Saturday, November 30, 2013

What is farming supposed to be like?

I was reading another blog, and the author was talking about his feelings about farming; and as I read it I realized I've heard this general train of thought from several farmers that I know.  

I think that before I started farming I had a vision of what a farm would be like.   A typical day might be something like get up, check on the animals, check the fences, eat breakfast/read paper, do chores/run errands, check on the animals in the afternoon, go home.  

And I thought that maybe there would be binge work, like during haying season, long days for a few weeks a year, sort of related to harvesting mostly.  Picking the corn, or pumpkins or whatever.  

And I had some idea that in order to have animals I'd have to raise them from babies or chicks or poults; that I'd probably have to kill animals now and then, and that I'd get really dirty from time to time, which I really actually like.  Nothing better than washing a hard days work off in the shower and being good-tired.  

I actually like working on something alone; and I thought there would be long periods where I was working on something alone, and all of that appealed to me.  

So the first year of my farm was kind-of that way.  I wasn't producing much in the way of anything, and there was a bunch of work setting up the farm.  I had purchased bare, fairly swampy wet ground, and I had to build everything from scratch, but I enjoyed that part.  

In the 2nd year I started selling things to people, and had more and more interactions with customers.  It got to the point where I had a hard time doing work sometimes; I like to talk to people, and it was hard to say to them "hey, I've got to get this done before dark, so I have to go now", so I found myself working until after dark many days over the next few years, and as the business grew, a lot of the stuff that I liked I didn't get to do much of.  

That's the same sort of transition that happens when you have a small business that grows.  At some point it grows past the point where you can do all of the work, and so your work becomes managing the people who are actually doing the work.  If you get big enough you'll be managing the people who manage the people who do the work, and so on.   But I enjoyed the business, and in the 3rd year started hiring help consistently; at first during the peak times, but then generally full-time.  Having some production help allowed me to do more things, and I viewed it as a way to get more choice over what I was doing. 

Somewhere along there I started having to deal more and more with the disaster my neighbor caused, and with various government agencies; in year 4 and 5, I'd say that 25% of my time was taken up squabbling with one regulator or another, and while I enjoy a good argument, that wasn't on my list at all when I was thinking about farming.  In fact, managing people wasn't on my list.  And retail sales weren't.  When I look back at it, I'd say that 10% of my time was spent on my "ideal" farming activities.  I was still busy, but my day-to-day tasks had morphed into something that was not even close to my initial vision.  

In fact, where I enjoyed my farm the most was the days when I sent everyone home and it was just me, doing the chores and working on something, and getting dirty and good-tired and clean.    

For me, cleaning the farrowing pen and watching the sow enjoy her fresh hay; feeding the pigs that are ALWAYS thrilled to be fed, no matter what, watching the cows chew their cud as I fork over the alfalfa and rub that flat spot just above their tail that they seem to like so much...  that's what farming is supposed to be like.  And when I feel like I've been chasing my tail all day, I go and chase theirs and it all works out.  

Flood watch

My farm is located next to the North Fork of the Stilliguamish river, and this river has two faces.  On one hand it's pretty and has great fishing, but on the other it's the closest thing to a flash flood that this state has.

Most of the area that it drains is steep mountain foothills, and for the first few rains of the season the water soaks into the ground.  But after the ground is good and wet, WATCH OUT.  Any rain that falls comes into the river in a couple of hours.

In fact, I was so impressed with the torrents of rain that I bought this little weather station and it's been confirming that I get 1" or more rain for days straight.  In an 8 day period I got 9.7" of rain.  I'm going to compare that with the rainfall from hurricane sandy.  I get hurricane levels of rain but spread out over a week or 10 days.  And then I get it again.  And again.

So that graph up there shows the river rising 10' in 12 hours -- and it really DOES rise 10' up the banks.  I used to consider my 12' bank to the river to be 'high bank', but after watching this river do its thing, I'm glad I have it or I'd be underwater 15 or 20 times a year.

at 13 feet the river would start going over the bank into the lower parts of my fields; at 15' I'd have water 4" deep around the house.  The barns are actually elevated above the house by another 2-3' (the old farmer who built this place clearly valued his livestock and equipment; probably figuring he could build another house off the income).

So I make the rounds; all of the animals are bedded for the cold that's expected on monday, all of the equipment is parked in safe places, everyone has food and water; and I go back to the house and my bed and really like hearing the rain on the window.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The coyotes thanksgiving feast

They are large, pretty impressive birds.  Someone got quite a meal.  
I was out walking the fields today when I came across the remains of a thanksgiving feast.  My guess is that this great blue heron was the dinner of a coyote.  I found the feather pile in the brush line away from water, and the herons are a bit large for the local red tailed hawks to take, although the bald eagles do swoop on them from time to time.

