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Monday, June 27, 2011

Sometimes technology sucks.

In my just published post I tried to attach a video.  It's on my phone but I'm posting on my desktop.  I tried to email the video to myself but it's an hour later and still hasn't arrived.  So, I thought I'd publish the text and go to my phone and edit the post and add the video.  But my dashboard on my phone doesn't include an icon to add videos, only pictures.  Until I figure out this video thing I'll be relying upon pictures.  Anybody out there that can explain how to do this to a technical rube?

Anybody else need a drink?

Of water that is.  With all the rain we're getting water is becoming a problem.  Now, I don't want to sound like I'm complaining because my minor soaking pales in comparison to what they're experiencing in western IA, SD and, soon, MO.  While I do have water streaming through my basement foundation it's running straight to a drain and heading right back out of the basement.  That could be much worse. 

Instead, my problem is with walking around the corrals in ankle deep mud.  I have a cow that got some twine caught in her hoof.  We got it all out, (I'm hoping), but she's still limping. My concern is that it's not going to heal as long as that space is compacted with wet, oozing mud and other yuk.  Unfortunately I have no place to put her to allow the foot to dry out.

I'm also hoping to attach a video that I made with my phone (still trying to figure out this blog thing).  The sound quality is very poor so you'll need to turn up the volume.  I was trying to narrate about the pump while the pump was running.  The gist of this video is that the ground is so saturated my wells are over filling.  This particular well is next to my barn and used for livestock watering.  It's about three feed across, 25 ft. deep and lined with limestone walls.  The pump sits at the top of the well attached to a pressure pump.  The equipment is in a well pit which theoretically keeps it warm enough in the winter to keep it from freezing.  That theory collapsed this past winter when it froze and my pump cracked.   They're not cheap to replace so I had a welder friend of mine try and weld it and it worked.  That cost $75 instead of $400 for the new pump.  I also now know how to remove and reinstall a pump that I've previously paid a plumber to do.

It's not real clear in the video but the water is actually covering the bottom of the pressure tank.  The water is usually 2-6 feet below the pressure tank.  The danger is that the well level could increase to the point that the unit floats up until it hits the top of the well head.  Then the water moves up and covers the pump and electrical connections and shorts out the whole unit.  That could ruin the pump, but at a minimum I have to deal with no water and get everything flowing again.  In order to avoid this problem we attach a hose and run the pump for 20-30 minutes and run the water on the ground away from the well so it doesn't just seep back into the ground and into the well again.  It's a pain but a lot better problem than when the wells run dry.

I've also explored more of my 15 acre hay field that I recently planted and referred to in a prior post.  I found some slopes where a lot of seed washed away.  You can see where it accumulated and sprouted further down the slope.  I'm going to have to do some interseeding and patchwork but I think I'll wait until the oats are harvested.

I also had another conversation with a soil consultant last Friday.  This is the third person I've talked to about recommendations for my fields.  Some overlap in ideas but also some very different ideas on what and what not to do.  This guy disagrees with some of what I've done this far.  He also has some recommendations that make sense but will be very expensive.  For now, the consensus is that I'm deficient in phosphorous and sulfur.  I've addressed the phosphorous issue in part but it's a short term fix.  I still need to deal with the sulfur, which I've learned is critical in releasing nutrients for use by the plants and also in helping to manage broad leaf weeds. 

I need to do a little more rearch but I'm leaning towards applying 100#/acre of ammonium sulfate.  I know that's a chemical and my organic friends are cringing.  But, I really need to boost my sulfur content and this is the most affordable way to address the issue.  With my 2011 budget for soil amendments almost fully expended I need to do what needs to be done and try and do better in 2012.  Hopefully I can pay for an even better soil amendment program next year with the increased yields in hay that I'm supposed to be getting.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Baked chicken and omelets

Finally figured out how to add pictures. 

Here's this year's model of our chicken tractor.  We recently took these 45 broilers to be processed.  Raised on organic feed and grass/bugs, they're about 4 lb. each.  We're selling them for $4/lb if you're interested in eating pasture raised poultry. 

I found this design at  They have a couple of other designs that I liked specifically because of the wheels they incorporate into the design but time was of the essence so I went with modifying my old tractor.  The wheeled designs would make it much easier for one person to move.  Ours can be moved by one person but it requires walking back and forth to opposite sides to scoot the corners.  Two people can move it with ease. 

