Slowly over the last two years we’ve worked on fencing in the woods and then managing it as a silvopasture (meaning wooded pasture). Lots of good background info on the silvopasturing concept can be found by reading some of Brett Chedzoy’s work here.
I’m convinced of the merits of managing cattle and goats in woods, so long as they are actually managed and not just allowed to roam freely for months. What looks to the casual observer like natural forested areas in our region are often pretty biologically skewed forests, as most of our woodlands have suffered from invasive plants and insects and from too much “best first” logging taking the best trees and leaving the poor ones behind. Managed grazing combined with some judicious thinning have the ability to increase biological activity in the canopy, on the ground, and in the soil. We know we can increase carbon capture, nitrogen fixation, and oxygen generation all while growing beef and allowing us to harvest timber.
So while I stated that I’m sold on the idea, progress is slow. This is one of those projects that can be done with money or it can be done with sweat. It costs a fortune to hire a good logger who can do the kind of careful logging I require. Most loggers have a financial incentive to maximize their profits on the wood they remove, not an incentive to leave the most value in the woods. To hire a conservation forrester like that requires an investment of thousands of dollars per acre. So I’m just chipping away as I get the time (which means not very often). It is satisfying to see what we can accomplish with a small tractor and chainsaw, and of course, with a lot of help from the cattle.
This week has featured fantastic sunsets with all the rainy afternoons followed by evening sun. We were out doing the poultry chores when we saw a four banded rainbow Wednesday just before sunset. Three of the rainbows were bunched together with a fourth and fainter bow some distance away. I’m not sure if that would count as a quadruple rainbow or two doubles, but it was something none of us had previously seen. Sorry, no photos, we were too busy looking…
I did take pictures of the turkeys moments later. The light made some of them golden.
The pastures are full of monarch caterpillars, chowing down on the milkweed leaves. One of the many virtues of pasture-based agriculture is that with proper grazing management, there is plenty of food for the livestock (in this field, cattle and turkeys) and for all the insects. We aren’t fighting a war against bugs, we’re just living alongside them. And because of that inclusiveness, the pastures continue to become more diverse and more productive.
Harry coined the word “pigodiles”. We think it aptly describe the pigs as they lie half submerged in their mud wallow during the recent spell of hot weather.
I was glad to receive a letter from the NY State Office of Agriculture and Markets today granting us our 20C license to Process Food. The laws governing how foods can and cannot be processed by the producers are complicated. We work with a great team of butchers who process our poultry, and under state laws they can package them whole or cut up into parts, but they can’t grind, smoke, make sausage, or do any other further processing. However, now that we have the 20C license we can legally do all those extras using a rented licensed commercial kitchen.
We plan to offer some ground poultry products in the early winter. Smoked turkey breasts and smoked whole chickens are also products we are considering. We’ll start with some baby steps to make sure we have things the way we want them. Keep an eye out for announcements of new offerings in the next few months.
As we’ve worked to build relationships with people who appreciate organic/pasture-raised/local/family-based/etc food for themselves, we’ve also gradually found that many of these same folks want to source quality food for their pets. It is no secret that pet food has long been the dumping ground for all manner of questionable ingredients, so we understand their desire to find food that comes from trustworthy sources. It isn’t surprising that in a country of overfed yet chronically undernourished people we’d find that many pets are also suffering from analogous debilitating conditions.
I’m glad to announce that we have been able to work with our butcher to put together a nicely proportioned raw chicken blend for cats and dogs. We use thigh trimmings (bits of meat left over as the thighs are cut off the chicken backs), chicken backs, necks, heads, feet, livers, and hearts, blended in a balanced ratio, ground well, and packaged in 1 to 1.5 lb bags. I tried to get a picture of the cats eating it, but they all crowded around it and jostled so I had a hard time actually getting the camera to focus on the meat in the bowl.
What can I say. It looks like pet food… I suppose I could fancy up the photo with some catnip garnishes or a big cartoon-style dogbone resting against the side of the bowl.
Every year I chip away at fencing on the farm. And every year, my technique refines a bit. I’ve watched as minor differences contribute to a fence’s longevity or lack thereof. Most of my changes have been toward simplification. Fence construction manuals are all written by people selling fencing supplies. Caveat emptor.
I started with 6 wire electric fences, with an alternating hot-ground configuration. I learned that with our mostly wet climate, the alternating wire arrangement loses too much spark when high moisture vegetation gets between the two polarities. Now all our fences are hot. I also learned that 6 strands is overkill. If I had sheep, then perhaps I’d need the extra strands, but even there 3 strands would be sufficient for all situations except road frontage. All my new fences are two stranded. To speed up installation, I set the wires biometrically. The top strand goes in at the height where my pocket knife has worn a bare patch in my pants (all my work jeans get the same wear patterns) and the bottom strand goes in at the bottom of my kneecap. This arrangement works fine for our cattle. The top wire is low enough that I can jump the fence using a scissor kick jump, but the bottom wire is low enough that the cattle can graze under it, saving me the hassle of trimming under the fences. If I want to run pigs in that pasture, I just add an extra polywire strand temporarily.
Another change has been the switch from H braces to floating braces. It saves one driven post, and speeds things up considerably. My floating braced fences have proven more durable over time than my H braces. And now that I’ve dropped to two wires, I really don’t put much stress on the corner and end posts. I’ve had some floating braces in service since late 2012 (and those were hand-dug posts, which is the least reliable way to install posts). So if they can remain in perfect alignment through 125 degrees of temperature variation, floods, snowstorms, and bulldozers driving over the fence wires, then I think they’ll last until the posts rot.
