Wrong Direction Farm

Eggless

I screwed up.

Our flock of 200 laying hens was starting into a seasonal decline in production due to their age and to the general tendency of chickens to lay fewer eggs as daylight shortens.  So I added 50 pullets (young female chickens not yet at laying age) to the flock to smooth out our fall/winter egg production.

Poof!  Egg production went from a tolerable 60% to 10% within days.  At first I thought that the hens were going into a molt, but it was a little too early and much too abrupt.  Talking to other farmers and reading some poultry reference material brings me to the conclusion that I messed up their social order (a.k.a., the pecking order) and that until the hens get it all sorted out they’re on strike.  I started dabbling in chickens before we bought the farm, so I thought I pretty much knew what to expect with laying hens.  But this one blindsided me because we’ve introduced new hens to flocks before without problems.  I think the scale of the disruption to the hens is different this time, so that’s probably the cause of the abrupt egg decline.   Alas, another lesson hard-learned and unlikely to be forgotten soon.

little-basket-of-eggs

Sunday’s haul of eggs. Pretty pathetic considering that we were bringing in a couple of baskets every day before the crash.

Right now I have enough of our own eggs to supply our subscription orders, but for all other eggs I’m going to need to buy some from Oliver’s Eggs.  I may need to cap egg orders if I can’t get enough.  I’ve updated the description for our eggs on our store to make it clear that some of our eggs may not be our own but that they should be equivalent for all intents.  Oliver Aeschlimann’s farm is NOFA-certified organic and he feeds his flock an organic, soy-free ration just like ours.  His chickens are legitimately pasture raised, an important distinction when many farms give very little attention to actually maintaining a pasture on which their chickens can roam.  While we are always partial to our own products, I am confident that Oliver’s Eggs are the best alternative out of many farms in our region.

Raw Feeding Pets

Question for you Raw Feeders or BARFers or however you self-identify…  For folks who are feeding raw meat and bones to your dogs or cats, what are you looking for?  We’ve started grinding chicken heads and feet for our farm cats.  They are pleased with it.

Please send us a note or leave a comment if you are currently raw feeding your pets and let us know what you look for in your pet food.  We’ve been raw feeding pets for many years, but we only know what we do.  What types of products are you feeding?  What size containers make sense for you (1 lb/1 pint or 2 lb/1 quart)?  Thanks!

ground-chicken-heads-and-feet

Ground chicken heads and feet. Not appetizing to us, but our furry companions think it is as good as it gets.

Dirty Pictures

I’m always amused by farm and fence glossy advertisements showcasing products held in perfectly clean hands.  Anyone building high tensile fence has dirty hands; there’s no way around it.  Besides all the dirt from fence posts, shovels, augers, hydraulic oil from post pounders, gas and oil from chainsaws, there’s always a lot of zinc or zinc-aluminum dust from the wire coating.  Even if you wear work gloves for the grunt work, all the fiddly staples and crimp connectors require the tactility of bare fingers.

dirty-hands

I’m stapling insulators to pressure treated nailers. Zinc-aluminum coating plus the protective oil coat make for grimy hands.

So imagine my surprise seeing the Kencove advertisement for their Spiralator fence repair insulator.  It depicts hands that have actually been working with galvanized fence wire.

i5s_web_2013

Hey, that’s real!

I ordered a box of 100.  After having used a bunch of them, I’m thoroughly impressed.  Whenever I need to drop a new post into an existing fenceline, or whenever I realize that I’ve threaded too few insulators onto my wire, these little guys are the solution.  They are too expensive to use as generic line insulators, but they are perfect for retrofit situations.

Dolma Stuffed Pigs

I had to do a double take passing by a pen of weaned piglets.  One of the pigs was entirely off the ground climbing the fence.  Pigs are not good climbers and this one was no exception.  He only made it an inch off the ground before his back feet slipped from the fence.  But he was determined to get as high as he could, because there was food to be had.  All exertions, struggles, and risks are worthwhile to a pig if there is a chance to get better food.  This time the sought-after food was wild grape leaves.

During the course of the summer, grape vines had overgrown the cattle panel fence.  The piglets stripped the lower courses bare and now they were setting their sights on the vines tangled four feet above them.

I stepped in and tore the vines free so the piglets could get at them.  At first I figured they would be more interested in eating the grapes, but they ignored the fruit and instead went for the leaves.  They ate the grapes later, but only after stripping all the greenery.

piglets-grape-vines

Just Saying

Roadside juxtaposition

Greedy Trees

Bed Frame in Trees

Someone propped an iron bed frame against a tree and over years it became entwined and engulfed by that tree and three later arrivals.  There are any number of aphorisms, proverbs, or life lessons that could be trotted out with this picture as a backdrop, illustrating the slow but inexorable enveloping of time and natural forces.  I can hear the cadence and final fall of Garrison Keillor’s voice as he reads this picture as a poem (no disrespect to Mr Keillor intended, but if you’ve ever listened to A Prairie Home Companion or The Writer’s Almanac you’ll know the kind of poetry he favors and how such a poem would flow).

