Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Jumping into the weather window

14 hours of good tractor time today; finished the plowing, mostly odds and ends at the edges of the field and corners, and then started disking the field.  The scrapers are working great.    Soil is working out very nicely.  Spent some extra time and passes on a couple of areas where I had heavy sod, but pretty happy with the progress.  I'm going to guess I'm 1/3rd complete on disking.  Called the custom guy (the fellow who's going to plant my corn crop for me) and told him that the corn plot area is ready to go, just let me know when.  Nice to be able to check that off the list.  

 Last year there was 65 acres of corn, this year I'm only planting 10, mostly as a test case to see if I can do it organically, with tillage vs herbicide.  Last years yield was 27 tons/acre, so I have a baseline to compare the yield.  The same fellow who did the corn on my property last year has planted 40 acres just north of me, so I'll be able to compare my "organic" methods yields with his conventional yields.  The corn I grow I'll have chopped into silage and stored in my silage pit; somewhere around 200 tons of it, which should provide extra feed for my growing cow herd.
disking at right angles to plowing
 So the total crop plants this year:  10 acres of orchard grass/alfalfa, 20 acres of orchard grass.  3 acres of orchard grass and clover, 10 acres of corn.  3 acres of alfalfa, 3 acres of alfafa with wheat nurse crop, 4 acres pumpkin, 5 acres fallow.

I'll be grazing the cows on one 6 acre parcel and one 12 acre parcel; that's where they'll go while the various forage crops are growing.  

Sunday, April 27, 2014

planting: hurry up and wait

plowing is pretty satisfying, but I'm going to phase it out for most of the acreage
 This year is the first full year on the farm, and it's the first planting season I've been here for.  I'm starting to learn the planting math, or rather, the planting calendar.

The first part is pretty fun, and pretty easy.  Going through the seed catalogs for things that look like they'll sell, or will grow well.  Then checking with the local agricultural extension to confirm what grows well, taking some soil samples for testing to see what the soil is like, if there's something that would make it better for plants, and then ordering.

I looked up the date of last frost, and built my initial schedule around that; ideally I want to have my fields prepped and ready just before the optimum planting date, but the weather has something to say about that, and it's been raining.  A lot.  If it rains enough I can't plow or disk; the problem plowing is that the tractor doesn't have enough traction to pull the plow through the soil if it's wet, and the problem with disking is in the picture right below.    
disk with added mud
Most of the fields are sandy loam, but there's bands of clay and fine silt out there, and when it gets wet it turns into butter, and butter is slippery and sticky.  So I can't plow when it rains, and I can't disk, so for the last two weeks or so I've been doing various other things -- I fabricated some brackets to hang the scrapers on the plow, for instance -- when I found out that each bracket from John Deere was $110, and I needed 8 of them.  The steel cost me $70, and the U bolts cost me $130, and for $200 and some careful work with a cutting torch, the scrapers are on the disk, but it's still too wet.

This coming week I've got 5 or 6 days of sun and warmer, so I should be able to get all of the seedbed preparation done and get it planted.

I had a good example across the road about how another farmer did this.  there was a period of 2 or 3 days when the weather was right; and he ran his tractors for 18 to 20 hours a day during that time.  The result?  He got his seedbed in, and he's now two weeks ahead of me in terms of planting, which can make the difference between 2 cuttings and 3 of hay this year.  Big difference.  So next year, or later this year, when there's a weather window that allows me to work, I'm going to work longer and harder to fit into that schedule that mother nature provides me.
scrapers before installation.  Had to make brackets before I could hang them

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Manipulating amazon reviews for fun and profit - Tim Young, natures harmony farm.

Tim Young over at Natures harmony is trying his absolute best to astroturf the negative reviews on his book. There's three reviews of his book that were the top-rated, and magically, in the last week, all three of the reviews got hundreds of downvotes, leaving only the negative reviews that Tim agrees with, apparently. The reviews that used to be on the top of the list are listed below. These are reviews of "Accidental Farmers" by Tim Young, recounting his farming experience at natures harmony farm.   Positive reviews are also getting pumped up.

Product reviews are most useful when they're an accurate portrayal of customer experiences.  All of the downvotes on these reviews happened in the course of 3-5 days, and a couple of years after the publication date.   Tim has posted fake reviews and responses to reviews under pseudonyms, claiming to be "a customer of natures harmony farmers" and to have purchased products, etc.

Marketing your product is one thing -- this appears to be an act of desperation in my opinion.  Sorry you've chosen this path, Tim.

Reviews follow

This one went from 81 of 92 to :

81 of 156 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing 2nd halfApril 6, 2011
This review is from: The Accidental Farmers: An urban couple, a rural calling and a dream of farming in harmony with nature (Paperback)
I really, really wanted to like this book. I've followed Nature's Harmony Farm for the past two years, so I was very excited to read it. The first half was a joy to read- well written, funny, and heart-warming. It offered a clear sense for what starting a new farm from scratch is like - the anticipation, joy, fear, self-doubt and hard work. I also appreciated the honesty in the chapter that detailed the dark side of farming.

The second half's plunge into ideology was very disappointing to read. Like many American farms, the farm's soil is deficient in nutrients, but fertilizer doesn't fit into their ideology. I was left wondering how many of the animal health problems could have been averted by making sure the soil was well-balanced and had the minimum of minerals (calcium, boron, etc. that aren't supplied by manure from poor soil) to support animal health. Also, the ideology involved in wanting their animals to live completely "natural" lives doesn't jive with the fact that livestock are not wild animals. The point to which they expected their animals to live with minimal support on depleted soil scares me a little, and I wonder if these chapters will end up as fodder for the animal rights movement and conventional ag to argue that pasture-based agriculture is not a viable solution.

I appreciate all that Nature's Harmony Farm has done, especially through their blog and excellent podcasts. Unfortunately, I recommend this book only for those who want to read an account of what happens when livestock are expected to live with minimal help on depleted soil.

This one went from 57 of 61 helpful to:

57 of 130 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disturbing and disappointingDecember 7, 2011
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: The Accidental Farmers: An urban couple, a rural calling and a dream of farming in harmony with nature (Paperback)
As someone who has been involved in sustainable agriculture for over 15 years now, I was disturbed and disappointed by the approach to animal husbandry detailed in this book. I read the book nearly a year ago and in that time, I've been unable to write a review that would reflect my visceral reaction to the Youngs' extreme approach without sounding overwhelmingly negative. If nothing else, the Youngs have increased public awareness of the cause of sustainable agriculture, so there is some merit in their work, and many farms could learn from their no-holds-barred marketing style. But as far as their animal husbandry goes, I think Masanobu Fukuoka said it best in his classic "One Straw Revolution:" "I had acted in the belief that everything should be left to take its natural course, but I found that if you apply this way of thinking all at once, before long things do not go so well. This is abandonment, not 'natural farming.'"
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This one went from 14 of 16 to: 

14 of 50 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Wish I hadn't wasted my time or money on this book.June 3, 2012
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: The Accidental Farmers: An urban couple, a rural calling and a dream of farming in harmony with nature (Paperback)
I had heard just enough about Nature's Harmony that I was really excited to read this book because I thought there would be lots of good ideas about how to run a small, diverse, humane and financially viable farm. My husband and I have run a small, humane, three to four species farm for a couple years and, while I think we are headed in the right direction, our farm is not yet financially viable. By small I mean a farm that can be run sanely by its owners with at most two employees. By humane I mean that animals do not need needlessly suffer, are able to express their nature, and there is constant striving for improvement of both. And, by financially viable, I mean bringing in enough money to meet ongoing expenses, service debt or return capital, and pay a salary or profits to the owner.
I don't know anything about Nature's Harmony beyond this book, but while they may have been small, they were not humane and there is no way that they were financially viable when this book was written.
Blaming an domesticated farm animal's failure to thrive with minimal human intervention is not fair or humane. Trying to breed for resistance is fine but what about humane euthanasia for animals clearly to sick to recover?
As for financial viability, what little is written about how their farm finances might work ignored the costs of a tractor, 8000 ft of irrigation pipe, thousands of feet of woven wire perimeter fence, fancy cattle trucked in from out of state, two sets of swine breeding stock, 800 plus chicks and all the feed to keep these critters alive...
They may have started out with the best of intentions and they may have tried their best, hack they may even have a successful farm someday, but when this book was written it was not, yet in the final chapters the author implies that it was and even implies that a financially viable livestock farm can be started quickly with little capital.
I'm not sure how to close this review other than by suggesting you skip this book if you are looking for an honest picture of starting a small, humane, financially viable livestock farm.

This one went from 47 of 61 to:  

47 of 161 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Tims summer vacationMarch 27, 2012
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: The Accidental Farmers: An urban couple, a rural calling and a dream of farming in harmony with nature (Paperback)
Note: The author has both posted reviews of his own book under pseudonyms, and has posted responses to reviews claiming to be a "customer of this farm", repeatedly. If you'd like to see what fans of natures harmony have said about this book, please check out the the 2 star reviews here -- kellyjane april 6, 2011 and Meredith Mizell, Dec 7,2011 -- both contain reasoned objections to the topics covered in this book based on their experience with Mr. Young, and both had hoped to like the book but could not based on its contents.

