Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Sometimes boring is good

...when it comes to cows it is.  A cow loves a boring, routine, non-dramatic life.  Eat grass.  Drink water.  Look at the sheep.  Eat more grass.  Repeat. 

I've included two pregnant dairy cows with the sheep on their rotational grazing tour of the farm.  They're busy keeping the lawns green and the bushes trimmed around the building. 

Cows are pretty easy to please. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Pigs clearing land

There's an area a couple of acres in size on this property where the previous farmers have tossed stuff over the years.  This farm is over 100 years old.  When I have an overgrown area that could contain a bunch of unknown items and ground that may not support equipment, it's been my experience that an easy way to clean it up is to send in the pigs. 
May 17th
 Metal debris don't bother pigs, and they don't eat them.  They'll sometimes dig them out and move them around, but generally speaking you can put a pig into an area that contains scrap metal and they'll be fine. 
May 27th
 They eat all of the grass and shrubs, leaving small trees for now.  If you'd like to have to small trees gone, you leave them there for another week.  No mechanical clearing; strictly animals grazing. Big, strong, earthmoving animals that eat the roots, too. 
 In this area, the pigs uncovered in no particular order:  A complete homestead chimney, laying on the ground.  An antique 2 bottom horse plow.  a ton or two of scrap metal.  A bed.  Lots of broken aluminum irrigation pipe and steel galvanized roofing, and a whole bunch of truck parts - axles, differentials.  Looks like a semi trailer got torched apart here at some point in the past.  Probably a milk trailer. 

May 17th

May 17th
May 27th

May 27th
In areas where there are fewer metal bits they do a pretty complete job of removing all of the vegetation.  This area is pretty clean; apparently at some point in the past the farmer was composting diary cows here; the pigs dug up 30 cow skulls and all of the associated bones; they weren't that interested in them though; they are probably 20 years old, and not very tasty to a pig. 

Scrap steel selling for a fair price; somewhere between $160 and $200 a ton; I'll go out here with the tractor and trackhoe and dig up all of the steel and put it on a trailer to send to the scrapyard.   The aluminum is worth between $2 and $2.50 a pound -- quite a bit.  That'll be sorted out and sent to recycling as well; there's probably $2,000 worth of aluminum here; that's a nice find, a nice payday for cleaning up the property.    Unlike more modern dumps, there's not much in the way of plastic or any organic materials left.  What organic material was here has long since rotted away, leaving mostly metal. 

After the metal and debris are removed and recycled, this area will be used for grazing.  I've allowed the pigs to do a more complete job than I would normally do so that I can see the ground and get all of the debris.  In the future they'll be moved on and off the land to manage the grass at 6 to 8" height. 

This group of pigs will be moved to the next area to be cleaned up,  and the process will start again. 

Pigs can be used in areas that are too wet, or soft or small for equipment to get into.   The longer you keep them in the area the more complete job they will do, down to bare, plowed dirt if you want.  Here the grass is a rhizome-based (root-based) grass.  It's well suited to this soil and area, and having it volunteer works well for me -- I don't have to prepare a seed bed or purchase seed.  In a couple of weeks it'll be green and lovely again, ready for the sheep or cows. 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

High and low maintenance sheep

I made the decision to get out of the sheep market earlier this year;  and while I do still maintain a flock of sheep (and they do work great as lawnmowers) I didn't have the time to devote to selling them.  

Low maintenance lambs
What I do with the sheep is basically let them manage themselves; for years I penned my rams to limit their access to the flock and time the births, but I've finally started running my rams with my flock, and the sheep have gradually adjusted their lambing over the years to sometime in late February.   This happened because the rams would get out from time to time and breed the ewes, and finally I stopped fighting it and let the sheep manage their breeding themselves.   I trim their hooves twice a year, worm once a year, and offer them a little grain in late pregnancy, based on experience with this particular breed

The sheep are housed in the winter in the cheapest buildings we can use.  For the last two or three years, they've been housed in the greenhouse during the winter; we till the bedding and manure into the ground and plant there for spring and summer growing.  We do that partly because of the fertilizer value, and partly because it's the easiest thing to do.  No mucking out the barn; run a tiller over it, and you're done.   I purchased the greenhouses off of craigslist for $1500 and I've been using them winter and summer for the last 4 years; sheep, pigs and chickens.  I think a big greenhouse is a clear winner for a a small farm. 

