Sunday, March 31, 2013

More $1 horses at the auction

We spend a lot of money in Snohomish county seizing and then feeding up horses that are starved or otherwise maltreated.  Thousands of dollars per horse; in recent cases, the cost-per-horse has exceeded $6,000.    In a recent rescue, Snohomish county spent $115,000.   Folks, we don't have that kind of money to burn. 

So what happens to those horses?  Well, lets look to see what random horses sold for on 3-30-2013 at the Toppenish Livestock Auction, in Toppenish WA. 

$1 Horse auction 3-30-2013 from bruce king on Vimeo.

It's time that we either decided that horses are pets, and license them and treat them like we do cats and dogs -- hold them for a week or two, and put them down if they're not adopted, and if they're brought in injured and unclaimed, immediately put them down... 

$40 horse auctioned 3-30-2013 from bruce king on Vimeo.
Or decide that they're livestock, and should be handled and treated as such, which includes a commercial market and slaughter. 

$50 horse from bruce king on Vimeo.

Our half-assed approach to horses in this county means that we squander hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring a horse back into good condition, when the market value of the horse is $1.  or $40.  Or $50. 

What's the alternative?  How about we license horses.  $100 a year a horse license fees.  If you think $100 is steep, you haven't priced hay or grain. 

Use the revenues to fund horse rescues and reimburse the county for costs associated with horses.  If we end up with a surplus, devote that money to trails and improvements related to horses. 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Fencing, 6 years later

My field fence, after 6 years of rough life, has finally gotten to the point where I need to replace it. 
You served well, fence, but you're just not the right kind of fence
 I've tried all sorts of fencing, from the field fence that didn't work very well, to woven wire fences of various sorts, to electric fence and electric net fences, and after all of that I've settled on a favorite kind of fencing.  It's not cheap, but it's easy to repair and stands up well to the sort of wear-and-tear that cattle and pigs cause. 
Same area, same day, just nicer looking. 
The basic fence is a 16' cattle panel supported every 8 feet by an 8' t post driven about 3' into the ground.  I make the t posts level with the top of the panel so that there's less chance of a puncture injury should someone fall onto the fence.  I overlap the panels 8" at either end, so I don't have to be all that precise about pounding in the posts -- sometimes a rock gets in the way -- and I use 12" lengths of 12.5 gauge smooth galvanized wire to tie the panels to the post.  A pair of side cutters and a pair of needle nose pliers are my basic fencing toolkit. 

Notice the electric fence to right, on pig side of fence
 Inside the fence, on the right in this photo, I string a separate electric fence.  I've settled on the polypropylene electric fence rope because it's easier to coil than the tape, and more visible than the wire.  I use step-in posts because it's too hard to keep the polyrope off of the panels when I attach it to the fence tposts.  Having it be a poly line also means that I can easily move the rope to clear the pigs from an area that I need to work in; that's what I did in the picture below -- I moved the polyline back about 25' so that I could replace this section of fence without inquisitive pigs running out onto the road. 

The other type of fence that I've moved to is a standard corral type fence.  6x6 posts with 2x6 rails.  I use this fence in areas that are going to be high traffic, or where I expect to break the fence, like around the cattle feeder.  I consider this sort of fencing safer when you're handing large animals because you can easily climb over it in case of emergency, where the cattle panel fences aren't sturdy enough for that. 
I have moved to the cattle panel or rail fences because they are easily repaired; you pull a damaged panel and put in a new one in a few minutes, or you buy a new $3 2x6 board.  With tensioned fences, like woven wire or field fence, damaging a portion of the fence had no easy way to fix it or re tension the fence afterwards.  Yes, you can do it, it was just a lot of work.  With either of these fencing choices a fix is a 10 minute operation.  Couple of big nails and a new board and you're good to go. 

