Worn but Still Worn

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

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

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

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

coat2

 

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

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

Keeping Cows on Hoth

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

“I thought they smelled bad on the outside.”

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

Weather

Click image for source.

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

Moon

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

ChickenHouse2

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

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

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

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

Straight Poop about Winter Grazing

I am using a highly sophisticated, scientific method for grazing our cattle this winter. This process will be hard for the average farmer to duplicate so I release this information with a measure of reluctance. I’m not sure how useful it really is. This post relies heavily on two expensive and precise scientific tools to measure feed quality and quantity…a pitchfork and size 11.5 feet. I should also alert the reader, based on recent conversations, that this post will show pictures of cow manure. Lots of cow manure. Further, it will have explicit descriptions of cow manure. In fact, I may even discuss the philosophy of cow manure. The Zen of cow manure. Don’t misunderstand, this is a post about what my cows eat…but you have to pay close attention to the other end of the cow too. Let’s look at a sample. Here we have a rare sight indeed! Cow manure covered in coyote poop. You have to walk through a lot of pasture before you see one like this…complete with persimmon seeds in the coyote poop.

Click for source

If you are really interested in seeing coyote poop on cow poop, complete with persimmon seeds you can click here. If you clicked on that you’re weird. I know because I’m an authority on weird. I took the picture. Here’s a bonus. Coyote tracks in cow manure. Believe me, you have to look at a lot of cow pies to find one of those. So…I look at a lot of cow manure. I take pictures of cow manure. I think cow manure is important. You down? Anyway, I have cows. Hooray for cows! I have cows because I need something to eat my grass. Hooray for grass! RemainingGrass So I ask my cows to eat my grass. Have you read Coleman’s Winter Harvest Handbook? That’s what we are talking about here…except on acres and acres of farmland. The cows aren’t eating fresh forage that is actively growing…cause nothing is growing. They are eating forage we grew in August, September and October and stored in the field for later consumption. Winter harvest. And it’s mostly grass because the poor legumes just can’t take the cold…and other reasons I’ll get into in a minute. However, if my cows only eat grass this time of year they will get a bit constipated. There just isn’t a lot of protein in the grass that is out there. Fescue, apparently, does well in the cold but I have not done a formal forage analysis. I just turn the cows into a new area, make sure they are full, in condition and I look at their poop. Science! (Cue Thomas Dolby.) As I said above, if I expect the cows to ONLY eat the standing forage their stool tends to get a little dry. Their manure looks like a stack of cookies that fell over. There is some good forage out there that they seem to like but it’s not, I think, everything they need. Here’s some dry manure from last winter as an example. GrazingJanuary3 What we really want is pictured below. A nice, clean pile with a depression in the middle. A cow pie that looks like a pie. Perfect poop. I get this by supplementing the protein in their diet with high-protein hay. Others use a protein lick. Still others use grains. But the idea is the same. By offering a little supplementation you can not only fit more animals in the same area, you can utilize resources that would otherwise go wasted and you can concentrate fertility where it is needed most. PerfectPie So. Quiz time. What’s what here? GoodBadUgly OK, so that’s why I give them a little alfalfa hay. How much alfalfa? Oh, I don’t know. Some. (Science again.) I put out maybe 50 pounds of hay in the morning and another 50 pounds in the evening giving each cow around 7 pounds of alfalfa. I don’t carry a scale, man. Assuming the cows average about 1,000 pounds they are probably consuming another 13-15 pounds of dry matter by grazing. That’s about where we want it. I don’t want to provide more than about 30% of their dry matter from alfalfa…both because I have a limited supply and because it’s not good for them. We will measure “not good” in a minute. Before I go on I need to point out something. My pastures are brand new. Not new like freshly seeded to yummy things to eat. New like we aren’t even on a full year of managed grazing yet. The forages are just whatever came up. Whatever was left over after the tenant’s cows ate it down to the nubbins. So what is there is what is there. And what is there isn’t quite the balanced meal a cow needs. It just isn’t out there…not yet anyway. Not in terms of varieties, not in terms of soil health, not in terms of plant health, not in terms of cow health. So at this point I HAVE TO provide a little extra. We graze a strip that is measured in similarly