We've used achicken tractor over the past 3-4 years.  The prior one was three feet tall and could accomodate turkeys if we so chose, which we didn't.  The old tractor was a couple of years old and was falling apart with many broken joints.  I cut all of the joints off and just shrunk the size of the tractor by about six inches in width and length.  I also dropped the height from three feet to just over two feet.  I was able to salvage about $100 in pipe costs.  The first tractor I built with this design was about $220.  This one was about $120 with some joints left over for the next one.

One thing I learned was to go with the gray pipe instead of the white PVC because the white will get brittle and crack when exposed to UV light.  I think the gray pipe is called Schedule 40 and can be used for conduit or water pipe.  The pipe I have now is in its third year.  The first one I made I used the white PVC pipe and it was trash after the first year. 

Our original version was three feet high but the design provided only has a door on top.  That meant the little girls who were willing to help couldn't get in and out of the tractor on their own.  I installed a "front" door on that one to address that.  With my redesign that is shorter it's easer to reach in and pull the feeder and waterer out.  But, Spencer and I figured out pretty quickly the day that we loaded them you need a really short person to climb under the 3/4 of the tractor where the birds try to hide when you're trying to catch them. 

We've also found that the tarps are very vulnerable in windy weather.  It's tough to get them really tight but, even then, there's a lot of flapping that stresses and tears the tarp.  We also had some exposed ends to the chicken wire covering that pierced and weakened the tarp. We've only had the existing tarp on about 5 weeks and it's already pretty well torn up and needs to be replaced. 

I was at WalMart last night picking up some supplies for Evan's camping trip to CO.  I noticed a grommet kit for tents.  I'll be grabbing one of these kits when I get the new tarp to install.  This will allow me to put the grommets where I need then to further tighten the fit of the tarp and minimize the blowing in the wind.  The grommets that are already in the tarp don't always get placed where the would work best.  Hopefully we can finish the season with the second tarp.

We're currently raising our layers in the chicken tractor.  They get moved twice a day and are thriving.  We lost a couple of birds in the first few days that we moved them but we're not sure why.  They may have been injured when we moved the tractor.  I also learned quickly not to walk away from the tractor with the door propped open.  The birds are very flighty.  I did that a few days ago and instantly had 15 birds fly out.  Fortunately Seth and I were able to get them back in with him shooing them towards the tractor while I lifted it and they ran right in.

Hopefully we'll be getting eggs sometime in August.  With 43 remaining layers, we're going to have lots of eggs when they start coming.  Anybody for an omelet?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Get in the trailer you frickn' cow.

Every few months we take a cow to the locker and fill our freezer with grass fed beef.  That should last us about six months.  Today was the big day.  Knowing what a pain it is to get a cow in a trailer that has never been in a trailer before, I decided to load her up last night.  Good thing, otherwise I'd have been later than I was for my locker appointment.  You see, a smart farmer builds a nice chute that the trailer can be backed up to.  And, if he's really smart, there will be a ramp that matches up to the trailer bed so the cow can go straight into the trailer without stepping up.  I'm not a smart farmer.  I'm just a guy who dabbles in farming so I don't have a nice chute to make loading a non-stressful event.  That means it takes longer, we risk getting hurt and the neighbors experience an expanded vocabulary that ensues with the cow doesn't want to get loaded.  Who can blame her?  Heck, she's headed to the locker the next day.  It must be sort of like walking The Green Mile getting into that trailer.

I was working in the barn on a couple of projects with my son Evan when I realized we hadn't yet loaded the cow and darkness would be upon us in about an hour.  We quickly hooked up the trailer and backed it up to the gate where we usually load the animals (because I'm not a smart farmer with a chute).  It was raining a bit so I knew it was a 50/50 proposition that I'd get up the slight incline with a trailer hooked up and a cow adding further weight.  But, that's the best place we've come up with so far so that's what we did. 

We open the gate, add on a cattle panel and create a sort of chute/pen.  Getting a cow into this is often a challenge, but that went amazingly well.  Got her in on our first try.  We just had to put her mom in first and she followed.  Old trick that works every time.  We then need to get her nose headed into the back of the trailer and encourage her to get up with hay or grain.  Neither worked.  We got her mom into the trailer after much pulling and shoving only to have her turn around and walk out.  A word sort of like frickn' snuck out of my mouth. 

