A couple months ago I mentioned having seen Peter and the Farm. This isn’t a movie blog, but I’m compelled to put in a recommendation for The Auction. It was produced in Quebec and subtitled in English. I would have preferred the more literal translation of its French name: The Dismantling (Le Démantèlement).
The story follows Gaby the farmer as he decides to sell his farm to help his daughter. The farm itself forms the central, hulking silent character, a beautiful black hole sucking in all the love a family can give and requiting nothing. Unlike Peter and the Farm, The Auction is fiction rather than documentary and the farmer is a more sympathetic person who communicates more through meaningful smirks and frowns than raving outbursts. The presence of neighbors (the eager and complicated kid who helps out after school, the baffled widowed farmer next door, the dairyman unable to keep milking cows, and all the locals who show up for farm sales) form as true-to-life a portrayal of the social network in farming as one could ask for.
Certain aspects of the movie rang so true for me that I had some weirdly immersive moments watching it. From the auction side conversations to the specific pitch of the whining fuel pump on the early-90’s Ford pickup truck, much of the movie seemed to be built from a collage of my own day-to-day experience. And how’s this for coincidences: I had been listening to Ripple while doing the feeding chores and then came in to watch the movie only to find that the opening scene is the farmer doing his chores while listening to Ripple. I suppose a trippy Deadhead wouldn’t find anything strange about that…
If you are our customer or a regular supporter of another farm, I’d like to recommend that you watch this movie. It won’t tell you how to choose organic over conventional or pastured over confinement or anything like that. It won’t tell you how love for the soil conquered all. But it will convey something important about the visceral aspects of the codependent relationship between the farmer and the farm. Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.
Right now it is on Amazon Prime so you can watch it for free if you are signed up. I’m not familiar with all the other streaming services but I’m sure it can be found elsewhere.
“Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.”
Wendell Berry, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
So I’ll start by honestly saying I can’t manage to take meaningful motivation for the thousand year view. There are too many intervening potentialities. But I want to manage my soil to be healthier six years from now than it was six years ago when I first came here. And I think we are seeing some changes. Here’s a little case study.
Last spring we were wrapping up our bale grazing and things looked awful. We had an unusually mild winter with the cattle bale grazing in the wettest field. So mud was everywhere. Here’s how the field looked on 31 March 2016 as we were about to turn the cattle into the last few bales. Our boots would get sucked off our feet as we walked out every other day to move the fences. This was some mean mud.
I broadcast seeded some rape over the mud and let the cattle stomp it in, then I moved them off that field by early April. Here’s what that field looked like in August, after one grazing in July and just before another grazing in September.
By August, the field shows no harm from bale grazing. Understand that this field has been mowed once about ten years ago, but since then it as been left wild until four years ago when we first moved pigs through it. Sure, there are woody bushes and all kinds of weeds, but there is also a rich diversity of high value forage here. I’ve taken note that the rape germinated right on the patches where the hay bales were placed, so next time I only need to broadcast seed on the hay bales, not on the rest of the field.
Google updated their aerial photography for our farm on 6 October 2016. Looking at that same location, I can see the checkerboard where all the bales were placed. I can see the spots where some bales left a heavy thatch of hay that is still mulching the soil. But I’m especially interested to see the change in grass color around each bale. The deeper green color indicates improved fertility (especially being October when many of our grasses have gone dormant and the field are transitioning into senescence).
I’m pleased to see that the soil is becoming more productive. This is something we’ll have to continue to manage. Letting the cattle really hit one field hard for a winter is a tool to build fertility. If we put them in the same spot continuously we’d just destroy the soil, so the management aspect is important. For now it is encouraging to see evidence that we are making progress in increasing soil fertility.
People like to quote the inanity about insanity: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” I’ve got a cowpie ready for the next person who smugly says that… Each year we keep doing the same thing knowing that slowly we’re changing the entire ecosystem of this farm.
This year we’ve had far too many eggs. And we’ve had far too few eggs. Now we’re back to too many. The undulations of egg production leave me a bit seasick at times, sloshing from peak to trough in production, never able to precisely meet our customer demand. The lesson I’m learning is that even if I expand my laying hen flock, I’m always going to need a relationship with another egg producer to allow me to buffer the jagged edges of my production curve. I’m fortunate to have Oliver and Shauna Aeschlimann nearby to help me out.