scientific manner. Here’s the plan, I need to cover enough ground each day to keep my cows in top condition but only as much ground as I absolutely have to so my forage lasts until April or May. This recipe will change as my herd grows and as forage density varies but, for now, where we are grazing, I begin by laying out two parallel fences roughly 40 steps apart by aiming for points in the distance that I think are roughly 40 steps apart. So we’re 40-ish paces wide, right? Now I step off 20-ish paces for each day’s allotment and call it good. That packs the cows in tight enough that they are utilizing a high percentage of the available forage, they are full when I come back to see them in the morning and, just as important, their manure is distributed evenly – and heavily – throughout the pasture. Healthy cows like to lay in clean places. By growing into a new 20 steps each day the cows lounge in a new spot each day. What is the first thing a cow does when it stands up? Coverage But wait! There’s more. I need to see if the cows are full or not. Any cow will do but the shorthorns are super-shaggy. The Jerseys are not. I have one Jersey I can rely on as my fuel gauge. I can see when she is full. If she is full, everybody is full. And I want full cows. Full means that triangle on her left side is not sunken in…or not sunken in by much. And it shouldn’t be sunken in when you go to move the herd. Here is a pic of Mrs. White last winter when she ran empty due to poor management (me). EmptyRumen She looks better this year. I feel like I’m doing a better job. MrsWhite2014 As an aside, how do you keep a cow warm on a cold night? You keep her full. Keep that biology burning inside her. How do you keep a cow warm on a cold, wet night? Put her indoors. Saves your pasture too. By metering out my pasture like this I can make it last into spring. Further, I am not only budgeting my land, I’m leaving something in the account at each location. If needed, I could graze here again. I can also benefit from the even covering of manure all over my pasture. It’s like a war zone out there. First, it will boost fertility in the coming growing season, second I don’t have to haul it. Less work is more better. But the best thing of all is this: The cows eat everything. A little of this, a little of that, trample and manure on what’s left. They eat everything green. (Cows have not grazed on the right.) BeforeAfter Now, our friend Kari asked if the cows would return to eating grass once they were given hay. I really don’t know how to answer that question…other than, “Yes?” But really I’m thinking, “What? Of course? I’m Ron Burgundy?” I don’t even know what that means. Our cows don’t go back and forth, they get both…unless I have to take them to the barn during a weather event. Then they seem to look forward to eating fresh greens again. So my answer is, “Yes?” Maybe I have magic pasture. Maybe I have magic cows. Maybe both? I’m telling you, Fescue is an unfair advantage in the winter. They dig through the snow to get to it. This helps offset the MAJOR disadvantages of fescue in the summer. But I think this is the real answer. Consistency. Cows like routines. My neighbor’s cows know silage is coming in the morning. They hear the tractor and they start to drool. My cows know I’m coming to open a fence in the morning. If you keep switching things up in their diet not only does their rumen have to adjust, the animal has to feel stressed to some degree. Like I do when Julie moves the furniture around…I’m a creature of habit. SnowGrazing Forage slowly degrades over the season. By last March they were eating anything and everything. Brown grass? Brown leaves? Green tips of trees? You name it. We increased the amount of hay we offered each day as we got closer to grass growing again…as we got closer to running out of pasture…as we increased our confidence that our hay supply would last. As we continue grazing, as we continue building soil, as we continue building health and life we should see our supply of green stuff stretch. We may even reach a point where we don’t need hay anymore. But I’m not holding my breath. March2014_7 And even if the cows ignore the majority of the organic material out there (and they don’t), they still benefit from the little bit of fresh green and deliver the manure for me. So what if I take them a little hay? You know what the difference is between taking hay to a feed bunk and taking hay to the field is? Mud. And the good news is we have some excellent quality grass hay. Grass stems are thinner and easier to put up than alfalfa. The weaned calves seem to want a percentage of this in their diet…even though their stool is a little dry. GrassHay I don’t keep my cows outside all the time. I could. Some do. But I don’t. When it’s raining and turning colder I think the cows are better off covered and warm. When it’s cold and muddy my pasture is better off without cattle. Sometimes it’s just easier to be a farmer if the cows are in the feedlot eating hay. My friend Matron prefers to keep them up close for all reasons above. But the same rules apply there. Keep the cows full. Look at the poop. If they sneeze and squirt their neighbor you might back off on the protein. You might also be concerned for their well-being. How do you feel when you get loose? Provided they aren’t sick (always give clean water), give just enough protein supplement to help them digest the rest of their feed. I use alfalfa hay to supplement protein. Jim Elizondo offers flaxseed meal. Guess what he says?

