Thursday, August 30, 2012

Putting up a fabric barn

I've been talking about my barn for a while, but you may not have realized it. 

I talked for a while about doing doing the site preparation for a thickened slab, and then preparation for a slab, and then about parts of the slab being poured and finished.    First part, second partfinal part

I talked about the walls of the barn, which I made out of ecology blocks -- they're tough, relatively cheap around here, and for my barn, I want something that I can clean with a tractor without fear of breaking something.  So I want it high enough to drive my tractor through with walls that can be scraped clean.  Ecology blocks fit the bill. 

I talked a bit about my initial plans for the barn, in particular, how I was thinking about making a hoophouse from scratch, and I went as far as to get some pipe and the tools to thread and bend it, but I decided not to do that for this structure. 

Here's the current state of the barn today.   Tomorrow we'll have the rest of the purlins in, and will put in the cable reinforcements and then the fabric covering.

This particular building is farmtek item #PB00800R4W.  I purchased this at retail price, and have received no consideration or compensation.  I'm strictly a customer of farmtek. 

I'll write up a description of the assembly in a couple of days, just wanted folks to know what I'd been working on. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

New blog I read...

If you're looking at this through the mobile view, you'll have to switch to the regular to see the list of "blogs I follow".  There's a new one there, thoughtful food farm

He's made a couple of posts that are interesting: 

He tried raising pastured rabbits per Natures Harmony, and decided it didn't work. 

He's raised a batch of pigs for sale in the area, and did a very nice writeup of the costs and profits of that operation. 

He's workng very hard to harvest some barley.  Harder than I would.  Maybe he'll make beer!

I love it when someone actually talks about the numbers and the work. 

Saturday, August 25, 2012


When pigs are newborn, their ears are flat against their heads, and a little shiny.  These guys are all of an hour old, and doing what their instincts demand -- find a nipple and latch on for dear life. 

This is a litter of 13 pigs from sow #29; shes been a particularly good sow, dependable, raises good pigs, and calm, for the most part; but a little barky when her piglets squeal, which is actually not a bad trait when shes out on pasture with them. 

One of the little pigs isn't oriented, and is smaller than the others.  There's been a trend in small farms to espouse "letting nature take its course" -- basically, toss the animals out on the land and see if they live or die.  That seems a little callous to me, and that's what I'm thinking as I watch this little guy.  He's pushing up to mom, but doesn't seem to have figured out the part about opening his mouth and suckling 

On these "darwin farms", which is what I've been calling them, they'd probably watch him die.  One of the nice things about being a smaller farm is that I have the time to spend with the animals, and I do here.  I pick up the little pig, and using my thumb gently open his mouth and put him on a nipple, and then milk the sow a little so that some milk spurts into his mouth.   I watch the sow to make sure that I'm not annoying her, but she's out, as most sows are just after birth; they'll lay very still for 24 hours as their piglets sort themselves out.  I think that it is very pleasurable for them to suckle the pigs; #29 is making a deep grunting sound as the litter massages her teats. 

Satisfied that the sow is taking no notice of my intervention i watch carefully to make sure that this little guy is sucking and swallowing, occasionally helping him by massaging his teat.   after 15 minutes of this he seems to be getting the hang of it, and I go about my chores. 

When I check on him two hours later he's in the row of pigs, nipple in place.    I know that I feel better having intervened. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Rant: First world farming problems

One of the blogs that I read, Kevin Kossowans, has a video interview with a pair of farmers who are managing a third-generation farm, and I've watched the video a few times because I wanted to make sure that I understood what they were saying. 

What they're describing is taking 1/3rd of their land and planting trees and shrubs and grasses on it, and using the other 2/3rds of their land for raising heritage grains organically.  They make mention of the high-input modern farming methods -- you put a lot into the soil to get a decent harvest - but as this is a new venture apparently,they are speaking of the future and their hopes.  Time will tell if they can make a go of it. 

The video is very hopeful, you get a feel that they are true believers, and that they honestly believe that what they're doing will give them a better result than previous generations have, and I'd like to think that too.  I'm all for people trying different things. 

But what I was thinking was how this is really a first-world farming problem.  The vast majority of the farmed land out there is farmed by people who just can't throw away 30% of their land permanently; who choose farming methods based on a need to produce -- and not just profits, but food for their family.  

