll need to either clean and haul the rabbit manure regularly or cover the pile with sawdust regularly. Your nose will tell you…but if you wait to hear from your nose the rabbits will suffer. Be proactive about manure management.

After meat, fur and manure we are left with the offal. If you aren’t into eating rabbit livers (pretty good, really) you can save them for dog food. Same with kidneys and hearts. In fact, the head isn’t a bad thing for a little pooch or for your pig. Yup. The pig will eat every part of the rabbit you don’t…they are omnivores. We typically compost the heads, feet and intestines.

Worms

I know what you are thinking…Chickens didn’t make the top 3? Nope. Worms did. I was surprised myself. There are some things you just can’t convince a pig to eat. There are some things that you are better off not taking to the pigs. Our kitchen generates coffee grounds, banana peels and citrus waste in small portions. Pigs really aren’t interested in those but worms LOVE them. And worms do a thorough job of composting everything at a low temperature for use in our garden. After an initial thermophilic composting of pig bedding and manure we can give it to the worms for finishing, ending up with the best stuff in the world. Not to mention, worms we can sell or feed to other animals…fish, chickens…whatever.

Like the others, the worms don’t need much from us. Make sure they are damp, not wet. Make sure they have something to eat. Make sure they are not too hot or too cold. That’s about it. I highly recommend the book Worms Eat My Garbage for additional reading on the topic.

Worms

Let me pause here to say that you SHOULD be able to raise all three of my top 3 while still living in suburbia with less than $100 invested in infrastructure. Many places allow “pet” rabbits and pot-bellied pigs (often available for free) and there is no law against worms. You don’t need acres and acres of ground. You don’t need a huge amount of debt. What you do need is a plan to contain odors. You need a source of carbon. Do you live near a cabinetry shop? How about a sawmill? Do you have deciduous trees that you can gather leaves from? Can you collect newspapers from neighbors or buy some from the local recycler? If so, run composted animal wastes through your worms and sell the worm castings. Homestead at home. You’ll be amazed what you can do.

About a decade ago all the hog farmers around me who had sold out of hogs in the late ’90’s crash got caught up in a worm farming pyramid scheme. Don’t get caught up in a worm farming pyramid scheme. It strikes me that with a minimal investment in infrastructure, you can make superior compost for your garden using worms. This could be a serious money-maker but I’m really talking about a nutrient cycling resource.

So that’s my top 3. I’m as surprised as you are. But since we’re here, let’s talk about the rest as you may have your own ideas.

Need help mowing? Try Cows or Sheep

Cows are great at solving problems with surplus forage. You are probably going to have a hard time making a single cow happy as they are herd animals and you would probably have a hard time feeding a cow from a suburban yard (several yards maybe but watch for land mines). But on larger acreages…I mean, what else are you going to do with all that grass? You won’t save the Earth with a mower. Sheep may fit into suburbia but, again, you are better off in the stix to help you rotate away from parasites and avoid odor issues. In fact, I think you could make a case that a cow and 4 sheep count as one complimentary unit, utilizing pastures and breaking pathogen cycles, not to mention the cows keeping sheep predators at bay.

Not only do they take a low-value product (grass) and turn it into something better (steak or milk) but the grass sward improves because the cow tugged at the grass, salivated on it, urinated on it, stepped on it and manured all over it. If you want to build fertility in a hurry, if you are anxious to fix carbon and quickly save the world, hire a cow. The grass gets mowed and fertilized in one pass, nutrients are pushed into the soil and the mowers can reproduce themselves. Just add salt and water.

CompleteRecovery1

All that said, they are herd animals. What is a herd? Julius Ruechel says cows don’t really act like a mob until you have at least 500 in one group. I have also read numerous places (this is the most convenient) that you need one hired hand per 1,000 cows (commodity cows anyway)…which is the same as saying that you need 1,000 cows to pay the salary of one man…or one you. That’s a long way of saying, this is a low-margin, land-extensive enterprise. But it sure beats mowing.

HappyCows

I’ll forgive you if you include a dairy cow on your 1-5 acre farm. John Seymour includes a dairy cow in his homestead plans. Just know that milking isn’t for everybody. It just might be easier to drive 20 minutes to buy milk 6 gallons at a time once/week than to deal with 6 gallons/day from old Bessie. But, that’s why you have the pigs. Though it is only mentioned briefly, Eric Bende learned about this and shares his milking experiences in the book Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology. Also keep in mind, milk cows don’t take any days off. I hope Paul Atreides will forgive this joke but the milk must flow. Every day you bring Bessie to the barn in the morning, brush her off, wipe her off, check each teat, milk her out then clean up the barn after filtering and chilling the milk, sterilizing the milking pail…the list goes on. Matron says it takes her 15 minutes to go from her door to the cow and back again…twice each day. So, again, I might suggest you should make that 20 minute drive once/week instead. Cow or no cow is a quality of life decision and I can see both sides.

