Once when selling at a farmers’ market, a customer told me she felt particularly conflicted about purchasing beef because of the water it wastes. Indeed, depending on the source of your facts, you can find shocking statistics stating that beef wastes between 500 and 2500 gallons per pound of meat, so it isn’t surprising that she was so troubled. This horrific waste is a favorite argument cited by those who’d wish to convince others to stop eating beef.
I’d like to present my reasons for positing that Wrong Direction Farm beef doesn’t waste water. I’ll only address my specific context. I can’t speak for other farms, or for the circumstances in other climates. I’m no expert in water usage for growing grain, nuts, fruit, or vegetables, so I can’t authoritatively point to other agricultural practices for comparison. I’ll just stick with what I know well, my farm.
As an establishing point: what is wasted water and why does it matter? Water waste results from disruption of the water cycle. Water can be wasted by removing it from a location and not replacing it (such as drawing water from a well and then flushing it into a waterway rather than letting it infiltrate back through the soil into the well). Water can also be wasted by polluting it, rendering future uses of it harmful. Waste has turned critical in places where municipal water supplies and privates wells are running dry as subterranean water levels drop. In some locations this results in dry wells as the cost to dig deeper becomes prohibitive. Elsewhere, saltwater is intruding into depleted aquifers and ruining the fresh water supply. Declining water tables even cause subsidence at the surface as underground pore spaces collapse. (Side note: for a particularly perverse twist, follow the story of how cheap solar power is helping irrigate bumper crops of opium in Afghanistan, while rapidly destroying their water supply.) Undeniably, water waste is a serious issue for communities throughout the world.
Every drop of water used by our farm is directly harvested as rainwater. Under the house we have an old cistern to collect runoff from the roof of the house and the shed behind it. In the back of the farm we have a pond to collect rainwater at the bottom of a long sloping field. All of our fields, both the pastures and the fields cut for hay are watered by rainfall, with no irrigation from wells or aquifers. So at the source, our water use is not depleting any groundwater reserves.
Naturally, soon after the cattle drink they urinate it back out. Because the herd is never concentrated in numbers that exceed the carrying capacity of the land, urine is distributed in volumes the soil can easily absorb. Soil bacteria are able to synthesize it into nitrogen-rich fertilizer. We constantly move the cattle throughout the farm, preventing any one one area from becoming supersaturated, thus preventing wastage from water becoming polluted.
And about the water in the pond… As it sits there, it isn’t a passive rainwater storage tank. It is active. The pond is full of fish, snails, frogs, and turtles. Bees fly over from the hives next door to drink. Swallows and killdeer visit each day. Herons hunt in the reeds. A pair of geese visits each spring to lay eggs. Migrating flocks of ducks stop for a rest. Deer and coyotes drop by for a drink. And we swim in it on hot summer evenings. By digging this pond, we’ve been able to create new wildlife habitat and to diversify the local ecosystem.
Are there beef products that squander thousands of gallons per pound of meat? That absolute worst case scenario probably exists somewhere. But that certainly isn’t the situation here. The most you can say is that we temporarily divert the water through our cattle.
You can take a bite out of a Wrong Direction Farm steak or burger or brisket and enjoy it for the taste and satisfaction you find in eating it. But if you also need some ecological reassurance about the wider effects of the meal, then I can provide that too.
Just be sure not to waste water when you are washing the dishes afterwards.
There is a curious ineluctability that simple solutions are difficult to achieve. After four years of tinkering, I am finally satisfied that I have a working solar water pumping station.
Most of the farm is downhill from our pond, so we can siphon our water to the cattle and the poultry without using any power. But there are a few fields at the same elevation as the pond, and for those we need to pump water.
Over the years I’ve gone through five different pumps, four charge controllers, and two sets of panels. One of the charge controllers caught on fire, one was defective out of the box. Some of the early pumps were undersized for the flow required, and when I found larger pumps capable of supporting higher flow, I had to upgrade the solar array and the battery bank from 12 volts to 24 volts.
Not all has been wasted in the progress toward building the pumping station. Several of the old 12 volt components are in use elsewhere on the farm. I’ve learned a few technical details about solar systems, so there is some imputed worth there. But perhaps the most valuable and least quantifiable benefit is the appreciation I have for having water flowing when and where I need it. There’s always an underpinning of true and simple good, quite apart from complex moral philosophy, in completing a project satisfactorily. It is the good of making a meal, or building a bookshelf, or fixing the brakes. We find certitude in tasks that stand for themselves.
Sharing two new wildlife sightings. Actually there was a third, a striking godwit out by the pond, but the photos were too fuzzy. Yogi Berra was right, “You can observe a lot by just watching.”
One of the persistent challenges for our type of farming is maintaining some organization in the chaos of tools and supplies. Everyone who knows me knows that I’ve never been good at keeping things tidy. My workshop is a disaster. But I’ve made a baby step of improvement, and just that incremental difference makes me feel like there’s hope for future improvements.
About a month ago I tackled the fencing supplies. This includes a half dozen spools of wire, spinning jennys, insulators, staples, tensioners, and an assortment of both common and specialized tools. This collection took up a large shelf plus several overflowing totes on the floor, roughly about a 4×6 footprint in the garage. Not only was the collection unwieldy, but it required a lot of time and effort to carry everything into the back of the truck whenever I was doing fencing work. And it seemed that whenever I was out doing a fence installation or repair job, I’d discover I was missing a tool.
I realized the solution to my storage, organization, and accessibility problems could be found by building a small shed capable of storing my entire fencing collection and all the basic tools. It is mounted on a pallet so I can move the entire unit with the tractor out to whatever location I’m working. If I need to leave a job halfway done, all the supplies can remain in the field without fear of rain or snow. And I can reclaim that little corner of the garage shop space.