Click on the picture for a closer look.  the head is center bottom
There wasn't much left; coyotes are pretty efficient, but there is one thing that says that it might not be a coyote, but could be a hawk or eagle; in the lower right corner of the photo are some feet and bones.  Coyotes tend to eat the entire bird, feet, bones and all and leave nothing.  This was a fairly large bird, so it might have been that the coyote was just too full.  When a raptor takes another bird  you'll often find the entrails eaten and the flesh but the bony parts - wings, backbone, head - remain.

The fields are greening slowly; the alfalfa and grass are both growing slowly and don't seem to be bothered by the nightly frosts.  During the day it's 40 to 50 degrees.  It'll be lush and green next year.  

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Summary: The Marijuana business in WA state

Washington state voters legalized the production and consumption of marijuana via the initiative process last year.  Initiative 502 described a licensing scheme where people could grow and sell marijuana under state supervision, and gave the actual implementation of the rules and regulations to the Washington State Liquor Control Board (WSLCB), with a deadline to have the regulations in place by December 1st, 2013.

Washington State voters allowed marijuana (MMJ) consumption and use for medical reasons in 1998 via initiative 692; but the portions dealing with retailing and production were inexplicably vetoed by then-governor Christine Gregoire.

There are no state laws or rules regarding the retailing of marijuana under the current MMJ law, nor are there restrictions on where dispensaries (places were marijuana is retailed) can be located.
Yellow areas are where retail marijuana can be located in this portion of Seattle
Here's a link to a bigger map
The exclusion zones aren't limited to Seattle.  they are state-wide.  Seattle just has more people making maps that I can find than Everett or Walla Walla or Spokane.

So there's a pretty big fight going on right now between current MMJ retailers and the state government-backed I502 retailers.  Initiative 502 describes a set of setbacks from schools, parks, arcades and other locations where children are present, which are basically the same as the federal restrictions.  The net result of this is that most areas of most cities in Washington state will not meet I502s criteria, and there's been complaints that the total number of retail outlets is absurdly small.  The city of Seattle alone has over 300 MMJ dispensaries at this time, but is only allocated  21 retail licenses under I502.  With very limited placement and few licenses I502 retailers face a substantial competitive threat while MMJ dispensaries are operating as they have been.    The Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes has actually urged the WSLCB to allow more retail licenses.

The other big issues is that I502 describes a 50 to 75% tax rate on marijuana, where MMJ sales are untaxed.  

The WSLCB isn't blind to these issues, and neither is the legislature; it's likely that the proposed regulations that are submitted to the legislature on January 1 will contain substantial changes to the existing MMJ regulations that level the playing field between MMJ and I502.   Look for a lot of arm wrestling between the MMJ community and the WSLCB and the Washington State Legislature for the next couple of months.  

While the MMJ and I502 fight goes on at the State level, on a city and county and tribe level there's a whole different fight going on.  Many cities and several  counties have either put a moratorium on I502 locations or businesses, or have modified their zoning to control the placement of I502 (and in some cases, MMJ) businesses, either retail or production/processing.   At least two native american tribes have also prohibited the production or sale in their tribal reservations.   In my case, the regulations that Snohomish County has put into place seem pretty reasonable and rational.  Anyplace you can put a liquor store you can put a marijuana store.  Agricultural zones can be used for production or processing of Marijuana, and while some cities in this county have issued moratoriums, the county as a whole is pretty much open for business.  

None of this complicated zoning/regulation issue has deterred people from applying for licenses.  The WSLCB recieved over 900 applications in the first 48 hours of the licensing period, and they are receiving between 200 and 300 more each day.  I expect the number of license applications to increase as we get nearer to the deadline.  I predicted that we would have 10,000 applicants last year, and at 300 a day now,  we are on track for that.

 It's been interesting to watch this play out.  My guess is that the retail stores will open to supply problems; and that most of the people who are applying for licenses now don't really have an accurate picture of what the economics will be like over time.  I expect the wholesale price of a pound of pot to be something like $800 to $900, net of taxes, pretty close to the cost of production.

Welcome to farming, folks.  Just jump right on in.  The waters fine!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

root mass farm; farming vegetables on a shoestring

I ran across a podcast where the operators of root mass farm talk about their 3 acre market garden operation in Massachusetts.

They are farming on rented ground, with a landlord that owns and adjoining plot were cattle are kept.  The manure generated becomes the fertilizer for their vegetables.

They've been operating 3 years now, doing the farmers market thing and if you're interested in knowing what it looks like, it's worth listening.  

You'll find the podcast here.