Milking

Let’s round out the top 5 with Fish.

I know, right? Look. We have a couple of ponds. They came stocked with bluegill, crappie and bass and we threw a couple hundred catfish in for kicks. Those fish don’t need anything from me. But if I chose to feed them the feed conversion rate for fish is the best it can be. For every pound of feed eaten they gain a pound. Every year I threaten to put Japanese Beetle traps over the pond to feed the bluegill (who love Japanese beetles, btw). How many meals could I pull from an acre pond in a year? How many hours do I have to spend maintaining fence to keep the fish in? None. How many hours fighting raccoons to protect my fish population? None. That said, maybe fish have just displaced pigs on my list. Nah.

Pond

You can look into aquaponics, and I encourage you to do so, but I’m attempting to list things that can take care of themselves. Our first attempt at aquaponics was a dismal failure. Since I have a pond…well, that’s easier.

So, What about…

Laying Hens

OK. Well. Not really a high-margin enterprise here. And everything likes to eat chicken. Everything. So, if you can keep them alive, you’ll get an excellent source of protein on a near-daily basis. Since the margins tend to be so tight (or negative) and we’re talking just a couple of acres here, it might be better to trade for eggs with your neighbor so they can go to war while you stay home. But if you want your own birds for household use you should plan one bird for each member of the household plus two birds…with a minimum of six birds. You could pickle surplus eggs or send cracked, checked or otherwise unwanted eggs to the pigs (you have to have pigs!). And I would buy the birds as ready-to-lay pullets so you don’t have to invest in brooding equipment, though chicks are cute and fun. Just understand, when you are coming home from Bob’s house after sundown on a Saturday evening and nobody was home to close up the chickens…well, you may have one less chicken and a fat skunk stuck in the fence. Good luck with that.

Chickens were the first livestock we bought and every step of the way has been more difficult than advertised. Numerous people have told me tales of the chicken wars recently. Here’s a real example.

Friend: “Well, we started with 15, got down to 1, bought 10 more and now we have 5.”

Me: “How many eggs have you gotten from those 25 birds?”

Friend: “None.”

Me: “Maybe you would be better off with pigs, rabbits or worms.”

Broilers

This is also a low-margin enterprise. If starting over, I would be tempted to find a farmer who raises broilers and work out a deal for the 50/year I need for my own household. 50 whole birds weighing 4 pounds at $3/pound is $600. Maybe you could trade him a fat hog or a litter of shoats for 50 frozen birds. Maybe you could just pay him the $600. There are big advantages to running broilers on your farm seasonally but there are also big expenses.

Hoop

Sigh. I guess I would go ahead and raise my own birds. I enjoy the work and with 3 weeks in the brooder and 5 weeks in the field it is not exactly a life-sentence…the way milking a cow is. I would probably fit broilers in either spring or fall on my homestead…but I say that grudgingly. I’ll hold further comment on broilers for another blog post.

So that’s about it. There are any number of animals I have intentionally overlooked on my list. Please don’t be offended if you are a fan of geese. I think geese could be a good source of grass-fed meat on a farm but I don’t have any experience with them. Ducks are comical but I don’t really like them. You may have your own ideas for an ideal homestead starting lineup but that’s mine. Pigs, rabbits and worms…animals you could start with while you are still in town. Feel free to disagree…but if you are disagreeing before you have dipped your toes in the water, let me know when you dream up your revised list. You will ultimately have to follow your heart’s leading but whatever you do, start small. Start where you are. Minimize your expenses. Start slowly. Step into each enterprise carefully…but for Pete’s sake…take a step!

Pasture Litter …Again

For the last few days the cows grazed in front of the family cemetery.  This was a thick stand of bermudagrass with cowpeas, millet and a few other things mixed in.  There was also a mowed path to the cemetery gate.  In fact, it looked like this about 6 weeks ago:

JulyGrazing6Notice the mowed area in the foreground.  With me?

One of our goals in using cattle for rotational grazing is to cover, protect and feed the soil with litter.  This keeps the soil cooler and traps more moisture than just bare ground.  Where is the litter going to come from in the foreground?  It ain’t.  I mean, you would think some portion of the grass clippings would stick around and blanket the ground but there just isn’t enough mass…the soil biota eat through it too quickly.

So the cows grazed it.  Here’s what the mowed area looks like now:

GrazingShort1

Not much for litter covering the soil.  The cows ate it right down to the nubbins…horses would have eaten it to dirt.  But the rest of the pasture looks pretty good.

GrazingLitter1

We had them packed in pretty tightly and we got good trampling and manure coverage.