Let me give you an example from my own experience:  I was in Zambia; I was rafting down the Zambezi river; there were about 20 of us on 4 rafts, and what it did was it put us into a very rural part of Africa -- in that part of Zambia or Zimbabwe (the Zambezi river forms the border between the two countries) there may not be roads, and in this area there wasn't.  But I was surprised to learn that corn meal, and corn mush, was a staple of the local communities, and we saw many hand-irrigated corn fields as we floated by.  The locals would put their corn up a bluff from the river so that the hippos wouldn't eat it, or as much, and they irrigated their fields with hand-carried 5 gallon buckets.  You'd see these skinny kids carrying two buckets up a hill hundreds of times every day; they'd pour the buckets out and then return to the river and get another pair.  They'd tied ropes to the handle of the bucket and they'd throw their bucket into the river and drag it back with the rope.  Because if they got too close to the waters edge a croc might get them. 

Those farmers, if the crop failed, starved.  If they had an abundant crop with a surplus they could sell, life was good.  In our area of the country we are worried about "returning" land to what it was.  In other parts of the world it's a matter of life or death. 

So I'm watching these two idealistic Canadian farmers extol the virtues of the native grasses and trees, and I wonder what the bucket brigade would think about it.  Our food system is producing enough food to feed  the world now, but part of that is the fact that our per-acre-yields of virtually every kind of food has increased dramatically over the past 50 years.  Heritage grains are great, and there is a market for it, but the majority of the world needs that high yielding grain. 

As an example, corn yields have increased by 6x since 1940, and more corn is now being grown on fewer acres as a result -- if you really want to "save the land" maybe you should plant the most efficient seed you can and give the rest back to nature.  

About the only reason that they're able to even consider this course of action is that the land is (presumably) paid for, inherited or otherwise debt free.  Otherwise, as most farmers, you have a mortgage and a land payment and the you really don't have this sort of choice.  Maybe there's some sort of government program to sell carbon credits.  I'd be very uneasy about any farm plan that depended on a government program for survival -- politics change, and so do laws. 

We have a culture that says that fallow land, land that is allowed to go "back to nature" is laudable and good.  I take a different view.  If you take good farmland and make it fallow, your actions are destroying something that in another country would cost people their lives.  In the same way that I object to ethanol, I think that people who plant houses on good, fertile land are committing a sin.  It wasn't too long ago when we couldnt' feed everyone, and that time will come again.   I'll go a bit further:  If you're holding acreage and choose methods and crops that produce just the bare minimum from your land -- like you own 80 acres and produce 5 calves a year -- it's not as egregious a sin, but it is no less a sin.  Shame on you. 

And I'd hate to see people die because someone wanted a big lawn, or out of ego or hubris just decided to destroy a farm. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The bull

 I've amassed a herd of 20 cows at this point; 4 dairy breed heifers, whos story I'll tell in anther entry (that's one of them in the picture above) and 7 beef or beef-cross heifers.  I'm going to expose them all to a bull and see what I get in terms of calves.  I've chosen an angus bull, a beef breed, and here he is in his blog debut. 
 He's been keeping company with this little heifer, who's about the right weight to be bred, and they seem to be hitting it off, although since she has horns and he doesn't, she seems to have the advantage in their tussels. 
But I'm glad to see them enjoying themselves and getting along.  I kept the bull in the corral until I was sure that he wasn't mean and we understood one another, and then turned him out on grass today. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

2 years after: Building a corral and notes

I built a corral and loading facility at my farm so that I can easily move animals in and out of the property.  It's a full, formal corral and loading chute, with a crowding gate and sorting capabilities.  You can see it being constructed in various entries: 1, where I talk about what I've learned about corrals and materials, 2, where I talk about the overall design and goals, 3, where i talk about the cutting and sorting gates and the chute design, and 4,  where I talk about the ramp itself, which was probably the most challenging part of the project. 

I've found that this corral has been very useful.  Having a securely fenced, hard-fenced, area is in my opinion a necessary part of every farm.  Being able to keep and contain an animal securely has meant that I could sleep at night when I had a breachy cow, or when I purchased new stock from the auction, or just wanted to separate the males from the females to time the breeding. 

This particular corral, after two years of use, has had a buildup of manure and chips and hay that's probably 2 to 3 feet deep in places.  And the design isn't one that allows a tractor to get in to clean it out.   What to do? 