Friday, March 29, 2013

Goggles the boar

One thing that happens when you are operating a farm is that a particular animal stands out.  It's funny, but  when I look back at my farm, the animals that really stood out are those that were a challenge, like the mean black pig

Something about the animal makes it noticeable, and in the case of the mean black pig, she's even taken a life of her own, being a symbol for all sorts of things
The wheels are turning in this little boars head

This little boar is the standout this year.  He's a good looking little boar, with 16 nipples showing, and he's showing his berkshire heritage in his black-and-white coloration. 
He has a regular route that he travels every day, checking everything

What makes this little boar standout though is that he has specialized in defeating my farm fences.  I've probably looked up from whatever I've been doing 50 times in the last 2 weeks and found this little boar out on his piglet business.  He's mapped out every crack and crevice in every fence. 

He has found out where the dog food is, and eaten his share.  And the dogs share, too.    He  discovered where we unload and sort the produce, and I've seen him gleefully carrying off his favorite food:  Avocados.  He's done this often enough that I know that avocados are his favorite food!
He's sure that he's a good pig, so i can approach. 

That's close enough, says goggles. 

 He has found a way into the farrowing area, and I've found him snuggled up to receptive sows, snoozing with the piglet.  I've seen him run into a group of bigger pigs -- much bigger pigs! -- and steal food from their mouths, and then run like the devil, accompanied by their squeals of outrage. 

With some animals you can see the gleam in their eye and you know that there is an active mind there; that glint of intelligence, and the ability to quickly learn and adapt, and to resist all of my attempts to outwit him, or contain him.  He's a little force of nature, this boar. 
He enjoys sleeping wedged between 500lb sows.
He absolutely recognizes me, and when he's eating his purloined avocado I'll see the recognition and he'll immediately start to run.  he runs back into the pig pen, and, 6" inside the fence, stops and eats his avocado because he knows I won't chase him any further.  He knows the rules and chooses to ignore them.   

Despite my aggravation at this little guy, I'm actually grudgingly admiring his drive.  He is bound and determined, in a very pig way, to have the first, and best, of everything that he can.

He's everything a pig should be. 

Say hello to Goggles.  You'll be seeing more of him. 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Midwest drought: Worse than last year?

The drought in the Midwest area of the country last year caused higher prices for most agricultural products, including jumps in both corn and soybean prices.   Speaking generally, it was considered a very serious drought. 

Right now we're seeing worse conditions in the Midwest than we saw at this time last year.   The long term forecast says it's very likely that we'll get an even worse drought in the Midwest this year.  Farmers have insured a record percentage of their crops, and livestock prices are acting like the drought is already here;  the prices of weaner pigs in Iowa is dropping faster and farther than it did at this time last year. 

Here's a graphic showing the conditions at this time of year for the last three years

Here's a graphic showing the conditions at this time of year for 1933, 34 and 35

You may know the drought of 1933-35 by another name:  The dust bowl

Modern agricultural practices mean that dry conditions won't cause the mass destruction of farmland as happened in the dust bowl, so it's unlikely we'll see anything visually like that, but most of the information I'm seeing says we're headed for a very dry year this year in the Midwest.  My guess is that we will see higher prices of virtually every food item as a result. 

Droughts can last more than one year; they can, and have, lasted 7 to 10 years in living memory.   The northwest part of the country, where my farm is located, is also probably going to get less rain than we usually do.  It doesn't make much difference in western Washington -- last years "drought" was generally considered to be great for crops, and we've got adequate snow accumulations to provide water through the summer for drinking and so on.  In Eastern Washington a large percentage of farms are irrigated, and the rest grow "dry land" crops, like wheat, which are tolerant of pretty dry conditions.  So this area will probably do fine. 

If this drought is as bad or worse than last year, where I saw farmers haying the freeway medians, I think we will see a continued reduction in the size of the US food animal herds; sows and cows will both be culled because of continued record high feed costs.   Normally this sort of thinning of the herd would keep beef and pork prices down, but we're already starting out with fewer cows and sows than we have had since the 1950s.  You'll see prices lower than you would without the culling, but you won't see low beef or pork prices. 

So I'm buying cattle this year, and I'm probably going to buy heifers.  I'm checking the trailer and considering a trip to the Midwest to buy them.  I think there's going to be a buyers market there this year.   I'll buy some steers for sale sooner, but a few cows to produce calves is where I'm going. 

My basic bet is that 8 to 16 months from now the price of beef will be higher than it is now, and that 2 to 3 years from now there will be a steady market for calves to replace some of the animals being slaughtered now.  

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The 2013 plan: Chickens

Our basic chicken product is a live, adult chicken sold at the farm gate.  We do provide a stainless steel counter/sink, running water and propane as well as plucking equipment to folks who do want to process their own birds, but we don't do any processing ourselves. 

I originally started the farm with the idea that I'd be doing pastured poultry and selling processed birds.   Over the years we discovered we could sell live birds at the farm gate for $15 each,  and that meant no processing cost for us of any sort.

No WSDA license, either.  Here's your live chicken.  So the economics are pretty compelling:  We either hatch our own birds from eggs laid here, or we buy heritage rooster chicks for $0.75 each, put $4.25 of feed and labor into them to bring them to adult status, and sell them for $15

The chickens do eat quite a bit of the produce, and we cut the labor costs down by feeding them efficiently.  One large feeder feeds a couple of hundred birds at a time, and a 5 gallon rubber bowl waters them.  We brood them in batches of 250 at a time. 

Chickens are a great introduction product, and sell consistently every week.    We don't make much money off of chickens (last year our net profit was $12,500), but we find that we sell other products (beef, pork) to chicken buyers pretty consistenly.  it gets folks to the farm and keeps them coming back.   

Monday, March 25, 2013

The 2013 plan: Pigs. More pigs

Oops.  For some reason the contents of this post didn't show up.

I've been steadily growing the pig business for the last 7 years; last year we sold more weaners than we've ever sold;  over 1500 weaner pigs, mostly to folks who wanted to raise their own pigs on their own property. 

I've been waiting to see if we can close the deal on that new farm before I make a firm commitment, but we will end 2013 with more pigs than we started with no matter what happens. 

The pig business is helped by having free bedding, in the form of wood chips from tree service companies, and low-cost feed, in the form of produce from grocery stores, and that means that we really have pretty low input costs compared to a farm that purchases feed, or even to a farm that grows its own feed. 

What that's meant is that we can charge the same price as everyone else does, prices that are based on hog food going for $500+ a ton, and make a nice profit on each pig sold.  And they taste better, and I think that they're happier with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables to eat.   Our feed costs average a little under $30/ton; our bedding is delivered to our farm for free. 

A by-product of the pig operation is compost, which we've been adding to our fields to increase the amount of organic material and increase the overall fertility.  The compost also retains water better.   I'm going to try a couple of acres of sweet corn on top of the new compost and see how it does. 

At this point we're down to 2 hours of labor a day for the basic farm chores; that's pigs, chickens, turkeys and cows.    I do staff more hours than that for retail sales -- you have to have someone there to hand the pigs to the customers and answer questions and so on, but that's a standard cost for any farm operation. 

The pigs have been steadily profitable for 7 years now.  I expect to continue with pigs for the forseeable future. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The 2013 plan: Start milking this summer

She's over 1,000lbs now.  Here she's about 600

I've been thinking about having a dairy cow for a while; years, in fact.  But you can only think  about it so long, so in April of 2012, I purchased a likely looking dairy cow heifer and have been carefully raising her ever since. 

Part of my personal goal on my farm is to produce all of the food that I consume, and dairy is a personal favorite.  I really haven't decided where I'm going to go with this, but I'm looking forward to having all the milk I want for all sorts of things.  Fresh milk cheeses.   The milk itself.  Cream.  Butter.  Ice Cream.  And having a couple of milking cows around will make it easier to raise calves if I choose to go that way.  There are commercial possibilities again, but I'm pretty clear that selling raw milk is out for me.    I'll drink the milk I milk myself; but mostly because I know exactly how its produced and can personally attest to the quality of the milk. 

I actually have 4 dairy cows that are pregnant right now; I've been talking about this little heifer on the blog, but there are three other cows; two more holsteins and a Jersey cow.   I wanted to have the experience of working with different breeds and different kinds of milk. 

The new farm has a complete milking parlor; what this means is that I can milk all 4 cows simultaneously, in about 15 minutes.   It's going to take longer to clean the system than to actually do the milking.  the parlor was being used to milk 300 cows twice a day -- 4 cows won't be a problem. 

So I'll have plenty of fresh milk and all of the dairy byproducts this summer.  Looking forward to it. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The 2013 plan: Bees are back!

They're coming back in 2013

I stopped keeping bees at the end of the 2010 season; other parts of the farm required more attention, and I had a higher-than-normal dieoff, that eventually took all of my bees out.  So I put the equipment away and spent the next two years concentrating on the farm infrastructure.   

I really like the local honey; we've got several blooms that produce really tasty stuff, and I am about out of the honey I produced, and so I'll be keeping 4 hives this year.  I'm going to see if I can do something with the hives that I've seen done -- put one of them on a scale. 

What I'd like to do is keep track of the hives progress by the weight of the hive, and I happen to have an old feed scale that I can use for this.  It's inspired by this website, and it's an accurate way to look at what your hive is doing without having to open it up or disrupt it any more than you have to. 

What's interesting is that most of the honey in the hive is produced in early summer, with a little produced in the fall.  That means that the majority of the honey the bees will collect will happen by July, probably.  but the scale will tell me for sure. 

The website has data collected from many hives over apparently a 20 year or more span -- you can see a map of the locations and click on any location for its data. 

I'll be keeping 4 hives total this year. 

NOTE:  If you are considering keeping hives this year, you have to think about doing it NOW.  In order to get your hive bodies ordered, assembled and prepared, and find a source of bees, you need to take action in the next two weeks so that you can get it all set up and the colonies established before the nectar flow occurs.  If you're in this area (Everett, WA) you can find all of your supplies, bees and so on at the beez kneez apiary supply in Snohomish, WA.    I have no connection with beez neez; I just like Jim and think he's a great resource for beekeepers in this area. 

If you aren't local, I've found that does a pretty good job of offering equipment and supplies for the beginning beekeeper.   Look carefully at their beginners kit, which is shipped fully assembled, or save a few bucks by ordering the unassembled beginners kit.   The kits come with gloves, so be sure that you order the right kit with the right sized gloves for you if  you choose to go this way.   The kits themselves aren't much different in price; it's the shipping on the assembled kit that really goes up. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

The 2013 plan: Change the beef herd

Here's what I said in July of 2012

"I'm buying cattle right now. I've got land to graze, and I'm putting cows on it. I'm betting that between the drought and herd reduction there will be a good return on beef, and since it takes a year for the market to come up with another cow. I expect beef prices to get lower in the near term (2-6 months) as the US herd is further reduced due to high feed prices, and then I'm expecting the prices to rise in 2013. I'm buying now so that I can sell into those higher prices I'm expecting in 12-18 months."

I did buy a bunch of cattle, and I did put them out on pasture; as with the little dairy cow (she weighs 1,000+lbs now - not so little!), they've been steadily gaining weight, and the prices for finished beef continue to rise.   So I'll be selling the steers I've been feeding this year, and replacing them with calves that I can feed out to sell next year.   

I've had the best luck with 400-600lb steers, either beef or beef-dairy crosses.  They're big enough that they can fend for themselves on pasture, and with a good fence I can turn them out and then check on them every few days to make sure that they're all ok.  Pretty painless livestock.  A good fence is worth building. 

   I'm stocking my land at 1.5 units/acre -- or 1500lbs of cows per acre of graze.  That seems to be a good level that keeps the cows well fed and keeps the grass from going to seed.   I'll be selling 15 steers and buying 20 calves this year.

Why am I increasing cows and decreasing sheep?   There's a ready market for beef, wholesale or retail, and when I sell a cow I clear $500 profit per cow.  The labor is much smaller with cows -- I can turn them out on pastures and don't really have to worry about them being eaten by coyotes.    They are much less labor intensive than alternative crops are

I'll watch prices; if the drought in the midwest continues, it may make sense to drive back there with a big trailer and buy a trailerload of calves there at drought prices; auction prices for calves are down in the center of the country -- down enough that I may be able to buy them there, sell half of them back here, and have my cow herd paid for with the difference.   Cow arbitrage!

The only way feeding steers makes sense is to have good pasture and relatively cheap hay;  I own the acreage outright, having purchased it at a series of tax foreclosure auctions for cash, at an average cost of $2700 an acre.  Most of the land that I purchased is river-bottom land, flood plain land, which is fertile and rock-free and does not need to be irrigated.  With a good fence it's pretty much trouble-free grazing land, and the taxes on it are only about $10/acre/year.  I've also been able to lease land in return for beef; a half-steer for grazing a 20 acre parcel, for instance.  The steer costs me $300 at the auction, the feed is free, and so the effective rent for that land is about $10/acre/year -- cheap. 

Part of the reason that this land goes for so little is that the Department of Ecology has consistently held that land that is not worked for 5 or more years is "abandoned" and will revert to wetland.  The service that my cows are providing for the property owner is to keep the land out of wetland status, and they get some free beef in addition.    Look, if you can't beat the green mafia, you might as well join then.  "Hey, you got some nice grazing land there... shame if some regulatory agency decided it was a wetland..."

I'm kidding.  Sort of. 

No I'm not.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The 2013 plan: Flock reduction of sheep

I've been thinking about farming operations, and here's the basic plans for the coming year. 

In this entry: 
Sheep:  Reducing the flock

Coming entries (in alphabetical order):
Beef:  Change the herd
Bees:  They're back!
Chickens: Increase the flock
Dairy:  Start milking this summer
Pigs:  Increase the herd

Twin lambs from this ewe last year

I'll be reducing the size of my sheep herd to about half what it is now; I'll keep a few sheep around because they're handy to mow down the grass and I do like to eat them, but I'm not going to offer lamb as a product from here on. 

I've been working with the sheep for five years now, and I cannot fault them.  They lamb with basically no intervention, eat a lot of grass, and don't require much input to keep around, and generally can be ignored most of the time, but I just don't see enough revenue coming from them to continue to grow them commercially. 

I  am torn about this because  this is one of the few animals that you can honestly put out to pasture and have it do pretty darn well just on grass and a little bit of minerals and some hay in the winter.  If the world ended tomorrow, I could do worse than a flock of sheep for this area, and climate. 

As far as farm operations go, I have to take pains to keep the sheep from eating the turkey or chicken or pig food; they are insistent about eating anything they can get, and while there is plenty of green grass around, sheep (and cows) will fight to get into the feeders of other critters.  The sale of individual sheep brings in somewhere around $200, but after counting all the costs and labor,  I net about $40 per sheep, and the random sheep sales we do are mostly a distraction that takes time away from other farm activities. 

To make it worthwhile I'd have to get a lot more sheep (and a bunch more acres to feed them) and figure out something that works better as fencing, as we have lost sheep to dogs or coyotes and even had sheep get killed by fencing when I tried to change our practices to get the sheep to fit into my farm more completely.

The biggest market for sheep in this area are Muslims, and having a pig operation on the same property complicates that business.  If I were to do sheep, I'd probably have a lot more sheep than I do now, and do sheep exclusively. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A new blog I follow...

I've been reading a blog recently that's been pretty interesting.  The author has a clear voice, and I appreciate that in a blog.  Agree or not, it's nice to know where someone stands.

Normally I'd say something about the authors name, but she doesn't mention it on the blog, so I don't know it.  I don't have any connection with her except what I've read (even though she's said nice things about me in the blog),  and I just enjoy following her.

She talks about conservation easements being, well, for show, mostly -- and I find myself agreeing with her.  It's a great way for someone to get lots of money for doing nothing with their land...

Or the entry where she talks about farmers failing the basic math of business when they approach their farming venture.  Yep, it does have to make a profit.
The entry where she talks about what can exist solely on pasture is near-and-dear to my heart, as I've expressed a lot of skepticism about claims that you can raise various kinds of modern livestock, like pigs, or chickens, on pasture alone....

I've picked entries that I mostly agree with, but I appreciate divergent views, too.  Is there a blog that you follow?   Please do mention it.  I'm always interested in new voices.

You'll find her blog here.

Dairy cow project: 90 days to calving

This is a continuing series on raising a cow from a calf as a family milk cow.  To see the first entry of the series, click here.  To see the previous entry, click here.  To see the next entry, click here

I overheard a conversation one time where someone thinking about farming was asking a farmer what they shoul do first, and the answer surprised me.  "Plant fruit trees!".  It takes a while to get some things done, and  you might as well start the clock as soon as you can!

It's a little like that for my dairy cow.  The last time I wrote about her was in July, when she weighed in at 630lbs; now, almost 8 months later, she weighs 1040lbs by the weight tape, a gain of 410lbs. 
She was bred in November at 80% of her adult weight, so that she would give birth to the calf when she was 24 months old.  She was impregnated the old fashioned way via bull, and she's on track for a July delivery. 

She is right where she should be in terms of weight and age - I've been working to keep her growth and development as close to what they describe as optimum as I can, which has meant that I've given her more food sometimes, less others.  I'm happy that she's right on track. 

She outgrew her old halter, and I bought a new one for her.  I'm glad that I worked with her as a calf to halter train her.  She leads calmly and easily, and I spent an hour or so running a brush over her. 

I'm mixed about her horns, but at this point I'll probably live with them.  I think I will cut the points off them though; make them a little less of a hazard, but she's good natured and I'm hoping that they won't be a problem. 
Another cow had sprayed manure on her side, so I hosed her off and brushed out the manure, and then took this picture.  The left side is her stomach side; she's getting plenty to eat and her stomachs are full.  the right side is the calf, which is riding low but appears to be developing on schedule.  We're still 90 days from the estimated delivery date, so I'm not sure how big she'll get before she delivers.  She was bred to a lowline angus bull with a low birth weight calf, so I'm hoping it will be an easy delivery; for her and my sake!

I make a point of leading her places via her halter, and spend some time each time sitting at her side on a bucket, brushing her and handling her.  I want her to be used to being handled and my being there, and, honestly, I want to see if she's going to fuss about it, or kick at me.  No problems so far.  The goal is to have the routine be the same after she gives birth, but I'll be milking her as well as brushing her. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Deep litter and pigs

I've been trying a deep litter system for housing the pigs in the winter, and it's been 5 months since I filled the barn.

Here's what it looked like in October when I was filling the barn: 

Deep litter barn for pigs, Oct
The chips weren't absolutely dry, but they were pretty dry and fresh.  They were random trees species chipped by tree service companies, leaves, needles and all.
Deep litter for pigs, Nov
After a month the litter is still in pretty good condition; it's still pretty dry but it's working as it should.  Areas where they sleep are the driest; they've pretty much decided to dung and urinate in a particular corner, and that's pretty wet, but not too much. 
Deep litter for pigs, Jan
In January, 90 days in, I'm starting to see a damp layer over the entire surface, but a few inches down it's dry and fluffy.  In the picture above I'm turning the litter with the excavator; I put a wall down the center of the building to provide a farrowing area under roof, and that makes it hard to drive the tractor through as originally planned.  The trackhoe turns the litter in the barn in about 20 minutes. 
Deep litter for pigs, March - 150 days in. 
 The bedding is damp on the surface at the open ends of the barn.  It's dry about 6" below though, and given that it's 150 days into this, I'm pretty surprised.   

Deep litter for pigs, Dunging area
 The dunging area continues to be the hardest hit; it's pretty damp down about 18" or so.  very near the concrete slab there is a little bit of dry bedding, but at this point I'm pretty sure that I'm going to have to add another 10 or 15 yards of chips to this area. 
Deep litter for pigs, sleeping area
 The sleeping area is in very good shape, actually.   Not particularly wet; the chips are still composting and providing warmth for the pigs, which I would have expected to stop in a couple of months, but it hasn't -- it's 90 degrees F 4 inches below the surface. 
 The paper that I used as inspiration for this bedding method kept the pigs inside for the entire stay; in this case the pigs have access to a paddock where we feed them the fruits and vegetables, and you can see the path to the paddock in the upper right hand corner of the picture above.   I mention that because the chips there are also fairly wet -- that's mostly water that drips off the pigs as they come in from the rain and talk up the path. 
 This is the dunging area, with the top 6" or so scraped off.  chips are wet, but the dung isn't penetrating all the way down.  A little exploring with the trackhoe...
 shows a layer of dry chips near the slab.  Not bad. 

 This is the path into the barn -- pretty muddy, but as the picture below shows, the wet penetration is only about 6"-- there's 2' of dry chips under there. 
 When I turn the bedding it steams and heats up for the next few days -- and the little pigs really like that.   Any area that I turn they'll immediately occupy and dig themselves into the warm chips. 

I'm about a month away from putting the pigs back out on pasture, and so far so good.  I haven't had to change the bedding in 6 months, and the bedding is breaking down via composting over the winter.  I've turned the bedding about once a month to keep it in good condition, and there is no noticeable smell (other than the exposed manure at the dunging area), which I would have expected from 5 months of manure -- the wood chips seem to be absorbing the manure, and the composting action is actually making it more comfortable for the pigs. 

I'm going to guess that the chips are about 40% composted at this point.  If I wanted to empty this barn and use the resulting soil for planting I'd say it'll be ready in mid April to early May.  When I get done with this I'm going to test the soil and see what it's like.  I suspect it'll be pretty good planting soil. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

"Visible agriculture"

Weaned pigs, ready to go
 I get year-round tourists who come to view the pigs.  They'll see them off the trestle (the raised highway bridge that is elevated over my farm) and after passing by a few times will find their way to the surface road and I'll see them parked on the side of the road, taking pictures or just staring at the pigs.
Curious, alert and social:  the perfect livestock
I try to take the time to go and say hello and that they're welcome to take pictures, and if I have a litter of piglets or two or three I'll offer to take them to look at them. Piglets are pretty popular. Or I'll give them some fruit that they can throw to the pigs and that's pretty popular, too.

We get a variety of colors in our pigs

It's funny because I often get a guilty reaction when they realize that I've seen them taking pictures. I practice visible farming, and that sometimes means that people have judgements about what I do, or how I do things, and that's fine.  I work hard to keep an open mind and answer peoples questions.
Our current production model for pigs is to make them completely invisible to the average consumer; they're raised in buildings, isolated from people, and you just never see them, even if you are traveling through the heart of pork country in iowa.

They're in a stock trailer while they're being weaned and waiting for their new home
 Which I think is a shame. I really like them as an animal. They do have their challenges, but I can't imagine a farm being complete without a small flock of chickens and a couple of pigs. If you've never kept them they're about one step up from chickens in terms of difficulty, and they will cheerfully eat anything you don't want from your table or orchard or garden, and while doing so provide you with hours of entertainment.
Nothing cuter

And well started on solid food.  We wean onto commercial feed because that's what most folks feed their pigs so there's no transition shock.

These three are at 135 pounds or so, marked for market.  They'll be sold as BBQ pigs. 

Animals that farm

People like to think that we're unique, but we aren't the only animals that farm. 
Beaver dam completely surrounding storm drain
 In the picture above  you can see the structure that a beaver has created all the way around a culvert that drains that area.   You can actually see the dam if you look at it in google maps.    It's right next to the local highway, which is how I spotted it a year or so ago.  I've watched this beaver build this for a year or so. 
Farming, beaver-style
 The water impounded by this dam floods the area, allowing the beaver to get to more and choicer trees, and giving it an easy way to escape predators.  They're vulnerable on land, but pretty safe if they're in the water. 
Beaver Damaged trees
 All of the trees in the photo above show beaver damage, and I'm sure that this critter will continue to clear these trees for the rest of its life; probably clearcut the whole thing. 

Flooded meadow, beaver dam at lower right
 So this is a critter that is changing its environment to better suit its purposes.  Effectively farming this area. 

The snohomish river basin, where I farm, was probably a maze of beaver dams when this area was settled by white people.  the local tribes hunted them for meat and fur, but it's pretty clear that they were widespread at the time.  We don't have very good information about the condition of the river deltas -- most of the settlers were busy diking and draining the areas to take notes on what was there before they started, and I mention this because one thing that people talk about is "restoring the land"...

You really have to ask yourself "restoring to what date?" to get this correct.  Are you aming to restore it to what was there before white settlement?  Before the local tribe?  Before humans colonized the americas?  Because each of those is likely a different landscape and different conditions. 

Our current theory is that woody debris and blocked flow are good for salmon, and a lot of effort is spent throwing logs and stumps into the fake wetlands that they construct.   This beaver is doing the same sort of job, but for its own benefit.  It's not thinking about the salmon or migratory birds or anything other than being able to get to more and tastier trees. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Spending some time with the herd & hay

The cows enjoying their lunch
 I haven't spent any time talking about the cows recently; they're alive and well and eating to beat the band.  The picture above is the feeding area, which is floored with plastic pallets, which keeps the hay up off the ground and means that most of the hay goes into the cows mouth, which is always good.  I'm looking foward to seeing more grass growth before I turn the herd loose on it, and it's starting to grow in earnest now. 
Smells great; like late summer
 This particular batch of hay is orchard grass, and it's pretty good quality.  It's fine and consistent, no seed heads or stems, and absolutely dry.  You can spend an awful lot on hay if you want to; this same hay, baled in small square bales and purchased retail, runs between $16 and $17 a bale around here; figure $350 a ton, which I consider pretty steep. 
2600lbs of hay being put on the trailer
 I buy all of my commodities in as big a quantity and package as I can.  In this case, I buy the hay in 1300lb big square bales.  I park the trailer near the feeding area and just take flakes off the bales to feed the cows.  I've been thinking my cows need some more nutrition, so I've been giving them some alafalfa (lucerne to you european readers) as well as the grass hay.  Purchased in large bales, the hay or alfalfa run $200/ton, picked up at the farm.  It's a 4 hour round trip, and takes $100 in fuel, so my delivered cost for 6.5 tons of hay is about $1400, a little more than 1 cow sells for at auction; call it 1.2 cows worth of hay. 

 When I buy hay I always look at it prior to pickup.  Quality varies, and conditions vary, and I look for signs of mold or dust, weeds, or anything other than straight, good quality forage.  This load looked great. 
I have to be careful on feeding alfala to the cows; they do love it, but the danger is that they'll stuff themselves on it and founder -- alfalfa is cow candy.  Don't want them to get a stomach ache.  So I usually put the alfalfa down first, and then grass hay on top of it.  they fill themselves with the grass and then top off with alfala.