GrazingLitter3The cows did a pretty good job.  I can see the benefits of packing them even tighter.  Maybe someday…

Again, there is very little left where the pasture had been mowed (a necessity for cemetery access).  That area will be a little slower to recover.  I expect the trampled grass to come back quickly…in time for fall grazing.  Hopefully we’ll get to graze it twice more this year.

GrazingLitter2

 

Most of the neighbor’s pastures look like the foreground in this picture…except they also have clumps of weeds.  If they don’t they have been mowed.  From the road they look OK just like this picture looks OK.  It’s only when you go in close to investigate that you realize how damaging it is.  Hot, baked, dead earth is not conducive to future grass crops.

 

Trimming Those Hard to Reach Places

I have a hard time trimming here and there…but no need to go into that.  I’m talking about trimming grass.  There are places it is simply dangerous and foolish to drive a tractor.  For example, the pond’s edge.

We spend a lot of time at our pond swimming, skating (in the winter), catching frogs, fishing or paddling around in our boats.  Most of these activities require access to the shore.  When you are barefoot and wearing shorts…well, a sand beach would be ideal.  Let me know if you want to contribute to the sandy beach fund.  In the meantime, we prefer to keep the weeds short.

PondsEdge1

So how do you get it done?  For years we haven’t.  This year things are different.  We have cows.

PondsEdge3

This ground hasn’t been grazed in years…since I was a kid – so the grass is fairly sparse.  Much of what was out there wasn’t very tasty…but they do like Johnsongrass.  They don’t care for goldenrod no matter what though.  One thing they excel at is trimming up lower branches and opening up new fishing areas.  Along the way they trample in tons of carbon, add fertility and help tighten plant spacing by pushing new seeds in contact with the soil.  That’s all good but we also lose a little hay from the hayfield…but most of it is pretty low-quality stuff anyway.  The cows need to move quickly over this ground.  No big deal though, I have gained 5 days of grazing by going around the pond and may get 3 more before we’re finished.

PondsEdge4They find their way into thickets and tangled masses of grapes, saplings and fallen limbs and tromp the whole down into the soil.  It’s pretty cool.  I have been trying to figure out how to cut into this oak regrowth all year and retain the strongest shoots.  Well, the cows figured it out for me.

PondsEdge2All of this is really accomplishing a couple of things that are very intentional.  First, I’m stretching my pasture by grazing stockpiled reserve elsewhere.  Second, I’m utilizing areas around the hay field that I can’t mow.  Having these edges grazed should help my hay cure faster beyond building fertility in the field over time.  I should point out, I have a fence keeping the cows out of my alfalfa and another fence keeping the cows out of the pond.  (Had to wade out around some trees with long fence posts a couple of times.)

Much of this exercise was inspired from years of reading Throwback at Trapper Creek.  Thanks Matron!

Fly Predators

Every year our white house is covered in black flies.  The kids take fly swatters out and make a sport of killing 10 or 12 in one swat.  Not this year.

FlyPredators2

This year I got on the Spalding Labs site to buy fly predators.  When they arrived, we waited for them to start hatching then released them in groups in each of the recent grazing areas.  The idea is that they will attack flies in the pupae stage, flying up to 150 feet to find more.  Every 30 days through September the company will send more fly predators so every 30 days we’ll go behind the cows, dropping more predators on manure pats.

FlyPredators1

Fly populations are already getting strong but I hope we’re far enough ahead of the curve to have a fighting chance.  I suspect we’ll have to start earlier in the spring next year.  This year we’ll just run with what we’ve got.

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.

Farm Bank Deposits

Northern people have always been savers.  Those that didn’t save didn’t make the winter.  Those that saved may have made the winter.  Farmers are savers.  We are savers.  Unfortunately, we don’t have any money.  We save sunshine.  This is the main branch of the First Chism Heritage Farmers Bank, established in 18??.  We keep our sunshine here.

Isn’t it majestic? (don’t mind the paint job or the leaky roof)  Several times each year we walk up to the teller’s window to make a deposit.

Then, to keep banking fees to a minimum, we head into the vault to help arrange, sort and stack the deposits.  Here’s a small portion of this year’s deposits.

In the foreground you can see a low stack of sunshine in the form of alfalfa bales from the third cutting.  Further back, among the posts, is more sunshine in the form of grass hay we cut earlier in the year.  To the left (and out of the camera) is an absolute mountain of alfalfa hay.  There are also a few fair piles of straw tucked away here and there.  Tons and tons of sunshine.  Think of the different kinds of hay as different kinds of currency and I’ll keep my lame bank analogy running.  When withdrawals are needed we head into the vault, determine which kind of currency is in demand that day and grab a whole bale of it.

Since this is a farm economy (and something of a closed loop) any withdrawls from the loft vault are soon to become deposits somewhere else.

Then deposits somewhere else.

Then deposits somewhere else.

Then out to the alfalfa field.  Just add sunlight and a dash of rain and we’re ready to fill the barn vault again.