Bed Frame 2

I’ll just caution against leaving furniture unattended in the woods.  The trees won’t give back once they’ve laid claim.

Birds of Prey

Hawk

This weekend I got a surprise when I stumbled upon a dead hawk in the pasture.  It is pretty rare to find a top tier predator dead of natural causes.  It wasn’t warm, but it also wasn’t too stinky or fly covered so it must have been recently deceased.  I brought it up for the kids to investigate.  We were all duly impressed by the sharpness of its talons and beak, the solid strong head, and the large wing span.

Talon

Terrible beauty.  I’m referring to the talons, not my field-begrimed fingers.

But hawks aren’t the only predatory birds around here.  How about them chickens?  I raised the lid on the hens’ bulk feeder and a mouse (who had improvised nicely by building a cozy nest out of chicken feathers) popped out.  Whoosh, and a few hundred hens in a scrum were going after it.

Chicken Scrum

Mine!  Mine!  Mine!  Mine!

Out of the crowd one hen would emerge victorious, mouse held aloft by foot or tail, streaking away with her prey and pistoning in that absurd side-to-side slapping, flat footed chicken run.  But she could never put the mouse down long enough to make her meal.  As soon as she paused a dozen other hens would pounce and the pursuit shot off in a different direction.  They went round the pasture more times than I could stand to watch.  Eventually I lost interest and went on to the next chore, but the diversion apparently made their day.

Chicken with Mouse

Blurry because this was a high-speed pursuit…  Interestingly the rooster always kept one length behind whichever hen had the mouse.  Roosters never steal food from hens, and they often make a show of gifting food to their favorites, I think as a throwback to their predomesticated hunting days as wild jungle fowl.  This rooster wanted to stay close to the action but he never made a move to take the mouse for himself.

Crop Failure Etiology

This year I’ve tried planting annual forage crops for the pigs and cattle.  I’ve been raising livestock and managing perennial pastures long enough not to be a novice, yet not long enough to be an expert.  But when it comes to cropping, I’m completely inexpert.  And my results this year certainly back up my claims to knowing that I don’t know anything.

In July I no-tilled Pearl Millet into a pasture.  I spent a little over $300 on that experiment, and that turned out to be a bust.  I have a few millet plants in the field, but only enough to give the cattle about an extra five minutes of grazing.  There are patches of thatch where we fed hay bales last fall and those are the only places that really took off.  I also planted a small test plot across the lane on some bare earth that a bulldozer had scraped down to subsoil and even there I got pretty good germination and growth.  My field looks nothing like what is seen in this video from Polyface Farm.

Millet Growing

Picture from two weeks ago.  Just a few brave millet plants in the center…

There are a lot of possible causes for this failure.  Some I can posit, but there are others that my inexperience prevents me from proposing just because I don’t understand all the ways plantings could go wrong.  There is the possibility the planter wasn’t drilling properly.  But I checked it periodically for seed flow, coulter cutting depth, and follower wheel compaction, and it always looked good.  I established that the drill worked equally well in both bare dirt and heavy hay thatch, so I’m going to say that the drill wasn’t at fault.  Fertility could be a problem, but I suspect that would have a bigger effect on later development, not initial germination and growth.  The fact that seeds have done well on the sun-baked bare subsoil also indicates that fertility isn’t the problem.  Our seeding happened just before a good rain, but was followed by  a few dry, hot weeks.  This should have been near-ideal for the millet and it should have been traumatic for the cool season grasses, but even with the weather, the hay cutting, and the repeated close grazings, the cool season grasses and legumes still managed to out-compete the millet.  Reflecting on all of this, I wonder if there is some allelopathy in our pastures that the millet isn’t able to overcome.  Perhaps one of our grasses or legumes is chemically antagonistic to millet, causing the millet to only be able to thrive in bare or mulched spots.  Occam’s razor would suggest I look for a simpler cause, avoiding the introduction of unknown allelopathies, but invariably I prefer explanations that point away from stupid stuff like operator error and instead recast me as locked in a monumental struggle against mysterious natural forces.

In May I tilled up a field and broadcast rape for the pigs.  The rape did germinate, but it took a long, long time.  Because of the delayed start, mustard and later ragweed got ahead and overwhelmed it.  The pigs were glad to graze the rape, but it didn’t generate enough volume to justify my effort or my out-of-pocket seed expenses.  Within short order the pigs stripped clean the entire plot (including stalks and roots), leaving only the ragweed.

Rape Growing in Weeds

This is what the field looked like in July when the pigs went in.  It was funny to see the pigs in this field by August because they were covered by a yellow coating of ragweed pollen across their backs.