The government trough - part 2!

The Old Silvana Creamery is a raw milk dairy that is a couple of miles from me, and they recently posted a letter on their facebook page.  Here's an excerpt:

"...WSDA (washington state department of agriculture) and the Snohomish County Conservation District will be forcing Old Silvana Creamery, LLC to close...."

He goes on to say that he's been working with the Snohomish County Conservation District on a farm plan, and in a meeting between the WSDA, the dairy operators and the conservation district on Friday, they told him that he couldn't use his manure lagoon to store manure, and that he needed another 8 acres of land so that he could have enough area to spread manure on.  They also told him that he needed to come up with some sort of rainwater management system, and he had to get a manure separator, which is basically a machine that takes manure and separates out the solids from the liquids.  Once separated the liquids are typically what gets put into the manure lagoon.  

So my first post on this is how this stuff starts; you usually get a state or federal agency that comes to your farm and acts as the "bad cop", and points you to the conservation district and tells you that if you only had a farm plan you'd be safe from them...

In this case, the Old Silvana Creamery is pretty clear that the regulations that he's being asked to comply with aren't being applied randomly or only to him, but apply to every dairy that operates in Washington State.  here's the quote:

"...I want to be clear that what the WSDA and the Snohomish County Conservation District is doing to us has nothing to do with the fact that we are a licensed raw milk dairy. These are regulations that are imposed on all dairy farmers in Washington state, no matter how small or large..."

What's going to happen?  My opinion is straight into the trough he goes.  The conservation district will fund a manure containment tank if the existing manure lagoon can't be made to work; they'll subsidize concrete pads under the manure, and a roof over it, and maybe even a manure separator or a big chunk of it.  They could
spend $300,000 on this stuff; he'd have to come up with some of that, probably $100,000.00

I have to admit that I'm a little surprised that he thinks he could escape the dairy regulations, though.  He's been a dairyman for a long time, and all of these regulations have been in place for a long time.

Old Silvana Creamery says something in his letter that I really do feel, too:

"...I told them that why should the people of Washington/U.S. pay for my dairy farm?? Especially for changes that I believe are totally unnecessary. This whole thing makes me sick..."

Here's a guy who really doesn't want a subsidy, who would rather go his own way; without any evidence of any issues, who's basically having a subsidy crammed down his throat, on pain of being put out of business.

You can read the whole letter here.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Government trough

I recieved a certified letter from my friends at the Department of ecology today, and it had all of the usual stuff in it.

But I thought I'd comment about the "financial assistance" that was mentioned.  I don't know what it's like in other parts of the country, but around here, the soil conservation districts really don't have a job.  For the most populated counties, there isn't much farming left; certainly far fewer farms in King and Snohomish county than at any time in history, and fewer still every year.  

But they're charged with conserving the soil, and they are paid for with property taxes levied on all landowners.  They are really pretty motivated to use the money that they get, millions of dollars, because it's a little  embarrassing to have a big bank balance grow, seeing as how we're all told that the government is broke all the time.  But the conservation districts aren't.  

Some of the money offered in this letter is federal.  I can lease my land to the government for more than I can likely make on crops if I choose to grow them; I think that I get $400/acre/year or so.  The theory is that it's all for the salmon, or the marbeled murrelet, or some other critter, but there's really no accountability.  I'd get a lease payment and basically there's no measuring whether or not we get more salmon or murrelets or whatever.  

Anytime someone is handing out free money it's a pretty popular program.  You see, I could just go and find the worst, swampy areas of my farm, and I'd get a check for $5,000 a year or so... for doing nothing.  I'd show up on the list of farms that were "subsidized"  (the lease payments show up as farm subsidies) and I could go my merry way.  This is a BIG business in this area.  We've spent $560,000,000.00 (Five Hundred and Sixty Million Dollars) on this sort of stuff, and we are all encouraged by every agency to jump into the government trough.  Here the department of ecology is threatening me with enforcement action, but they'd go away if I enrolled in this free-money program.  It's a weird extortion racket -- the mafia would be a lot more popular if they acted like these guys do.  

 Mafia:  "so, nice store you got here.  Be a shame if it burned down"
 Store owner:  "uh, yes.  What can I do for you?"  
 Mafia:  "here's $400.  as long as you take that money, we'll stay out of your store"
 Store owner: "ok!  deal!" 

No accountability.  I don't have to do a darned thing but cash the check.  Pretty sweet deal, huh?  