 Enter the mini excavator.  Small enough to be towed around with a pickup and get into small spaces, but big enough that you can do a lot of work with it in not much time.  
 Opening the gates, it drives in, and with a little bit of care you can scrape within inches of fences and gates, and lift material over and out to dump it, or scrape it all into a pile, like I'm doing in the picture below. 
 The material itself is pretty much composted; a few wood chips and bits of hay remain, but it's mostly just black soil after two  years.  I'm going to guess that there were 50 yards of dirt that I scraped out in a 6 hour excavator session -- it took longer because of the tight quarters. 
It's a bit annoying to have to use different equipment to clean; if I were to design this corral again, I would have made the spaces larger, and allowed more turning room and straight shots for equipment to get in and out, but this works, and it's good for another couple of years now, so it's not that big a deal. 

I'll be cleaning ditches and digging in water lines and doing other end-of-year tasks with this little beauty.  It's really pretty fun to operate.  like having a bionic arm.  Liking it a lot. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Hiking in the mountains

It was very hot in the seattle area - in the 90s - and when it's this hot, it's nice to get out of town.  Andrea and I took a long hike in the alpine lakes wilderness area today. 

Most of the forests in the lowlands are second or third growth; we look at 50 year old trees as "big", and its nice to be reminded that it wasn't always this way.  The tree harvest missed some of the giants, and this hike has thousands of huge trees to show how it used to be.  This particular tree is a douglas fir, and is about 180' tall.  I'd estimate it at 1200 to 1400 years old.  Quietly growing on the side of this mountain for more than a thousand years. 
 The hike itself is pretty hard; about 2500 vertical feet over 5 miles, but the payoff is pretty spectacular; 7 huge, pristine lakes with crystal-clear water.  The water is entirely from snowmelt, and you can see hundreds of feet in it.  The logs that fall into the lakes don't rot; you can see layers of them down there, some of them 30' in circumference, like the living trees we passed.  They'll still be there hundreds of years from now. 
 At this point in the year there is still a little bit of snow melting at this altitude; we're at 4500' or so above sea level, and you can see cascade waterfalls off the granite cliffs that surround the lakes. 
And there are the giant trees.  This one fell across the trail; I don't know what caused it to fall, i couldn't see the top or bottom of the tree from the trail, and in fact, it wasn't clear which direction the top was -- it was so big in diameter that it had no noticeable size difference in the 20' or so visible from that part of the trail.  I could probably have climbed, but I was satisfied a casual glance. 

In an old growth forest there is a lot more variety in the tree species than in a modern, managed forest.  Spruce, hemlock, cedar, alder (some of the biggest alders that I've ever seen are on this hike; I'd estimate 3' DBH - diameter at breast height) and  lots of plants that you just dont' see in younger forests.  Whole ecosystems that evolve in the thousand years while the tree grows, on the branches of the tree. 

How to get there?  Take highway 2 towards stevens pass.  Turn south (right) on the foss river road - about 15 miles west of the summit.  Follow that road about 10 miles, choosing the "west fork of the foss river" when you're given a choice.  You'll find yourself at the end of the road, there's a trailhead, bulletin board and permit center.  Permits are $5, and cover both day and overnight uses. 

Trout lake is an easy 2 mile high up from the trailhead, about 400' vertical gain, and a nice small, clear lake.    Call it an hour walk.  After trout lake the trail continues 3 miles to the first lakes, Malachite and Copper lakes, with a vertical gain of 1600'.  Most of the route is shaded, and there are plenty of views of waterfalls and scenery as you ascend.   Once you're up on the main plateau there are a number of very large alpine lakes to choose from; big heart, little heart, etc. 

Link with a trip report from someone in 2008, and a map. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012


I cut a whole bunch of logs about 5 years ago, and they've been weathering nicely as lumber. 
 It's all douglas fir, which is a tough, nice weathering wood.  It silvers up nicely.
 I like building stuff out of it because it makes it look like its' been there for a hundred years.  I love the texture of a rough sawn board.  you see this a lot on the old barns and it's hard to get any other way than just time and weather. 
 The cracks and patina are what I like.  If I want smooth lumber I can go to the local hardware store.  Barn doors built of this just seem more right.  You expect a barn door to be weathered. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

How I buy hay and hay prices

 Here's the "new" farm truck with a load of bales on it.  The hay on the flatbed weighs about 2 tons, and the hay in the trailer is about the same amount.  I had a crew that I hired for the day to help pick up the hay in the field and stack it at the farm.  It's very nice hay; 3rd cutting orchard grass with a little bit of clover in it.  Smells like summer. 
The other trailer we use is a gooseneck dual tandem trailer that we usually use to move the tractors from property to property.  Its rated for 25,000lbs; here its carrying 4.5 tons of hay, which really doesn't bother it at all. 