So my results with the sheep this year were good; I sold about half of my flock, ending up with 22 ewes, and they had 42 lambs between them (couple of singles, couple of triples, most twins).  By all accounts a good result. 

Virtually every decision I made with respect to the sheep was made with an eye to lowering the cost of maintaining them; I do the maintenance to keep them in good shape (worming, hoof trimming) but every other aspect, housing, feed, and general care is made to make them as easy to keep as possible, both in dollars and labor. 

When you look at sheep industry numbers my results are better than quoted (I get more lambs than their "high producing" farms per ewe), but that's partly because even though I've taken pains to reduce the amount of work that I do with the sheep, I am still paying a lot more attention to my little flock than a shepherd who is caring for hundreds or thousands of sheep.  With livestock, the more animals you can handle per person, generally speaking, the more profitable the operation can become. 

If you're curious what industry profits are, take a look at the bottom of this post for the numbers.  For high producing flocks (flocks that produce a larger number of lambs than average) they lose 6.2% of their investment each year.

 Even with good numbers,  the $500 or $1,000 yearly I made with the flock just wasn't worth the nuisance value of the retail sales; it takes just as much work to sell an 80lb lamb as a 280lb pig; more work, actually, and that's why I took lamb off the product list.  I will continue to keep my lawnmowers and to eat them occasionally, but for the most part they're not a commercial venture for me. 

High maintenance lambs
Michelle Canfield over at the colliefarm blog manages her flock differently.  Diligently keeping track of each ewe, she tracks what they weigh, what they produced, the weight of their lambs and various other characteristics.  She logs this into a program she purchased to do so.  She built a barn that primarily functions to support the lamb operation -- a very nice barn, actually -- but as I pointed out one day, her flock will never, ever pay the cost of that barn off.   She's also built feeders, pens, fencing and other stuff to support the sheep, spending thousands of dollars and many hours of labor on these improvements over the years. 

She manages their breeding, attaching harnesses to the rams to figure out exactly who bred which ewe, carefully feeds them during pregnancy, buys mineral supplements and spends a lot of time thinking about the sheep.  She used to go to trials with with her border collies, but as she says "...But now that I have a farm, I find there is little time to train for trials and travel..."

She's a member of a group that promotes her (and my) breed of sheep, registers her flock, vaccinates them and regularly goes to livestock shows to both buy and sell sheep with other breeders.  She also extensively tests her sheep for various illnesses that are common in this area as a preventative measure. 

Michelle also goes to what I consider pretty great lengths to salvage animals that I, frankly, would probably have put a bullet into, from my low-maintenance view. 

And at the end of all of this her results are about the same as mine, in terms of lambs produced

There's no right or wrong with either approach; with Michelle, she's hoping that she can get a bump in price for producing "seed stock" -- that is, with her diligent work, people will pay more for her lambs/sheep than they would for a standard lamb destined for the table, like my lambs are. 

But here's the big difference:  Even though my lambs would nominally sell for a lower price, my cost-of-production is much lower than hers, both in dollars spent and in terms of hours.   Yes, you may get a high price per animal, but your overall cost per animal produced is much higher, too. 

If Michelle were to do a breakdown of the costs of production as done in that industry link I provided above, my opinion is that she's losing money on her sheep.  She did write a blog entry about this; and in it she came up with $2.75/hour being what she got paid for her sheep time... 

