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.
In the forest someone’s whispering to a tree now
This is all I am so please don’t follow me
And its your brother in the shaft that I’m a-swinging
please let the kindness of forgetting set me free
– Kristian Mattson, The Tallest Man on Earth
Yesterday was a perfect day for working on logging and firewood. It was in the mid 20’s, sunny, and by the afternoon the wind mostly died down. Perfect weather for hard work – cool enough to not break a sweat, warm enough to not need a coat. After an unseasonably warm late December, we had some good hard freezing weather without snow accumulation, so the ground is now hard enough to drive across the pastures.
We’ve been clearing out the brushy ravine where we’d like to place build our pond (more on the pond in a future post). The area has a few red pines. These particular pine trees aren’t the best specimens we have, but we’ll cut them in 12 foot lengths and get them milled into 2x lumber. We always can use building lumber. Most of rest of the larger trees are dead or dying elms and ashes, with two or three chokecherries scattered in. The underbrush is a dense tangle of grapevines and hawthorns (aka thorn apples). The elm and ash make pretty good firewood. We burn the larger hawthorns also, although their long spines make handling them obnoxious.
This winter we bought a new axe. It is amazing what the right tool can do. This is the Gransfors Small Forest Axe. It is a very handy addition to our wood cutting tool kit. It has enough handle length that it can be used two-handed, but it works best one-handed. It is perfect for clearing all those pesky thorns off the hawthorn trunks, limbing small branches, and chopping grapevine tangles. These are the sorts of things that we usually do with the chainsaw, but chainsaws aren’t particularly efficient for any of these tasks.
Elm is an unpredictable wood for splitting. Some rounds pop right apart, but some are twisted and almost impossible to split, and most are bound together with a network of stringy fibers. The new axe is also perfect for slicing through all the strings.
When we split elm, we sometimes find it necessary to resort to brute force and start the split with a chainsaw. It is usually most effective to ripsaw along the length of the log (sometimes called noodling for the curly noodle-shaped shavings that the saw spits out) and then crack along the saw kerf with the splitting maul. It can make you feel a bit inadequate when your maul is just bouncing off a small eight inch diameter elm log. That’s when it is time to break out the chainsaw and teach the log a lesson it won’t forget…
Wood burning purists prefer to use larger splits from the main trunk for firewood. But we are wood burning pragmatists. We cut the limb wood all the way out to about 3″ diameter pieces. They don’t burn as well since they have a larger proportion of sapwood and bark. But they are made of wood, so we use them.
Today the grower pigs are snuggling in their half of the greenhouse, the breeders are burrowing into their hay piles in the field and the most pregnant of the sows have made their nests and are finishing the farrowing of their litters.
Gronkle and Cracklin started to build their nest last night, but Gronkle was a bit ahead so she kicked Cracklin out of the nest this morning and went into labor. Cracklin didn’t bother building a new nest in the hut we provided but climbed up on top of the hay bale that had been half way dismantled.
We set up a temporary shelter over Cracklin. The forecast shows we won’t have any more precipitation for the next few days, so the piglets should be fine outside.
Alonzo, a registered Devon, came to hang out with the cows for a couple of months. He settled in just fine the first day, went to work the second day with a red Angus heifer, and has been courting another of the black Angus cows today.
When a heifer (female bovine who has not produced a calf) or a cow (female who has previously calved) goes into heat/estrus, everybody in the neighborhood knows. Such mooings! Such commotion! She is restless and mounts the other cattle, and they mount her–heifer, cow, or steer.
Now with Alonzo, the cows seem calmer. He smells for the pheromones in the cow’s urine and vaginal secretions and gauges her reception to him. He has been grazing near today’s cow and pretty much keeping her to himself. If she starts to wander off, he follows right along, asking if she’s ready for breeding by putting his chin on her loin or rump to see if she’s ready to stand for him. When she is in standing heat, she will allow him to mount. He has about a 15 hour window.
We’ll keep him around long enough to allow the cows to cycle three times, and then it’s back to his own herd at Dharma Lea.
Update Jan 2016: We moved the trough and made some plumbing improvements in this follow-up post.