I got some chicken feed and managed to entice the mom back into the trailer.  This time I tied her in there so she couldn't back out.  I'd have left there in there all night and even taken her on the ride to the locker in Winterset if necessary.  The calf coudn't resist and poked her nose into the trailer.  We closed the door on her to limit her egress.  She was sideways but her butt was backed to a fence post and she had little room to maneuver.  Yet, she managed to slide out.  About that time my son, Seth, walks up and offers to help.  We positioned him so the calf couldn't sneak out along side the trailer.  We got her nosed back into the back of the trailer, pressed the gate into her side and tried to encourage her to step up.  Seth suggested that we grab her tail and push it in the direction we wanted her to go.  Bingo! She was in.  Now, I knew that trick but got so wrapped up in my dripping sweat and honing my language skills that I'd completely forgotten about it. 

The next challenge was getting the Excursion pulled out with the trailer with an extra 2200# in the back and slippery grass to drive on.  My first try failed as my tires just spun, thowing up mud.  I backed up, knowing full well that I may end up backing up even further to the point I'd have to get towed out.  But, my second run made progress, throwing mud all over the front of the trailer.   I finally got to the top of the incline and pulled up the driveway towards the house.  Once on gravel again I stopped so that we could unload the mom.  My biggest fear was opening the door and having the calf escape and having to do that all over again.  I got the mom untied.  Evan manned the rear gate.  As the mom moved toward the gate I stuck a pole into the trailer to block the calf.  The mom stepped off and we were ready to roll. 

We made to the locker by 8:15 for our 8:00 appointment.  The calf stepped off the trailer without a glitch and we headed home.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The field is slowly turning green.

We're now about 2 1/2 weeks post-planting with most of my amendments applied.  We've had torrential rains  on multiple occasions which has caused some erosion, but the seed seems to have stayed put for the most part and is germinating and growing nicely. 

The oats are about 3-4 inches and the alfalfa now stands at a little under 1 inch.  At this point I can't distinguish between the oats the orchard grass.  Hopefully they've both germinated and sprouted and are just growing at the same rates, making it hard to tell them apart.  I'm hoping I'll be able to tell the difference in the next week or two.

As I mentioned in my prior post we had a lot of problems with the seeder.  I'll be getting some pictures to post the striping effect created by the inconstency of the seeder.  All in all though I'd have to say that I'm pleased with the results so far.  There is  a fair amount of weed emergence which causes some concern.  My understanding is that the oats, grass and alfalfa will eventually thrive and choke the weeds out as a result of the soil amendments we're using.

I'm sure looking forward to seeing the oats filling in and creating that flowing field of sage colored plants. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The hay field is finally planted.

This was supposed to have been done in April.  May at the latest.  But a little dispute with the neighbor who was going to do the planting and other field work left me searching for someone else.  It didn't help that I'm more than a bit inclined towards procrastination in getting the seed and soil amendments we planned to use.  Turns out finding someone else to do our field work wasn't that difficult.  I stopped by our neighbor Kenny's place and asked him if he'd be interested.  He was.  Then came the battle of finding a gap between rains when the field would be dry enough.  We missed a couple of opportunities because I didn't have the seed yet.  I scrambled to get the seed and the field was planted on June 3rd, a full 4-6 weeks later than it should have been.  This leaves me worrying about germination and adequate growing time. 

The dispute with my neighbor centered around what we were going to plant and how much.  He has many acres of alfalfa hay that he sells in southern states by the semi load.  I have a grass fed operation where grass and grazing are my primary focus.  He wanted to plant a very high density alfalfa crop with some orchard grass.  I wanted to plant at a much lower density with orchard grass as my primary crop with some alfalfa included.  Using my approach I would be able to graze my cows and sheep on the hay field in the future.  With his approach that would cause serious problems with bloat since the alfalfa content would be far too high. 

The original plan was for my neighbor to pay half of the costs for field preparation, planting and seed.  I would pay the other half.  In turn he would have the right to harvest the hay and keep half as payment.  As the conversations ensued, sometimes heated, about what to plant it became increasingly clear that we weren't going to come to a meeting of the minds.  He is in the alfalfa business and I'm in the business of raising grass fed animals.  He also maintained that he'd never heard of anybody grazing their animals on their hay field.  That would ruin it.  My research turned up two fellow grass farmers who do graze their hay along with a forgage specialist from the University of Wisconsin Extension office who also agreed with my approach. 

