Strolling through the pasture: May 2012 Edition

All the grazing books emphasize the need to walk your pastures regularly.  See what’s going on out there, take notes and really pay attention.  Today I noticed something I hadn’t seen before.  Pigs are hard on clover.  Let me show you.

We had pigs on this spot in March.  The grass is recovering well and has been grazed once but the clover is almost non-existent.  A good mix of grasses and weeds but no clover.  I’m not too surprised as it had little clover to begin with but there is none now.  None.

Continue with me to the cemetery gate.  Here the grass is mowed regularly and the clover grows thick.

Now, look to the South with me.  The pigs were on this slope starting in July of last year and worked their way around the hill over time.  One section at a time the hillside became a wasteland as the pigs worked their way through.  The grasses more than recovered from the disturbance, and did so quickly.

But while the grasses benefited from the disturbance, the clover is absent.

If I look around a little bit I can see new clover establishing itself out of the soil bank but not much in the way of old growth.

Now, wait a minute.” you say, “Mr. Head Farm Steward, didn’t you just have goats and chickens here?  Aren’t your cousin’s cows still roaming and grazing in the pasture?  Maybe they are eating the clover faster than it can grow.”  Well, I don’t think that’s the case.  Here’s where the goats and chickens just left.  Sure enough, not a clover leaf to be found.

But, if we look back at pasture that has had at least a week to recover we can see strong clover growth.  In fact, on the left in this picture you can see a line in the grass where the clover ends.  I believe that’s where the pig quick fence stood last summer.

So it appears my grass is strengthened by the presence of pigs but I sacrifice my clover stand.  Ah, tradeoffs.  Why can’t it be more simple?

Takeaways:
-Walk your pastures regularly
-Take notes
-Take pictures
-Reflect on changes you observe.
-Evaluate these changes to determine if it is really a problem and, if so, if your management has caused it.

It is possible that I just need to move the hogs more frequently to help retain some portion of the clover.  I’ll keep fiddling with it.

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What Pigeonhole do you fit in?

Is your farm organic?  Is your farm free-range?  Are you just conventional farmers?

We hear these questions frequently from prospective customers.  Let me answer the question.  No.

I don’t look down on my friends who produce organic products.  I also don’t look down my nose at my conventional farming neighbors, though I do hope they don’t go broke.  I really try not to look down at anyone.  I just do my very best to bring a quality product to market that will enhance the health of my land and the local ecosystem and nourish your family.

Our animals are healthy, happy and normal.  Our pigs and chickens are allowed to be omnivores and given regular doses of fresh grass and forbs.  They are expected to contribute positively to our pasture management to earn their keep.  We don’t have chickens for the sake of having chickens, they are a tool that we use carefully.  Similarly, our goats and cows are expected to be herbivores.  They have to eat a wide variety of plants.  Each of our herbivores perform a different function, either mowing and crushing or trimming.  Both add manure.  The milk we receive is a wonderful but secondary goal.  The primary goal is enhanced microbial activity in our soil leading to increase fertility, dense swards, healthy trees and non-eroding waterways.  Again, we accomplish this by keeping the right animals in the right places for just the right amounts of time and allowing them the opportunity to fully express their unique talents.

So, what do you call that?  How about orchestrated, choreographed, local, respectful, ethical agriculture?

How do you, the customer, verify that we actually do what we say we do?  You come see for yourself.

There is no man behind the curtain.  There is no curtain.

We don’t desire third-party verification at this time mainly because we want relationships with our customers.  We want customers who will come and see how things work here, customers who will ask questions and make suggestions and challenge us to continue improving.  We want customers who will partner with us.

What about GMO-free or organic grains?

We’re just not there yet.  I have been in contact with a vendor who can provide me a complete non-GMO feed solution for my stock.  He’s in Ohio.  At this point, we think it’s better for us to buy corn straight from the field that may be GMO and certainly is not organic but is grown within 100 yards away from our house than to buy grain from hundreds of miles away and uses unknown quantities of petroleum to get here.  We buy local.  I am working to influence the local farmers I buy from to take the next step in environmental and ecological stewardship.  They aren’t there yet.  But, together we’ll get there.

I’m buying local, working with what is available here, now.  I’m doing the very best I can to bring a locally produced, quality product to market that was not only humanely raised but humanely processed.  Not only humanely processed but locally processed.  I don’t ship my birds 200 miles for processing just to bring them back again.  We do the work here.  We use local sawdust, local straw, buy local corn, and buy locally produced animals whenever possible.  Sure, there are things I buy that are not local but I try to buy them from local vendors.  For example, I buy coco coir from a vendor close to where I work, though it probably comes from Sri Lanka.

I’m working to be as local as I can.  I’m also working to make it better.

To be honest we aren’t where we want to be on many of these issues.  Please partner with us, join us on our farm, encourage us to continue working and participate in the local economy.

What about antibiotics?