What does Michelle say about this

"...I think small-scale farming can be a great retirement-era income, especially suited for people who have paid off their mortgage- no commute to work and flexible hours, and a scale-able enterprise. I do sometimes reflect that some of the harder work, like lifting heavy things, may not be as do-able in my golden years. But there are probably enough ways to mechanize that kind of thing, to reduce the physical burden; and to hire some outside help for occasional chores which require more effort..."

I just don't agree.  A small flock is not a money making venture when you consider all of the costs and labor required.  In terms of profit, you'd be better off with a minimum wage job, at least 3x better off by Michelles own figures. 

Not everything is done for profit, however.  Which is why, if you a do buy a sheep from Michelle, you're getting a bargain.  A professionally trained and diligent woman who spends hundreds of hours of her free time at a rate that she'd reject out of hand if offered.  A huge benefit for the person who buys the sheep.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The corn sprouts

Now this may not seem like it's a momentous event, but this is the first crop that I'm raising on the new farm, and it's one of my favorite parts of farming -- watching nature at work.  Seeds are pretty amazing. 

This is a sweet corn seedling; there's about 43,000 of those planted over 1.7 acres; on another 55 acres there's 1.6 million "cow corn" sprouts.    Cow corn is designed to be harvested before the kernels are ripe; the entire corn plant and ears are chopped up and packed into air-tight piles.  You'll see them at most dairies in this area.   Huge piles with a tarp over the top of them, weighted down with old tires. 

Corn silage (which is what the chopped corn is called) is commonly fed to dairy cows as part of a TMR (Total Mixed Ration), along with hay, grain and other feed stocks. 

Last year this ground produced around 25 tons of corn silage per acre; if the yield is similar this year, that should be around 1,375 tons of silage, which sells locally for around $40/ton, giving a gross crop value of $55,000, or roughly $1,000/acre

From that gross amount you subtract the cost of the seed, tillage, fertilizer, labor and trucking.  Part of the value of leasing out the land is being able to watch them work the land; how much labor, which implements, timing.  It'll help me plan what I want to do next year. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The bumblebee tree

One of the trees on this property is a horse chestnut tree.  I don't think that they are edible chestnuts, but I've noticed that this tree is the absolute favorit of the local native bumblebee population.  It is constantly humming with bumblebees and with hummingbirds.  No other tree gets the attention that this one does. 

It provides an interesting contrast to my domestic bee colonies; the native bumblebees will fly at much lower temperatures, and much closer to dusk than the domestic bees. 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Around the farm this week

I've been out of touch for the last week; moving things out of my old house and preparing it for sale, moving stuff into my new new house, and moving and caring for animals.  It's been busy. 

One of my tractors snapped a connecting rod...  $343 parts cost, plus an hour or so to put it back together.  My tractor mechanic skills are increasing. 
 The cows are enjoying the deep, lush grass.  They're out there chest deep in it. 
 The sheep prefer the shorter grass, but will sometimes eat the longer grass.  I'm moving them around on the areas that have been maintained as lawns to keep them trimmed down.  It's an interesting contrast with the neighboring property, who uses one of the loudest riding lawnmowers i've ever heard.  The sheep are pretty much silent, with the occasional BAAAH!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Finished moving the pigs today...


Most farms that I've been to have an area that is used to "store" items that aren't used any more.   This farm has been here for more than a hundred years, and this area has been the area where items are "stored", and over the years, where trash was burned.  So there's a fair bit of metal in the dirt, along with larger items.  I can't graze this area down with ruminants for fear of having them swallow bits of metal, but pigs do just fine.  In fact, on my original farm, pigs dug up and restored most of the acreage, so I'll do the same here. 
 The grass is tall enough that a 500lb sow pretty much dissapears into it.  She's happily grunting as she smells and tastes the grass and dirt. 
 They pretty much run directly into the grass and immediately go to work
 These are happy pigs; heads down, doing their job. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Farm pics

 The sheep are pretty efficient lawnmowers.  This was previously mowed with a riding mower, but I'm happy to have the sheep take care of it for me.  There's probably an acre of grass.  I'm going to think about ways to make this easier -- while the electronet fencing does work, it can kill the sheep, too.  

