There’s a whole lot of everything going on these midsummer days so it’s hard to focus on any one thing happening.
Livestock work continues apace as garden work transitions from planting and weeding to harvesting. AJ and Harry brought in a few wagon loads of garlic. Now that they are both big enough to drive the riding lawn mower they are becoming mechanized farmers, taking turns driving out to the far garden with the lawn cart in tow. Rachel has been freezing blueberries we picked at Ingall’s Blueberry Hill. Just two weeks ago she was bringing back handfuls of produce from the garden; now it comes back in armfuls. In a few weeks armfuls will be superseded by truckfuls (yes, that’s the correct spelling) and we’ll be engaged in a marathon of canning, pickling, freezing, and drying (and eating, too).
Another ongoing summer project is splitting this winter’s firewood. I try to get some of my firewood cut early so it has a chance to season, but I rarely keep ahead of firewood splitting. I never lack for wood, just time. My goal for this summer is to devote a few hours each week to it so it doesn’t become an overwhelming project. We’ll see how long I can keep up my resolve…
Every farmer raising a flock of laying hens can benefit from keeping a few pigs around to eat the broken or impossible-to-clean eggs. I’m feeding my pigs eggs, but not just a few cracked ones. They are getting hundreds of eggs at a clip.
I started the season with hopes to supply several markets that didn’t eventuate or that didn’t turn out nearly as big as I anticipated. I’m producing about 1/3 more eggs than I can sell. I’ve been scrambling (nyuck, nyuck) to find new markets to pick up the eggs, but I haven’t had much success. Marketing and establishing new contacts is usually slow work.
As the stock of eggs grew and grew, I ended up with several hundred dozen eggs that were getting older. Not too old for consumption since eggs can easily stay good for three or more months, but old enough that the air sacs have expanded and the quality has begun to drop. So this week I started feeding the oldest eggs to the pigs. They love them.
I can’t keep producing eggs to feed to the pigs; it is financially disastrous. I’m probably going to have to slaughter a good portion of my laying flock. That’s a hard decision to make. Eggs are never a money maker for me — they are break-even at best — but they seem to be necessary for having a complete lineup that customers expect. If I develop the market (again, more marketing needed) I could recover a little money by selling the hens for stewing, but not enough to cover the cost their feed and maintenance in raising them to this age. I haven’t seen strong demand for stewing hens since it doesn’t seem to be something that most of my customers are used to. The other option I’ve been wondering about is grinding whole chickens for raw pet food, since the prices for raw pet food seem to approach the same levels as people pay for high quality meats.
One of the challenges in all direct market farming is that the preparation work to sell a product happens far in advance of the sale. To get from an incubated egg to a fully productive laying hen requires seven or eight months. The consequences for under-preparing are disappointed and frustrated customers. The consequences for over-preparing are disappointed and frustrated farmers.
If this were a motivational speech or a TED talk, I’d move on from here to telling the story of how, when my back was up against the wall, I had my epiphany and realized I could start selling pickled eggs or mayonnaise, or how I just happened to run into a chef opening a cool new restaurant in town who was looking for these very special eggs.
So here I am in position. My back is firmly pressed up against that proverbial wall, I’m ready and waiting for the epiphany. Any minute now…
The replacement farm truck came with a handy feature: a dumping stake body. I’ve wanted a stake body truck for a long time because pickup beds are flimsy, showy affairs that never hold up to real use. But having the dump hoist is a great bonus for unloading vegetable scraps. The novelty hasn’t worn off for Allie and Harry yet; they are always willing to operate the controls for me.
‘Round these parts, perennial hayfields are good for only two cuttings each year. Three cuttings are possible if you are lucky or if you make baleage, but we don’t have much experience with luck or baleage.
We only take the first cutting for winter feed. We buy in the remaining hay needs from neighbors and use what would be the second cut as late fall stockpiled grass for grazing. My goal is to have the cattle drop most of their forage as manure back onto the field it came from to keep the biological nutrient cycling running in higher gear. There are other ways to manage grazing and haying, but I’m not out to pick any fights or to judge anyone else for doing something different. Forage management seems to be a topic some farmers take personally. Just saying that’s how we do it.
We did something new this week: planted five acres of pearl millet. For years I’ve been hearing about the work Colin Seis has been doing in popularizing pasture cropping, and the idea is intriguing in many aspects. The basic premises of pasture cropping are:
- Plant an annual crop into a perennial pasture during a period of dormancy.
- Harvest the annual crop (either as a forage or as a grain).
- Allow the perennial pasture to regenerate partially under the canopy of the annual crop and then to fully regenerate after the annual crop is removed (either by mechanical means or by grazing).