Last week we set up a new water trough for the cattle in the area where they’ll be bale grazing this winter. We started building drinking troughs out of heavy equipment tires two years ago. Tire tanks are heavy enough to stand up to charging cattle and rooting hogs. In winter they do freeze, but with the combination of the heat absorption of the black rubber and the insulation provided by their thick sides, they resist freezing better than galvanized stock tanks. And when we need to chop ice out of a tire tank with an axe, we don’t need to worry about cracking or denting the tank. In fact, it often helps to wallop the side of the tank with the sledge hammer to loosen up the ice.
This installation is temporary. Temporary, when used in the context of farming, usually just means a permanent installation that you always would like to change but don’t have the money or time to change. But the goal is to eventually set up this tank connected to frost-free buried water line so that it can be filled automatically. We don’t have a frost free buried water line for the back fields, so this winter we’ll end up pumping water from a small pond using a gasoline powered pump.
We got this tire for free from a local gravel quarry. They would have had to pay to dispose of it, so they were happy to get rid of it. The tire is just under six feet in diameter and two feet wide. The manufacturer’s website says that this model weighs around 800 pounds, depending on the tread pattern.
The first task is to cut out the sidewall. For other tanks, we’ve removed the entire sidewall so that several animals can drink simultaneously. But in this case we wanted to leave most of the top covered to reduce the winter heat loss. We’re not sure how much effect the top will have on freezing, so this is an experiment. Cutting through the tire is a chore. Loader tires are full of steel wire in both the belting and the radial plies. After drilling pilot holes, we cut through the sidewall with a reciprocating saw.
Next the tire is placed on a gravel base and leveled. We had a small scrap of geotextile fabric in the garage, just enough to cover an 8’x8′ area under the tire.
It helps to have a competent equipment operator on hand so that one person can raise and lower the tire while the other person makes fine adjustments and checks for level.
Then the bottom of the tank is prepped. We installed a piece of bent rebar to provide a lifting hook so we can move the tire if we ever need to. We also installed a four inch PVC pipe as a sleeve for a future water supply line and overflow tube. For now, we’ll just cap the pipe with a rubber fitting. We needed four sacks of concrete to fill the tire up to the bottom bead.
To finish the tank, we filled in the sides with a few inches of crusher run gravel to provide a firmer base. If this were a permanent installation, a concrete apron all around the tank would be a good addition.
The total cash cost for the project was $53 ($16 for four sacks of concrete, $20 for two tons of gravel, and $17 for a package of reciprocating saw blades).
Saturday we got the old Ford truck back up on its feet again. It had gotten into a bad habit of coughing, bucking, and backfiring whenever we asked it to move. In the end, the main problem was a faulty oxygen sensor. 19 years and 222k miles on the original one, so there’s nothing to complain about there. This old truck is mostly a backup truck these days. It doesn’t have enough suspension to handle the big loads we put on the other truck. But there are enough times that the other truck is broken down that having a backup is a lifesaver.
Dealing with machines presents us with the question nearly every week: When is it time to replace this old machine? When is enough enough? There’s the old saw about farm equipment held together by baling wire, but modern hay balers don’t use wire anymore. If they did, we’d surely have some holding our equipment together. But it is worth noting that we do have a muffler held up by high tensile electric fence wire, so that might be close enough.
Besides the oxygen sensor work, the old sideboards in the truck’s bed cracked, so we built a new cargo rack for it.
The truck has a few other issues. Besides the mice that live in the seats and the yellow jacket nest in the passenger quarter panel, there is an ever growing list of broken parts. For most of these we just accept their loss and try to decide what is truly essential. The keys are long gone, so there’s a screwdriver in the ignition and no door lock cylinder on the passenger side. The driver side window doesn’t roll, the radio has been gone for years, the hood latch requires lots of banging and shoving to open, the tailgate handle is useless, the secondary gas tank is abandoned, the air conditioner is long dead, and to shift into four wheel drive one must climb under the truck and yank on the transfer case linkage. The frame and body are both rusting away with steel plates and channels bolted across rotted sections. But it still runs, pretty well actually. So we just keep patching or abandoning parts, changing the oil and fluids, greasing up the zerks, and wondering how long until we need to install the Flintstone propulsion unit.