 Todays blackberry bingo was an entire farm cart of aluminum irrigation pipe.  This stuff is actually pretty valueable as just metal -- aluminum is over $2/lb, and there's probably a ton of it here.   Some of it has been damaged over the years, but most of it is in pretty useable shape.  I'll have to sort through it to see what I can salvage. 
 The tires on the pipe trailer have long since departed.  I wonder how long this cart has been sitting out here?  Rubber takes a long time to rot. 
 I finally found the corner marker for the east corner of the property.  I much prefer to have land surveyed when I buy it, particularly acreage, because you can then set fences correctly and understand exactly what you have to work with.  It took me two days to find this marker; the surveyors must have balanced on a log to drive in the rebar.  The actual corner is on the right.  The wood stake is just a flag to make it easier to see. 
 There's an old railroad right-of-way along the south side of this property.  It makes an interesting overgrown  tunnel sort of thing.  There are thousands of yards of crushed rock in the railroad bed just in the section next to my farm.  The county has purchased the right-of-way, and there are plans to make it into a trail at some point
 Some parts aren't overgrown, and when it is mowed it will make a great trail. 
 You can see the farm buildings in the distance.  It's 4/5ths of a mile from the easternmost point to the house.  takes 20 minutes at a brisk walk to get back to the house. 
Planted the sweet corn today.  This area pictured, with the lines, is 1.7 acres as measured by the planter.  I'm still getting used to the scale of this farm. 

Closed on the new farm!

Five months after making the first written offer I've closed on the new farm.  Looks like I'll have to switch telephone carriers though;  cell service up there sucks, but all things considered, I'm very happy.

To celebrate I mowed the lawn and planted corn!

Lawn mowing

Field prepped

Corn arrives - filling the planter

55 acres of silage corn

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Manure lagoon question

Robin J. Asked me a question that I think is worth expanding on:

I don't know much about manure ponds. Are you draining it for a reason and are you planning to keep using it as a manure pond? Do you just drain it on the farm land or spray it? 

The farm that I'm buying was a dairy farm; and I may dairy on it again, I'll be working on that question in the next year; it was a licensed grade-A dairy, which is the highest license standard.  As part of that licensing there are a variety of inspections that are required, tests and plans.   A manure lagoon is very expensive and time consuming to permit as new; this one exists and is already permitted and approved.  To permit and construct a new lagoon in western washington will cost between $325k and $400k.

Dairy cows eat quite a bit, and generate a lot of manure; this farm had 300 cows being milked, and each cow was eating at least 40lbs of dry matter per day along with all the water that they could drink.  On just a dry matter basis (300 * 40 /2000 = ) 6 tons of manure a day.  But when you add water to that it's probably a lot heavier.

Cows are kept in a limited area and feed is brought to them
 Most of the dairies in the USA keep their cows in a small area, usually on a concrete slab, and collect all of the manure that they generate.  To keep labor costs down, the farmer that owned this property that I'm on chose to build a barn that has an 80,000 gallon flush system.  The cows are fed, manure is deposited into the barn, and while they're off being milked the barn is flushed and scraped.  The manure and urine is them pumped through a manure separator, that takes the solids out, leaving only the small particles, urine and water, and that's what gets pumped into the manure lagoon.

In this area, that's the legal, and required, way to manage the manure from a dairy.  Even if the cows are kept on pasture during part or most of the year, there's a part of the year that they are kept off the fields to keep the grass in good condition for next year.

Dairies are required by law to not discharge any water or waste off their property, and are limited in the amount of manure that can be spread on fields.  The state comes out and tests their fields to make sure that an appropriate amount of manure is being spread, so that runoff doesn't occur.