But it doesn't end there.   One of my farmer friends was showing me his nice, new concrete slab he got poured.  "Yea, all i had to do was claim it was for water quality, and BOOM!  I had a slab!".  It was a beauty, too.  6" thick, level, hundreds of square feet...  concrete is pretty nice stuff on a farm, and free concrete; such a deal!
high tunnel (mine, but same sort of structure)

Another farmer friend was crowing about the high-tunnels that the conservation district had purchased for him, or subsidized; I don't know if they'd be scandalized to know that he was growing Marijuana in them now; he's happy with his government-subsidized cash crop, but he says "Bruce, it was so easy...  I just fill out the forms and BOOM!  free high tunnels!"

So I'm at a meeting of the Snohomish County Agricultural Advisory board, and just before the topic I was there for was a presentation by a consultant, who was talking about the fifty million dollar (50,000,000.00) funding they'd received for some salmon project.   So I asked him.  For that fifty million dollars, how many more salmon will we have?  "oh.. we don't know.  But we are accountable!  "
So if your project doesn't produce even 1 more salmon, will you lose your funding?  
"oh no.  We're locked in"
One of the board members said, afterwards, that this particular funding was great because local farmers got part of the money.  and I said what I thought at the time:  You mean you got a place at the trough.

I'm a pig farmer.  I understand a place at the trough, and some days it seems like everyone is lining up.  As long as I get my meal, I don't care what goes on with the rest of the money.  Head down. 

Nom Nom Hom!

So I've got a question for you guys.  Would you take the money?  

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Cool weather gadget

I found a home weather station at a local warehouse store - costco - for $80.  Setup was simple; install batteries, place the sensors where you want them, turn it on.  the internet connection took a little fiddling; but this was up and running 20 minutes after opening the box.
 It tracks rainfall, humidity, wind direction and speed, indoor and outdoor temperature and barometric pressure.   It keeps all of the information that it tracks, so you can look back to see when rain fell, for instance, or how much over a period of time.  In the picture below it's showing that we've had 1.24" of rain in the last 24 hours.
 We've actually had quite a bit of rain in the last few days; averaging 1" of rain daily; temperatures in the 40s or high 30s.   I think that the rainfall at this farm is higher than at the other farm; I'm in the foothills of the mountains, and the clouds shed water on their way over.  2" of rain over 24 hours is enough to raise the local river level 4'.
3" of rain in 3 days.  Time to dig out the seed catalogs!

The model I've got is closest to this one, but mine didn't come with the pc software interface.  It does however come with an internet connection, so I can see what the conditions are at the farm on my cell phone from anywhere.  that's very nice.

Friday, November 15, 2013

When you talk to a farmer about their farm...

live, healthy piglets.  Easy to write about
There's something that is worth saying, dear internet reader, about what you read on the internet about farms.  As someone who writes a farm blog, the hardest thing that I have to write about is where I failed at something.

And by failure, I'm talking about stuff that I made a bad choice on or picked a bad direction, or even those cases where I'm not particularly to blame, but I failed anyway.  The weather, accident, disease, whatever the issue was, when things don't go right that's when it gets hard to put it down in the blog. 

So I'm reading a discussion about farming economics, and the author says "Well, this is a mashup of the experiences of this farmer I knew" - stories that the farmer had related to the author, and I sat there after reading this, and what I heard in my head was "um, you didn't hear the whole thing from that farmer. "

That's particularly true about revenue numbers.  In all honesty, only the tax man and I know what I made on my farm, and that's true of every farmer you see out there.  I talk about the economics of what I do from time to time, and I scoff at people who claim to be paying off a million dollar investment with 100lbs of cheese a week, but in all seriousness, even if you ask a farmer directly about their operation you'll rarely get a straight answer.  Or a verifiable answer. 

So when this woman trotted out some revenue numbers that I presume she'd gotten from her friend, I was a little skeptical.  Strike that.  A lot skeptical. 

Old school farmers in this area are extremely laconic, but a typical discussion of farming economics goes like this: 

  "Hi Bob!  How's the farm?"
  "oh, you know...  the corn went in late, and that cold snap... probably lost it all"
  "Oh, that's terrible!  what did you do?"
  "well, we waited a while, and some of the corn came back, but the cows broke down the fence and ate it all!"
  "gosh.  so what happened then?"
  "Well, there was a little left, but the combine broke and we didn't get it all out of the field"
  "so... not so good?  "
  "no, terrible.  lost that crop three times this year"

But I know for a fact that the corn in question was the highest yield this guy had ever seen, but if you'd taken his statements at face value, he's going broke multiple times every year. 

Blog farmers, however, have a different take on the same issue
  "I have selected my corn crop out of seeds I saved from the finest genetic stock, and my corn is the best corn that's ever been grown, and I have people fighting and dying to buy my corn from me!  and if you read carefully, I'll tell you all of my corn secrets!"  And it's usually accompanied by very carefully framed shots on the single corn plant that managed to survive to harvest.  Oh yea.  they bought their seeds from the same vendor as the old school guy. 

