Modest Enough Not to Know

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

I. Don’t. Know.

I have no idea.

I am totally, entirely, utterly clueless.

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

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

The formula seems so simple:

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

But what does that really mean?

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

It means humility.

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

RainHay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I really want to know WHY!

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

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

I don’t know!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Keep Bees and Carry On

This is a busy time of year to be a beekeeper. Hives are swarming because they are full. We are busy collecting wild swarms and busy collecting the surplus honey from our hives. “A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon” and for that same reason we collect our honey now. The hive still has time to build up its savings account against a hard winter. Also, spring honey is sweeter, in my opinion, than fall honey.

Bees swarm to reproduce. The hive begins to fill up with honey so the workers put mom on a diet, begin making a new queen and a portion of the workers push mom out the front door and fly away. A friend of my father saw 3 swarms one afternoon while riding his horse. We got 5 swarm calls in three days that same weekend.

The job of a beekeeper is to decide if the hive should divide or if it should focus on storing more nectar. I am a fan of honey. I have worked all year to protect and house these bees. I have been stung. I have gotten poison ivy near their hives. I take a portion of their honey as a way of collecting rent.

Our boys have decided they want to be involved this year. In previous years the family has been content to hide in the van while I open the hives. There was one particular spring when I was a little early about opening a hive and the bees were not appreciative.  I had a cloud of angry, stinging bees penetrating my bonnet as I ran through the branches in the woods. Julie laughed until she had tears in her eyes.

This year the boys helped. They cleaned mouse nests out of unused bee boxes and the oldest caught two swarms by himself. Pretty cool.

If a swarm lands on the lower branch of a tree, catching the swarm is usually just a matter of shaking the branch into a suitable box.

Total bees swarms captured this week: 4. It's been a beesy week. 😉 #farmphotography #beekeeping

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But sometimes swarms land on the ground or, in this case, on a hosta. That can be more interesting.

Hosta

Either way, you have to introduce the bees to the box. Our oldest son is 15. He was hiving a swarm at home while I was hiving another elsewhere. He was stung on the arm as he was working. Some of these feral bees have a hot sting but he said something like this to himself, “I just have to do this now. I can hurt later. Get through it.”

I haven’t found that beekeeping has to hurt. But sometimes it does. What a cool thing for my son to learn.

Later we opened another hive that is well established to rob a little honey. As usual, I faced the hive alone, the other five people who claim to love me were gathered nearby with cameras at the ready.

I haven’t written much about beekeeping on the blog. It’s just something we dabble with. The best time to open a hive is when the workers are out in the field in the middle of a clear, calm day. That means I can open my hives on weekends, if the weather cooperates. Hopefully our kids will gain interest and confidence and will fire me. That would be awesome.

Between now and then it’s just something fun we do. And it is fun. Beekeeping, if you don’t know, is necessarily very relaxing. You have to be chill. The bees know if you are excited or in a hurry. Also, I find it is best to work without gloves as I squish fewer bees but you have to know the hive. Temperamental bees can’t be kept and temperamental beekeepers can’t keep bees. That, I hope, is the lesson I teach my children.

Do you keep bees? If so, you are halfway to the land of milk and honey.

Re-Taming the Garden

It rained last summer. What I mean to say is, it rained all of last summer. All of it. Julie and I would sit like the kids in The Cat in the Hat, looking out of our dining room window at the rain falling on our garden, feeling slightly depressed as the weeds grew and grew, neither of us willing to go out in the rain to work in the garden.

Then it got hot. Moisture + heat = Weeds.

We felt discouraged. The garden went into winter a mess of tangled weeds.

Remember, we also spent 8 months in and out of the hospital with our daughter. We lost our garden. No fun.

For the last month we have been working to reclaim our growing space.

Potatoes

Our gardening ambitions are few, however. The main garden has been planted to a few fruit trees and berry plants. We have a row of potatoes for fertility. We have a row of jalapenos for poppers. Our younger son is planting row after row of corn. Otherwise, this is a maintenance year. A year of weed control and added fertility. We are making next year’s garden now.

Every day we try to do something small.

  • Hoe the corn.
  • Hill the potatoes.
  • Pick the strawberries.
  • Cut an edge to the grass surrounding the beds.
  • Haul in more manure.
  • Have fun.

Strawberries

Have fun.

Are you having fun in your garden?