My neighbor and I also debated the density of seed needed for planing to raise a quality stand of product.  The standard recommendation of the seed companies is to plant 18-20#/acre of alfalfa if you're just planting alfalfa.  I asked how much to you plant if you mix in grass seed and they said 18-20#/acre.  In doing my research I found that the optimum seed density is about 75 seeds/sq. ft.  Any higher than that and the exta seed germinates but dies due to excessive competiion for space.  My neighbor planted his field with alfalfa and orchard grass, plus oats as a nurse crop at a rate well in excess of 300 seeds per square foot.  I planted mine at about a rate of 100 seeds/sq. ft.  Keepin in mind that alfalfa costs about $270 per 50# bag.  The difference in seed cost between my approach and my neighbors was about $1,000.  Not insignficant.  Now, the question remains as to whether or not my stand of grass and alfalfa will show comparable yields to my neighbor's.  Year one may not be a fair comparison since he has about a six week advantage to mine.  The quality of the hay, however, may be able to be measured this year which I'll address later in this update. 

In order to settle this dispute I suggested to my neighbor that I pay for everything and he could still harvest the hay and get half for his services.  He said he wasn't interested because all I would get is a bunch of weed infested junk that he couldn't sell.  Now I have a neighbor who's unhappy with me. 

Planting turned out to be a bit of a minor disaster.  My neighbor had used a Brillion seeder that he rented from Crossroads Ag by Dallas Center.  This is supposed to be the Mercedes of seeders.  For us, it turned out to be the Yugo of seeders.  We planned on planting on June 2nd but one of the cylinders used to raise and lower the planter wouldn't work.  I called the guy I rented it from.  He came by and stood there looking at it just like Kenny and I did and said he couldn't understand why it wasn't working.  He decided to replace one of the cylinders but that didn't get done until the next day.  That wasted a couple of hours of time that day for me and Kenny that neither of us could spare.  A guy came the next morning and switched out the cylinder.  Kenny came later in the day with his small tractor and it still didn't work quite right.  I suspected it was his hydraulics that were part of the problem.  He wasn't convinced but agreed to go home and get a bigger tractor.  (Mind you, I'm pretty damn envious of anybody who can pick which tractor he uses when my only tractor has a blown engine).  The bigger tractor worked so we started mixing seed and and loading it into the seeder and Kenny headed into the field.

Kenny planted about three of the fifteen acres and we checked the seed bins.  These are set up so alfalfa (really, really tiny seeds) go into bins that are much more precise in delivering seed that the grass/oat bins.  We checked the alfalfa bins and they had hardly dropped.  The delivery rate is adjustable so I moved it from the recommend setting of 4 to 6 to increase the rate of seed by planted.  We checked at about seven acres and it still looked like a lot of seed was left.  I opened it up to 7 which is supposed to equate to about 30 lb/acre.  My target was 10 lb/acre. 

Meanwhile we were also fighting the seeding rate for the grass/oats.  We were told to set these bins at about 2.  There are two bins to set.  We finished our initial run and one side was out while the other side was still half full.  Trying to adjust these bins to plant at the same rate was futile, although we were able to narrow the difference a little bit.  In hindsight, we ended up planting the north seven acres of my field at a a rate about double what I planned.  That meant scrambling to buy more oats and orchard grass.  We still had plenty of alfalfa since we couldn't get it to drop seed at anything close to my target rate.  In fact, it was barely dropping seed from what I could tell.  Eventually we were running into evening and we decided to stop for the night.  We completed the remaining eight acres the following day with seeder problems continuing. 

We kept the seeding rate constant for the remaining eight acres since it's much wetter down there and not conducive to growing alfalfa.  We didn't want to increase our seeding rate down there knowing we didn't have enough seed on the north seven acres.  We still had some orchard grass left and lots of alfalfa so we had Kenny recover the north seven acreas going perpendicular to his original run.  We opened the alfalfa seeding rate all of the way for that and found that the right half of the seeder was dropping seed at twice the rate the left side was.  Every few passes we'd move seed from the left bins to the right.  Turns out we were essentially planting stripes which can now be seen as the seed has germinated and is now growing.  It's clear where the seeder was delivering seed at a much higher rate on one side that the other.  So much for Mercedes like precision for a seeder.

We completed planting on 6/4.  I was now faced with a deadline to get some soil amendments applied before the seed germinated and started peaking out of the ground.  The amendments we chose were another source of contention with my neighbor.  He wanted to dump several tons of lime on the field.  We had soil testing done that was well beyond the simplistic NPK soil tests that the local co-op does.  It showed plenty of calcium but it was tied up in a soil structure that lacked phosphorous and sulfur.  It also has high levels of magnesium that keep the calcium from being released to the roots as a nutrient.  Lime would have added more calcium but would be been bound up even more in the soil.  What was needed was a source of phosphorous and something to release the calcium and other nutrients.  Our approach was multi-faceted.

