Keeping whey liquid during winter is a constant challenge. The greenhouse we use for the storage tanks has been a huge improvement in keeping the tanks and valves working, but on the coldest days there’s still a lot of work defrosting valves. Even trying to position the 2″ hoses and making up the connectors is a task, made harder by the loss of dexterity when wearing gloves.
Given the salt and lactose content, whey actually doesn’t freeze as readily as water, so we have a little leeway. But when the temperatures get to zero and below, it is a job to keep the whey troughs open.
During these periods of colder weather we need to chop ice two or three times daily. In the picture above, the ice is a few inches thick. Evidence of their strength is the fact that the boar and bigger sows have been able to punch a small hole through the ice in the bathtub trough pictured above.
Young animals have a joie de vivre that can’t be matched. As they age, they settle into their routines, eat their meals with purposeful solemnity, and nod disapprovingly at the antics of the younguns. Occasionally you’ll find an old cow kick up her heels and then look around to make sure nobody noticed, but calves will turn any event into a celebration.
The calf area in the hoophouse was starting to get messy (notice the dirty flanks), so we led the calves out, cleaned the manure and general mess, put down fresh bedding, reloaded their hay feeder, and turned them back in. Every time we return them to their home, they spend five minutes pretending they are rodeo bulls. The routine involves eating a mouthful of hay, running a lap, kicking your heels up, and trying your best not to crash into your roommates who are doing the same thing. We don’t know what they get out of it, but they seem to have a blast.
This morning we were treated to a prominent and long lasting sun pillar. It became visible about ten minutes before sunrise and remained in place a few minutes after the sun had fully cleared the horizon. Driving along Route 162, there were a number of other people pulled over to get a picture. Too bad none of us had anything other than mobile phone cameras, since the crammed-in optics do a poor job with sky shots. The actual pillar had a lot more contrast than shown in the photo, far exceeding the camera’s dynamic range.
When the weather dips below zero, even the protection of the greenhouse is insufficient to prevent the valves on the whey tanks from freezing up. We’ve tried different techniques to fix this, including propane heaters (least efficient method), heat lamps (OK, but still expensive to run), low temperature defroster heat patches (fast and effective, but even very low wattage heaters caused problems by melting pipe threads and valve bodies), and pouring hot water on the valve and down a hose connected to the valve (makes a wet mess that later makes an ice patch, also it requires lugging out several buckets of water).
The ice does not expand enough to crack the polypropylene, but the real risk is breaking the valve while trying to open it. The plastic linking the handle to the sealing ball usually is the first component to give, so most times the valves fail shut or nearly shut. It is a wet and sloppy experience trying to replace a valve holding back 3000 gallons of whey. When that happens, we drill a few 1/2″ holes through the valve body (as quickly as we can), and then attach a hose to drain the tank. It’s not really possible to perform the operation without getting soaked. Thankfully, with the greenhouse and an improved defrosting technique, we haven’t had to replace a valve in two years. Before that? Let’s just say our spare plumbing parts bin contains a big collection of broken valves…
The technique we’ve finally settled on is to bring out a few gallons of hot water and a towel. We soak the towel and then wrap it around the valve. After a minute of so, remove the towel, soak it again, and reapply. The towel does a much better job of holding the heat close to the valve. After a few minutes the ice starts to soften up, whey starts to trickle through, and by gently working the handle back and forth we are able to clear the ice plug. Douglas Adams would be pleased that we remembered our towels.
The snows have come and except for the lingering kale, the gardens are at rest. We had a good season. We packed a freezer with produce to use through the winter. We canned 70+ quarts of tomatoes and numerous fermented items. Most exciting to me, I finally feel like I know what I’m doing. Much of my desire for the novel and risky has been satiated so that I look forward to producing an abundance of the food that will fit well with my family. The end of one growing season begins the planning for the next. I am full of plans.
Like a tide it comes in,
wave after wave of foliage and fruit,
the nurtured and the wild,
out of the light to this shore.
In its extravagance we shape
the strenuous outline of enough.
“You can’t make a race horse of a pig.”
“No,” said Samuel, “but you can make a very fast pig.”
John Steinbeck, East of Eden
A stream flows out of the cattail marsh next door bisecting our land. There have always been signs of muskrat activity in the marsh, but never on our side. This year we have two new muskrat structures built in our part of the stream.
Muskrats aren’t true rats, although they look like swollen, long haired rats. They live in slow flowing streams, ponds, and swamps, feeding on aquatic plants (although they will readily eat cultivated crops if available) and small wetlands animals (amphibians, crustaceans, and fish). They are pretty good at avoiding contact with humans, but they are said to be fierce biters and scratchers if cornered. We wouldn’t know; we never get that close…
They build several types of structures for housing and feeding. Most of their construction happens in the fall. In flat areas they build elevated lodges, rest stops, and feed dens out of cattails, reeds, and other aquatic plants. They typically have water-level or underwater entrances leading upward to dry chambers. They can become pests when they build their dens in embankments and dams. Their burrowing weakens dams, undermines culverts, and can lead to total structural failure if left unchecked.