Working With the Kids

The question usually comes in as some form of this: “So, Chris, how do you get your kids to work and how can I get my kids to work like yours do?”

What a hilarious question. Don’t get me wrong, my kids work. But if you think it is easy you have been fooled.

Let’s take this off the farm for a little bit. Everybody makes dirty dishes. Everybody makes dirty laundry. Everybody can share in the work load. This is just part of living with others cooperatively. So we divide up the work. These are not paid jobs, these are just things we do. I’ll summarize the children’s chore list without going into detail.

  • Week 1: Wash dishes
  • Week 2: Walk the dog, clean bathroom sink
  • Week 3: Fold towels, set the table
  • Week 4: Put away dishes, take out trash

There is more on each list but that is the core of the rotation. Week by week, each kid specializes in a different set of simple tasks in rotation. We do not rotate in order of age, we split things up so we alternate between older and younger kids. We do this because the younger two are not reliable about washing the dishes and I don’t want to face two straight weeks at the sink.

The younger two are not reliable. They are currently 10 and 11. They may wash plates or cups. They may wash bowls and spoons. But they won’t wash pots and pans. The older two can be relied on to wash until the counter is clean. But not the younger two. And that is OK because they are children.

Toad

Look, I’m not making excuses, I’m setting realistic expectations. Washing dishes is not fun. The other 12 waking hours of the day the pair of them are parked at a table playing with Legos together or reading the same books (currently Warriors series). They don’t want to wash dishes. And I don’t want to force the issue.

To borrow a page from the book The Thomas Jefferson Education, I want to inspire, not require, my children to participate in our home. Be sure to click that link for clarification.

Now look, there are things you just hafta do. We seek to inspire but we still set expectations. You shower every week even if you don’t need to. You change your underwear at least once a month. You brush your teeth between meals. These are personal hygiene issues. But making your bed? Why? You are just going to unmake it again in 14 hours. What is the point?

The point is you live here too. Act like it. Make yourself at home. Use the vacuum cleaner. We want a nice, comfortable place of our own. Us. Ours. Nice. Put Goethe to the test. If everybody sweeps their own room and the whole house will be clean. But I have only met disaster when I take a hard line on this with the kids because they are kids and have an incomplete concept of “fair”.

So we seek to inspire them. I will admit, however, that I could be a better example. I have a pile of paperwork I need to file, or maybe just habits I need to change. Maybe I don’t need to file away that physical copy of the electricity bill for the next 7 years. Maybe it is trash. But I should do something with it and right now it is piled on the desk along with the lovely artwork our kids have created that I don’t know how to store.

I guess I could be more inspiring.

Everything so far applies to life in town. Let’s take it to the farm.

Walking the pasture.

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My 10 year old will not gather eggs by herself. My 11 year old will not gather eggs by himself. My 13 year old will not gather eggs by herself. All three are intimidated by the roosters. My 15 year old can run the entire farm by himself with one exception: he is intimidated by the cattle. But the cattle, the roosters and the children all know I am not intimidated by them. At all. I am careful. I am watchful. But I am not afraid of them.

But let’s set fear or other excuses aside for the moment. I need help gathering eggs and watering animals. When we first started out, all six of us would go together to do chores. The kids would play and sword fight with weed stems and look for frogs in the creek but they learned the routine. They learned about watering and feeding and offering oyster shell. This period of training is very important to everything we do.They understand that chickens cannot get their own water when I am at work or we are at the hospital. So all these years later I ask the kids, “Can two of you go get eggs, check feed and fill water at the red layers? I’ll take care of the dishes while you are out.” Off they go.

Breakfast time. #farmphotography #farmchores

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Dishes done, the kids come back with a basket full of eggs.

Me: “Hey, did you remember to check the water?”

Kids: “Oh. Ummmm….did you ask us to water the chickens?”

Me: “Sigh. You know, chickens can’t get their own water.”

They know. They really do know. They have heard us say that literally thousands of times. Chickens can’t get their own water! It’s not that they don’t know. And it’s not fair to say they don’t care. It’s simply that they don’t share our vision.

Our kids don’t own the farm. They don’t own the chickens. They didn’t work and sweat and burn away years of their lives, believing the dream that someday, if they got good grades and worked hard, they, too, could be successful (whatever “success” means). They haven’t been sitting in a cubicle, looking outside at the lawn care guy and thinking, “What a life he’s got!” and wondering about the meaning of it all. Does it mean anything? “I have debt so I can have a car so I can drive to work so I can service my debt.” There is a difference between working toward a dream and having a dream imposed on you by your parents.