I've exaggerated a little here, in both examples, but not much.  Whether it's sheep or corn or pigs or random vegetables, take the claims you see on the internet with a grain of salt.  No one is going to tell you all of the facts; read between the lines a little.  If the average commercial sheep herd is producing 1.87 lambs per ewe, someone with 30 sheep who's producing triplets everywhere... well, a little suspect. 

My best sources for information are the publications put out by either agricultural colleges and universities or small government-funded research projects like SARE.  As you look at your farming practices and results, and compare it to the internet, don't be surprised if your animals don't do as well as the reports.  Don't be surprised at all.

Monday, November 11, 2013

"you won't get this by working for me"

Update:  The last part of this post is how to raise $600k for your farm

Jeff Richardson wrote an entry about types of farms on his blog that I thought was interesting, and it reminded me of a conversation I had , which I'll relate here.

I use medium duty trucks for my farm; because they're cheap, sufficiently large to do useful work, and I don't have to worry much about them getting banged up as I buy them used and sell them even more used.

So instead of buying one $40,000 pickup truck, I buy 3 or 4 pickups that cost $5k each, and if any of them require any major repairs they either get sold broken or fixed on a relaxed basis.  If you've got a couple of trucks around, one out of commission isn't any big deal.

I get these trucks from craigslist, watching for particular makes and models, or from the local auction where the city and county governments sell their trucks.

So I saw a truck on craigslist that fit my bill, but it was a little over what I wanted to pay, but I figured I'd take a look at it, and met the fellow in the parking lot of a supermarket and looked at his truck and talked a bit about farming in general.  Did I say he was a farmer?  Well, he wasn't, but was soon going to be; he wanted to sell the truck because he had sold his horse and didn't need the truck to move the horse, so was selling it.

"What brought you here", says I.  "Well, " he says "I was working on a ranch in Wyoming.  it was a pretty big place; about 96,000 acres, and one day I was riding back to the bunkhouse with the owner, and I asked him how I could start farming, and he said something that really hit home for me."

"what was that?"

"He said 'you'll never get here working for me'.  He told me that I needed to go get a job and earn some money and then come and ranch; that working on the ranch would never get me to owning one.   So that's what I did.  I went back to school and got a degree, and I'm just about done with working here.  I've been here six years, and heading back to Wyoming with the money I've saved to buy a ranch. "

"So you moved here with the goal of earning a nest egg to buy a ranch back there?"


I think that this is one of the clearest answers I've got to "how do I start a farm" or "where do I get the capital to buy a farm" that I've run across. and this fellow was well along on his path to achieving this goal.   I like this answer so much better than "hope a genie gives you three wishes, or that you win the lottery, or that someone will just give you land", which is actually pretty common.  Nothing good comes easy.  Nothing worth having can be had without a bit of suffering. 

This 6 year stretch in Seattle was his chore, his price, for his ranch.  We all have chores we need to do.  He set a goal and worked over the course of years to achieve that goal. 

There's a lot of folks who really, really want farms to be something that are self-funding.  They want to make a farm that produces enough income to fund itself, and honestly, I don't think that I have ever seen that happen.  Maybe you know of a farm that did do that.  A much more common story is what this fellow is doing; you earn the money with your city job and apply that capital to your country job.
I wrote an entry in October of 2012 about this very same issue, called "The myth of young farmers", and if you're interested in this topic, take a look at that entry.  I wrote about my conversation with Irwin. 

Take home lesson:
  If you want to farm,  a plan that involves you, and your effort, is much better than a plan that depends on anyone, or anything, else.   There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.
  If you are serious about your goal, there may be a period, measured in years or decades, before you can realize it.  That is normal, to be expected, and I haven't seen anyone avoid it.
  Sustained effort over time takes discipline and the willingness to stand back up after you get knocked down, with the full knowledge that you may go down again.  And again.  And again.
  Don't look at what other people have without realizing that when you look at their results, you need to consider their history, too.  Sure, that inherited 200 acres looks good.  But someone, at some point in the past, made the sacrifice to buy that land, and the sustained effort.    Good land has never been cheap at any time, but it sure does look cheap 50 years later.  grandpa suffered for it if the heirs did not.  But suffering was endured. 
  And no one is 'entitled' to farm.  there's no farm fairy out there to wave the wand.  You are your own farm fairy.  Want it?  Work for it.

Followup:  How to raise $600k for your farm with a minimum wage job
What I'm suggesting here is to make money somewhere else and then farm when you've got the capital in hand to be able to afford it. 