I’ve played around with line post spacing. Originally I used 100 foot spacing with plastic droppers at 50 foot intervals. The droppers all failed within a few years, when the snow would drift over fences and buckle the droppers. I tried fiberglass (too splintery) and plastic composite (too weak after about five years). Both the fiberglass and poly posts were prone to frost heaving in winter and popping out during spring mud, just because it wasn’t possible to drive them below the frost line. I’ve gone back to all wood posts, driven four feet deep, and installed 75 feet apart. This seems to be the magic combination for fencing on relatively flat land. On bumpy terrain, the spacing needs to conform to the natural undulations, so spacing is tighter in these areas.
I’m always amazed at how much art and skill is involved in good work. I pass by fences, or houses, or sweaters, or paintings without stopping to consider what the creator of that work was thinking, or what that person had learned to enable the creation of the object. I probably wouldn’t enjoy a full time job of building fences, but I like the change of pace, when I am able to focus on getting a few important details correct, and then seeing the resulting product: a fence that will last us for many years.
We probably have a dozen bungee gates on the farm. None of them are permanently installed. We attach a hook handle on each end, so we can install them across any gateway on the farm (well, almost all of them). We’ve standardized our gateways and our lanes to 20 feet wide. We keep a pile of bungee gates in the toolbox of the ATV, so it is easy to close off a gate or lane as needed. We appreciate that they can be coiled up and stored in compact bundles, and that they can be deployed so quickly and easily.
One problem with the bungees is that they just don’t last very long. After about two years the ends wear out from the stress where the cord wraps around the loop of the gate hook. This is especially the case if a bungee gate is used during the winter when it can get buried in four or five feet of snow drifting across a gateway. As the snow compacts and settles, this can exert weight on the material, over-stressing it.
I used to solve this problem by cutting the cord shorter, but this fix eventually shortens the cord enough that we overstretch the bungee on our 20 foot gateway. My solution to stretch the life of a bungee gate is to install a wire reinforcement. This works well for conducting electricity, and it relieves the stress on the fibers.
Yesterday evening I went down to the laying hens to help Harry bring up the eggs he gathered. As I was putting the cases of eggs into the truck, I heard this sharp snap, snap, snap behind me. I turned to find a group of hens in a feeding frenzy on a patch of bare ground. On closer inspection, I saw that they were eating tiny white larvae. And the larvae weren’t just scrunching or wriggling along the ground like normal maggots, grubs, or caterpillars; these things were launching themselves two feet into the air. They were less than a half inch long with no external parts visible to my eye. They move themselves by snapping their bodies with an audible click, and arcing up into the air. It didn’t seem to me that they were projecting their motion in any particular direction, rather they seemed to be just popcorning all over the place, probably just opportunistically hoping to find a good place to escape the hens.
It turns out that these little guys are the larval stage of the cheese skipper fly (aka ham skipper). In reading up on them, I learned that people dealt with this fly frequently in per-refrigeration times when they discovered that it liked to lay its eggs in cheeses and meat, and then a couple weeks later the piece of (now rotten) food would have little white things blasting out of it in all directions. After reading about them, I’m surprised I haven’t encountered them before. It seems like I out to have seen them in dead animals I’ve found in the woods, but maybe I just haven’t been paying enough attention to decomposing things.
So what were the larvae feeding on? Chicken feed. Two weeks ago we had a problem with one of the chicken feeders. The lip was too low and it spilled about 100 lbs of feed. I tried to clean it up, but there was still a lot of feed left in the grass. Then it rained for a few days, caking it all into a nice mess that apparently was an ideal habitat for cheese skippers. I inadvertently created a two-stage feeding system for chickens, feeding chicken feed to skippers and then feeding the skippers to the chickens. That’s terribly inefficient from the entropic standpoint, but I don’t think the chickens mind. They prefer live bugs over peas, sunflower seeds, and corn any chance they can get them.
Once the chickens figured out what was going on, they began tearing through the capped layer of spoiled feed to get at the larvae, which were all in a concentrated layer about one inch below the surface. Feathers flew. Larvae leaped. Chickens chortled.
One thing we appreciate about turkeys is their suitability for herding. Just judging by their body shape, we might expect them simply to act like bigger versions of chickens. Turkeys and chickens are only distant relations in the larger pheasant family, so it isn’t surprising that they express their flocking instincts quite differently. Even though they bear strong resemblances, they are very different birds.
Moving turkeys across open pasture is far easier than trying to accomplish the same task with chickens. Chickens scatter in all directions, and even with a crew of people, it normally takes three or four tries before the laying hens can be moved from one pasture to another. Whenever possible, we wait until night to move the hens, so we can move them when they are roosting in their wagon. Turkeys (with perhaps the exception of the first time moving them) always go in one big group without any drama.
Allie does all the daily the turkey chores, so they are imprinted on her and will willingly follow her anywhere. They don’t know me as well, so I work better behind the flock, driving them. I don’t need to any cowboy shouting, just following behind while making large arm motions is enough to keep the stragglers on the move. We spent about an hour moving fences, feeders, water lines, and the shelter trailer, so it is almost anticlimactic when the actual turkey move takes thirty seconds. Not that we mind it when things go well…