See the difference? What are you working for? I am working to fulfill a vision. A common vision Julie and I share. A dream. A goal. Not division. Vision. But the kids? They may be acting out of obligation out of respect for us. And that respect is how I convinced my 15 year old to spend 6 hours Memorial Day morning shoveling manure with me.

But let’s go back to that issue of intimidation. My eldest son is larger and taller than I am. Soon he will be stronger too. But he is intimidated by the cattle. The other three children are intimidated by the roosters. But the roosters and the cattle and the children all know that I am in control. I am not to be feared but I am to be obeyed. And now. (I have to tell you, Julie finds her comparative lack of control over the children frustrating.)

I am in control but I am not controlling.

I’ll come back around to kids in a minute but I have to talk about Julie here. I do not want to control my wife. I don’t want to bend her to my will. I don’t want to change her. I want Julie to be Julie and being “Julie” is a moving target. Julie is different than Chris…and in very good ways. And I love her. I love her much more than I love my job or my farm or even my children. My kids will move out in the next 10 or 15 years but Julie and I will remain. But the Julie that will be 10 years from now will be different than the Julie that is today. And if I don’t roll with those changes now I’ll be in for a shock. Empty nest syndrome.

No thanks.

I have to take time now to stay close to Julie each day. I need to know what motivates her. What excites her? What is she into right now? I have to know for this marriage to continue.

And, even though they will probably move out in 10 years, it’s the same with the kids. Talk about moving targets! I have to know what motivates the kids today! All four of them are different from each other and are different from me in ways that are difficult to quantify. I have to know all about each child and show them that I am interested in them as people, not just as extra hands, and I have to keep up with the radical daily changes in their personalities, interests, preferences and alliances! Not easy.

My helper this morning. It was hard work out in the heat.

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Butchering day is a good example of this. The only requirement was that the kids either worked with us, worked inside with grandma or, at a minimum, played near us as we worked. For years my oldest daughter would not participate with the chickens. She stayed inside with grandma baking pies. You know what? That’s totally cool. My daughter didn’t want to do hot, smelly, gross work. I get it. But she missed out on a lot of fun too. We listen to music while we work. We talk. We help each other. When we finish the last bird we all sing and do the chicken dance. And when the birds are all bagged and in the freezer the kids who helped get paid. One day our daughter asked if she could cut the feet off of the birds. I didn’t threaten. I didn’t scream. I didn’t berate her into helping. She wanted to have fun and make money too. So now she cuts the feet off of the chickens and does the chicken dance and listens to music with us and we eat fewer pies.

Kids

You know what she wants? What she really, really wants? She wants to bake pies and have fun. And on butcher day she chooses fun over pies in spite of gross dead chickens because she wants to be with us. And we want to be with her.

But she also likes to hold babies at church. And she loves to read P.G. Wodehouse. She loves Doctor Who and she hopes to become Groucho Marx when she grows up. And she bakes really, really good scones. And last night she was reading part 2 of a complete collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. I know because I talk to her like she is a person. I don’t speak to her like she is a child. She is not a nuisance. She is not an annoyance. She is not to be sent away in the evenings for karate, dance, soccer and gymnastics. I want to hang out with my daughter. She is a bright spot in my day.

She is also a reliable dish washer. But that’s the least important thing.

Farm or no, there is work to do. I confess, I am annoyed when they take a laundry basket to their room but fail to put away the laundry. I admit my patience is tested when I come home and the sink is full of dirty dishes. But if I lose my cool they will either fear or resent me. I do not want my children to be afraid of me. I want them to be confident that I love them in spite of their occasional failings.

How do I get my kids to work on the farm? I love them. They are learning to reciprocate.

I had written that last sentence to close the post but then I found this picture:

Skinner

We have some close friends with seven children of their own. They raise their own pigs and we like to help on butcher day. Last fall two of their seven children were on the scene to help. This one helped skin the pig. The other kids were busy elsewhere. They were still helping, just not with skinning a pig. And that was OK. Everybody was busy. Everybody was involved and still, somehow, having fun. But skinning the pig isn’t for everybody.

Field Experiment

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

Our barn from the south.

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

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

Tractor4

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

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

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

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

Moving the herd. #farmphotography #farmchores

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

That brings us to April of 2016.

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

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

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

So now what?

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

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

The white barn.

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

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

Timing the Spring Graze

The secret to comedy is timing.

Timing. Get it?

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

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

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

Because of timing.

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

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

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

OldPasture

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of the things we have learnt are :-

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

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

Trample

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

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

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

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

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

SpringGrazing

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

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

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

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

TheWorstField

Cattle I Have Owned

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

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

But I didn’t start today.

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

First there were two dairy heifers, Mable and Flora.

WinterJerseys

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

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

Shorthorns1

 

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

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

Shorthorns2

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

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

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

Grazing

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

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

 

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

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

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

Well, it kind of works.

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

first new calf

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

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

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

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

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

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

Someday.

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

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

Where is My Joie de Vivre?

Something is wrong. Something is really, really wrong. I could only see red on Thursday. That’s not me. So I took a little time off.

Our pastor spoke this weekend about James 1, being quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger. I tend to fail on the slow to speak thing but, generally, anger is not my issue. Not as an adult anyway.

Julie and I are dealing with some stuff. Over the last 8 months we have watched as our daughter was treated for cancer. One day, happy, healthy little girl. Then she had cancer. Nothing I could do.

Seemingly the next day she had a vacuum line running between two ribs causing her intense pain. Nothing I could do.

Then there were weeks of time when I was home with the other kids while Julie and our little patient lived at the hospital. And there was nothing I could do.

I was helpless as she threw up for days on end, helpless as her hair fell out, helpless during her surgery at Christmas. Compounding that, I was helpless toward the other beautiful children and scared parents we met in the hospital. A hospital for sick children. At Christmas.

We lost two kids we knew at Christmas. 7 children in the 8 months at the hospital. There was nothing I could do.

And I still had a job and livestock and bills to pay and dishes to wash and stuff to do.

And I was not dealing with it in a healthy way.

Mostly I would race through my chores then play Minecraft with the other kids. But it was all racing. It was all rush. It was all hurry. Fast food, Coca-cola, late nights, early mornings. I stopped reading. I stopped exploring. I stopped writing. I stopped doing. Because there was nothing I could do. I was trying to be a “good dad” but, really, I was just distracting myself from the pain and feeling of helplessness.

I have hit low points in my life. Lower, I hope, than most people sink to. I was not at my lowest point but I was not in a healthy place.

As I walked through that valley, that low point, I decided to maybe stop drinking so much caffeine and sugar. My blood pressure had been high and my sleep quality had been poor. This seemed like a good first step to resolve my near-constant headache. With the exit of Coca-cola, my headaches intensified for about 2 miserable weeks. Then I felt like an AA member. I could tell you the last time I drank a Coke. “My name is Chris and I am addicted to sugar and caffeine. I had my last Coke on Feb. 20, 2016.”

But I really just replaced Coke with unsweetened coffee. I had to fix that too.

I also stopped drinking alcohol. After I dropped coke I found myself drinking a beer or two every night. Maybe a glass or two of wine. That’s not an outlandish amount of alcohol for many people but it is for me. So I stopped.

And I stopped eating multiple handfuls of candy from the candy dish at work.

And Julie and I cleaned up our diet. Again.

But the things that were whispering at me before we screaming at me now. Oh. My. Gosh! It is amazing how quickly and easily I can be set off. And for no reason! I stewed for two days on a joke some idiot made during a conversation on Thursday. Fortunately, I kept my thoughts to myself but…I was not happy.

Do you remember happy? I remember happy. Happy was reading books and sharing them with you. Happy was taking pictures of growing grass and cow manure and wondering if I could make the grass or cow manure look better by changing my grazing management. Happy was raising chickens and pigs and cows and children and preserving my marriage and continuing my education and writing about it and wondering, myself, how I had time to do it all.

But that was before my daughter got cancer and there was nothing I could do but watch her suffer as the treatment continued. Watching alone, from the sidelines. Living a third or more of my life without my wife at home, the rest of the time working to ensure that she and our daughter could rest because being at the hospital is not restful. At all.

Our daughter’s treatments are behind us. It seems I was able to push all of my bags to the side while she was receiving treatment but now it is all washing over me. I should feel relieved but, really, I just feel tired. So tired. Old.

I picked up some bad habits over the last 8 months. I lost some good habits too. I stopped practicing my writing, for example.

I broke up with Coca-cola in February. In June I am going to get back together with my old friend the blog. I’m going to try anyway.

These feeling I am dealing with? The experience we have been through? That feeling of rejection and isolation a husband feels when (in his mind) his wife chooses a child over him? Substance abuse? Insomnia? High blood pressure? Depression? These things have ground me down in ways that are not always visible from the outside. All of those families I met in the hospital are dealing with this too. And nobody talks about it.

Find a way to reach out to a family in need, including the husband who is expected to be strong and not to cry and to go to work, and keep it all together and to just deal with it all like a “man”. And if you are in need, please reach out. If you don’t know who else to call, reach out to me. Believe me, I understand.

This will be a farm blog again soon. I promise.

When Life Hands You Chickens, You Make…

Four years ago a friend of a friend bought three silver-laced Wyandottes at a store in Alton to make his granddaughter happy. She was, indeed, happy. But the subdivision rules said “no”.

With promises to do our level best to protect and love those chickens, the grandfather brought them to our farm. His face showed regret mixed with relief.

Dot and her two sisters did not fit in well with the flock. They were smaller than the other pullets and that comes at a cost. They were not allowed to roost at night and slept next to the chicken house.

dot 2

Two of the three were murdered in the middle of the night by an evil, stinking, thieving skunk. We slept in the field for a week trying to bring that monster to justice. We failed. But the kids had fun. Grandpa and grandma and the kids slept in a tent next to the pond. I patrolled on foot or slept next to the chicken tractor. I guess it sounds romantic but it was miserable in real life.

The skunk problem may have been solved for us by way of owl. Or car. I don’t know. But the murder of our chickens abated…briefly.

Dot eventually became a part of the flock. The only black and white bird in a sea of red. How could we avoid naming her?

dot 3

Somehow, years passed by. Where did the time go? Where does the time go?

Dot died earlier this week after a big storm passed. I went out to close up the birds after moving the cows and noticed her laying still, taking shallow breaths under the nest boxes, unable or unwilling to open her eyes.

I have some idea what was wrong with Dot. Mostly I suspect she was old. There is nothing I can do to prevent old. I believe her heart had failed her in some way, though her comb was not yet blue.

So it was time for Dot to do what Dot should have done a long time ago. We should not own 4 year old hens.

Dot lived with a purpose. She is not a pet. She is a farm animal. She existed because she was productive. When she is no longer productive she moves on to the next job. The last job. Two gallons of beautiful, amber broth.

I left Dot sitting on a jacket in a cardboard box while Julie boiled scald water. This box was last used to comfort a dying cat at Christmas. The cat was a pet. We buried it. Dot is not a pet. Dot is food.

It only takes a minute to dress out a hen. We let her soak, maybe with a dash of salt, then she stewed overnight with a few onions.

There are three details I would like to add in here. First, she had a heart attack as evidenced by what I found inside of her. Second, she was in otherwise excellent health and, even at her age, was still actively laying. Third, we would never even consider selling a sick bird. We keep them for ourselves. Heart attack birds taste a little off.

dot

That said, I suspect she will taste something like our pasture. She will taste like long nights sitting under the moonlight staring at the stars. She will taste like sacks and sacks and sacks of feed I carried on my left shoulder to the pasture over hills and across creeks. Mountains of bedding shoveled in and out of the chicken house or the greenhouse. She will taste like every morning I opened the chicken house door no matter what the weather and every evening I closed the door to keep them safe at night. She will taste like the long July days we spent in the hot sun building said chicken house. I cannot waste years of investment by burying Dot in the compost pile.

I would rather she had lived. I liked Dot. But this is what needs to be done.

The pasture feels a little empty without her.

The Life-Changing Magic of Planting Trees

Mom mentioned some childhood neighbors in a blog comment yesterday that got me thinking about Mrs. Ruth. She lived next door when I was very young. I have only a few memories of her, really: She had a cat, she was a German immigrant and tended to mutter to herself in low German when I was around, she kept candy orange slices in the bottom crisper drawer of her fridge and she had three cherry trees east of her garage.

I remember more than that about Mrs. Ruth but the cherry trees are etched into my mind forever. In fact, I checked Google maps and it looks like the trees are still there. As a kid I would take a break from my sandbox and climb into the mulberry tree in our back yard for a snack and I would tend to stare in the direction of the cherry trees wondering why there were always mulberries but almost never cherries. But on those rare few days when they were ripe we would all help Mrs. Ruth pick cherries.

Buckets of cherries. Cherries in the freezer. Cherries in jellies. Cherry pies. Cherries cooked into a sauce with sugar and poured over ice cream. I don’t even know what else.

And you can’t overlook the reliable mulberry tree in that story.

Mulberries. Julie and her brothers didn’t have much experience with mulberries when I met them. Julie and I would walk through the pasture together at her parent’s house (definitely not a date, right?) and eat and talk (cause we are just friends, right?) and hold hands (friends can hold hands, right?). Mulberries were a staple food. They are not too sweet and tend to be a little stemmy but don’t have the pesky seeds of a dewberry or black raspberry. We would pick a few berries in the summer evening, our hands would be stained purple just like in the picture I shared a few years back of picking mulberries while putting up hay…because we always stop to rest in the shade under the mulberry trees in the bottom.

MulberryJuice

Not all mulberry trees are created equal, btw. Some are more sweet than others and some don’t fruit at all. And having written “btw” I am reminded that mulberries have a good BTU rating (above oaks) and coppice well. And the leaves are a good source of protein for cattle. So these are trees I work to keep around. Although, you don’t have to work too hard as mulberries tend to grow wherever there are birds.

But cherry trees are a different story altogether. There are wild black cherry trees all over our farm. We have picked buckets of these too but the fruit tends to be bitter and thin around the stone. Apparently it makes a good cordial. But a sweet or sour domesticated cherry tree is a real treasure.

My friend Yoichiro came to visit us in 2013. He and I planted a cherry tree together. I think of him every time I look at that tree. I am still happy we shared that experience.

I got the sapling from my friend Steve. They are a small, short-lived sour cherry and they replace themselves readily. He digs up a dozen or so saplings every year. The original sapling came from an abandoned farmstead. He dug it up at some point in the last 20 or 30 years. Here is a picture of it several years ago.

Garden2

Let’s review. decades ago, Steve and his wife spent an afternoon driving through the countryside looking for heirloom varieties in the yards of abandoned farm houses. Among other things, Steve found a cherry tree that he brought home, planted, cared for and propagated. Doesn’t that sound nice?

Years later we were invited to pick cherries and asked if he could spare a sapling we noticed coming up under the canopy. Early the next spring Steve loaded us up with a trunk full of food, rhubarb plants and a small cherry sapling.

A friend from Japan came to visit in 2013. Together we planted the cherry sapling above promising to meet again someday and enjoy the fruit together. Then my kids and I planted daffodils and comfrey around it.

Steve came by later, inspected the planting and took home some comfrey and some bamboo from my yard.

Do you see how that little cherry tree is intertwined in our relationships? …in our community?

Life changing magic.

I wrote about my grandpa Jordan recently. Last summer my kids and I spent a hot afternoon picking peaches from his peach tree. They were not spectacular peaches…kind of small and spotty. But he planted a tree, did a little maintenance on it and we all ate all we wanted and my kids have a fun memory of standing on great-grandpa Jordan’s cannon while picking peaches…just days before our youngest was diagnosed with cancer.

Peaches.jpg

What is the value of that peach tree? Or grandpa’s grape vines he made homemade wine from?

I have shared about my friend Eileen, her Mutsu apples and chestnut trees. This year we came home with a  trash can of waste apples and a big, big box of chestnuts. The pigs made pigs of themselves.

And it seems obvious to remember Aunt Marian’s apple trees. I have written this before but I would race to prune her trees as fast as I could, doing a portion of each tree each year, because she would catch me pruning and would run me off. But I had her Mutsu in good shape by making a few “accidental” cuts here and there to slowly get the tree in shape. And I got all the apples I could use. And so did the pigs. And aunt Marian had all kinds of stories about each tree in her orchard and where they came from.

picking apples

I’m sure there are other things you can do to build inter-generational memories but trees put down roots. There is a giant burr oak tree in my pasture that my grandpa Chism said was always big. Roots. Ties to previous generations.

What is that worth?

Where are you planting your trees? You don’t need a farm. You just have to stay put for a while.