We started picking apples the last week of July. Since then we’ve been picking and preserving apples every week. We love apples. There comes a point when we love being finished with them too.
Besides the innumerable apples eaten out of hand, this year we managed to dehydrate over 700 pounds of them. Cores and bad spots get trimmed, so about a quarter of that weight ended up in the pigs’ bellies. If we had used pristine grocery store apples we wouldn’t need to do so much trimming. But the price for perfection in apples runs between $2 and $3 per pound, so we don’t mind working with speckled and dented fruit.
This is our last day of grazing grass. From now until May the cattle will still be eating grass, but it will either be harvested and dried (hay) or fermented (baleage).
We can usually stretch our grazing out into December. January is possible in a mild year if we don’t get early ice and slush in the fields. February grazing is inconceivable to me based on the plants available and the weather we get, but fifty miles east of here from Albany down through the Hudson Valley the weather is much milder and less snowy and some people have made it work in that environment.
This year we got hit with a double whammy that curtailed our grazing early. We had hoped to get a first cut of hay off two fields early in the season, followed by a fall grazing on the regrowth. Unfortunately with rain, equipment delays, and then interruptions due to the pond project, we were unable to get the hay fields cut until late September.
By September, that first cut hay was worthless for anything but bedding. We need bedding hay for the pigs, but we didn’t need that much. So we lost four weeks of grazing, and on top of that we ended up buying an extra four weeks of hay. Hay feeding costs us $60 per day for purchased hay, so that’s $1,680 out of our pockets. Yeah, that smarts…
Back when I was picking puffball mushrooms I found a long, vivid green swath of grass about two feet wide. I didn’t think much of it, but a few weeks later when I returned to that field I realized that the green grass formed a long arc about fifty feet in diameter. It puzzled me for a while, but going back over the arc I observed that all the puffballs in that field were along the path of the arc. I found puffballs in three fields this year, but only this one had any discernable difference in the grass.
Looking around for an explanation led me to a few interesting mushroom websites. These patterns are called fairy rings and they are indeed caused by fungal activity. The underground mycelial growth makes more nitrogen available to the grasses above (at least with the Calvatia (puffball) family — other fungi can create a dead-zone ring).
Fungi are fascinating mysteries to me. I wonder if we had more of these in our fields would it increase grass productivity?
Clearly the cattle can taste the diference. I moved the cattle in to glean the last scraps of grass out of this hayfield. Look where this cow headed. Note the green arc (sorry, the colors don’t differentiate well with mobile-phone photography). If you zoom in you might be able to pick out the spory old puffballs.
Whenever I drive into the sows’ pasture to drop off a bale of hay, they come barrelling out of all corners of the field, ears flopping, doing the bucking-horse run I never grow tired of watching. Do they care about the hay? Are they happy to see me? No and no. They are only excited because I’ve brought them the big scratcher (at least that’s what I imagine they call the tractor). They love scratching their hams, backs, and shoulders on the tires, rims, loader frame, and three point hitch arms. The tires are usually skimmed over with mud upon arrival, but after a few minutes in with the pigs the lower sections are rubbed clean.
I’m not sure why they get so worked up about the tractor. They have plenty of trees and boulders in the nearby hedgerow. But I’ve never known a pig to turn down a back scratch.
Our bales of bedding straw came from a weedy field that wasn’t combined, so there are plenty of oats still attached to the stems. This straw would be disastrous if used for garden mulch, but it excels as livestock bedding. It fulfills two Maslovian first tier requirements in one package (food and shelter), almost as good as living in a gingerbread house. But I digress…
The autumn rains sprouted the oats in the outer layer of the hay bales, creating a sixty foot long mat of oat grass running the length of the bale row. When I was at the grocery coop a few weeks ago, I noticed that people were buying oat grass for their cats. I guess indoor cats must eat the stuff. Funny, our cats don’t pay any attention to the oat grass. They gnaw on perennial grasses occasionally, but when they are climbing on the straw bales they are intent on just one thing: finding the mice that have burrowed in among the bales.