When we build our new pond the muskrats will be eager to undermine it, so we intend to build in a drain to lower the water level each fall to discourage muskrat activity and to expose any new tunneling. A neighbor traps muskrats and gets a few dollars for each pelt, so trapping will also be part of the strategy for mitigating muskrat damage. Muskrats are so prolific that trapping is usually insufficient to eliminate them, but it can keep populations at manageable levels.
Proponents of diversified family farms like to talk about “stacking” farm enterprises. Stacking refers to the possibility of adding profitable new farm ventures to an existing operation with minimal added cost. A popular example is adding laying hens to a beef or pork operation. The hens don’t require any extra space since they follow the other livestock through their rotations. Stacking is a great idea. There are efficiencies to be gained as the cost of labor, real estate, equipment, and marketing can be shared by multiple enterprises.
Theoretical farming exists in the universe of blogs (ours included, mea culpa), books, magazines, and conferences where ideas all make sense. Applied farming exists in the universe of bleeding knuckles, dead chickens, frozen pipes, and broken hydraulic lines where these ideas start to break down. We know this all too well. We farm right in the junction of the theory and the application. We often talk about the farm that exists in our minds versus the one that we live on. One place where there is friction between theory and application is that the scale and scope of the stacked enterprises are sometimes not compatible. So while two enterprises might be able to share land, labor, equipment, etc., one of them might not be worthwhile unless it is scaled up to the point where it dwarfs the other enterprise it was intended to complement.
Case in point: Joel Salatin wrote a detailed article in a September 2014 issue of the Stockman Grass Farmer (sorry, it is only available in print) about their changing pastured poultry practices. It was a useful article, highlighting areas where their practice has evolved over the years, filled with statistics to quantify the scope of their projects. He is famous, deservedly so, for popularizing the idea of stacking laying hens with cattle in pasture rotations. One interesting detail in his article is that they need to have more than four hundred birds in order to provide a good return for the labor cost of moving housing or fencing, feeding, watering, and collecting eggs. When he started, he had 100 layers, yielding about 30 dozen eggs per week. But he calculated that based on his labor, he should have charged $10 per dozen. The only thing that made his efforts profitable was that the chickens were able to forage most of their food. Once he increased his flock to 400 and then to 800, the chickens would strip the pasture of edibles immediately, thus requiring the majority of their feed to be supplied as grain. The catch was that now that he could spread his labor over 280 dozen eggs versus 30 dozen, he had increased his feed costs. The tail was so big that it started to wave the dog. In Joel’s case, this hasn’t proven to be a problem, but it does point to a potential problem for farms that aren’t ready to make the leap to the industrial scale at which Joel now operates. That’s great for him, and we mean that wholeheartedly without any attempt to snipe at his success. Is it great for our situation?
Using Joel’s numbers, here are the questions we need to ask. Can we develop a market for sell 300 dozen eggs each week? Can we afford to lose money on the enterprise or to add non-paying hours to our workday during the time it takes us to build up to 300 dozen eggs? How long would it take us to get to that level? Do we have enough time to deal with daily or weekly egg sales instead of our current monthly bulk meat sales? Would we need to buy a tractor in order to move the housing for that many chickens? Would we need to invest in egg washing equipment, a delivery van, order processing software, etc? None of these are insurmountable, but the reality is that adding such an enterprise to our farm would not be trivial. Without pushing a sharp pencil first we could be setting ourselves up for a disaster.
There is tremendous pressure on direct-marketing farms like ours to diversify to become everything to everyone. And for seemingly good reasons: customers like one-stop shopping, diverse farms have a fallback when a particular crop or product fails, and perhaps most importantly, our quintessential idealized farm is the diverse Old MacDonald farm from our childhood picture books. That pressure leads farmers to keep adding without evaluating if the new enterprises are truly stacking together or if they are just piling up. There is a big difference between stacking and piling. In the four years we’ve been at it, we’ve seen burnout, depression, and failure among farmers. The illustration in the sequel to the Old MacDonald story needs to show him bleary eyed and slumped over an empty bottle of bottom shelf scotch wondering why he ever decided to add that animal that goes “Cluck, cluck”. Everything was great until he added the “Cluck, cluck”. It would be absurd to assign all the blame for farm failures to this single cause, but it apparent to us that unrealistic expectations of how much can be added to a farm are a significant culprit.
We’ll apply the idea of stacked enterprises rather literally in this situation. Sorry for the low quality cellphone picture, but what do you see stacked in this picture?