Then watch manure, gut fill and body condition to determine if they need protein…

Ta da! Then, check this out Kari:

I haven’t had success with moving cows to a high protein forage and then back to low-protein old forage on a daily basis, so I prefer to finish the higher quality forage first as it will lose quality the fastest.

In that quote Jim is explaining why we hit the alfalfa field early on. We got the high-quality forage out of the way because it would be the first and the fastest to lose quality. Now we work through the rest of the pasture. The remaining pasture needs a little help so we get proper rumen function. He supplements with flaxseed meal, I give high-legume hay grown right here in River City. And maybe that’s why your neighbors aren’t seeing success. Maybe they are trying to go back and forth on forage quality. I’m not going back and forth. I’m supplementing consistently. Heads are down in the pasture. FrostyCowsI don’t know if this will work at your farm, with your forages, with your cattle, in your climate. I don’t know. Apparently the PNW isn’t the best place to try…which makes me want to try. It seems to work here but I have had neighbors tell me I’m wrong…that my cows may as well be eating straw. “If you think it will work or it won’t you’re probably right.” AMIRIGHT? If you want to know more, feel free to ask questions. I don’t know either but it’s fun to learn together. I think it’s also worth your time to check out Jim Elizondo’s DVD and Jim Gerrish’s books. Even if you can’t directly apply their work you can probably find inspiration and direction.

I want to add one more thing to this post. The cows have a wide variety of minerals available to them right now. They are hitting the phosphorus particularly hard right now. Because they have the minerals they need, they tend to utilize their forage better and they tend to eat less. But if you read the Jim Elizondo link above you know that already.

One Freezty, Frosty Morning

Was out working before sunrise and didn’t really notice the frost until the first rays of light revealed it to me. Frosted grass, frosted weeds, frosted cows. It has been rainy and wet for the last week and it made for a beautiful morning.

FrostyCows2

Turning back to look at the truck…

FrostyWeeds

I turned the cows into a new grazing area as we do every morning. I think we still have 30 acres of standing forage to munch through. The shorthorns seem to like it. The Jerseys nibble a little but they know hay is coming.

FrostyCowsI brought them a few forks of hay off of a round bale. I prefer to feed hay this way. I can sort the good from the bad (bales are pretty bad this year) and they don’t turn the whole bale into a bed. Very little waste this way. I just carry each forkful to a clean spot in the pasture as I cross over the perimeter fence. Maybe you can’t tell but the cows have grazed the pasture in the foreground pretty hard. I’m leaving a lot of brown forage behind to protect and feed the soil as well as a couple of standing weed skeletons.

FrostyWire

What a beautiful morning. The sun will be up soon.

FrostyCows3

Every Christmas Eve…my Sister

We finished up chores early after staying up late last night wrapping presents and watching old episodes of Dr. Who. Usually Julie and I watch Better Off Dead as we wrap presents but this year Dr. Who sounded better. Every year we get the kids wool socks, a box of cereal (we only buy cereal at Christmas) and a book. Don’t tell them until tomorrow afternoon though.

However, my sister and I have a little tradition on Christmas Eve. The aforementioned Better Off Dead made a big impact in our childhood. She has given me TV dinners (I remember how much you liked the brownie in that one). I have given her a framed picture of Ricky (so she will always remember her trip to the United States). There have been threats to make aardvark coats but the gags don’t stop there. For years we traded a can of spam back and forth. She gave me Santa boxers one year. I gave them back the next year (unused).