So to answer the question directly:  In the spring, manure lagoons are stirred up and pumped out to provide fertilizer for the fields.  In my case, about 1.5 million gallons got pumped out.  In the fall, the manure lagoon is pumped out again and spread, usually accompanied by the planting of some fall cover crop.

The fall pump out is to empty the lagoon so that you have enough capacity to hold all of the waste generated during the winter, when you have the cows in the barn eating hay and saving your pastures for spring. 

To get as much of the manure into the ground as possible, the ground was prepared with a disc, and then the tractor doing the pumping also scored lines in the ground to help the liquid soak in.  We've also had three days of hot sun, so at this point the ground is damp but that's about it.  Corn will be planted in the next day or two.

Whatever I do, I will be generating a lot less manure than the 300 cows that used to be here.

Note:  The manure lagoon is just a way of dealing with large amounts of waste.  Every cattle farmer who keeps their cows in a barn for the winter will also deal with quantities of manure, spreading it on the field and so on.  Dairy farmers tend to be visibly doing this because they usually deal with very large amounts of manure and they are very heavily regulated, but every cattle farmer has the same basic issue, especially over the winter.

Boarding stables and horse owners in this area have the same problem.  Most of them handle their waste by  trucking it somewhere else.  Personally, I prefer to keep my waste on my own farm and get as much use out of it as possible.

Friday, May 3, 2013

$402 worth of sweet corn seed

 This sack contains 42,000 sweet corn seeds, at a cost of $402.  Which on one hand seems really, really expensive, but on the other hand about 9/10ths of a cent per ear of corn.  Around here sweet corn varies in price depending on the point in the season.  It usually gets down to around 10 ears for a dollar in the high season, but I've seen it for $0.50/ear.   At 10 cents an ear, and figuring on some loss, this is about $3500 retail value of corn, and about 2 acres worth.  
level after 15 hours of pumping
The manure pumping continues, day 2. Click on the pictures for a bigger view.  It takes 8-10 hours of pumping to lower the water level 6-8".    I'm figuring they've got another 30 hours of pumping at this rate.
before pumping

Thursday, May 2, 2013

A river of manure

Pumping out the manure lagoon started today.  Pictures

Click on this pic.  Spot the tractor?

Tractor on the horizon to the right of center

10 hours of pumping lowered the lagoon by 10".  At that rate it will take 50 hours of pumping to empty it.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Blackberry bingo

We'll be closing on the new farm on May 6th it looks like, and I'm spending some time at the new property to make sure that things are secure.  Since I was there anyway, I moved my trackhoe up, and spent the day playing blackberry bingo.

Blackberries (which are actually either Rubus armeniacus or Rubus discolor or Rubus laciniatus) if you want to get technical, are the northwests version of kudzu.  They grow everywhere like weeds, and if they're left unmolested they monopolize huge areas.

Whenever I look at a farm around here, and I see blackberries, I know there's something under that bush.  There always is.  The backberries grow there initially because something got put there, and then keep growing until everyone forgets whatever it was, and that's that.
Under this particular blackberry bush is 1 white-painted round fence post in pretty good condition.  2 10' pieces of channel, suitable for hanging a sliding barn door -- very useful -- one white chore bucket -- useful  and a bunch of rotten lumber, carefully stacked on timbers; it was probably good for the first 5 years, and then kinda just rotted there.  But the rest of the stuff is pretty good.  Blackberry bingo!

Lets look at other discoveries today
A capped well.  This sort of cap is usually put over a hand-dug well.  The water rights for this farm date back to 1832 (before washington was even a state!), and there is another hand-dug well a couple of hundred feet from this one.  Bingo!
Three treated round posts.   I think I'm going to end up with quite a bit of fencing just by going around and collecting it all into a single location.  Bingo!
Something white.  Looks promising
Two pieces of white PVC pipe, about 8" in diameter and 20' long.  A whole bunch of rotten lumber carefully stacked.