• At the bottom of the stack, we have what will be compost in 2016. It isn’t compost yet. It is still wood chips, hay, and oat straw bedding being mixed with manure and urine. After we clean out the hoophouse we’ll let this compost for a year and then apply it to the fields, adding fertility.
• Next on the stack – before the hay and straw become compost, they serve as bedding keeping the pigs warm and dry.
• Next on the stack – before the hay and straw become bedding, they serve as food for the pigs. The portions that aren’t eaten are trampled down and end up as bedding.
• Next on the stack – we have the pigs themselves (actually there are two layers of pigs stacked on top of each other), providing saleable meat and also providing manure for the aforementioned compost.
• Next on the stack – we have chickens. The chickens live with the pigs. Hawks, weasels, foxes, and raccoons don’t like visiting the pigs, so as long as the chickens stay nearby, they are safe from predators. We only have a few dozen chickens, enough to give us eggs for breakfast. They also contribute a small amout of manure to the compost.
• And at the top of the stack – we have the hoophouse. It gets stacked use by functioning as winter quarters for the grower pigs on one side and the bottle calves on the other side. In the spring, summer, and fall, it serves as short term housing for several groups of piglets as they are weaned. We also hope to start our spring broiler chickens in the hoophouse before turning them out to pasture.
What else could we stack here? We are absolutely certain there are ways we could creatively add depth to our farm, and we’d like to explore our options. Who knows, but rabbits or earthworms or mushrooms might all work into this system. But we don’t want to add on in such a way that causes us to expend more time or money than we can justify. We need to focus on those things that we can do efficiently and sell profitably. Sustainable agriculture isn’t sustainable if the agricolae can’t sustain it, right?
Some winter mornings the chore routine is a brutally cold experience, something to be pushed through as quickly as possible. But not today. This morning everything was covered by a thick ice coating, transforming each object into a sparkling alternate of itself. There was a little snow under the crust and as long as I stuck to untrodden paths there was enough traction to get around. The only trouble the ice made was in weighing down the polywire fences into droopy catenaries, so I had to go along the fences and lift the saggy sections.
In the middle of October we bought five yearling Angus-Devon cross cattle – two steers and three heifers. They were sold at auction for a retiring farmer. We’ve met the farmer and we know that his cattle program is well aligned with ours. As a plus the Devons are from the same line as our bull so they are consistently bred toward a thick bodied, easy finishing, rugged phenotype.
We could write a few pages on the fiasco that ensued the morning after the cattle arrived, when a steer broke fences and led a bovine uprising that caused five cattle to head in five different directions. But William Faulkner has already done a better job of describing the situation (albeit with auction horses) in his short story The Spotted Horses.
(F)or an instant of static horror men and animals faced one another, then the men whirled and ran before a gaudy vomit of long wild faces and splotched chests which overtook and scattered them and flung them sprawling aside and completely obliterated from sight Henry and the little boy, neither of whom had moved though Henry had flung up both arms, still holding his coiled rope, the herd sweeping on across the lot, to crash through the gate which the last man through it had neglected to close, leaving it slightly ajar, carrying all of the gate save the upright to which the hinges were nailed with them, and so among the teams and wagons which choked the lane, the teams springing and lunging too, snapping hitch-reins and tongues. Then the whole inextricable mass crashed among the wagons and eddied and divided about the one in which the woman sat, and rushed on down the lane and into the road, dividing, one half going one way and one half the other.
[Now for an excursus, I know that it is probably only English majors who read Faulkner, and then only because they have to. But I’ll put in a good word for old Will and recommend that you give him a try. Or try an audiobook — there are a number of great productions on Audible. Nobody reads this blog for the book reviews, but some day I might subject you to a post on how ruralist authors inform and influence our farming (the list includes William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy, Wallace Stegner, John Steinbeck, Wendell Berry, and I’d throw in Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country trilogy for good measure).]
During the next weeks we recovered four of the five cattle where they had scattered on three different farms, but one steer remained at large for two and a half months. The steer was so spooky and so fast that it became obvious that we weren’t going to be able to get him anywhere near a gate. Meanwhile, he was showing up on the road at night, so we put out the “shoot to kill” order.
This week the neighborhood hunting club shot the steer while they were out looking for coyotes. I heard the shots when I was feeding the pigs, so I went out to investigate and found them bringing in the body. We were able to get him hung up and skinned that night. Now he’s hanging in the cooler at the butcher shop. We won’t be able to sell this as grass fed beef, since the steer was grazing corn stalks and probably stealing corn silage from the big ag bags down the road. But it is OK that we can’t sell it, since a lot of the meat needs to go back to all the folks who helped bring in the steer.
This fiasco has been an experience that we’d rather never repeat. But the funny thing is that every time we tell the tale of woe to another person who’s been raising cattle, they reply with “Well, let me tell you about the time I lost…”. So it is good to know that we might be the ones who messed up this time, but at least we’re not alone. And the beef will taste all the better for that.