I negotiated a price per ton to purchase the hay at, and we weighed the truck&trailers empty and then full to get how much hay we were buying.  The reason I do that is that in this area, bale weights vary quite a bit, and it's often hard to compare prices.  Most of the farmers around here want to sell you at a price per bale, which really doesn't tell you much about what your cost is, since bales can range from 45lbs to 80lbs. 

You can take a small sample and weigh them, but my experience has been with the local hay is that the bale sizes can vary in an individual field, and so I don't trust that, either.  The best way I've found is to negotiate a price per pound and weigh the entire load. 

In this case I purchased the entire field of hay, which ended up weighing 35,500lbs, or 17.75tons.  The negotiated price was 8 cents per pound, which gave me a cost-per-ton of $160, which is in line with hay prices this year.   Including labor and transport, the 80lb bales cost me about $7 each delivered and stacked. 

What prices are you guys paying for hay? 

farm "investors"

Unsolicited email:   

RE: Information / Enquiry,

I Am a Private investor seeking for Investment Opportunity to do ,in any viable
business or Project in your region specifically in Agriculture, Animal Production. Looking to invest as a silent partner.
I have started several farms in the past. I am interested in
investing some of my funds in other companies and business.
Your earliest reply will be highly appreciated.

Robert Douglars
My reply: 
Hi Mr. Douglars. Is there a telephone number I can reach you at? Mine is xxx xxx xxxx 

Dear Sir ,
Thank you so much for your kind and swift response I really appreciate,your telephone number is noted you can reach me at : +447045719386. [country code 44, isle of man/UK]
I am Interested to invest precisely in Animal production, milk cow production, milk cow breeding and a dairy farm all inclusive on a specified required acres of land, farm tools, machinery , equipment and all office fittings and equipments to be situated in your locality or any suitable location as you can suggest.
I know this investment plan will require huge amount of money and I have set aside enough fund to execute this investment plan, I want you to kindly estimate and do all necessary feasibility study to come up with an actual amount required.
I am a very old man in my late 60’s; I am humble God fearing and looking forward to have this life time investment with you as my partner/representative in the United State of America.
Your earliest reply will be highly appreciated.
Robert Douglars

My Reply: 

I am very interested in your generous offer.  What would you like to see before making your investment? 

Notes:    The phone number listed above shows up at this link, as the contact number for the interpol police in a communication dated 7-31-2012.   It must be a retired police officer who's looking to invest in farms.  I'm sure that there are millions of dollars waiting for my farming operations if I pay a nominal wire transfer fee. 

Seems legit. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Happiness is a full hay barn

 One of my winter prep checklist items is putting up enough hay for all of the critters.  Last year, with the cold and wet spring, I ended up feeding hay from October (first frost) to April, which was 7 months.    I'd put up enough hay for 5 months, figuring on a normal year, and so ran short and had to scramble a bit to find some late in the season.  This year I'm putting away roughly twice what I normally do so that I have a bit extra to sell.  I watched people paying $15 to $18 a bale last year, and I can make a tidy profit at $10 a bale, so I'm going to gamble a little. 

The bales in the picture above are 600lb bales of the same hay, just packaged differently.  The bales I put up for sale I had made into square bales, 46" long, that horse people tend to like. 

The drought in the midwest will cause all forage prices to rise is what I'm thinking.  It hasn't happened around here yet, but it will.  I'm betting that my $10 bales will be mighty attractive.  It's good quality hay and
 The hay barn is always a favorite of the dogs.  They spend a lot of time searching the cracks between the bales for things to kill.  There's usually a mouse or two, sometimes a weasel, occasionally a possum or a raccoon.  They take their patrol duties quite seriously. 
I found these black plastic pallets locally; they're used for shipping dairy products.  They are what I stack my hay on.  they're sturdy, don't rot, and best of all, don't have any nails in them.  Pallet nails are a constant threat to my tractor tires.    Plus its another way to recycle. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

getting the most out of the fruit

I've finally found a way to get the most food value out of the produce.  The first step is to let the piglets at the produce; they eat most of the small stuff, and nibble on the bigger.  We then turn the big pigs loose on it, and they eat most of the rest; with the exception of citrus fruits, raw potatoes and onions. 

It turns out that the cows and sheep like what the pigs won't eat, and we're now pretty much getting 95% of each load eaten by giving each group of animals access.  At the end we scoop up what's left and off it goes to the compost pile. 