Most people try to earn the money for their farm by farming.  That's a nice idea, a farm that is profitable enough that it allows the farm to expand -- but there are more sure ways to get to where you want to go.   What I'm suggesting is an off-farm job combined with living way under your means to save money for a farm. 

How much money would you say would be enough for you to buy and own outright the farm you'd like to have? $200K? $400k? How much capital would you like to have to start a farm? Another $100k? 200k? 

So lets say your farming number is $600k, 400k for the farm, 200k for working capital. If you saved $500 a month starting at age 30, at age 61 you'd have $635k * If you saved $750 a month you'd have $641k* at age 56. 

$500 a month in take-home pay is a minimum wage job for 15 hours a week. $750 a month is a minimum wage job for 23 hours a week. 

Not everyone will work a part time job for 25 years to achieve their goal. Not everyone will become a farmer. And the other thing is, if you had $600k, would you be a farmer or would you choose another direction? For those folks who have made money elsewhere and gotten into farming, the answer is no. They choose to farm despite having other options. 

I've deliberately used minimum wage in this example; if you have skills or education that would allow you to earn more than minimum wage, your goal will be achieved sooner. 

* Here's the calculator I used to figure out the amount you'd have in X years.  

Sunday, November 10, 2013

This is the hard part of the year

This is my 8th year of full-time farming;  November is the hard part of the year for me.  It's the part of the year where my discipline and mettle is tested; i don't look forward to November, now is where I find out if my preparations for winter were good enough.

The big problem with this time of year is that we get the most rain and the most wind, and it's never cold enough to freeze, but it's cold enough to stop growth.

Which means that anyplace that has mud now, or turns into mud, remains mud until next March, 5 months from now.  A little under half the  year.

The primary challenge is keeping the animals bedded well.   In warmer times, better weather, a couple of domes and a pasture are all that's needed; they spread the manure out on the fields and grass, the growth takes care of the composting, and life is good.

The cold season means that I need to keep the animals indoors, or on a hard surface, and it means a lot of cleaning.   I tried a deep litter system last year for the pigs; and it worked pretty well; but I haven't moved that building to the new farm yet, and the barns that I have on the farm are really poorly laid out for tractor access.     Not to say that I won't be using the barns for agriculture -- I have plans for them.  But for my pig operation, I really do need some specific things that would be hard to get with the existing barns on this property.

What I've been contemplating for winter pig housing is a bigger version of the hoop barn that I built last year on my other property.   Why?

Labor costs, primarily.  Either my labor, or someone elses.  The easier cleaning is to do, the more often it will be done.  And the easier it is, the less it will cost to do it.  With deep litter you're replacing the bedding every six months or so, so the frequency is pretty low, but the amount of bedding -- hundreds of yards of wood chips or sawdust -- means that you really need to do it with equipment.   the wood chips/sawdust actually come out manure-enriched and make pretty good soil, and the fact that it's a solid makes it easy to handle with a loader.  

The hoop barn can be completely cleared of chips and pressured washed in an 8 hour day by two guys.  One to run the tractor, the other running the pressure washer.

So I've converted the smallest of the barns here into a pig house, and it's working ok, but the access to the barn really isn't very good at all.  When the farm was laid out this guy though an 8' wide lane was plenty big.  For my tractors that's a very tight turn from one 8' lane into another.  To make this farm work better I've been thinking about trading in one of my tractors for a skidsteer.

But I have to say that this is the first year that I've had a roof over every single animal that needs it, and I'm very happy about that.  Grateful.  

Because there's a roof over my head, too, when I'm working.  Big change for me.

A little bit of pig husbandry...

There's a lot of folks who keep pigs on pasture that reccomend that you basically let the pigs raise their piglets communally, and here's the problem with that idea:

piglets squealing and fighting when nursing from a sow from bruce king on Vimeo.

The sow in this case is a very nice black sow; calm, good mother, attentive.  She'd like to nurse her pigs.  But every time she lays down every single piglet for hundreds of feet around zero in on her and fight over the nipples.

This is what I've seen happen when  you group-house piglets and sows.  Sure, someone is getting the milk, and it's the bigger piglets.  They'll wade right in and knock the smaller pigs off the nipples and drink all the milk.

When they're small, even a difference of age of a couple of days will make a difference.  In my husbandry we keep the pigs seperate for the first 3 weeks to give them a good base of nutrition; they get some food that only they can get to (creep feed) and they get all the attention from their mother that they want.  After that we gradually allow them more freedom, until finally we put the sow out with the herd.  About a week after that we pen the piglets to wean them and allow the mother to dry up.

