Wrong Direction Farm

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.

Identify This Fungus

Mushroom1

I’ve been a woodsman more than usual this summer, working on fencing in the wooded southern edge of our farm.  We had been experiencing a dry summer until August changed all that with hotter than normal weather and lots of rain.  In the woods this has triggered the fruiting of all kinds of mushrooms.

I’m wondering if these mushrooms are chanterelles or winter chanterelles.  Any fungus folks out there who can help?  I really don’t know about edible fungi beyond puffballs.  I’ve been able to determine by the gill pattern that these aren’t poisonous Jack O’Lanterns.  After tasting one raw, I’d have to say it didn’t taste like much.  It was more stringy than most cultivated edible mushrooms.  Perhaps sauteing or drying would bring out the flavor better.

Mushroom2Right now I’m leaning toward winter chanterelle for a couple reasons.  First, chanterelles are usually described as being found in oak forests.  As evidenced by the leaf litter in the photo above, our woods don’t have many oaks.  They are a mix, probably 70% hardwood and 30% conifers.  The hardwoods are hickory, maple, ash (mostly saplings or dead mature trees), with a few beeches and red and white oaks scattered about.  Second, I am under the impression that chanterelles are rare in August in Upstate NY, usually more abundant in July.  All of this is what I’ve gathered by reading.  In mushroom identification, having a knowledgeable guide is probably worth far more than having a stack of books, so I could be all wrong.

Living la vida lodosa

Three inches of rain this weekend turned the packed dirt near the sows’ whey trough into a pig’s paradise.  A sound everyone should hear is that satisfying plop-splat as a 600 pound sow flops into perfectly gooey mud.  Just be sure to stand back when she stands up and starts shaking it off!

Muddy Sow

This is a white sow, but you can’t tell by looking.

Fencing on the Cheap(ish)

Over the past few years I’ve worked to pare down my fencing costs.  I’m glad to have a six strand high tensile fence up near the road, but I’ve realized that for most of the farm that is far more than I really need.  I think the only places where I’d still build a four to six strand fence would be along roadways  (and most of my road frontage is already fenced accordingly) or in fields where I’m directly adjacent to one of my neighbor’s herds.  For the rest of the fencing I’m limiting it to two or at most three strands on the perimeter and a single 30-32″ strand for the interior fences.  Doing so saves wire and hardware costs (strainers and insulators), and simplifies or eliminates bracing requirements.

I’ve begun fencing some overgrown, lightly wooded areas and heavily wooded areas for sylvopasturing cattle.  This situation allows me to further reduce fencing costs by stringing wire on trees.  This was a common practice in the old days of barbed wire, but trees are notoriously fond of eating barbed wire.  I have a collection of ruined saw chains to prove it, and as does everyone else who cuts wood on old farms.

Barbed Wire Embedded

Chainsaw massacre

A better solution is to spike a wooden nailer (preferably either naturally rot resistant or pressure treated lumber) onto the side of the tree, then staple the insulator and wire to the nailer.  As the tree grows the nailer continues to ride on the outside of the tree without becoming engulfed by the tree tissue, causing little threat to the tree or to future sawyers.  I’ve wondered about the possibility of using composite deck boards instead of wood for longer-term rot resistance, but I think that the lifespan of treated lumber is about coextensive with the lifespan of the galvanized coating on the fence wire.  That means I’m going to be doing a lot of fence rebuilding when I’m 70…

Protected Tree Trunk

Even the end post trees can be installed on nailers.

Fences on Nailers

It looks messy now, but based on past experience I’m confident that this will quickly develop into a lush sylvopasture.

If I have time I plan on broadcasting a mix of meadow fescue, orchardgrass, and white clover, all of which have thrived in other wooded, wet pastures.  Reed canarygrass is already present in sunlit patches, so I’m sure I’ll have representation from that species as well.  Even if I don’t get it seeded, there will be good, albeit weedy, germination from the existing soil seedbank, and with a few years of managed grazing the cattle and climate will inevitably select the most appropriate plant species.

Forest Dwellers

As I was clearing brush along an overgrown fenceline today, I came across some critters hiding out in the woods.

Teletubby

An invasive species for sure.  Never very good at survival skills, this one apparently got separated from the group and died of exposure. I doubt that anyone actually regrets the demise of Teletubbies.

Tree Frog

This one blends in pretty well.

Walking Stick

Walking sticks are the the masters of disguise.  They are fascinating both for their camouflage and for their general goofiness.