I’m cutting egg prices by $0.50 per dozen to try to liven things up so we don’t end up having to feed eggs to the pigs again. (Note, if you’ve already added eggs to your order but haven’t confirmed your it, you should delete the eggs and add them back so that your order will reflect the new lower price.)
Of course when you are cooking up your eggs, you’re going to want some breakfast sausage to go with it. We’ve added new breakfast sausage links to the store in place of the bulk sausage packs we previously had.
The whole idea of feeding hay runs counter to the prevailing wisdom in swine production, where feeding anything other than supercharged grain rations is considered foolish. But in farms like ours where there are concerns beyond simple feed conversion calculations, hay feeding has its place. But I’ve always wondered: what is the right hay for pigs? We know from all the old books that pigs do quite well on alfalfa pastures. So a few years ago I bought some nice alfalfa/clover baleage and the pigs thought it was just OK. Given the choice between rank, stemmy hay bales and baleage, they always chose the hay when I placed them side by side. The cattle loved the baleage, vastly preferring it over even the best dry hay I had. So I know the baleage itself wasn’t at fault.
This year I’m feeding my pigs what would be considered junk bales by any standards. These bales have been sitting outside for two seasons. They were first cuttings from unfertilized hay fields cut in August 2015. They are full of weeds, stems, and thistles. The outside few inches are slimy but the cores are still in good shape. The pigs love them. I’ve been watching the pigs as they eat this hay, and it looks like they are searching through the hay. Their lips and tongues are agile, and their noses of course are keen sense organs, so I believe they are sorting the hay for the highest nutrition components. Sure, lots of the hay is nutritionally weak, but in any stand of rank grass there’s usually an understory of legumes and tender forage that still has lots of energy and protein. And I think that’s what they are going after. They seem (it is hard to tell because they shift around while eating) to be able to singulate down to individual leaves and stems to select the best ones while leaving the less valuable pieces on the ground. They need bedding on the ground anyway so the system seems to work automatically for me.
Since they need bedding anyway, I really don’t mind them doing the work to separate the bedding from the valuable hay. Sure, it isn’t a completely efficient process, but it leaves me thinking I should continue to feed pigs junk hay. Why not feed $15 round bales instead of $45? It saves me the hassle of worrying over them wasting good hay.
That’s my strategy for now. I’m not absolutely convinced it is the best way to go. Perhaps feeding high quality bales and providing separate bedding bales might pencil out differently, but these sorts of things are hard to measure empirically.
“But he (he knew very well how he must appear to others) was a country gentleman, occupied in breeding cattle, shooting game, and building barns; in other words, a fellow of no ability, who had not turned out well, and who was doing just what, according to the ideas of the world, is done by people fit for nothing else.” Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
I didn’t set out to do it purposely, but looking at my Audible account apparently I’ve been on a Russian and Russo-American kick this year. Of all the quotable lines and memorable passages, this one from Anna Karenina takes the prize.
Sorry for the last week of postlessness, but I’ve been running the farm solo while the family goes a-visiting friends and relatives for a few weeks, so blog posts don’t often make it up to top priority on the daily to-do lists.
The weather has been crisp with lots of below-zero nights but not too much wind. Interestingly the pigs, even the little ones, choose to sleep under the stars in rolled out bales of hay rather than sleeping indoors. So I’ve been keeping busy feeding hay to all the animals, feeding whey to the pigs, feeding grain to the chickens, and feeding wood to the stove. And freshening livestock bedding, fixing cracked PVC whey valves, fiddling with frozen hydraulic couplers, coaxing the diesel tractor to start, plowing snow in the driveway and at the neighbors, and all the other usual concomitants of chilly weather. I don’t mind it. Once I’m out the door I am always glad to be there.
Bale grazing works well when we can reliably exclude the cattle from bales and ration their access to fresh bales throughout the winter. We learned early on that trying to cross fence with step-in posts was not ideal since the frozen ground makes post insertion impossible without using a masonry bit, and later it makes post removal impossible until spring thaw. Frozen-in-place posts have a high probability of being destroyed when cattle use them as scratching posts after the electric fence wires are removed.