Pretty happy about having found a use for the citrus, most of which was making the trip to the compost pile directly, which seemed a waste.  Much more satisfying to see something enjoy it.  It's traveled 1,000 miles or more -- it deserves to be utilized.  We've invested a lot of time and effort, as a society in it. 

Scalding pigs

Tried a new technique for scalding pigs that I'd seen in pictures from the 20s and 30s. 
 One of the biggest selling points for bathtubs in the late 1800s and early 1900s was the bathtubs ability to make scalding hogs easier.  The old cast-iron bathtubs were often purchased for the primary use in scalding hogs and the secondary use for washing. 

This particular tub is an iron tub, but it's not very heavy duty.  It'll do for the experiment. 
 The two chains are for use in scraping the pig, or that's what I figured.  They're smooth, welded chains.  The pig is a black pig, about 250lbs.  We bring the pig over with the tractor, and then slide her into the tub. 
 just about a perfect fit. 
The goal temperature is 140, but we start a little warmer because the pig will lower the temperature a little.   I also put a propane torch on the outside of the tub to keep the water warm while we work. 

The first attempt is to grab the ends of the chain and "saw" back and forth -- the goal being to remove the hair and skin.  It really isn't that effective.  it does take the outer layer of skin off, but the hair isn't coming off at all.  We finally have to pick it off by hand and shave it off. 

I'd been wanting to try this technique for a while, and after doing so, I think that the chains were there just to make getting the pig out of the tub easier.  they do work for that. 

the old-time pictures show them building a wood fire underneath the tub to heat the water. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

Family milk cow: Hay, forage and quality

This is a continue series on raising a family milk cow.  To see the first entry in the series, click here.
To see the previous entry, click here

My usual supplier of my hay had an issue with his production, and that forced me to look elsewhere for hay.  I'm expecting hay and forage prices in general to go up this year, and the last thing I want to do is run short of hay this winter and have to buy it when it's expensive. 

A milk cow produces milk that is influenced by the quality of the forage that she's offered -- the better the quality of hay, the more milk that's produced.  The other thing is that I'm going to be consuming the milk, and so I'd like to have as little additional stuff in it as possible. 
6 tons loaded on the trailer
 When I looked for a new hay supplier I wanted someone who knew what they were doing, and hopefully that had the same kind of animal that I was feeding.  This fellow runs an organic grass-fed dairy and milks 110 cows.  As he explained to me today:  "I weaned myself off of corn and feed about 5 years ago, and I'm so glad I did.  I used to send one of my milk checks every month to the feed mill.  I haven't purchased feed in 3 years!" 

Perfect.  Organically managed fields, feeds his cows with the same hay, close by.  But words are one thing.  I took a long careful look at his fields while I was looking at the hay. 
looks a lot like a lawn. 
 The hay in those bales is 3rd cutting.  First cutting he makes into haylage, because it's often too cold and wet to bale earlier in the year.  So the hay he produces and feeds to his cattle is second or third cut.  As a result, it's very fine and dense.  Not much in the way of stems or bulk.  I purchased 10 bales from him last winter and noticed that the animals, particularly the sheep, just gobbled it up.  Without knowing much else, the animals showed me what they preferred. 
tractor loading 600lb bale
 I have to say that I've heard a lot of farmers say that they'd like to raise their own feed on their own land.  This is one of the few guys in my area that seems to be making a go of it. 
Orchard grass, some fescue and a little clover

450 bales to choose from
The hay cost me $135/ton, for third-cutting dry hay.  That's a bargain.  That it's organic and packed for easy feeding to cows is a big bonus.  I'm going to have some of this hay baled into small squares that I'll pick up next week; I use it for the pigs, and it's handy to have it in smaller packages, but it'll be the same organic third cutting thats in the big bales.   I've got 22 tons of the big round bales in the barn; enough that I'll have extra this winter.  I like having more than I need.  I'll also put up an additional 20 tons of small square bales, mostly for resale this winter.  It's mostly horse people who forget that their horses eat all winter long, too.  So I'll mark up the bale I purchased for $5 to $11, and the hay sales will keep me in lunch money for the next year. 

   As Dennis, the farmer, said "hay in the barn is like money in the bank!"    Yes, it is.  And it's a relief to cross hay off my list, and nice to find good forage so close to my farm.  

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

On the pigs menu today...

800lbs of blueberries

700lbs of strawberries

450lbs of canteloupes

fruit medley!