This particular pig has 8 piglets, and 6 of these pigs are hers.  The sow, honestly, would allow anyone to nurse from her; she's just happy to be nursed on.  But she doesn't like the squealing and squabbling; thats why she gets up and moves in the middle.  That's actually the mark of a good mother; she is attentive to her babies and when they're unhappy she responds.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The bear

I've got a bear.  

There's quite a bit of wildlife around this farm; and some of it is big game.  The bear I saw is a 150lb or so black bear, and it was doing what I'd be doing if I were a bear:  eating salmon.  The orange lines on the map are where the salmon are right now; i've got salmon runs on both sides of my property.  We just got done with the pink salmon who came in large numbers; at least 5,000 died along the river curve that is north of my property; and we're now in the middle of the silver, coho, salmon run.  The pinks are small, 4 to 8lbs.  the coho are a bit larger; call it 6 to 12lbs.  So a single coho is a pretty good meal and there are hundreds of them, too.  

The straight line at the bottom of the photo is a surprise to me; I didn't know there was a salmon run possible there.  It's a very small stream on the other side of the old railroad bed from my farm, and right now it's stuffed full of coho.  The land on the other side is a pretty big swamp, and there's a family of beavers that live there and they have spent all their time converting the swamp into a series of pool-and-drops -- they build a dam, water backs up behind it forming a pool, and there's a small waterfall that drops into the next pool.  

Where you see the salmon is when they move from one pool to the other, swimming up and over the little beaver dam.   I started noticing salmon that were consumed in a different way than a bird would; scraps of flesh, bones eaten, some carcasses with the skin stripped off but the meat remaining.  

Have a good feast, bear.  Find all you need to make the sleep comfortable.  

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Changes in the weather

rain approaching
 It's starting to feel more like winter now; in the 30s at night, highs in the 40s or low 50s.  I'm still getting used to seeing the weather come in.  The valley I live in focuses the clouds; you'll see the rain showers come in.  I don't have anything that I need the rain for right now; the pastures I planted have plenty of moisture; at this point watching the rain is mostly just a note. 

Sometimes i'll dress differently; if I plan on being out all day, a full, formal set of raingear makes it completely comfortable.  good clothes, good boots, good hat...  makes sitting in the rain tolerable.  raingear also means that i don't have muck on me when i go back to the house... i just hose off the gear and I'm good to go. 

One thing that is on my list to do with this house is to build a full-on mud room.  outside door, washable floor, laundry sink, shower, washer and dryer.  For those days when you get covered in dirt and might as well just get it all over with before you go into the house.  heck, I'm tempted to tile the floor and a little up the walls so that you can just hose the whole thing down when you're done. 

rainbow signaling the end of the rain
today it was patchy showers; the rain gauge shows 2.5" have fallen in the last 2 days, with more expected. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

the dogs

 My pack of airedales is having a great time; they've got 70 acres of space to roam, and they're taking their job of patrolling the whole property very seriously. 
 Every day there is a concerted rush to the edge of the big field, and then they run all the way to the other end, about a mile, as quickly as they can.  There MUST be something interesting happening out there!
 Having reached the  eastern edge, they move to the northern edge and patrol the river shore.  There's still quantities of pink salmon carcasses there; they prefer them very, very rotten.  Yuck.  I'm starting to see silver salmon carcasses now; we're in the middle of the coho run now, until sometime in December . 
They spend hours running from one side of the field to the other; I'm going to figure that they run 6 to 8 miles a day on average.  I like having them have the run of the place; one of the benefits of a good perimeter fence. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A shake and a squeal...

I have a field where the nursing mothers range; they like the grass and the weather, and I'll find them out there during the day.   I go out at sunset and make sure that they're all in the barn for the evening.  I do that because the sow really doesn't experience temperature like we do. 
 This particular sow is named terrorist.  She's a very nice pig; gentle, good with piglets,a good mother, but got her name when she was a piglet because of her constant theft of gloves and tools.  She'd hide under a trailer or behind a bush, carefully watching for you to turn your back, and she'd dash out and take your hammer or glove or whatever it was that you were working with and run off with it.  For her it was a fun game of you-can't-catch-me.  For me it was terrorism.
 Sows have a large body and a good layer of fat on them; that means that they're basically like seals and can withstand quite a temperature range.  My sows consider anything above 65 degrees a heat wave and I'll find them bathing in the freezing mud to cool off.  Brr.  But pigs are a different matter; when they're small they have no fat to speak of, and they spend most of their time working hard to keep dry and as warm as they can be.  So when the sow decides to lay down in the grass for the evening, well, that's fine if it's in July.  But not november.   So I do my rounds and everyone goes into the barn for the night.  Dry straw and good roof for the benefit of the little ones. 
 But now and then a sow doesn't want to go into the barn; that's where the shake and squeal comes in.  The basic technique is to try a bribe; a pail of feed, shaken, provides a sound that is usually enough to motivate even a sow that has just fed- sows can always find some room for more food. 
The squeal comes in if the shake doesn't work.  Carefully and calmly you walk up to the sow; the pigs will usually arrange themselves on the opposite side from you.  Squatting, you reach right underneath her and grab a pig.  And then run like the dickens as it squeals, because you can pretty much bet momma is RIGHT BEHIND YOU.  If she gets too close you put the piglet down; if she is not following you hold the piglet in sight until it squeals; she'll get interested, and the chase is on. 