I worked with Joe Knopp, a forage consultant out of O'Neill, NE to come up with a plan.  We decided to apply three products he recommended.  These included GSR Calcium Growing which would provide readily available calcium as well as help to release existing calcium from the soil.  We also included PhosRite in order to boost the phosphorous level.  These are water soluable products that we mixed with about 275 gallons of water.  We also need to put down some Ammonium Sulfate to make the soil more acetic to further enhance nutrient release to the root system but that hasn't been done yet.  Remember my comment about me procrastinating?  This combination will be applied three times.  The first was right after planting.  The second and third will be right after cutting hay. 

In addition to the GSR Calcium and PhosRite we added some raw milk and fish emulsion.  The raw milk idea came from a presenation I saw at a small farm convention in MO last fall.  There were multiple articles in ACRES magazine about this.  The purpose of the milk is to provide food for mycorhizeal growth and microbial activity to increase the organic matter within the soil.  This further helps to release nutrients in the soil and makes them more readily available to the root system.  This was supplemented by the fish emulsion.  Research indicates this will result in reduced soil density and an increased brix (sugar level) in the plants.  That means better draining soil, better moisture retention at deeper levels and better quality forage.  We're also supposed to experience better weed suppression since the desired plants will choke out the undesirable plants.  I'm not sure how mother nature knows what I want to grow and what not to grow but I'm told she'll figure it out.

The benefits of a higher brix level are multiple.  First, more sugar in the plant means more nutrition for the animals that eat the forage.  They'll gain better and need less feed for conversion into larger carcasses.  Second, insects are unable to process sugar.  That means they'll go to the closest neighbor with hay that has a lower brix level.  I'll be picking up a refractometer to see if my brix level is up.

The acquisition of raw milk was an adventure in itself.  I thought I'd try the Midwest Dairy Association for a referal to one of their members.  Instead of a referral they sent my email to the Department of Agriculture .  I received an email from an inspector wanting to know if I'd cleared the use of raw milk with the DNR or EPA and if I planned to patent my fertilizer if my experience was successful.  Leave it to the government to lay down as much red tape as possible rather than coming up with solutions.

I found some raw milk (without help from the Midwest Dairy Assoc. or our friendly government bureaucrats) from a dairy but it was old.  Some of it had gone very sour but I wasn't too concerned about that.  I was looking for bacterical activity and that had plenty.  My pickup was in the shop so I used the Excursion and put down the seats.  We loaded up about 70 one gallon jugs.  The smell was horific but we just rolled the windows down and made the one hour drive home.  When we got home we unloaded the jugs to find that one of them had leaked onto the seats and floor.  It still stinks even after cleaning with an enzyme cleaner.  We had to filter the milk a bit so it wouldn't clog up the sprayer.  My two teenage boys struggled not to gag as they ran it through a strainer for me. 

The day we sprayed we filled the tank with water and added the GSR Calcium, PhosRite, fish emulsion and sour milk.  What a stinky concoction.  Kenny proceeded to pull the sprayer up and down the field, apply the 325 gallons of liquid yuk proporationately to each acre.  We had a lot more success doing that than we did with planting.  Although, his nozzles plugged up repeatedly.  He hadn't used the sprayer in about five years and the insides of the hoses had dried and cracked and were shedding small pieces that plugged the nuzzles.  I must have walked five miles that day following the sprayer up and down the field.  Kenny would stop and we'd pull nozzles when they'd plug.   Eventually we got it done though and I was exhausted.

The spraying was completed the Wednesday before my oldest daughter's wedding.  I'd taken the week off to get the house ready and run errands related to the wedding.  I spent one full afternoon just on spraying. 

In my next post I'll provide an update on how the field is looking.

Who has time to blog?

I had lunch with a friend of mine recently who insisted I would be foolish to not blog.  We have a business we're trying to grow and he thinks we're doing some pretty innovative things that other people might be interested in.  Some of those things are sufficiently innovative that it also makes sense for me to keep track of what we did and the outcomes.  I conceded that my friend is right that I should be blogging about the farm.  What better way to keep our friends and customers up to date on activities on the farm.  It will also be a nice historical record for me to refer to. 

So, my friends, my following posts will mostly be about life on our farm or, as I sometimes refer to it, our very expensive hobby.  Life on a farm can be very gratifying and it can also be quite trying.  I'll strive to try an educate and entertain as I share our experiences of a large family making a living with me working full time and trying to manage a full time operation on a part time basis.