I’ve been amazed at the improvements made by such a small change. I don’t dread doing fencing repairs anymore. It is making me wonder what other sorts of modular project pallets I should build next. A pallet for masonry supplies and another for forestry seem like good candidates. Whatever I end up doing, I’ve been encouraged by taking a small action against what felt like intractable project clutter. There is hope!
We raised some Brown Chinese geese this year because we heard that they can be effective guards for other birds. I’m not sure that was a great idea.
Last year we had some predation losses among our young turkeys due to a persistent owl. Eventually the turkeys outgrew the owl, but for a few weeks the owl would kill one turkey any night I didn’t sit out there. Needless to say, it was a terrible experience for the turkeys and for me, but I suppose a great year for the owl.
The problem is that we also added a trained Maremma livestock guardian dog to the farm this year. And this leads to guardian conflicts, where the geese and the dog both try to do their guard activities to the detriment of the other. The geese repel predators by being endlessly meddling and loud. The dog prefers to be orderly and to reserve her aggression for real threats. Hence the geese manage to protect the turkeys while also pestering them, which causes the dog to chase them away. And since geese never take a hint, they just circle right back moments later causing the dog to perpetually chase the geese.
Despite the chaos caused by the combination of geese and dog, we have only lost one turkey to predators this year (and that was the night that neither the dog nor the geese were stationed out by the turkeys). So they are doing their job. But I think next year I’ll just stick with the dog unless I can figure out a way to assign the geese in some other guard duty on another part of the farm.
In recent years I’ve come to appreciate the value of grazing chickens and turkeys on taller grass. My old thinking was that shorter grass would be more digestible and more accessible to the birds. But now I prefer more mature pastures.
With our chicken shelters, we find that the rubber conveyor belt flaps on the leading edge are sufficient to knock down tall grass and to lay it out as a nice mat underfoot for the chickens as we move the shelters. All that lignified, high-carbon grass acts as great bedding for the chickens, and they still spend plenty of time eating the tender leaf tips that are now right at ground level. Interestingly, these taller pastures recover more quickly than shorter pastures.
The turkeys grow big enough that they bulldoze their way through the pastures, matting things down naturally. Since turkeys are better grazers than chickens, they carefully select leaves from all parts of the plants in their pasture. They appear to especially enjoy the mix of red clover, milkweed, and burdock that thrive in these pastures.
For the United States this way of raising chickens and turkeys is unusual and rare, but we’re really tapping into something that is as old as the world’s grasslands, where small animals and bigger, heavier herbivores (cattle in our case) periodically eat and trample their way across carbon-rich tall grasses, leaving a mat of flattened grass and manure. Because of the foot traffic pressing the grass into contact with the dirt and helped by the biological inoculation of the manure, this mat is quickly incorporated into the topsoil, increasing the soil organic matter (carbon sequestration) and providing an ever-deepening layer of topsoil capable of growing more greenery.
This week we moved the cattle from the front of the farm to the back end, about a half mile. Rachel does most of the summer day-to-day cowgirl work and I help with the big moves and roundups.
Moving the cattle doesn’t involve much of the TV tropes of whip-cracking and shouting. Not even a “yippie-kay-yay.” We’ve learned that moving cattle can be done without much drama, either on foot or gently motoring behind them on the ATV. The most important parts are (unsurprisingly) thorough planning beforehand and calm, purposefulness during the move. Cattle have a deep instinct to migrate in herds and recognizing this helps us consider the flow dynamics of the group. Some gateway shapes cause them to slow down, some changes in direction cause them to spread out. Over the years we’ve learned how cattle react, and I suppose we’ve learned how we react, so most of the time the cattle go where we want them to go. Most of the time…
Movement is one of the key things that makes Wrong Direction Farm unique. Our farm is always on the move. Nothing stays in the same place because in nature nothing is static. We’re always looking for ways to keep our animals on the best grass.
Our chickens shelter, but not in place. The idea of putting large numbers of animals in the same place for long periods of time is what drove agriculture into its dependency on pharmaceuticals. So our chickens move, and we need to make sure their shelter can move with them. The need for shelter changes for chickens as they grow. Just after hatching we keep them in insulated, heated brooders because they can’t regulate their own body temperature yet. After that early phase, once they begin to feather out, they require less heat but still need some protection from the elements, and they especially need protection from hawks, eagles, owls, coyotes, foxes, rats, racoons, opossums, neighborhood dogs, feral cats, and bobcats. On our farm the raptors are the most predatory. So to give them access to fresh grass while protecting them from hungry beaks and teeth our chickens live in portable open air shelters.
I just finished building the third chicken shelter. I built it from greenhouse hoops we bought from a neighbor and I’ve got to say, this is our best yet. This shelter is taller, better ventilated, more accessible, and includes a few crafty design features to speed up our daily chores.
I need to build one more of these this year, but I’ll wait a little while before getting into it. These shelter-building projects consume a lot of time so I’ve got to take care of a few other things that have been neglected while working on this.
This spring one of my farm efficiency projects has been the standardization of all trailer hitches on field equipment. We have five little utility trailers we constantly move on pasture for water and feed buggies for the poultry, plus another trailer frame that holds the turkey shelter. Four of them used four different types of 2″ ball couplers, one used a 2-5/16″ ball coupler, and another one used an ag-style pin connector. All of the ball couplers were getting worn out, with several requiring hammers or screwdrivers to engage and disengage the worn out lock mechanisms.
So I’ve had enough of that mess. No more ball hitches. Henceforth they are banned. I chopped all the couplers off and replaced everything with lunette rings. The tractor’s three point hitch now uses one pintle hook for everything. It is amazing how a trivial little project like this makes each day so much better when I’m not fighting with my equipment (well, I’m still fighting with other broken equipment, just not this equipment any more).