Shake and Squeal. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

High tensile fences

So in the last 10 years i've put up field fence, barbed wire fence, panel fence and board fence.   I'll add high tensile fence to that list.  You'll find a complete cost breakdown at the end of this post. 

First, if I were to pick a type of fence to use as a perimeter fence around large (> 10 acre) parcels, I'd probably pick high tensile fence or barbed wire, and I'd do that based on durability and cost per foot.  

If I were to pick between barbed wire and high tensile, I'd probably choose high tensile; based because it's easier to put up.  Fencing is heavy, hard work but fencing with high tensile is easier than fencing with barbed wire; I've done both.    High tensile is easier to string because you can leave the spool on one end and draw the smooth wire to the far end.  With barbed wire it catches on everything so you have to carry the spool of wire to the far end, and that truly does suck.  

High tensile fence -- nearly invisible.  
The cost of the fence is mostly the cost of the braces.  For a properly tensioned fence, you'll need double H braces sunk at least 3' into the ground, with diagonal support.  The picture below shows a typical brace that I constructed out of railroad ties.  The railroad ties are 8' long 6x8 timbers and are buried 3' into the ground.  The crossbars are 6x6 timbers.  The diagonal wire is 12.5 gauge barbless barbed wire, and this particular fence is 8 strands of high tensile wire with the 3rd and 7th wires electrified.  The 3rd wire is to exclude coyotes and keep pigs in, the 7th wire is for cattle.  You can see the black insulators on the post on the right side of the picture.
Double H brace for high tensile fence
For gate openings you have to do a brace on each side.  The picture below shows a 12' gate opening.  The brace on the right is for a 1300' span, the brace on the left is for a 500' span.  I haven't mounted the gate yet, but you can see the opening.  I chose to run all of the wires from this central point so that I only had to move the supplies to one area for both spans.
Gate opening for high tensile fence
I was replacing generations of fencing; the apple tree in the photo below gives you an idea of what it looked like before.  the problem with this sort of fence is that it's very hard to tell if it's animal proof, and it's pretty hard to maintain.  Good perimeter fences are a way to make sure that you sleep better.
Apple tree with random fencing attempts vs....
One thing that I've found with fencing is that preparing the fenceline prior to construction is the best thing to do.  In my case I left any tree that was bigger than my wrist, but cleared small bushes and blackberries along the fenceline.  I determined the fenceline via a survey I comissioned, and I suggest that anyone who buys acreage get their property surveyed as part of their purchase.  It would be terrible to put a fence up in the wrong place and then have to move it.  It's enough work to put it up once!
High tensile fence replacement
The field posts I used were a mix of railroad ties that I found on my property and recycled and 6x6 posts that I purchased.  This is intended to be a permanent perimeter fence; pressure treated posts, galvanized hardware, everything built bigger and heavier than it needs to be so that it lasts.
Posts are placed where the ground rises or falls
This is the end brace for a 1300' section of high tensile fence.  
This is the river end of the fence; I chose to put the brace 30' from the river bank because the bank is eroding; in the next 10 or 15 years the big maple tree that you see to the left in the photo may fall into the river; or it may not.  So I put my brace back, and I'll extend the fence to the river with posts and cattle panels.  If the bank washes away the cattle panels will just hang out into space, which is fine.  

Here's the cost of the fence:  
1800' run, 4 double H braces, 16 field posts, 3 12' gates

14400' of 12.5 gauge high tensile wire @ $0.03/foot,$432
36 6x6 posts or equivalent @$22/each, $792
1 spool 12.5 gauge barbless barbed wire, $60
bucket of fence staples $36
Insulators $8
Tension springs, 16 at $7.50 each, $120
Tension ratchets 16 at $3.99 each, $64
7 man-days clearing fence line @ 150/day $1050.
6 man-days building braces, running wire, setting posts, $900
3 heavy duty galvanized 12' gates, $165 each, $495
1 25 mile solar fence energizer, $280

Total fence cost $4237, or 2.35/foot everything included.  Materials only cost of $2287, or $1.27/foot