Last winter I pondered whether it would be feasible to add laying hens to our operation. We gave it a try, and we lost money spectacularly. Rate of lay rarely exceeded 60% and most of the summer it hovered just under 50%. This might be due to any number of things. Maybe our Red Sex Link hens are just a poor batch (we had a surpisingly high occurrence of hens going broody this summer, which is unusual for this type of chicken). Maybe our feed mill isn’t giving us a good mix. Or maybe there’s something in our management that needs improvement. My suspicion is the feed. Now that the days are getting shorter, we’re only getting about 15 eggs out of 60 hens.
We moved the pigs and hens out of the woods last Saturday and introduced them to their winter quarters. The hens have had the hoophouse all to themselves this week so they could get used to their new digs, find the nest boxes, and start roosting in the right places. We’ll let the pigs in tomorrow.
We wanted to be able to keep the pigs out of the chicken feed. We also have noticed the chickens waste a lot of their feed, especially the fines (which tend to be the more expensive protein-rich components, rather than the cheaper carbs like corn and oats). Our solution for this year is to elevate the chicken feeder, hopefully mitigating both problems at once. The elevation excludes the pigs, the wire shelves allow the dropped feed to have a second chance as the pigs root around underneath. Vertical integration, small farm style.
I think if I could find pelletized layer feed, I’d be able to improve my feeding efficiency because the hens wouldn’t waste so much powdery feed while they search for bits of whole grain. Our feeder has a supposed “feed saver” lip on the inside, but the chickens are still able to fling out feed with their beaks. But the bigger key to making the laying hens economical is most likely that I’ve got to find a different feed recipe. Trying to find a soy free, certified organic mix in small quantities (one ton at a time) is a challenge.
CSAs deliveries are wrapping up for the season. This is our second year working with the Montclair CSA. For anyone living in Essex County, NJ, we have high praise for them. We feel fortunate to work with folks who are so supportive.
It is no shocking revelation to observe that our culture seems to push us all toward sectarianism. If we choose to be either paleo carnivores or vegans, we feel pressured to close ranks and demonize those who make food choices different than ours. This isn’t a new topic for me, but it has been on my mind a lot lately. So I want to take the opportunity to thank the Montclair CSA specifically, but also to generally thank anybody out there who is willing to step across the divide and treat people well, even if those other folks are making different food choices. It is a big deal to farmers like us who are trying to do right as we understand it.
We’re starting investigate additional CSAs and drop-off points for regular deliveries to Northern NJ next season. If you want to talk about getting a drop-off in your neighborhood, please send a note to me at email@example.com. Thanks!
If you dig one ditch you better dig two cause the trap you set just may be for you. Mahalia Jackson (I found this quote a while back and liked it, but I didn’t anticipate having a use for it. It is attributed to Mahalia Jackson here, although I haven’t been able to trace it down to its source.)
Last night I had to bring a trailer load of whey out to the pigs. It was getting dark by the time I made the run back home. I changed my route to avoid a big puddle, but I forgot all about the newly dug waterline trench. The trench is backfilled, but last week’s rain completely saturated the soil, which lead to this:
Since I was cruising along in high gear, the tractor ran about fifteen feet before bottoming out. I tried rocking it, curling the bucket, and locking the differential, but the backfilled dirt was too sloppy for any of those tricks to be effective. This morning my neighbor Dave was kind enough to tug me out. It didn’t take a lot of pulling, but if it weren’t for neighbors with heavy machinery I’d be in trouble. Which leads me to thinking about how agriculture always needs to be something that happens in a community. All of us in this neighborhood share a web of interconnectedness. I’m the new guy, just five years here, but I can still see how we all depend on each other. That’s a good feeling. Especially when you’re stuck in a five foot deep mud pit.