What’s it going to be this year? Is there a gag? I can’t tell you. That’s my most favoritist part of Christmas Eve. Not knowing what I’m in for and watching my sister open gifts from Julie and me with a measure of reluctance. Good times.

My favorite Christmas movie isn’t really a Christmas movie but it inspired something of a tradition.

Just a Dash of Prepper

Not that we are crazy. Well, we are. But not that we have school bus bunkers buried in the back 40. (Maybe that’s not so crazy…) But it seems to make sense that from time to time the power is going to go off. And there are things I could do to make that more manageable in the winter like having a wood-burning cook stove and something to eat…just in case.

And I have heard of people who go to work in the morning and come home that afternoon unemployed. Scary! So it seems to make sense to have a lump of cash laying around to help stretch us through lean times. And my resume up to date…just in case.

And sometimes, when you are minding your own business as you drive down the road, a tire on your car will express its mortality. So we maintain a spare tire in our car…just in case.

And when government falls, the dollar fails and we all stretch cow hides across our dune buggies and search the plains for petrol, I’m covered. I can make whiskey for barter in Bartertown. I just hope I have enough hair left to have a cool mohawk.

But did you see the recent pictures of Buffalo, NY? Windows pushed into houses by the weight of snow. Second story windows partially covered by snow.

What would I do? I mean, assuming I had advanced notice.

First things first. My parents would be trapped at their house for who knows how long. I would probably suggest that they come camp out here or at least bring a vehicle up here for easy access to the main road.

I would have the kids start bringing in firewood and lots of it. Not the cool fire, warm day stuff, the dense, hot oak or hedge. Just keep bringing it in. Power goes out we can still cook and we can melt snow for water. We also need to make sure all of the toilet buckets are clean and half-filled with fresh sawdust.

I need to make sure we have plenty of dog food for Reggie. We can manage without it for a few days but I would rather we didn’t have to. I’ll have to add that to a list or have an online retailer deliver it two days from now. Will the storm be here by then?

Otherwise we are ahead of the game here. There is plenty of meat in the freezer and canned goods in the cellar. Maybe a little short on wine…. The car is full of gas. We could just drive South to avoid the storm but we have livestock.

And that’s where I hit a brick wall.

Right now the chickens are in a hoop house. It would be no big deal to put a dozen bags of feed in there along with a barrel of water. Common sense, really. But the tricky part is not knowing how much snow it takes to collapse my hoop structure. What would 6 feet do? 6 feet of wet snow? 6 feet of wet snow and high winds? Will I hear it when the collapse kills my birds?

Same with the cattle. Six feet of snow is too much to graze through and it’s too much for my barn to hold up too. So now what?

SnowCows

Well, I guess I need to get the cows somewhere that is sheltered from the wind. Exposure will kill them faster than starvation. Do they need a roof over their heads or do they just need shelter from wind? I could line up a wall of bales on edge to protect them from wind AND give them feed at the same time And not have to worry that the collapsing barn will crush my cattle. So now I guess it’s just a matter of ensuring the cattle have plenty of bedding material and we can call it a day. Or maybe not. Let’s look at a few examples from around the world:

So now the good news. We don’t get snowfalls like that. A foot of snow is usually the upper limit in a 24 hour period. So this is just an exercise in thought. I really don’t know how we would handle it but I welcome your comments. It only gets worse after the snow gets here. Then it melts and floods the area. Tree limbs down, power outages, soupy ground, culverts washed out of roads and more cold coming. Cows washed away, pigs swimming downstream, dogs and cats living together, Mass Hysteria! Then think of all the babies born 9 months later…

It’s enough to make a guy want to be paranoid in town.

So. Anybody have any experience weathering livestock through a severe winter storm beyond what Pa did in the Little House books? Surely one of you Canadian readers…

Changing of the Guard

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

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

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

OldFlock

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

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

Eggs

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

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

ManureSpreaders

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

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

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

Fridiary Randomness

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

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

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

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

FrostedClover

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

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

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

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

Sigh.

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, Diary. Thanks for listening.

Frosty Morning Chicken Work

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

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

 

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.

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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!