Monday, November 17, 2014

Refining the farm: Year 8

When I first started my farm I had the rough idea that I'd grow a little of everything; certainly enough for personal consumption and gradually increase the production of things that would sell.   This is a nice ideal, but didn't really work out in practice.

Let me give you an example:  the sheep
Twin lambs from 2012 

First, sheep, in this area, are a nearly perfect crop.  They eat grass.  they are impervious to rain.  They are fairly popular with most americans -- lamb chops anyone?  -- and with a bit of luck your flock can grow quickly.

I chose a breed of sheep that naturally shed its own wool, which spared me from having to shear the sheep every year (and incidentally from wool-guilt:  If I were shearing the sheep, I'd feel duty bound to find a market for the wool, and honestly, there isn't much of one here) and were relatively low maintenance.  I chose sheep from a fellow who's is about 10 miles from me, so the sheep are acclimated to this weather and seasons and honestly, the sheep did better than I deserved.

Better than I deserved.  Regularly had a 2.0 or 2.1 birth rate (more than a twin birth per ewe).  I lost a few to the electronet fence and a few to dogs and coyotes, but generally speaking the sheep did what they were supposed to do:  Eat grass and gain weight.

In fact, if I were to talk to someone now, I'd probably say to look carefully at sheep.  Not much input and pretty good value.  Pretty easy to raise them organically.

With all that good, what was the problem?  

I just couldn't work up an interest in sheep.  I didn't really care for them as an animal.  Most of the time I dealt with sheep was pretty aggravating -- for the sheep and for me, too.  They are not the sharpest tools in the shed, and no matter what dumb thing one of them does, all of the rest of them do it too.  I learned a lot about fencing and a lot about chasing, and in the end, it just wasn't much fun.

So I ended up taking the sheep to the auction; and I got a good price for them, but it still felt a little like failure; some part of me wanted to be good at sheep, too.

But what i've been doing is specializing my farming.  I understand pigs pretty well, and they understand me.  I like them as an animal and as a product, both.  While pigs are interested in getting out of their area, they tend to come back, and I can't think of a time I saw something that a pig did that I didn't understand at some level.  Where the sheep were a complete mystery most of the time.

Chickens, pigs, cows.   that's my current list of main products, and I'm considering getting out of the chicken business.  I'll keep a few laying hens for the kitchen, but I just don't enjoy them as much as I do the cows & pigs.    

Specializing in a smaller number of products allows you to equip and manage those products better than if you're generalizing.  Every new animal or crop has a learning curve, and in order to get a good grasp of it you really need to think about it as a multi-year learning process.  And sometimes what you learn is that you don't really want to do that.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Not winter yet... in the NW

image courtesy of
Next week will apparently be a very cold time in the midwest, but not so much here in Washington.  Our climate is pretty mild most of the year, tempered by the ocean water.  We get chilly, but never too cold, or too hot.  Our daytime temperatures are in the 50s right now, with evening temps dipping to the low 30s, but even temps of 32 degrees aren't very cold.  Nothing like the midwest has as its usual or what they're about to get, apparently.

Our temperature range is one reason why I'm concentrating on forage production, and on animals that use that forage.  We've got excellent conditions for growing for at least 9 months of the year, and in a warm winter, like now, for longer than that.

The challenge with farming is to figure out something that works for your ground.  As much as I'd love to grow watermelons (and I have grown them here in western washington!) it takes a fair bit of effort, and it's easier, and there are fewer inputs (farmer speak for what you need to buy for your crops to thrive) with things that are suited for this climate, and these soils.

My garden list runs heavily towards brassicas and root crops, squash, potatoes.  They all grow well here and don't require much to do really well.

My forage list is grass and alfalfa this year, with a bit of corn.  I wanted to make sure that I could raise a complete ration for a dairy cow on property, and so far so good.  I want my cows to be on a 1 mile diet.  that's the goal there.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

corn chopping: 5 inches of rain and counting

The weather station is getting a workout
Rainy season has started in earnest.    I installed the new weather station about a week ago, and its showing a little under 5 inches of rain accumulation in the last 7 days.   The rain is complicating
the final chopping of the corn; there's some areas of standing water on the field, and some of the field is pretty soft right now, but making slow progress.

The biggest difficulty in chopping the corn has been some mechanical issues with the chopper.  Threading the drive chain incorrectly, one of the bearings for the main gear broke, and there's been some learning curve - shear bolt education - and some operator error.  We're mostly past that stuff now, and are chopping this morning.

We haven't had any below-freezing weather of any sort.  The grass and alfalfa have just taken this to be a long spring (albeit with shorter days) and it's growing still.

picture taken in the brief bit of sun we got.  alfalfa in the foreground, corn in back.  corn chopper is a little to the right of center in this picture, against the corn.  click on the pic for a bigger view.