When a cow or horse gets sick we’ll take steps to heal it using whatever technology is appropriate.  We don’t use subtheraputic levels of antibiotics or medicated feed to help the chickens survive until slaughter date.  Our management style makes that unnecessary and we feel that is an inappropriate use of medication.  Though we have never used antibiotics on our animals, even our willingness to use an antibiotic to heal a sick animal would prevent us from achieving organic certification.  I want to care for my stock.  I’m willing to use whatever means are appropriate.  While I’m unwilling to allow my animals to suffer to strive for an ideal, I take precautions to maximize our animal’s immune system function by providing a varied diet, allowing the animals to select the most palatable and nourishing food and providing minerals free-choice.  We minimize their need for immune response with multi-species grazing and long periods of pasture rest and recovery.

Again the best thing you, the consumer, can do is to come see what’s going on here.  I hesitate to quote Regan but I’m asking you to trust, but verify your farmer.

Mowing the grass part 2

The cows, as you know, get fresh grass daily.  Recently I made their pen smaller and I’m just giving them 144 sq. ft. at a time, moving them 5 or 6 times daily.  This results in excellent trampling and manuring as the grass is sheared off evenly and the weeds are either eaten or trampled.  The picture below shows a line I missed when I moved the pen a bit too far, then shows the progress beyond.  At the end of the day I’m putting something on the order of 90,000 pounds per acre across my lawn.  I could go heavier if I had more forage but since the grass is still short I have to move them frequently.

The stem in the center of this picture was a weed I watched Mable take a bite of then spit out.  I guess once they finished eating their ice cream they went back for their veggies.

Now, I want to be clear that I’m not starving my cows into eating the weeds.  They just like to eat.  Check the rumen on this beauty.  The indentation between the last rib and the pelvis sucks in when the rumen is empty.  Flo is looking full.

So what are they eating?  Well, they’re on the old driveway and it’s a weedy mess.

Here is another shot showing the line between what they finished grazing and what they are just starting.

Now, there really is a bit more to it than just moving a panel and waiting for them to eat.  You have to read their manure to see if they are getting enough protein.  This looks pretty good.  A little dry but not bad.

It would be more soupy if the fast-growing green was all they were getting or if I had more clover mixed in my pasture (yard).  I don’t have much clover yet, there is a fair amount of old growth still standing here and they get half a bale of hay every night just to keep things regulated.

Beyond manure I smell them.  Yeah.  Smell their breath.  That tells me a lot about the condition of their rumen.  It should smell sweet.

There are more things I could check if I was more paranoid but if they are laying down, chewing their cud, their manure is pumpkin pie-ish, their breath is sweet, and their coats are shiny they are OK.  The real point is…look at that lawn!  They mowed it, set the weeds back and fertilized it all on solar power.

I think that’s pretty cool.

Mowing the grass

Ah, it’s that time of year again.  The birds are chirping, the toads are calling and you can’t hear any of it because the lawn mowers are running.

We opt out.  I’m not even sure where my lawn mower is.  I think it’s in the shed.  Maybe.  We used it on the 4th of July last year but not since.  I don’t mind people mowing, it’s just not for me.  It’s too noisy and I have better things to do.  Further, it all seems Rube Goldberg to me; pump oil from Ottawa, haul it to Texas, refine it, haul it to St. Louis, put it in a machine from China, cut the grass off and watch it grow back again.  No thanks.

Cows kinda like mowing grass.  Take this model here:

This model (a 2011) was originally made on a channel island called Jersey but this specific one was built just up the road.  There’s no patent protection preventing you from making your own, you just need seed stock.  Not only does it cut the grass, it fertilizes for you, tromps weeds down, aerates the soil, produces milk (unheard of in a lawn mower) and can reproduce itself.  That’s right, it’s a walking lawn mower factory!  Further it requires zero gas, just water.  Now, it doesn’t come with a manual but there are some things you should know.

1.  It MUST mow or it will die and death is an unrecoverable condition for this type of machine.  That said, death is not always an unwelcome condition for a mower.  This is a good time to note that this type of mower tastes better than others.

2.  It is better if you set things up so you only request that it mow as much grass as it can in a day and that you allow it to mow a new place every day, not returning to the first location for 90-100 days.  This not only keeps the machine busy but keeps it in good working order.  Further, you will have more and thicker grass than you have ever had before, far thicker than that of your neighbors.

3.  If managed correctly, you will lessen the need to store up grass for it to mow during the winter months.  In the picture above, the nearer model is eating fescue that has been standing since August.

4.  If you have a large amount of grass to mow each year you may need more than one mower.  This is a favorable condition.

5.  If you have a small amount of grass you may want to consider sharing mowers between neighbors.  It may also be a good idea to split the milk it will produce.  Alternatively, you may consider a smaller mower called a “sheep”.  These also reproduce, make milk and fertilize, though in far smaller quantities.

NOTE:  Please don’t confuse a goat with a lawn mower.  The goat is more like a weed eater.