Tarping Round Bales

This is the first year I’ve had all my hay bales under cover.  We were able to cram the sows’ winter hoophouse full of bales.  We’ll need to empty that out by Thanksgiving, but it is a pretty convenient place to stash the bales in the meantime.

We’re also trying storing hay under tarps.  My friend and farming doppelganger Edmund brought me a stack of used billboard vinyl tarps.  I ran ropes and strapping under the bales and then snugged them down using ratchet straps attached to short lengths of scrap pipe in the pipe pockets.  I weighed down the wild ends with junk bales.

Tarped Bales 2

I seamed two tarps together using vinyl shower liner cement, using three quarters of a 16 ounce can in the process.  There is a purpose-made product called HH-66 for gluing vinyl fabrics, but it isn’t available locally (and it costs a lot more).  We’ll see how this homemade solution holds up.  The ideal method would be to heat-weld the tarps together.

 

 

My stack of 4×4 bales is built in a 3-2-1 configuration.  This is covered with a 20×60 tarp, which is is a little too short.  My stack of 6×4 bales is in a 2-1 configuration and covered by two standard 11 foot wide tarps glued together with shower liner cement.  This one hangs down a little too low to the ground, so in retrospect I should have switched covers.  The optimal tarp would completely cover the shoulder of the lowest level of bales while maintaining the airflow at ground level to allow for drying.

Tarped Bales

This haystack cover feels like a wardrobe malfunction waiting to happen, just barely covering the lowest tier, but without much margin for movement.  I’m hoping that as the stack settles, I’ll be able to cinch down the straps and protect it better.

Evaluating the economics of covering bales is complicated.  The best way to preserve bales would be to build a traditional barn or a hoop building, but that is a big investment.  The cheapest and easiest solution is to leave the bales in the field, but that guarantees a ring of spoiled hay at least six inches around the entire bale.  Larger bales theoretically enjoy a better core to surface ratio, but I’ve found that the larger twine wrapped bales don’t shed water as well as smaller net wrapped bales.  (Some of this is related to the baling machines available to me, perhaps different balers would give different outcomes.)  Inline wrapping dry hay is another option.  Besides the environmental problem of all the single-use plastic waste generated, the other problem is that these units cost a lot of money for a machine that is used a few days each year.  And the cost of the wrapping material isn’t trivial either.

Tarping is low-cost, especially when the tarps are recycled.  The trade-off is that it requires more grunt work.  I didn’t feel more endangered than I do in other farm projects, but clambering over the highest point of the stack with a heavy, slippery tarp impressed me as a risky activity.  I’m also concerned about my ability to manage the tarp in the winter.  I’m not sure that I’d be able to fold back the covering with a heavy snow or ice load, so I might be forced to cut the tarp to get at the bales.

The most formidable obstacle I foresee is the wind.  I can imagine some tricky scenarios where trying to manage a 1200 square foot tarp during our violent winter windstorms could be downright dangerous.  When the cattle need to eat, they need to eat, no matter the conditions.  Because of this, I am leaning toward dismantling the bale covers between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when our severe, cold winds start blowing.  But that brings me back to the economics questions posed earlier, whether the work of building the stacks and covering them is justified.  There might not be a significant value in covering the bales from July though November if I need to leave them exposed from December to March or April.

Just for fun:  the inevitability of working in foul, windy weather puts me in mind of the opening lines of Bilgewater by Brown Bird.

It don’t matter if the cold wind blows
I’m gonna wind up working in the thick of it

Goings On

Thistle Flower

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).

Canning Tomatoes

Our neighbors over at Shults Farm brought over a couple cases of cull tomatoes for canning.  Should be about 25 quarts once we’re finished.

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…

Chicken eating ants

Some of the firewood logs were full of ant larvae.  Once the chickens discovered the abundant food source, they made themselves obnoxious by getting underfoot as I chopped.  I warned them about the respect that chickens should have for a man wielding an axe near a chopping block, but they paid me no heed.

Firewood Rack

I have a few cages from broken IBC totes that I’m repurposing for firewood racks.  Each one only holds about a quarter cord, so I don’t have enough for all my firewood needs.  I’d like to reduce the amount of handling we do, directly stacking split wood into the cage and then leaving it to season in place.  This allows me to forklift an entire cage into the woodshed as needed.

An Expensive Way to Feed Pigs

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.

Eggs for Pigs

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…

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