The better solution is to spear the posts into bales. I’ve been doing that for the last three or four winters, but I was never pleased with the 3/8 fiberglass posts I used. The cylindrical post shape is surprisingly hard to insert into tight bales. (I’ve noticed this before with bale spears: square profiles are easier to insert into bales than round.) The yellow screw-on wire holders are prone to popping off, causing the fence wire to drop to the ground. I was able to get five foot fiberglass posts locally. Six foot posts are available online, but they require LTL shipping so the costs get out of hand for small quantities. In either case, I wanted a longer post to ensure that the cattle couldn’t sneak their heads under the wire to nibble at the bales.
This year I fabricated some extended steel pigtail posts. I noticed this detail in the (well-made and highly-recommended) Alberta Ranchers’ Winter Grazing video series. I assume those posts were also custom-made, but perhaps there are some regional manufacturers who make them. I cut the feet off a bunch of generic farm store pigtail posts and welded on five foot lengths of 3/8″ square rod. I finished by sharpening the ends with a few quick cuts with the angle grinder. The new pigtail spears hold the wire at least four feet off the bales with good anchoring, good wire retention, and easy insertion and removal. I’ve been pleased with everything about these posts.
Well, I’m pleased with almost everything… The stack of 15 posts that I use to section off each row weighs just under 45 pounds. That’s not a hardship, but carrying them through the thick snow drifts that often form around bales might become a bit wearying. Still I’ll gladly take the extra weight if I can ensure that my fences keep the cattle where they belong.
I was unpacking steaks today and came across some nice looking ribeyes from an unlikely steer: he was a three year old Shorthorn-Devon cross. We bought the steer as a bottle calf a few years ago. He never looked “finished” (the term used to describe the physiological condition of an animal that has slowed their frame growth and started to put on fat) because his topline was always peaked and his tailhead wasn’t fatty. But the steaks tell a different story.
What makes a good steak? Take a look at the frozen ribeyes above. I’m not a USDA grader but I’d say that these steaks are Choice grade. The US beef system grades meat on marbling, which is a decent measurement, but it really doesn’t tell the whole story. Well-marbled meat can tolerate grilling with less risk of drying out. Yeah, OK, fine, we all know that.
But what do you notice when you compare these ribeye steaks with an equally finished conventional grain-finished steak? The fat is a totally different color! Feedlot beef gets penalized in the market if the fat isn’t pure white. But grass fed fat isn’t the “other white fat”. The color of beef fat tells you right away that this steer was eating plants rich with beta carotene (which metabolizes to Vitamin A), not eating a high grain starchy diet. Then, of course, there’s the taste test. Grass fed beef has flavor. Corn imparts a neutral flavor to the beef, but pasture forages deposit a blend of flavor compounds. Grain fed steaks give you the double downsides of less nutrition and less taste.
So what makes a good steak? An appropriate level of marbling is a factor, but the right kind of fat is really the key!
Interesting footnotes: Note that certain breeds of cattle (especially Jerseys and to a lesser extent Shorthorns like this steer) have a disposition to more yellow in the fat. Also note that certain fat deposits in the same animal will have a different shading. But even taking these factors into account, the color-feed connection still is valid. Do the visual test and the taste test if you don’t believe me.
I ordered a few fiberglass sucker rod fence posts and I set about installing them in the bale grazing pasture today. I’ve avoided fiberglass posts because of the splinters, but I wanted to give a try to a few of these because I need a rigid post that also be hand driven. I have some plastic-wood composite posts that are easily driven, but they sag and flex with any lateral pressure. My first impression of the fiberglass posts is that they are strong and stiff enough to serve my purposes, but that they will be splinter monsters so this is something where gloves will be essential.
One challenge I encountered immediately was that the rods were all square cut. I build a sharpening jig this afternoon to fix that.
Cutting fiberglass will kill a regular carbide blade lickety-split, so I replaced my tablesaw’s wood blade with a 7-1/4″ diamond concrete blade. I cut guide holes in the jig with a 1-1/4″ spade bit and then screwed the little scrap of wood near the blade as a stop. With this setup I can insert the rod and just rotate it while feeding it into the blade. It worked well and gave me decent points in just a few seconds for each one. After sharpening the rods I was able to drive them with (relative) ease.
Just a safety warning for anyone cutting structural fiberglass: wear gloves and a respirator. It is nasty stuff.
The nice thing about pigs is that they are pigs to the extreme limits of pigness. They make no allowances for moderation or nuance. Por ejemplo: