Thursday, June 15, 2017

The really, really big barn project

When I purchased the property it came with some big barns; about 50,000 square feet of them.  The largest barn was set up to house 300 dairy cattle, but honestly I have never been impressed with it.

The big barn in 2013, Sean there for scale
The barn itself is 250'x100'x20' tall, and the tall sides mean that rain would blow in from every side, so much so that the outside 20' or so of the barn was basically never dry - I couldn't keep any animal there.  The previous owner of my farm froze 38 dairy cattle to death in this barn, which gives you an idea of how cold it could be, rain, snow or shine.

the other problems were that it had been built without any water supply - as in no water within 100 feet of any side of this barn, and the gates and setup were, well, odd.  To me, anyway.  Probably perfectly good for holding full-sized holsteins or jerseys, but certainly not very good for pigs, and not at all good for small pigs.

Over the next few years I did do some things that made the space work better for me but I kept having problems with wet, cold and generally not very welcoming conditions inside the barn.  For as much roof as this barn has it wasn't very dry anywhere.

So I finally bit the bullet and am putting sides and ends on this barn

The basic barn structure is there.  I had to add girts first, and then start putting up the siding.  To keep the barn useable without artificial light I designed in a 4' clear panel at the top of the walls, which I'm hoping will provide enough natural light inside that it can be used without artificial light if you choose.  I'll still put lights in there so that it can be fully lighted if need be, but prefer to have a natural light option.

This is honestly the largest building i've ever worked on.  I walked out a few hundred feet to get the picture above.  Notice the manlift and people a little to the left of center of that picture.
 My brother Bryan, my Nephew Dillan and his college roommate Alex are helping me with this project.  Extra money for the college guys.  No idea why Bryan is helping ;)

I grew up remodeling houses with my mother, and so my first jobs were all basically construction jobs, and I forget sometimes how foreign hand tools are to the xbox generation.  The first few days were teaching these kids how to use the tools and then watching them to make sure that they were being safe.  Harness and safety glasses.  I should probably get them helmets, too.  Making a list.

This is what the finished sidewall looks like.  the top 4' clear panels are attached; the building wasn't sided prior to this, and so I'm going to have to extend the roof a few inches to provide an overhang before I attach the gutters.  I'm waiting on the roof extension metal now; when it arrives we'll wrap up this side.

On the "you never know until you try" - the 4' clear panels do provide enough light inside the barn so that you don't need more light for most tasks.  that's nice to confirm.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Farm activity summary

 Out in the hayfield the alfalfa and orchard grass are responding well to the weather.  Lush growth and lots of it.   I never have the weather at this time of year to make grass hay, so I'll be turning the cows loose on it to graze it down a little.  Hay weather in a month or so.  The cows will enjoy this.

 When I planted the vinyard I put down some alfalfa seed between the rows with the idea of grazing it with some sort of animal.  I'm using piglets right now, and the mix is about right, so I'm moving 50 pigs down the rows and they're doing a pretty complete job.  Simple pen of hog panels attached with high-tensile coils.  they're pretty easy to move, and for this size pig are more than sufficient to contain them.
 The pigs are doing their part - in this case I'm grazing it down to bare earth, and planting buckwheat every time I move the pen.  The buckwheat is good for the soil, good for beneficial insects, and the pigs like it, and it competes well with the alfalfa.  Unlike the alfalfa it's an annual, so it'll go back to alfalfa mostly next year. 
If you look at the top of the photo here you can see the re-purposed calf shelter bedded with straw that I provide to the piglets for shelter.  Not pictured is the automatic water and the free-choice food.  They will remove vegetation even if they have all the food they can eat.  Pigs like a varied diet and they love to be on the ground and moving dirt.  So they till it up and weed it for me in one pass.

The final weeding for the grapes is to get the weeds that are in the row, between the vines.  I haven't figured out a way to do that with pigs, so I do it the old fashioned way - with a hoe and a book on tape.  Kinda routine, relaxing word.  good way to commune with the vinyard for a half hour a day.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Planting season - fixing the disc harrow

 It's that time of year again, and I'm inspecting the disc harrow prior to using it for this season.  I know that it needs a couple of bearings replaced, and I give it a once-over to see what else needs to be fixed.  I use a yellow pad and jot down everything; scrapers need adjusting, bearings replaced, triangle warning sign on the back needs to be replaced - it's really faded and I'll be on the road with this implement - and I need to replace a red reflector on one side, also for road use.
 The disks are mounted on a square stock axle with a couple of nuts on the end holding it together.   So to fix the bearing you have to remove the jam nut and then the retaining nut, and then start sliding the disks and spacers off the axle.  One of the bearings I was replacing was on the nut end of the axle - which made it easier to replace.  It's hard to tell sizes here - the disks are about 24" tall, so that pipe wrench in the first picture is a pretty big wrench - maybe 24".  I need the length because they're on tight, and rusted.  Some oil and elbow grease and things come apart.
 The new bearing comes with a gasket, and I inspect the kit carefully.  Some of the bearings on agricultural equipment are elliptical - the outer case is not round, and sometimes there's something you should know in the parts.  There are no instructions.  In this case one of the bolts that holds the two bearing cups together was about half the lengthe of the other three bolts.  That one goes down.  got it.
 I replace the bearing on the nut side, and move on to the second bearing,  I take the whole thing apart and pull the axle out, and then thread it through the new bearing, and get it all back together, but I'm short about 2".  Where did I lose the 2"?  I look at the bearings, the discs, look to see if I'm losing space between the discs - cannot figure it out.  Until I spot what's in the picture above.  When I removed the axle I neglected to remove the old bearing run.  So i have to take the whole thing apart again, remove that bit, and then put it all back together.  So that killed 90 minutes.
the disc assemblies are very heavy - maybe 250lbs or so, and since I'm working on it suspended in the air I'll place a block or jack to stop it from falling on me.  These things are sharp.  

Once I get the disk axle back in shape I put the scrapers back on.  You can see them in the first picture - they're blades that scrape the dirt that collects on the disk off, and are used when you're disking wet or clay soil - they keep the disk from clogging up.  Since I'm working with them I inspect each blade and respace a couple of them, and then go over the other 4 scraper units and adjust those.

that done I grease all of the bearings, new and old, replace the triangle reflector, and I'm done.  I spin each assembly to make sure that they spin free and easily, and nothing is scraping, and then pull the disc out of the barn, fuel and grease the tractor, and then check the oil.  Ready to go for tomorrow.

I try to do the maintenance of the tools in the winter, but it seems like there's always something that needs to be fixed.   Next implement to inspect is the plow, and after that the planter.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

gardening with pigs

One of the things about gardening is removal of the weeds or unwanted plants, and replacing it with plants that you want.  Lots of people do that with tractors, or by hand tools, or by hand, but I do it with piglets.  

 In this case I made a small pen out of hog panels - They're 34" tall and 16' long.  I string them together using bits of high-tensile fence wire bent into spirals.  If you look on the left side of the picture above, you'll see one of the coils there.   This is actually one of the best ideas for this sort of thing that I've run across.  High tensile fence is about 3 cents a foot, and so this closure costs me between 30 and 50 cents, and is re-usable.  To attach two panels together you start at the top and "screw" it into the panel.  The wire is plenty tough enough to hold the panels together, and the joint can be used for a corner or a sharp bend, so you don't have to bend up or damage your hog panels in any way.  Pretty slick!

So I make a pen with these panels, drop in a calf dome  for a shelter, and add some piglets.

The top picture in this post shows the difference that one day of grazing by the piglets makes.  Most of the vegetation is gone, and all of the above-ground weeds are removed.  Sticks, brush and trees do slow the weeding process down, but the pigs will remove everything - and then I'll creep the pen in the direction I want to clear.

This works very well between trees in an orchard, between rows of grape vines, or in garden areas being prepared for planting.  If I'm going to plant something in this soil I can either lightly till the soil to remove the roots, or sow directly into the soil.  The pigs have added urine and manure to the mix, and have trampled and chewed on everything they didn't want to eat, and even if the weeds have roots remaining it's not every hard to keep them in check.

In this case I'm having the pigs clear out blackberries and volunteer grass from between the rows in my vinyard .  I planted the vinyard in 10' wide rows to allow me to do this sort of activity; I just bend the hog panels so that the pigs can't get at the young grape vines and move it 5 to 10' a day.  It moves pretty easily; I use pull the panels by hand, and the pigs walk inside their pen, and enjoy the new salad bar.

Note:  While pigs do enjoy rooting and will supplement their diet with whatever they find in their pen, I'm still offering them a complete ration free-choice.  They don't have to be hungry to do this sort of work, and little guys like this need proper nutrition to keep themselves in good shape and to grow as they should.

If you run across someone who claims that pigs can be raised on forage alone take those claims with a grain of salt.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Fences and cows

I have an old railroad grade that runs along the south edge of my property - the county purchased it a decade ago for use as a trail, and I really hadn't thought much about it until they came and mowed it, and suddenly I've got a cow highway!

So add another 5,000 feet of fenceline to my list of things to be done this spring.  As I did with the orchard fence I put up a 4 wire setup.  I put up double H braces every thousand feet or so, and a field post every 100' or so, or where the ground elevation rises or falls.   It's funny; whenever I'm out there alone in the pasture I get the distinct impression that someone is watching me and...
They are!  The cows are acting nonchalant, but they'll drift over and eventually they'll form a semi-circle around me to solemnly scrutinize whatever fascinating thing I'm doing.   It's a bit of a chore to put the fence up, but I do like working with my hands and doing a neat job of it.  3 days of work and I've got the first 2,000 feet fenced; I'll finish the other 2,000 feet Monday or Tuesday of next week. 

Because this is a permanent fence, I'll take the time to run my track hoe down the fence line to smooth the ground underneath the lowest wire - I want a consistent 12" clearance, and I'd like to be able to be reasonably sure that the fence is able to contain all of the livestock, pigs and cows alike, so a little extra work now means that I should have years of trouble free fencing. 

This year I'll be doing cross fencing to make the pasture into paddocks that I can use for different purposes; some for hay, some for corn, that sort of thing.   More on that later. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

High tensile fence, 5 years experience

There is nothing that a cow finds more delicious than young fruit trees, and they'll destroy them if they get the chance.  So I'm putting a good fence around my new orchard to protect it. 

I've been using high-tensile fences as my go-to fence for the last 5 years.  When I first started I made 8 or 10 wire fences; right now my current standard is 4 wire fences, and I find that works well to keep the pigs and cows where they should be, and also works with dogs, which was a bonus for my airedale pack.

When I started using high tensile fences I used 4x4 posts for the braces.   Even pressure treated they don't hold up very well to cattle and pigs; a cow won't break your high tensile fence running into it, but may very well snap the post and lay the fence down in that area enough so that they can get out.  So I switched for a while to 6x6 posts for the braces, and then downgraded to 4x6 braces for cost reasons.  My current braces are constructed of 4x6 posts, and the field posts are also 4x6 to make them more resistant to snapping if they get heavy contact from livestock or a careless tractor operator.
H brace details.  Black is wood, green is wire
 High tensile is not meant for short distances - it's great for long runs, but at the end of every run there needs to be a brace, and most of the time it's a double H brace.  The picture above shows a double-h brace (top) and a wire-reinforced double H brace, bottom.  The wire helps support the H brace against pulls to the left and right, and if you're going to have a good tight fence you need this sort of really sturdy H brace to make it go. 

In my area 4x6 timbers are $18 each, so the brace itself costs $90 for the wood.  I use (3) 80lb sacks of concrete at the base of each post at $4 each, adding another $36.  Each individual line will need a spring and a tensioner, that run about $8 each, so for my four wire setup you're going to add another $32.  the ceramic insulators that I  use are a couple of bucks (more on these later).

I mention that because its' basically $126 in material costs for each end of your run, plus $32 for the hardware between it.  The wire itself is about 3 cents a foot.  For long runs I put a double H brace every 500 feet, or on either side of a gate opening wherever they are.

So the cost of a high tensile fence 4 strands and 50' long would be (126 + 126 + 32 + 50*4*.03) for the ends, and $18 for each of the two field posts, for a total of  $326 - or $6.50/foot

The cost of a high tensile fence 4 strands and 500' long would be $632 or $1.20/foot. (the brace costs + 16 4x6 field posts)

The longer the run the better the economics are. 

I'm describing a really hefty brace for a reason; I've pulled braces out that were set on driven-posts, were constructed of too light a timber, or just weren't beefy enough and I squished them as I tensioned the fence.  If you want a good fence you make a good brace. 

My final brace design.  Red are electric wires, black are inert
 The picture above shows an end-of-run fence brace.  I electrify the top and bottom wire of the brace.  The wires are spaced 1' apart, starting 1' off the ground.  I have tried wires lower than 1' and it's just too much of a nuisance with weeds and other stuff contacting the lower wire.  12" seems to be low enough to deter pigs, but high enough to reduce fence shorts. 

The top wire is 48" above the ground level, and is the primary wire that keeps the cows in. 

The two wires in the middle are just there to prevent animals from ducking  under the top wire, or jumping over the bottom wire.  I will place field posts so that I can direct the wire up or down to follow the ground contour, and I'll smooth the ground so that there's no depressions under the fence.  

I used to run my hot wires across the H brace but I had problems both insulating the hot wires from contact with the brace reinforcing wires (green in the pictures above) and with the posts.  there are various plastic tubes you can use, but I've never been happy with any of them.  I've switched to ceramic insulators and they do the job nicely. 
Ceramic insulator that is considering flipping (bad)

ceramic insulator being good

post ceramic insulator

Note position of ceramic insulator outside of brace area. 
 I put my tensioners in the brace area.  With the ceramic insulators placed, I can then tighten the fence without having to turn the fence off, and I have a cleaner electric fence line - so I can go longer distances and deliver a better shock.  The less contact the live wires have the more range you get out of your fence charger. 

So I'll make a brace at one end, and t hen the other, and then I'll run a neutral (non-electric wire) between the two.  I'll tension that wire, and that gives me a line to place my field posts.  I've settled on 30 to 40 feet between fence posts, and found that for a pretty fence an even spacing is all that you need.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Cultivating and bees

Note:  if you are in the pacific northwest, and want to keep bees, THIS IS THE TIME TO DO IT.  You have the month of april to get your hive started, and there's plenty of places selling packages that are local.  Check the farm and garden section of craislist in your area or your local bee store.  Beez Kneez in Snohomish is a good one.
tilling between the rows of berries
 This is where a straight row really pays off.  The rototiller fits exactly between the rows, so tilling up the area between the plants is pretty easy.  I put down a bunch of compost prior to the tilling, so it's mixed in between the rows.  This row is the berry row; marion berries and raspberries.  Several varieties; this year I'll take a look at how they are doing and cull the non-performing plants in favor of the cultivars that do well.  With marion berries and raspberries that's pretty easy - take parts of the plants that work and just move them down the row.  Marion berries will grow roots if you bury the tip of the vine in the soil.  Raspberries can be propogated by digging up a bit of the growing plant.

a 3lb package of bees with queen
 The packages of bees arrived today, so I went and picked them up.  I set up a new package in a deep super, which is the bottom box in a bee hive.  The new bees will chew their queen out of her cage (she's held in by a marshmellow) and spend the next day or to scrubbing their hive and making it their own - they will patch any holes in the hive, start producing wax to build out comb and generally get the hive ready for business.  After they concentrate on that box for a couple of days I'll add a second box to give them more space.
Watching the stragglers putting themselves in the hive
The metal circle in the top picture of a package of bees is a can with sweet food for the bees.  Sometimes it's sugar, sometimes corn syrup, they feed off that while they're being shipped.  The queen is kept in a very small cage that is attached to the package next to the feed can.

So the process of "hiving" a package is to set the hive up with its frames, then take the center 3 frames out.  You rap the package on a hard surface to knock all of the bees to the bottom, and then carefully pull out the feed can.  That allows you to access the queen cage, and you pull that out and then replace the can to keep the rest of the bees in the container.

The queen cage is capped with a small cork.  Making sure not to let the queen out you replace the cork with a marshmellow, and then place the queen at the bottom of the hive.  Then back to the pack, another sharp rap, and then you pull the feed can and dump the 10-15,000 bees into the space left by the three frames.  You'll have to shake it a bunch of times to get most of the bees out, and then  you carefully, and gently, replace the frames.  I use a hive inner lid, which is shown, and it has an oval hole it in.  I'll gently place that on top of the hive and then let the straggler bees find the hive and enter it via the hole.  Around sunset they are all in there, and I slip the lid on and that's it.

I don't wear protective gear doing this; the bees are usually pretty mellow, but I do use a little smoke.  No gloves, no veil. just calm, purposeful movement.  I think I'm getting less sensitive to stings; i did get stung once - i accidentally smashed a bee while lifting the hive, but that happens sometimes.

I like to listen after dark to the new hive.  What I like to hear is the chewing sound of the bees doing their housekeeping.  it's pretty subtle, but it shows that they are customizing their new home.

I restrict the entrance to the hive to a single 1/2" notch.  This allows the bees to keep raiding bees from other colonies out; a couple of guard bees can easily block the entrance, and this helps the hive concentrate on making their new home.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Concreting the barn

The farm that I purchased was originally used to milk 300 holstein-sized cows, with another 150 cows on the property that weren't being milked.  So my barns at time of purchase were set up to house 450 cows inside a barn for the whole year.  The cows typically wouldn't ever exit a building.

My pig operation wants to provide shelter and labor-saving for the winter months when things aren't growing, but the majority of the time I want the pigs to be outside doing their pig thing.

I have 4 main barns; a 30'x100' birthing shed, a 100'x80' wooden hay barn, a 44'x110' heifer barn, and a 250'x100' main barn.

The big construction project for this spring is putting in a new floor in the 44x110' heifer barn.  for as large a barn as it is, it's pretty much unusable in its current form.
This picture is one reason why.  The floor of this barn is perpetually wet.  Not just damp; streams of water flow across it most of the time.  Next to this barn is a large slab of concrete, and when rain hits it the water flows to the edge of this barn, and then against a 24" concrete wall that was poured along
the edge.  The "easy to do" picture is how they formed up that wall.  The red is the slab, and the black is the wall.  The water flows in the crevice between the wall and the floor, and while the flow is slowed by the wall, that just means that it continues to dribble out for days after it rains.

Had they poured the wall as shown in "the right thing to do" the water would have been mostly prevented from entering the barn in the first place; or if it had it would have been easy to fix.  and much stronger.  The way these knee walls are formed leaves them liable to be knocked free by normal activity - i've broken them free myself.

As it is, to dry out the floor of this barn, I'd either have to put in a drain along the full 110' length (and then figure out somewhere for the drain to empty to!) or I'd have to do something to try to seal the concrete, or both.

The walls that they formed are curbs for pushing manure around, and I really don't need that in my operation.  Maybe a perimeter wall so that i can scrape the barn with a tractor without damaging the walls.  So what I'm going to do is to remove the walls and curbs, and then put a few inches of gravel down, compact that, and then lay a plastic sheet over the whole floor.  Both for vapor barrier and to keep the concrete from getting into the gravel.
The basic plan isn't to try to restrict the flow of the water, it's to give it a place to flow that doesn't affect the use of the barn - basically raise the floor about 8" from where it is now.  As a side benefit I'll also increase the grade (the slope of the floor) so that water drains from the barn more easily when I pressure wash it or clean it.   And finally I'm going to do a trowel-finish, so that there's less texture for the bedding or material to stick to.  It's a little less firm for footing, but every crack and crevice is someplace that is hard, or impossible, to clean, and being able to completely clean animal areas is important for biosecurity reasons.

I've got two contractors coming on saturday to give me estimates, and one on monday.  Curious what they'll quote me for this slab.  it's 5500 or so square feet, 2% slope, trowel finish. about 60 yards of concrete.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Planting trees and berries

If you're looking to grow fruit trees in western washington, I found this reference very handy.  WSU has done more than a decade of research on what grows well in our area, and gives you all of the information that you need to pick the trees that have the best shot at doing well for you.  

What I'm doing here is for personal use mostly - it's a lot of trees, but I'll keep them small - 7 to 8' tall so that they can be handled from the ground and the fruit easily picked, and I'll fence around the orchard to keep out the walking critters - cows love the new leaves on fruit trees, and they like scratching on the posts, so it's a disaster if they get into the orchard.  

The overall idea is to have some fruit available the whole summer and into the fall; a few trees ripening every week, and every two weeks or so a new blueberry variety ripening.  This is opposite the goal of a commercial planting where you'd like everything to get ripe about the same time.  

The plantings are also being done down the road to shield the house from the road a little, so I'm planning on these trees becoming a hedge of sorts when they're mature.  So I've staggered the two rows of trees so that the second row is centered between the first row to provide the most visual blockage.

New orchard tilled and prepped
I laid out the new orchard over the last few days; plowed and leveled and then did some fertilizing with manure and compost.   It looks great in this photo, but this was before the rain.  

Did i mention the rain?  I've gotten 4 inches of rain in the last 10 days, and it's pouring down right now.  No need to water those new plantings; mother nature is taking care of it for me :)
Baling twine is my go-to tool for this sort of work.  I'd like the plant spacing to be accurate, and I'd like straight lines as much as possible so I can move equipment  up and down the rows if I need to without hitting the plants, and baling twine is a cheap way to do that.  For plant spacing I'll just tie a loop at every space that I want a plant at, and then re-use the same length of twine for each row.  Makes it a little easier to do a neat and professional job. 
You can see the raindrops hitting the puddles. 
The wet conditions actually were nice for the plants.  The majority of the plantings I'm doing right now are bare-root, and having them be wet the whole time is good to keep them in condition.  I've found that with bare-root plantings it's best to get them into the ground as quickly as possible, so I laid out the orchard and prepped the ground before I purchased the plants.   

I planted the following:

10 sweetheart cherry
5 hardired nectarine
2 shiro plum
2 lapin cherry
3 Italian plum
4 bing cherry
4 vandalay cherry
4 puget gold apricot

I also established a blueberry patch; 10 plants each of 

For the trees I dug a hole 3' square, and then did 50/50 compost and soil into the hole, added some fertilizer (10-10-10) and then mulched on top with wood chips, sawdust and/or straw (depending on where I was scraping the barns) to a depth of 2-3".  Each tree is staked, and the trunk is tied to the 2" post, and then the trees were all pruned for shape and size.  

For the bluberries I dug a trench for each variety, mixed in sawdust and compost, and then planted the blueberries.  I'll mulch them as I did with the trees.  Mulching is a lot less labor than weeding later.  

Monday, March 20, 2017

Spring tasks

Here's a list of the things that are happening on the farm in the next month: 

Apple tree winter prune - go over the trees before they start waking up, thin them and shape them.  

Plant more trees:  purchased another 10 fruit trees; prepare the orchard area, level it, prepare the soil,
lay the orchard organization out, and then plant the trees.   I'm planting nectarines, apricots and cherries.  

Order bee packages for pickup april 2nd or so:  Going to order 5 new packages today to replace
winter loss and add another 2 hives to my bees for the 2017 year.  

Order personal garden seeds; I love homegrown tomatoes, so some heritage tomatoes.  I like to
eat fresh carrots and beets, so a decent quantity of both of them.  Carrot seed in pelleted form because  the seeds are sooo tiny!  when they arrive in a few days I'll get the tomatoes started immediately.  

Prep a barn for a new concrete floor; my 100' x 30' calving/farrowing barn has a mix of dirt and concrete floors, and I'd rather have a sloped concrete floor, so sand, gravel, dirt, compaction and then laying out a slab and ordering the line pump and concrete.  And gullible relatives.  :)

Final grape pruning, and grape arbor fertilization and cultivation.  placement  of compost/manure between the rows and then rototilling it into the ground to kill the weeds and mix the compost and manure into the ground, and then a cover crop between them.  I'll be running chicken tractors down the rows, so I'll plant something that chickens like to eat.  

Fencing inspection, repair and construction:  I'll be walking the entire perimeter fence to make sure that it's in good, servicable shape after the winter storms and floods, repairing what needs it and then making some changes for utility.  I'm going to start to rotate the cows through various areas of the farm, so I'll need some cross fencing and an aisle to make that easier, so that's on the list.  

As far as animals go I'll be selling last years calves for feeders in a month or so - I wait until people have grass to feed the steers, the price gets better.  I will retain one of them for personal beef, and the rest go to market.  

I'll also be culling 20 to 30 sows based on their performance as mothers, leaving me with around 100 productive older sows, and I'll select 20 piglets as replacement sows.   Our piglet production this year needs to be around 2000, and I may make it with the sows I have on hand.  we've hand some challenges with weaning numbers in the winter, but it usually improves as the weather improves.  This has been a cold, wet, windy winter.  Looking forward to some warmth and sun myself.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Sugar Mountains' butcher shop project - year 9 and counting

Just a note - if you're a farmer, and you want some free money, kickstarter seems like a great place to get it.  Here's why I say that:

The project money is offered basically with no, or not many, strings.  That is, if your project is late or has a delay, or just doesn't get done at all, there's very little recourse your backers have.  So from the perspective of the person receiving the money, it's a great deal. 

The idea was to build and operate a meat processing facility on the farm where the pigs were - and by doing so capture some of the money that would normally be spent transporting the pigs to slaughter and then picking up the processed pigs at a later date, and the fees that would be charged for that. 

The basic thinking is that instead of the revenue going to some other organization that it would be retained on the farm.  For any farm, the prospect of getting more of the retail dollars spent on their product is appealing, and the second benefit is that having more control over your process would
allow better and easier scheduling.  You could process when you had orders.  No downside.  

Walter Jefferies also had the goal of " sourced demonstration of how a family can bootstrap their own USDA/State inspected meat processing facility. "

The risk with kickstarter projects is that the average internet user isn't used to evaluating risks and challenges of a small business, and isn't usually given any tools to do so.  when you go to a bank and ask for money they may ask for a business plan, tax returns, revenue forecasts - past and future - and other documentation that shows that you've done your homework and that at least on paper the venture pencils out.  

In this case one of the first things that Walter did was buy a scalder/dehairer for $40,000, which he duly noted as having arrived, but what's funny about that is that there's no mention of that machine for the next 5 years.  No pictures of it installed, no pictures of it in use.  Near as I can tell the machine has been sitting there, in its factory packaging, for the last 5 years.  

I've scalded and scraped more than my share of pigs; takes about an hour per pig for one person do
do a good job, and with the volume of 20 pigs a month that walter claims he's doing, that would cost roughly $400 (figuring labor at $20/hour for 20 hours) per month. 

Which means, on a labor saving basis, that machine will pay itself off in... well, never.  But I understand wanting new stuff myself.  

Here's the latest schedule from Walters website:

I've asked Walter on the kickstarter page if he ever plans to complete the USDA portion of this project; and two weeks after asking no reply.  

Walters kickstarter backers have been complaining about the schedule for the last few years, but as mentioned previously, there's not much recourse.  He'll either complete it (or not) and if you get anything he promised you, well, that's a bonus.    

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Eagle kill

I was out working in the barns when I heard a ruckus going on.  It sounded like the ravens, and they sounded pretty mad.  I walked out of the barn and started towards the fuss, and I couldn't see what they were diving on, but it was something.  

The last time that the ravens got this upset it was a bobcat that was traversing my property.  I could see that this time it was an immature bald eagle or a golden eagle - not sure which.  both of them are kind of brown from a distance.  the bald eagles don't turn black with a white head until maturity.  

 When I got close enough to see I could definitely see that it was a golden eagle.   I've never seen one around here, and it's a pretty impressive bird.  And it had caught a pretty impressive lunch!  I made the identification because of the leg feathers.  Bald eagles have different leg feathers even when immature.

 The eagle spooked before I got close, and so I walked over to take a look at its kill.  A young canadian goose, maybe 12 or 13lbs.  Probably less than a year old.  Considered taking it back to the house because goose is just delicious, but decided that I'd let the eagle claim its prize - if the ravens allowed that!
 Bird was warm and limp.  The kill appeared to be through the back of the bird.  No marks on its head; all of the talon wounds were in the middle of its back between the wings.
 In the picture below you can see the eagle watching me to see what I'll do.  When I retreated the eagle came back and resumed its lunch.  the eagle is on the tallest tree, on the second big branch down from the top.  Looks like a little black dot.  Maybe 500 yards from where the kill is - far enough to be safe from any danger, but close enough that the eagle eye can keep a good watch on me.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Rain, rain, flood, flood

I make my rounds today, make sure that everyone has food, clean bedding and dry, and that all of the livestock is in a barn and safe.   the pigs have a lot more sense than the cows; on a really rainy windy day they'll just stay in an snooze.,  But the cows are stupidly curious, and really aren't deep thinkers.  So I'll make sure they don't get into trouble.,  Nothing like chasing cows around through a flood.

I live next to an uncontrolled river, and it's an active one.  When I purchased this farm I was a little disappointing that I had a 12-15 foot bank on the side of the river, but after a few years I've honestly wished it was a little higher than that!

The nice thing about the floods is that they come and go pretty quickly; if we get water around the house it's usually only there for a few hours.  For a short period of time I live in a houseboat!  (well, at least it looks that way - glance out the window in any direction and see nothing but flowing water!)

The conditions are pretty good for a flood.  We've had heavy snows in the mountains upstream of me, and now have warm air and heavy rain falling on the new snow.  As you can see in the graph up there the river rises pretty quickly; at 8-9 feet it goes to coffee-with-milk color because it's churning up the bottom, and at 12-13 feet it goes darker because it's chewing up the banks and you see trees going down the river.

at 14 feet you see big trees, and lumber - bits of sheds and houses.

at 15 feet you're seeing lots of big trees and the river is running through the trees across the entire valley with the occasional dead cow or parts of houses.   I've seen 15 feet+ three times since i've moved here, and it's pretty impressive.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Long term weather forecasts

I look at the long term weather forecasts every year at this time to see if there's anything that it shows me.  Given that the forecasts are months in advance, there's no guarantee that they'll come through, but I figure it's better than flipping a coin, and I'm hoping that a couple of hundred years of studying the weather has made our forecasts more accurate over time :)

NOAA Long term weather forecast site
Click on the caption below the picture to get to the site. 
The long term forecast shows a slightly greater chance of warmer-than-usual weather this summer, and that bodes well for my planned corn crop, which gives me a little more leeway in the seed choice I make.  

I don't really trust the forecasts all that much, but it is nice to have a rational reason for making a pick, even if it's a pick that I would have made on gut feeling alone :)

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Calculating corn: The corn math

It doesn't seem like something that you need to put much thought in when you grow a vegetable.  Most people have grown something - tomatoes are popular - and some folks have even put in a garden and tended it over the season.

When I grow corn there's a lot of choices to be made; what ground, how much, what seed, plant and row spacing, fertilizer and other amendments, and cultivation/weed control.  

My corn is grown for my own operations - that is, my intention is to feed it to my own animals, so I've got a captive market for it - read I don't have to sell it to anyone else, no marketing costs - and to be economically viable I have to compete against my other source of corn - feed mills, which sell pretty expensive corn.  a bushel of corn that a farmer might sell for $4 in Iowa comes to me as hog feed at $0.20/lb - or roughly $11 a bushel.   Of course hog feed has ingredients other than corn, but it's mostly corn, and since that's relatively easy me for me grow, I'll grow it myself. 

Corn requires a certain amount of heat per year to grow - growing days.  This is the number of days where the temperature exceeds 50 degrees.  In this area, western Washington, from April 1st to October 31st there's about 2,450 heat units available.  That is, the number of hours that the temperature exceeds 50 degrees.     
Link to the full page for this seed
These heat units are part of how I make the decision on which seed I choose.  In this case variety P7213r has less heat units than I'm likely to have in the year, which means that there's a good chance that it will fully mature in the growing season that I have available to me.  The tradeoff between an "early" - read short growing season - variety and a longer growing season variety is yield.  This particular corn will theoretically produce less grain than longer-maturing corn, and I have to fight the urge to be an optimist and plant slower varieties because if it doesn't work out I don't get much of anything.  So I'll look through the varieties available for corn that has a heat unit requirement that is about what I'd expect from an average year.  If you'd like more information on CRM and GDD (growing degree days) check here.

To figure out what I had for growing degree days I have a weather station that I installed when I purchased the farm, and I use that data, and I refer to the WSU agricultural extension and to the weather underground.   My local climate is a bit warmer than is reported by the weather sites based on the readings of my weather station.  

Note on the weather station:  I've gone through a bunch of them over the years and this is the one that has lasted the longest of the bunch.  I want a consistent reading and I don't want to have to fiddle with the weather station, and this one has done the job.

 Note:  I have no connection with Pioneer, I'll just note that it is a very popular choice with the local farmers and seems to do well in this area.  

Speaking of that, copying what other farmers are doing in the area is something that I will do, too.  If you're using the same sort of seed you'll find it at local supply sources, too.  No need to ship it in from somewhere, and supporting the local businesses is generally good policy for me.

  Farmers tend to pick what works for them, and in the area they are.  So I'll watch carefully at local farms and note when they're tilling, when they're planting, when they're weeding and when they're cultivating.  I've got a guy who leases ground across the street from me and he is provided me with a heads up whenever there's haying weather.  When I see his mower arrive I break mine out :)

Having selected the seed, density plays a role.  If I were planting sweet corn I'd be going for large ears - that's what the consumer wants.  for grain corn I want the maximum number of corn kernels per acre, which for modern corn seed means planting very close together.  Each seed provider has a recommended seed spacing, and row spacing.  Most corn is planted in 30" rows, and most corn is planted between 5 and 9 inches apart in the row.    

At 5.5" apart and 30" rows, you'll be talking about 37,600 seeds per acre.  at 9" apart it's 23,000 plants per acre.  So why wouldn't you just plant them close together?   

Depends on the seed, and the goal.  for big ears you want them farther apart.  for maximum kernels, you'll probably want them closer.  Not every seed will germinate, and not every corn plant will make it to maturity.  So I'll plant a little closer to make up for the losses, and I'll accept the smaller ears for more ears and more grain overall.  

My first year planting corn I had some ravens that thought it was great fun to pull my little corn plants out by the roots.  And they pulled thousands of them out over a two  month span.  I couldn't figure out what was doing it - I kept coming out and finding corn plants drying on the ground, pulled out like green onions.  I finally staked out the field and found them doing it one day.   It stopped when the corn got big enough, but I lost the better part of an acre to the pesky birds.  

Corn seed comes in bags that contain about 80,000 corn kernels per bag - roughly 50lbs, but it varies.
So 1 bag of corn seed at $220 will plant about 2.3 acres - so I'll be spending roughly $4,000 for corn seed.  Add to that the cost of any soil amendments like lime, fertilizer and then the costs of tillage - fuel, repairs, labor and wear-and-tear, and , and the total bill gets pretty big pretty quick.  It wouldn't be too far off to guess that it might cost me $250/acre to get it all done.  

For a list of commonly performed soil preparation and what people pay for that work hired out in iowa, click here.   I can't really hire it out here because I cannot trust the local guys to do it.   If I want corn I have to do it myself.

So in return for the $250/acre, I'll get between 100 and 150 bushels of corn at harvest - 5600 to 8400 lbs, or between  2.25 and 4.2 tons of corn.   At the low end the corn is costing me $111 a ton.  At the high end it's costing me $59 a ton.  

So if the harvest works out, and the weather cooperates, and there's not a big drought, and plagues of insects don't appear, and the cows stay out of the corn and so on, I'll have feed at about 1/3rd the cost of what I'd normally be paying, which will add about $30k to the bottom line of my farm, which isn't bad pay for a part-time job.   

And that's the corn math.  

Sunday, January 29, 2017

How I get more acres to farm

I am current farming about 120 acres.  70 of those I own outright, and 50 I lease under various agreements.  I'd like to add another 40 to 60 acres this year, and this is basically how I'm doing it.

For a variety of reasons I'm going to not mention the area that I'm looking in.  I don't want to provide a road map for folks who would then compete with me, but I will describe the basic steps I take to find land to farm.

There's two parts to this search: finding land that will work for me, and reaching an agreement with the owner of that land that meets everyones needs.

What I look for are relatively level large areas, hopefully with other parcels around them that I might be able to farm as well.   The bigger the better.  If I can assemble 40 or 60 acres close together it means I have a shorter distance to travel when moving my equipment, and less moving means more working hours, which is good.

The first step is to just drive around looking.  I'm looking for fields that are either fallow or show signs of neglect, or are used for very-low-value crops, which in this area is probably local grass hay.  If they're growing something costly I'll tend to skip that acreage, at least initially.

Click on the letter to get a bigger version
In my case I'm after 40 to 60 more acres, so I'll send this letter out to roughly double that number of acres, 120.  It turns out that a bank I do business with has foreclosed on a 90 acre parcel in the area I'm looking at, so I'll also call the bank manager I know and see if I can lease that parcel as well.  90 acres is much more than I need, but I could then do a crop rotation on it.

I hand-write the addresses on the envelopes and stick a stamp on them by hand.  Hand written letters get opened more than printed ones, and each one is signed as well, by hand.  In this case I ended up sending out 12 letters.

In my area the landowners are being paid very little for the use of their land; i've talked to a few that have been convinced by the other farmers in their area that there is no market for leasing farmland,
and I'm happy to prove them wrong.

  Most of the land around me that remains undeveloped is the least-attractive land to develop.  That is, those areas that are subject to seasonal floods, in the flood plain of a river or stream, are wet for a portion of the year, or have some other reason that they haven't had a house built on them.

The Department of Ecology basically says that if your land is fallow for 5 year, and no tilling or crop production is done on it, and wetland plants and conditions arise, then it's wetland.  And once they decide its wetland, it's wetland forever.  There is no path back from wetland to farmland

So one basic service I'm providing for the landowner is that I'm protecting them from this unpaid conversion.  If the land is deemed a wetland it's worth a heck of a lot less than it is as farmland.

Another basic service is that I'll typically work to improve the property by clearing vegetation and weeds that usually have grown up, to the fence lines if I can.  This can be a large job on neglected acres, but I've got the equipment and experience to do a good job of it, and afterwards the land is available to the owner again.  Sometimes I'll trade clearing a fence line for the use of the land behind the fence so the owner can build or repair a fence, or to make surveying easier, or improve sight lines from there house.

The final benefit that I offer the landowners is that I provide proof that a crop was produced, and my lease payment per-acre typically more than covers the property tax.  If it doesn't I encourage the landowners to have their property declared open-space agriculture, which allows them to be taxed as agricultural land and can result in a reduction of the property tax bills of more than 90%.    I'm not an attorney, and there are some drawbacks, but most landowners who own agricultural lands should be in the open space program in my opinion.

Once I've got an indication of interest I'll go and walk the property in February when conditions are usually at their wettest and muddiest, and I'll have the soil tested, and based on that I'll make a firm offer on the land.  Some properties want year-to-year leases, others are good with multiyear.

If I can get multiyear it makes sense to do amendments to the soil (primarily lime, a natural rock soil amendment) and think about a crop rotation.  if it's not in the cards, a single year crop of corn and talk to the owner again next year.

So I'm mailing out the letters monday January 30th and I'm optimistic that I'll be able to add the 40 to 60 acres to the area that I farm this year.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Medical research ethics journal steals my photo

It's funny when publications that purport to be ethical steal from people.  In this case they liked my picture of my mean black pig so much that they stole it outright.

Shame on you, Stem Cell Ethics Education!  Shame!

My black pig picture was originally published here

$220 million to make egg-free mayonnaise?

There's a segment of society that is so sure that traditional food sources are bad that they're willing to put up hundreds of millions of dollars.  In this case it's to make artificial chicken eggs, and mayonnaise.  

I'm all for innovation, and if the were able to make a product that was better for the world, sure, people are free to eat whatever they like.  

But according to bloomberg they seem to have been playing funny games by buying all of their own product off of store shelves.  To the point that they sold $472k in product, but apparently spent $510k buying it back in the same month.  

My opinion?  Looks like they found some gullible investors trying to do the right thing, and took them in and sheared them.  Shaved the wool right off.  And laughed all the way to the bank.  

My rooster was shocked!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Deep freeze this week

So you guys who live in the midwest or anywhere where you get real winter weather are going to laught at me, but 10 degrees F (-12 degrees C) is pretty darned cold for around here.  We're definitely in winter operations mode right now.
Feeding aisle in main barn
Most of the year the pigs are out on the pasture; I offer barn shelter to them free-choice, and most of the pigs choose to sleep in the barn every night, but occasionally groups will do sleep-overs in the pasture, depending on how they feel.

But that's when the grass and crops are growing.  During the winter the key goal is to maintain the roots and plants on the pasture until they start growing again, so into the barn they go for the non-growing season.

It's a little more work to have them in the barn; mostly feeding, but in cold weather, like now, watering takes a bit more work, too.  At these temperatures water doesn't stay liquid, and hoses freeze, and pipes burst.

The picture above is of the feeding area for the pigs; there's a gate on either end.  I'll use a tractor and spread out a layer of produce over the whole aisle; probably 2 tons or so of fruits and vegetables and bread and so on, and then pull the tractor out, open the gate, and the pigs, who have been waiting impatiently on the other side of the gate, flood in.  With enough floor space every pig is able to find a patch of ground to forage, and they pretty quickly eat everything thats on the menu.  takes them about 20 minutes to consume everything here.

you'll notice that the alley has been narrowed with concrete blocks.  I do that so that the alley is 6" wider than the bucket of my tractor - makes it easier to get the whole aisle clean in a single tractor pass.  The floor itself has grooves formed into it that run the length of the aisle, and the whole thing is graded so that the far end of the picture is about 6" lower than the near end - that way any liquid runs downhill and out of the barn.  Right now any liquid mostly freezes solid though, so I get it when I scrape the barn.

I'll let them pick through everything overnight - some of the pigs will stay up all night nosing through every inch of the feeding area, and by morning i'll find them all snoozing in a pig pile in the sleeping area.  I'll close the gate, bring the tractor in and scrape the concrete floor of the barn clean.

What comes off the floor is a mix of things that the pigs just don't like very much.  orange peels (they eat the orange itself), onions and potatoes are the most likely left overs.  If there's a lot of onions and potatoes I'll scoop that up and put it where the cows can eat it to get as much use out of the food as I can.  the rest gets placed into the composting area, where it'll stay until early planting season, which is usually sometime in april around here for corn.

After scraping the barn I check on the water supplies; in a pinch I use sheep troughs and a hose, and carefully drain the hose and detach it from the frost-free faucet after use.  I've had decent luck with using my pig water setup.  There's usually enough activity on the waterer to keep it from freezing solid.  If it does freeze it usually breaks one of  the fittings, so it's a buck or two to fix it and 10 minutes with a pipe wrench.  If it does break the biggest nuisance is that the water sprays until I find it, and that can mean for some pretty amazing ice sculptures.

I'm mixed about whether fixing it is worth avoiding the trough setup.  so far I've been fixing it, but I'm always interested in 4 season solutions.  Anything that cuts down on daily work is good.