Maybe this is indicative of stupidity, but I’m not done trying.  The rape field would remain a weedy mess for a couple of years if I just left it alone this year and let the cattle graze and trample it while it slowly transitioned back to pasture, so I figure it can’t hurt anything by having another go at this field.  This weekend I disced the ragweed.  My discs have fixed angles which doesn’t allow me to adjust penetration.  I added a 55 gallon drum of water to help keep the implement in the dirt, but even with all that weight it was hard to cut through all the weed stalks to get much depth.  I probably should have resorted to a first pass with a moldboard plow, but I don’t have one and there aren’t any medium sized plows in the neighborhood for me to borrow, so I did the best I could with the disc.  I broadcast planted the pig field with about 100 pounds of oats per acre, then I spun out a few pounds of rape seed just because I had it.

Disc

Adding an extra 400 pounds of water.

One this I did differently compared to the spring planting was to roll the field after seeding.  I borrowed a 12 foot cultipacker from my neighbor.  After using the roller, I think it could have been improved with more ballast on top, but I am hopeful that the machine will put the oats in better contact with the soil and push germination along.

Roller

Planting the oats a couple weeks earlier would have been ideal, but I wasn’t able to pull that off.  I figure that it is still better to plant the oats as a cover crop rather than letting the ragweed have its way for the rest of the summer, and if it goes well I’ll have something for the cattle to graze in fall before the oats winterkill.  In the spring the field should be in good shape for a brave new attempt at growing annual forages.

Feeding Hay in August?

Cattle in Woods

We pulled the cattle out of the woods this weekend and herded them a half mile to one of the open pastures, back to their normal grazing routine.  We’ve run the cattle through woods before, but this year we fenced in a lot more forest acreage.  We have a few places, as pictured above, where the tree canopy is dense and the ground is basically leaf mulch without much else, so those pieces won’t become productive silvopasture without tree thinning.  (By the way, Brett Chedzoy did a great job explaining to me the use of basal area angle gauges for thinning operations.  Armed with a handy pocket gauge one can simultaneously create better growing environments for the trees and open the canopy to support more forage growth on the forest floor.  I highly recommend seeking out some of Brett’s presentations and documents for anyone considering silvopasturing, particularly for folks in the Northeastern US.)  But most of the areas we’re working on are more open and brushy, less “forest” and more “reverting to forest”.  These spots don’t need tree thinning, but they need a lot of undergrowth removal.  I anticipate that I’ll need to work with the pigs and cattle for a few more years before seeing real grazing potential.

One thing I’ve learned in turning cattle into rough woods is that I really need to pay close attention to their condition.  Not all cattle are equally at home in the woods.  Some go right in and start tearing into poplars or wild raspberries, even eating the tender branch tips, while others stand around bellowing disconsolately.  Going off feed can cause them to lose weight quickly, particularly the younger stock.  Obviously the older, larger cattle are advantaged because they can reach leaves that the younger ones can’t.  And the older animals seem to remember how to eat brush while the younger ones need time to learn.  But I suspect that there are important physiological factors like the adaptability of their rumens to the change in forage, since even among the cows of the same age there is a wide variation in their ability to thrive in the woods.  I’ve found that things go much better for the entire herd if I feed hay during their forest stint, smoothing their transition from grasses to shrubs.  Feeding hay in the summer is a little disconcerting — I hate seeing hundreds of dollars of hay disappear while there’s good grass growing, but it doesn’t take much figuring to realize that this is one of those “ounce of prevention” situations.

After Hay Bale

Feeding hay has the side-benefit of encouraging the cattle to trample around the bale as in this example where I placed the bale in the middle of really snaggly thicket at the edge of the woods.  They did a great job knocking down and defoliating this dense jumble of Japanese honeysuckles (what a prolific invasive species!) and hawthorns.

Hand Stacking

Straw Stacked

The twine on an oat straw bale came undone, so I ended up forking it all and carting it home loose.  The kids couldn’t lift the loaded pitchforks high enough, but they helped by climbing on top of the stack and packing it down so we could get all the straw collected in one trip.  Some people pay money to go on a hayride, here it is compulsory.

Whenever I pick up a fork to move hay or straw, I am glad to live in the era of half ton round bales.  Of course, the removal of the sweat in haymaking may have been the critical step in undermining the American small family farm.  The labor required for mowing and stacking hay was probably the single most limiting factor in determining the number of livestock on a farm in the old days.  Increases in mechanical haymaking opened the door to industrial scale farms, at least in parts of the world where hay was required for winter feed.  There was a time not too long ago when a multi-generational family supported itself from this 100 acre farm, as did many other families on farms of the same size in this neighborhood.  Not so anymore.  Self-sufficient farms are now all on the order of 500-1,000 acres, anything smaller than that is just a hobby.

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Only 80 years ago in Massachusetts.  They probably loved retiring their forks when they got their first square baler.  I wonder how they would have looked at the chain of events it set in motion.