In Australia where Colin lives, the opportunities for this sort of farming are tremendous since the dramatic seasonal fluctuations are ideal for sharing fields with both perennial grasses and annual cereal grain crops. Here in Upstate NY the conditions are far different; during our dormant season the ground is frozen solid and usually covered in snow. Our summers are rarely droughty and our highest temperatures aren’t usually intense enough to cause a significant dormancy in cool season grasses.
But I’m giving it a try on a small scale to see how it might work to plant Pearl Millet for a late summer/early fall grazing grass. My plan is to let it grow until late August or early September and then to turn in the cattle while the plants are in their grassy phase before they develop grain. I guess the worst case scenario is that nothing will grow, in which case I’ll just regraze this field later in the fall. The second-worst case would be if the millet heads out early and sets grain (then I wouldn’t be able to graze it with grassfed cattle). If that occurs then I might get some utility from the millet seeds as grain for the pigs and/or the chickens. Millet has better protein than corn and about the same energy by weight.
We had a small hayfield cut the last week of June (I’d like to get the hay cut in mid June but it is usually a wet month not conducive to first cuttings). A week later I brought the cattle back and set them to stun. Normally I wouldn’t do this; I’d leave the grass alone for a few months to regrow before cutting or grazing it, but in this situation I wanted them to regraze the grass to stunt it, thereby simulating dormant season conditions. My hope is that the combination of mowing followed by tight grazing and aided by warmer summer weather will cause the grass regrowth to slow just enough to give the millet a chance to germinate and get ahead in the competition for sunlight.
I rented a ten foot wide no till drill from the Soil and Water Conservation District and planted about 90 pounds of Pearl Millet on five acres of pasture. Buying a small quantity of seed that nobody around here uses meant that it needed to be special ordered and shipping was half the cost of each bag, so that totalled $225. The seed drill costs $15 per acre, plus the SWCD rental agreement requires the purchase of a separate insurance rider to cover the damage liability ($50 from my farm insurance provider, kind of extortionate compared to the rental rate). Fuel consumption was less than two gallons, so my total out of pocket expenses finished around $70 per acre. By rights labor should be factored in, but since over the last few years I’ve consistently lost around $9 for every hour I worked on the farm, I am going to pretend that I can ignore labor costs in this calculation.
I’ll update the blog with the status of this project. I’ll need to measure success in a few ways:
- How well does the millet germinate and compete with the existing grasses?
- How many days of grazing does this give me compared to the adjacent hayfield that I’ve left alone?
- How much extra grass does this allow me to stockpile in my other hayfields and pastures?
- What seeding rate worked best?
- What does the millet do for the body condition of the cattle?
- How does the underlying grass perform next year?
If this is successful, I have future experiments in mind. Could I plant the millet at a lower density to save seed costs? Could I plant a more palatable annual like sorghum sudangrass? What about polyculture plantings, say with millet, sorghum, rape, and vetch? If I could get the grass off earlier as baleage, could I get multiple grazings? Could I do this same thing in late August to plant winter wheat for early spring grazing? What would happen to the yields if I lightly grazed the annuals and then allowed the plants to mature to reap a grain harvest? There is much to consider. But I first I need the millet to grow…
We are glad make the double announcement that have chicken back in stock, and that we’re dropping our prices.
AJ and I made big changes to our operation, finding a different organic feed supplier and building new pasture housing. For our first batch of the season we bought 200 day old chicks and butchered 202 (the hatchery usually throws in a few extra, so that accounts for the larger ending number). Because we’ve had far better survival rates than ever before, because the chickens grew faster, and because our new feed trough design practically eliminated wastage, we’re glad to announce that our costs are much lower this year. Last year our broilers sold for $6.00 per pound; this year we’re down to $5.25.
We picked up whole chickens from the butcher this week, and we’ll get the cut-up chickens next week. We’ll post the prices for the cuts on our store once we get everything back and have a chance to tally up the inventory.
We maintain two gardens as well various bits of other plantings. The two are known as the side garden and the strip garden. Enjoy this glimpse, and if you are in the neighborhood sometime, feel free to stop by and help me weed.
We’ve been trying to buy more things in bulk, even though laying out lots of money plays havoc with the farm’s cash flow at times. But when we can swing it, it certainly pays off in terms of cost and of time spent handling materials.
Which brings me to buying egg cartons by the pallet load.
The challenge in buying pallet loads of anything is that we don’t have any barns or sheds to put them in. Right now I’ve got pallets of chicken feed in the sows’ winter hoophouse but obviously egg cartons need a more salubrious environment. So I ended up raising the whole load on the forks up to the second floor of the uninhabited half of our house and handing the cartons through the upstairs windows, stacking them in our unused bedroom.
I bought a new pair of work boots, but I always have a hangup with changing to a new pair. My everyday farm boots are cracked and half separated from the sole. They protect my feet, except in the places where they don’t… You might say they have a patina, but I’m suspicious of anyone who uses that word; such a person usually has some worn-out thing to sell.
There sit the new boots with their crisp laces, sharply etched treads, and rich leather smells. I’m not nostalgic for the old boots, but I always have a moment of regret when I put on a brand new pair, knowing that I’ll get them scuffed, nicked, and generally defiled before the day is out. I’ll watch as welding slag, brake fluid, whey, and super-sticky newborn calf poop each leave their signature. After the first day I won’t notice anything.
Update 21 June 2016:
By popular request, here are the new boots.
We, like most pasture farmers, got our start with meat chickens using Joel Salatin-inspired field pens. There are numerous variations on that design, but having seen and used many alternatives, I think Joel’s 10×12 pens are about the most efficient tradeoff in terms of weight, cost, and wind resistance. The low initial investment makes it easy for someone to get into the chicken business. Their modular nature makes it easy to add another coop (or another dozen coops).
There are picky websites out there where people take cheap shots at Joel in a juvenile sort of one-upmanship. I’m not criticizing him or his methods. I’ve read most of his books and Stockman Grass Farmer articles, I’ve attended one conference and enjoyed his lectures. I owe much to his creativity and to his role in raising public awareness about important issues in farming, ecology, animal welfare, and human nutrition. I’m only stating that solutions that work well on his farm aren’t directly transferrable in our situation. Here are a few reasons:
- Labor is a bigger issue on our farm than his. Modular solutions like the Salatin coop have a big downfall: there is no way to streamline the work in feeding, watering, and moving each small coop, so every time you grow your chicken flock, you linearly increase your effort.
- The market conditions for pastured chicken have changed compared to when Joel did his pioneering work and built his reputation, as industrial organic factory farm chicken producers co-opted a large portion of the market share, resulting in mass-market “organic, free range” chicken masquerading as something comparable to what we raise on pasture.
- Joel’s sales were built around weekly sales of fresh chicken, whereas our sales are entirely a frozen meat trade so larger batches make more sense for us.
This year several of our five year old chicken coops needed repair or overhaul. Even though the structures are relatively inexpensive, it takes time and a few hundred bucks to build each one. I was inspired to change things after reading Jim Protiva’s article in Graze on his Labor Saving Devices.
I found twenty foot wide greenhouse hoops on Craigslist. I bought new forty foot long 4x4x3/8 galvanized angle irons for the runners, then I cut and welded both ends up like ski tips. I also bought steel 2x4x3/16 tubes for the crossties to prevent the hoops from splaying. All the weight of the steel might have been overkill, but I want a coop that stays put when the wind blows. The cover is a recycled billboard tarp (an advertisement for Salem Witch War). We built a ten foot long feeder out of rain gutters and used siding. It holds 400 pounds of feed so we don’t spend nearly as much time filling up feeders. Water is supplied by a tote on a little trailer we tow alongside, but we also installed a supplemental 55 gallon water tank in the coop in case we need the trailer elsewhere.
This year we changed our feed mill, so it is hard to know what to attribute to feed versus housing, but we have not lost a single chicken on pasture this year (they will be 7-1/2 weeks old). The conditions inside the hoophouse are far more pleasant than the stuffy air in the Salatin coops. The white billboard allows light in, but blocks the heat. The screened end panels allow air to circulate so there’s always a breeze. I like that I can walk among the chickens to check on them, rather than trying to peer down into the dark corners of low-slung coops. Better conditions for us make for better conditions for the chickens since we tend to pay closer attention when conditions aren’t so unpleasant.
The hoophouse tows tolerably with a pickup truck in four wheel drive unless the grass is wet. The four wheeler is too light to move it, but our tractor does the job easily. I’m sure any subcompact tractor in the 25-plus horsepower range would work as long as the tires have grip. When we tow the hoophouse, AJ usually herds the chickens away from the back wall while I slowly move it forward. If a bird happens to get past him, we didn’t want the problem of them getting smeared by the back wall, so we built the lower edge of the front and back walls out of 2×10 lumber hinged from the steel crossties. This hinged connection also allows the chicken coop to contain the chickens when parked on uneven ground.
We have 200 chickens in this house. I think we could easily go up to 450 with plenty of legroom for everyone.
One bonus is this structure will be easily transformed into winter housing for our laying hens. I’ll add roosts and nest boxes for the winter, close off one end with another recycled billboard tarp, and fill in the bottom with bedding. In the spring when it is time to clean it out, I’ll drag it off the bedding pack to let the nitrogen-rich bedding compost. Having the ability to use equipment year-round rather than just during the summer season helps spread the costs and justify the investment.