With any venture it takes time and effort to become proficient at it. What Tim does over and over again is set himself up for farming failure. With the pigs/chickens/rabbits/sheep/beef/bees, he doesn't stick with it long enough to know what it looks like to succeed.

At this time he's not raising any commercial quantities of many of the animals he describes in his book; beef cattle, laying hens, rabbits, large black and berkshire pigs, bees and sheep. He claims to be sustainable, but one measure of sustainability is continuing to be in business. Tim appears to no longer be in any of the ventures he promotes in this book, and has put his farm up for sale at the time I write this (4-22-2014)

What I find objectionable about this book is that tim actively promotes a farming style that in my opinion causes the needless death of animals. He decided to feed his hundreds of laying hens half the food they required in a misguided effort to encourage foraging, and hundreds of the stressed birds died. He then gives away the survivors and equipment. How about you figure out what went wrong and make it right, Tim?

I cannot think of another farmer who buys livestock and then just watches them die when they could be treated or saved. Chickens, turkeys, dairy cows, sheep... they all get the natures harmony farm treatment, and hundreds die. Turn them out and let them fend for themselves. Survival of the fittest. This is opposite the view that most farmers hold -- that they can, through love and care -- make a positive impact on the animals on their farm.

Most farmers cannot afford to spend thousands or tens of thousands of dollars on livestock and watch them die. I would hate to see someone who was interested in farming follow in these guys footsteps from an animal welfare or simple economics point of view. If I ran my farm the way they did, I'd go broke.
Why no voting buttons? We don't let customers vote on their own reviews, so the voting buttons appear only when you look at reviews submitted by others.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

hiving a package of bees - video

This is the time of year to start your beehives.  Here's a series of short videos (about a minute each) showing how I put the package of bees into the hive for the first time.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A presidential visit

Obama is going to be visiting the landslide area just up the road from my farm on 4-22-2014.  They've already indicated that they're going to close the road for his convoy; they're already restricting parking along the likely route.

The landslide area is turning into a huge public works project.  600 people are working there every day; and just about everyone who owns an excavator or a bulldozer or a big rock truck has equipment up there.   There's a lot of local companies that are seeing this landslide as a blank-check venture.  There's no budget an there's no saying no.

The road from town to the landslide is dotted with signs - "oso strong" and "we love you oso" and "thank you" - the last aimed at the workers.  The community does appreciate the responders.  But I'm hoping with the presidents visit that we can return to something that seems a little more normal.

The biggest problem right now is that the town of darrington is being economically strangled because what used to be a 30 minute drive is now over 2 hours -- the sawmill that is the biggest employer is losing $500,000 a month in extra transport costs.

I think concentrating on releasing the landslide area and allowing the road crews in to fix the road will make the biggest short-term difference to the most people.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The $5 calf, 2014 addition

This post is about raising holstein bull calves for beef -- either for your table, or for sale.  I first wrote about this 6 years ago, and I've been raising bull calves (and eating them) since then.  I'm writing this for people who are interested in the economics.

The original 2008 $5 calves
First, I'm going to say that in 2014, there's no such thing as a $5 calf.  As I write this, the price of day-old or barely-started holstein bull calves at the auction is $160-200.  That's the SAME calf I was buying for $5 in 2008, but in 2008 everyone thought that the stock market was going to melt down and the economy was going to crash, and the patriot act was a really good idea.

Buy calves direct from a dairy if you possibly can
I have purchased these cows at auction, and I've purchased them direct from a dairy, and if you can do it, I suggest finding a local dairy and buying direct.  You get to ask questions about the calf, and what you really want to know is that the calf stayed on the mom for at least 24 hours to get a good dose of colostrum, a special milk that gives the calf an immune boost by drinking it.  More time, a couple or three days, is even better, but dairies sell the colostrum milk too, and get a good price for it, so they'll typically pull the calf off very soon.

If you can't buy direct, use the crowd knowledge of the auction.  If you're the only bidder on an animal, it's probably not a good choice.  You want bright eyed and "shiny" -- clean fur and no evidence of diarrhea, and the older a calf you can get the better.  7 days old is a lot better than 1 day.  It's worth paying more for a bigger started calf.    Many dairies contract with someone and don't sell their calves individually, but you can often find the contractor and buy a calf from them, too.

Dairy bull calves won't be as efficient converting feed to meat as a beef calf would be.  So if you're in the position of buying food for your calf, you want to consider starting with a beef breed, not a dairy.  But if you have grass and can handle the bottle feeding for the first couple of months, there's no reason that a dairy steer wouldn't make a good addition to you and your families table.

So I'm pretty formal about my calves these days; I use calf-domes (the actual brand-name is polydome ), the current model is pictured below.
I buy these calf domes off of the local craigslist for about $150.  They come with two buckets and a bucket holder that fits into the door, and a bottle bracket (that black square to the right of the door).  I bed the calf with a yard or so of wood shavings, plop the dome down, and put the calf into it.  One bucket holds water, the other feed and hay, and I use the bottle bracket to bottle-feed the calf.  So twice a day I'll go out, fill the water bucket, fill the hay/feed bucket, and drop a bottle into the bracket.    It's sometimes a little bit of work to get the calf to find the bottle, but you can do it pretty easily by dipping your finger in milk, offering it to the calf, and then leading it over to the nipple.  They catch on pretty quick.

You can do this with a little plywood box or a stall, too.   When I'm raising calves, it's just as easy to raise 3 or 4 of them vs just 1, and so I'll just make a row of calf domes, with the doors facing each other.  The cows watch the other cows and moo at each other and keep each other company.

For feed I use a bale of good alfalfa ($9 or so) and give them a portion of a flake each day, and then some calf manna (kinda expensive feed, but the calves do like it, $0.75/lb) and I use a dairy-based milk replacer for the milk.  Milk replacer can also be made out of blood, and it's probably good feed, but I just stick to the milk-based.

It takes about a whole 50lb sack of milk replacer per calf to bring it to weaning age; a sack of milk replacer is $99 or so retail around here, so here's the cost-to-weaning age for 2014:
  Calf:  $180
  Alfalfa: $9
  Milk replacer: $99
  new 3 quart bottle $10
  Calf dome: $50 (figure that 1/3rd of the cost per year.  they do break)
 Giving a cost-to-wean of $349.

Note that I'm not including any expense for labor.  If you're doing this for your own table or as a hobby, well, well all enjoy our hobbies.  If you're checking this out as a business, figure 30 minutes a day total.  15 minutes in the morning, 15 minutes in the evening, and rebedding the cows about every 2 to 3 weeks at an hour, for 3 months.  As you're probably thinking, labor raises the cost of this calf pretty substantially at any wage.   The only way you have a chance to reduce labor is to raise a lot of calves all at once.

Raising your own may not make economic sense
So if weaned calves in your area are selling for $349 or less -- or roughly $1/lb live weight - you won't save any money by raising your own, you'll be money ahead by buying one already weaned.   It only makes sense for me to do this because calf prices are crazy-high right now.  I'm seeing 300lb dairy-cross calves at the auction for $2 and higher per pound, live weight.

I purchase my calves in the early spring;  first or second week of march.  I want them to be weaned about the time that my grass is growing great, and I want them to be on that great grass through spring, summer and fall.  

Cows eat all year - even in winter.  Buy your hay smart
In the middle of the summer, when it's hot and everyone is haying, I'll purchase hay to keep these calves over winter.  I figure that each calf needs about 50lbs of hay per day (or they will by the time fall rolls around) and that I'll have to keep them on hay from october to april, which is roughly 6 months, or 180 days.
50x180 = 9000lbs, or roughly 4.5 tons of hay per cow for winter hay.

Last summer hay was selling for $40 for a 600lb bale, which works out to be about $133/ton.  Now you guys who are buying hay for your horses are probably thinking that's pretty cheap hay -- and it is.  But it's a bit of work.  First, it's second or third cutting orchard grass, and I'm picking it up out of the field.  They'll load it for me, but it's my truck and trailer.  Second, I'm paying cash and this is a negociated price.  Other folks who are buying the same hay are paying more, but for the quantity I'm buying and working to their production schedule, I get a lower overall price.  If you're buying hay from a feed store you are going to have very expensive beef by winters end.

Remember to buy your hay when it's being produced, and to store it somewhere.  50lbs/steer/day allows for some wastage.  I stack my hay on pallets so that the air can circulate under the pile, and I tarp it well.

Beef for $1/lb
So cost-to-wean at $349, hay at $600, and that gets me to their second spring.  Out they go on grass again, and I'll slaughter them in august or september while they're still on the best grass of the year.  At the end of this, I'll get a hanging weight of 800lbs at a cost of $949 (again ignoring labor, equipment, etc).

I've learned that grass-fed beef, for me, is a seasonal product.  Like an peach, you want to harvest at the right time.  for me, 18-20 months and on very good forage is the start of many very good meals.

 I'm raising 12 calves this year; 11 dairy heifers and 1 holstein bull calf.  The bull calf will be my families and relatives beef in the fall of 2016.  the last holstein beef I raised we just butchered two weeks ago.

Why holstein?
I choose to raise holsteins because they have white-colored fat.  Jersey bull calves and other dairy breeds have varying degrees of yellow fat that appears when they're grass fed.  They all taste fine, but in the event that I give someone a steak, or sell a quarter or half, with holsteins there is nothing to explain:  the beef looks like americans have been taught that beef appears.  With jersey or other yellow-fat cows, there's some education to do, so I just skip them.  They are cheaper, however.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Spring planting season

 The alfalfa/grass that I planted last year didn't produce a stand that I liked enough to keep, so I'm plowing it under and trying again.   The previous owner of this farm would contract out the work, but I have the equipment and the tractors, so I'm doing it in-house to save a bit of money.

It does save money, but it also is a lot of work.  My equipment isn't as big as the custom guys -- my disk is 12' wide, not 30, and my plow is a 4 bottom instead of an 8,  and my tractor is only 125hp instead of 200, so each step takes me a little longer, but for the cost of maintenance and some diesel, I can get my 60 acres prepped and planted.  It takes 22 hours to plow the ground as the first pass, but I spent some time grading before I started plowing -- removing little hills and valleys that some flood in the past had put into the ground.  When I hay the ground later this year I don't want the mower to hit the ground, so I spent a day rounding all of the little hills and smoothing the valleys out so that all of the slope are gentle and mower-friendly.  

I'm choosing to plow the ground because it got packed hard by the harvesting of the corn last year; the corn chopper weighs a lot, and the semi-trucks loaded with 20 tons of silage each also contributed.   When it's hard-packed there's no space for water, and it's harder for plants to thrive.  Plowing increases the water holding capacity and softens the dirt for root development.
 Smoothing, then plowing, gives results that look like the picture above; it's not in condition to plant into; to break up the clods you need to go over it at least once with a disk harrow; once is best-case; you actually continue to run the harrow over the ground until you're satisfied with the texture of the dirt.  Plowing is relatively slow; discing is pretty fast, about 4x faster than plowing.

can you see the cows?
 This shot is when i'm halfway done with plowing.  It's a big field.

closeup of the same shot, showing cows

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Natures harmony farm for sale

Tim Young over at natures harmony caught my eye a few years ago when I saw a video he made of turkey processing,  which I thought was pretty well done.  At the time he was writing a farm blog and he seemed to be pretty involved with farming.

In fact, very involved.  He seemed to have no end of money, branched out into all sorts of animals all at once; laying hens and hogs and turkeys and sheep and cattle...  and after a while I started reading what he was writing closely, and over time found that his views on animal husbandry didn't match mine, and in fact, when people tried to talk to him about it, he'd basically boot them -- and I got booted, too.   I wrote an entry about this and he didn't like it at all.

He'd talk about his flock of sheep, and how they were all having parasite problems, and then when people pointed out that he could just worm them and they'd be fine, he really didn't take that well.  He came up with the idea that feeding his flock of laying hens 50% of what they needed would promote foraging and was surprised when his egg production dropped off, and then more surprised when hundreds of the hens died.
He talked about his terrible losses in his book, accidental farmers -- and if you'd like to see what other farmers thought of his practices, Take a look at these reviews by experienced farmers.

After a while, he apparently got tired of actually doing the farm work, and put an ad out looking for farm help.  But he called them "interns" and apparently wanted to pay them around $4/hour, which I wrote about here.

So now, after years of promoting his decision to "turn his back on corporate life" and proclaiming his joy at homesteading... he's selling the farm.   Guess a few years of life on the farm isn't really your dream anymore, Tim?

It's an interesting exit strategy.  he's spent, by my reckoning, more than a million bucks on this farm, and while he claims to be open, it's not clear why he's selling it.   He's listed it at 1.5 million and claims that it generates $10k a month in free cash flow.  I'd be curious to see his books.

What's odd about this is that he just did a kickstarter project begging for money to build a cheese cave for this farm.  If you're making $10k a month, do you really need to crowdsource money?  just save your pennies for a few months.

first listing with pictures here

Second listing here

Update 4-15-2014: More listings!

I'm not sorry to see him get out of farming.  Kinda happy about it, actually.  If you'd like to get booted off his facebook page, ask him why he's selling his farm.   Or better yet, what does he do with the bull calves that his dairy herd generates.  This is the guy who wrote a blog entry decrying the hatchery practice of killing male chicks.  "a life not wasted"...

So long, Tim.